Migrants line-up before being deported from the United States at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, Tuesday, May 27, 2008.
TIJUANA, Mexico – The towering black gate opens silently to an alley with walls of corrugated metal. Scrawled in large white letters on one wall is: “The End.”
For those deported from the United States, the words are an unnecessary reminder. Nearly every hour of the day, guards unlock this gate that leads back into Mexico, clicking open the padlocks hung on each side, in each nation.
Every time the gate slams shut, it wipes out a dream, divides a family, ends a life lived in the shadows of the law.
On average, 700 Mexicans expelled from the United States walk through this gate daily, according to Mexican government figures. They include farmers, construction workers, prisoners, nannies, children, entire families.
A few steps from the gate, American tourists pose for photos in front of a stone relief. They are oblivious to the men, women and children sadly shuffling into a homeland many risked their lives to leave.
U.S. deportations have jumped by more than 60 percent over the past five years. Mexicans accounted for nearly two-thirds of those deportees, helping to roll back one of the biggest migrations of recent history. All along the border, shelters once full of people trying to cross into the United States are now home to thousands of deportees who sleep on mattresses strewn inches apart on cement floors.
In a week spent at the Tijuana gate, The Associated Press watched busload after busload of deportees arrive, some in a daze, still stunned over their sudden expulsion. Many stumbled over the Mexican official’s question, “Where are you from?” after spending decades in the United States.
The faces of those who stream through reflect how tough and far-reaching the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigration has become.
Among them are young people. There were more than 18,000 repatriations of children under 18 to Mexico this year, and in more than 10,000 cases they were alone, according to the Mexican government.
There are also criminals. The U.S. does not break down figures by country, but it has deported about 55,000 prisoners so far this year. One man walked through the gate in slippers with 80 cents in his pocket, after being picked up by police during a violent fight with his wife in their backyard.
And there are women, with more than 40,000 repatriations since January – about 13 percent of all cases, according to the Mexican government. Sometimes the women are dropped off alone, at night. The U.S. Border Patrol in Washington says the safe repatriation of women is a major concern, but acknowledges there is no overall policy along the 2,000-mile border.
Mexico must now deal with a population that it has long ignored. And those returning must deal with Mexico, a land that for many now seems foreign. The challenge starts the day they walk through the gate the U.S. Border Patrol calls Whiskey II, military code for west of the port of entry.
At 11:03 a.m., six teenagers – three girls, three boys – line up at the gate, accompanied by a Mexican Consulate official.
“Where are you from?” the Mexican immigration official asks each one after calling off their names.
Paola Riveras’ face is puffy and red from crying.
Three hours ago, the 16-year-old had jumped into the long line of Mexicans waiting to go to school, work or shop in California. When it was her turn to stop before the U.S. immigration agent, she panicked and kept walking.
He yelled “Stop!” three times. Finally, he stepped in front of her and told her to put her hands behind her head.
Riveras told him in Spanish that she had no visa and sobbed.
She says she only wanted to see her mom, who went illegally to Los Angeles when Riveras was 8 and left her with her father in Chimalhuacan, a slum outside Mexico City. When he died in December, her mother asked Riveras to come live with her. Now Riveras is not sure what she will do.
In the first six months of this year, 18,249 youths under 18 were sent back to Mexico by the U.S., according to the Mexican government. Those numbers may include youths detained more than once. U.S. immigration authorities say they do not keep figures on minors.
The teens are escorted to a Mexican government trailer where a psychologist and social worker help them call relatives. Some nap on bunk beds covered in Porky Pig and Donald Duck sheets. Others watch “Ice Age” on the TV.
After calling her aunt in Tijuana, Riveras wipes her nose and dries her tears with a tissue. She says she can’t go back to Chimalhuacan. She keeps thinking about the explosive fight when her dad’s family told her that her mom doesn’t want her, that she has formed another family in Los Angeles.
“I just want to study and be with my mom,” she says.
The prisoners arrive at the gate chained together at 10:43 a.m., some still in gray prison pants and black slippers. Once released, they scramble for the pile of paper bags on the ground that contain their few belongings – a belt, diabetes medicine, a few coins.
A Mexican official checks off their names on a clipboard as they file into the country.
The men do not know what they will do next. Residents of the already violent city of Tijuana also wonder what will become of the ex-cons filling the city’s shelters.
Almost a third of the 278,000 people deported in 2007 were prisoners. Last year, the U.S. started speeding up the removal of prisoners and deported a record 95,000 after they served their sentences. The U.S. also has detained or deported 10,000 gang members since 2005.
Alejandro Fonseca was convicted on drug charges and deported last year. He now lives in Tijuana with his American wife and three U.S.-born children.
They have survived by eating at the Salvation Army shelter in a rough Tijuana neighborhood near the border. But his 13-year-old daughter has missed a year of school. She cannot go to school in Mexico because she does not speak Spanish.
Fonseca says the new life has been hard on his family, but has also forced him to give up his drug habit.
“A lot of guys try to run the same game that they ran over there, but they end up falling on their face,” says Fonseca as he waits for dinner at the shelter.
Fonseca is searching for work in the impoverished city, but even filling out an application is difficult. Fonseca has spent 30 of his 31 years in the United States, so English is his main language.
