It was just past midnight when the plane landed. Mario and I had been waiting for over an hour, and finally we could see a line forming inside the Mexican immigration office. I watched as the recent arrivals, mostly young men, had their pictures taken and received a piece of paper. Official documentation in hand, the only door open to them was the entrance to Mexico. Or the exit from the U.S.A., depending on how you look at it.
We greeted the men as they trickled out, one by one, forming small huddles and shivering in the cold night air. Mario explained that he was a representative of the Casa de los Migrantes, a safe place where recent deportees are welcomed with warm meals and a place to sleep for up to three days.
“It’s only a couple of blocks from here,” Mario tells them. “If you would like to go, I’ll walk over with a group of you in a few minutes.”
They listened attentively, eyeing Mario and I with only the slghtest hint of suspicion. Mostly they just looked cold and somewhat disoriented.
I discovered the Hotel Migrante in a round-about sort of way, as is often the case. After watching a PBS documentary called Reportero about the dangers and challenges of independent journalism in Mexico, I checked out the online news site for Zeta, the newspaper featured in the film. The first article I read was about Hotel Migrante’s third anniversary celebration, and its description caught my attention:
[…] in 36 months, it’s given lodging to thousands of people – the majority of them Mexicans, but some from other places – on their way to the “country in the North”, or in some cases during their stay at the border, after being deported. – Zeta (my translation)
I noticed the Hotel Migrante was in Mexicali, not far off my planned pathway through Baja California. I decided right away to make a stop there.
When I got to the hotel and asked if I could spend a day helping out and speaking with people, Benjamín (one of the organizers) was excited about the idea and encouraged me to stay the night. That way, he said, I could be there when the deportees get off the plane.
“They arrive at night?” I asked, surprised.
So there I was at the border when 118 freshly deported Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans, I should add) began to emerge from the immigration office in Mexicali. This happens once every two or three days.
One of the interesting things about these 118 deportees is that none of them had any shoe laces or belts, and very few had warm clothing. These are removed by the border patrol to make it difficult for them to escape or be comfortable. Luckily, some of their enterprising compatriots from Mexicali were there to save the day, and they knew the routine. There was a lady selling hot coffee and taquitos, and a man selling shoe laces, belts and hats.
Another thing I was surprised to find absent among the deportees was frustration. Despondence. Defeat. Most of these men had just failed a costly and dangerous attempt to cross the border into the U.S. illegally. Their families’ livelihoods depended on the income they would earn on the other side of la línea. Many had walked for days in the desert, been caught and detained, and then flown from Texas to California in the middle of the night. All of this under more or less desperate circumstances that I and many others consider unjust and the result of an inhumane global order. I expected them to be upset.
And while, yes, there was frustration to be found in deeper conversations, and there was fear visible in the faces of a few, by and large the group could have been mistaken for workers getting of the bus at the end of a long day. Spanish, Mixtec, and even laughter floated up into the calm, moonless sky. They drank their coffee, made phone calls, asked about the area, and discussed plans for their next attempt. Some even joked about how they’d been caught.
Over the course of the 24 hours I spent at the Hotel Migrante, I heard a lot of stories. Hope and resilience were constant themes. So were heartbreak and adversity. That these seemingly antithetical things go hand and hand is no revelation, but I was constantly in awe of how optimistic and joyful these striving people were.
I plan to publish here a series of posts that describe some of the characters I met at the Hotel Migrante. They will be vignettes, not exhaustive or even superficial investigations of any professional rigor. My intention is that they serve to record how I experienced single moments in the storied lives of individuals brought together by complex factors, both global and personal.