Migrant Stories

Feeling powerless: one deported migrant’s story from Tijuana

CisnerosCisneros_DSC0012Jose Luis Cisneros’s face still bears the marks of the violence he suffered more than 10 years ago. Cisneros, now in his mid-50s, spent 20 years working as a migrant farm worker in Washington, Oregon and California, crossing back and forth following the harvests.

But Cisneros’s life changed dramatically in 2002.

In 2002, Jose Luis Cisneros was the victim of a brutal hate crime in San Diego that left him in a coma for three weeks. But this did not stop his deportation. In 2002 he was deported and could not return to work in the fields as he had always done before.

This month, we approach the 2 million mark, when President Obama will surpass 2 million deportations–more deportations than the entire Bush Administration and more than the sum total of all deportations before 1997. In light of Obama’s mass deportations, it is worth considering the human costs–to families, to our region–of this policy.

Falling behind

Today Jose Luis Cisneros lives in Tijuana and waits. Taking day jobs here and there, Cisneros tells me he’s just barely surviving. His wife Adela Mendoza, who works selling nutritional supplements door to door, has fallen ill. The medicine is expensive and Mexico’s Seguro Popular does not cover the entire cost. To their relief, they have recently discovered a pharmacy in Colonia Libertad that gives free medication to those in need.

But the family continues to fall behind. In 2010, Cisneros had to sell his house in Michoacan just to survive, and he worries now about the future of his children. His two daughters are married, but son Cristobal attends prep school, one of the best in Tijuana, Lazaro Cardenas, and plans to study criminal justice and law. The house was to be Cisneros’s legacy to his family. He tells me he feels completely powerless.

The migrant life

Like many working class migrant workers, Cisneros spent a lifetime crossing the border between the United States and Mexico, following the work.

This kind of regular crossing was quite common until the establishment of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, says Pedro Rios, of the American Friends Service Committee of San Diego.

Rios notes that the practice of Jose Luis Cisneros was a common scenario for decades.

“Migrant workers–usually the fathers and brothers of the family–would come across to work, returning home for the holidays, maintaining strong family ties in spite of the challenges of the long journeys. After Gatekeeper, and over time, as border enforcement became more rigorous that kind of physical migration changed.”

In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsiblity Act (IIRIRA) changed the laws governing deportation. Prior to 1996, deportation was triggered only for criminal offenses that could lead to more than 5 years in jail. After 1996, minor offenses such as shoplifting could trigger full deportation proceedings. In addition, in contrast to overstaying a Visa, a civil offense, unauthorized re-entry into the United States after deportation carries a criminal charge, and is a felony offense. The number of prosecutions for unauthorized entry skyrocked under the Obama Administration.

Thus, Rios explains, if the breadwinner of the family was caught crossing the border, then the entire family would be in a bad situation.

“And so we started seeing more vulnerable groups starting to cross. We began to see an increase in the numbers of children, the elderly, and women crossing. Because the father was no longer returning home, it made more sense to bring the family here to the United States.

Enforcement became much more hardened after Operation Gatekeeper, part of a larger Southwest Border Enforcement Strategy. It pushed the migrants into the rural areas, and fewer and fewer people were making it across. The 1996 law was beginning to criminalize migration. And post-2002 after 9-11, that’s when we see the increase in the number of border patrol, and even greater militarization of the border.”

From Morelia to Tijuana

Cisneros was born in Morelia in 1960, and as a young man in his 20s, moved to the United States. For twenty years, from 1980-2000, Cisneros worked as a migrant farm worker, harvesting apples and cherries in Washington and Oregon, strawberries and grapes in California. He did all kinds of farm work, and sometimes did painting and carpentry.

But farm work was always the easiest to find and the best paid. Working on a contract, Cisneros recalls, he could make $100 a day, and he was able to live well and send money home to his family.

He travelled all over the west coast, working the harvests, and eventually settled in San Diego where he lived and worked for ten years from 1990-2000.

In 2000 Cisneros was arrested for re-entering the country, and in 2001, Cisneros was deported. Without work in Mexico, Cisneros made his way back to San Diego through the backcountry in East County.

In 2002, Cisneros decided to look for work in Washington State, and on September 23 he was passing through the mountains east of San Diego near Boulevard. Without warning, he was attacked by the three youths near the Live Oak Springs Resort off Old Highway 80. The three young men kicked and beat him severely, leaving him with a fractured skull, brain laceration, and a shattered nose bone.

The attackers were three minors, Justin Smith, James Grlicky and Waylon Kennell. It was later determined that two of the three were on probation for robbery. One of the men was eventually convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy, robbery, assault and battery, while another was acquitted of the most serious charges. The third man pleaded guilty to assault and intent to do bodily harm. The attack was widely publicized, and Cisneros nearly died.

But Cisneros was deported with no compensation, no recognition of the assault he had suffered, except for the lasting scars on his face and body.

Life after deportation

For years afterward, Cisneros worked at a hotel in Tijuana’s downtown, earning $30 a day in wages and tips, a decent living in Tijuana. But four years ago when the hotel’s owner fell ill and couldn’t recover, the hotel closed down, leaving Cisneros and 8-9 other employees without work. They were left with no compensation at all, no unemployment benefits, nothing to live on.

Desperate for work, in 2012, Cisneros tried to cross the border again. Customs and Border Protection deported him but this time sent him to Matamoros. Fearing the dangers of cartel violence and kidnappings of migrants in Matamoros, Cisneros spent only 2 days there and returned to Tijuana. His family had to raise money to pay for his bus ticket to return to Tijuana–a fare of $1500 pesos, more than $100 dollars, or nearly a week’s wages.

Cisneros says he doesn’t want to sue the United States, but only wants justice. He is hoping to reopen his case and apply for a work permit that will allow him to work again.

“Tengo fé en el gobierno, que me dieron un permiso de trabajo. Puedo trabajar 9-10 años mas. Que me quedo con lo justo. Solo quiero un permiso de trabajar y una visa para mi hijo de estudiar.”

“I have faith in the government,” says Cisneros. “I hope that they can give me a work permit. I can work 9-10 more years. And that would be just. I only want a work permit and a student visa for my son so that he can study in the United States.”

But the pressure is intense. And Cisneros feels helpless.

“Mas que nada, me siento impotente. ¿Como le explico esta impotencia?”

“More than anything, I feel powerless, says Cisneros.

“How can I explain this helplessness?”

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