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Down and Out in Nogales, City of the Deported

By Margaret Regan

Mexican-American border at Nogales
Mexican-American border at Nogales. Photo credit: Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

On February 9, Guadalupe García de Rayos was deported to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, a border town more than three hours from her home in Phoenix. Now thirty-six, she had lived in the US for twenty-two years since the age of fourteen. The mother of two teenagers, both US citizens, García de Rayos was first arrested eight years ago after she used a fake Social Security number to get a cleaning job in an amusement park. She was convicted of identity theft, a crime categorized as a felony under an Arizona law openly designed to criminalize immigrants.

She served six months in jail. In the years since, García de Reyos lived peacefully with her family and regularly reported to Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), as instructed. But this time, when she turned up for her regular check-in, ICE detained her. She was held all night and then deported to Nogales the next day. ICE denies that the action was triggered by President Trump’s harsh new policies, but García de Rayos was expelled just two weeks after he issued an executive order calling for the deportation of any immigrant charged or convicted of a crime, no matter how minor. It was a measure he took, he said, “to ensure the safety of the American people.”  

In my book Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, I wrote a chapter about the difficulties faced by deportees like García de Rayos when they are suddenly dumped across the border into Nogales.


On a beastly hot June day, Jesús Arturo Madrid Rosas stood near the DeConcini Port of Entry, keeping a close eye on the street that transformed itself from Grand Avenue, Nogales, Arizona, into Avenida Adolfo López Mateos, Nogales, Sonora. The United States and Mexico jostled up against each other at the crowded crossing, and armed guards from the two nations—prowled just steps away from each other. Jesús was on the lookout for deportados. He was an officer for Mexico’s federal Repatriación Humana agency, and it was his job to welcome his deported compatriots back to their native land.

He never knew quite when the exiles would be arriving. They turned up at all times of day and night, whether they were first-time border crossers freshly plucked from the desert or Mexicans who’d lived so long in the United States they could barely remember the land of their birth. On this day, a large group of deportees had arrived by the dawn’s earliest light, and now, at midmorning, he figured the Border Patrol would soon deliver more. But he’d been on the job long enough to know that the agents didn’t always stick to their own rules.

“They’re supposed to send children, women and the sick before six p.m.,” he said. “But they arrive at all hours. Maybe five times a month these groups arrive in the middle of the night.”

The wee-hour drop-offs were particularly problematic for the women. Nogales’ red-light district was just a block to the east, and hustlers, pimps, extortionists and drug dealers lurked in the streets. Even by day, the deportees were easily preyed upon.

“There are coyotes,” Jesús said, “those trying to trick them with phone calls. It’s dangerous.” The scammers routinely tried to get the phone numbers of the deportees’ families to extort money out of them. And narcotraficantes were always looking to turn would-be migrants into “mules” who would haul marijuana through Arizona’s treacherous back canyons. The deportees used to be shuffled through the safer Mariposa Port of Entry on the quiet west side of town, but the Americans had been rebuilding it for some years. For now, it was Jesús’ job to spot the newcomers at the chaotic downtown crossing and guide them to safety.

An unmarked white U.S. van soon pulled to a halt in the no-man’s-land between the two nations. Two women and two men climbed out, still dusty from the desert, their backpacks in their arms. They trudged wearily down a fenced metal walkway back to Mexico and stepped across the line.

“Bienvenidos,” Jesús greeted them. Welcome.

Since the turn of the century, after the United States sealed off safer urban crossings in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, would-be migrants have opted to cross through the deadly Arizona desert. And given the dramatic uptick in immigration and border enforcement, that meant that every year, Nogales got thousands of destitute returnees who were caught by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent back. The flood of strangers became a permanent feature of life in Nogales, and the Mexican government was forced to act.

“We provide a lot of support to the deportees,” Jesús said in Spanish. “We’ve been doing this since 2008.”

Before then, deportees mostly had to find their own way through a maze of programs run by charitable groups and the local government. When the Mexican feds got involved, the Repatriación Humana agency not only partnered with the local groups, it set up a formal receiving center right on the border and offered services of its own. The agency had a nurse on the premises; in May 2013, the clinic treated no fewer than 584 returnees. Most had suffered from dehydration or blisters inflicted by the Arizona desert; one patient, in serious condition, had been taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Repatriación offered the displaced half-price tickets home and issued deportee IDs that entitled the newcomers to services. For eight days, they could eat hot meals at the comedor, an eatery run by the Catholic Kino Border Initiative, and for three nights, they could bunk down in Albergue San Juan Bosco, a private shelter up in the hills. Grupos Beta, the federal agency charged with helping migrants, would drive them where they needed to go and provide a place to hang out during the day. Beta had a migrant aid office not far from the comedor and had invited Kino to operate a medical clinic there to care for ill and injured travelers. The humanitarian group No More Deaths ran a telephone ministry in the office’s front yard, where deportees could phone home.

