Less than 48 hours ago, Luz Mara was removed from the US after 25 years. Shes now in Tijuana, the bustling border city that has become the land of the deported

Luz María Hernández gazes blankly across the shaded courtyard, clutching a cellphone in one hand and a sodden handkerchief in the other. Less than 48 hours ago, Hernández, 45, was deported to Tijuana after 25 years as an undocumented migrant in southern California. Her five children, aged three to 23, were born in California, and they now have to live without their mother.

Minutes before being escorted to the border, US immigration agents informed her that she was banned from entering the US for 10 years.


Who are Dreamers?

Dreamers are young immigrants who would qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (Daca) program, enacted under Barack Obama in 2012. Most people in the program entered the US as children and have lived in the US for years “undocumented”. Daca gave them temporary protection from deportation and work permits. Daca was only available to people younger than 31 on 15 June 2012, who arrived in the US before turning 16 and lived there continuously since June 2007. Most Dreamers are from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the largest numbers live in California, Texas, Florida and New York. Donald Trump cancelled the program in September but has also said repeatedly he wants Congress to develop a program to “help” the population.

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Sitting tensely on a patio chair within a gated migrant shelter just a couple of miles from the border, Hernández is dazed, weepy, and tormented about what to do next.

“I have to go to my children but I’m scared to cross again. What if I’m caught and they lock me up for a long time? What if I’m attacked by criminals? Maybe I should stay here and get a job so I can send money to my children, or go to my family or send for the youngest and let the others stay in school,” Hernández asks frantically, while checking her phone for the umpteenth time.

“I don’t know what to think, or what to do. What should I do?”


Hernández is waiting for a call from her eldest daughter, aged 23, who visited Madre Asunta, the Scalabrini nuns’ shelter for women and children in Tijuana, bringing her a sports bag filled with clothes, toiletries and the all-important phone.

In one fell swoop, Hernández lost her children and her partner.

Her three-year old has a different father and a different surname to her siblings, which makes crossing the border difficult. The child’s father, Hernández’s partner for the past five years, is also undocumented, and cannot cross the border.

“My little girl won’t stop crying. She wants to know when I’ll be back, I don’t know what to tell her?”

‘Where could I run with five children?’

Two deported minors, from the southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca are transported to the YMCA shelter for minors in Tijuana. Photograph: Prometeo Lucero for the Guardian

For Hernández, the nightmare started three months earlier when Ice agents surrounded her car as she was about to set off for work. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Two weeks earlier, the Mexican restaurant where she worked under her real name and a black-market social security number was raided.

“I knew they’d come looking for me, but where could I run with five children? I kept going to work, but my time was up.”

Hernández was jailed for falsifying work papers. Nevertheless, deportation still came as a shock. She was planning to seek asylum, frightened by the escalating bloodshed in the southern state of Guerrero, where she was born and where her parents still live. Every person who asks for asylum has the right to a “fear interview”, to gauge the level and type of threats they could face if deported.

But out of the blue, Hernández says she was handed over to Ice agents and told to sign deportation papers written in English she didn’t understand. “I asked about asylum but the agent got angry. ‘Los Angeles is violent, there’s violence everywhere,’ she told me, and that was that.”

An hour or so after being handed over by prison guards to Ice, she was in Mexico – and the life she’d built in America over 25 years over.

Tijuana, where she arrived, is a bustling coastal metropolis bordering San Diego, and one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico with 1.7 million habitants. It’s an economic and cultural hub, which has long been a magnet for economic migrants drawn here by jobs at the 500-plus maquiladoras that take advantage of cheap labour and free exports thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Pprototypes of the wall are seen on the US side of the border. In the Mexican side of Otay, the carcass of a burned vehicle lays where drug-violence has led more than a thousand dead people just in 2017. Photograph: Prometeo Lucero for the Guardian

Hernández was 20 when a cousin persuaded her to leave the tropics of Guerrero in southern Mexico to find work in California, paying a coyote or smuggler just $200 to guide them across in 1992. After being deported in 2004 and 2009, she crossed back within a couple of days. Today, the going rate for coyotes ranges between $8,000 and $14,000.

These days, relatively few people attempt this section of the border: it’s partially walled, and heavily patrolled by agents armed with high-tech surveillance equipment. (Eight aesthetic prototypes for Trump’s promised metal wall loom across the border, just east of Tijuana airport.)

Instead, Tijuana has become a land of the deported, its 15 or so shelters full of ruined lives. It is Mexico’s top deportation destination, where one in five deportees are placed, irrespective of whether they have a connection to the city.

Almost 24,000 people were deported here between January and September this year; most were living and working in California when detained.

