TIJUANA, Mexico — Crossing the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana river canal is one way tourists often leave the United States to visit Mexico. But if you cross it yourself you would see the hundreds of residents of Tijuana’s tent city. El Mapa to its residents, the tent city is home to the poor and disaffected victims of U.S. immigration patrol.
In early August, a team of federal, state and local agents raided the Tijuana river canal bordering the U.S. El Bordo, as it was known, was something of a way station for refugees and deportees. El Bordo’s hundreds of residents were evicted and their shelters destroyed.
In response, activists and former victims of deportation (who have since established shelters for themselves) rushed to the scene. Sergio Tamai, who was responsible for the Mexicali Migrant Hotel, gathered a group of his angels (volunteers from his hotel) to help out. They staked out a place where the evicted could safely stay. And as tents began to go up in rows, Tamai was busy securing funding from local politicians to purchase several hundred more tents for those who needed them; thus, El Mapa was born.
El Mapa is not the most hospitable place, but it does have port-a-potties, meal trucks and basic shelter. For those who were deported it provides a place where they can find camaraderie as they wait to see if they can rejoin their families back home in the U.S. Drug addiction is endemic and violence and crime are not uncommon, but not unmanaged either. Charged with internal security, Tamai’s angels do their best to manage the El Mapa’s crime. However, the fact is that most residents of Tijuana’s tent city find themselves there because of petty crimes or small infractions back in the U.S.
Recent changes to immigration laws that target offenders of serious crimes has resulted in a large influx of deportees to El Mapa and refugee cities like it. Tamai has a different view of things. According to him, most migrants find themselves getting deported for small infractions, not serious crimes.
For Carina Mazariegos, her infraction was a broken taillight. When the police handed her to immigration agents, they noticed that she had a prior deportation order. She spent her days cleaning a theater. Now she waits to see if she can find a way back home to the U.S. Luis Alberto Grande Ramirez, head of tent city security, tells a different story. He was found drinking a beer in a parking lot and turned over to immigration. Alvaro Valdez tells a similar story; he was pulled over while in a parking lot and sent packing when he failed to produce identification.
These are not isolated incidents. According to Secure Communities government statistics, close to 70 percent of the 98,504 deported from California between 2008 and 2013 were low level offenders. And while there is a need to maintain immigration control and to target serious offenders, this need should not empower officials to deport every migrant at whom they can throw a charge.