In Tijuana, the Recently Deported Are Trapped in Purgatory
A crowd gathers on the Tijuana side of the border fence.
José Mares had arrived to work five minutes early one morning in February when four men in street clothes grabbed him in the parking lot. He was mere feet from the shop entrance, a hot coffee and Egg McMuffin in hand. One of the men was wearing a bulletproof vest underneath his shirt. Mares sensed he was being arrested. He didn't know the reason for it, but he didn't resist.
One of the men showed a badge. They were federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They put him in the back seat of a Chevy van. "Step into my office," he remembers one of them saying. This all went down in front of the tire shop in Lancaster where Mares had worked for six years, rising through the ranks from a tire changer to a salesman.
From his seat in the van, Mares could see his 18-year-old daughter, Desiree Mares, backing the car out of the space where he had just parked it. Mares is a single dad, and he and his daughter often shared the family car in the mornings. He would ride with her to the tire shop, then she would head to her part-time job at the mall. Desiree hadn't seen what happened. Mares watched her drive away.
The agents took him 90 miles away to Camarillo, driving in convoy with two other vehicles to a holding center for migrants with outstanding removal orders. Mares noticed large binoculars on the front seat. The agents had had eyes on him for days, they told him. One of them asked why he took an unusual route to work that morning, seeming to insinuate Mares had discovered the agents and was preparing to flee. Mares told them he had run out of coffee that morning and had to stop at McDonald's.
The agents knew where he lived, they knew where he worked, they knew his daily routine and what route he took to work. "They were watching me," he says, "like I threatened to kill the president or something."
They put him in a cell in Camarillo, where he used his one phone call to reach Desiree. He had raised her on his own since she was 4. She is his only child and calls him her best friend. There was hardly time for him to react to being separated from her. Two hours after landing in Camarillo, he was moved to downtown L.A. An hour later, he was in Santa Ana. He was over the border by nightfall.
Mares tells the story sitting at the edge of a bed in Tijuana, sunlight streaking in the open door, in a room he jokes is the size of a prison cell. He has lined the window pane in the hallway with undershorts and socks he's rinsed in the bathroom sink. Through the window the sun descends over the horizon of hovel-dotted canyons to the southwest.
Mares is indifferent to the arid landscape. He says he still has dreams in which he is selling tires in Lancaster, still wakes up in this room expecting to be in his bed at home. Having lived in the United States since he was 8, he finds the suddenness of being uprooted and plopped in Tijuana overwhelming. He rarely leaves his room at the Hotel Salazar.
Deportee José Mares at the Hotel Salazar in Tijuana
Mexico is where he was born, but his connection to the nation is remote. His parents live in the United States, and his daughter was born there. After he arrived in Tijuana, she bought him a cellphone plan with unlimited international talk and data, and the phone is rarely out of his hand. He and his girlfriend in Lancaster talk for hours a day. All she or anyone else back home wants to do is talk talk talk, he says. He has to charge the phone three times a day.
"To me, this is a nightmare," he says. "You get taken away from everything you care about, your loved ones, everything. That's the only way I can describe it — it's a nightmare."
The feeling of desperation is what drove him to try to sneak back in.
A week after he was deported, Mares climbed over the border fence and ran. He chose a place where the fence crosses through a busy part of the city. A stranger he met on the street recommended the spot, and some passers-by gave him a boost over the top.
When he landed on the other side, he saw one of the omnipresent white Chevy Suburbans of U.S. Border Patrol already approaching. Every local in Tijuana will tell you the border is impregnable at any point within the city limits, with its electronic sensors, video surveillance and ubiquitous patrols. When Mares started to run, he found his feet sinking into the soft surface of dirt that had been road-graded. He says it felt like he was running in sand. He tripped in the exertion and landed awkwardly on his left wrist, the impact causing the elbow to dislocate.
Today his elbow sticks out from his side at an obtuse, painful-looking angle. He says he isn't sure it was reset properly at the San Diego hospital where he was taken after he was caught. It took the ER doctors three tries and an operation to finally pop it back in place, he says. A pair of Border Patrol agents stood guard in shifts at his bedside.
