The white buses labeled Department of Homeland Security come two, three times a day. They stop in the roundabout in front of the border fence and unload their cargo. The passengers are Trump’s deportees, sometimes 200 or 300 per day. They arrive in the uniforms provided to prisoners in detention centers where they usually spent the night before being escorted to one of the crossings — in this case the one in San Ysidro.
This crossing divides the southern suburbs of San Diego from Tijuana, the Mexican metropolis which swells with a constant stream of newcomers from the south, from Central America and the Caribbean, teeming at the barrier of La Linea.
In this borderland, the immigration chronicles are as historical and dramatic as the ones in the Mediterranean Sea — including thousands of starvation deaths among migrants attempting to cross the desert in remote areas to avoid the patrols. It is a mestizo, bilingual borderland, with a history of ancient and recent disputes. A theme park of contradictions and hypocrisies in the era of globalization and land of intersecting flows: those of braceros, laborers absorbed by the agriculture sector of the northern country, and the maquiladora factories implanted in the south by multinationals to benefit of a workforce at bargain costs.
And now a new category: the forcibly repatriated individuals, parachuted here to swell the ranks of the transient population of this metropolis through which every year 14 million cars and seven million pedestrians cross the border officially.
“I have lived here for many years, and since January the flow of deportees has increased visibly,” says Maria Galleta, founder of Madres y Familias Deportadas. To accommodate them, Mexico is growing a network of associations, volunteers and parishes is growing in Mexico to assist the new population of dispossessed to be added to the uprooted humanity that passes from Tijuana.
The office of the NGO founded by Galleta is just a few meters from the border crossing. “They deport everybody, even those who have citizenship, green cards and work permits,” she says. “Each slight infraction could be a pretext to get kicked out.”
Trump didn’t invent these deportations. Under Bush and Obama, there were raids and deportations, but with Trump the anti-immigrant rhetoric has become the official policy of the Anglo-soaked ehtnic nationalism sovereignism articulated by “chief strategist” Steve Bannon and applied by Trump’s supremacist Attorney General supremacist Jeff Sessions. Thus, the deportations have escalated with unprecedented pace.
In San Diego, I spoke with Enrique Morones, a veteran activist of the Chicano movement who directs Border Angels, an association that assists migrants by leaving water and supplies along known routes throughout the desert.
“In the world, there are 250 million illegal immigrants,” he said. “In the U.S., there are 12 million, but the situation here is slightly different from that in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Many Latinos have deep roots here, like my family that has lived here for 8,000 years. We did not cross the border; the border crossed us when the Americans took these lands.”
Many of those 12 million came to America when they were infants or children. They grew up north of the border and earned qualifications, and often use a unique spoken language: English. About a million are university and high school students to whom Obama had granted a temporary amnesty (DACA), but now their fate is uncertain. Officially, the authorities aim to remove “criminal elements”: violent individuals, gang members, drug dealers. But in fact, anyone who has as much as an unpaid traffic fine runs the risk of being arrested and deported immediately.
“Some of these people have lived in the U.S. for 40 years,” Galleta says. “They have been studying and working in the U.S., they have families … a life.” Since February, when Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a resident of Phoenix for 21 years, was loaded into a police van and taken to Nogales, leaving two teenage children behind in America, the immigration policy officially entered the Trump era.
Summary deportations have become commonplace. Over the last few months, a pall of fear has fallen on the Hispanic barrios. They know that millions of people who wake up to their daily routine, can end the day blinking at the border in an alien city, holding a bag with their personal belongings.
It happened to José Mares, a single father, in February. He had left the tires retailer where he worked for years in Lancaster, California, to get a coffee, but he did not have time to drink it. He told LA Weekly that he was stopped by federal agents, loaded into a car and taken to a cell in Camarillo, then Los Angeles, and finally to Santa Ana. In the evening, he was beyond the border in a country he did not recognize. The official reason of the expulsion was a drug possession charge when he was 17.
Desiree, the 18-year-old daughter he has raised by himself since she was 4, is now alone at home. At Galleta’s office, every day people pass by in disbelief, in shock from the trauma of displacement and separation from their families and work.
Many insist they need to get to their office or to work that day, or that their children are waiting for them at school. But even taking their children to school can be risky. Just in front of her daughter’s middle school, agents handcuffed Avelica Romulo Gonzales in Los Angeles. The video shot by the sobbing little girl went viral.
According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, in Los Angeles County alone, there are 489,000 minors with at least one “illegal” parent. Almost all the children — 410,000 — are native born American citizens of undocumented residents. In case of their parents’ deportation, they are left alone, have to move in with relatives or are at risk of entering state custody.
Galleta welcomes everyone with a sandwich and a change of clothes. She tries to soften the blow: “It is harder for men to accept their new reality. For them, it is impossible to imagine going back to work for 150 pesos a day (less than $8) when they were earning 10 times more. In their minds, there is room for only one thought: go back, go back, go back.”
In the complicated geography of the border, the deportees move like zombies, often wandering in the vicinity of the wall. Many homeless and end up living in the drainage canal that runs alongside the border fence, sometimes simply looking for some bars of American cell phone service, their last faint connection to family in the world… to their previous life.
“My advice is not to try to cross the wall,” says Galleta, who seeks to recover the denizens of the canal known as “el bordo”, directing them to the reception centers that are beginning to house them. “If you are caught a second or third time, you may spend up to three years in prison. I recommend them bringing their wives and children south.”
This tract of Mexico, “so far from God, so close to the United States,” has always been a divide between the first and the third world, which overlap and bleed here. Today, it is also the front line between Trump’s America and the rest of the world.
Soon, on the heights of Otay Mesa, directly across the Mexican slums of Lomas Taurinas, will be the site of the latest Trump-ian affront: here, a dozen companies have been invited to build a sample wall 10 meters long to participate in the tender for the much-vaunted impregnable barrier. The winner, as indicated on the tender, must build a project “aesthetically pleasing on the American side.”
The wall would be a 3,000 kilometers long slap destined to exacerbate old wounds and ancient grudges in this binational, bilingual country that is the American Southwest. In addition to Mexico, the loudly announced deportation of 12 million people presages the confrontation with states that have focused on coexistence and integration of Hispanic populations often in the majority (as in Los Angeles) or the simple pragmatism of economies which depend on the workforce.
The governors of California and other states have formally asked the Justice Department to refrain from making immigration arrests, at least in the vicinity of schools and court houses. The request was flatly rejected by Washington.
Trump’s plan, on the contrary, is the militarization of the issue, with the enrollment of 13,000 new Border Patrol agents. Sessions has already announced the reopening of private prisons repudiated by Obama. And some of the most lucrative contracts for that industry are those for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now, many find themselves booked there still wearing the work clothes they were wearing when arrested at their places of employment.
“It’s horrible what they’re doing,” reflects Morones, the activist in San Diego. “We’ve had bad presidents — every country has had some. But I cannot think of many other leaders who have articulated such a hateful and destructive message as Donald Trump. Let us remember here that immigrants are not the Indians, the original inhabitants. They are not the blacks dragged here by force, nor us Latinos, who have always lived on these lands. The only real immigrants are the European Americans.”