The Family on the Bus Goes 'Round and 'Round

When I heard that my old friend Felicia Ballos was living on a converted school bus with her husband and son, I went to her website, where she’d...

When I heard that my old friend Felicia Ballos was living on a converted school bus with her husband and son, I went to her website, where she’d written: “We have given up the jobs that hinder us from giving to the world in the ways we would like ... Instead we have entered a culture of trading, of bartering, of mutual help among like minds and souls.”

Keep Reading

Out There

Some people are firmly anchored in the borderlands of rural Arizona.

In the desert of southern Arizona, near the Mexican border, people don’t stay for long. Well, that’s not entirely true. Some places are marked by staying, of hundreds or maybe thousands of years of homemaking. It’s just that this place doesn’t invite it. The summers tell you why. They clear out the towns, kill the migrants trying to cross the desert, and make the Border Patrol officers long for a transfer.

But some people stay. They revel in the painful hallucinatory heat, or at least tolerate it, as we all do with the less comfortable parts of our homes.

Keep Reading

The Deported

Seth Freed Wessler explores life after deportation, on the other side of the border.

If you find your way through the door of the Juan Bosco Shelter in Nogales, just across the border in Sonora, Mexico, it’s because you’ve got nowhere else to go. You’ll find a bed here, your own slot in one of the 30 trilevel wooden frames that line the walls. Chances are, you need the rest. And Juan Bosco provides. You can sleep now and figure things out in the morning.
The shelter has three cardinal rules: (1) Keep it clean. (2) Care for others. (3) "You can’t talk about polleros here," says a young man named José, using slang for guides who for a few thousand dollars bring immigrants over the border. "There are cameras and they hear the sounds." Most of the people settling into the bunks tonight were just deported. They aren’t talking much, anyway.
José once slept at this shelter when he had nowhere else to go. He was one of the nearly 55,000 people a year, 150 a day, that the Mexican government says are pushed off buses into Nogales by American authorities. Now José sleeps here every night because its owners have allowed him free board in exchange for work. "The shelter is like a family," he tells the new arrivals. "There are 3,000 people who come through here a month and we’re all equal."
Another man, José Fontes, climbs up to the top bunk he’s been assigned and places his small sack next to the wall. He lies down and rests his head on his hand so that his eyes are about level with mine from where I stand on the floor. Seven months ago he was stopped by local cops for a busted blinker on his car and then reported to immigration authorities because he’s not a U.S. citizen.
After seven months in detention, he was deported to Mexico, the country where he was born 42 years ago. "I haven’t been here in 25 years," he says. For more than two decades, his home has been Arizona. "It’s very, very important that I get back there. My daughter’s there, and my wife."
Below Fontes, in the middle bunk, a 17-year-old kid from Oaxaca is getting settled. His mother is in the women’s dorm down the hall.
I crouch down to the bottom bunk, where Gerardo Cardenas sits on his mattress, taking off his sneakers. "This place is nothing great, but it’s a hell of a lot better than where I was last night," he says in perfect English. He’s just come from a Border Patrol detention center in Tucson, Arizona, where he was locked in a cell that he says should have held 50 people but was packed with nearly 130. There was no room to lie down, so he only slept for a few stints, his head on another man’s shoulder. There wasn’t enough food—just two small, hard, cold burgers and two cups of juice a day. It "smelled like a barn." After four nights, he was loaded on a bus and dropped off here in Nogales, Sonora.
Five days earlier, Cardenas, who is 36 years old and dressed in jeans and beat-up running shoes, hired a pollero and walked through the desert with a group of 20 others. A Border Patrol helicopter hovered over them, raising a cloud of dust, and a guard on horseback chased them down. Some in the group ran for cover, but Cardenas was too tired to flee. He just waited for the border guard to arrest him. "Oh, you speak pretty good English," the guard said as he corralled Cardenas into a van.
Cardenas’s immigration woes began two years ago, when he hopped in his car to pick up some beer at the gas station three blocks from his apartment in Tacoma, Washington, and got himself arrested on a DUI. Cardenas, who has a wide smile that’s missing a tooth on the left side, was born in Mexico City, but he lived in the United States, mostly in Seattle and Tacoma, from the age of 10 on. He had a close-knit group of friends, got into some trouble from time to time, and never took things too seriously. He got by with roofing gigs, mostly for a local employer who always called him when there was work. Even though he wasn’t a U.S. citizen, he never thought about being deported. Washington was his home.
After his arrest, Cardenas was plucked from the county jail by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, who drove him to a Tacoma detention center. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his parents, siblings, or friends. He never got to see a lawyer—detainees have no right to representation—and after six weeks in a federal detention cell, he was loaded on a plane and flown to Arizona and then bused to the border.
In Mexico, Cardenas tried to put together a new life. But after nearly two years, he tells me, "It just got lonely here." His desperation grew last year when he got a call from his brother, who told him their mother had passed away. "After that I just needed to be back there." He decided to take his chances to get back to Tacoma. But the borderlands were swarming with patrols, helicopters, drones. Impenetrable.
And so Gerardo Cardenas finds himself with no friends, no job, and no prospects in a country that is supposedly his home. But he’ll worry about all that tomorrow. Now it’s time to sleep.

Keep Reading

Withering on the Vine

Why it’s hard—and getting harder—for the kids of migrant farm workers to get an education

I leave Los Angeles just before 6 a.m., headed northeast. It rains for most of the drive, but as I come out of the Tehachapi Mountains on Interstate 5, the valley before me is bathed in sun. California’s Central Valley is a flat, quilt-like patchwork of fields that’s known as the food basket of the world. It produces a year-round supply of almonds, asparagus, cotton, kiwis, lettuce, oranges, peaches, pistachios, tangerines, and tomatoes—pretty much every crop you can think of. And, of course, there are the grapes, sold intact or turned into raisins or chardonnay.

Keep Reading