e-ISSN 2395-9134
Articles Estudios Fronterizos, vol. 21, 2020, e052


“The paradox of mobility and citizenship”: domicilization and documentation after deportation in Tijuana

“La paradoja de la movilidad y la ciudadanía”: domicialización y documentación tras la deportación en Tijuana

Gabriela Pinillosa * https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4107-8264

a El Colegio de México. Mexico City, México, e-mail: gabrielapinillos@gmail.com

* Corresponding author: Gabriela Pinillos. E-mail: gabrielapinillos@gmail.com

Received on May 16, 2020.
Accepted on August 5, 2020.
Published on August 13, 2020.

CITATION: Pinillos, G. (2020). “La paradoja de la movilidad y la ciudadanía”: domicialización y documentación tras la deportación en Tijuana [“The paradox of mobility and citizenship”: domicilization and documentation after deportation in Tijuana]. Estudios Fronterizos, 21, e052. https://doi.org/10.21670/ref.2010052

The goal of this article is to analyze the interaction of the documentation status with access to housing and urban mobility of subjects deported from the United States living in Tijuana, Mexico. Through an inductive approach with 17 semi structured interviews with public officials and activists and biographical interviews, an in-depth analysis was carried out based on 23 cases. The results show that the domiciled vision of the citizen in Mexico responds to that of a spatially fixed citizenship, that is, access to fixed housing requires the possession of identity documents and vice versa. Those who manage to access said documents have an easier time renting a home, while those who do not manage to have documents depend more on the availability of shelters and remain in constant intra-urban movement, which, in turn, subjects them to permanent surveillance and control by the police.
Keywords: documentation, domicilization, recovery of citizenship, deportation, border.

El objetivo del artículo es analizar la interacción de la condición de documentación con el acceso a vivienda y la movilidad urbana de personas que viven en Tijuana, México, después de la deportación desde Estados Unidos. Con un enfoque inductivo, entrevistas semiestructuradas a 17 funcionarios y activistas, y con la entrevista de corte biográfico, se realizó un análisis a profundidad sustentado en 23 casos. Los resultados muestran que la visión domiciliada del ciudadano en México responde a la de una ciudadanía fija espacialmente, es decir, el acceso a vivienda fija requiere la posesión de documentos de identidad y viceversa. Quienes logran acceder a dichos documentos tienen mayor facilidad para rentar una vivienda, mientras que quienes no lo logran dependen más de la oferta de albergues y se mantienen en constante movimiento intraurbano lo que, a su vez, los somete a una permanente vigilancia y control de la policía.
Keywords: documentación, domicialización, reciudadanización, deportación, frontera.

Original article language: Spanish.


The dynamics and practices of the population deported from the United States that are constructed throughout the post-deportation process, linked mainly to daily displacement in the city of Tijuana on the northern border of Mexico, reveal what could be called “the paradox of mobility and citizenship”. This is a paradox in which individuals ─after being deported to their country of origin and struggling to obtain identity documents that prove their citizenship─ remain homeless and in constant movement every day in the city, becoming subjects of permanent surveillance by the Government of their country of origin.

At their destination,2 migrants begin a search to settle, obtain an address, work and make use of public space, but their documentation status limits their possibilities (De Génova, 2002; Menjívar, 2006). This same condition seems to continue after deportation, when the individuals, usually without Mexican documents at the time of repatriation3 and with difficulties in accessing them in their attempts at reintegration, remain in a state of permanent intra-urban mobility.

Intra-urban mobility is described as the daily displacement undertaken in Tijuana by deportees who move around in what might seem to be a daily route based on the alternation between places of accommodation, spaces for piecework or day labor, public spaces for assistance services, and meeting for leisure and, from these, encounters with law enforcement agencies (Pinillos, 2018). The mobility mentioned above is associated with the difficulty in having a permanent home and the lack of or struggle to obtain identity documents (in Mexico, the document that has become a requirement to prove identity is the voter registration card, commonly called INE, which is the acronym of Instituto Nacional Electoral). Renting a house requires having identity documents, and, in turn, access to these requires proof of a fixed address.

The objective of this article, therefore, is to show and analyze the relation of documentation status with access to housing, and urban mobility as part of the process of social reintegration of people living in Tijuana, Mexico, after deportation from the United States. The analysis privileges looking at the categories and mechanisms of State control over human mobility, and therefore takes on board the ideas of authors who discuss citizenship from a liberal perspective and biopolitical approaches (Collyer, 2012; De Génova, 2013; Fischer, 2013; Marshall, 1950). Furthermore, empirical literature focused on analyzing the processes of inclusion/exclusion in terms of social reintegration in the country of origin after return (voluntary or involuntary) is also taken into consideration, as well as the relationship with the resources and capital of the individuals (Cassarino, 2004; Contreras Velasco, 2016; Hualde et al., 2015; París et al., 2017; Pérez, 2014; Rivera, 2013).

