It’s still early morning when we get off the tram from San Diego at the official port of entry into Mexico in Tijuana. After wandering through the maze of halls — all of which have progressively heavily armed soldiers listlessly loitering — tourists and Mexican day laborers alike have to cross “El Conector,” a pedestrian bridge over a sewage ditch the width of a football field.
Each day hundreds of buses pull through this militarized checkpoint — as well as similar ones at Nogales, Mexicali, Juárez, and other border towns — carefully screened and logged by well-armed guards before groaning to a stop. The doors creak open, and American law enforcement officers roughly usher their human cargo — discarded by their adopted country and unwanted by their homeland — out onto the unfamiliar pavement.
In the last five years more than 1.5 million undocumented migrants have been deported under the Obama administration, which has prioritized deportation in an effort to demonstrate its commitment to “border security” while pursuing legislation designed to provide the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants a path to citizenship. While the impacts of deportation on America may seemingly end at the border, for the deported — in Tijuana, for instance, deportation rates range from 200 to 500 repatriated Mexican citizens every day, while in Nogales 50, 150, or more — it means a whole new set of life-threatening challenges.
Crossing the border into Tijuana, you can’t help but see the filthy expanse known as El Bordo. Steep concrete walls stretch off into the distance in either direction, the remnants of the Tijuana River forming a shimmering spine. The detritus of humanity is strewn across its width and length: tires worn bald, hopelessly broken appliances too far gone for salvage, shopping carts rusted at the guts, plastic bags of every size, shape, and color, and every bit of garbage in between. Among this debris, repatriated Mexicans eke out what meager existence they can.
Some seek out the shelter of the sewer pipes that feed the “river.” More broad-ceilinged aqueducts than pipes, these outlets provide security for deportees who grope through the darkness, raw sewage, and, for rats, a dry place to sleep every night.
“It’s scary, it’s not a nice place, you can get killed,” says Jose, a Mexican who spent most of his adult life in the U.S. before being deported a few years ago. “People will kill you for your shoes. I feel scared when I sleep. I sleep sometimes during the day.”
Others stay below the bridges that cross the sewage ditch, shelter from the brutal northern Mexican sun as well as a defensive position in case of local police raids, which are frequent. (Last spring, the area was cleared by authorities so it wouldn’t be such an eyesore for tourists.)
But prime real estate comes with price: Drug dealers control the territory under El Connector and other bridges, and unless deportees pay or work for them, the dealers are looking for drug mules to force across the border, fodder for Tijuana’s bustling sex trade, or even for kidnapping victims that can be used to squeeze whatever money their families in Mexico or the U.S. may have.
There’s also the cult of Santa Muerte — St. Death — commonly associated with the armed wings of the drug cartel. Many gangs use the iconic image of Santa Muerte holding the Earth in one hand and the scales of justice in another in tattoos. Deportees tell stories of a cult wandering the streets after dark in Tijuana. “They kill people all the time … if there are hijos [children], they take them to sacrifice,” Jose claims. It’s not an uncommon story to hear from deportees in Tijuana, and when asked about the rumors, aide workers in the city simply shrug.
For those who don’t fall in with the drug dealers and gangs, or who don’t quickly succumb to the harsh realities of life in El Bordo, there are few choices. Some band together in small camps along the banks of the ditch, building crude shelters of sun-faded plastic tarps strung between piles of trash, huddling in the shade by day, shaking in the cold darkness of night, always anticipating the strike of a fist or boot. “The deportees in the canal are living in some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen,” says Steffanie Strathdee, a researcher with the University of California at San Diego who’s also worked along the Pakistan–Afghanistan border, Islamabad, and inner-city Baltimore. “Nobody should have to live like this.”
The Mexican government offers only nominal assistance to recent deportees: Shelters run by the state take repatriated Mexicans in only for a couple weeks, and because many of them have no Mexican identification, finding work or accessing other services is nearly impossible. The few rays of hope these deportees find — Jesuits and nuns, medical researchers unwilling to turn a blind eye to the despair, and the handful of Mexican and American civilians unable to ignore it — are overwhelmed by the darkness. If illegal immigration is a tidal wave of humanity, then deportation is the riptide, tearing drug dealers, day laborers, restaurant managers, cousins, and mothers from the roots they’ve laid down in the U.S. and washing them back.
