TIJUANA— A minivan could drive through the gate to a Catholic-run center for deported migrants. The metal-mesh door swings open and the only place to knock is on the embedded mailbox.
It’s a big yellow building, four floors and sleeps hundreds. Guests, mostly recently deported immigrants, have to do chores. There’s a talk or meeting every night — Alcoholics Anonymous, or a presentation from a social worker or a lawyer. On one weeknight, there’s Mass.
Volunteers and journalists can get there by paying for a $10 taxi, but if you stop at a taco stand, they’ll tell you to take the bus. It’s a longer journey, but the bus fare is less than a dollar.
I made my first trip to Tijuana on Aug. 13. I’ve done a good deal of reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border, but always from cities south of Arizona.
Tijuana is different. The border wall is thicker here — in places it’s a triple wall, with cameras, drones and helicopters.
“It’s like the wall between Israel and Gaza,” said Scalabrini Father Pat Murphy, the director of the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana. He first served here for a four-month stint 20 years ago.
It used to be that only around 10 percent of those they served had been deported. The rest were going north. Now, it’s just the opposite. More than 90 percent of those they serve are deportees.
It’s worth remembering that most of the people deported to Tijuana are not from Tijuana. If they decide to go back to their hometown, most have to work to save up money for the journey.
Roberto Cortez is one of them. He just spent more than eight years in a U.S. prison — a sentence he served for possession of marijuana, violating probation and entering the country illegally multiple times.
The 30-year-old doesn’t have children and has a “+” tattooed between his eyes. He also has a big tattoo of the Lord on his forearm, which he says covers up an ugly one he got when he was younger.
“Because he has protected me. I really believe in God. I’ve always believed in him,” Cortez says, flashing a mouth full of crooked teeth.
“I’m not going back there,” he says of the United States. He explains that he’s spent nearly a third of his life behind bars. “Es mucho tiempo, it’s a lot of time.”
He’s going back to his hometown in the state of Guerrero after he saves up a bit of money working in Tijuana. He doesn’t want to go home empty handed.
Father Murphy tells me of a man who was deported after spending 15 years locked up. He was found dead of an overdose five days later.
“When they get to Mexico, they don’t have their [Mexican] paperwork either,” he says.
Migrants have 12 days to stay at the center. During that time they try to find work or get their legal identification from the Mexican government. Without paperwork, it’s hard to find an honest job.
Some deported migrants wind up living in the Tijuana canal, Father Murphy says. “El Bordo” is a strip of land in Mexico, just north of the Tijuana city limits.
Thousands live there, Father Murphy says, making their homes in cemented holes, amid the trash and sewage.
The Scalabrini center tries to keep immigrants from ending up there. It has welcomed more than 230,000 immigrants since 1987 and serves an average of 120 a day.
It seems like the deportees at the center haven’t had time to make friends with each other. They are happy to give long answers to my questions.
Alejandro Basabe Uriostegui, one arm in a sling and his other hand in a brace, tells me that the authorities injured him while in detention. They grabbed him by the arms and legs and pulled, he said.
“I don’t have any money and I can’t work. How can I live?” he says. He was arrested for drug trafficking. “I was in for 48 months.”
Uriostegui, from Acapulco, says he only got involved with drugs to investigate his brother’s murder. He’s growing out his hair as a prayer, refusing to cut it until his prayers are answered.
He takes his arm out of the sling and parts his hair.
“There,” he points to a scar on his scalp. “That’s where a bullet grazed me. I’m lucky to be alive.”
I’m anxious to talk to Central Americans, who’ve been in the news so much this summer. I want to learn more about the escalated influx of unaccompanied minors.
The Central Americans huddle together. Some of them are playing dominos and others are inside, watching television. The Central Americans here are making plans to enter the United States illegally.
Father Murphy introduces me to Hector Vargas, who just arrived at the center. He’s young, though to stay at the men’s center, you have to be 18.
Do you mind if I ask you some questions?
“What kind of questions?”
You know, why are you here? What was your journey like?
“Nah,” he says. “I don’t have anything interesting to say.”
Well, tell me anyway.
“Nah.” He bounces off and sticks his head in the social worker’s doorway.
I grab a cup of water. It smells a lot like soap. Maybe the cup wasn’t rinsed well. The water, from a cooler, doesn’t taste right.
I look around and try to blend in — which is impossible when you’re wearing a camera around your neck. I’m in the cement courtyard of the building.
It’s cool here, in the shade of the building. A staircase goes up from the courtyard to the rooms.
The guests stay on the second and third floors. The top floor is for volunteers. There’s a metal gate on the stairs between the third and fourth floor.
I take my cup with me and sit next to a young man Father Murphy said was from Central America. I just sit there for a while, sipping whatever was in my cup.
How’s it going?
Father told me you’re from Central America.
“Yeah,” nods José Luis, who claims to be 18.
Why did you come?
“There’s no money. There’s no work,” he says curtly, avoiding my eyes.
Luis is from Honduras. It took him a month to get here. He rode a train. He left alone. He made a friend on the journey.
Things have been bad in Honduras for years. What made you decide to come now?
“I don’t have anything, and that’s how it is for a lot of us,” he says. He looks like he’s going to cry. He has brothers and sisters in Honduras, but his mother died when he was 7. He doesn’t know who his dad is.
