You can’t go home again

Deportees in line to make a free phone call at the office of Coordinación de Atención a Migrantes, Juárez. (David Smith-Soto/

Deportees in line to make a free phone call at the office of Coordinación de Atención a Migrantes, Juárez. (David Smith-Soto/

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico –They’re back, still tired, still poor, still yearning, huddling in line in the hundred-degree sun in the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan desert not far from the nearly dry cement ditch that splits the heart of a bicultural community into two alien political entities, El Paso to the north and Juárez to the south.

Still tired, still poor, still yearning, on this fiery afternoon in early June several dozen men and one Maria linger in line outside the ground-floor office of Coordinación de Atención a Migrantes at city hall, an office Juárez mayor Jose Reyes Ferríz opened last November to orient repatriated migrants and keep them safe from an established industry of cheating money changers, hookers and other swindlers. This modest and very transitory halfway-haven, a single room with two cubicles, a dozen chairs and two telephones on a corner table, welcomes the disoriented deportees back, gives them temporary identification papers, lunch money and a bus ticket away from the preying lure of Juárez, away from the tempting border, further down into Mexico, back to their home towns.

The faces in the queue are not waiting faces. Tired eyes tighten into lizard eyes in faces that strain to make an effort to look for cover in case they need shelter. These faces are still not really here. They are ghosts of faces that still linger up north on the other side, where everything was alien except each other, huddled into lawn-sweeping teams and restaurant kitchens, rending plants, walking beams on the reaching rebar skeletons of new structures, washing windows as they dangled from heaven, their Nikes squeaking on the soaring plate-glass windows of the office buildings and invisible they could look inside and behold the actual holders of the golden key. And they’re ghosts of faces still down south, still alive in older memories, faded photographs, back there in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas where the family and old connections they abandoned wait again. The hard gringo work scarred and aged them as much as the hard Mexican work did, but the pay was better and so much more, at least twice as much, sometimes ten times more and they learned that in America you can work yourself to death for the money if you want to, that only your own choices prevent you from earning that reward and now that they have tasted that bitter freedom, these pilgrim faces have no place here in this in-between as they wait lined up at the office door.

With no money and no place to go, some of the deportees don't know where to start. (David Smith-Soto/

With no money and no place to go, some of the deportees don't know where to start. (David Smith-Soto/

Their hands are rough working hands, fingers still stained purple with fingerprinting ink. These hands fidget. Working hands waiting as they do, fidget. Right arm crosses the chest supporting the left elbow, left palm holding the chin, index finger taps the temple, a single slip of paper in the right hand —usually a check issued by the U.S. detention center recently left in the amount of cash they carried when they were caught. The logic of the check is ironclad, obsessive. It is issued for five dollars or two or even one dollar like the one left by Ernesto Mercado-Cubillo pinned to the office bulletin board, for exactly the same amount of cash his hands carried when they were manacled. Perhaps the Americans were generous. Perhaps they rounded it up from eighty-two cents. Better be on the safe side so they can’t accuse America of stealing. But America won’t relinquish all the valuables —whole sections of their lives, family history, a home, a job— accumulated sometimes after 10 or 20 years of labor during which they scraped together and sent billions of dollars back to Mexico. These hard-earned moneys called remittances amounting to $10 billion in 2001 growing to nearly $20 billion in 2007 —about $200 in cash per year for every person in Mexico— help alleviate poverty, the prime reason for illegal immigration into the United States.

Now standing in line waiting in Juárez they’re all legal again —human remittances from America. They travel light, nothing much in their hands, few bags or backpacks, no suitcases. One has a long-sleeved sweatshirt tied around his neck, useless in the heat. They look naked without their things, the usual things we carry. Flip-flops, shoes loose without shoelaces and pants without belts say they came from jail and didn’t walk to Juarez. After years, in some cases decades, of life in America, they travel light into Mexico, lugged here by the scruff, but they bring back an intangible valuable —an American education. They are now cosmopolitan. They speak some English. They are Americanized. And that can’t be taken away. Mexico is the beneficiary for now, but these pilgrims return to the old country better prepared than ever to face north again.

The Juárez town hall is built almost along the dry river borderline, so close to El Paso that cell-phones unable to recognize which country they’re in crash, forcing officials to call each other on radiophones. On this side, they call the river the Rio Bravo, on the other side, the Rio Grande. Rio Bravo means angry river, turbulent river, even without water, a river that doesn’t like you and can kill you. Rio Grande means big river, wide river, even old river, but it’s not angry enough or wide enough to stop the burgeoning human gale lashing above the dry concrete. That storm, like a monster desert dust devil whips more than a million pilgrims back, forth and around, every year above the cracked old riverbed, transforming everyday life once grounded in its proper place into terrifying flying debris, dangerous missiles in the gale. A first communion, a quince, a school, an education, a profession —the qualities that define us in the calm as men, women and families in society, change when we become debris, disconnected ghosts grieved only by the moaning desert wind.

It’s difficult to quantify swirling debris, but that huge dust devil whips about a million souls around in its vortex. Mexican officials say that the U.S. sent back more than 500,000 persons to Mexico in the past year and U.S. officials say that more than 400,000 migrants will cross illegally into the U.S this year. New arrivals will face a wide moat of new anti-immigration laws in the U.S. The U.S. Congress has failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation, but more than 200 new bills targeting illegal immigration were passed in 46 states in the past two years, the legal skeleton for the virtual and solid fences going up along the border. It is ironic that the current anti-immigrant climate has enveloped the U.S. now when the country needs these workers and business hires these workers. Contrary to America’s own self-interest, the deportation of these immigrants now Americanized by default and imbued with value added only diminishes the U.S. at a time of economic crisis. It also diminishes America’s role as the world’s beacon of hope. Looking back at the last two centuries, it is now clear that every massive forced displacement of targeted ethnic groups, regardless of rationales or legalities of the time —native Americans on the Trail of Tears, thousands of Mexicans during the Great Depression, Japanese Americans in prison camps during World War II— is a crime against humanity.

