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Tijuana call centers are a refuge for some deportees

 February 3, 2023 at 3:19 PM PST

S1: An inside look at some of the challenges facing people who have been deported.


S1: This is KPBS midday edition. Plus , we'll hear about an upcoming play inspired by Shakespeare's Tempest.

S3: It is about grace and forgiveness and transformation and magic.

S1: That's ahead on Midday Edition. The U.S. deports roughly 300,000 people each year. Those with relatives in the United States rarely stray too far from the border. KPBS reporter Gustavo Solis spoke with several deportees in Tijuana about life after deportation. 301005.

S3: 301005.

S4: Ivan Hernandez works at a Tijuana call center. He likes the job because it makes him feel like home.

S2: It's nice because you get to surround yourself with people that are like you. One is used to , you know , talking English and , you know , having fun with people that can understand you that have been over in the States. And it's nice.

S4: Hernandez is a mexican national who was brought to the U.S. as an infant. He grew up undocumented near Las Vegas. Most people hang up the phone right away , but every once in a while he'll get a friendly customer. He's especially excited when it's a fellow Motorhead.

S2: There's this one time I had a phone call and it was nice because I heard it and he was raving and then engine. I was like , Oh , can engine is it ? It's such and such a wow. I had a car similar to that.

S4: And then there's hadn't planned on working in Mexican call centers. But when he became an adult in the U.S. , he quickly realized that he had no hope of getting a legal work permit. So in 2011 , he decided to self-deport back to Mexico. It was either that or spent his life in the shadows. He's not alone among his co-workers at the call center. These jobs have become established landing spots for deportees. Their English skills are an asset and wages. There are three times more than what they would make in a factory. Daniel Ruiz started working in call centers 20 years ago. Now he owns one. Most of his employees are deportees. He knows exactly what they're going through because it happened to him.

S2: It was a whole new culture to me because , I mean , I was taken over there as a baby. So I never lived in Mexico. And coming back as an adult and like as a whole new culture , it was like if they were putting me in China , it would be in the same thing.

S4: Even though it's technically their home country , deportees aren't always accepted back to Mexican society. Ruiz says that they're viewed as cholos or criminals. He says he experienced discrimination while applying for a federal I.D..

S2: And when one of the guys that worked for the government says , Oh , now you want to be Mexican. If I was , you know where I come from , you know , like. So that's one of you. My license.

S4: Call centers give deportees a refuge from this treatment.

S2: So once you go into a call center and you see people that look like you dress like you talk like you and see backgrounds , you feel like kind of like at home. Like you feel more comfortable. People who are here.

S4: In some cases , they can even give somebody a second chance.

S5: I did 21 years in prison. And they're made me give me a reality check. So now I come here is like everything's new to me. Freedom. And you live day by day. You know , you do what's right.

S4: This is Omar. He didn't want to share his name because of the stigma of being a deported convict. He says the job and friends he has made through the call centers help him stay busy and out of trouble.

S5: I got lucky enough that I came to my friend's house that helped me out and I was there , like for a month until I got my own place. And I mean , and little by little. And during the war , the call centers started working in a call center. And I've been working in a call center for three years.

S4: Heard every deportee interviewed for this story. Still has family in the U.S. Some of them are American citizens , while others remain undocumented. The holidays can be particularly hard again. Here's Ruiz.

S2: My family is over there. I miss my family. I wish I was able to go to birthday parties. Christmas , Thanksgiving. You know , every time they any time my family unites , you know ? You know , they go for whatever party they're doing. They're always together. And I'm here. So that right there , their pain is like with every deportee. So that's that's the pain that we all feel. That's what unites us.

S4: Ruiz co-founded a nonprofit called Borderline Crisis Center in 2016. It helps deportees adjust to life in Mexico , helping them find housing , jobs and government IDs. His goal is to help ease the pain that he knows all too well.

S1: That was KPBS investigative border reporter Gustavo Solis with part two in a series on the experiences of people who have been deported. Gustavo joins us now once again and opens his Reporter's Notebook. I just have a.

S4: Hello , Harrison.

S1: So yesterday , we focused on the challenges of returning back to the United States after being deported. And in this story , we start off with an unlikely refuge for deportees , and that's call centers in Tijuana.

