Armando is my third interviewee of the night, the one I want to write about. Unlike some of the other deportees, he doesn't seem beaten down by his fate. He smiles a lot and exudes confidence. His black hair is pulled into a tight ponytail. He brings a lightness to our conversations that the others can't. He seems as though he'd be a fun companion for a road trip back to his home in Mexico–with me driving him there.
We're sitting in an office at Tijuana's Casa del Migrante, a shelter for working men who just got booted from the United States and are either waiting to cross the border again or wondering how to go back home to their pueblos. I'm behind a desk. Armando is in a chair, facing me.
The 40-year-old tells his story. He'd been living with a woman in Anaheim when a domestic dispute led to a night in jail. Since he'd been deported before, after a drug conviction in Georgia, the latest arrest took him to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE)–la migra.
That led to a 27-month sentence for illegal re-entry, which Armando served at a federal prison camp in Taft, a dusty oil town in the Kern County badlands. After he completed the sentence, the feds loaded him onto a bus and dumped him south of the border; in fact, he had arrived in Tijuana the previous day.
Armando hopes to rejoin his family in the town of Paso de Arena, Guerrero. But, he says in excellent English, he's been in the United States for most of the past 25 years, so a future in Mexico is "a whole new world for me."
Just then, Gilberto Martinez pokes his head into the room. The administrator of Casa del Migrante, he has graciously allowed me to stay. Martinez has arranged for Armando and others to talk, but he asks me to wrap up the interview. It's almost 10 p.m.–time for lights out.
Armando and I shake hands. I ask if he's interested in my offer of a ride to his hometown–on me. Sure. We say goodnight, agreeing to discuss it again the next day.
Just days earlier, I had quit my job as a reporter for the Orange County Register after 13 years. Although the Register, with its cheery approach to covering this bizarro county, wasn't a perfect fit, I found enough room to grow there during my stint. But after Aaron Kushner (with Eric Spitz) bought the parent company, Freedom Communications, the bad fit between the paper and I worsened. Last year, after months of thinking it over (and over), I decided it was time to go.
Now, I was looking for adventure and a big, brassy story, one that might turn into an ebook or more. But, if I were honest with myself, I was also hoping this journey would help me figure out what to do now that I no longer had a job. Was the hustle and insecurity of the freelance life for me? Or was there another path?
One of my last assignments for the Register was to cover Santa Ana, and I fell in love with the place. With its striving Latino population and then-funky downtown, the city was constantly attacked by immigrant-bashers who spewed venom in the online comments of Register stories and beyond. But as an immigrant myself (born in Canada to English parents) and a sucker for the underdog (lifelong New York Mets fan), I quickly began to identify with Santa Ana; it became my escape from the soulless sprawl that covers most of the rest of Orange County. In Santa Ana, I encountered immigrant-rights activists who were fighting deportations, furious over the tearing-apart of families. Writing about deportees, I figured, was a way into the highly topical, divisive issue of immigration reform.
In January 2013, six months before leaving the Register, I took a day trip to Tijuana and made my way to Casa del Migrante, a place I had learned about while researching deportations. I introduced myself to Martinez and explained my idea. He was receptive and encouraging. When I finally left the paper, we connected again. It was go time.
* * *
On summer afternoons, the sun moves behind Casa del Migrante, throwing the four-story building's shadow onto the sidewalk in front of it. This is where recently deported men sit, waiting for Martinez to allow them back in.
They're expected to spend their days away from the shelter, looking for work. In reality, most wile away the hours wandering the unfamiliar metropolis, trying to figure out their next move. In the afternoon, they come to the sidewalk in front of the Casa and wait until an employee finally emerges to open the metal gate.
I talk to David while we stand around. He's not staying at the Casa, but he comes by frequently to network with the other men, to see if anyone has mutual friends north of the border. Having been deported several times, he's looking for anything that might help him get back.
"You'd be amazed at how expensive it is to live [in Tijuana]," David says. "And the minimum wage is so low–it doesn't fit."
Born in Ciudad Juarez in 1970, he came to the U.S. as a boy with his parents. David obtained permanent resident status in the U.S., but he lost it when he was caught with a $10 piece of crack in 1994. Since then, it's been back and forth between Tijuana and Los Angeles, where his family still lives. His last deportation happened after cops picked David up near LA's Koreatown while driving to work without a license. That led to 16 months in jail to clear up a prior warrant, after which ICE dropped him in Tijuana.