This work is organized as follows: first, it presents a summary of the methodological framework with a qualitative-inductive approach; then, there is the analytical framework through which the concepts of mobility, citizenship, and deportation are discussed in light of the processes of social reintegration at the border, thus introducing the analysis based on documentation, residential and housing reintegration, and intra-urban mobility. The article concludes that the condition of documentation influences the possibilities of residential integration and access to housing. Not having identity documents is closely related to the absence of a fixed address, which will lead to a condition of permanent mobility or intra-urban itinerancy and consequently to greater surveillance and control by the police.


The methodological design was based on the biographical method (Mallimaci & Giménez, 2006). This work uses the notion of life trajectory as a heuristic resource to introduce the dimensions of time, process, and context into life stories. The biographical interview was defined as the primary source of data, accompanied by informal and semi-structured interviews, as well as participant observation carried out in different spaces in the city of Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, previously identified as the sites of interaction and mobility of the study population.

Different stages of research achieved a comprehensive field tour over three years between 2015 and 2017. A total of sixty-eight interviews were conducted with the target population, obtaining a sample of twenty-three cases. This sample was defined according to two criteria: the first was access to life histories and the monitoring of their processes in the city, which represented a methodological challenge since the population in question are in conditions of permanent intra-urban mobility and live on the street (Table 1). Based on the condition above, the cases were constructed around these characteristics: they are individuals deported from the United States to Mexico mainly between 2009 and 2017, residents of the city of Tijuana for no longer than five years, although cases of longer duration were included due to the wealth of information. Seventeen semi-structured interviews were conducted with key informants such as institutional officials, directors or managers of social organizations, or activists.

Table 1.Work and type of housing of the deported persons according to documentation
With documentsCall Center employee437
Construction services worker at Home Depot11
Without documentsDomestic services*33
Day laborers/Supply Market415
Total 8 3 5 5 2 23
*They have jobs such as electrician, bricklayer, painter, plumber.
** A talonero is a person who works cleaning cars or asking for support in the lines of cars waiting to cross the border.
Source: created by the author.

Recovery of citizenship, Post-Deportation, and Domicilization

The lives of millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States show the flip side with the deportation of hundreds of thousands of them. Even if they were born in Mexico, people who are deported do not automatically regain their citizenship rights upon return. Once in Tijuana, Mexico, deportees face obstacles in obtaining their documentation at different levels of the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, which until 2014, in a constitutional addition, did not consider the right to identity as a citizen guarantee.

Schuster and Majidi (2013), as well as Dingeman and Rumbaut (2010), have used the concept of post-deportation to emphasize that the process following deportation and return to the country of origin is marked by the transfer of the symbolic burden exerted on undocumented migrants who were unable to obtain citizenship at their destination, in this case the United States, plus all the elements that led to their deportation, and also by subjective aspects inherent in the individual experience of each individual.

The post-deportation process, which seeks to establish the connection between the processes and the experiences lived through in each context, would be associated with a broader one that could be called the recovery of citizenship. This concept involves the relationship of individuals with the State of origin, the first step of which is the recovery of these documents and a subsequent unequal process of integration or reintegration in the different dimensions of public and private life, meaning mainly work, housing, and access and mobility in public space.

As a process, the recovery of citizenship is related, on the one hand, to the approach of Fischer (2013) and Collyer (2012) regarding the distancing from the state of origin and a break in the individual-state relationship that occurs in emigration and residence in the “destination” country. What Moreno (2014) refers to as the loss of citizenship is the state in which de-territorialized individuals, due to their undocumented migratory status in another country, experience a kind of practical suspension of their rights in the country of origin and are considered “non-citizens” of the receiving State.

On the other hand, this process that occurs in a new place of residence in the country of origin after deportation is related to aspects that intervene in the same experience in the new place of residence. The above is linked both to structural aspects of the context of reception, in which different actors and government and civil society agents come into play. These actors at the local level act with discretion in the processes of seeking integration and local support carried out by individuals, creating inequalities between them. The recovery of citizenship is also linked to aspects of individual experience, capital, and resources accumulated throughout their life and history of mobility in different contexts, that is, in the process before migration, during migration, and in deportation (Pinillos, 2018).

In structural terms, the regimes of citizenship, “an analytical tool that condenses diverse facets of a network in permanent tension, not as a given and fixed order, since they vary according to time and space” (Argüello, 2019), have identity documentation as a mechanism for differentiating access to and the enforcement of citizen rights. However, the extensive discussions about citizenship and the importance of thinking about this concept go beyond national frameworks (Bosniak, 2001; Sassen, 2013). The classical view of citizenship from the liberal perspective, also called formal or political citizenship (Marshall et al., 1997), in which all lines of analysis of the individual-State relationship are sustained, and which in light of the experience of deported populations, continues to be a mechanism of differentiation and control of population mobility by the State, is strongly associated with a notion of fixed citizenship (Tilly, 1978). Under the above, the establishment of domicile or residence is indispensable in the instrumentalization of the procedures that govern the relationship between the State and the individual. This process could be called domicilization, in which the assignment of a domicile has a dichotomous character, that is, not only as a right, but it also becomes a requirement.