The needs were great, Jesús said somberly, and the plight of the repatriated was under worldwide scrutiny. Criticism had flared over violations of migrant human rights on both sides of the border. “The eyes of the world are upon us.”

Gatekeeping was one of Jesús’ most important jobs. He had to make sure none of the newly returned were minors traveling alone—if they were, they’d go straight to DIF, the Mexican social services agency. If he suspected they were Central Americans masquerading as Mexicans, then back to Arizona they’d go. It would be up to Uncle Sam to deal with them. Jesús was satisfied with the answers of the four who had just arrived. Three were from Mexico’s poverty-stricken south; two, a married couple, were from Oaxaca; and the other woman was from Guerrero. All three had the dark skin and small stature of the nation’s indígenas. The other man had just been returned home: Nogales, Sonora, was his birthplace.

They were all young. Both women were just eighteen, the husband was twenty-three, and the oldest, the Nogalense, was a venerable twenty-nine. None of them had made it far into the Promised Land. They’d been captured by the Border Patrol after a short desert trek, funneled through the agency’s jail and dropped back over the border.

White crosses with the names of those who have died crossing the US border adorn the Mexican side of the wall in Heroica Nogales, Mexico.
White crosses with the names of those who have died crossing the US border adorn the Mexican side of the wall in Heroica Nogales, Mexico. Photo credit: Jonathan McIntosh.

Arizona was in the grip of a deadly heat wave that would keep the temperatures simmering at 100 degrees or more for an unprecedented thirty-nine days straight and claim the lives of thirty-five migrants. No one in the office knew it yet, but the skeletons of two border crossers had been pulled out of the dirt that very day, one just seven miles away. Those bones had been found northeast of Nogales, Arizona, a stone’s throw from the Kino Springs Country Club, where an irrigated golf course glittered emerald green, like an Irish mirage in the desiccated landscape.

No More Deaths volunteers had been patrolling Arizona’s dry desert since 2004, trying to save migrants from dying. And for years they’d run an aid station for deportees in Nogales, Sonora. But in 2010 the volunteers had switched from dispensing burritos to offering phones. They’d discovered that a growing number of deportees had lived in America for many years. Their most pressing need was to call their families, in Mexico, but also in cities all over the United States. 

Over at the phone ministry, volunteer Dorothy Chao was patiently helping travelers. “I’ve seen people cry,” she said. “It’s their first contact with their family.” Fernanda, a thrity-seven-year-old fruit picker who’d grown up in the Pacific Northwest, was standing patiently in line after eating a hearty breakfast at the comedor. She had to telephone two countries to reach her divided family: her mom and kids were in Washington state and her husband was back in the Mexican city of Morelia. Fernanda’s childhood in the United States had been more Third World than modern American; instead of going to school, she had picked apples and peaches for American tables. She had three US-citizen children; she’d gone back to Mexico only after her husband was picked up in a traffic stop and deported. Now she regretted leaving. She was trying to get back to her kids, but so far she’d been caught twice in the Arizona desert. Like so many other long-term undocumented residents in the United States, she was learning that the crossing was far more difficult than it had been when she was a child. Now she was in a near-panic, terrified that she wouldn’t see her children again. It helped to talk to them by phone.

Gregorio Rivera Sanchez, a forty-seven-year-old who worked construction in Chicago, was limping around on crutches, awaiting his turn at the phones. He had a menstrual pad stuck inside the plastic Crocs he was wearing, to cushion the monster blister on the bottom of his foot. Worse, his knee was banged up from a fall in the hills west of Green Valley, thirty miles south of Tucson. And there were angry bruises all over his back.

Gregorio had first come to the United States from Mexico twenty-five years earlier. And until now he’d always been able to get back easily for visits. This last time, he’d gone back to Acapulco for a year to live with his wife and be a father to their two kids. When the money ran out, he’d gone north again, bound for Chi-Town. This time the crossing was harrowing. He saw a human skull in the Arizona desert, and by the fourth night, he’d developed a debilitating blister. On the fifth, he fell in the darkness and tumbled down a slope. His leg was too badly banged up for him to continue the hike—he learned later he’d torn tendons in his knee—and his group left him behind.

