TIJUANA, Mexico — Every morning, the dozen or so deportee shelters in downtown Tijuana are empty, as people make their way on foot to a bright yellow building on the outskirts of downtown — the Padre Chava breakfast hall.
Most of the roughly 1,100 people who stream through the kitchen on any given morning are deportees, among them are the more than 1.5 million people expelled from the U.S. since 2009. For many in line, this free breakfast will be their only meal of the day.
That would suit Domingo Pomposo just fine, if he could just get back into the U.S. to reunite with his family.
Pomposo lived in San Diego for sixteen years. He had three children there. But two months ago he was deported to Tijuana following a DUI conviction. Now he faces the prospect of crossing a border much more heavily fortified and guarded than it was when he first crossed nearly two decades ago. But Pomposo says it's a question of when, not if.
"It does scare me, but I have to go for my family," he said.
If the lure of a job or reuniting with family is what draws many Mexicans to the U.S., it's that same hope that keeps them in Tijuana even after they've been deported. That was the case for many in the breakfast line.
"Many who arrive in Tijuana arrive in a state of shock," said Father Ernesto Hernandez Ruiz, who helps run the breakfast hall. "They've been displaced. They don't want to be here, they try to cross again and they fail. Their lives are in complete disarray."
But the lure of the U.S., just over that fence, can be stronger than ever, because of the family or loose ends that many people abruptly leave behind after deportation.
This breakfast hall is a sort of staging ground for many people's next steps.
Isaias Garcia was first deported five years ago. He managed to get back into California then. But he said that because of that first deportation, immigration agents arrived at his Monterrey home six weeks ago, arrested him, and sent him to Tijuana for a second time.
"My first thought was like, damn, I'm back again," he said.
Garcia lived in the U.S. a total of 25 years, but now he's at the breakfast hall. It has a few dozen beds on the second floor, and he offered to volunteer in exchange for a place to sleep. He has his mind set on one thing.
"Plan the next trip," he said. "Stay for a little while, collect your thoughts, and then go back to the U.S."
It's not that easy, of course. Many people who've tried crossing in recent years tell stories of kidnappings or extortion by men who pretend to be smugglers.
Domingo Pomposo, the man deported after his DUI, said that gives many people pause, but not him.
"I'll risk my life to be with my kids," he said.
But he hopes it won't come to that.
Many deportees, including Pomposo, have heard about a provision in the impending immigration reform bill that would let some deported people return to the U.S. legally if they have family there.
"I'm interested in knowing whether that's going to be possible," he said. "Because if it is, I'll calm down a little and wait. But if not, I'll be attacking those hills tomorrow."
Another deportee, Victor Manuel Beltran seems like a perfect guy for that trek. He's in his twenties, sturdy from two years of construction work in Los Angeles. On a recent morning he too was volunteering at the Tijuana breakfast hall, less than a week after he and a friend were deported after rolling through a stop sign.
They arrived at the breakfast hall, but unlike many here, they weren't eager to return to the U.S. They wanted to return to their hometowns.
Every week the breakfast hall gets government money to put a few deportees on a plane back home. The directors asked Beltran if he wanted to go. He said yes.
On the recent morning, after helping to serve a few hundred plates of food, Beltran and his friend hopped into an SUV bound for the airport.
"We thought about staying," he said once en route, sitting in the back seat. "But we prefer to go back to our land. It'll be a struggle, but at least we'll be with our own people."
I asked if he was excited to go home. He said he was nervous.
"I crossed with a dream, and I came back defeated," he said. "My family told me not to go. They said those dreams only come true in movies. And once again, they were right."
He hadn't told his parents he'd been deported. He wanted to surprise them.
They'd be happy to see him, he said, but what was most gnawing at his mind about his return to his hometown outside Durango was that they'd say, "We told you."
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