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Talking to Deported Immigrants Through the Fence at the US/Mexico Border

Between immigration stories blaring on the news and hostile protests in border towns, it can be easy to forget that the immigrants who have traveled to America are actual human beings.

Photos by Julian Lucas

The recent influx of children and adults arriving at the US border has thrust immigration onto center stage yet again. Every busload of immigrants seems to be met by hostile protesters, who characterize the immigrants as disease carriers, job stealers, and criminals. This type of discourse isn't new: Conservative policymakers and the less-informed masses have long stereotyped and dehumanized these groups of people. But between the discussions by politicians and protesters, it can be too easy to forget that, at the heart of the drama, we're talking about actual human beings.

Organizations like the Border Angels are helping to support the forgotten people living in the nightmare debated by pundits on Fox News every night of the week. "Whatever happened to 'Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses'?" says founder and president Enrique Morones, of the organization's pledge to improve the situations of those whom he says immigration law forgets.

He took me to a place where it's possible to see, first hand, the trauma of families torn apart at the heart of undocumented immigration. At the most western point of the US-Mexico border, just south of San Diego, is a place called Friendship Park. Here, a fiercely sturdy 20-foot steel wall slips from the land into the ocean, marking in no uncertain terms the line between the two countries. It’s rife with unsettling symbolism.

US Border Patrol mans a tiny section of the fence, where families separated by the triple-layered steel can interact with one another, from 10 AM and 2 PM on weekends, through dense mesh holes not quite large enough to poke a finger through. “Sound waves are the only things allowed through the fence,” says Bishop Dermot Rodgers, who comes here every Sunday to run a joint religious ceremony along with another pastor on the Mexican side of the fence.

Children play with their siblings and cousins through this wall, poking glow sticks back and forth, giggling and gripping onto the steel bars. For many, this will remain the only way they can see their mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, and grandparents for the foreseeable future. 

For Alicia, a 57-year-old mother and grandmother, the existence of aid organizations like the Border Angels is imperative. She lights up when we talk about her family. Her 26-year-old son and 27-year-old daughter both reside in the US. Alicia has a baby grandchild whom she likes to talk about in typical grandma-brag style, with bright eyes and an unrelenting smile on her face. She sports a bright pink T-shirt signifying her work with a group called the DREAMers’ Moms, which supports mothers who are deported or are facing deportation while their children remain in the US on temporary visas under the 2008 DREAMers reform.

In 2006, after having lived in the US for 28 years, Alicia was deported when a handful of unpaid traffic tickets landed her in jail for five days, and then on a federal bus back to Mexico the day of her release. She’s been living by herself in Tijuana ever since, while her entire family—children, brothers, sisters—remains in the US, where she can never return unless her case is successfully appealed by a lawyer with the organization.

The numbers are pretty daunting. There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, and around 1,000 people are deported every day. A common problem lies in the fact that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is in the business of deportation. It’s their job to kick people out of the country quickly.

According to Karla Navarrete from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, there is an ongoing problem of people not being informed of their full rights and thus reaching a premature and unjust fate. She says that too often undocumented immigrants, who have been handed over to ICE after being picked up for something as small as unpaid traffic tickets, are intimidated into ending the matter on the spot by signing their own deportation order.

In reality, they have the right to refuse to sign and remain in the country while they await their rightful day in court. Once in front of an immigration judge, if they are properly represented, Navarrete says that it’s possible to put forward a discretion request to ask permission to remain in the US with their family, or to argue that there was no “moral turpitude” involved and thus deportation is unjust punishment.

Of course, this is a costly exercise and the court does not appoint legal aid to unrepresented immigrants in spite of the heavy consequences of deportation. Immigration judges famously get an average of seven minutes to decide a family’s future, as reported earlier this year by the Washington Post. This is why life sentences are often handed down through the clogged system with a lack of fair process. From here, human beings fall between the cracks, become lost, and are separated from their families and livelihood with minimal chance to appeal.

This is what happened to Robert, a happy-looking man of 58 years. He wears a red cap, and thick reading glasses frame his face above a white goatee. He tells me through the fence that he migrated from Mexico to the US with his family when he was a six-year-old child. Throughout his adulthood, Robert worked as a legal US resident in high-responsibility positions or various US airlines. He has a wife and children in the US. But a rough patch turned into a run-in with drugs, and then a botched plea bargain landed him in jail for petty theft. He was deported to Mexico, a country he hasn’t known for 52 years, due to "a lack of funds to hire proper legal representation from the beginning" to deal with the charge without facing deportation. "I felt my world had ended then and there," says Robert of his court-ordered fate.

He speaks with an unwavering American accent about how he has been stuck in Tijuana for one year, and how he makes a living by working in a local call center by day. He helps translate a conversation between myself and another woman there, and tells me with his head held high about his active involvement with three organizations: the Border Angels, DREAMers’ Moms, and the Deported Veterans Support House.

He doesn’t once complain and tells me instead that he is persevering with his case in the hope of being reunited with his family back in the US. "To be honest with you, the only thing that I can come up with is that for some reason God wants me in Mexico at this time," Robert tells me. "But I'm going to keep fighting. I don't care how many times they deny my petitions; I'm never going to give up. This is not my home. It's not my home."

When the Border Patrol officer howls at 2 PM that the park is closed, an elderly woman cries as her two sons carry her back to her car. She's been interacting through the mesh holes with her young grandchildren. A young man in his mid 20s goes back to his own car and breaks down in tears. Having only just heard about this visitation spot and with legal status preventing their loved ones from crossing into the US or for them to return to Mexico, this was the first time either of these people had seen their loved ones in 15 years.

The pain of families forced into indefinite separation is palpable here. We’re rarely told their personal stories; it’s easier to objectify than try to understand. Humanity is often wrenched away and replaced with broad-sweeping, impersonal and often factually incorrect terminology like “illegal immigrants” and “criminal aliens.” This poses a significant problem when the issue at stake is—quite literally—a humanitarian one.

Follow Shanrah Wakefield on Twitter.