The San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, is the busiest in the western world, and up until the early 2000s it was surprisingly porous. For decades, Latin American families furtively crossed by the millions, determined to find a better life north of Mexico, and many of them did. But an era of mass deportations began with Bush and gained momentum under Obama, who oversaw the deportation of 2.7 million people, more than any other president in the history of the United States. Trump has pledged to build a wall and deport three million more undocumented people, at times saying he will focus only on those with criminal records. Obama used similar rhetoric in 2014 when he said: “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom that’s working hard to provide for her kids.” But the reality on the other side of the border is not so black and white. Tijuana is teeming with deportees from all walks of life, struggling to survive. Many of them spent their entire lives as undocumented Americans before being deported back to Mexico, a country they never knew, didn’t remember and had no ties to. For them, Trump’s hard line on immigration is nothing new, but they are still nervous about what the future holds. These are some of their stories.
* * *
Burly, bearded and covered in tattoos, Alejandro Juarez hovers over a massive, steaming pot of chicken stew. He stops and dips in a spoon that looks comically small in his hands, takes a taste, then adds more salt. He takes another taste, and then adds more spice. It’s 7:30 a.m. and he’s getting ready to feed about a thousand people at a downtown shelter in Tijuana.
The 27-year-old was deported in May for missing his third and last immigration court date. “I know it seems crazy,” he said. “I knew how important it was, but I was super stressed with life and it just didn’t work out. I needed to be up and out of the house by 5 a.m. to make it to my hearing at 8 a.m., which was in Los Angeles and I was in Orange County. I had no money for transportation. It would have cost me $100, but it was $100 I didn’t have. I was stressed about getting there, but I guess I was more stressed about taking care of my family.”
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Juarez’s parents took him to the States when he was three years old. He lived undocumented and undisturbed until he was caught smoking weed in public with a group of his friends when he was 24.
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“That was when they discovered that I was illegal. I served some time and then they made me go through the process of applying for residency. I had to be home every Thursday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. so they could check on me. I had to go to meetings with an immigration officer every Tuesday. They put an ankle bracelet on me that monitored where I was at all times. I wasn’t allowed to take it off for three years.”
Despite all of this, after missing the court date he was still deported.
Juarez stops to help a man unload food. All of the food here is donated by people in Tijuana, he explains: restaurants, hotels, Costco, individual families. He unloads box after box of frozen string onions. “My mom ran a catering business when I was little,” he said. “I was always interested in what she was cooking, but it was when I spent six months in prison in the States that I really learned how to cook such huge quantities. When I showed up here and told them I could do that they agreed to let me work in exchange for room and board.”
“I had never been to Mexico before I was deported. I arrived in Tijuana with no money and nowhere to go. I was just walking around the streets asking where a homeless shelter was. Someone told me to come here and this is where I have been for the last eight months.”
He said he wanted to cross over to the States again before Trump took over, “But I have been advised to wait five years until I can legally ask for a pardon.”
Juarez and many others who have a criminal record, no matter how insignificant, are opting to wait and ask for a pardon even though they acknowledge the chances of it being granted are a lot less likely in the Trump era. Pardons are given based on factors such as the reason for deportation, length of time spent in the United States, moral character and family responsibilities. They are not common, but definitely possible. Illegally returning to the United States after removal, on the other hand, is a felony.
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Tanya Mendoza’s long reddish-blonde hair billows in the breeze as the waves crash ashore. She is standing on the beach in Las Playas, Tijuana. “It’s like a little America, isn’t it?” she said.
“I knew as soon as I saw this part of Tijuana that I wanted to live here. The houses and streets reminded me of Beverly Hills.”
The 31-year-old has been living here for the past seven years, ever since she was deported from Los Angeles.
“‘Be careful,’ my mother used to always say. ‘Don’t do anything that might get you into trouble, because they can send you away.’ I was a kid though. I didn’t really understand who they were and where away was. That possibility wasn’t real to me.”
