The sun is setting on the arid, slum-filled hills of Tijuana and I’ve just arrived at the lower middle-class neighbourhood of Postal to see Father Luiz Kendzierski, who has spent the past eight years providing temporary shelter for migrants at the Casa del Migrante.
The last time I spoke to him was back in 2006, and I was now eager to see whether he had noticed any changes in migration patterns – in particular the types and numbers of migrants who come to Tijuana and Baja California to cross illegally into the US.
While I waited in the internal courtyard of the Casa, a yellow and green building of about four storeys, I met Ignacio Aparicio Pérez. Ignacio is a 36-year-old Mexican who began to tell me that he had been caught several days before by the “migra” or immigration authorities while cycling back from his shift at a restaurant in Santa Ana, California.
He has a rugged face with dark, leathery skin, a thick-set jaw and a scar across one eyebrow that makes him look tough. He also has tattoos on the inside of each forearm that, when seen together, read: “Brown Pride”.
But this evening, as he waits in line to try to sort out some papers that he said might get him a reduction on a bus fare south, he looks bewildered and a little scared. He tells me that he is from the southern – and acutely poor – Mexican state of Guerrero but has spent the last half of his life living in California. “This is the first time I’ve set foot on Mexican soil in 17 years,” he says.
The man sitting next to Ignacio has a similar but more dramatic tale, and recounts how he was stopped on the street in Los Angeles just a few days before and dumped at the steel rotating gates at Tijuana. He is 45 and says that he has lived in the US for the last 37 of them.
In fact, almost all of the people I met at the Casa del Migrante this time around tell stories of how they had been deported after having spent years living in the US. This was a big change from my previous visit, when most of the people were either preparing to cross into the US or had been caught trying to cross over and were regrouping for a second attempt.
Father Luiz, a blondish man of about 50 with a wiry frame and metal-rimmed glasses, says that the number of people staying at the Casa has been growing steadily. In June, for example, he and his staff recorded 1,000 guests in a single month for the first time in his eight years of working there.
He also says that about 85 per cent of those who stay at the Casa are either deported or repatriated (people who have been caught trying to enter the US) compared with 15 per cent who are stopping briefly on their journey north. Of that 85 per cent, father Luiz thinks that about 70 per cent are deported after having lived in the US for years and even decades in some cases.
I want to talk to some more people but I’ve timed my visit badly: it’s almost 8pm and everyone has to go to their rooms for the night. So I cut my losses, get a taxi and go down the hill towards the downtown area where I’m staying. An early night doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
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