Carlos Martinez was in a state of total panic after being deported from the United States to the Mexican border city of Matamoros he had no money, nowhere to go, and, worst of all, he didn't speak Spanish. The 30-year-old New Yorker had left Mexico as a baby; when the Department of Homeland Security sent him south last May after he had served a prison term, he landed in a foreign land.
"I was crying when I went over the border. It was just a big joke to the U.S. immigration officials to have this Mexican who doesn't speak Spanish. But I was terrified," Martinez said.
Eventually, a fellow deportee invited Martinez to his family home in Santa Maria Zoyatla, a dirt-poor village of corn farmers, and they hitchhiked 1,000 miles south from the border. Having worked as a limo driver in New York, Martinez had no idea how to work the land, and after a few months he moved onto a nearby town to sell clothes in a market.
Martinez is one of a rising number of deportees arriving in Mexico with little connection to their ancestral homeland, often penniless and with criminal records. The increase is a result of a U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants. In 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 237,000 migrants, up from 178,000 in 2005 and 155,000 in 2003 the majority of them Mexicans.
The influx has prompted President Felipe Calderon to announce a new program called "Humane Repatriation," to help reintegrate the deportees into society. The program will organize refuge centers in border cities, transport to hometowns and jobs for the deportees, immigration officials say.
"Some of these people are arriving in Mexico's border cities with nothing but the clothes they have on. Many have no family links, no knowledge of the country. They are very vulnerable," said Rolando Garcia, an immigration official working on the new program. "What we want to do, quite simply, is give them a human reception."
Calderon has been less vocal in taking up immigration issues with Washington than was his predecessor Vicente Fox, who lobbied unsuccessfully for a guest-worker program. Instead, Calderon says he wants to focus on making Mexico more attractive for them to stay. And his Humane Repatriation program has been welcomed by many who work with the deportees in the border cities.
"We definitely need more government coordination on this issue," said Blanca Navarrette, who works at the Casa Migrante migrant shelter in Juarez. "The deportees arrive with a lot of difficulties. They don't even have basic Mexican identification."
But some say Calderon's program may be more style than substance. There has been no special budget approved for it in 2008, and few concrete details have been revealed. Furthermore, offering deportees attractive jobs could be wishful thinking in a country where the minimum wage is $5 per day.
Rep. Jose Jacques Medina, a leftist Mexican lawmaker who was an immigrant activist in California for more than 30 years, says Calderon should be defending migrants' rights rather than easing their landing after deportation.
"Calderon is very ignorant of the needs of the migrant community," Medina said. "Even the name of this program repatriation is considered an ugly word for Latinos in the U.S. It makes them think of the wave of deportations in the Great Depression."
To ease mass unemployment between 1929 and 1937, the U.S. deported hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, including many who had actually been born in the United States, in what was known the Mexican Repatriation. Most eventually headed back up north as jobs returned. Likewise, many of today's deportees plan to head back to the United States, where they have family and are accustomed to earning higher wages.
While some plan to trek or swim back, Martinez is trying to return to the U.S. by fighting his case in the courts. He was actually raised by U.S. citizens on Long Island, but Homeland Security argued he violated his immigration status when he was convicted of child endangerment for going on a date with a teenage girl. He beat the deportation in the first court, but lost on the prosecutor's appeal. While his stay in Mexico has been hard, Martinez says the people have been helpful.
"I've become proud of my country and the way people here lend a hand," Martinez said. "I bet if I were deported to the United States, no one would help me out."