It might be broken for all he knows. Despite his daughter's urging, Mares hasn't had the energy to go to a medical clinic. He hasn't the strength in his left arm to do a push-up. Yet he says he thinks about making another run at the fence, beating the odds, risking a stint in federal prison if he is caught again. He doesn't want to be in jail, but he says he also can't allow the reality of his purgatory to sink in. "I don't want to get comfortable here," he says. "This is not home. I don't want to feel like this is home. It's not home."
His cellphone, facedown on the bed, pings three times in rapid succession. Another missed call.
José Mares was one of 161 undocumented immigrants netted in the L.A. sweeps that ICE conducted in early February, the first significant enforcement surge of the Trump presidency. The sweeps were part of a nationally coordinated surge of 680 arrests in 11 states. Yet it was not the size of the raid that's notable but, rather, how abruptly ICE had jettisoned the "felons not families" guidelines for removal established under President Obama.
Trump appeared to endorse the sweeps a few days after Mares was deported, tweeting: "The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!" It is the "others" he mentions that most concern advocates for immigrant rights.
ICE under Trump is going after low-hanging fruit, migrants with final orders of removal for a petty misdemeanor offense, according to lawyers who work with the recently deported in Tijuana. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security issued new immigration enforcement guidelines that make a priority of following no priorities. The guidelines call for hiring 10,000 additional enforcement agents, increasing the holding capacity at detention centers and reactivating a program that deputizes local law enforcement to help make immigration arrests.
Nighttime at Tijuana's rusty border fence, which extends into the Pacific Ocean
Since 2014, ICE has instructed field agents and directors to prioritize the removal of migrants who pose a threat to public safety: active participants in street gangs, violent felons, people with significant charges such as drug dealing, child molestation, spousal battery or illegal possession of a firearm. It is therefore a significant break from past practices for someone like Mares to become a priority for removal, much less the target of a surveillance operation. His criminal record consists of a single, 17-year-old charge for drug possession; he has lived nearly his entire life in the United States; and he is the father of a high school student.
A mild-mannered insulation worker named José Armando Guerrero was picked up by ICE agents outside his house in Westmont the same morning Mares was taken into custody. Guerrero, 46, was on his way to a work-release program washing patrol cars and taking out the trash at the Women's Jail, his sentence for a DUI in 2015. After living in L.A. for more than half his life, he was deported in painter's pants and work boots with $20 in his wallet. He and Mares met in the van to the border; the old woman who runs the Salazar agreed to let him sleep on the floor in Mares' room in exchange for doing odd jobs in the hotel.
"I'm lost here," Guerrero says. "I don't know where I am."
Guerrero says the detention center in Santa Ana was filled with construction workers, men caked in paint or dirt, picked up by federal agents when they went to meet probation officers or comply with work-release programs. Others were inadvertently collared, giving themselves up at home when agents came to the door looking for someone else. "Trump says he's up there removing criminals," Guerrero says. "I was working. I'm not a criminal."
José Arce runs No Mercy Tattoos, a shop on Avenida Revolución mere blocks from the border in Zona Centro, the heart of Tijuana. The bustling strip of storefronts is the first stop for many deportees newly arrived in Tijuana. Crowds of them float past the window. Most of them don't know Tijuana from Tennessee, so they'll ask whoever they might be meeting to find them on Revolución.
At a glance, Arce can tell who is who.
The ones in the standard-issue white sweats and cloth sneakers were inmates in federal detention on the other side. They haven't been in Tijuana long enough to get a hand-me-down sweatshirt from the bin at one of the migrant shelters. It is the clothing Arce was wearing when he was deported here for the last time seven years ago.
The ones in street clothes are the hard-luck, workmen types, toting their paperwork in the paper bags they got from ICE. Once in a while one of them will come inside and ask for the phone to call a friend. They'll tell whoever it is on the other end what happened — Arce overhears many such conversations, and he says the most heartbreaking ones usually start with an event as banal as a broken taillight.
"It just shows you how simple it is to get deported," he says.