And while activists have successfully drawn attention to the price families torn apart by deportation in the U.S. pay as a result of the escalated enforcement, few Americans have ever even thought about what happens when deportees cross the border back into their “home.”
It’s just before 10 a.m., and already all of the rusty folding chairs in the waiting room of Healthy Frontiers in Tijuana, known as HFit, are occupied. Many of those waiting have obvious physical problems: cuts and bruises from fights, sunken eyes from malnutrition, and thin arms with weak veins popping from drug abuse. Doctors at the clinic say gangrene is not uncommon.
HFit is mostly staffed by doctors from UCSD and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California School of Medicine, and is open only on Saturdays due to lack of financing. A dozen or so medical students stand to the side, listening as the doctors and professors who run the clinic give them the rundown of the day’s work while the deportees who have come seeking assistance look on.
It’s a struggle for the doctors and medical students here as they work in the oppressive heat with few basic necessities. The “waiting room” is nothing more than a worn tarp stretched across the clinic’s driveway, and offices have been turned into makeshift examination rooms and triage areas. What medicine they can scrounge together from donations is kept in a back storage room with no climate control. If that hopelessness bothers them, the students and doctors don’t let it show.
Researchers from the two schools originally set up the clinic as part of their research into HIV and other communicable diseases among deportees, but it quickly became the equivalent of an urban MASH unit. Doctors hope to eventually buy a building to run the clinic out of seven days a week, and they are in the process of purchasing a tattoo removal machine to rid deportees of gang insignia that marks them as prey for gangs.
“In my study, male injection-drug users who were deportees had a four-fold higher risk of HIV infection compared to other male drug injectors who were not deported,” says Strathdee, who also works with the clinic. “Deporting people with actively communicable diseases like TB is of particular concern.”
Although the Mexican government provides HIV drugs to its citizens, only state-run hospitals can distribute them. The closest clinic offering HIV medications is miles away. “For many of them, it’s hard to get out,” says Burgos. “They have to work, or their [pimp] won’t let them go.”
“Once [I] get into Mexico, I say, ‘Well, this is Tijuana. This is my country. I’m free again,’” says a 52-year-old deportee named Gerardo in a hoarse whisper as he leans back into his chair and smooths the wrinkles out of his secondhand Terminator T-shirt. “But no. You’re worse here.” His eyes well up.
Once just another patient at the clinic strung out on drugs and the despair of life as a deportee in Tijuana, Gerardo is now sober and volunteering at the clinic. “I used to do drugs, but I’m clean now. I’m trying to be good. I’m working here with these guys for three months. So I’m going to save as much as possible and see if I can go and rent myself a room with a co-worker here and see if we can make it happen.”
Like many deportees, Gerardo ended up in El Bordo after his short stint in the state-run shelter. But after two years there, Gerardo says he’s recently moved into an encampment for deportees. It’s safe, he says, and is providing a desperately needed alternative for people like him looking for a way out.
It was no big deal to cross the border into Southern California in 1994, when Gerardo did. Then 33, Gerardo had attended high school and some college, where he’d learned to speak English, but Mexico’s economy was terrible. In his years in the States he had many jobs — as a seasonal fruit and vegetable picker, in an office, at a gas station, at a 7-11 — and was also periodically unemployed. For more than a decade, though, he was employed at an IHOP up near Lodi, working his way up from dishwasher to server to, eventually, a crew chief. “I was making $3,000 every other week. That was good money for me.”
That ended with the recession. And then in May 2011, Gerardo’s world changed forever: “I was going out to breakfast with friend, he got into problem with the police … he was driving without a license, he has no paperwork in his truck at the time, he doesn’t know how to speak or read in English or in Spanish, nothing.”
