Deportees With Families in U.S. Try to Start Over in Tijuana
A deportee stands on a street corner about five miles south of the border in Tijuana, waiting to be offered a construction job. (Nicholas McVicker/KPBS)
Every day at sunrise, dozens of men deported by the U.S. government gather on a Tijuana street about 5 miles south of the border.
Contractors looking to hire cheap plumbers, electricians and construction workers pick them up from the stretch between a Costco and a Home Depot.
These men are trying to assimilate back into the working class of Mexico, but the country feels like an alien place for many of them. A rising number of the deportees had spent many years, sometimes decades, living illegally north of the border. They left behind families, jobs and homes when they were deported. The Obama administration has removed more than 2 million immigrants since 2008, one of the largest deportation waves in U.S. history.
For now, these men have lost hope of returning to the U.S. and are trying to find jobs in Tijuana.
Crossing has become too difficult. Smugglers are more expensive and unreliable. Border agents are more numerous. Drug traffickers make the desert more dangerous, and some of the deportees fear being imprisoned in the U.S. because of repeat immigration violations.
So they've chosen to stay and work in Tijuana, to be as close as possible to their families across the border in the U.S.
Cesar Jimenez Sanchez is hoping to pick up work in construction. He lived in the U.S. for 32 years. He was a licensed contractor, and built houses and paved roads in Orange County. Five years ago, he was deported following a drunken driving arrest. He left behind his wife and eight children.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been cracking down on migrants who commit crimes while living illegally in the U.S., even those guilty of no more than a traffic violation. Last year, 40 percent of criminal deportees had committed misdemeanors in the U.S. Nearly half of all the deportees had clean records.
In his dusty, wheeled backpack, Jimenez carries an assortment of tools: a cement mixing tray, a round saw, a trowel, hammers and more. He purchased most of his equipment in Mexico so he could do any job offered to him. Like many other migrants, he was deported without his belongings.
"I'm illegal all over again here because I don't have any papers," he said. "I don’t have anything."
In Mexico, Jimenez has no choice but to join the informal economy like most other deportees. He toils full days in the heat for the equivalent of $10 or $15. It’s not enough to pay rent and still eat, so he sleeps under a bridge.
Jimenez is 45. The average age of deportees has risen over time, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement records. Today, most deportees are older than 30. Undocumented immigrants in the United States have been living there longer, so those who are deported now are more likely to have been long-term U.S. residents.
This poses a rising problem for those who want to reintegrate into the Mexican workforce. Age discrimination is rampant in Mexico, despite laws to prevent it.
Antonio De La Peña Hernandez is 60. He lived in the U.S. from the age of 5 until he was deported at 55. He was a truck driver north of the border but has been unable to find a formal job in Mexico. He picks up trash off the street for a few pesos a day. He says he has been robbed and beaten by Mexicans who perceive him as an outsider. He speaks English better than Spanish. His face is gaunt from the weight he has lost.
As he talks about his desire to work, De La Peña chokes up.
"All my life I've been working, and now I don't know where to start," he said through tears.
There are people in Tijuana who are trying to help.
Earlier that same day, at a migrant shelter called Desayunador Salesiano, De La Peña was reclining in a black leather chair, while a volunteer shaved off his salt-and-pepper beard and trimmed his hair. He said he hoped that cleaning up his look would improve his chances of getting a real job.
Migrant shelters across Tijuana have been adapting their services to the changes in the deportee population, launching reintegration programs to help migrants find jobs.
In addition to offering a place to sleep and eat, shelters now offer classes in computer literacy, English and more. Many offer free haircuts so that deportees can prepare for job interviews.
La Casa del Migrante, the oldest migrant shelter in Tijuana, assists people in getting official documents such as birth certificates, setting up email addresses, writing resumes and improving their wardrobe with donated clothing.
The Rev. Pat Murphy, the shelter's director, said deportees who express a desire to work are allowed to stay there for several weeks. Volunteers help them become self-sufficient so that they can rent a place where their families may come visit.
"The past year, year and a half, it has become evident that people are tired of trying to cross, and a lot of people want to establish themselves in Tijuana. Why? Because their families are on the other side," Murphy said.
In recent years, a Mexican research institute, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, has found a dramatic decrease in the number of deportees who plan to return to the United States. In 2009, three in every four deportees said they planned to try to go back to the U.S. within the week. In 2013, fewer than 20 percent had such plans.
Murphy's shelter has also seen an increase in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, due to families being separated. The shelter has hired a full-time psychologist to help deportees deal with these problems prior to seeking jobs. Murphy said most migrants are ready to work within a few days.
"They just, as we say in Spanish, tiene ganas. They have this spirit that they want to do something," he said.
Mario Riojas, a 43-year-old Mexican deportee staying at the shelter, had lived in various U.S. states from the time he was 18. In the U.S., he ran a construction business that employed up to 60 people. When he was deported following a routine traffic inspection, he lost everything.
It was hard to accept at first. He tried crossing again twice. But then border officials threatened to put him in federal prison. He decided it wasn't worth the risk.
"It’s not possible to be illegal all your life," Riojas said. "I still miss the U.S., but I’m here. And I feel God wants me here."
"I feel that if I did well in the States, I will do well in Mexico also," Riojas said.
Last week, after spending $10 for a small advertisement in the newspaper El Mexicano offering his services, he received a phone call at the shelter from a contractor seeking to renovate a duplex. Riojas decided to hire 10 deportees from the shelter to help him do the job.