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Deportees To Mexicali Wait For Another Chance To Cross Into U.S.


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. With Linda Wertheimer, I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

It was the middle of a sunny day when our road trip along the U.S.-Mexico border led us to one of the driest regions we'd seen.


INSKEEP: For a moment there, the landscape made our producer, Selena Simmons-Duffin, think of "Lawrence of Arabia." We had sand dunes over sand dunes over sand dunes. But in that landscape was a slash of blue.

That glittering strip of blue was the All-American Canal, one of the engineering achievements of the early 20th century. Canals transformed the desert region just ahead of us. The water pours into California's prosperous Imperial Valley.


INSKEEP: The landscape here has abruptly changed. We've gone from absolute desert to green, bright green farmlands. And that farm development drew migrants to the region, which is our focus as we report on people, goods and culture crossing the border.

Just south of the border is the city of Mexicali, or Mexicali, as it's called in Spanish. That was our destination, and there we found Kelly McEvers, one of the NPR correspondents who met up with us as we traveled. She wanted to show us a sign of the people who transformed this region.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: This is a Chinese pagoda, actually. It's something you wouldn't necessarily expect to see in a U.S.-Mexican border town.

INSKEEP: No, with the sloping roof and the red-painted posts, it's really something to see here.

MCEVERS: That's right. It turns out that at the turn of the last century, Chinese migrants came here to help dig those canals, eventually to help farm that fertile land, and they stayed. Then Mexicans themselves started migrating here, as well, to farm the land.

INSKEEP: You asked us to come here to talk about a sort of involuntary migration. What is it?

MCEVERS: That's right. As we hit the two-million mark of people who've been deported from the United States under the Obama administration, it turns out that Mexicali is one of the places that receives the highest number of migrants. Some people told us they get hundreds of people a day, tens of thousands over the past couple years. And where does it all start? It starts just right over there, just beyond this border fence, where a bus drops them off.


MCEVERS: It's called Lateral Repatriation. Every day, Mexicans are deported from the U.S. and dropped off all along the border, ending up in cities like this, cities that U.S. officials say are safer than other border cities. We followed deportees through the process to try to understand if the program is working, if once people get dropped off here, they really do stay in Mexico for good.

We started at that bus stop, where there was a lot of roadwork.

What you can see is what looks like - it's like basically a big tour bus. That's the bus that's operated by the immigration authority in the U.S. And here lined up are migrants, deportees. Mexican authorities check the deportees' names. They say anyone with a serious criminal record is held and questioned. But most people are sent on their way.

And so then what happens, once you get through the line, is you end up here in this kind of little row. It's almost looks like a mini-mall of storefronts: aid groups, a shelter for women and children, even Mexican immigration authorities. The idea is once you've been cleared, the government kind of leaves you alone. Aid workers described it to us as passive indolence. Mexican authorities don't always agree with the U.S. deportation policy. So they're not going to punish deportees.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

MCEVERS: Inside the office of CARITAS, an international Catholic charity, we meet a man who doesn't want to give us his name. He's wearing a denim jacket and holding his free boxed lunch. He says he's worked in California for years, picking fruit.

What happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He was coming back from work, and the immigration caught him as he came back home.

MCEVERS: They deported him here to Mexicali. Thing is, that was back in November. The reason he's here again is he tried to cross back into the U.S., through the desert. He was caught and deported to Mexicali, again. He says he'll rest his feet for a few days.

And then what?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Going to see what happens, try it again.

MCEVERS: Why? Why risk it so many times?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

MCEVERS: Two kids back in Los Angeles. One is three and one is eight.

We ask him what it's like riding in that deportation bus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

MCEVERS: I think about my family, he says, and how to get back to them.

That's about all the man is willing to say. He picks up his lunch and moves on.

Outside, we see other deportees lining up. This is the van that will take them to the bus station. And the program is to give them a percentage of their bus ticket, paid, so they can go back to their hometowns. But a lot of people just use it to go to Tijuana or other places where it might be easy to go back in.

Not everybody uses the bus ticket option. Some stay here in Mexicali for a few days. If they do that their best option is a place called the Hotel El Migrante, about a half a mile away. It's run by a local charity.

It's an old, three-story building with big glass windows. We slip into a kind of dorm room one night with four bunk beds and talk by candlelight. The electricity got turned off weeks ago.


MCEVERS: These deportees are in a pretty good mood. They can stay three nights for free, as long as they don't miss curfew and don't do drugs or drink.

After that, they have to start working, either as a guard, a cook, or a cleaner. Or they have to ask for money in the streets. They get to keep half. These guys say they'll use that money to try and cross back to the U.S. again.

Officials here told us about 85 percent of the deportees to Mexicali try to cross back into the U.S. Many of those who do stay end up here, at the Parque de Los Mariaches.

And it's a lovely park, a bandshell in the middle and palm trees everywhere. But all around, sleeping, sitting, laying on the grass - are men in caps and dirty pants.

One 50-year-old man - who doesn't want to give us his name - says he worked construction in LA for two years. He says immigration authorities raided his work site and deported him.

At least it's safe here in Mexicali? It's more...



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) It's not safe. I mean if you fall asleep, everything gets stolen. Sometimes we sleep here, sometimes we sleep in an abandoned home.

MCEVERS: Still, he says, he'd rather live in the park than in a hostel that takes half his earnings from begging in the street. He says he's saving money to pay someone to cross him back into the U.S.

How many times has he tried since he was deported?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Four, five, six, he can't even remember anymore. He thinks maybe 12 times.

MCEVERS: One of the reasons people think so many deportees are dropped off here in Mexicali is that it's one of the hardest places to cross back into the U.S. just on the American side border patrol has beefed up in recent years. When deportees do try to cross, it's further down the road from Mexicali, in the dry, rocky, mountains known as La Rumerosa.

Encarni Pindado is a photographer who's covered migrants for three years.

Yesterday you were telling someone why it's so dangerous to try to cross the border here. What did you tell her?

ENCARNI PINDADO: This lady wanted to cross by herself, and I said to her that that was suicide, basically. I think...


PINDADO: People have been telling us that they've been assaulted by local gangs. So basically, people will be hiding in the mountains behind the rocks, and they will see migrants going by and they will jump into them.

MCEVERS: This is the new reality. In the past it was easier to cross into the U.S., set up shop, get a job, get a driver's license, have a family, even if you were undocumented.

But now, with the deportations, these families are being split up. And even though it's harder to cross back into the U.S. once you've been deported, even though places like this are really dangerous, people are doing it anyway.

And that, say the officials and aid workers and deportees we talked to here, means the program as it was designed, to kick people out of the U.S. for good, isn't really working.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.