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Tijuana's 'tent city' shelters deported immigrants

Hundreds of homeless people — many of them deportees whose families remain in the U.S. — find refuge in the camp

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TIJUANA, Mexico — There was a time when Javier Reyes conferred with architects about building plans, when a day's work meant constructing new homes for Californians near Bakersfield. But the world of bricks and plywood he once knew has been replaced by a sea of brightly colored tents. Now he uses his quiet authority to bring a semblance of order to an informal camp of homeless people, many of whom were, like Reyes, tossed out of the United States.

On a recent morning, a tension comes over the camp. A man grabs a woman from behind and pushes her to the crowd. "She's pregnant," someone yells. A security team — men who live in the camp — is dispatched to break up the scuffle. Meanwhile, a tall man with a thick mustache and heavy jacket saunters up to the table and slips a paper across the table where Reyes sits — another deportee from California on the streets of Tijuana searching for refuge.

The tent city is providing a temporary home to roughly 600 people. The featured amenity here is the Porta-Potty. Meal service arrives courtesy of activist groups; the food is handed out from the back of a pick-up truck and in chow lines. Many of the camp's residents stay here because their family remains in the United States and they have few other options. Some are stuck in the downward spiral — from breadwinner in the U.S. to vagrant in Mexico — that is all too common for deportees.

El Mapa, as the tent city is known, was born in a time of crisis. In early August, a team of federal, state and local agents raided the canal of the Tijuana River, known as "el bordo," which runs along the border with the United States. Hundreds of people who'd taken shelter there, many of them deportees, were evicted. Their lean-tos, foxholes and shelters, burrowed into the canal walls, were destroyed. Tijuana police told reporters in a statement that the operation was undertaken to protect the migrants and ensure safety.

Activists rushed to the scene; some described the destruction as a "cleansing." "They were going to evict them like trash," says Sergio Tamai, founder of Angeles Sin Fronteras, an activist group made up mostly of deported migrants who seek better living conditions for themselves and those like them. 

Tamai, who dresses in black and wears his hair short and spiked, three years ago set up a shelter for deportees in Mexicali known as the Migrant Hotel. When he heard about the eviction, Tamai rushed to the scene along with a team of 'angels,' other deportees recruited from his Mexicali hotel. They staked out a place in front of the local offices of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI) political party and planted a city for people who'd lost their hovels.

Javier Reyes
Javier Reyes
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

Pup tents quickly popped up in neat rows. Tamai then managed to wrangle money from elected officials to purchase several hundred more tents. Security and logistics are handled internally by a team of volunteers, recruits from Mexicali and some of the early tent city settlers. The tent city, though, is a temporary solution. PRI officials seem to have granted permission to use the lot. But it's unclear how long the tent city will be allowed to remain.

El Mapa is both a refuge and, in the eyes of people like Tamai, a way to put pressure on Mexican government officials to provide shelters and other aid for returning migrants. The migrants' remittances, money sent back to relatives in Mexico, is a critical part of the Mexican economy.

Many of those who lived in the canal suffered from drug addiction, which is common among deportees. Tourists from the U.S. crossing the footbridge over the canal often pause to gawk, and snap photos, at the drug-addicted despair below.

"People think we're all a bunch of drug addicts and criminals," says Adrian Reyes, a volunteer whose nights were once spent inside the canal. "They don’t look closer."

Many of those who lived in the canal suffered from drug addiction, which is common among deportees. Tourists from the U.S. crossing the footbridge over the canal often pause to gawk, and snap photos, at the drug-addicted despair below.

"People think we're all a bunch of drug addicts and criminals," says Adrian Reyes, a volunteer whose nights were once spent inside the canal. "They don’t look closer."

Many of those who lived in the canal suffered from drug addiction, which is common among deportees. Tourists from the U.S. crossing the footbridge over the canal often pause to gawk, and snap photos, at the drug-addicted despair below.

"People think we're all a bunch of drug addicts and criminals," says Adrian Reyes, a volunteer whose nights were once spent inside the canal. "They don’t look closer."

Many of those who lived in the canal suffered from drug addiction, which is common among deportees. Tourists from the U.S. crossing the footbridge over the canal often pause to gawk, and snap photos, at the drug-addicted despair below.