Border Patrol agents patrol the U.S. border with Mexico seen near Nogales, Arizona.
Border Patrol agents patrol the U.S. border with Mexico seen near Nogales, Arizona. Photo credit: Jim Greenhill.

The Border Patrol found him two days later. One agent ordered him to get up, he said, and when Gregorio couldn’t, the agent angrily kicked the injured knee. Then other “migra” handcuffed him and threw him into their truck, hurting his back. The Border Patrol held him for three days, and the only real medical care agents dispensed was a pair of crutches, he said. Gregorio used them to walk back over the line when he was deported.

“I’m coming home,” he told his wife when he finally got the phone. He didn’t tell her about the injuries, not yet. He didn’t want her to know that he wouldn’t be able to work for a long time. Not that it mattered. There was no work in Guerrero anyway.

The comedor was located in a tumbledown stucco building on a deserted street not far from the Grupos Beta aid center. The steep stairs leading up to the doorway were so uneven that even the nimblest of migrants had to grip the railing. Workers had tried to brighten the place up, covering its peeling walls with Rivera–style murals of campesinos laboring in the fields or crossing the desert. A migrant version of “The Last Supper” presided over the dining room.

The comedor had been started by a local Catholic parish, Cristo Rey, years before, when migrants first began surging into Nogales. In 2009, the dining hall was folded into the Kino Border Initiative, a cross-border partnership named for a padre who roamed this land before there even was a border. The consortium included the Jesuits and the dioceses of Tucson and Hermosillo, but it was the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist who commanded the comedor.

With the help of a changing flotilla of volunteers, the nuns cooked up vast quantities of food in a tiny kitchen. They fed border crossers and deportees hot meals twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In 2012 the comedor counted some 58,000 meals served. The Kino group also paid a social worker to help diners with special needs, and volunteers dispensed donated clothing after the meals.

On a blistering June day, two men limped into the nearly empty dining room. They were tardy for the 4 p.m. meal, and no wonder. Daniel Toral Moreno had lost most of his left leg; he was staggering along on his one good leg with the help of a pair of crutches. His buddy, Orbelín Salazar Valencia, still had both his legs, but one was encased in a cast from knee to foot. Orbelín was on crutches too, but as the more able-bodied of the pair, he shouldered two backpacks, Daniel’s and his own.

Mexican music blared on a loudspeaker, a tenor singing happily in Spanish to a chorus of horns and violins. Maybe it was the effect of the beach music, but Daniel was remarkably calm for a fisherman who’d just lost a limb. Now thirty-two years old, he had grown up by the sea in lush Veracruz, a moist and mountainous state that cascades down to the Gulf of Mexico. In between stints on the water, he’d return to Veracruz, but the murderous drug wars had changed the beautiful old colonial town, and not for the better. Criminal cartels had taken root. “Los Zetas are in Veracruz now,” he said. “People are hanging from telephone poles.” In the fall of 2011, thirty-five people were tortured and slaughtered, their nude bodies dumped in a public roadway. Authorities blamed the murders on a turf war between the Zetas and an upstart cartel, New Generation. 

The following year, Daniel fled the violence, with plans to follow a Veracruzano neighbor who had gone to Tucson. Landlocked Tucson was no place for a fisherman, but it had the advantage of being just seventy miles from the border. He had to make the trip on the cheap, and he would walk the desert without a coyote. 

“I had 500 pesos altogether,” he said, the equivalent of $38. He paid for a bus to Mexico City, then he climbed atop a cargo train—the dreaded La Bestia—with the idea of riding it straight through to Nogales. Dangerous as that rooftop was, it was free. Daniel was one of many migrants on board, bracing themselves against the wind and the weather, clinging to whatever they could to keep from falling off.

He managed to hang on for more than 1,000 miles, all the way to Benjamín Hill, a sleepy ranching and railroad town shy of Nogales by 100 miles. Then he was attacked. “Criminals were chasing me and assaulted me,” he said. “They took fifty pesos and my clothes.” Worse, much worse, he lost his balance in the scuffle and tumbled down from the boxcar roof to the tracks below. The train’s wheels sliced his leg off in an instant, and La Bestia just kept rolling along.