This dichotomy establishes what can be called “the paradox of mobility and citizenship,” particularly from the experience of deportees in Tijuana: the difficulty of having an address for lack of documents and, in turn, the difficulty of obtaining documents for lack of a fixed address. Mobility is a broad and complex term that forms part of a substantial discussion between different disciplines (Cresswell, 2006; Núñez & Heyman, 2007; Zelinsky, 1971). This work uses the term mobility to refer to both the multi-causal processes of international migration and internal migration (CIDH, 2015), and to local displacement practices and the daily dynamics of city dwellers that are studied in human geography through the concept of spatial mobility (Di Virgilio, 2011; Mendiola, 2012).

In Tijuana, paradoxically, not having a fixed residence causes individuals to maintain a life of intra-urban itinerancy, which entails greater control and surveillance by the police (Pinillos, 2018). This phenomenon, which is defined here as paradoxical, is, in turn, related to the approach by Núñez and Heyman (2007) regarding the dichotomous relationship between mobility and entrapment. Their analysis based on the experience of the border on the U.S. side establishes precisely that any representation of mobility implies one of “entrapment”. Forms of “freedom or flexibility” of movement, for example, along the border and within cities, entail forms of surveillance that, in turn, translate into forms of confinement.

It is possible to say that the access to and possession of documents is the element that filters and differentiates the processes of residential integration and mobility in public space, and intersects with the resources of the deportees themselves.4 It is a process of differentiation in the reintegration in Mexico that seems to be underpinned by a view of deportees as “undocumented” and as “liminally legal” (Menjívar, 2006). This process originated in the United States but takes different forms according to the personal resources and strategies that can be activated or created once in Mexican territory.

The concept of liminal legality, proposed by Menjívar (2006), refers to the spaces or gray areas that arise in the processes of seeking formal citizenship for Central Americans in the United States. These spaces facilitate the legal categories established in the law and which keep people subject to a limited spectrum of possibilities of integration in the different dimensions of public life, impacting their lives in numerous cases for prolonged periods. Those processes that occur in places of emigration, as in the case study of Menjívar (2006), seem to persist, although not with the threat of expulsion, in the post-deportation experience in Mexico without Mexican identity documents. The recovery of documents that make the legitimization of formal citizenship possible implies following a path that can be prolonged in time, among other reasons because it is subject to the discretion of state agents at the local level. The above is what, as Menjívar (2006) proposes for the contexts of emigration, will have an effect on the lives of people and on the different forms of reintegration and of belonging to the new receiving society, even if it is their own country of origin (Pinillos, 2018).

Social reintegration is a normative concept since it is a category based on the frameworks of thought of the State (Avallone, 2019) and is established based on what is expected to be achieved by people entering a territory. París et al. (2019) define it as the link that returnees or deportees try to build with the institutions of the country of origin. Studies on return and deportation have suggested that, in the case of those who migrated at an early age, it is not even possible to speak of reintegration. Nevertheless, it should be considered as integration, given that there was no previous relationship with the State or with the society of the country of birth. In this sense, the discussion of integration/reintegration involves both structural and subjective aspects linked to identity, belonging, and expectations, among others. In the deported populations, however, the margin where the preferences and decisions of the subjects come into play turns out to be narrow, given the lack of medium and long-range horizons (Archer, 2000).

This analysis considers that social integration, as proposed by Rivera (2013) in a study of returnees, is mediated by the dynamics between labor markets and social integration categories on different scales, global and local, and at both structural and individual levels. Therefore, the experience of return is eminently a differentiated process, due to the structure of opportunities in which an immigrant or returnee is integrated and the possibility of transforming such structures or designing mechanisms that enable their integration/reintegration (Rivera, 2013). Consequently, the study of integration processes must consider both the conditions and experiences lived through in each mobility context, as well as the characteristics of the context itself.

In Tijuana, social integration or reintegration is filtered through documentation processes. In the case of deportees, those who manage to obtain their identity documents more quickly are integrated into less precarious jobs in the formal labor market. In these cases, the participation of market agents is strongly related to this relative ease of access to official documents. For those who gain access to these documents ─people show an accumulation of disadvantages in terms of the nature of their social and cultural capital, and suffer job insecurity through addictions─ this integration is linked to access to support services provided by civil organizations or associations. The above means that not having documents will result in a greater uncertainty of living conditions, which will also lead to difficulties in obtaining decent housing and also to social processes of human deterioration such as the worsening of addiction problems and indigence (Pinillos, 2018).

Residential Integration and Documentation

Access to housing is a fundamental element of citizenship (Marshall, 1950) and one of the dimensions of access to social rights in the inclusion-exclusion model (Velázquez de la Parra, 1991). The processes of residential integration of deportees in Mexico represent a vein of exploration and analysis to be expanded. The study by Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo (2013) of populations from Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Jamaica states that a common difficulty in the processes of social reintegration of deported Central Americans is access to housing, which is related to the deterioration of their networks and the economic problems with which they return to their countries.