"People think we're all a bunch of drug addicts and criminals," says Adrian Reyes, a volunteer whose nights were once spent inside the canal. "They don’t look closer."

To the Tijuana police, the migrants are a source of much of the city's crime. To the U.S. government, they are the result of recent immigration policies that target those who have committed serious crimes. But Tamai says many of the migrants' crimes are minor. He says: "Migrants are coming (here) for small crimes, family crimes, and for that their lives in California are over."

At Javier Reyes's desk, the newcomer looking for refuge offers a form issued by Mexican government officials. It states that the man, Alvaro Valdez, hailed from the coastal state of Sinaloa and was repatriated to Mexico two days earlier. The story behind the paper, the one Valdez tells, is that police officers in Modesto, Calif., discovered him in a private parking lot and then turned him over to immigration officials.

Reyes says he was carrying building plans with him when police stopped him. When the officers asked for identification and he couldn't produce it, the police set him on the path south. The woman shouting for someone to fetch water says she once cleaned movie theaters in San Diego. Her name is Carina Mazariegos, and she wears a white knit cap and moves about the camp with a commanding presence. A broken taillight brought her to the attention of the police, she says. When police handed her over to immigration agents, they discovered she had a prior deportation order. Both counted as criminal charges and the Guatemala native was sent packing to Tijuana.

The tent city's head of security, Luis Alberto Grande Ramirez, says he picked California citrus and then worked at a laundromat in Los Angeles. In March, police found him drinking a beer in a parking lot, he says, and then turned him over to immigration agents.

Of 98,504 people deported from California from October 2008 to February 2013, roughly 68 percent were low-level offenders or had been convicted of a crime, according to government statistics related to Secure Communities, a federal program in which local police work in tandem with federal immigration agencies. Documents obtained by Al Jazeera America show that crimes classified as serious convictions include "dangerous drugs," assault and traffic infractions.

Luis Cabrera
Luis Cabrera
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

The Mexican government offers some assistance to migrants, mainly to help them return to their home states by paying for a portion of their bus fare. But many in the tent city stay along the border for one simple reason: They are waiting to cross again. The penalties levied against them for traffic violations and other crimes, and the risks involved in re-entering the United States, are outweighed by the bedrock of one's life — family. Javier says he stays in the tent city because he hopes to return to California to reunite with his wife and two sets of twins. Carina says her mother, in San Diego, awaits her return.

As Luis Alberto patrols the tents, he says that after being deported he initially returned to his home state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. But his family summoned him back to Los Angeles. They had pooled together $5,000 to pay a smuggler to bring him back 'home.' After two failed attempts to cross back into the U.S., the smugglers kept the money. "That's why I ask God to return me," says Luis Alberto, "to repay (my family)."

In recent years, researchers at the University of Arizona who traveled the border interviewing deportees concluded that they represent a "strikingly different portrait than the common conception of the seasonal laborers and young men with no real ties." Of some 1,000 deported migrants in the survey, most had established strong ties in the United States. The median period of time they'd lived in the United States was seven years; half had relatives who were U.S. citizens. In Tijuana, a separate survey found that among the deportees living in the canal, half spoke English and many had lived in the U.S. for six or more years.

And most, according to the survey, were abusing drugs.

"All of the problems have, at their origin, the migration," says Raul Ramirez Baena, a veteran human-rights worker. "Then comes the depression and the problems with self-esteem, and the escape is drugs."

The result, he says, is a criminal-justice and public-health problem. A study on HIV/AIDS risk factors funded by the National Institutes of Health concluded that "intensified border enforcement and increased deportations, which have occurred in response to this movement, have had serious mental and physical consequences that have perhaps been overlooked."

But once deportees arrive in Tijuana, the descent into destitution can be swift. "Within days they are confronted with issues that will change the direction of their lives," says Laura Velasco, a professor at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a college in Tijuana, who directed the survey of canal dwellers.

On the streets, the homeless are often picked up by the local police because they don't have government-issued identification. Not having that identification means resorting to odd jobs like sorting fruit at produce stands or selling doughnuts along the sidewalk.

Luis Cabrera, 47, knows well what it's like to experience a fast descent. He guards an entrance of the tent city, wearing the green vest of the volunteers. Cabrera says he once worked in a plastics factory in the United States and left behind a "wife, kids, my whole family, my whole future."  