No matter the circumstances of their arrival, he says, every deportee faces the same nightmare. "The first six months are the toughest," he says. "Everything you knew is completely gone. A lot of people break.
"You have to keep busy, keep your mind occupied, make a bit of money."
It was 9 p.m. in early March, and Arce talked over the drone and groan of the magnum needle in his right hand. Effortlessly, he shaded the upper-arm tattoo of his last customer of the day. The images of a compass and an antique pocket watch grew more lifelike at every pass.
Operators of migrant shelters in Tijuana estimate that as many as 70 percent of deportees will attempt to re-enter the United States after they are deported. Illegal re-entry is a federal offense, and migrants who are caught in the attempt can be sentenced to as many as six years in prison. Arce knows this firsthand. The last time he tried sneaking in, he was caught and did three years at Taft Correctional Institution.
Arce has three children living in the United States. After the stint in Taft, his 18-year-old daughter, Destinee, of Bell Gardens, convinced him to stay in Tijuana. "She told me, 'I'd rather go see you there than behind bars,'" he says. "That kind of hit me." He has Destinee's name tattooed in calligraphy like a lamb-chop sideburn down the right side of his jaw.
He has the name of his 11-year-old daughter, Yelenia, tattooed on his forearm and that of his 10-year-old son, "Panchito," tattooed on his hand. Tattoos of a black rose and a vintage tattoo machine cover the sides of his neck.
Arce took the name No Mercy from the graffiti crew he was part of during his wayward youth at 54th and Main, in South L.A. He lived most of his life in the United States without papers and studied the style known as fine-line tattoos, popularized by the artist "Pint" at a studio in Lynwood. Arce says he first made a name for himself in L.A. at a popular tattoo booth at the Alameda swap meet. He also got into trouble, joined a gang and amassed a rap sheet that made him a priority for removal after he'd finished a sentence for illegal possession of a firearm.
He is the rare deportee who becomes a successful entrepreneur in Tijuana, and he says it began the day he lost interest in going back to L.A. "Now I wouldn't go back. I don't have the slightest interest in going back," he says. He credits his brother in Mexico for giving him the few thousand dollars he needed to start his business.
Tattoo artist José Arce at work in his Tijuana shop
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Like everyone else in Tijuana, Arce foresees a calamity in Donald Trump's pledge to deport millions to Mexico. "I think it's going to get chaotic. The city's already growing as it is because of all the people getting deported" to Tijuana.
Arce recently joined the board of directors of Al Otro Lado, a binational nonprofit helping deportees deal with the trauma of removal and the trial of family separation. The trick is to get deportees as soon as they arrive, he says, before they slip into the cracks.
Ironically, migrants deported from the United States arrive in Mexico without papers or the ability to work. They can end up homeless, or worse. "These guys get lost in drugs and shit," Arce says. "That's why you see these guys on the streets getting high."
Al Otro Lado is raising money to set up a reception center at the border to give guidance to deportees seeking work permits. The organization wants to be a bridge to employers, to stabilize an unstable population that may soon be entering the city in droves. Volunteer attorneys for the group also work on cases they feel have a chance of reversal in court. One of their clients is José Mares, to whom the attorneys are counseling patience. Most people can never return to the United States after a drug conviction and deportation, and even if it were possible, it would take years.
"This guy José," Arce says, "is desperate to go back."
Adult responsibilities have come fast at Desiree Mares. The deportation of her father has transformed her in four weeks, in her own estimation, from a sheltered American teenager to the family breadwinner.
One afternoon in March, she was in line at the mechanic to pay for the inspection of the family car. She has already transferred the bills and the lease on the house to her name. For extra income, she rented the spare bedroom to a couple who are friends of her father.
Within a week after her dad was deported, Desiree quit her final year of high school and increased her hours to nearly 40 a week at the store where she earns minimum wage. "I had to be able to pay the bills and pay rent," she says. "I can't really focus on school right now."
