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Hard exit

For deportees to Mexico, adjusting to a new life outside the United States is hard

Hard exit

A Mexican deported from the U.S. arrives at the El Chaparral repatriation center in Tijuana. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

When Luiz Ramirez stepped off the bus at the immigration facility in Tijuana, Mexico, he had only a prison-issued gray sweat suit and a brown paper bag carrying his personal items. A fresh deportee in an unfamiliar city, he stood dazed amid the sights and sounds of the world’s busiest border crossing: Near the San Ysidro Port of Entry, taxi drivers call out to tourists, baby-cradling mothers peddle chewing gum and peanut marzipans, street vendors hawk their wares, and pharmacy owners advertise cheap ED pills.

Ramirez had no idea what to do but start walking. As he crossed the bridge across the greenish, sluggish Tijuana River, he spotted several homeless drunks sleeping on the concrete banks. He wondered if he would end up there, too.

It was Feb. 22, 2019, the day U.S. immigration officials deported Ramirez to Mexico for the second time. After his first deportation in 2009, he ran into trouble with a local cartel while dealing drugs in Juárez, a border town abutting El Paso, Texas. When cartel members threatened to cut him into pieces, Ramirez fled to El Paso, where his family lives. He turned himself in to U.S. Border Patrol agents and asked for asylum, but a judge denied his request and sentenced him to four years in prison for illegal reentry (a felony).

Four years later, here he was again, 47 years old and feeling his age, back in a country that seemed foreign. He is banned for 10 years from reentering the United States, the country he has called home since he was 3 and where he later received permanent residency under the Reagan administration.

This time in Tijuana, he got lucky. Barely an hour had passed after his arrival when a man named Tony approached him and said, “Hey, you look like someone who speaks English.”

Recent deportees’ telltale prison attire makes them easy targets for corrupt police and gangs. On the other hand, they’re also quickly detectable to good Samaritans. Tony gave Ramirez a business card: “Go to this address, get a change of clothes, get some food, and get a job.”

The address took Ramirez to a nonprofit located at a half-deserted plaza near the border. A deportee named Daniel Ruiz rented out that space to offer help, jobs, and church services to deportees, refugees, and migrants. There, volunteers from various faith-based organizations and churches offered Ramirez hot coffee, bathroom and shower facilities, free Wi-Fi and phone services, and a new set of clothes. Ruiz later gave Ramirez a job at his call center company.

“It’s a blessing,” Ramirez told me at the company’s new office space in downtown Tijuana. “Without this, I would probably be one of those bums I see out in the streets.” But he’s still sharing a room at a local Salvation Army shelter, and he sorely misses his family and two children, who have all earned U.S. citizenship: “It’s hard to describe it—but I just can’t get used to living here. I’m still devastated, but what can I do? I just gotta look forward and keep my head up high.”

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Homeless deportees gather to wash their clothes at the Tijuana River canal along the U.S.-Mexico border, with the border fence behind them. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Ramirez is one of hundreds of thousands of immigrants that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deports from the United States each year. In fiscal year 2018, ICE deported 141,045 people to Mexico. Deportees typically have been charged with or convicted of crimes: According to an ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) report for that year, 66 percent of the undocumented individuals ERO arrested had criminal convictions and 21 percent had pending criminal charges. Many such crimes, according to ICE data dating back to 2009, involve immigration offenses (including entering the country illegally), traffic infractions (including DUI), and disturbing the public peace. Other common crimes include drug trafficking and assault.

In Ramirez’s case, he was convicted of vehicular homicide after getting into an accident while driving drunk with two passengers. Both passengers died. Ramirez survived after spending time in a coma. Ramirez knows he’s suffering the consequences of his actions. He quit drinking soon after the accident, hoping for a second chance.

In Tijuana, where most of the deportees arrive, people like Ramirez wander the streets feeling dazed and lost. Due to its location on the U.S.-Mexico border, the city has always attracted passing streams of ambitious dreamers seeking a better life, but it’s also a dumping ground for deportees who feel defeated, frustrated, and stuck. Some wonder: How do you start back up from scratch in a country where you don’t feel like you belong?

Sophia Lee

Luiz Ramirez (Sophia Lee)

Many deportees have family members in the United States and no close relatives in Mexico, so they constantly plot to return, whether legally or illegally. Many have already been deported multiple times. Many don’t even have Mexican documents and thus are unable to find employment. Some rotate in and out of shelters, numb their loneliness with drugs and alcohol, or join local gangs. They roll homeless along the river canal and fall prey to robbery, kidnapping, and murder.

And then there are people like Daniel Ruiz. Banned for life from the United States at the age of 24 for a drug dealing conviction, Ruiz decided to make the best of his situation and to help other deportees avoid falling into addiction, poverty, and victimhood.

Ruiz had moved with his mother from Tijuana to San Diego when he was barely 1 year old. He and his family members gained legal residence in the United States, and he could have gotten U.S. citizenship had he stayed the course. Instead, he got caught trafficking 1,000 pounds of marijuana, lost his legal status, and spent three years in prison. Even then, the threat of deportation felt unreal—“I always felt like I was an American citizen,” Ruiz says—or at least it did until ICE deported him to Juárez.

In Mexico, surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, the permanence of his unhappy situation sank in: He could never return to his family, didn’t have a job in Mexico (or know how to get one), spoke poor Spanish, and didn’t know how to live and act and speak “like a Mexican.” He moved to Tijuana so he could be closer to San Diego, and his family visited him every two weeks, bringing groceries. For a month he stayed indoors, depressed, lonely, and unable to imagine spending the rest of his life in Mexico. He yearned to cross the border, but the risk of more prison time deterred him.

