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.