‘My three children are in America. I won’t let Trump beat me’

Outside Tijuana’s modern immigration facility, a hotchpotch of street vendors hawk chewing gum, hotdogs and sugary peanut bars while a police officer swigs an energy drink between blowing his whistle at taxi drivers to keep the traffic moving.

This is the world’s busiest border crossing, with 300,000 or so visitors using the connecting bridge by foot or car into Tijuana every day. Day and night, a constant flow of tourists, shoppers, partygoers and businessmen emerge here, within walking distance from the seedy downtown bars where prostitution and drugs are rife.

In a migrants shelter in Tijuana, Laura Lara Romero shows a video of her daughter, who is still in the US. Photograph: Prometeo Lucero for the Guardian

The deportees step out dazed and confused into this edgy junction. Those in prison-issued grey sweats are the easiest to spot, but there are plenty of other clues.

After a couple of hours waiting under the blazing sun, three young men saunter out wearing Los Angeles street getup and trainers without laces, each carrying a brown paper bag.

They were born in the central state of Michoacán, speak Spanish poorly, and say they met in juvenile detention. Two are heavily tattooed, full of swagger and head straight to the pharmacy opposite to buy pills. The third says he was jailed for stealing a truck and seems genuinely stunned to be here. “Where am I, is this T?” he asks, using Los Angeles slang for Tijuana. “We don’t need help, I have money,” he says pulling out a small wad of dollar bills before realising he has the wrong currency. “Oh, do I need pesos?”

Local advocates say that at the entry point, Mexican authorities do a good job. The deportees get food, free phone calls and emergency medical care, and bus tickets are available to anywhere in the country. (The Guardian was denied access to the facility.) Activists stationed inside offer transport to shelters.

The city’s dark underbelly of drugs and violence can also swallow up deported migrants.

“The problems start the minute they leave immigration,” says Victor Clark, who runs the bi-national human rights office in Tijuana. “They’re disorientated, in shock, easy to identify and so ideal victims to be swept up by police under pressure to give the impression they are combating crime.”

Downtown police sweeps are common, and freshly deported migrants are perfect fodder for officers with arrest quotas, according to one long serving officer who asked not to be named.

Elio Ram’rez, born in Jalisco and deported from the US, works in a car wash business facility in Zona Norte, Tijuana. Photograph: Prometeo Lucero for the Guardian

This year is Tijuana’s bloodiest on record, with at least 1,600 murders so far. The spiralling violence is closely linked to the fractured drug market competing for tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of crystal meth and heroin addicts. Scores live in makeshift cardboard and stone caves along the Tijuana river, known as the canal, which stretches across the city.

It’s in the drug world that deported gang members may find work opportunities, while others can be sucked into addiction by free samples offered to newcomers.

The shelters try to catch people before it’s too late.

It’s 7am and already there’s a queue outside the downtown Salesian Father Chava soup kitchen as dozens of volunteers – deported migrants and churchgoers – prepare breakfast for the city’s homeless, unemployed, or disabled. Inside, a towering sombre statue of Jesus on the cross welcomes you into the dining room, where a thousand or so breakfasts are served every morning.

Cheers erupt as news breaks that pork tacos are on the menu, rather than the usual beans and rice. “It’s a miracle, it going to rain,” jokes Flaco [Skinny], who was deported “years ago”. His sunken eyes, skittish gait, and rapid speech suggest chronic drug use, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Also queuing is Andres Perez, 43, who chirpily shares how he’s tried and failed to re-enter the US 25 times since being deported four months ago. “I was driving drunk, it’s our [Mexican] weak point. But my life is over there, my three children are in America. I won’t let Trump beat me.”

Around 20% of those deported to Tijuana try to return to the US, unable to let it go. Half return to their town of origin; the rest stay in Tijuana to find work and be close to their families or because they have nowhere else to go or nothing left to lose.

“Deportation is like bereavement, it’s a huge loss and if there’s no help, the streets will take you,” says project coordinator Claudia Portela.

A veteran deported after 70 years

Finding help is often down to luck.

Miguel “Rocky” Hernández, 71, was just one year old when he arrived on American soil. A Vietnam veteran, he was deported in June after more than 70 years in the US.

Hernández, a talented drummer who back in the day played on the Latin music circuit with Freddy Fender and Jorge Santana, was handed over to immigration after serving five years for drink driving violations and cloning DVDs. An Ice agent asked Hernández if he knew Spanish because he was going home. “I am home, I told him, but he just laughed.”