I ask for their stories and the stories, need-driven tales, precarious, furtive but connected to family and culture, differ only in the details. They were fugitives, their wives, also undocumented, gave birth to gringo children. Afraid to seek medical attention, they were sickly. Some spent years in U.S. prisons. Mexican officials say that 10 years ago roughly half the repatriated migrants came home with criminal records, but that the number of felons has decreased to 10 per cent this year as more regular folks are apprehended at home or on the job in farms and factories. Armando, his wife and two sons, crossed into the U.S. a decade ago with a temporary visa so his older son could be treated for bone cancer. The boy recovered and they stayed. He started his own landscaping company and prospered. They rented a nice a house and the boys went to school. Then three moths ago Armando was stopped at a traffic checkpoint in El Paso. Unable to produce any documents, he was jailed, then deported. His family will follow him back down, he said, and he will start over in Chihuahua, his hometown. Will he return to the U.S.? No, he said, the new penalties are too severe. But he didn’t look me in the eye when he said that. Raul, a man in his mid-thirties worked in Los Angeles in construction for eight years. He’s on his way to see his mother and his father in Guerrero, but that’s not his home. He left his home, his wife and his pre-school daughter in Los Angeles.

Hernan did yard work in Atlanta for four years. He wonders how he will bring his family back to Mexico. He has a check for four dollars.

An official opens the office door and cold air wafts out with him. He calls out names —Carlos Rodríguez… The name echoes down the line —Rodríguez, Rodríguez— until a man in dungarees and a long-sleeved white shirt holding a straw hat shuffles up. Entre, entre the attendant tells him. The names ring out —Angel Martínez, Juan Manuel Catalán, Eferán Lleno, Alvaro Gómez, Hernán Juárez, Miguel Guillén, Rafaél Náñez,Gerardo Monreal, Simon Camera— and so on and they amble into the office in groups of five or six, docile, quiet, as if used to being selected, called and guided. Inside, officials photograph them, issue a temporary identification certificate, give them a free phone call, lunch money and bus fare home. They also facilitate the cashing of the gringo check in Town Hall so the moneychangers downtown won’t stiff them. They’re a very valuable people says Lic. Adriana Cruz Hernández, the young lawyer who manages the office, and most of them are traumatized by the deportation experience. Some have lost all connection to their native land, their hometowns, she says, and simply don’t know where to go. Many younger ones don’t speak Spanish. Sometimes the situation is overwhelming, Cruz says, some arrive dehydrated, sick with untreated chronic diseases such as diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV, injuries sustained in fieldwork and infections from insect bites. Some faint in the office and require immediate medical attention. A woman, sick with pneumonia fainted in the office, she says, her child watching. A man with cancer and no nourishment for two days needs attention. So many have come back sick, Cruz said, that she and her staff of 12 officers have had to submit to a battery of vaccinations. Not all the deportees arrive here, she says, this is voluntary. Some just go on their way. But even so, her office has helped orient some 9,000 persons since it opened last November.

The bulletin board near the door is covered with thank-you notes and drawings, really miniature graffiti expressing relief at arriving safely and anger at their treatment by the U.S. authorities. The images are mostly religious, Christ on the cross, the Virgin of Guadalupe, but Mickey Mouse and other purely American icons also adorn this wailing wall —Americana at its best circa 2008, and if we could preserve it, 100 years from now it would hang in a museum dedicated to the suffering memory of the repatriations. Former residents of the Adult Correction Center at New Brunswick, New Jersey and the Ocean County Justice Complex at Toms River, New Jersey also left their mark on the wall and so did Yolanda Santiago and Roberto Perez.

It all begins with a selection when they spot you in the street, says Raul, an average man of average height — only a black goatee makes him stand out from the rest. A panadero from Veracruz, he worked as a baker in Charleston, South Carolina, for years until he was selected. I was just walking down the street when they grabbed me, he said, they treated me very hard, very rough and I spent two months in jail until they brought me back here. I’m going to file a complaint with the governor of Veracruz when I get home. I heard he is helping. I’m not going back, he said, they’ll throw me in jail for years. Then he looks up and squints —but I heard there’s opportunity in Canada, he says.

They take their turn on the two phones. One free call:

Cristina, I’m back in Juarez. I don’t have anything. They took all my money, my ring. I’ll try to leave today.
They gave me bus fare. If I don’t call you tomorrow that means I’ll be arriving. Tell papá.
How would you get here? I can’t pay a hotel.
Why are you asking me that? She called me.
No don’t come here. Don’t come here pregnant. They’re grabbing women here. It’s not safe.

My reflection in the window says gringo as I watch them move along into the office, but in that reflection, in that crowded waiting line, I am a pilgrim too, only on a later leg of the voyage. I’m the grandson of Jews from Lithuania who fled the Czar’s pogroms on my father’s side and on my mother’s side the descendant of Spanish adventurers who centuries ago slashed their way into Costa Rica. We knocked on the same golden door only at different times and as I scan the waiting line in the sweltering afternoon I am struck by the powerful realization that nothing would have halted my journey and that nothing, not laws, not police, not guns, not fences, nothing will stop these travelers. There is something at work here that is stronger than any manufactured obstacles —a natural strength of will, the primeval core of the human spirit that bellows, echoing across the dry riverbed, endurance, endurance, endurance, you haven’t seen real endurance yet, cabrones.

Beacons beckon.

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