Eventually, Ruiz tired of depending on his family. He was young and able and had a whole life ahead of him—it was time to pick himself up and build one. So he found a job as a security guard at a condominium complex. He watched Spanish soap operas and took notes when locals corrected his Spanish. Most importantly, he stopped dreaming about returning to his American life and forced his mind to envision a new Mexican life.

Sophia Lee

Daniel Ruiz (Sophia Lee)

Today, Ruiz is married to a local school principal and is the father of four kids, including a newborn daughter. He owns the call center business that he started four years ago, where he offers free computer classes, job training, and employment to deportees. He founded an organization, United Deportees of Mexico, to help connect deportees to various nonprofits in the Tijuana area. He renovated a space near the border that now functions as a welcome center, a counseling room, and a church. He still speaks Spanish with a slight Americanized accent, but otherwise, he says he’s well-adjusted to life in Tijuana: “I’m happy here, real happy. ... I learned that life is not over after you’re deported. You can be happy no matter where you’re at.”

When deportees first arrive at Tijuana’s entry point, Mexican officials give them some help, including food, free phone calls, some medical care, and bus tickets to their hometowns. But once they leave the reception facility, they’re on their own. Some deportees may go to stay with friendly relatives in Mexico; others without such connections often opt to stay in Tijuana so they can be closer to family members in the United States who may try to provide them financial and moral support. Months and years later, such support from relatives eventually trickles away. Many deportees feel they’re neither American nor Mexican—stuck in a geographical and legal limbo with no place to call home. Loneliness, depression, and shame can paralyze them, and in a city where a 16-ounce can of beer costs as little as 99 cents and drug samples are rampant, many pass their days under a fog of intoxication.

Guillermo Ndudadete, a pastor in Tijuana who provides counseling for deportees, said they deal with the trauma of losing everything: “They come with nothing. Even their shoelaces and belt were taken away. They’re mourning the death of their American Dream. They’re leaving behind children without parents. Families are divided, which leads to dysfunctional families. This is a huge social problem with huge repercussions.”

Those repercussions affect the community in Tijuana as well, as authorities and locals struggle to absorb the sheer number of people who land on their streets penniless, undocumented, and unprepared for hardships in a new city. Locals aren’t happy with the sight of deportees wandering their streets, defecating in their river, staggering drunk on the roads, and digging through trash cans for food.

There’s also discrimination, Ruiz said. Some locals see deportees as deserters who left their country to enjoy a rich, comfortable life in the United States: “They are kind of like, ‘Oh, now you want to be a Mexican?’” Ruiz remembers quickly learning never to mention he was a deportee to anyone, especially police officers when they shook him down.

Unlike the caravan migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America who are gaining media and government attention, deportees have always been part of border town life—and that’s the problem, Ruiz said: “This problem right here has been going on for years and years and years, and nobody’s really doing anything about it.” That’s why he chooses only to hire deportees, despite that many business owners are reluctant to take chances with them. Many deportees consider their employment as temporary until they figure out a way to return to the United States, so their work ethic can be unreliable. Some rely on shelters for free food and clothes but don’t actively look for jobs. It’s as if they give up on life, Ruiz said. He notices a gradual change in deportees he sees on the streets: “They look nice and clean-cut and healthy when they first arrive, and then you can see them slowly deteriorate. It’s sad to see that.”

Ruiz used to belong to a church group that passed out free food and clothes to homeless deportees living by the river. Often, they preached the gospel as well. But after two years of participating in this ministry, Ruiz began questioning whether it was actually helping. He saw the same individuals, week after week, and saw no change: “We were just giving out free stuff. What’s it really doing for anybody?” So in addition to material help and a gospel presentation, Ruiz today offers deportees job orientation and training. If they complete the training, Ruiz offers them a paid position at his call center. Through that job, he teaches them not just how to survive, but how to live in Mexico. But all he can do is open a door for them—it’s still up to the individual to enter, and some never do.

Many deportees are unable to relinquish the hope that they’ll return to the United States soon, however unrealistic. (Once deported, it’s difficult for immigrants to reenter the United States by legal means. They typically face a mandatory waiting period of 10 years.)

I met Nikolas Navarro, 46, as he sat under the shade of a tree at a temporary tent city for deportees near the border. The area reeked of body odors, but after spending weeks sleeping on concrete among the tents, Navarro was used to the smell. Like many fellow deportees, Navarro was spending his days restlessly, waiting and pining to get back the life he once had, unwilling to accept the possibility he might have to spend many more years in Mexico.

Once a car dealer in the United States, Navarro was deported last October after being charged with a domestic violence crime that he says he didn’t commit. His son paid for a lawyer to visit him in Tijuana in order to appeal his case, but when I met him in December, it had been months since he’d heard anything back about the appeal. He had no money, no job, no plans to stay in Mexico. His hair was frizzy and unkempt, his beard unruly and dusty, his fingernails long and dirt-clogged. His only hope was the lawyer, so there he waited by his phone, sitting and staring at nothing: “I get very bored, but I can’t do nada. Just wait.”

He’d recently given up his tent to a couple who had none. Why not? He wouldn’t need it for long. He was going back. He had to go back.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Mon, 06/10/2019 10:13 am

    Good article in so many ways. Sometimes the truth hurts BUT out of the truth there is potential for hope too. In fact, without acknowledgement of the truth there is no possibility of hope. This situation presents a perfect opportunity for Christians on both sides of the border to share in their burdens and bring the gospel in ways that are not possible in the presence of a superficial grace. Mercy without truth and with only cheap love is no mercy at all.