Alone in the dark, Daniel dragged himself to a road. A passerby called the cops, and they sped him to the big-city hospital in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora. He underwent emergency surgery, and after twenty days recuperating he caught a bus to Nogales. He’d learned that a charity there provided free prostheses. Now he was biding his time awaiting his new leg and pondering his future. It didn’t look likely that he’d ever get to America, and only time would tell whether he could ever return to the sea.

The travelers couldn’t use any of the migrant services for long; even the phones were supposed to be reserved for the new arrivals. If deportees were still in Nogales after their three allotted days at the albergue, they could seek refuge in a series of shelters that spiraled down in quality. There was the Transportes Fronterizos bus station and its crumbling dorm. Then there was La Roca (The Rock), a cinder-block hilltop aerie right by the border wall. That one was run by an evangelical couple who were generous but penniless, and the deportees they welcomed slept on floors and used buckets of water to bathe.

Deported men who had run out of options sometimes slept in the graveyard; an even lower circle of Nogales’ deportee hell was Tirabichi, the foul-smelling town dump. Male exiles occasionally joined the poorest of the town’s poor there, squatting in shacks slapped together from trash. For women, rock-bottom was prostitution. One young woman deported from Tucson was so terrified of the pimps trying to reel her in that she ran north through the port of entry. She was charged with felony re-entry. 

Women did have one shelter option that was closed to men. The Kino Border Initiative ran Casa Nazaret, exclusively for women—and their children—who had been badly traumatized. It was housed in a couple of walk-up apartments on the fourth floor of a shabby mini high-rise on the west side of town. The Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist who ran the place had made it homey; flower-decorated posters celebrating women’s strength hung on the walls, and gauzy peach curtains drifted across the open windows, blocking the worst of the sun.

Detained and Deported“We try to make this a family space,” said Sister María Engracia Robles, the Mexican nun who presided over the casa. “The women usually stay about eight days,” she continued, speaking in Spanish. The house had been named for the biblical childhood home of Jesus, Nazareth, where the Holy Family had lived together in peace and harmony. The residents were encouraged to cook and eat together to re-establish a feeling of normalcy, and they could call their families on the house phone. They could also get legal help. And if the deported women had children in the United States, the nuns could help them write letters assigning guardianship to a family member or friend.

In 2012, 302 women had found refuge at Casa Nazaret. “The danger of violence is higher these days,” Robles said. “On this side the cartels are exploitive. On the other side, the migra. The walls are higher. We’re seeing many more broken bones.”

The shelter’s youngest resident one day in June 2013 was Adira, a twenty-one-year-old rape victim from Oaxaca who had arrived two days before “in great crisis,” Robles said. Adira looked very young, with freckles sprinkled across her broad face. Her eyes were wide with terror. She wept without ceasing as she spoke, but her story poured out of her. At home, she’d been raped repeatedly. “It was horrible,” she said. “I wanted to leave all that and be as far away from Oaxaca as possible.” She signed on with a coyote in Sonora and crossed north into the Tohono O’odham reservation. Stretching seventy-five miles along the line between Arizona and Sonora, the rez was remote, hot and little populated. For years it had been the deadliest of migrant corridors in the Southwest. Adira had the bad luck to hike it during the record-breaking heat wave.

“During the day the heat was horrible,” she said. The migrants soon ran out of water; some started bleeding from the nose, and Adira believed one of them died. She herself began to convulse. She lost track of time and started hallucinating. “In the desert the hills talked to me,” she said. “I was delirious.” 

Someone set a fire to attract the Border Patrol, and at last “a helicopter came for us. I lost consciousness and I woke up in a hospital.” She was hooked up to an IV, and she found red marks on her chest, where an emergency medical technician had used a defibrillator to restart her heart. She had been very close to death.

Two other women staying with the nuns had also been hauled out of the burning desert, but their stories were different. María Dolmos and Norma were mothers, older than Adira, and both were reeling from the separation from their children. “The biggest change is we see many women who have already lived in the United States,” Robles pointed out. “They don’t want to stay in Mexico, leaving their children in the United States.” Despite the dangers, “they are absolutely, positively going to cross back into the US.”


About the Author 

Margaret ReganMargaret Regan is the author of two award-winning books: Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, a 2015 Southwest Book of the Year; and  The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, a 2010 Southwest Book of the Year and a Common Read for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A longtime writer for the Tucson Weekly, Regan has won many regional and national awards for her immigration reporting, including the 2016 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lectureship at Roosevelt University, Chicago. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.