The police found Gerardo’s fake driver’s license, Social Security card, and the credit cards he’d gotten using them and charged him with credit card fraud. In theory, that might not have meant deportation, as the Obama administration has made a concerted effort to focus on deporting violent criminals and felons. With the proper counsel, he could have had his sentence reduced to a misdemeanor. But his public defender never even tried, and Gerardo found himself before an incredulous judge who asked him how he got so many credit cards. “I said, ‘I have 798 points.’ The judge said, ‘You have [better] credit than me … even though I’m legal and a citizen, I don’t have that score.’”
With that, Gerardo was on a plane to San Diego to be returned to Mexico. (“The flight attendants are mean to you because you’re on an immigration plane … they call you ‘motherfucker’ because you cannot answer back.”) Shortly after midnight he and several dozen other Mexicans unloaded from a bus into the foreign streets of Tijuana. Like most of the others, he’d never been to the city. He didn’t know anyone, he had no papers, no money, and no hope. After two weeks in a state-sponsored shelter, he was on the streets.
Cartel men and drug dealers will “force you to work, to take away things from the people, and then run away with the things,” he says. And good luck getting help from the authorities — they treat the deported as a problem to be swept violently under the rug.
Although he was technically “illegal” in Mexico because he lacked the proper papers and identification to get work, he found a job at a local market peeling tomatoes. “I get paid 10 pesos. It’s about 90 cents a case. There’s one day’s job, then two days or three days, then it stops for weeks, so we cannot survive with that. And then we have to move to the canal and sometimes they tried to put the drugs on you, or kill you. There’s a lot of suicides over there. You have to survive, you know? We stayed over there for six months. Because the minute you don’t have any money, any job, or any income — let’s put it that way — you remove food from the dumpsters, that’s what all the people do.”
When asked if he would cross again, his answer is unequivocal. “I would like to go back, yes. Since I’m alone in this world, I don’t care. I don’t care no more. If I have a chance to go and run, I’ll do it. I miss America.”
The camp city where Gerardo is staying is in the long-forgotten Plaza Constitución park, known among some of the deportees as “La Mapa” because of a sculpture featuring an outline of Mexico. In the memorial’s shadow, dozens of donated nylon tents are lined up in neat rows. The park is situated next to the highway that makes up one of El Bordo’s boundaries, and is only a few blocks from Avenida Revolución, Tijuana’s main tourist drag.
American and Mexican activists with Angeles Sin Fronteras set it up in August, after local police raided El Bordo, driving residents out of the canal and into the nearby neighborhoods. Founded in 2010, Angeles Sin Fronteras originally focused on Mexicali, one of the largest deportation hubs on the border, where the group fought with authorities over conditions for deportees. Increasing police brutality and the desperate conditions of El Bordo have brought them to Tijuana.
Unlike El Bordo, where a heavy silence hangs over the encampments of deported, the tent city sounds alive: People talk and laugh over their food, argue about chores, and play pickup games of soccer. It’s a welcome respite.
“Here in Tijuana it is really difficult,” Hugo Castro, the charismatic leader of the encampment, says as volunteers serve beans, tortillas, and other staples one evening a few weeks after the encampment was established. “Many deportees were facing assaults, kidnaps, and police extortion and intimidation,” he says.
As many as 200 come to the encampment every evening for a meal and a safe place to stay. The vast majority of the residents are middle-age men, and as the sun begins to set they hurry around the camp — sweeping the narrow alleys between tents, finishing meals, cleaning dishes. Outside the perimeter, dozens more men and women loiter in small groups. “We don’t have enough tents, so some are sleeping on the concrete under blankets,” Castro explains, pointing to four-foot-high piles of rough mover’s blankets.
Residents of the tent city are required to help with upkeep — duties that include sweeping the grounds, cooking meals, cleaning up trash, running security, and tending to a small garden Castro has planned. They’re also not allowed to use drugs or alcohol in the camp.
In Tijuana, like Mexicali, the group has had confrontations with local authorities; the camp has been set up illegally. And despite Castro’s authority among the deportees, even here there are dangers. Deported gang members — obvious from their face tattoos, khaki shorts, knee-high socks, and vacant stares — loiter around the edges, watching everyone and everything that goes on.
