Harsh conditions and persecution confront migrants in Mexico, many of whom have been deported from the U.S., according to a Salesian priest who serves the population in the border-town of Tijuana.
“This results in them being people with so many dreams that end up becoming nightmares,” Father Ernesto Hernández Ruiz, a member of the order founded by Saint John Bosco to assist the young poor, told CNA in early June.
Fr. Ruiz operates the “Padre Chava” soup kitchen, which gives breakfast to some 1,200 people daily in the city across the border from San Diego. Most of them have faced deportation by the federal government, some after having lived in the U.S. for numerous years with families and business ties.
“We try to offer comprehensive help – from basic aid consisting of meals, a place for them to stay if necessary – to assistance in helping them to move on with their lives, such as guidance on where to go to resolve a specific problem, or even support in returning to their native countries...or to their cities if they are from Mexico.”
The Salesians in Tijuana don't distinguish between legal and illegal migrants, and Fr. Ruiz says that “the only requirement to come here is to be in need and to be hungry...and of course they should be respectful of themselves and those around them.”
“Every immigrant receives help, and there are even American emigrants who come here for different reasons. Everyone receives help according to their need and what we can give.”
At least 1,000, and as many as 3,000 migrants in Tijuana have made makeshift homes along the Tijuana River, which serves as a sewage canal through the city. Trash, feces, and pollution flow along the river where people deported from the U.S. are now living.
Tijuana, and border towns like it, are full of both those preparing to enter the U.S. from Mexico and Central and South America, and those who have been deported, who are effectively displaced persons.
In Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, deported emigrants as well as those seeking to enter the U.S. are at the mercy of the Gulf Cartel, which regulates both human and drug trafficking in the northern part of the state of Tamaulipas.
Migrants in Tamaulipas are a vulnerable population who can be pressed into the cartel's service, or who pay the cartel for assistance in crossing the border. Smugglers in Tamaulipas must pay the Gulf Cartel a tax for each person they help across the border, and migrants must pay for this tax, even if they are later deported.
Over the past five years, the U.S. has deported more than 1.5 million people, often separating immigrant parents from their U.S.-citizen children.
“The first suffering is family separation,” Fr. Ruiz said. Emigrants come to Tijuana in hopes of “solving their family's problems,” by finding economic opportunity in the U.S. Crossing the border involves not only avoiding the U.S. border patrol, but also “being the targets of so much abuse” in both the U.S. and Mexico.
“The rupture of the family,” Fr. Ruiz told CNA, is not only the physical separation, but involves also “difficulty even to communicate.”
This challenge, of being cut off from the family members whom emigrants are trying to help, can lead to the loss of family identity “and even the desire to improve their situation.”
“To strive for this and then not achieve it leads to a feeling of frustration and defeat,” he said – the transformation of the “American dream” into a nightmare for so many seeking a better life for their loved ones.
One of the displaced people deported from the U.S., Abimael Martinez, spoke to NPR about conditions in Tijuana last month. Migrants there are vilified and face harassment from city officials.
“For the police in Mexico, just seeing someone dirty and disoriented...is enough to detain them,” he told the agency in May.
Martinez has dug a hole along the canal to live in, about the size of two refrigerators. He was deported from the U.S. after living in California, where he was an entrepreneur – the owner of an auto body shop, for eight years.
Tijuanans view the migrants in their city as a criminal threat, even though most deportees have no criminal record and less than 0.3 percent are murderers.
Deportation, Fr. Ruiz said, “is breaking up the fundamental structure of society and of the Church herself, which is the family. He called the current U.S. immigration system “immigrant persecution” because “most of the immigrants who are deported are people who have already established a family” in the U.S.
“These children, these teens suddenly find that their father or their mother are no longer here and are not with them. And that causes all kinds of disintegration.”
He noted that government policies must always be concerned with “what is most essential, which is care and concern for the person.”
Government policy in Latin America, he said, should promote job creation “so that people don't leave. Most people leave because they want to seek a better economic situation for their families.” He also urged information campaigns, “because the solution really isn't to go to the U.S.”
“I think people imagine it to be a paradise, when it isn't.”
Meanwhile, in the U.S., an immigration reform bill in Congress that has garnered bipartisan support. It would offer a path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants already residing in the country.
The U.S. bishops have welcomed the proposal, acknowledging it is imperfect saying, according to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, that it “goes a long way towards correcting injustices in the system.”
Fr. Ruiz expressed concern that the bill would “be beneficial for some...but the vast majority won't have access to many of the proposals that are included.”
“It’s risky for many people because it gives them the hope of getting something, but without offering them any real guarantees,” he reflected.