Miguel Rocky Hern‡ndez, a US military veteran deported to Mexico at 71 years old. Photograph: Prometeo Lucero for the Guardian

Hernández arrived in Tijuana late at night still wearing his prison sweats. “I had no money, I didn’t know where I was, what to do, or what to say,” he tells me, preferring to speak English.

Confused and disorientated, a passerby took pity and paid a taxi driver 60 pesos, just over $3, to take Hernández to the Scalabrini men’s shelter. Within a few weeks Hernández, a seasoned hustler, found work at a barber’s shop and rented this apartment, decorating the walls with Marilyn Monroe posters.

Things were looking up, when Hernández was attacked by muggers on his way to work and suffered a fractured hip. He needed emergency surgery but the surgeons at the public hospital were in Mexico City, treating the September earthquake victims.

He applied for humanitarian parole, requesting permission to return briefly to San Diego for free treatment at the veterans’ hospital. It was rejected.

Hernández spent a month in hospital in terrible pain, waiting for surgery. There are no official figures, but activists believe thousands of veterans like him have been deported in recent years.

“When I stood up and gave my oath of allegiance to the US, the army told me I was an American, and that’s what I’ve always believed. I had my social security number, driver’s license, a house, cars, a salon, so didn’t worry about citizenship. That was stupid I know, but it never crossed my mind that I’d end up in this situation.

“I’m over the initial shock and trying to move forward, but denying me access to the veterans’ hospital was hurtful, it was cruel.”

A couple of days later Hernández attends a Thanksgiving dinner for veterans and children from a nearby orphanage, hosted by two former marine corps chefs who’ve built a holiday home a few blocks from the beach. There’s plenty of food and the children are happy with the lopsided bouncy castle, but it’s a tough day for the vets, a reminder of what’s been taken away. “I’m trying not to dwell,” says Hernández, “but this is bittersweet.”

‘Only deporting bad hombres? It’s a lie’

Migrants who seek to cross the border gather every morning in the Salesian community breakfast room of Padre Chava to have a free breakfast. Photograph: Prometeo Lucero for the Guardian

It’s Friday night just before 8pm, when a small group of fresh deportees turn-up at the Scalabrini men’s shelter – the first of its kind in Mexico, it opened in in 1993 for exhausted migrants heading north. Now, nine out of 10 men passing through are deported migrants, with 35% banished after at least 11 years in the US.

Father Pat Murphy, the straight-talking, long-bearded shelter director, likens deportation to bereavement. “First comes the denial, and then it feels like life is over. We try help people build new lives, but for some it will always feel like a life sentence.”

Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Institute for Women in Migration (Imumi) in Mexico, says the current deportation drive kick-started by Barack Obama – nicknamed deporter-in-chief – is hurting American children.

“The Republican party espouses family values, yet Trump is pushing for more deportations which will leave even more American children growing up without parents. It’s hypocritical and doesn’t make sense to use tax dollars to split up families and remove people contributing to the economy.”

Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign threats have not, however, resulted in more deportations. In fact, just under 120,000 Mexicans were deported between January and September – a 27% drop on the same period in 2016. This is mainly down to fewer people trying to cross the border – the so-called Trump effect (figures, however, suggest this may be fizzling out).

A deported minor calls his family after being picked from the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia offices to the YMCA shelter. Photograph: Prometeo Lucero

Detentions inside the US are definitely up, however, and even though many migrants are putting up a fight, here in Tijuana the shelters are bracing themselves for mass deportations.

“If you’ve no papers, the American authorities don’t care. It’s a lie that they’re only deporting bad hombres. We’re getting people with cancer, mental illness, and the elderly, who’ll never find work in Mexico,” says father Murphy. “Soon they’ll empty the jails, then we’ll get the mass deportations.”

In the meantime, Tijuana is full of lonely people with regrets.

Isaias Morales Garcia, 54, was deported two weeks ago, leaving behind his wife and seven children. A big man with a kind face, Morales was deported after 14 months in federal detention trying to fight what he says was a stupid misunderstanding.

Ice accused him of trying to escape after his GPS ankle bracelet was damaged working on a construction site and briefly lost signal, even though he reported the incident straight away. He was on bail for illegally re-entering the country.

“I broke rules, but I wasn’t a burden, I was contributing, so this feels unjust. But I couldn’t take prison any more, so I stopped fighting and accepted deportation. At least here my children can visit, and one day ask for a pardon so I can go back legally. ”

His children are ‘legal’: the two eldest are Dreamers, the other five American-born citizens. His wife is not; they’ve been married 34 years.

“Maybe we were wrong, but we went to America in 1990 to make a better future. If I can’t go back, maybe my wife will come here. I don’t know, I’m still confused. I miss her.”

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