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TIJUANA, Mexico — Along the Tijuana River — more of a drainage canal than a scenic river walk — there is a stark view of problems caused by a flood of more than 150,000 immigrants deported from the U.S. in the last two years.
Makeshift homeless camps, known as ñongos, dot the concrete riverbanks in the infamous El Bordo section of the city along the U.S.-Mexico border. Blankets hang from dam shafts, not fully masking the people huddled behind them. And all of it is within walking distance of the nicely landscaped City Hall and government complex.
The majority of the homeless living along the river in El Bordo (“the ditch”) are deportees, kicked out of the U.S. and thrown into limbo in a place where they have no friends, family, jobs or homes.
But a few hundred feet from these dismal camps, a glimmer of hope and urban revival is unfolding. Thirty wooden planters overflowing with freshly planted beets, kale, lettuce, tomato, arugula, onion and other vegetables line a small stretch of the concrete channel.
The urban farmers who grow the crops are all Mexicans who were deported from the U.S. through the busiest border crossing in the world. Many lived in the U.S. illegally for years but were forced out of the country for a variety of infractions, often minor.
“I was homeless," said José de Jesús González, 52, who spent five years in the U.S., farming in Kentucky, before being deported two years ago because he was driving without a license. He was on his way to visit family when he got caught.
He tried to look for work in Tijuana, to no avail. Then he heard about Bordofarms, a modest but innovative program launched by young activists and entrepreneurs who want to help the deportees and clean up Tijuana, a city of almost 3 million people in the Mexican state of Baja California.
González is now the leader of a group of 10 deportees turned urban farmers. They are still homeless but now have been moved to a shelter at night. They report to work on the farm every day. Two people on the night shift stay in a clean encampment close to their crops.
They get fed, often eating the food they grow. They receive a small stipend, free psychological counseling on site and assistance either to go home or find a paying job locally. Most Bordofarmers have temporary jobs as well.
The hope is to eventually expand the farm and sell their organic crops to local restaurants.
“We came up with the idea in October,” said Bordofarms founder Miguel Marshall, a U.S.-born venture capitalist who grew up in Tijuana.
With the support of immigration advocates and members of the urban farming movement, Bordofarms has recruited 85 volunteers on both sides of the border. The group crowdfunded $1,200, took out a $5,000 loan and is starting to solicit more donations. It’s not a lot of money, but Marshall believes the program’s symbolic significance is immeasurable.
For one, Bordofarms sprouted on federal land without official sanction, turning it into a very visible demonstration of civil disobedience. Marshall is in talks with the Mexican water commission to get approval, but in the meantime, Bordofarms is guerrilla farming, and this little haven of serenity continues to flourish and attract support.
In large black letters on the concrete embankment below, local artists have spray-painted in giant black letters a message that resonates, “Cultiva ideas, cosecha revolución” (“Cultivate ideas, harvest revolution”).
The program has galvanized two movements: immigration advocates and disciples of the permaculture movement, which embraces organic gardening and sustainability.
“The first phase was to raise the social conscience of the community,” Marshall said. “There are 2,000 people living in sewers in El Bordo. There is drug addiction.”
Donations are starting to come in, and Marshall just launched another crowdfunding campaign. Bordofarms’ executive director is Ricardo Arana, a 37-year-old Mexico City native who helped launch Transición Tijuana, which has built three community gardens and a dozen private home gardens in Tijuana.
More than 135 million people cross the U.S.-Mexico border here every year. In 2014, 60,000 of them were deported from the U.S., and almost 100,000 were returned the year before.
“Our responsibility is to offer them a place to live, and the next step is a place to work,” said Carlos Mora, the executive president of Consejo Estatal de Atención al Migrante, Baja California’s board of immigration.
But that’s easier said than done. In April, Mora’s agency set aside 2,000 jobs in call centers for deportees who are bilingual. It has placed 500 since.
“But when they receive their first check, their first week’s pay, they receive less than $100 for a full week of work,” he said. “They say, ‘I make in the U.S. $400 or $500 a week.”
The disappointment is crushing.
“When they are deported, most have money in their pockets and cellphones,” Mora said. “What happens is that when they realize two or three weeks or three or four months later that they don’t have any relatives here. It’s a dramatic reality.” Most have a spouse and kids in the U.S., he said.
With the help of government funding, the Padre Chava breakfast hall serves more than 1,000 meals a day to homeless deportees. After federal and local authorities raided El Bordo and destroyed many of the makeshift shelters along the canal in the name of public safety, homeless deportees sought refuge in tent cities set up by community organizers.
“It’s a terrible situation,” said Mora, whose office was created in December by Baja California’s new Gov. Francisco Vega. The office provides plane tickets to deportees who want to return to their homes in other parts of Mexico.
But for many who have lived in the U.S. for years, returning home means going back to the U.S., not to a village they haven’t lived in for 20 years. “That’s the reason they decide to stay in Tijuana,” Mora said. “They’re trying to cross back.”
But they quickly realize that border crossings have become much tougher than when they first succeeded years ago. And many end up destitute living in El Bordo.
Although the Bordofarms program doesn’t have government sanction, Mora is supportive. The government could shut down the whole venture.
“They can do it, but they don’t do it yet,” said Mora, who points out that the federal government is over 1,800 miles away in Mexico City. He told Marshall to not worry and keep Bordofarms going.
“They’re saving lives, and they’re giving them a purpose in life and making them start to feel like human beings,” he said. “What Bordofarms does is give some hope to somebody who doesn’t have any kind of hope.”
He said that state and city agencies, community organizations and churches are doing their share. They have set an April 30 deadline to devise a master plan to house the more than 2,000 homeless deportees in Tijuana.
On a recent afternoon, 52 Tijuana high school students went on a field trip to El Bordo. Philosophy teacher Amanda Uribe said it is important to expose the teenagers to the sordid underbelly of their city. She took them to Bordofarms, where the immigrant farmers showed them how to make piñatas.
Uribe scoped the area in advance so she could reassure parents that their kids would be safe. “They need to be close to the problem,” she said, and she expects the trip to yield discussions on immigration, economics and sustainability. “They can observe the reality.”
Student Naomi Villarreal, 17, concluded that Bordofarms is “a very important project that helps people move forward.”
It has been only about three months, but two of the 10 Bordo farmers are no longer homeless. One has found work on a farm, and the other returned home to family he hadn’t seen in 19 years in Michoacán, more than 1,500 miles south of Tijuana.
Arana checked in with him on the phone, and the man told him he was holding a granddaughter he had never met.
The hope is that other Bordo farmers will find stability.
Alex Magos, 33, was arrested in Los Angeles and deported in 2012. “I don’t have family here. I had no money for a hotel,” he said. “I was taking the wrong path.”
He pointed to one of the camps down the canal, a cluster of methamphetamine and heroin addicts. That’s where he was before he joined Bordofarms. He said he couldn’t have found work elsewhere, not with the extensive tattoos covering his arms and neck.
Magos is going to school now to get his high school diploma and meets with the Bordofarms psychologist.
“They do help out a lot,” he said of the community volunteers. “When they come, we don’t feel alone.”