Castro, an American citizen, insists that the plight of the deportees isn’t simply a problem for Mexico, which is ill-equipped to deal with the numbers being sent back every day. The U.S. government “doesn’t care, and the Mexican government doesn’t care,” he says. “Our government is not applying the values that made us a great nation.”
Three days and 500 miles to the east later, a cool fog from the night’s rain hangs over the “industrial” port of entry between Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora. Tractor-trailers rumble through the gates, their bellies full of products from the nearby maquiladoras and produce from farms. And more than a few have pounds of crystal meth, weed, heroin, or cocaine carefully concealed in hidden compartments, axles, and other hollowed-out parts, destined for cities across the U.S.
A worn “Bienvenidos a Nogales Sanora” sign hangs above the road leading to the border, and slums stretch to up the rugged hills to the west a few blocks from the border. A hunched Mexican man sweeps the sidewalk in front of an unassuming concrete building that seems to be built into the rugged hillside to the east. The heat and humidity of late summer in north central Mexico is starting to overtake the mist as a small woman dressed in plain clothes — one of the sisters who helps run the soup kitchen — unlocks the heavy steel door.
Early each morning and evening, newly repatriated Mexicans line up silently outside the soup kitchen. Kino Border Initiative, a nonprofit binational organization run by the Jesuits and the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, established “El Comedor” in 2008 in an effort to help the increasing number of deportees flooding Nogales.
“Everyone was kind of really hungry, and they realized what they really need is a soup kitchen,” says Marla Conrad, a social worker with the group. Standing inside the doorway as volunteers prepare breakfast, Marla smiles happily when I ask if she’s a volunteer. “I’m lucky, I get paid to do this,” she says cheerily.
Outside, a line of 50 or so men and women have lined up for the morning’s breakfast. Police officers lean against their vehicle, scrutinizing the queue, watching on as each is briefly interviewed by one of the priests or nuns who run the kitchen. Given cartel activity in the neighborhood, the Jesuits and sisters have been forced to ensure those they are serving aren’t spies looking for easy marks or collecting phone numbers to use in extortion schemes later. “They actually kidnap the migrants and try to extort them,” Conrad later explains. “So that’s something we’re trying to avoid.” One of the volunteers beckons her onto the street where a Mexican man and woman are waiting.
When I find her inside a few minutes later, she apologizes for leaving me. “They were looking for their brother,” she explains. He’d come north as part of the constant flow of Mexicans migrating into the U.S., and had injured his ankle after crossing the border. The group he was with had left him behind in the Arizona desert. It may sound harsh, but it’s not uncommon. With no realistic options for medical assistance and barely enough provisions to survive the desert for a day or two if they’re lucky, groups of migrants are often forced to leave injured companions behind.
His friends had gotten word to his family, hoping the border patrol had found him. But it had been 11 days since his group had left him — far too long for anyone to realistically survive the desert alone and injured, even during August’s rainy season.
Between 50 and 180 deportees are served at each sitting by the small handful of Jesuits, Sister Missionaries of the Eucharist, and local volunteers. “Two meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, because they’re deporting 365 days a year,” quips Father Peter Neeley, one of the Jesuits who helped start El Comedor.
Dozens of men and women sit at the benches, eating ham and cheese sandwiches and communal bowls of beans. Some carry the clear plastic Homeland Security bags that mark them as the recently deported. Others have casts on ankles or wrists, wounds they picked up during their failed border crossing or flight from authorities.
The room is tense. There’s no talking, and the deportees eye one other, the staff, and the giant American in the corner taking notes with suspicion. A sister moves to the front of the room, and announces that it’s one of the cooks’ birthday today. All eyes turn toward the cramped kitchen, and a beaming Mexican woman waves as the nun leads the room in a verse of “Happy Birthday.” “This is the second birthday she’s spent here,” Conrad says to me as everyone sings a second verse.
The sister then leads the deportees through a “brain exercise,” essentially a game of Simon Says. “It helps to kind of relax people,” Conrad explains of the morning ritual. And it does; after several rounds, the deportees are laughing, talking, even smiling.
