What happens to undocumented people when they’re deported to Mexico? I’ve decided to investigate this question firsthand by volunteering at the local soup kitchen for recent deportees in Nogales, Sonora.
The soup kitchen, or comedor, is run by a few Catholic orders on both sides of the border and visited by volunteers from numerous groups including No More Deaths in Tucson. Entirely funded by donations, the soup kitchen serves two meals a day to deported migrants — who have to demonstrate their deportation document at the door — for 14 days after they arrive if it is their first deportation, and for 3 days if it is any consecutive deportation. The idea is to prioritize recent arrivals while they figure out next steps and to discourage deportees from hanging around Nogales for too long and getting involved with drugs and smugglers.
The cheery and dedicated nun and missionary who run the place arrive at 7am to start making preparations and by 8:30 people start to line up. At 9am, around 150-250 people file in. Once everyone has had their fill of beans, eggs and tortillas (seconds are allowed until the food runs out), if volunteers from No More Deaths are present, they invite anyone who is willing to share their experiences in detention facilities, as part of the organization’s ongoing documentation project. Also between meals if there are clothes donations, deportees, many of whom arrive unequipped for the summer heat or winter/night cold of the desert, can collect socks, sweaters, jackets, t-shirts and hats.
The soup kitchen plays a crucial role in a broken system. To the people that are deported to Nogales, and who don’t have an immediate plan, or oftentimes any more money or possessions besides the clothes on their back, the soup kitchen offers a respite. It is a peaceful place, and even to a nonreligious person, feels holy. No cursing or loud music, and each meal begins with a prayer for the food that the deportees at least don’t have to worry about for a little while while they gather up their heads and their hearts and decide whether to cross again or to return to family in Mexico or farther south in Central America.
Though a sanctified place, and one I’m grateful for, it’s been an eye-opening and depressing experience speaking with the volunteers and the deportees themselves. My first time volunteering two weeks ago, as I was passing out cake slices (someone had donated it for Valentine’s Day), many people were addressing and thanking me in English. Initially tempted to respond in Spanish, selfishly wanting to practice, it dawned on me pretty quickly that many of the deportees spoke English and wanted to speak it to connect with what they’d recently been uprooted from. A conversation that afternoon confirmed my intuition. One of the priests told me that probably around 60% of the people coming through the comedor had been living in the States for years: five, ten, thirty. They had families, many US-born kids, and stable jobs, and bam, one ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid and detention facility stay later, transported to bumblefuck Nogales, Sonora, often thousands of miles from their US home and once-Mexican or Honduran home, and oftentimes estranged from their families, since ICE doesn’t kindly think of families when it deports a parent or child. After serving the cake, and then trying to unserve it from all over my jacket, a young guy, about 20, approached me and asked me in perfect English my name and story. Turns out he had been rounded up in LA, where he’d lived for over 10 years since his parents brought him there. He barely spoke Spanish. When I asked him what he’d do now, he said he was going to look for his cousins in Guadalajara though he didn’t yet have their contact info.
So what next, I asked the priest. Where do the deportees go from here? Many, he said, especially the ones who had lives in the States and feel more American than Mexican, cross again. Multiple deportations are common, but people continue crossing to be with their families, as any of us would want to be. And as for people who were caught in the desert while crossing, or arrived to the US recently, some will brincar (“jump” is interestingly the word that’s used) to the other side again, and others, short of money to make the trip or now downtrodden, will return to their states, mostly to Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Michoacan, in the words of one deportee today, los más jodidos because of lack of jobs, worse now with the deepening crisis.
Eventually, after a few days or weeks, most leave, northward or southward, and the soup kitchen does not know what happens to them unless they’re deported again.