What Mendoza also didn’t know was that her undocumented parents had filed a case in 1998 asking for permission for the family to stay in the country. Their immigration lawyer had accidentally missed some important paperwork and as a result, they were ordered to voluntarily leave the country in 2002, when Mendoza was 13 years old. Her parents decided to take their chances and stay in the country, illegally, but this longstanding family immigration case put the young woman at a greater risk of deportation.
When 24-year-old Mendoza was pulled over after rolling through a stop sign in East Los Angeles she wasn’t nervous. “I had just picked up my five-year-old daughter from school and we were almost home. I could see my house,” she said. “The cop asked for my driver’s license and then my Social Security number and work permit. When he found out my work permit was expired he asked me to get out of the car and into his. We called my sister, who came to take my daughter. I had no idea that would be the last time I would see her for seven years. The cop took me to the police station where I was held overnight. They told me that it shouldn’t be long before I could go home to my family, but in the morning a woman from immigration came and started asking me where my father was. I didn’t tell her because I knew my parents were illegal and I was scared she would deport them.”
After Mendoza’s refusal to talk about her parents, the immigration officer sent her to the Santa Ana City Jail where she stayed for no longer than half an hour before she was put in a van with a group of migrants.
“The van took us across the border and dropped us on the other side, and that was it. It was the first time I had ever been to Mexico.”
She took what money she had and checked into a cheap hotel.
“I couldn’t get a job here. I had no papers. My birth certificate was not good enough. They made me prove I was Mexican by getting relatives who lived here to vouch for me. Back then there was such a stigma against deported people. I had been kicked out of America for being Mexican, but in Mexico everybody treated me like I was a criminal. I had no choice but to sell my stuff on the side of the road to earn some money, but it wasn’t much.”
Being pretty and poor in Mexico proved hazardous. “In downtown Tijuana I was a dollar sign, not a human being,” said Mendoza. “Men would follow me and offer me heroin and then tell me I could have everything I wanted if I worked for them as a prostitute. I was vulnerable and depressed and I knew if I didn’t get out of the city center I would end up a drug addict. That was when I moved to Las Playas of Tijuana, and rented a small place up in the hills.”
Mendoza said the first three years in Mexico were the most devastating of her life.
“I could suffer through everything else but the thought of my daughter thinking I abandoned her made me crazy. My sister would bring me photos of my daughter and I had to throw them in the garbage, because it was too hard to see her.”
After a bitter breakup while she was still in the States, her daughter’s father refuses to bring her to Mexico to see her mother. It has been almost seven years since she has seen her daughter, who is now eleven. “My family has tried to convince me to try and cross back over with a coyote, but I am too scared. I know what men do to women in Mexico. I don’t want to take that kind of risk.”
Instead she continues to try to build a life here, working 10-hour days at a call center during the week and as a cleaner on weekends.
It’s a clear, sunny day and Mendoza walks the length of the beach until she reaches the border of Mexico and the United States. “None of this was here when we crossed,” she said. “I actually remember that night, when I was three. My uncle was driving. He knew the route because he did it all the time. He worked as a coyote but back then there was no wall here. I didn’t know anything about limits and borders. We just drove until we had crossed the invisible line and then we kept on driving and didn’t come back.”
* * *
Miguel, 31, whose name has been changed here so he could speak freely about his immigration status, struts back and forth on the sidewalk outside of a downtown club. It’s a cold and rainy day in Tijuana. Miguel is dressed in khaki pants, a white dress shirt and Adidas sneakers. He is tall, lanky and moves with agility and bounce, like a basketball player who needs to be on court. He rubs his hands together to keep them warm and says in a deep, commanding voice to the Americans passing by: “Come on up, we got seafood, enchiladas, margaritas, music!” Miguel sees some Mexicans approaching and quickly switches gears to Spanish. He then effortlessly greets a Chinese family in Mandarin. The family stops and looks at the menu before heading up.
Miguel’s nickname is “Obama,” and he really does look and sound like his namesake, which makes him immediately endearing. What does he think of Barack? “It’s pretty much all the same to us here,” he said. “Obama was cool, Trump is ridiculous. But it’s bigger than either one of them. At least fifty percent of the border is still accessible to cross illegally. Mexicans will always find a way.”
