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


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.

“Their world has been turned upside down. They've lost everything,” said Fr Pat Murphy, who runs a shelter, Casa del Migrantes, hosting 140 men. For decades it catered to migrants en route north. Now 90% of occupants are deportees. Murphy disputed US claims that it was deporting mainly felons. “That's not our experience.”

Of 13 deportees the Guardian interviewed in Tijuana last week, nine said they were picked up for minor infractions. It was a random, unscientific sample, but one supported by a New York Times analysis of internal government records published this week which found that two thirds of the 2m deported under Obama had committed only minor infractions or had no criminal record.

Compounding the banishment is the fact that the journey north is typically made in a spirit of adventure, often coupled with dreams of investing in the future and providing for the family, but the trip south comes with no such optimism. The American dream is not the future but the past, the deportee no longer a provider but a burden, begging for dollars down a phone line.

Religious-run shelters offer free accommodation for 15 days, after which deportees typically either leave town, move to downtown hostels, where conditions range from adequate to squalid, or head out onto the streets.

“They feel like failures, abandoned. They're not here because they want to be,” said Fr Ernesto Hernandez Ruiz. He helps run a soup kitchen, Padre Chava, that feeds 1,200 people daily, most of them deportees.

People start queueing for breakfast before dawn, some well-groomed, others in blackened rags. The new arrivals are watchful, observing the protocol of hand-washing, saying grace and wasting nothing. They stare at the food. “Most haven't eaten anything since [breakfast] yesterday,” said Margarita Andonageui, a veteran volunteer.

The lucky ones are those like Joaquin Orozco Rodriguez, 39, who found his footing. A welder for most of his life in California, he was caught drunk driving and deported in 2012, leaving a wife and four children, all US citizens, behind. “I didn't want to believe it, my mind couldn't absorb it,” he said. He recovered from the shock and Padre Chava hired him as a cook.

Orozco hopes that when his children grow up they will find a way – hire a hotshot lawyer, maybe – to legalise his status and bring him back. Fanciful or not, it is a common refrain.

Some of those without regular jobs stand by motorways holding placards advertising skills such as plumber or electrician. Others beg at intersections.

Those with the deepest roots in the US have lost the most and often adapt badly, if at all, to their new circumstances, said Velasco, the immigration expert. “They feel lost. It's a type of purgatory.”

The truly unlucky are the estimated 700 to 1,000 people who dwell in the holes and shacks by the riverbed, a mile-long, stinking stretch of sewage and debris known as El Bordo from which the US, in the form of shopping malls and flags, can be seen peeking over a graffiti-covered fence.

Tijuana kitchen
At the soup kitchen, the queues for breakfast begin before dawn. Photograph: Felix Clay

There are three communities inside El Bordo, each defined by a particular drug. The alcoholics pass out, oblivious to sun or moon, on the slopes. The heroin addicts shoot up in a tunnel padded with soiled blankets. The meth addicts cluster on the riverbed, improvising tents with tarpaulin and shoelaces.

Samuel Cabrera, a 39-year-old whose features have been hollowed by crystal meth, is a veteran of the squalor. He used to harvest plums around Fresno; now he survives by collecting recyclable rubbish. He hardly eats, barely notices the stench. “I'm into drugs,” he said, matter-of-fact. “I get by.”

Squinting across the riverbed Cabrera could see a new neighbour: Sergio Avinia, 42, a recent arrival cleaved from a family in California, waist-deep in a hole, bare-chested and sweating, excavating a hovel with improvised tools.

Police, who blame El Bordo’s residents for crime, routinely demolish the flimsy homes, but they are, inevitably, rebuilt.

After years of neglect, local authorities have started a programme, Somos Mexicanos (We are Mexicans), to help integrate deportees. It is a small, positive first step, but activists want to see more done to help those returned to Mexico integrate back into the country and tap language and other skills learned in the US.

It may be too late for the wretched denizens of El Bordo, but there is potential hope for the likes of Sanchez, the cook. The father of five had just a few days left in a religious shelter, after which he would have to find his own lodgings and decide his next move. “All I know is that I don't want to be here.”

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