“What we have, we share. Sometimes we don’t have enough, but we give what we can,” she tells them before giving them an explicit warning: After breakfast is done, don’t go to the west. “It’s all very controlled by the mafia.”
After breakfast, some of the deportees will head down the street to a bus depot, though they’re warned cartel men will be there watching. Others will go to the Grupo Beta station, a state-sponsored assistance facility that helps deportees return to their home states and provides basic medical care.
Most of the women will be taken to a women’s shelter run by the sisters nearby. Although the shelter isn’t exactly a secret, the nuns refuse to say exactly where it’s located and they don’t allow outside men in. Meanwhile, many of the men will end up on the other side of town at San Juan Bosco Shelter, which has been helping migrants, and now increasingly deportees, for three decades.
Miguel arrived in Nogales just hours before he speaks to me, brought to this foreign city in the late-night drop-off of deportees, after his third failed attempt to cross in two months.
Originally from Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Miguel was, like many migrants, looking not only for a way to provide a better life for his family and to escape the violence of the Mexican drug war — he was also motivated by a desire to not repeat the brutal, abusive patterns of his father. “I come from an unstable home. My dad is an alcoholic, and my mom was the one who helped me through. I am not a bum or a person who is no good for the society, because in one way, that’s what I live through with him, I never liked his ways. My mom realized that she shouldn’t have been with him. One time I saw him hitting her and I confronted him, I was like 5 years old. So it hurts that I can’t provide for my children, to not have that stability that I didn’t have.”
Before trying to cross the border, Miguel took his family to Morelos, hoping to find work. But the cartels in Morelos control virtually everything, Miguel said, and finding legitimate work can be difficult. He decided to try to cross to the U.S., to find a way to support his kids while he was still physically able. “In my case, I am 28 — in a few years, maybe my body will tell me, ‘No more.’”
Gathering up what money he could, he traveled north to the state of Sonora and the town of Altar, a notorious stronghold of the cartels that is a hub for drug and human trafficking. When he arrived, cartel soldiers demanded a 5,000-peso entrance fee (about $385) to the city. “So I paid the 5,000 pesos. That money is now lost.”
In fact, this first attempt to cross wasn’t thwarted by the U.S. border patrol, but by the cartels, which at the time were focusing their energies on bringing drugs, and not migrants, across the border into Arizona. “They tell you that they’ll give you a backpack with drugs, approximately 25 kilos, and they’ll pay you 1,500 [dollars]. But they don’t make payment in the U.S., you have to go back into Mexico and that’s where they supposedly pay you. You say, ‘OK, I will receive money and they’ll take me to where I want to go.’ This is how they hook people. You expose yourself to being killed by the mafia and left in the desert.”
So Miguel left to go to Naco, Sonora, and tried jumping the fence on his own. He was quickly picked up by the border patrol and deported back to Mexico through Mexicali. After making his way back to Sonora, Miguel crossed again, jumping the fence and meeting a coyote in the U.S. who took him to a trailer in the desert south of Tucson.
“I stayed for eight days, locked up, with little food and little water. They wouldn’t let us look out the window, and to go the bathroom you had to crawl. When I got there, there were  people there already. Sometimes we would eat instant soups — it was a small portion, for all the people, one meal a day, and faucet water. [On the eighth day] the guy in charge came by in his truck, with another immigrant … five minutes after he came out, the border patrol arrived.”
On his third crossing in two months, Miguel was arrested in a car driven by a coyote and cut a deal with federal officials to testify against him in exchange for not being charged with illegally crossing, which could have landed him in jail for years. After 10 days in custody, he was sent back here.
As we’re talking, he receives a phone call on one of the temporary cell phones the Jesuits have handed out. It’s his wife and daughter. I ask him long it’s been since he’s seen his daughters, who are 5 and 1. “Three months,” he said, tears streaming down his face. His 5-year-old had told him she’s “saving a chocolate for me” for when he returns home.
