New Clear Vision

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Strangers in a Strange Land

November 19, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Devon G. Pena, Family, Politics

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Recent Study Focuses Attention on Deportees

by Devon G. Peña

While the Obama Administration continues to make news by breaking the record number of deportations, the U.S. and Mexican publics actually know very little about the demographic background, socioeconomic status, and living conditions of the deportees. I just returned from a lecture tour to San Diego and what I learned is very troubling.

It has been infuriating to witness the unfolding of the Obama Administration’s deportation policies, which have been driven by a monthly quota system established back in 2009 and designed to serve the demands of private correctional and prison corporations for a steady stream of bodies to fill the 34,000 beds in the nondescript and semi-secret detention centers built across the country since the end of the Bush II years. We first reported on this activity in October 2010 — see Detaining Profits — and will revisit the privatization of prison and detention institutions in a forthcoming post.
Bloomberg reported on the 34K bed quota story back in September and made a critical point clearly illustrating the influence not just of the prison corporations but Wall Street’s role in the financialization of capital, which has fed the growth of the industry by providing a steady flow of investors including banks like Wells Fargo:

Prisons are one of the few institutions that states and the federal government have moved to privatize, creating a booming business for Corrections Corp. (CXW) and [the] Geo [Group], the two publicly traded companies that dominate the market. Both actively lobby Congress. Serving as government jailer has been a hit on Wall Street, as Corrections Corp. and Geo have each about doubled in value since mid-2010.

Significant knowledge and information about the human costs and impacts of deportation are easily lost amid the noise of the policy debates, right-wing diatribes, and endless moralizing. Worst of all is the excessive, and yet increasingly mainstream, racist ideological clutter that fills the airwaves and the Web social networks with messages of hatred, fear, and ignorance. This banal noise feeds the telluric passions of the rightwing partisans.

More people need to recognize and protest the fact that the mainstream media and dominant political discourses are obscuring the human side of this story. The vitriolic debating and endless diatribe among pundits, analysts, and politicos produces a deafening silence. The only decent human beings one can try to listen to – if you can get past the noisy echo chambers and polemical din of the two political parties — are the immigrants and indigenous diaspora peoples themselves.

We know very little about the qualities of the persons being deported. Who are they? How did they come to the U.S.? How long did they live in the U.S. and what did they do? Did they attend public schools?  Did they go to church? Do they speak English or Spanish? What is their sexual identity and gender? Did they leave family behind? How is their health? Are they finding jobs in Mexico? What about housing and health care? What are their needs? Are they getting support in Mexico?

There are plenty of questions like this that have been largely overlooked or ignored by mainstream media coverage of the deportation campaign that has so far resulted in the apprehension and expulsion of close to 2 million persons since Obama took office in 2009. Critics have claimed that these policies are destroying families, disrupting communities, and endangering the health and livelihoods of thousands of deportees. Yet, we shamefully know very little about the burgeoning deportee population. They have been rendered “minimal” humans; the disappeared; the forgotten; mere ghosts in deportee camps, companions of the shadows.

The venerable Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana has released the results of a timely and important study that will help us bring a clearer and more poignant human face to the story of deportation. The report focuses on an informal deportee camp located along the length of a canal in that hilly and ravine-filled border city. I first heard about this study while visiting with Professor Norma Iglesias, Chair of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University (SDSU). I was in town during a lecture visit recently.

To prepare this post, I also spoke with several other persons in San Diego who have direct knowledge of the situation facing deportees in Tijuana; this included Elisa Sabatini of Via Internaciónal. I have also relied on the on-line copy of the report and posts about the study to the Colegio de la Frontera Norte website this past week. Any errors in translation from Spanish are my sole responsibility.

Not Born: Made in the USA

One would think that the storyline from the comedy film by Cheech Marin, “Born in East LA,” has become reality. For those of you unfamiliar with the 1987 movie, the plot basically involves a Chicano by the name of “Rudy” played by Marin who was born and raised in East Los Angeles but is mistaken for an undocumented immigrant and promptly deported to Tijuana. He barely speaks a word of Spanish but eventually makes his way back home. Unfortunately, the reality is much more complicated and tragic than Marin’s comic take on the racist politics of deportation.