"It's our own fault, but I don't think it's fair for me to be punished my whole life," David says, regarding everyone's deportations. "It's like you run a stop sign, and they take your car away for that. It's like, 'Wait a minute, be fair.'"
Casa del Migrante sits on a hilltop neighborhood overlooking the twin towers of Grand Hotel Tijuana and Plaza Aguacaliente. It once was a way station for hopeful migrants on their way north to the United States. Today, it houses the freshly deported.
In 2012, ICE kicked out 409,849 people from the U.S.–its largest number ever. Of these, ICE says, about 55 percent were convicted criminals, although that could mean anything from traffic violations to rape. Last year, the number of deportations fell to 368,644, but ICE noted the percentage of convicts rose to 59. (Martinez once asked me to write an article letting immigrants in Orange County know that drunken driving is the surest way to find yourself an involuntary guest at Casa del Migrante.)
Arriving in Tijuana, often penniless and sometimes wearing jail uniforms, deported men are swooped up at the border checkpoint by Casa del Migrante's van and brought to the shelter. There, they are interviewed, fingerprinted, photographed, given a Casa del Migrante ID card, fed, and supplied clothes to wear and a bed to sleep in, all free of charge. They can stay for up to 12 nights.
Dinner at Casa del Migrante is almost always a spicy stew of chopped Spam, potatoes, and something green that's either peppers or string beans (no one can really tell). It's served, along with rice and pinto beans, from giant pots by volunteer women, who ladle the grub onto plastic plates. Other volunteers then walk the plates out of the kitchen and into a cramped dining hall, where they lay the plates on tables. Once each space on long, wooden tables has a plate of steaming food, the men are allowed in from the courtyard to take their places. They sit, eat and talk.
Here, the men tell their stories. Victor has just come from a jail in San Diego, spending time for robbery. He doesn't seem very interested in talking to me, but he answers my questions. He's been in the U.S. either since 1990 or for 30 years–he's not sure. His father and brothers are in Los Angeles. His family home is in the state of Durango, and that's where he wants to go. When he finishes eating, Victor excuses himself and leaves.
Two other men at the table–one from Fresno, another from Brea–announce their plans to sneak back into the U.S. They're not sure where. "¿Nos ayuda?" one asks. "Will you help us?"
"Put us in your luggage," the other jokes, in English.
While some of the men talk of returning north, the chances of them succeeding on their own–that is, without paying thousands of dollars to a coyote–is slim and worsens with each year. It's not like it used to be, before the 9/11 attacks frightened Americans into beefing up security along the border, others at the shelter say. The new obstacles include a border fence that stretches the width of California, forcing those who want to go a la brava (alone) into the deadly Arizona desert. For these reasons, Casa staff strongly encourage the men to return to their Mexican hometowns. The predicament of most of the men, though, is that they have no money for bus fare, which can be more than $100.
The staff helps deported men track down family members who might be able to send money for bus fare. Few can. But how about if a gabacho offers them a ride to their pueblo in exchange for their story?
Martinez has asked me to not tell the men in the shelter about my offer. Tonight, there are about 85. If the men find out I'll give them a free ride back home, everyone will want it, he says. Instead, he arranges for me to interview a few likely candidates after dinner.
His job mostly involves a lot of writing reports for fund-raising purposes. Casa del Migrante is a ministry of the Scalabrians, an order of Catholic priests and brothers who devote themselves to the service of migrants. Just now, in fact, Father Pat Murphy, the newly arrived director of Casa del Migrante, is saying Mass in the courtyard. Eighty or so men–one or two still wearing prison garb and slippers–have seated themselves in rows of folding chairs, with a few more standing behind, brushing up against Martinez's office.
Many recite from memory the prayers and responses led by Father Pat. At the sign of peace, they swarm enthusiastically through the courtyard, offering one another hugs and handshakes. This is a difficult time for each man, rising to the level of crisis for some. It must feel good to share camaraderie with others who find themselves in the same disorienting situation.
But when it comes time for Communion, hardly any of the men get up to partake–fewer than 10, really. Alejandra, a young woman who runs much of the day-to-day operation of the shelter and whose shapely form is followed by dozens of male eyes as she scurries about her duties, thinks it's probably because many of the men have been living with a woman outside of marriage ("una unión libre," she calls it) or have committed some crime, so they feel unworthy.
Father Pat thinks most of the men are probably not in a state of grace, a requirement for receiving Communion. He feels their lack of participation in the Eucharist is something he needs to address. "We're going to see what we can do about it," he says.
After Mass, the men start talking.
