As Congress debates immigration reform, nearly 11 million people who call the United States home are living an underground existence to avoid detection by the authorities. But what happens when people are deported? Quite a few Mexicans who’ve been sent back across the border are now living underground -- literally -- in the border city of Tijuana.
The banks of the Tijuana River channel are about 30 feet high and lined with concrete. The river bottom is sandy soil. The river cuts through the city for miles, draining sewage and storm runoff. As I stood in the bottom one recent day, trash swirled in eddies and a bloated dead dog floated by.
Some people live in the river channel. No one knows exactly the number, but possibly as many as 3,000. Many were deported from the United States. One of them is Abimael Martinez.
Courtesy of Amy Isackson
Abimael Martinez shows off the hole in the Tijuana River bed that he calls home. He was deported from the United States to Mexico.
“This is the main entrance I made for when the police come,” said Martinez, showing me around his makeshift dwelling, just a few hundred yards from the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
It hasn’t always been home. Martinez lived in California for eight years, in Riverside, and owned an automotive body shop. He went to church, had a girlfriend and was like a dad to her kids.
But two years ago, he was detained at a traffic checkpoint for driving without a license and was deported to Tijuana. Now he’s dodging the cops. Tijuana police consider deportees vagrants and criminals, and sweep through the river canal to flush them out.
“A policeman took my backpack and threw it in a fire when they came and burnt our stuff,” Martinez recounted.
During the next raid, Martinez threw his backpack in a hole. It survived, so he began to bury his belongings every day. And then he dug himself a hole.
He invited me down inside. The walls were reinforced with wood.
“Look,” he showed me. “It’s sturdy. Two layers thick.”
He bragged that a police truck rolled over the top of the hole a few days ago and it didn’t cave in.
Martinez made a lid for his hole from a Styrofoam cooler. When the police come, he pulls it over the entrance. It lies flush with the riverbed and looks like just another piece of trash.
Deportees favor Tijuana
The U.S. government has returned hundreds of thousands of people to Mexico since 2009, a combination of people formally deported and those caught and returned the same day. In fact, more people have been removed to Tijuana than to any other border city.
Tijuana’s police chief, Alberto Capella, said deportees have become Tijuana’s No. 1 problem.
“It has social repercussions,” said Capella. “It has repercussions for the city’s image, because we’ve got people who look as if they don’t have anything to do wandering around town.”
Tijuana has a long history of migration. But, in years past, people would pass through the city on their way to the United States. If U.S. authorities sent them back south, they’d turn around and cross again.
Now, many deportees stay in Tijuana. It isn’t as easy to hop the fence as it used to be. Border enforcement has been beefed up and smugglers have raised their prices.
Many of the people who’ve been deported still consider the United States home. They plan to cross again. Or at least they want to feel close to their families there.
That’s why some have ended up living in this fetid canal, in drainpipes and even in trees. Capella blames these people for crime, especially, he said, the ex-convicts who served time in U.S. prisons.
Capella has been criticized for violating deportees’ civil rights – in the course of sweeps and detentions and the burning of belongings. He said any violations are not a result of police policy, but he allowed that such things can happen in the course of keeping the peace.
“What are we going to do?” he asked, “Cross our arms and hope that the problem resolves itself? Or do we do what we need to and assume the risk that one of us could go too far?”
Most of the deportees arrested by Tijuana police have committed minor infractions or none at all.
As for the United States shipping criminals to Tijuana, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement won’t say how many. But if the numbers track total U.S. deportation statistics, less than .3 percent of the criminals deported have been murderers. Many of those removed had no criminal record at all. Nevertheless, blaming deportees for crime has caught fire among Tijuana’s leaders.
A quick slide into desperation
Father Ernesto Hernandez Ruiz resists that attitude.
“We can’t think that all migrants are criminals,” he said.
Hernandez runs the Padre Chava Soup Kitchen in downtown Tijuana. Each day, an army of volunteers, many of whom were deported themselves, flip tortillas on a hot griddle and cook up vats of tortillas and salsa. Then they bow their heads and say grace.
“My Lord and my God, we give you thanks for the food we are about to receive,” they prayed, as they served breakfast for 1,200 people on a recent morning.
Hernandez said the majority of his breakfast guests are deportees. Many live in the river canal, as Abimael Martinez does.
Courtesy Amy Isackson
The 1,200 people who eat breakfast each day at the Padre Chava Soup Kitchen in Tijuana include many who were deported from the United States.
Hernandez said many are deported with the $20 or $30 they had in their pocket when they were caught. That money would cover a hotel and something to eat on the first night in Tijuana. The second night, a deportee might sleep in the street.
From that point on, it’s a quick slide into desperation, said Hernandez. And he added: “For the police in Mexico, just seeing someone dirty and disoriented like that is enough to detain them.”
Back beneath the riverbank, Martinez sorted scrap metal to try to sell for a few pesos. He saved the nails because he’s remodeling his hovel, making the one room into two.
“A lot of the guys drop off their backpacks for safekeeping before they go to work,” he said. “So I want to separate the drop-off space from the bed.”
Martinez was proud of his ingenuity.
“It sets an example,” he said. “And a lot of people are building now.”
Martinez estimated that he had seen at least 25 people digging in the riverbank recently. But he said they all hoped to get out of their holes soon and cross back to the United States.