TIJUANA, Mexico — Last year the Obama administration deported 400,000 people from the United States, many sent to border cities like Tijuana. They’re often dropped off with little money, few belongings and no ties to the city. Once there, many lives quickly slide into desperation.
Juan Manuel Alvarez is 25. On a recent afternoon he was walking through Tijuana’s red light district, where he tries to make a living shining shoes. Other than his tattered clothes, his one possession is his shoe shiner’s kit, which he carries everywhere. His fingernails are perpetually stained with black polish.
Alvarez was deported from the U.S. last year, and since then, he’s been stranded in Tijuana, living in a shelter a short walk from the border, trying to collect enough for a bus ticket back to his hometown in Sinaloa. But the funds are scarce.
He pays for food and a bed at the shelter. And there are setbacks.
As we walked he told me he was recently picked up by police, taken to the station and told to shine the boots of 15 officers.
“Not a single one paid me,” he said, his eyes filling with tears and his voice with anger.
Like Alvarez, many recent deportees in Tijuana face frequent conflict with the municipal police in their daily struggle to eke out a living. It’s hard for many to come up with the 15 pesos each day — about a dollar — that it costs to stay at a shelter.
Margarita Andonaegui runs a hall that serves breakfast to more than 1,000 deportees each morning. She says many recent deportees have no choice but to wander the city, sleep in the same clothes, not shower or shave. If they’re arrested, as they often are, police might confiscate nice clothes and shoelaces.
“Within five days, these people who arrived in the city clean, within five days they are indigent,” she said. “Who’s going to help them or offer them work when they look like that?”
Every afternoon, dozens of such deportees linger at a barren plaza near the border fence. They go there to wait for handouts of food.
On a recent day, a group of Mexican evangelicals arrived, dressed in white. But the food would only be distributed after the deportees sat through a lengthy, fiery sermon.
Felipe Gomez was in the audience.
“We have to listen to this imbecile’s sermon just to get something to eat,” he said, as the missionary paced back and forth, his oration rising to the level of a scream.
Gomez said the missionaries were taking advantage of the deportees’ desperation.
Indeed, deportees are among the most vulnerable population in this gritty, sometimes corrupt and violent city. They often depend on charity and are at the mercy of police, who arrest them for loitering, which is all many deportees can do.
As I stood in the plaza, several municipal police in pickup trucks cruised by, scoping it out. Gomez said they generally don’t harass people while the missionaries are around.
Tijuana police acknowledge they are tough on the deportees. They claim deportees are responsible for three-quarters of the city’s crime. But police do also reach out.
At a recent meeting at a deportee shelter, an officer named Victor Alvarez listened to complaints of police abuse from a dozen men.
One man said an officer had stolen 300 pesos from him, about $25 — the price of nearly a month's stay at a shelter.
“Write down the patrol car number, the zone you were in. You should take it to the station and report that officer, because those officers give the rest of us a bad name,” Alvarez told the group.
The men laughed and said that was pointless.
Most deportees just try to avoid the police — if they can.
A man named Jesus, who was deported 18 months ago, showed me how he avoids police. He took me to the Tijuana River, a concrete channel that runs along the border fence and carries a stream of putrid green water.
The river is where the most desperate deportees end up, often after succumbing to drugs.
Not long ago police destroyed makeshift tents that deportees had pitched in the channel. After that, Jesus dug a hole in the thick bed of sand that has accumulated at the edge of the concrete channel.
He reinforced it with wood panels on the side so it wouldn’t cave in. He put a roof on it, covered it in sand and planted little bushes on top. He crawls in and out through a circular opening just wide enough for his body. He covers the opening with a large wooden disk. Inside, he’s laid down bedding, and even rigged a little hanging light bulb powered by a AA battery.
“If there’s a police raid, I know they won’t find me in here,” he said.
From afar, you can’t tell the hole is there.
The bank of the Tijuana River channel is pocked with these holes, which look better fit for gophers. Every morning when he crawls out of his, Jesus can see the U.S. border fence, just a few steps away on the other side of the river. He said he’ll cross it again some day.
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