“You see, we know Spanish, but we don’t know the exact words, and when we try to explain to somebody something, they’re like ‘huh?’ ” he says.
Battling with crutches, Nestor Ortiz struggles to line up at the gate at 11:30 a.m. after being returned for the third time in 10 days.
Ortiz worked in the U.S. for a decade. Then a police officer pulled him over and found out he had no driver’s license, which he couldn’t get because he was illegal. The life he had created suddenly ended.
Desperate to be with his family again, he first walked across the desert in Arizona after paying a smuggler $3,000. The next time, he went in a car driven by an American resident. And then he scaled a 20-foot-high corrugated metal wall marking the border between Tijuana and San Ysidro and jumped from it.
He winces each time he moves the throbbing leg he crushed. Both his feet are swollen.
Mexican immigration officials help the cabinet finisher from La Habra, Calif., into the back room of their office.
He still has not had a chance to take off his bracelet from Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, where he woke up this morning, three days after doctors put in a metal plate that runs from his hip to his ankle.
“What can I do? I don’t know anyone here,” says Ortiz, 39.
An ambulance pulls up to the Mexican Migration Institute’s office. Paramedics warn if he does not keep the swelling down, he risks losing his foot.
“They shouldn’t have deported you so soon after your surgery,” the paramedic tells him.
The divorced father phones his two sons in California.
“I’m not coming back,” he says, choked up as he talks to his 17-year-old son by phone from Tijuana’s Salvation Army shelter. “I can’t walk. Both my feet are in bad shape.”
He asks Juan to consider moving to his hometown of Tlalnepantla, on the edge of Mexico City.
The conversation turns tense. Juan has lived in the United States since he was 7 and doesn’t want to leave his friends.
“I think you should not be alone over there,” Ortiz says, sighing. “Finish high school and then you can come here. At least here you have your grandparents, your cousins. Over there, what do you have?”
Ortiz breathes in deeply, holds his brow and reels in his overwhelming grief.
He tells his other son, 23-year-old Nestor, to cancel his father’s gym membership, put the Chevrolet Suburban in his name and take Juan to live with him.
“Be good, son,” he says. “Keep working, be careful and keep your chin up.”
Around 9:30 p.m. Thursday, six women and a 7-year-old girl arrive at the gate. Migrant activists have repeatedly urged the United States not to deport women and children at night along the violent Mexican border.
Dominga Bejar, 37, stops after walking through the gate blasted by floodlights. She needs a place to stay and is nervous about grabbing a taxi by herself.
“It’s really dangerous here,” she says. “I’m really scared to go outside.”
Blanca Villasenor, who runs a Mexican border shelter, says women are continually dropped off after 9 p.m.
“They deport them at any hour, at 10 p.m., at midnight, and in some cases they wind up in the street or they sleep in the offices of Mexican immigration agents,” she says.
Julius Alatorre, an officer for the San Diego border control, says the policy is “to try our best not to bring women or juveniles after dark,” but sometimes the women want to go back immediately. The private security firm Wackenhut Corp. transports most of those returned to Mexico, he says. Wackenhut did not respond to requests for comment.
Bejar says she hasn’t seen her American-born 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter in Montclair, Calif., since she left them with her husband to attend her father’s funeral in January in Colima. Now she is determined to get back to Montclair, where she has lived for 16 years.
“I’m going to cross,” she says defiantly after being caught with a fake passport. “I don’t know how, but I’m going to make it.”
A volunteer with the Casa de Migrante standing at the gate offers her and several deported men a ride to the Tijuana shelter.
Ten-year-old Edgar from the Pacific coast state of Michoacan stands at the gate and stares ahead with big brown, panic-stricken eyes. Clutching a Sponge Bob Square Pants comic book – a gift from the Mexican consulate official – he tries to fight back tears. He wants to know where his mom is.
Edgar hasn’t seen her since she dropped him off the previous day at a female smuggler’s house in Tijuana. They spent the night practicing saying his fake name and answering other basic questions in English.
They got in line at the port of entry around 8 a.m. The smuggler told U.S. officials she was his mom and was taking him to school in San Ysidro. They showed a real visa with Edgar’s photo on it.
Edgar didn’t flinch and said his name perfectly: Manuel Flores. But then the official asked for his teacher’s name, and his grandmother’s. Edgar stammered. The official asked them to step aside, and then he detained them.
Maria Guadalupe Rios, coordinator of child protection services in Baja California, says parents no longer want to return to Mexico to visit their children for fear they will not be able to get back across the fortified border. So they are increasingly forcing their children to come live with them illegally in the United States.
If a child is returned to Mexico several times, child protection services takes the child into custody temporarily and talks to the family.
“It’s a humiliating experience,” she says. “It’s a noble thing that they want the family to be reunited, but they are exposing them to danger.”
Edgar says his younger siblings recently made it and are with his dad in California. His mom is waiting for him to get across before sneaking in herself. But he’s afraid to try again.
“I just want to go back (to Michoacan) with my mom,” he says after a social worker contacts his mother.
As Edgar peers from the window of a Mexican government trailer, guards from both countries shut the gate once again – silently closing the door on the American lives of one set of deportees before the next busload arrives.