Deportees Seek Work In Tijuana After Decades In U.S.
Every day at sunrise, dozens of men deported by the U.S. government gather on the block of a Tijuana street a mere five blocks south of San Diego.
Passers-by looking to hire cheap plumbers, electricians and construction workers pick them up from the stretch between a Costco and a Home Depot.
These men are trying to assimilate back into the working class of Mexico, which had become an alien place for them. A rising number of the deportees lived illegally for years, sometimes decades, north of the border. They were forced to leave behind families, jobs and homes as part of the largest deportation wave in U.S. history.
For now, they have lost hope of returning to the U.S. and are trying to find jobs in Tijuana.
Crossing has become too difficult. Smugglers are more expensive and unreliable. Border agents are more numerous. Drug traffickers make the desert more dangerous, and some of the deportees fear being imprisoned in the U.S. because of repeat immigration violations.
So they've chosen to stay and work in Tijuana, where their families across the border in the U.S. might decide to visit them.
Cesar Jimenez Sanchez lived in the U.S. for 32 years. He built houses and paved roads in Orange County. Five years ago, he was deported following a drunken driving arrest.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been cracking down on migrants who commit crimes while living illegally in the U.S., even those guilty of no more than a traffic violation. Last year, 40 percent of criminal deportees committed misdemeanors in the U.S. Nearly half of all of the deportees had clean criminal records.
Jimenez was forced to leave behind his wife and eight children.
In his wheeled, dusty backpack, Jimenez keeps an assortment of tools: a multi-purpose mixing tray, a round saw, a trowel, hammers and more. He repurchased most of his equipment in Mexico so he could do any job offered to him. Like many other migrants, he was deported without his belongings.
“This is the only street we have, our only corner to find work,” he said.
The group of workers includes Mexican and Central American migrants who plan to cross the border as soon as they raise enough money for a smuggler. But most are deportees who have given up battling the U.S. Border Patrol. Many hold up signs offering their services.
In the U.S., Jimenez was a licensed contractor. In Mexico, he has no choice but to join the informal economy like most other deportees. Jimenez toils full days in the heat for the equivalent of $10 or $15. It’s not enough to pay rent and still eat. He sleeps under a bridge.
“I’m illegal all over again here because I don’t have any papers,” he said. "I don’t have anything."
Jimenez is 45. The average age of deportees has gone up over time, according to Immigration Customs and Enforcement records. Today, most deportees are older than 30. The change comes from the increase in the length of residence in the U.S. among deportees.
This poses a rising problem for those who want to re-integrate into the workforce. Age discrimination is rampant in Mexico, despite laws to prevent it.
Antonio De La Peña Hernandez is 60. He lived in the U.S. from the age of 5 until he was deported at 55. He was a truck driver north of the border but has been unable to find a formal job in Mexico. He picks up trash off the street for a few pesos a day. He says he has been robbed and beaten by Mexicans who perceive him as an outsider. He speaks English better than Spanish. His face is gaunt from the weight he has lost.
While discussing his desire to work, De La Peña Hernandez chokes up.
“All my life I’ve been working, and now I don’t know where to start,” he said through tears.
There are people in Tijuana who are trying to help.
Earlier that same day, De La Peña Hernandez was sitting in a black leather chair, tilting his back while a volunteer shaved off his salt-and-pepper beard and trimmed his hair. He got his haircut at a migrant shelter called Desayunador Salesiano.
He said he hoped that cleaning up his look would improve his chances of getting formal employment.
Migrant shelters across Tijuana have been adapting their services to the changes in the deportee population, launching re-integration programs to help migrants find jobs.
In addition to offering a place to sleep and eat, shelters now offer classes in computer literacy, English and more. Many offer free haircuts so that deportees can prepare for job interviews.
La Casa del Migrante, the first-ever migrant shelter in Tijuana, assists people in getting official documents such as birth certificates, setting up email addresses, writing resumes and improving their wardrobe with donated clothing.
The Rev. Pat Murphy, the shelter's director, said deportees who express a desire to work are allowed to stay there for several weeks. Volunteers help them become self-sufficient so that they can rent a place where their family may come visit.
“The past year, year and a half, it’s become real evident that people are tired about trying to cross, and a lot of people want to establish themselves in Tijuana. Why? Because their families are on the other side,” Murphy said.
The shelter has also seen an increase in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression due to families being separated. The shelter has hired a full-time psychologist to help deportees deal with these problems prior to seeking jobs. Murphy said most migrants are ready to work within a few days.
“They just, as we say in Spanish, tiene ganas, they have this spirit that they want to do something,” he said.
Mario Riojas, a 43-year-old Mexican deportee staying at the shelter, lived in various U.S. states from the time he was 18. In the U.S., he ran a construction business that employed up to 60 people. When he was deported following a routine traffic inspection, he lost everything.
It was hard to accept at first. He tried crossing again twice. But then customs officials threatened to put him in federal prison. He decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
“It’s not possible to be illegal all your life,” Riojas said. “I still miss the U.S., but I’m here. And I feel God wants me here.”
The Casa del Migrante was able to secure him a job at Telvista, a call center outsourcing company capitalizing on the number of bilingual deportees in Mexico. He hopes to have enough money to move out of the shelter within a month. Eventually, he plans to start a construction business like the one he had in the U.S.
“I feel that if I did well in the States, I will do well in Mexico also,” Riojas said.
Last week, after investing $10 in a small advertisement in the newspaper El Mexicano offering his services, he received a phone call at the shelter from a contractor seeking to renovate a duplex. Riojas decided to hire 10 deportees from the shelter to help him do the job.