I ask him if he’s going to try to cross again. “I am going to return to Morelos … It’s very disappointing, the little money we have back at home, you come and you waste it here and sometimes you end up being a drug addict or owing money in order to cross. So now, I will return with more debt than I already had. But I know I will be with my family.”
Nogales residents Juan Francisco Loureiro Herrera and his wife Gilda turned their family’s abandoned warehouse into a shelter one evening in the winter of 1982 after discovering hundreds of migrants huddling in the cold outside the shoe store they own.
“Once we opened the store, we started talking to the people, we listened to their stories. Most haven’t eaten in days,” says Herrera. “We promised to help them; they said there were more at the park. We went to the park and saw there were approximately 170 more people and became really worried because it wasn’t just that so many people were suffering, [but that] nobody was doing anything to help them.”
Over time, Herrera and his family slowly rebuilt the warehouse, constructed bunk beds for people staying in the shelter, and added a kitchen and dining room area. They’ve also arranged for lawyers and psychologists to provide their services to deportees. Since then, more than a million people have slept in the shelter, he says, explaining that while in the beginning most were migrants heading north, in recent years they’ve helped an increasing number of deportees. “We thought that this migration phenomena would come to be resolved, but after 31 years, it is still the same … [But] in this way, we’ve been able to bring a little bit of solution to this problem that we’ve lived with all these years.”
Still, the shelters are only a temporary fix. For those who don’t arrange to either cross the border again or find a way back to their home states, there are few options. Many end up sleeping in public parks or abandoned houses in the city’s poorest sections. Drug addiction is a problem, and dozens of deportees have begun using a hillside graveyard to sleep: The graves provide secluded, flat surfaces to sleep, and the steep incline gives them plenty of time to run if the police or cartel men approach.
While state sponsored, the Grupo Beta office is dangerous: Activists and deportees allege the cartels openly use it as a way to identify people to kidnap, while a man known as “The Barber” has allegedly used it as a hunting ground for vulnerable women to prey upon with promises of clean clothes, a new haircut, and a hot meal.
Even the simple act of obtaining a wire transfer from a loved one can become a life-or-death situation. Deportees are obvious targets: Their clothes often make them stand out, and they carry what few possessions they brought with them in clear plastic DHS bags. If they have identification to actually pick up their money, exiting the bank can result in a robbery.
But most don’t arrive in Mexico with any identification, and the cartels prey on them, agreeing to obtain the money for them for a “fee.” Occasionally they return with a fraction of the money that had been wired. Most of the time, they simply take it all.
Hoping to help deportees avoid being robbed, Lupita Aguirre and her husband Juan have begun working with a nonprofit group called No More Deaths to make sure they get their money — and a bus ticket home. “We started because more than anything, people are deported without any documents,” Aguirre says, explaining that “a lot of people getting money out were being robbed or charged very high rates of interest.”
So, for the last year and a half, NMD has operated a cell phone bank of sorts out of a bus depot parking lot. Deportees can use the phones to call someone either in the U.S. or Mexico and arrange to have money deposited into the Aguirres’ bank account. Once the money arrives, Aguirre takes the deportee to a bank to take out the money, and then to a bus when it is ready to leave. “If this service didn’t exist, people would just be stuck here,” she says.
As we talk, two men — their clean, new clothes marking them clearly as not being deportees — hover a few feet away, intently listening to our conversation. After a few minutes, they move off, but continue to watch us, and I find out later that they were cartel men, wary of the American asking questions.
Despite the violence endemic to the border towns, the sex trade remains one of the few consistent draws for many Americans. Each night, American men cross into Mexico to visit special zones, often within walking distance of the border crossing, to visit strip clubs, brothels, or to troll men and women working storefronts.
I meet Maria, a young Mexican girl who looked to be in her mid-twenties, at Studio 69, a strip club a few blocks from the downtown Nogales crossing. Street touts outside entice clients with promises of no cover, a free tequila shot, and the friendliest girls in town. The club’s wood paneling, wide stage, comfortable couches, and DJ spinning the latest American hits would have fit in perfectly in any upscale strip club in the U.S.