About a quarter of the young people dumped into Mexico under the Obama Administration’s full-throttle deportation mode are what we might call “DREAMer deportees.” These youth don’t even speak Spanish and are in Mexico for the first time. They grew up and attended schools in the United States. They are in effect the cultural but not the legal citizens of the United States, and a good many do not even have Mexican birth certificates. Of course, nearly all of them were brought into the U.S. as minor children.

Some of the deported youth are stranded in northern states and cities along the border but a good number have been deported to central Mexico including groups now stranded in various parts of Mexico City and even small cities across the state of Jalisco. They are truly strangers in a strange land but they are also being reduced to the status of “stateless” people — unwanted by the governments on either side of the border.

According to a new study by social scientists from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF), most of the persons being deported to Mexico are young males and a good number are actually monolingual English speakers. A few are former gang members and many report using drugs. This last quality, of course, makes them less sympathetic figures in the symbolic politics of the real-world tragedy of deportation currently unfolding across our country.

COLEF is one of the principal research centers that conducts social scientific studies of immigration and the border. A new COLEF study reveals much about the characteristics of the deported population and the atrocious and inhumane conditions they face once they are in Mexico. According the researchers there is a distorted institutional view about migrants living in Tijuana and the deportees “face constant violations of human rights, the need for shelter programs, credentialing and border communication, re-employment, prevention and rehabilitation, and support to return to place of origin”. The abuses perpetrated against this vulnerable population by the municipal police of Tijuana also need to be addressed.

Dr. Laura Velasco, a cultural anthropologist with a distinguished record of research on immigration, led the research team that conducted the study, “El bordo del canal del río Tijuana: Estimación y características de la población” [The Border of the Tijuana River Canal: Estimates and Characteristics of the Population]. The title is a reference to an area of downtown Tijuana, running a length of two kilometers, where many of the deportees have settled after their eviction from a deportation camp around August 5.  Dr. Velasco and her research colleagues found between 700 and 1000 people living in so-called ñongos — improvised shelters made from scraps of wood, plastic, tires, and other recycled materials. Others are living inside pits (hoyos) sewers (alcantarillas), under bridges (puentes), or on the canal slopes (laderas y bordo).

Between August and September of this year, the COLEF research team conducted survey interviews with 401 inhabitants living on the bordo — the border or slope — of a two kilometer-long strip of land inside the downtown canal. The impromptu deportee camp was established in August 6 and started with 20 tents. By September 20 the researchers counted 300 tents amidst the 700 ñongos. According to the results, 42 percent of these deportees have resided in Tijuana less than a year and about 17 percent had received all their schooling in the U.S. More than half (52 percent) of them speak English while a smaller portion (6 percent) speak an indigenous language.

The vast majority of the deportees (53 percent) were born in Baja California, Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Guerrero. About 91 percent were undocumented immigrants deported against their will and 8.5 percent returned by choice. [Editor’s note: They agreed to sign voluntary departure orders.] A significant portion, close to 73 percent, had resided in the State of California and most of those had been in the state for more than six years. Only 29 percent of the deportees have been able to maintain contact with family north of the border.

One of the assumptions the media and public in the U.S. have made about the deportations is that the persons involved are criminals or drug addicts. The Velasco study found that 29 percent had never used drugs. However, of the 71 percent who reported drug use, about 20 percent started their drug use after arriving in ‘el Bordo’, suggesting that squalid and stressful conditions in the deportee camp encourage consumption of drugs.

The camp inhabitants are trying their best to make a living and the study found that 41 percent are cleaning cars (e.g., washing windows on cars crossing the border); 20 percent work in the mercado (town market); 44 percent work in recycling (presumably at the city garbage dump) or jobs in masonry and similar trades; a mere 10 percent report panhandling for money.

Problems with the agents of the repressive state apparatus continue south of the border and almost all of el Bordo residents — 94 percent — have been detained or arrested by Tijuana municipal police. The reasons for arrests vary and 34 percent reported being arrested for a lack of proper Mexican identification; 33 percent were detained for being homeless and “wandering” (por deambular); and 15 percent were arrested because of their appearance (su aspecto).

