Mexicali has become Mexico’s city of the deported as U.S. dumps more people there


by Nick Miroff – Washington Post

Daniel Ambrosio, right, was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol in the Arizona desert and then taken by bus to Mexicali, Mexico, for deportation.
Nick Miroff /The Washington Post

MEXICALI, Mexico — In this fertilizer-scented city opposite the alfalfa fields of California’s Imperial Valley, the deported sleep in parks, abandoned buildings and along the train tracks that run through town.

They beg for pesos at traffic lights, squinting in the low winter light, and cluster along blighted downtown streets of dim cantinas and discount pharmacies that advertise cheap Levitra and powdered cobra venom. Dressed in oversized American clothing handed out by church shelters, they look dusty and dazed, like shipwrecked castaways.

The Mexican government considers them “repatriated” persons and offers aid services and free or discounted bus tickets to their home towns in the country’s interior. But many do not get on the bus.

“We’re getting a reputation as a place full of deportees,” said Mexicali’s city manager, Jose Arango. “They’re sent here, and when they can’t get back to the United States, they get stuck.”

Once, border cities like Mexicali (population 700,000) were flooded with newcomers trying to go north. Today, they are filling with obstinate deportees, cut off from U.S.-born children, jobs and car payments, adrift in a kind of stateless purgatory that is beyond the United States but not really in Mexico either. They face a U.S. border that is tougher and more expensive to cross than ever.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed nearly 410,000 immigrants during the government’s 2012 fiscal year, an all-time high, and 369,000 this year. About two-thirds were sent back to Mexico.

Bigger border gateways such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez used to be the main drop-off points. But changing U.S. immigration policies and, to an extent, the criminal reputations of Mexican drug cartels have made Mexicali the world’s biggest landing pad for sent-back immigrants. At least 113,539 have been “repatriated” to the city in the past two years, according to Mexican government statistics — more than any other place along the border.

The city offers several advantages to U.S. immigration officials. The airstrip in nearby El Centro, Calif., can receive flights from all over the country. The border here is heavily patrolled. And Mexicali does not have a reputation for violence against migrants and deportees, unlike the border cities near Texas, where kidnapping gangs await fresh arrivals to squeeze extortion payments from their U.S. relatives.

The city is the unchallenged domain of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel and its boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is said to prefer Mexicali quiet and ­conflict-free, which is better for the business of drug trafficking.

“You don’t have to pay mafia protection here, and the police leave you alone,” said Ricardo Herrera, a 38-year-old auto mechanic who was deported from Los Angeles in 2011 after getting caught driving without a license. “Mexicali is a sanctuary,” he said.

The stories on the street here follow a pattern. Men crossed into the United States as teenagers in the 1990s, during the historic surge of Mexican illegal migration. Now in middle age, and in a new era of tougher U.S. enforcement, they have been upended by an unlucky traffic stop or incidental run-in with the law. Others earned coveted U.S. green cards, only to squander them by committing more serious crimes that left them eligible for deportation, sent here to stew in their mistakes.

Herrera said his American-born daughter, 15, and son, 9, were back in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to settle here, or get comfortable, or accept this place as home,” he said, selling bottled water and sodas by the border checkpoint, where hundreds trudged along in a single-file line to cross into Calexico, Calif.

His five attempts to sneak back into the United States in the past two years have brought longer and longer stints in federal prison camps on felony charges of illegal reentry, further dimming Herrera’s prospects for ever being allowed to return.

The United States tries to discourage this pattern of behavior — recidivism — in part by transferring deportees laterally along the border, instead of releasing them where they were picked up.