This dimension of citizenship positions deported individuals as subjects of the welfare system of a State. Housing, as a right, is one of the tasks for which governments work and constitutes one of the benefits of modern trade unions. In the northern border cities of Mexico, a housing infrastructure has been created that has gradually turned them into receiving cities for populations in transit and, more recently, for returned populations.

In Tijuana, there is an increasingly recognized range of organizations that provide services and support to migrants in various areas. These organizations have been created throughout the history of Tijuana as a receiving city of migrants in transit and, lately, of the population returned or deported from the United States. One of the most important services offered is temporary housing.

Accommodation is provided to individuals through two avenues: the first avenue is the shelter service offered as part of the Human Repatriation Program (Programa de Repatriación Humana, PRH)5 at the federal level that works in conjunction with local government offices responsible for dealing with deportees from the United States. This service is offered at the time of admission to the Repatriation Module, where some people take this benefit and are directed to the respective shelters. Those who have family or social networks in Tijuana or sufficient economic resources pay for the rent of a room or go to the home of their acquaintances in the city. The case study reports present cases of those who claim not to have received such information and others who say they decided not to take this option at the time of their arrival in Tijuana, but rather days after their arrival, provided that they have the certificate of deportation that is granted in the module.

The deportation certificate is what gives access to this social service. Those who benefit from this are directed in the following way: men are sent to the Casa del Migrante, women to the Casa Madre Asunta, and children or minors to the Casa YMCA. These organizations are part of what is called the “Migrant Care Coalition” (Coalición de Atención al Migrante) and work in conjunction and synergy with local government programs. The length of stay is only fifteen days. These organizations usually offer humanitarian assistance in various areas such as food, lodging, hot baths, clothing and footwear, basic medical service (first aid), and job placement. The latter is one of the services that have been incorporated to expand the scope of action of these organizations in the process of repatriation-reintegration in Mexico.

A second option is the provision of shelters that, in recent years, have transformed from places of passage to long-stay facilities. Shelters have been built mainly in the central area and surrounding sectors of the city. Information on this option is provided during the first days in the city. These are places created by civil organizations of Evangelical Christian origin and other secular organizations, the majority of which house migrants and deportees from the United States. However, they offer the accommodation service to the general public with a minimum payment that the people in charge call a “recovery fee,” which varies between 10 and 30 pesos per night. These have been created as short-stay accommodation, but they have gradually become the places of residence of the abovementioned population. The services offered vary from one to another: food, locker services to keep necessary belongings such as documents and some other items, and laundry service that is paid in addition to the recovery fee. In most of them, access is only allowed from 4:00 p.m.; in very few cases, an all-day stay is allowed, especially in extraordinary cases, for example, for people who have a physical disability that impedes their mobility. In other situations, with more flexible rules and policies of coexistence and lower quality of service, a 24-hour stay is allowed. However, these places usually remain empty during the day because individuals go out to look for work or resources to subsist. The dynamics of the accommodation spaces seem to push them to be itinerant.

In the last decade, the traditional shelters of the “Migrant Care Coalition” changed from sheltering mainly migrants in transit to people deported from the United States (Coubès et al., 2015). In 2016, Velasco et al. (2017) documented the existence of 30 shelters6, most of them of ecclesiastical origin, which attended to 2 677 people per day. For many deportees, these shelters are a place to arrive and then go to another place, either the place of origin or to settle in the city. In order to rent or buy a home in Tijuana, it is necessary to present an identity card, as well as to have reliable networks and a more or less stable income (Pinillos, 2018).

Housing Types after Deportation in Tijuana and Identity Documents

From the case studies on which this article is based, two types or residential groups can be identified. The first group consists of 13 individuals who live in houses or apartments rented by themselves, although most are supported financially by their relatives in the United States and to a lesser extent on the Mexican side, which makes it possible for them to keep the cross-border networks active. According to their accounts, they have documents and more formal jobs, such as at call centers or maquilas, and their own micro-businesses such as tattoo stores and fast food stores. Some share their residence with a family member or live alone.7

The second group of 10 people, three of whom live in small rented rooms, five in shelters, and two on the street, are engaged in informal and temporary work in markets and supply centers, and most of them have no documents. In the latter case, there seems to be no concrete margin between the forms of residence. In a very short period and, according to the resources available, in one week people can reside in a room, then in a shelter, and some days on the street. Life on the street is strongly related to drug and alcohol consumption and carries a strong stigma (Albicker & Velasco, 2016), which turns them into objects of police persecution (Contreras Velasco, 2016) and contributes to absenteeism at work.