But the club’s menu — explained to me by one of the waitstaff — probably wouldn’t: In addition to $20 lap dances, there was also the opportunity to take one of the dancers to a back room “with a nice clean bed for an hour. Eighty bucks and I’ll give two free condoms.”
After I’d dutifully downed my free tequila shot, the waiter eventually sends Maria my way. Unlike most of the girls, she speaks some English. Although she is clearly uncomfortable talking, she acknowledges that some of the girls who worked in the clubs and brothels were deportees, but it is hard to say how many “because they move us from town to town. So you don’t get bored.”
As we chat, Maria begins to cry. “My 5-month-old. He died yesterday,” she says. When it becomes clear I’m not a paying customer, she quickly composes herself, and gets back to working the room.
A few days later, I arrive in El Paso and cross into Juárez to meet Claudia, a young deportee originally from this dangerous town. The violence of the drug war hangs over everything along the border, and nowhere more than Juárez. For more than a decade, this city of 1.5 million residents was the epicenter of drug violence. More than 9,000 people were killed in the city between 2007 and 2011, and it’s been plagued by scores of brutal rapes and murders of young women since the 1990s. We pile into her battered early 1990s station wagon — along with her son, daughter, and a friend who will translate — and head to the business strip of Juárez.
Today, while most of the city may resemble the backdrop of any number of B-movie Westerns set in a dusty Mexican border town, Juárez’s business district is gleaming: Tall glass buildings branded with the names of American multinational companies rise above the streets, and well-appointed hotels cater to the needs of foreigners in town to check on their investments in the local maquiladoras. There’s even a Wendy’s and a fancy mall.
Over coffee, the mother of three tells me her story. After her mother died, Claudia, then 16, moved to the U.S. using a “shopping visa,” which allows Mexicans living along the border to make day trips into the U.S. Living in Denver, she worked with an aunt who ran a food truck catering to construction jobs. She had two boys while living in the States, and made regular trips to and from Juárez to visit family and check on the family home. But in 2010, things changed as she was waiting to cross back into the U.S. after a visit to Juárez.
“They took away my visa,” she says. “When I was living in Colorado, working selling food at the construction sites, I was given a ticket for not having a proper permit. And that appeared in the system [because] I had a court appearance and had failed to go. I was here alone, with the kids, and now pregnant again, it was a difficult situation. The only thing I knew how to do was nails and cook meals.”
As the violence escalated in the 2000s and the city’s economy collapsed, hundreds of wealthy Juárez citizens moved across the Rio Grande into El Paso, while untold numbers of other residents began crossing the border illegally on a nightly basis. Claudia decided to try to move back to the U.S. as well.
The border between El Paso and Juárez is, at best, porous: Despite miles of fencing, steel walls, and the constant presence of the border patrol, each night untold numbers of Mexican migrants literally run across the shallow Rio Grande and disappear into the city’s sprawling neighborhoods. Claudia tried this route several times, but being pregnant made it difficult to run, and after several near misses decided to give up on the overland route.
Desperate, she contacted a coyote who “told me we could try to cross through a ‘tunnel’ and that I would have to walk 15 minutes and there wouldn’t be any problem.” The coyotes took Claudia to the border in a group of 20 migrants. Once they entered the tunnels, they would be locked in, making turning around impossible. And the “walk” quickly turned into crawling as the migrants navigated tight sewage pipes, slowly making their way in the pitch black further under the city. It was cramped for everyone, but at six months pregnant, the pipes closed in tight around her.
“I had to keep going. There was no light, there was water with chemicals, who knows what kind, it made the skin burn. We had to cross hunched over, crawling — I had to be careful because of my tummy … I got cut and scratched by broken glass, there were rats, there were cockroaches, there were all kinds of animals in the sewers,” she says, pointing out scars on her hands and arms that are still visible.
Halfway through the crossing, a diabetic man with high blood pressure in front of Claudia collapsed. Unable to turn around, Claudia desperately began pushing his unconscious body in the dark.