A 2014 report by the Migration Policy Institute estimates that 489,000 children in L.A. County — the highest number of any county in the United States — have at least one parent who is undocumented. The same study found that 410,000 of these children are U.S. citizens. The effect on a child when a parent is deported can be the same as when a parent is sent to prison. The deportation of a parent diminishes the likelihood that children in the family will graduate from college, increases the likelihood they will enter the criminal justice system and negatively affects how productive the children will be as adults, says Erika Pinheiro, a staff attorney with the Central American Resource Center in L.A. and board member of Al Otro Lado.
"If we don't do something now in immediate response to the sweeps, we're going to see a lot more kids in foster care, in juvenile justice and in homeless shelters," Pinheiro says. "The experience can be overwhelming for them. I would call it an emergency."
Desiree sends money to support her father and says she is urging him to move out of the hotel and into an apartment, and to see a doctor for a second opinion about his elbow. She says the hardest part is coming to terms with the realization that the separation could be permanent.
"I know he doesn't want [to accept] it, but it's something we have to do because he's not going to come home. I've been trying so hard to keep my tears back," she says. "It's really, really hard to deal with, it really is. My father's raised me since I was little. He's my best friend, and I feel like I need him here."She says that as hard as it is for her, it's harder for him. "It's really life-changing to be pulled away from everyone you love in a day, in a matter of seconds."
Separated from families in the United States, the deportees reside in Tijuana in a state of purgatory. For those who hold fast to the dream of reuniting with family at all costs, the risks are financial peonage, incarceration and death. For those who give up the hope of going back, Tijuana is the surrogate city, the closest they will get to the family they left behind.
The recently deported walk the streets of Tijuana in search of reputable smugglers. A deportee in one of the men's shelters says he goes every morning to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe to pray and to ask for a sign, not from God but from the coyote perched near the entrance. Every morning so far, the coyote has averted his gaze, but on the day he makes eye contact and nods, the man is to prepare a bag for departure that night.
The price of the coyote's services — between $2,000 and $5,000 — is lower than the $10,000 going rate for a fake passport. And the odds of success are better to cross the border on foot on trails through the desert far east of Tijuana (shelter operators say the papers are often poorly made and hardly ever work, but the demand for them persists). The risk is death.
Every shelter operator in Tijuana lives on hair-trigger alert for the start of mass deportations to Tijuana. "The big blow we've been expecting hasn't come yet, but it's coming," says Andres Saldaña Tavares, director of the Salvation Army shelter.
Valeria Ruiz, coordinator for Casa del Migrante, the largest migrant shelter in Tijuana, says a gradual rise in the number of deportees has already begun.
José María García Lara, the director of Movimiento Juventud 2000, a shelter adjacent to the red-light district of the Zona Norte, calls the government's financial support to migrant shelters in Tijuana "completely insufficient."
Four months after Trump's election, the government continues to avoid calls for direct investment in care for deportees, according to shelter operators in Tijuana. "They aren't taking Trump seriously in his promises," García Lara says.
On weekend mornings at Friendship Park, in the beachy neighborhood of Tijuana, the border patrol unlocks the gate to the secondary fence on the American side, permitting visitors to enter a restricted area the size of a small prison yard and approach the massive steel barrier that separates the two countries.
A remnant of the Nixon era of the 1970s, Friendship Park once was renowned as a place where people who are unable to cross the border can see and touch their exiled loved ones through the fence. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security closed the park in 2009 over security concerns, and when the park reopened three years later, its character had been transformed.
Private contractors had installed the secondary fence, giving border agents control over public access from the American side. The border fence is an imposing row of steel beams rising 20 feet above the heads of beachgoers on the Tijuana side. They also welded a dense layer of steel mesh between the bars in the fence. The purpose of the mesh is, as officials say, to prevent visitors from passing contraband through the bars, but its effect on the experience is profound. The gaps in the steel mesh are so tight they obscure the face of the person standing directly across, like the lattice openings in a confessional.
"I remember I came running in the first time," says Daniel Armendariz, a dual citizen stranded in the United States under the terms of his probation. He has met his wife, Alejandra Quintana, at the fence every Saturday and Sunday for two years. She lives in Tijuana with their two children. "I thought I could kiss my wife again and kiss my kids. To see the caging inside, between the bars, it was heartbreaking."