When accessing a place to stay the night in Tijuana, both objective and subjective aspects come into play. On the objective side are the times and deadlines that are established as a framework for the provision of services and support, 15 days of accommodation in traditional organizations. Furthermore, migration law considers as a migrant a person who has not been in the city for more than six months. At the subjective level are the perceptions and preferences of the individuals. In the case studies, there is, for example, the consideration of the shelter as a safe and clean place. The story of Sergio illustrates this aspect:

(…) I prefer El Toro shelter because it is clean, the only bad thing is that they give the Word [religious service], it is like three hours, four hours, and at 10 at night those who give the Word arrive (...), it ends at like 1 in the morning, and they start dinner, sometimes it varies, at 7 at night. At El Grande [shelter], that is not the case; in El Grande, we sleep on the floor, with only a sheet, and it is cold (...) (Sergio, 2017).

The street is considered a site of vice and disorder, which can represent a risk. However, the opposite also occurs. A shelter is, for some, a place of repression, of discrimination, of coercion of their freedom, and in some cases, a dirty place: “it is a lie that they provide food, they give what they want and not to everyone, everything has to be paid for, when I want to drink I do not stay there because it is forbidden”(Ernesto, 2017).

In this way, shelter is a basic resource in the return and attempts at residential integration of deported individuals in Tijuana. If one thinks about the process, an initial point is the shelter service, which, as a social right, is established in the PRH as a temporary assistance measure, through local civil society organizations.

After the first steps to access a place to stay, other forms of residence grow and expand that will be associated with the other basic dimensions (work, leisure, expectations). The possibility of access to decent housing conditions will depend both on the possibility of the individual to recover their identity documents and the time in which this can occur. Moreover, the above depends on the resources and whether the person prefers to stay in the city and how they intend to do so. In these multiple forms of seeking residence, the shelter emerges again, now as the constitution of a type of housing for deportees, that is, the shelter goes from being conceived only as a “temporary” place, to the place where one lives. This level includes the shelters of religious and civil or private organizations that open their doors to all sectors of the population without fixed addresses.

Shelters as a Place to Live and the Street as an Expression of Resistance

The shelters in Tijuana have become the place of residence of a specific sector of the deported population. There, they carry out a good part of their daily and social activities: food, cleaning, leisure, and the establishment of interpersonal relationships, especially due to the prolongation of the time of stay. Among the cases interviewed and according to the accounts of the managers of ten shelters located in the northern zone of the city, there are people who, in May 2017, had periods of stay that exceeded five years (Pinillos, 2018).

The prolonged stays in the shelters are the result of a set of factors or aspects, among which can be mentioned the absence or limitation of economic and material resources and stable family networks, and subjective elements such as the desire for freedom or security. In other words, the preferences and expectations of individuals will always be influenced by their status as deportees from the United States. Having lived in that country and the stigma of being a deportee, for example, will affect the possibilities of accessing local resources and services. All of this will correlate with whether or not they have documents. Although not all those who use shelters are without Mexican identity documents, the fact that it is not a requirement to have an identity document in order to benefit from the service contributes to making these places one of the main options for the undocumented deported population without the economic resources to rent housing.

The mobility between shelter and street is evident in individual stories. Olivo and Gabriel, deported from the United States, are men who switched between the shelters and the street in a space near the General Hospital of Tijuana (Hospital General de Tijuana). They say they prefer to sleep on the street for lack of resources to pay for a room, and because they do not want to put up with the ill treatment they say they receive in the shelters:

(…) the food is charged for in full. In fact, you pay more than you’re supposed to, and the food is bad, they rarely give good things; the servers are rude. In the Salvation Army, they have good food they could serve, but they do not want to give it. La Roca del Alfarero is good (Olivo & Gabriel, 2017).

Álvaro, who was deported in 2014, is single, and sleeps in the Casa del Aposento shelter,8 comments:

(…) many of us who were in El Bordo9 live here, I prefer to sleep in this place because it is more flexible like the entry and exit times, because they do not force anyone to hear the word of God, and because the other places are like prisons, and the servers mistreat you (…) (Álvaro, 2016).

There is thus awareness and objection regarding the treatment they receive and the conditions in which they find themselves. Subjective elements, such as dignity, are the resources left at the limits of precariousness. Moreover, the continuous comparison with the imagined life on “the other side” leads to a kind of permanent discontent about what one has or may have in the present. The reduction of consumption that, according to the subjects, could be had in a country like the United States, also becomes a permanent element of comparison that influences the decisions made in the present.

The possibility of choosing shelters or having a place to sleep in the conditions desired will depend in good part on the possibilities of work that the person finds during the day, but also on their desires and their priorities. The shelters and kitchens, in any case, function as devices or as mechanisms of subsidy for the social reproduction of this deported, destitute, and mobile population on the border, a population that mainly consists of men.

Daily, the organizations that provide support to this deported and itinerant population establish, in turn, inequalities and differentiation between their beneficiaries or users. For example, in one of the shelters with the largest capacity (180 people per night in the men’s section; there is also a section for twelve women), a bed (bunk) is offered for those who have a longer stay in the place and preference is given to those who pay by the week or for periods of several days. Those who arrive for the first time will probably have to sleep on mats located on the floor:

(…) the beds are given to those who have already gained the trust of the people in charge of the shelter and who are regulars there. There are sixty bunk beds, i.e., 120 beds, the capacity of the shelter is 180 (…) (Moisés, 2016).