"I have to go back," says Cabrera, who turned up at the camp two months ago. "I have to or I'll die in the process." Just two days later, seeming skittish, he announces that he will not return to Los Angeles. He will stick around, maybe go back to his home state of San Luis Potosi or stay on the streets of Tijuana.

Luis Cabrera
Hugo Castro is a member of Angeles sin Fronteras, which advocates for migrants
Erin Siegal McIntyre for Al Jazeera America

As the evening chill falls over the camp, tensions rise again. One camper threatens another inside a tent where an art workshop organized by a local arts group is underway. He begins menacing Tamai and then disappears. The police are summoned; the man is handcuffed and taken away. Residents say he was released hours later and quickly returned to the tent city. The next day the police came around searching for suspects after a man in the canal was killed.

The situation of the camp city's homeless is in stark contrast to that of Juan Carlos Rodriguez Montes, a convicted killer. Today a volunteer with a local activist group GaryMar, he wanders through the camp leading a tour group of college students from San Diego. He was a bit younger than them when he joined a gang. One night, he says, a rival group confronted him. Rodriguez was carrying an Uzi. "I didn't know how it worked, and when I shot, I lost control," he says. One person died.

Luis Cabrera, 47, knows well what it's like to experience a fast descent. He guards an entrance of the tent city, wearing the green vest of the volunteers. Cabrera says he once worked in a plastics factory in the United States and left behind a "wife, kids, my whole family, my whole future."  

"I have to go back," says Cabrera, who turned up at the camp two months ago. "I have to or I'll die in the process." Just two days later, seeming skittish, he announces that he will not return to Los Angeles. He will stick around, maybe go back to his home state of San Luis Potosi or stay on the streets of Tijuana.

Luis Cabrera, 47, knows well what it's like to experience a fast descent. He guards an entrance of the tent city, wearing the green vest of the volunteers. Cabrera says he once worked in a plastics factory in the United States and left behind a "wife, kids, my whole family, my whole future."  

"I have to go back," says Cabrera, who turned up at the camp two months ago. "I have to or I'll die in the process." Just two days later, seeming skittish, he announces that he will not return to Los Angeles. He will stick around, maybe go back to his home state of San Luis Potosi or stay on the streets of Tijuana.

Luis Cabrera, 47, knows well what it's like to experience a fast descent. He guards an entrance of the tent city, wearing the green vest of the volunteers. Cabrera says he once worked in a plastics factory in the United States and left behind a "wife, kids, my whole family, my whole future."  

"I have to go back," says Cabrera, who turned up at the camp two months ago. "I have to or I'll die in the process." Just two days later, seeming skittish, he announces that he will not return to Los Angeles. He will stick around, maybe go back to his home state of San Luis Potosi or stay on the streets of Tijuana.

On the streets, the homeless are often picked up by the local police because they don't have government-issued identification. Not having that identification means resorting to odd jobs like sorting fruit at produce stands or sorting through doughnuts along the sidewalk.
On the streets, the homeless are often picked up by the local police because they don't have government-issued identification. Not having that identification means resorting to odd jobs like sorting fruit at produce stands or sorting through doughnuts along the sidewalk.
Do any of us have family on the other side looking for us, waiting for us?

Hugo Castro

member of Angeles sin Fronteras

Rodriguez, now 44, served a 25-year prison sentence. After his release, he was deported to Tijuana. Like the others at the camp, he arrived in Tijuana with very little. Unlike them, he returned to a city where he had family. A brother took him in for a while before Rodriguez's wife moved from the United States, where she lived, to be with him. Today they live in a middle-class suburb. Rodriguez says the importance of that cushion was immediate. "I felt safe," he says. "I go out with the certainty that I could start my life again."

Soon, tent city residents could lose even their temporary refuge. Permission to use the plaza expires Dec. 1, making the camp's future uncertain. But Tamai expects to begin meeting with government officials to reach a more permanent solution. If not, he says, they may relocate El Mapa to the canal.

But in a moment of calm, Hugo Castro, a leader of Angeles sin Fronteras, invites the tent-city community to honor migrants who've died en route to the United States and those killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Castro then invokes the missing and disappeared, and also those left behind. "Do any of us have family on the other side looking for us, waiting for us?" he says. No one speaks; instead, they bow their heads in silence.

Erin Siegal McIntyre contributed to this report. 

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