Jose tells me his young daughter, who remains in Long Beach with her mother, needs a kidney transplant. It's his kidney that she is supposed to receive. All he wants is to return to his daughter, but he doesn't know how that will happen. His sadness and desperation are contained behind a polite, exterior calm. How did he come to be deported? His hotel job included some managerial duties; Jose's theory is that a resentful underling tipped off ICE to his status. He's one of the few men I encounter here who admits no criminal record.
Earlier, I had spoken to Leon, who is 35 and wants to go to Veracruz, almost 2,000 miles from Tijuana on Mexico's Gulf Coast–probably farther than my 13-year-old Nissan Sentra can handle. He speaks no English, and I have difficulty understanding his Spanish, perhaps because he talks with a hand in front of his mouth. He says he's been in prisons in Arizona and California. His crime? Illegally re-entering the United States after having been deported. He's a nice enough fellow, but his home is just too far away.
An announcement directs the men to a large room off the courtyard, where the house rules will be explained. They are required to leave the Casa every morning by 6:30 a.m.; they can return after 3 p.m. The men must attend all talks and ask permission to change the TV channel, and they are forbidden to wash clothes, drink alcohol or use drugs.
Martinez is still in his office. He grew up in Tijuana in a family of government workers. He worked for the municipal government as a young man, but he felt a calling to the priesthood. After nine years in a seminary, he left, married and became a father. Sitting at his computer in blue jeans and a dress shirt or striding in the courtyard announcing the names of men who have received phone calls, Martinez projects authority. Everyone respects him and usually leaves him to his work, but tonight, he's in a conversational mood.
We talk about why a penniless migrant, freshly dumped by ICE in Tijuana, is different from a homeless man sleeping in the nearby bed of the mostly dry Rio Tijuana, even though the homeless man might also have been deported. According to Martinez, they are different because one is seeking work, while the other has given up.
Casa del Migrante's mission is to help the migrants, the ones who are still seeking, traveling and trying, not the dejected man in the riverbed, Martinez says.
"People leave for a better life and end up in the street," he says. "Migration has this sad aspect.
"If the system is bad, the society is bad," he continues. "The United States can deport all the people it wants, but the society remains bad. Something there isn't working."
Regarding the "criminals" deported by ICE, Martinez says they are "victims of the social system. . . . What always happens is they put the blame on the weakest."
More interviews await. Next up is Marco, 40. He'd been living in Los Angeles, doing construction work, the callouses on his hands a testament to it. One night, with time to kill, Marco and a homeless friend went to the store for beer. Rather than drink on the street, which could get them in trouble, the friend suggested a nearby house that he said was vacant. Although Marco had a home to which they could have gone, he followed his friend's suggestion. They hadn't been in the supposedly vacant house for long before the police showed up, guns drawn. Marco was charged with trespassing; that, combined with a conviction three years earlier for drunken driving, landed him in Tijuana.
His wife, his 18-year-old son and his son's infant daughter remain in LA. He cannot visit them. He cannot support them.
"I messed up my life when I have these mistakes," he admits, in pretty good English. He has been trying to reach his son to tell him to get a job. "Papa's not going to be there to pay the rent," he wants to say, his voice heavy.
Marco knows that crossing back into the United States would be almost impossible for him. He wants to go to Acapulco, where his parents live, but the $120 bus fare is an obstacle. A Mexican charity called Grupo Beta will pay half his fare, Marco says; that leaves another $60 or $70 he needs to come up with on his own; he doesn't have it.
I offer him a ride and explain my interest. He's interested, but I can see in his face that he's not sure whether to trust me. I could be anybody. Is he desperate enough to take a chance?
As Marco walks out, in walks the smiling Armando, who soon has me convinced I'd rather travel with him.
The desperation of the men at Casa del Migrante is infectious.
Here, the palpable dysfunction of two huge nations reveals its human consequences: attracted by the economy of one, they are expelled by its policies, finding themselves wanted by neither. Stranded in this anonymous city, they retain emotional and financial commitments in the United States, from which they are now cut off, perhaps forever.
I'm starting to have second thoughts about this whole project. What do I know about driving in Mexico? The cartels . . . I could get kidnapped, or worse.
I pull out my journal and begin to write:
On Day 2 of my journey, I realize I can't do it just for the story. I feel grim, depressed, slightly desperate.
So do it for faith, I tell myself. Okay, I think, instantly feeling a bit better.
Faith in what? –Yes.
Hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the Casa in the afternoon, I meet Rudy, who is 46. Like David, Rudy has been living in Tijuana for some time. He was born here but emigrated with his parents as an infant. All five of his brothers and sisters were born in the U.S. As a young man, Rudy had some troubles with the law and has paid the price ever since.