Thus, the shelters seem to function in the formation of lifestyles that do not conform to the traditional ideal of normalized and standardized life, of “successful” life, of full integration, of the notion of home and family, of the construction of daily life. Shelters also take into consideration the issue of care, which deserves further analysis, since it expresses the profound complexity of the social processes that take place in the reconstruction of life in a particular border context such as Tijuana after deportation. It is important to establish a vision that questions the paradigm of the social inclusion-integration of deportees in times of complex mobilities in multiple directions.

All these conditions will lead to the disappearance of the dividing lines between life in the shelter and on the street since the street also represents a space to sleep that is prolonged in time for a portion of the population after being deported to Tijuana. This reality seems to be associated with processes of deterioration of physical and mental conditions that are triggered after prolonged periods of itinerancy, as well as breaks in personal and family ties.

These processes of deterioration, associated with itinerancy in the city, were observed in different individuals during field trips over a year, particularly in three of the interviewees:

In accordance with the above, residential integration, an aspect of the reproduction and the construction of the family as a social ordering institution of any kind (own or rented house, or shelter), in the case of the deported population in Tijuana will result in differentiated and unequal ways of life, and particular forms of sociability and reproduction.

These mobilities are complex in a border city. The traps in international mobility and the creation of high mobility circuits within the cities can be understood in the light of non-documentation and residential instability since the conjunction of these two elements leads to greater urban itinerancy, which in turn leads to increased surveillance by government security agents, particularly the Municipal Police. Although police surveillance is exercised in Tijuana on different sectors of the population, that is, not only on the street population, the surveillance that is deployed on people who are frequently on the move in the streets and without identity documents is legitimized and occurs more harshly and frequently, as has been shown by authors such as Sayad (2011), Das and Poole (2004), and Contreras Velasco (2016).

Intra-Urban Itinerancy and Documentation

The relationship between itinerancy and identity documents has several analytical aspects. On the one hand, this itinerancy may constitute part of the flexibility required by the type of precarious work to which a sector of the deportees has access (Pinillos, 2018). On the other hand, this same condition of undocumented migrants constitutes part of their vulnerability as mobile residents of this border city, which subjects them to increased surveillance by police officers.

The conditions of being itinerant and undocumented feed off each other because being in constant movement exposes a person to the possibility of losing the documents they manage to obtain, while not having documents forces them to be in constant movement, fleeing from the police or trying to go unnoticed in hiding, which places them in a highly precarious situation. The case studies constantly reiterate the experience of arbitrary detention by the municipal police. The reasons given are for not having documents and for their physical appearance. The above coincides with other studies such as those by Velasco and Coubès (2013, p. 22, 25), in which it was found that for the inhabitants of El Bordo, 91% said that they had returned from the United States (91.5% for deportation), while 93.5% declared that they had been detained by the police in the city of Tijuana in the last 15 days, of which 19% reported they had been detained three times or more, that is, more than once a week.

These findings have to be analyzed in relation to the thesis by Torpey (1998) on free mobility as a condition of citizenship. In the Mexican Constitution, free transit is enshrined as a fundamental right. However, local regulations condition this free transit to domicilization. For example, the regulation called Bando de Policía y Gobierno del Municipio de Tijuana considers as inhabitants only those who have a domicile, either temporary or permanent, and considers it an infraction to sleep in public spaces.10

The city of Tijuana has an intense multi-directional population flow (50 000 regular international crossings per day). At these crossings, the flows of returnees, as the Northern Border Migration Survey (Encuesta sobre Migración en la Frontera Norte, EMIF)11 labels the population involuntarily returning from the United States to Mexico, have become increasingly visible.12 In a way, the Mexican border is the prototype of the scenario presented by Torpey (1998) when talking about the exaggerated importance that passports and identity documents have taken in the model of the State, producing bureaucracies and systems of intense control and surveillance.

Control over internal mobility has been exacerbated by the crisis of violence associated with organized crime, which legitimizes the strategies of the State to deal with it.13 The detentions and the violence that law enforcement agencies exercise over the bodies of people in public spaces, particularly those who are on the street, are part, as mentioned by Bloch and Schuster (2005), of a symbolic representation that legitimizes fear and the high expenditure in terms of public resources involved in deploying police units and agents in different parts of the city.

However, this control has severe consequences for the safety of the population and even more for deportees on this border. Not having identity documents, even if they are Mexican, turns them into objects of suspicion over which constant vigilance is exercised, as was the case during their stay as undocumented migrants in the United States. The story of Sergio highlights the police as an important element in the dynamics and life itineraries of the sector of the population that arrives in search of work in this city because they act as an agent of control and exclusion, limiting the mobility of individuals within the city and reinforcing the cycle of labor and social precariousness they face.