Miguel was born in Tijuana and crossed over to the States with his parents when he was a baby. They settled in Las Vegas, where he stayed. “After I graduated high school I was working as a busboy at a restaurant and sharing an apartment with a bunch of my cousins. I started taking opiates, the ones they use for cancer patients. Americans are so obsessed with downers,” he said. “It was easy to find opiates over there.”
“I got hooked on that tingling feeling in my chest: there is nothing else like it. I started smoking heroin, and then it was game over for me. I ended up living on the street. Me and my girlfriend would break into people’s houses to get enough money to buy drugs. I got caught and sent to jail. They kept me there just long enough to process me. As soon as the paperwork was done I was sent back to Mexico, except, I had never lived here in the first place. I had never even been here. I was in shock that this was my new reality.”
Miguel was 24 at the time, and it was a reality he didn’t want to face. He discovered it was even easier to score drugs in Tijuana, and continued using for his first few years here, before finally getting clean a year and a half ago. He then started to work ten-hour days, six days a week at the club.
Now 31, he has three more years before he can ask for a pardon, which can’t come soon enough for him.
“I have nothing here. My three daughters, parents and sister are all undocumented, so they can’t come here. I can’t go there. I am completely alone. I work. I go home. That is my life.”
* * *
“My story, it’s a long story,” said El Bigote with a laugh. “I left Mexico when I was seven. Now I’m 44. During that time, I can’t count how many border crossings I have done.” The middle-aged man is short, agile, quick-witted and quick-moving. He wears a sweatshirt tucked into his jeans, running sneakers and a signature mustache, which has earned him his nickname, translating to “the Mustache.”
El Bigote is a man about town, picking up odd jobs wherever and whenever he can: construction, painting, helping out at shelters. “I like to make fast money, easy money,” he said. “When I was eighteen I started working for the coyotes. When people cross the border, they need someone to come pick them up and drive them to wherever their family is. That was my job, and I got paid really well to do it. I did it for ten years before I got caught. Then they took my papers and I was deported.”
But those were the days when crossing the border was easier, and just a short while later El Bigote was back in the States, this time in Nebraska. He found a job working on a pig farm. He worked on the farm, supported his wife and kids and had a comfortable life until he was deported three years ago. He has been trying to cross back over ever since.
“When I first got here I was homeless. I had no idea what to do. I just started living in El Bordo, the canal where all of the homeless deportees used to live. Most of them were heroin addicts. I just smoked weed,” he said. El Bigote quickly made connections and started giving tours of El Bordo and other rough areas of the city to journalists, documentary filmmakers and curious travelers.
“I lived in the canal for two years before the authorities came and kicked everyone out. They sent all of the addicts to rehabilitation centers. I ended up living in a shelter in the red-light district.”
El Bigote still lives in that shelter and also volunteers to help serve breakfast to those in need in another downtown Tijuana shelter. “I have been volunteering there for the last two years. I like helping people. When I lived in Nebraska I was one of those guys that was part of a crew that helped find missing cars in snowstorms. I loved it.”
El Bigote said the last time he tried to cross the border was two weeks ago. “I did it at dusk but one of the helicopters spotted me. They came and put me in handcuffs and sent me back here. I’ll try again in a few days. I don’t need a coyote; I am so well connected. In any case, people from Mexico don’t really use coyotes anymore. We just hire someone to talk us through the route on the phone. The coyotes are more for the people who are coming all the way up from Central America.
“People need to try and cross now while they can. It’s only going to get worse,” he continued. “The problem is for people with a record. If they get caught trying to cross they can be sent to prison. I paid a good lawyer to make sure my record was erased so I can continue taking the risk.”
“People [in the U.S.] always ask ‘why don’t we just leave?’” he said. “And go back to the places where we were born? I have four kids in Nebraska, they are 21, 17, 12 and four. I keep in contact with them through Facebook chat. The babysitter sends me pics every day.”