“I’ve been on my own since then. I work. I make maybe $2.50 a day, and that didn’t even pay my rent,” he says. “I don’t have anyone to help me.”
How was the journey?
I tell him I’ve heard it can be pretty tough to get this far from Honduras. I’ve interviewed others from Central America who have told me stories.
Did anything happen to you that you didn’t expect?
“No,” he says. “I don’t want to answer anymore questions.”
Some Central American immigrants have spent more than three months trekking across Mexico. They’re not welcomed here. About two years ago, I interviewed Central Americans in Nogales, Mexico.
One immigrant from Guatemala told me — and I’ll never forget this — that he saw armed gang members rape an 11-year-old girl on a train. He couldn’t stop them and he couldn’t leave the train car without risking his life.
Another told me how he left Guatemala with four companions. One, who got drunk after sneaking aboard a train, fell to his death. Two were kidnapped. I’ve heard just about every Central American who takes a train through Mazatlan gets assaulted there.
I take some photographs of a group playing dominos. One has an L.A. Dodgers tattoo. He’s from South Central. Vargas sees me, smiles, and walks off.
I slink into the TV room and ask another young man to talk. Father Murphy mentioned he was from Central America, too.
“José….Mario,” he says. He says he’s 19, but looks younger. As I speak to him, I notice we’re being watched by one of his companions.
He says it took him nearly three months to get to Tijuana. He’s looking off, not looking at me. He seems annoyed.
Do you plan on crossing? I ask. I know it’s much harder to cross here than it is on the Arizona border.
“No… yes,” he says.
Do you have a guide?
“No, I’m crossing on my own.”
“Mexicali, with friends.”
Why are you crossing?
“There’s no work or anything.”
Why now? It’s been bad for years.
“It’s worse now,” he says.
It’s dinnertime now, so we pile into the dining area. Salad, pork and beans on plastic plates, bread in a basket and iced tea. Wednesdays the dinner is always spicy. The tea doesn’t taste like soap.
A group is visiting from Seattle. They line up on the opposite side of the immigrants, though there’s no conversation since few from the group speak Spanish.
A woman from the Red Cross, her nose painted red like clown, asks the immigrants how they like their food. She fills up their cups with tea or water.
I’m frustrated. The Central Americans I speak with seem to be holding back. I’m not getting through, or they’re scared for some reason.
Years ago, in Nogales, I spoke with a 17-year-old Honduran girl who left her country because gangs were forcing her to sell drugs. Addicts feel more comfortable buying from younger women, she told me.
But why so many now? I put the question to Father Murphy.
“The majority are not unaccompanied,” he says straight away. It’s organized by the mafia, he says, adding that he doesn’t know why it isn’t being reported. They’re accompanied by smugglers.
“It’s a highly sophisticated, organized crime,” he says. Father Murphy has heard stories of smugglers handing out flyers in Central America saying, “Come to the U.S.” They take a family’s life savings and promise them citizenship.
“It’s money. We’re talking billions of dollars in the transport of people and drugs,” he says. “The reason they’re coming is for real. Young boys, you join the gang or you die.”
But the influx, according to Father Murphy, is being orchestrated by smuggling syndicates who are marketing to children. You can make $800 a month in smuggling, he says. That’s better than what policemen make in Mexico.
“Parents are looking for options,” he says. “If you knew your children could stay [in your country] and die or leave and have a chance at a better life… It’s like a lottery ticket. People are willing to try.”
Father Murphy hopes the influx of minors will wake people up. The estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States can’t be rounded up and deported, he says.
Even if that happened, it would crush economies in many Latin American countries, economies that depend on remittances.
“The remittances are keeping people down here,” he says.
People shouldn’t have to migrate, Father Murphy says, and immigration reform should explore ways to better the situation in the country of origin.
He notes that Canada is having success with visa worker programs. Most immigrants dream of coming back to their hometowns after working in the United States for a few years.
Making it easier to come for a while and then leave would help, Father Murphy says. Deportation alone won’t solve the problem.
“If you deport dad, you no longer have the bread winner,” Father Murphy says. The children are often U.S. citizens, now being raised by their mothers or other relatives.
“In 10 years, we could have a whole new population of kids with problems because their parents were deported,” Father Murphy says.
It’s late now. I decide not to take the bus and spring for a taxi. While I’m waiting, shy Vargas sits down next to me. I leave my notebook in my bag.
He tells me he’s on his way to the United States. He says he has cousins in Houston and an aunt in Virginia. He’s going to see them.
That’s far away.
His eyes widen. He takes a deep breath.
How are you going to get there?
Why did you decide to come now?
His father was killed a year and a half ago.
But was there something that made you decide to come now?
“I need to work,” he says. “The dollar is worth more in Honduras.”
I’m looking for something to build the story on, something to confirm what Father Murphy had told me — about the flyers or the smuggling.
We talk for a few more minutes and I thank him for his time.
“I didn’t tell you anything interesting,” he says.
Well, it was interesting to me.
Through the mesh-metal fence I see my cab has arrived. I get up to leave and he stops me.
“Do you think,” Vargas says, and then pauses. “Do you think they’ll let me stay even though I’m 19?”
I ask him what he means.
“Will I get asylum even though I’m an adult?”