I always pay the rent a month in advance, because sometimes you do not know, sometimes there is no work or anything. I try to live well, and not look so filthy because here, if the police see you filthy, they detain you (...) And then the police will beat you in your cell, and as I am gay, there is a policeman who always brings me in, and whenever he catches me, he gives me 36 hours, I do not see the judge and the policeman inside starts beating me, I do not (...) I do not even put in a report with human rights [organizations] because they are going to bring the same policeman. The judge bases his decisions on the way you are dressed (Sergio, 2017).

The case of Sergio shows how the processes of stigmatization are intertwined with the mechanisms of control of intra-urban mobility. State agents of public security share prejudices about the deportees based on their appearance and the idea of failure that is created by the media and the programs run by government institutions where discourses and actions that discriminate against the deportees are created. This surveillance is accompanied by abuse and the extraction of the few economic resources they may have. The stories of those who live in shelters, in rooms, and on the street coincide in reporting the theft of their money and belongings in every arrest by the police. Thus they enter a kind of spiral of precariousness, from which it is difficult to get out.

In short, the possession of identity documents, not just passports, is a source of inequality among the deported population, which is intertwined with other absences of capital such as schooling and language skills that limit their internal and international mobility. Even those deportees who have the proper documents face this surveillance, but with other social and cultural capital. In these cases, it is not only the documents but also their human capital and knowledge of their rights that make it possible to deal with the abuse of authority differently.

In the practices of the police, the constitution of the State itself is also responsible, as noted by Contreras Velasco (2016), when documenting the violence that the municipal police exert on those living on the streets of the city of Tijuana. In other words, the police is the institution through which the State has dominion in public spaces. However, in the street, its capacity for action is limited (Contreras Velasco, 2016). This condition of permanent surveillance over the deported individuals worsens their precariousness, increasing the marginality that has been consolidated in a related process of “movement-confinement” (Núñez & Heyman, 2007) both in Mexico and in the United States.


The findings of the research on which this text is based show that a significant obstacle to the social reintegration of deportees is the difficulty in accessing identity documents, and it constitutes a major source of inequality among deportees that is linked to their employment and housing options. The idea of an obstacle emerges both from the normative notion of reintegration, which also defines the existence of elements that facilitate or hinder the processes that deported individuals “must” carry out in Tijuana; and from the discourse and accounts of the subjects interviewed and the members of the civil society organizations involved in receiving the migrant and deported population.

Studies on return and deportation demonstrate the importance of contextual elements in understanding this process. In that sense, an important aspect to consider is the asymmetry between these countries, as described by Rivera (2013). The above reduces the possibilities of mobility, re-adaptation, and readjustment of expectations. These possibilities are defined in relation to the resources found in both countries (Rivera, 2013, p. 60), which can be seen most strongly in the border regions where these flows and exchanges occur on a daily basis. Therefore, it is necessary to locate the processes of reintegration of the population deported from the United States in Tijuana as a border city, in order to understand the reasons and expectations of the individuals on settling in the city.

In terms of residential integration, there are different forms of housing for this population related to access to documentation in Tijuana. As already mentioned, the domiciled view of the citizen responds to that of a spatially fixed citizenship. Having a place to reside requires having documents and vice versa. Generally, people who have access to documentation have greater ease in accessing rental housing. The observation of the housing and residence conditions of the study population represents an open vein of analysis.

The difficulty of access to housing for a section of deportees, mainly those living in shelters or on the street, is a recurring problem. The condition of deportation in times of complex mobilities in multiple directions challenges the idea of home. People who live in rooms, shelters, or on the street have an existence in which they are always without a fixed place of residence.

People without documentation depend more on the provision of shelters, as the rules of operation of these places lead to a constant flow of people. Their residential itineraries include the street or public areas, hotels, or short-term rental rooms. Residence in shelters changes from being temporary to permanent, such as lifestyles or forms other than the sedentary or domiciled style and causes changes in the standardized views of life. This phenomenon is very important in the city of Tijuana, where the arrival of different migrant populations with or without the experience of deportation, especially since 2008, has led to the creation of what could be called a social infrastructure of care with the participation of multiple social actors. Considering these novel residential configurations of border cities with high mobility leads to questioning the homogeneous and generalized views of social inclusion/integration expected of a population living in a condition of forced displacement through deportation.

Not having a fixed residence is associated with continuous mobility between shelters that extends to mobility in public spaces. Not having documents and not having a residence can lead to daily wandering, which places these people under suspicion, and under permanent surveillance by the police, similar to their experience during their residence in the United States.

It seems that the most precarious jobs require this mobile workforce that fits the forms of flexible and completely informal hiring. However, this itinerancy is penalized in different ways in their encounters with the police, either with confinement or a fine. The arrests make access to work more difficult, make this workforce more insecure, and keep it subdued and exploited.