Most of the respondents shared testimonies of police abuse and 44 percent reported physical abuse while 52 percent said they were verbally abused. Police harassment of the detainees is frequent and about 70 percent of the respondents said they are arrested and detained by the police at least once a week.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that 38 percent of the deportees wish to return to the U.S. and only 26 percent are willing to stay in Tijuana and have a job.  Only 13 percent of them list the wish to be reunited with family in the U.S. as their priority and about 7 percent (6.6) want to return to their place of origin and this involves in many cases locales in the central states of Mexico far from the border.

While deportations increased by 33 percent between 2007 and 2009, Dr. Marie-Laure Coubès of COLEF explains that the flow of deportees has decreased by two-thirds, especially in female population. The government collects data through the ongoing Survey on Migration in the Northern Border of Mexico (EMIF). That source reports on the characteristics of the deportees on a national scale and the most recent data collected indicates that 100,000 persons had more than one year of residency in the U.S. with an average of 8.5 years. In about 77 percent of the cases, deportees reported that this involves involuntary and unwanted separation from family. The undocumented immigrants are deported to Tijuana, Mexicali, and Matamoros mainly, but also to San Luis Río Colorado, Nogales and Nuevo Laredo.

The majority of the deportees (about 69 percent) wish to return to the U.S. and persons with five or more years of residence north of the border are more likely to harbor that desire.

Deportees across Mexico face a condition of extreme precariousness and the trauma of an abrupt condition of homelessness; most had homes in the U.S. or at least family members or friends to live with. The COLEF and EMIF research suggests these conditions of precariousness are associated with higher levels of drug abuse, obesity, diabetes, suicidal thinking, and mental illness. The EMIF data on deportees suggests the population has a 0.8 percent rate of HIV prevalence but an unusually high level of resistance to anti-tuberculosis drugs as a result of trends in California.

The research report offers some policy recommendations including: (1) establishment of shelter programs; (2) ‘credentialing’ of the deportees (i.e., issuing of Mexican identity documents); (3) support for cross-border communication; (4) integration into the local and national workforce (reinserción laboral); (5) drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation; (6) government support for a return to the place of origin; and (7) a comprehensive review of the municipal police arrests.

We already know that the U.S. government is guilty of ripping families apart and undermining the welfare of entire communities. There is a generalized sense of dread and disgust with the U.S. federal and many state governments for the extremist anti-immigrant laws and repressive over-policing of our communities. What the COLEF study starts to reveal are the myriad harmful impacts of the deportation program on those who have been removed from the country and sent to mostly unfamiliar destinations without social ties to the deportees.

Human Rights Violations

Dr. Maria Pombo Dolores, author of a book on the Triqui diaspora and a COLEF professor associated with the research team working on the EMIF encuesta, also addressed the press conference announcing the results of the study. She spoke of human rights violations and highlighted “breaches against the freedom of movement, physical security and physical integrity.” She stated that migrants “are arbitrarily arrested by the police, with the pretext of immoral behavior or minor infractions” and that all of these pretexts “go beyond what is Constitutionally permissible.” The most common legal ruse for the arrests is the allegation of drug consumption but the professor noted that, “according to the federal criminal code, consumption is not punished in our country.”

The main violator of the deportees’ human rights is the municipal police: More than 93 percent of the deportees who live along the Tijuana canalbordo have been arrested or detained by the local police; 44 percent of these reported physical assaults by the police; and 32 percent reported theft of property or destruction of documents by the police.

The COLEF report on the deportee camp reveals much about Mexico’s betrayal of the forcibly repatriated, many of whom were mere toddlers or younger children when they were first forced to leave their birthplace nation. It should go without saying that Mexico’s minimalist post-liberal state is neglecting the deportees’ needs for shelter, health care, basic nutrition, education, and perhaps, especially, legal support and political backing for the assertion of their right of return to the U.S.

The condition of precariousness facing the deportees is more than a state of exception in which ‘undocumented” bodies are left to go homeless, hungry, and jobless. It is more like a state of political extinction – they are literally without legal status in either nation. They are being treated as “stateless” people. This precarious but completely contrived condition of statelessness is what apparently allows police authorities on both sides of the border to treat the deportees as somehow existing in a liminal state — betwixt and between — and thus outside the sphere of the protection of the law; perhaps even outside the realm of common [sic] humanity.

I am reminded of a statement by Hannah Arendt who once observed, “Only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity altogether.”

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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