On a recent Sunday morning, Armendariz and his wife picnicked at the fence with their 3-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. Before every visit they buy takeout separately and wait until they are huddled together at the fence to open the boxes. "It's just our way to be together," Quintana says.
Alejandra Quintana picnics with her children on one side of the border fence, her husband on the other side.
Two white Chevy Suburbans from the border patrol were parked side by side near the fence. Earlier this year, for the first time in recent memory, the border patrol requested visitors on the U.S. side to show a legal form of identification to enter the fenced-in area, according to Valeria Buelna, program manager for the Border Angels in Tijuana. The group sponsors free legal consultations and events like concerts at the border fence every weekend. She says that since then, hardly anyone has approached from the United States side.
Armendariz is an exception. He says recently in the parking lot he saw an old woman who asked him if border patrol was checking papers. She told him she hadn't seen her son in 10 years and that he was waiting for her at the fence. When Armendariz told her the border patrol was asking for ID, she turned around and went home, leaving her son alone at the fence.
"Look around you, it's totally empty here," Armendariz says. "Everybody is scared."
Daniel Armendariz visits his wife and children the only way he can, through the border fence.
At a picnic table in the park, César Luna, a young immigration attorney in private practice in San Diego, nods sympathetically to a white-haired old man sitting across from him. Gesturing toward a stack of timeworn tax returns, the man, Rogelio Díaz De La Cruz, says he paid taxes and worked legally for half a century as a picker in the orange and lemon groves of Escondido. Two years ago, police stopped him for a broken taillight and he lost everything, including a lifetime's worth of Social Security.
The police pulled up a 31-year-old DUI on the background check and handed De La Cruz over to ICE. He was held in detention until he signed a form revoking his green card.
"That's my money, I worked for it," he tells Luna. "Without it I'm nowhere."
De La Cruz finishes saying what he had come to say and leaves. As with most cases that come before him on weekends in Friendship Park, Luna suspects there is no relief for the man.
"It's rare the case that can be saved," the lawyer says. "It's like looking for the golden nugget."
Still, even the golden nugget of a case, the one-in-a-million exception to the rule, is fraught in the era of Trump.
José Muñoz was leaning against the border wall, speaking through the bars not to a relative but a film crew from MTV. Muñoz's sister and wife are citizens and free to come across to visit him, but the film producers preferred to interview him through the fence.
For a recent deportee, he is good-humored. Nattily dressed in a stonewashed denim jacket with matching jeans and backward cap, he refers to the Kafka-esque twists of his life since 2015 as "the twilight zone."
Muñoz graduated near the top of his class at Chino High in San Bernardino, not long after then–Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have given undocumented students access to public financial assistance to attend California state colleges and universities. He says the circumstances forced him to defer admission to Cal Berkeley. Then, a year before the arrival of the state law that made undocumented immigrants eligible to drive, he was pulled over and charged for driving without a license. The misdemeanor on his record meant his application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was denied. That triggered his immediate removal.
Having lived in L.A. since he was a toddler, Muñoz feels as if he's in a foreign land in Tijuana.
"The first day I was deported, I stood right here in Friendship Park at night," he says. "Two cops walked by and heard my accent, put my hands behind my back and picked my pockets. They took my last $100."
What sustains his spirit is his lawyers' confidence that they'll have him home in a year. Soon the misdemeanor will be expunged from his driving record, and he will petition to have his status adjudicated. It is an open-and-shut case, or at least it was until recently.
"My situation is not that difficult if it was Obama or Bush in the White House," he says. "I don't know what my chances are under this administration."
Muñoz lives in an apartment in Playas, not far from Friendship Park. It is the lovely and relatively safe beach community smack on the border, where lawyers for José Mares have been urging him to move. Mares has yet to see it.
From Friendship Park, the border wall descends down across the beach, extending about 100 feet into the ocean.
"I have to live near the border to be near family," Muñoz says, "and the water keeps my mind steady so I don't go crazy."
Correction: This story has been amended to correct the first name of José Muñoz. We regret the error.
Sunset at the border fence
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