S4: You know , call centers have been refuges and really landing spots for deportees for four decades now , not just in Mexico , but throughout Latin America , as we've seen more deportations to parts of the Caribbean , like Dominican Republic. And I think it raises a couple of really interesting issues. One , it it's a landing spot for a specific type of deportee , right ? A deportee who can speak English and really understand American culture. These aren't folks who who are deported as soon as they cross the border illegally. Or people who spend one or two years and then get deported. These are people with with history here in the country and really identify as American. And I think , you know , a lot of these call centers are calling to the U.S. A lot of their clients are American companies. And I think it speaks to a modern system of capitalism where companies can cross borders to wherever the cheapest source of labor is. But the workers themselves cannot cross borders to wherever the highest wages are. Deportations feel that system. In this case , deportations provide a relatively cheap , skilled labor for call centers that would otherwise have to stay in the U.S.. So I think just from the , you know , economic and the human perspective , it's a really , really interesting area.

S1: One of those people who identifies as American we heard from is Ivan Landis , and he's self-reported.

S4: But but yeah , I mean , it was he so he just had really bad timing. Honestly , if I didn't get deported , self-deport it in 2011 , like I said in the piece he had , he went to school. He did a little bit of after high school education , but he had no job , no way of getting a legal work permit in Las Vegas at the time. It was one year before DOCA was a thing. Had he stayed a year , he may have been able to qualify for that. And he remembers being in Mexico or hearing about Doc and being like , Oh dang it , I should have stayed.


S4: I mean , there are there are limited job prospects in Mexico , especially for deportees who don't have an established network , who don't have family or friends in Mexico , to put things in a little bit of a context. A In Tijuana maquiladora job , a factory job gets you between 40 and $60 a week. A call center job gets you about 160 to $200 a week. So it's a it's a big jump , but still not a whole lot of money. And those are the call center jobs. They're also stable jobs. Ivan Hernandez , that wasn't his first option. When he first got deported , he went back to his home state in the interior of the country. And his family helped set up a small business. But within a couple of months , a local cartel began extorting them. That kind of stuff doesn't happen to the call center. So he kind of prefers that job. And also in terms of other financial difficulties , I mean , everyone I talked to was telling me about Tijuana's high rent prices , which I think San Diego is and our listeners can probably relate to. But part of what's driving up Tijuana's rent is some spillover from San Diego , where people who are living here can't afford the rent here , so they go to Tijuana. So we have this weird rental market where people are earning a living in pesos. They're competing with people who are earning in dollars.

S1: There is a lot of stigma surrounding deportees.

S4: It used to be that if you had any kind of visible tattoo , you wouldn't be hired. Daniel Ruiz , one of the people featured in the piece , he was deported 20 years ago , and he kind of remembers that time. He remembers walking down the street and hearing like , Oh , here comes the cholos , here come the criminals. It still happens , but it's a little less blatant now. I mean , at the people at the call centers , they hang out right there , buddies and co-workers , and they will go out to lunch and they'll get stares. When they're speaking in English , people will go up to me like , Hey , you're in Mexico , speak Spanish. There's also this sense of deportees as people who , like , tried to make it in the U.S. and failed. And you get these like comments like , Oh , now you want to be Mexican. So some deportees definitely don't feel welcome or accepted back into Mexican society.

S1: And you mentioned Daniel Ruiz. He's a former call center employee who now owns his own call center.

S4: Not every deportee starts at a call center and ends up owning one I think is definitely unique but not out of the norm. I mean , there's plenty of deportees who have transitioned well to their life in Mexico and started new families and new businesses and gotten ahead. I think a lot of those cases are the ones that maybe already had a higher level of education in the U.S. or have a strong support network in Mexico. But but Daniel did tell me about the experiences of the workers he's seen come through his office. And a lot of them are suffering from isolation , psychological trauma of deportations. And unfortunately , some of those workers who don't get the help that they need , they develop substance abuse problems and many have ended up homeless. Daniel has tried to help. Others have right there a couple of different nonprofit organizations in Tijuana , specifically trying to help deported people , deported veterans , deported mothers. But it's not really an easy population to advocate for. Daniel told me most of that money goes to asylum seekers and refugees and migrants.