“My hands were bleeding, my knees, I started having contractions, I started feeling weak. I couldn’t push him forward anymore and asked the guy behind me to help. Because the tunnel was small, only one person could crawl through at a time, the guy behind me said that either he would cross over me, or we will stay here and die. There wasn’t a lot of oxygen. He asked me to rub mud over my body so he can slide over, that he might be crushing me and the baby, that maybe the baby would come out, but that if he didn’t do this we would all die.”
Eventually, the two were able to get the man’s body a mere five meters through the tunnel before they came to the exit. Bruised, bleeding, and suffering from premature labor contractions, Claudia emerged from the sewer into the El Paso night to find herself in a dark alley. While the other migrants scrambled to hide in dumpsters until their ride could arrive, she was in no shape to climb the metal bins, and collapsed in a dark corner, where border agents found her a few minutes later.
“The patrol asked me to get up, but I couldn’t, and he noticed I was bleeding [from the contractions] so he called an ambulance in El Paso and took me to Las Palmas Hospital–Medical Center.”
At the hospital, doctors stabilized Claudia and stopped her contractions, and bound fractures in both her wrists and one elbow before sending her to the local jail. “Once they took me to the cell, there were others there, around eight women, and they offered me food, coffee, they were really nice to me. But I didn’t want to eat anything, I was worried, and worried for my kids I had left with my dad.”
And while at the hospital doctors had put antibiotic cream on the cuts and rat bites, they hadn’t done a thorough job of cleaning them. “After talking to the other girls there, one of them noticed that [my] arm was beyond red, it was more like black from the infection. I couldn’t stand the pain, it was swollen. She said, ‘We have to take [the bandage] off because if it gets worse you can get gangrene.’”
The woman, a nurse from Mexico, said that they had to go to the jail infirmary and steal whatever bandages and medicines they could to treat her wounds. “I took gauze and antibiotic cream … we were not allowed to take medications back to the cell, they could only be used at the infirmary, but I took some back anyway.” The nurse and some of the other women in the cell took Claudia into the showers and began scrubbing her wounds. After a month in jail, Claudia was deported back to Juárez.
Though murder rates in Juárez have dropped off significantly in the last several years as the Sinaloa cartel has taken control of much of the border and a new government in Mexico City has taken power, the damage has been done. Unlike other border towns where entrepreneurial locals sell trinkets, sombreros, and pictures with donkeys painted as zebras, Juárez’s main downtown crossing is desolate, aside from a handful of men touting local pharmacies’ Viagra prices. The violence has become so bad, even those seeking out cheap or illegal sex have long stopped coming to Juárez, leaving only the Mexican pharmacies to draw El Paso residents looking for cheap prescription drugs across the heavily militarized border.
And the collapse in the city’s murder rate after 2011 may be little more than a breather: Martin Orquiz, a reporter with the newspaper El Diario who has covered crime and corruption for two decades, warned the violence will return. “It is going to be waves. Up and down, up and down. Because there are many bad people here, and their way of life is to take advantage of the rest of us,” he says.
The situation for deportees along the border isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Short of a dramatic upswing in the Mexican economy or the U.S. abandoning the efforts to control immigration — neither of which are likely to occur — deportations will continue. Although the U.S. has begun deporting some Mexicans to their home states, reducing the number of deportees in border cities, the flights are expensive, sporadic, and represent only a small part of the deported population.
Even if Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform providing citizenship to the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., that would be only a temporary fix. The sheer size of the border makes an impregnable border impossible, and the determination of migrants to enter the country at any cost ensures a steady flow of undocumented people in the future.
Claudia says that while she would like to be back in the U.S., she’s not going to try crossing again, even if it means living in constant fear. She was attacked in broad daylight recently. “I would love to be there [in the U.S.] because of the kids,” she says, corralling her son Nathan and daughter Valentina, who are playing among the coffee shop’s tables, oblivious to the difficulties and danger all around them.
I ask her if she’s nervous about raising them here. “Nervous? Yes,” she says, stroking Valentina’s hair. “I am afraid to be here because of my kids, because of all that has happened, because I am alone. I am afraid to be here. But I have no other options. I have no one else.”