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Border & Immigration

Tijuana call centers are a refuge for some deportees

Part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Most people hang up on Ivan Hernandez as soon as he answers the phone.

But he’s used to it — spending 11 years working in Tijuana call centers taught him not to take it personally. Instead, he focuses on the positive calls. As a former drag racer, he gets especially excited when he talks to a fellow motorhead.


“There was this one time, the customer was revving an engine in the background,” said Hernandez, who has the Honda logo on his forearm. “I was like, oh what kind of engine is that?’”

Hernandez, who grew up undocumented in Las Vegas, hadn’t planned on the life he’s now leading. But after graduating from high school he realized he wouldn’t be able to go to college or get a work permit. So, in 2011, he self-deported.

Had he waited one more year, things might have turned out much differently. In 2012, President Obama signed an executive order authorizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program, which is currently in limbo awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, is meant to give undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children a work permit and deportation relief.

“When I heard about that, I was like damn,” Hernandez said.

The United States deports roughly 300,000 people a year. The experience is particularly difficult for people who’ve spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. Their home country is foreign to them.

Matthew Bowler
Daniel Ruiz, owner of the EZ Sales call center in Tijuana, in a photo taken Jan. 25, 2023. Most of the call center employees are deportees. Their English language skills and familiarity with American culture are seen as an asset.

For Hernandez, the past decade has been a struggle. But he’s found a supportive community through call centers. Because they need English speakers, they are among the few workplaces in Mexico that offer deportees a job and relatively decent wages.

“It’s nice because you get to surround yourself with people who are like you,” he said. “Talking in English and having fun with people who understand what you have been through over in the states.”

Whenever he’s not at work, Hernandez faces constant reminders of how much deportees stick out in Mexico. “When we’re outside and start talking English, people look at you and go, ‘hey, we’re in Mexico, talk Spanish,’” he said.

'A whole new culture'

Daniel Ruiz is a deportee who has lived in Mexico 20 years. He started out working in a call center and now owns the one where Hernandez works.

“It was a whole new culture to me,” he said. “I was taken over there as a baby, I had never lived in Mexico. They had put me in China, it would’ve been the same thing.”

On top of struggling to find housing and work, deportees also experience culture shock, isolation and discrimination, Ruiz said.

“When you first get here, it’s like, how do you become Mexican,” Ruiz said. “I grew up over there, I don’t know the culture, I feel awkward because of the way I speak, the way I look. People can tell that I’m not from here.”

Matthew Bowler
Ivan Hernandez self deported from the U.S. in 2011. He has been working in Mexican call centers ever since. Jan. 25, 2023. Tijuana, Mexico.

He’s seen deportees without a strong support network experience homelessness, develop substance abuse issues or end up in prison. Ruiz often hires people who’ve been in these situations and need a second chance.

“I did 21 years in prison and that gave me a reality check,” said Omar, a man who was raised in downtown Los Angeles and was deported from the U.S. three years ago.

Omar asked that his last name not be used in this story because of the stigma attached to deported convicts in Mexico.

He spent the first month of life as a deportee crashing at a friend’s house. Then he found a job in Ruiz’s call center and was able to rent an apartment.

Now he has two jobs and his own apartment. He’s provided shelter to new deportees, just like his friends did with him when he first arrived.

“We try to help each other out,” he said.

Helping themselves

Deportees in Tijuana have their own informal mutual aid network. They share food, clothes, shelter, and alert each other to new job opportunities.

Ruiz believes they take care of themselves because nobody else will. The Mexican government is of little help, he said.

“They have no idea what they’re talking about,” Ruiz said. “The only person that can help a deportee is a deportee. Because they know what they are feeling, what they are going through.”

That’s why he founded a nonprofit to help deportees. It’s called the Border Line Crisis Center. Last month, the center hosted a free public concert in the middle of Tijuana’s Zona Centro.

Ruiz wants to build off of that momentum and bring more attention to issues surrounding deported people. He believes it is important for deportees to develop a sense of community.

“We miss our families,” he said. “We wish we could go to birthday parties, Christmas, Thanksgiving. When our families are together we are here. That pain is with every deportee. That’s the pain we all feel and that’s what unites us.”

Matthew Bowler
Omar, who asked KPBS not to use his last name because of the stigma surrounding deported convicts, has worked in Tijuana call centers for 3 years. Jan. 25, 2023. Tijuana, Mexico.
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