S1: Well , speaking of isolation , every deportee you spoke with for the story has family in the United States. That kind of separation , it's got to be hard.

S4: Oh , yeah , incredibly hard. I mean , it's it's a type of family separation that we don't really think about when we use that term family separation. We think of little kids and their mother as that at the border. But. This is the same thing. I mean , they're they're forced to be apart from their family. That's one of the reasons Daniel said many of the deportees do struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. I don't think there's enough mental health providers to kind of address this issue. South of the border , they did say that the most well-adjusted deportees are the ones who do embrace life in Mexico , who start being part of the community and in and really just kind of embrace it and and move forward instead of just kind of looking back and looking towards the U.S..

S1: Now , it's unclear how many formerly deported people are allowed to return to the United States. Why isn't that data more readily available ? Well.

S4: So I asked several federal agencies for this data. I asked Customs and Border Protection , Immigration and Customs Enforcement , U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services. And two of them said they don't have it , ICE. The other one just never got back to me. If anyone listening knows that this data exists or is tracking it , please reach out because I'd love to know more about it. But I think it's probably hard to track because there is not. I think if you're deported and you come back , there's no one route to it , right ? Some people , they wait a certain amount of time and they just reapply for a visa. Some people have their convictions overturned or their deportations overturned. There's been some cases where a governor will pardon somebody for an immigration violation and then they'll be allowed to return. There's so many different avenues and pathways that I think it it probably is difficult to track. But again , I don't think that should be an excuse. Just because something is difficult doesn't mean we shouldn't do it.


S4: The focus of the story was more on the human impact of deportations. And I think there's a lot to explore with just systemic issues with the deportation process and who is targeted and who doesn't. I mean , there are some deportations have been happening for decades now , and they'll continue to happen under both Democrat and Republican administrations. There have been some definite shifts in terms of kind of who is prioritized and who isn't. But there's a couple of interesting movements right now to kind of look at deportations in a different way. Right. Like , think about when California legalized cannabis and a lot of people who were in prison for cannabis related crimes , they got pardon and or there's a way for them to kind of rectify that situation. Now , deportees who got deported after some kind of cannabis related incident , they don't have that legal remedy available to them. Right. Same with with deported veterans. There's a couple of those movements with deportees connected to cannabis crimes and deported veterans deported , mothers deported Dreamers. There's a way to kind of try to create an appeals process for them , almost like you would with with an appeals process , a criminal court. So I think that's kind of interesting and something worth looking at in the future to kind of look at maybe deportations that were particularly harsh or really shouldn't have happened in the first place.

S1: I've been speaking with KPBS , investigative border reporter Gustavo Solis Estava. Thanks.

S4: Yeah , Thank you. Harrison.

S1: This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Harrison Patino. For our weekend preview , we have storms , maps , tango and more. Joining me with all the details is KPBS arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Welcome , Julia.

S6: Hi , Harrison. Thanks for having me. Okay.

S1: Okay. So first up is a play at Cygnet Theater called El Huracan. What can you tell us ? Yeah.

S6: So this is written by a Florida based playwright , Tracy Castro Smith , who happens to be the co-writer and co-director of the Encanto movie. And the setting of this play is during the preparations for an approaching hurricane. And it follows three generations of women a grandmother , a mother and a daughter. And Valeria , the grandmother is battling Alzheimer's. And the story has a lot to do with that and a lot to do with forgiveness inside of this family. And Castro Smith , the playwright , she was inspired by another famous storm play. Here she is from a recent conversation she did with the play's director here in San Diego.

S3: What started it is my just profound love of and obsession with the play The Tempest. It's Shakespeare's last play , right ? It is about grace and forgiveness and transformation and magic. And it's a mystery play. You know , it's it's not classified as a pure comedy or a tragedy.

S6: So she talks about how Shakespeare's play , The Tempest , worked through a lot of questions about forgiveness and what it means to forgive as a human being. And in her play , it's set in Miami. This one family is also trying to figure this out and how to rebuild not just their homes and their town after a storm , but their family , too. So this is on stage through February 19th and this weekend , you can see it tonight at eight , tomorrow at three and 8:00 , and then Sunday at two. This is Cygnet Theater in Old Town.

