Tijuana is many things to many people. For some, it is a party city of cheap tequila, dodgy pharmacists, and North America’s largest red light district, teeming with brothels catering to all tastes. To others, Tijuana is the hopeful beginning of their journey to the U.S. But for many, the city is the desperate end point of an American dream that ended in deportation, as people are dropped unceremoniously into a city they’ve never known, and a culture they left behind years or decades ago.
The city is dotted with migrant shelters, which house people on their way to the U.S., or on their way back. These shelters vary in quality, ranging from dingy flophouses to places such as the Casa de Migrante, a church-operated chain of shelters that has much more in common with a backpacker’s hostel than a place for economic refugees and deportees.
But no matter what the condition of the shelter a deportee finds himself in, they can consider themselves lucky. Thousands of others find themselves without a shelter at all, living in El Bordo (“the ditch”), a mile-long canal just minutes from the border that divides Tijuana and San Diego. While small in geographic terms, El Bordo is the scene of a humanitarian disaster. Thousands of homeless people fight for space. Crippling drug addictions lead to violence. Corruption is rife and local authorities hostile.
Exploring Tijuana, beyond the cheap bars and souvenir shops of Avenida Revolucion, the city’s main thoroughfare, it’s hard to not notice this so-called “purgatory” for a refugees. On my most recent trip to the city, I stayed in the rather opulent Camino Real Hotel, which is a favorite watering hole for professional footballers and the city’s well-to-do. But a short walk in the neighborhood, which also includes an upscale shopping mall and a federal office building, quickly revealed the horrendous living conditions of those stuck in the ditch. It’s a sad place, where desperation hangs in the air.
From an overpass, the makeshift homes of the deportees can be seen along the length of the concrete embankment. People – children included – hide from the sun under plastic tarps and in drainage holes full of trash and sewer runoff.
A closer inspection revealed dozens of empty plastic liquor bottles, and small plastic bags that once held drugs, mostly heroin and crystal meth. In the distance, a lone man stumbled his way down the middle of El Bordo, unable to walk for more than a few meters without losing his balance. Notably, many of these lost souls probably would have never imagined themselves ending up where they did — a 2013 study by Colef, a local research institute, found that of the estimated 1,000 people who live in El Bordo at any given time, 25 percent had a high school diploma, and approximately half speak English.
To make matters worse, residents of El Bordo must contend with abusive local police, and a local population that for the most part can be described — at best — of being deeply ambivalent about the plight of deportees.
In early 2015, for example, local police officers were accused of using burning tires to rouse people from their shacks, reportedly leading to a number of burn injuries. Many local residents — who accuse deportees of contributing to crime and a negative image of the city — cheered the relocation.
Francisco Villegas, the President of Tijuana’s Tourism and Conventions Committee, has repeatedly demanded that those living in the ditch should be removed, arguing that they tarnish the image not just of of Tijuana but of Latin America.
Efforts to clean up the city’s image, however, carry an enormous human cost. An early 2016 investigation, for example, found that dozens of deportees reported that friends had died while attempting to flee police by running across a nearby highway. Others — including some who don’t use drugs — are dragged off against their will to rehab centers during weekly raids known as limpiezas (cleanings).
“In many ways, these people aren’t part of regular society,” a member of a local advocacy group told me. “They will have a hard time returning to the United States, and here many people don’t want them, or even like them. People aren’t concerned.”
But one thing is certain: as long as people are deported from the United States, many thousands will end up in Tijuana, and many will find themselves down and out in El Bordo.