There are several consequences of this human condition that can be interpreted in different ways. One could be the dehumanization and loss of citizenship of migrants who remain in deportation with no housing, separated from their family, no work, and in extremely precarious conditions. At the same time, it could be read as a condition of life in a state of “anti-discipline” to the extent that the forms of control documentation, housing, and work are not ways of registration in a portion of the population. Nevertheless, the agency that would translate the “anti-discipline” is relative, because these findings indicate that even at high levels of precariousness, these people are linked to forms of exploitation, in the markets or informal trades. They are used as political clientele or reduced to objects of compassion of the sectors that serve the migrant population in the city. The precariousness of deportees is economically and socially functional.

It is possible to explain the existence of freedom conditioned and regulated by the State, which seems to only connect with this population through the police. Immobility or confinement ─discussed by Núñez and Heyman (2007)─ that deportees may experience for different periods in their lives, becomes another sign of loss of citizenship. This conforms to the conception of Das and Poole (2004) of identity documents as how the State shows itself in its duality of near and far, a form of language and a mechanism to communicate its capacity to control and regulate society and condition citizenship. Monitoring the internal mobility of the population becomes a threat to the free mobility of the entire population. The above is a paradox of apparent freedom of movement, but in which all the power of the State is revealed, as well as the control and inequality that this power creates through the support of the notion of formal and fixed citizenship.


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1 The findings presented in this article are part of the doctoral research thesis “Going back to being Mexican: re-development and deportation on the Mexico-US border” (“Volver a ser mexicano: reciudanización y deportación en la frontera México-Estados Unidos”).

2 The observation of migratory flows at the global level and the new theoretical perspectives linked to migration show the circular nature of human mobility and destroy the myth of migration as a linear process with a starting point and an end point, so that the terms destination and return are ambiguous and the subject of constant debate. In this text the term destination is used as a reference to the places where the objects of study went in their process of emigration, which in most cases represented their place of residence for long periods.

3 Returned Migrants Questionnaire by U.S. Authorities from the Northern and Southern Border Migration Survey (El Colegio de la Frontera Norte et al., 2020).

4 These resources available to the individuals under discussion are social networks (París et al., 2017; Pérez, 2014) and social or cultural capital, such as schooling and language (Cassarino, 2004; Rivera, 2013), and the acquisition of knowledge and skills in trades and professions carried out mainly in the United States (Hualde et al., 2015; Pérez, 2014).

5 PRH is a program of the National Institute of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM); for its operation, it has installed modules of repatriation where the Mexican State begins to receive its citizens. PRH offers the following services in eleven border cities: 1. Communication with the consulate; 2. Telephone call with family members; 3. Medical and psychological assistance; 4. Water and food; 5. Transfer to shelters or transport stations; 6. Directing to temporary shelters; and, 7. Proof of entry into the country (INM, 2018). The general objective has been to coordinate immediate care services for returnees (París, 2010, p. 25). Immigration officials register in the repatriation system each individual that arrives after being deported from the United States. Then a certificate of deportation is granted that allows the individual to identify him/herself in Mexican territory and be a beneficiary of the support that may exist for deportees from the different organizations in the city (shelters, canteens, and others) (Pinillos, 2018).

6 This number reflects an unusual increase in 2016 due to the immigration of a significant flow of Haitians and displaced Mexicans seeking asylum in the United States.

7 It is important to mention that due to methodological and access effects, since these are private spaces, no direct observation of this type of housing was carried out.

8 A place that is in the North Zone of Tijuana, close to the prostitution zone of the city and that is always padlocked. It is a dark place with a pervasive smell of cigarettes, in which there are some gaming machines at the entrance and along a corridor some rooms with some mats, that look more like carpets, where people sleep.

9 “El Bordo” was the space “along the canalization of the Tijuana River where between 700 and 1 000 people resided, distributed in 118 informal dwellings, 25 holes, 7 sewers, and 10 bridges; there were also those who settled outdoors along the two kilometers of slopes and tunnels” (Velasco & Coubés, 2013).

10 See Articles 13 and 72 of the Police and Government of the Municipality of Tijuana, 2017 (XXII Ayuntamiento de Tijuana, 2017).

11 Northern and Southern Border Migration Survey.

12 An idea of the volume is given by the following information. In the years 2013 and 2012, 4.6 million returns were made across the northern border of Mexico (Velasco & Coubès, 2013).

13 In the last two presidential terms, the number of deaths due to violence amounted to 234 000 (Hernández Borbolla, 2017).

Gabriela Pinillos
Colombian. She has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences with a specialty in Regional Development, at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. She is a post-doctoral researcher and participated in the Migration, Inequality, and Public Policy seminar of the El Colegio de México, Mexico City, Mexico. Research lines: inequalities and processes of citizenship construction, power and state control, border studies, deportations, and forced displacement. Recent publication: Pinillos, G. & Flores, F. (2020). Migración de retorno y separación familiar: un estudio de caso en la Ciudad de México. Revista Coyuntura Demográfica,número especial, (18), 97-101.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Atribución no comercial 4.0 Internacional.