S1: You know , that Storm plays was such a robust genre. Next , we have a mixture of visual art and cartography.

S6: It's a city college downtown , and it has the work of 60 artists who each tucker were given a paper USGS topographic map from somewhere in San Diego County , and they made art with it. Some of them cut it up. Some of them sculpted things around it or out of it and some painted on it or some some sort of erasure. The artist list is pretty spectacular. There's Andrew Alcasid , Pablo Mata , Sage Serrano , Richard Kelly , and lots more. And this is actually the closing reception. And so it's your last chance to see all 60 of these works. There'll be a silent auction and a raffle to fundraise for Earth Lab. This is 5 to 730 tomorrow , Saturday at City College Art Gallery , which is in the Arts and Humanities building right at C Street and 15th Street. So there's plenty of street parking there , and it's also close to the trolley station.

S1: And local chamber music ensemble Camerata is back with their tango performance , and they're bringing in dancers to accompany them.

S6: It's by their composer in residence and bass player Andres Martinez. It's called Tango Baja Guerra or Underwater Tango. And in addition to the premiere of that piece , they'll play a bunch more kind of walking us through Tango's history since the 1900s. And Tango evolved out of Buenos Aires in the late 1800s , kind of a blend of flamenco and milonga form. And it's it's very much a social dance , despite being kind of melancholy , kind of heavy. And this all we're listening to is Carlos Gardel in 1946. That composite , that kind of quintessential tango work.

S2: Seems to be it will be a club record setter block party you're going to be part of the.

S6: And yeah , Camerata has two dancers performing alongside them. And Gregorio Gonzalez , who's a baritone , will sing. This is Saturday night at 730 at the Conrad in La Hoya. And they're really lovely. Baker from Concert Hall.

S1: And how about a little bit more music ? The San Diego Symphony is performing tonight at Southwestern College with a guest conductor who is just 22 years old. That certainly makes me feel like an underachiever. Tell us about this concert. Right.

S6: Right. I think it will be a really nice show if you can avoid thinking about all the things you hadn't accomplished by the age of 22. But I do love that they're performing at the performing Arts Center at Southwestern College. The San Diego Symphony will be guest conducted by the young Filipino Finnish conductor Tama Tarkovsky , and this is actually his United States debut. The symphony is concertmaster Jeff Fehr , who is a violinist , will be featured on Mozart's third Symphony soloist. But other than that , it's all Finnish stuff. There's Jean Sibelius , his symphony number two , which he began writing in 1901. And then from more than 100 years later , this 2000. In two piece by contemporary composer Kaia Saariaho. It's her winter sky work , and I love how mysterious this piece is. This is tonight at 730 at Southwestern College in Chula Vista.

S1: And now we have an exhibition that's both visual art and poetry. It's called Lost in Translation. And you said it's the result of writers and artists playing a game together for a full year. Can you explain that ? Yeah.

S6: So this is something I actually helped with. I worked with curator KSAT to help find the writers and then edit the writing part of this. And we had spent the last year kind of ushering these story threads secretly between writers and artists to another writer , then to another artist. And each participant would only see the work that was immediately prior to theirs. And they'd have to either write a reflection or a continuation of that scene or illustrate it in a painting or drawing. That's basically this artsy game of telephone or a spin on that exquisite corpse parlor game. And there is alternate stories. They're amazing. Some of the interpretations are kind of wildly divergent , and some of them are quite similar , which is also just as wild. The exhibition is at the library downtown , at the ninth Floor Art Gallery. And you'll be able to see the stories and the art side by side on the wall. And there's also an art book made of these. And you can get a free copy if you show up at 6:00 on Saturday night. But if not , it will be in the library's collection from now on.

S1: An artsy game of telephone. I love it. You can find details on these and more arts events and sign up for Julia's weekly KPBS arts newsletter at KPBS dot org Slash Arts. I've been speaking with KPBS arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Julia , thanks.

S6: Thank you , Harrison. Have a good weekend.

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The U.S. deports roughly 300,000 people each year. Those with relatives in the United States rarely stray too far from the border. We hear from several deportees in Tijuana about life after deportation. Then, for our weekend preview we have storms, maps, tango and more.