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Stuck in Tijuana Hoping for a Miracle—60,000 Traumatized Deportees with Nowhere to Go

Families and lives are destroyed for the tiniest infractions.

Photo Credit: Juan Camilo Bernal


Ricardo Sanchez came to the United States from his native Mexico, illegally, when he was nine. He grew up, got married, raised five children. During the day, he sold fruit from a stall; nights, he cooked in a restaurant, where his specialty was a steak with blue cheese, bacon and bourbon sauce that the regulars knew by his name.

He built a life.

Last month, police caught Sanchez, who is now 34 years old, driving without a license, and handed him over to immigration authorities. Within days, he was walking into Tijuana, a city alien to him, the gate to the US clanging shut behind. As he moved forward through a metal passageway, he could see a concrete riverbed of slime dotted with the homes of some of his fellow deportees – shacks, sometimes, or just holes dug into the muck by hand.

He shuddered, later, thinking of it. “That’s grim, man,” he said, in fluent English.

With just a few pesos in his pocket, converted from the few dollars he had on him when detained, Sanchez had three choices: take a bus to Mexico City, where he’s originally from, and seek out distant relatives there; ask his wife to borrow the $4,000 he’d need to hire a smuggler who could help him try to sneak back into the US; or hang on in Tijuana and hope for a miracle.

Thousands of people like Sanchez choose the last option. Around 40% of all Mexicans deported from the US are repatriated into  Tijuana, on Mexico's Pacific coast. Just under 60,000 people arrived here last year. Some are first-time crossers, caught at the border by the formidable array of manpower and technology that has been assembled there. But according to migrant shelters which initially house them, most have lived in the US and consider it home, despite lacking documents.

To Americans with only a superficial knowledge of the city, Tijuana is the tourist trap right over the border, the sketchy city for vice, or pharmaceuticals, on demand. To many deportees, it is the place where they become stuck – or simply the least-bad choice available.

Some of the people deported from the US into Tijuana remain there because they feel physically and psychologically closer to their US families than they would in Mexico's interior, said  Laura Velasco Ortiz, a professor and immigration expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Previous generations of deportees were cushioned by having their wives, children and cultural mindset in Mexico. Now, Ortiz said, “The profile has completely changed. It is much more traumatic for the ones coming now.”

The separation fractures and can destroy families. If partners who remain in the US are undocumented they cannot cross to visit. In any case they have their hands full coping in the absence of a breadwinner. “We're struggling,” said Elena, Sanchez's wife, speaking by phone from California, where she and her husband and their kids had lived together. “The children don't understand much, they ask when he'll be back. I have bills to pay.”

In the US, there is a growing outcry over deportation. A recent milestone – there have now been 2m deportations in the five years that Barack Obama has been in the White House – has fuelled Latino anger towards a president who promised immigration reform. Congress has stymied legislation, leaving 11m undocumented Latinos with no road to citizenship. With immigration authorities sweeping up thousands weekly, many fear they could be next.

Criticism tends to focus on the political deadlock in Washington and the activities of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Less attention has been paid to the fate of deportees deposited across the border.