At one point, he was living in Tijuana but commuting back and forth to his wife and children in San Diego. Then, he had a DUI. ICE came to his house and arrested him in front of his family. They took away his green card, ensuring Rudy could never re-enter legally. Now his wife is with another man.
"What can I do?" he asks, near tears but managing to keep his composure. "I've got to let her live. It's sad, and it hurts. I told the guy, 'Just don't touch my kids, and everything will be all right.'"
David is considered a pocho, so Americanized that people in Tijuana shun him. "Here, they tell me, 'Well, why don't you go back?' Over there [in the U.S.], they tell me, 'Why don't you go back?'"
Most of the men are like this–they hate the limbo of Tijuana but need to stay here, to wait for an opportunity back into el Norte. So far, I've only offered a ride to Armando and Marco, so I'm hung up waiting for one of them to make up their mind.
I don't see Armando until the late afternoon, when he comes back from a day walking around Tijuana with some of the other men. He bought a cheap cell phone, and although he has no money to make calls, he can use it to send text messages. He's trying to reach an ex-wife in Georgia to ask for money and an adult daughter in Anaheim to ask her to bring him clothes. I ask if he wants to take my offer, but Armando wants to wait a few days before leaving Tijuana, to see if either of these women will come through for him.
Marco, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. Around 9 o'clock, shortly before bedtime, he arrives at the Casa. I say hello, not mentioning the ride. I'm still hoping Armando will be my passenger, since I think he will make a better story.
Later, in my room, I begin to feel angry at what seems like Armando's ingratitude. He's so comfortable here, among the men, and he treats me as he does any of the others–which would be fine, except I'm the one offering him a free ride home, all 1,700 miles to his town in Guerrero, and waiting patiently for him to decide. I'd felt brushed off by him earlier, and now I'm starting to feel as though he views me as just one option among several, to be put off while he sees what else will work out. Is he playing me? I want him to be my subject. He's the best character, but also, I suspect, the most mysterious.
Marco, like Armando, is non-committal. I write in my journal: "If he just told me he wanted to go, I'd take him. But he seems uncertain. I'm kind of stringing him along as a backup in case Armando tricks me."
At 6 a.m., Armando is standing on the second-floor landing as I make my way downstairs. We say hello, but there are no further interactions. Marco approaches me as I'm munching on breakfast; he seems ready to take a chance on me. He says he feels happy because his son paid the rent and is going to see about a job today. I briefly consider setting off with him right then for Acapulco, but I want to try once more to nail this down tonight with Armando, so I put him off.
But Armando continues to string me along. That evening, I find him playing with his cell phone. We talk about his text messages, how strange it is that he's able to send them internationally for free, but he abruptly cuts off our conversation and goes to talk to some of the other men. Marco is again nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, Martinez seems to have no more time for chit chat. He's a busy man, and I'm worried I'm wearing out my welcome.
I'd told Martinez the night before that I was having trouble closing the deal with Armando or Marco. He told me I needed to "stay focused." He gave me permission to approach individuals to quietly discuss my offer, since I would need to identify more candidates on my own. Desperate, I think about approaching every man I see. But I decide to restrain myself, play it cool, take my time, wait for the right opportunity. Faith.
I volunteer to help walk plates of dinner between the kitchen and the dining room, so I don't eat until most of the men have cleared out. I sit down at one of the tables opposite a diminutive older man and strike up a conversation.
His name is Gabriel, and he is from Santiago Ixcuintla, Nayarit. His father, he says, had a hacienda there. I offer to take him there, and after a short conversation, he agrees. He speaks almost no English, and he isn't, in the usual sense, a deportee; he's a failed border crosser. He'd climbed the border fence near Mexicali just a few days earlier, swam across the All-American Canal, then got caught by the Border Patrol and tossed to Tijuana. It was his 14th time being ejected from the United States, over a stretch of nearly 30 years.
A typical tale. But in my anxiety over my flailing negotiations with Armando and Marco, I'd grabbed Gabriel simply because he was willing to accept my offer of a ride. I had no idea if he would make a good story–but he was there, and I needed to get moving.
Early the next morning, Gabriel and I set off on our 1,200-mile road journey to Nayarit. On the quiet streets around the Casa, men shuffle down the hill toward the city center, the beginning of another aimless, waiting day. As we round a corner in my ancient Sentra, I glance back to see a cross atop Casa del Migrante silhouetted against a murky sun, burning its way through the clouds.