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The War on Migrants

Migrant workers in cities like Tijuana bear the brunt of global capitalism's assault on labor.

Mexican man emigrating to the US, 1912. George Grantham Bain Collection.

If you want to see the casualties of global capitalism, you could do worse than Tijuana, Baja California Norte.

Home to hundreds of thousands of migrants who started fleeing southern and central Mexico decades ago, the city has long been populated by displaced workers. But with stepped-up border security and aggressive deportations, forced relocation from the United States has further strained the local labor market.

Far from finding refuge in their native country, migrants are not only thrown into a city of high unemployment and few social services, but are punished and criminalized for their destitution. One can hardly call them citizens, as their precarious work status affords them few protections or rights.

The social abandonment that migrant workers experience in Tijuana is hardly an accident. They bear the brunt of a system that accelerates the flow of capital across borders, then erects walls, flies drones, and installs armed state agents to prevent labor from doing the same.


Mexican migration to the United States has always been rooted in crisis. The first waves came during the Mexican Revolution, in which nearly a million people were killed. The most recent catalyst for influxes, however, has been neoliberalization.

Following the global economic crisis in the 1970s and the debt crisis in the early 1980s, the International Monetary Fund forced Mexico to adopt structural adjustment measures. Out was state-directed economic expansion — a strategy called import-substitution industrialization — in were privatization and social spending cuts.

This economic restructuring was nothing short of revolutionary. The Fordist—Keynesian class compromise was uprooted, and class power was secured by a new accord between the national and transnational bourgeoisie. Technocrats came to rule the country, and organized labor was ousted from the corporatist state model.

By the mid-1990s, after the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico had been integrated into the US and Canadian economies, creating a neoliberal economic bloc. This effectively obliterated the agrarian economy of Mexico and forced huge migration flows into booming industrial cities (and the United States), especially along the border, igniting a new wave of proletarianization.

Tijuana, a city whose mushrooming population has made it a repository for reserve labor, is an exemplar. According to the 1990 census, Tijuana’s population was about 700,000, 370,000 of which were born elsewhere. By 2000, the city had almost doubled to 1,210,820 people — 581,235 were born outside the city. By 2010, the count was 1,559,683 and 744,150.

With wages depressed, population growth hasn’t fueled economic expansion of late. In the first quarter of this year, the primary economic sector declined by 22.3 percent, and the industrial sector shrunk by 3.9 percent. The vice president of the National College of Economists recently acknowledged that a wage of at least three times the minimum wage is necessary to purchase enough basic foodstuffs for a typical family in the state of Baja California, and that increases in the minimum wage have not covered living costs for at least thirty years.

Considering the poor wages and widespread joblessness, it’s no surprise many workers look north. But migration across a heavily militarized border is no easy task.

Under President Obama, more than two million people have been deported (a number that, to be fair, is inflated due to a more expansive definition of what constitutes a deportee). When the US government tries to justify the removals and the breaking up of families, it maintains that people are being expelled for criminal behavior. Yet many of the migrants I interviewed were removed from the country for crimes that hardly seem to merit expulsion.

The case of Eliseo is instructive. The forty-five-year-old, who settled in the Bay Area in the 1982 after leaving Mexico amid economic collapse, was deported in 2010.

“I was only supposed to stay for six hours in the drunk tank for being drunk in public,” Eliseo tells me. “Next thing I knew, I was sent to a detention center and knew I’d never go back home.”

Such cases are endemic. A New York Times investigation earlier this year found that under Obama, two-thirds of those deported “had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.”

Their criminalization transnational, deportees are also treated as illicit by Mexican authorities. For years now, the Tijuana police have targeted deportees on patrols throughout the city, blaming them for violence and crime.

I briefly spoke with a migrant who complained of such harassment at a protest in early August.

“The worst thing about it is when the police search me,” he says. “They open my bag, and they just dump my things onto the dirty floor. Things that I’ve tried so hard to collect. Hygienic products, like my toothbrush.” He pauses and glances away, down the street. He bites his lip. Then he continues: “How can I get a job if I’m not even presentable? To the police, we and our things are just garbage.”

The searches are allowed under a legal code entitled Bando de Policia y el Buen Gobierno (Right of the Police and Good Government). Emiliano González, a fifty-seven-year-old retired transit officer, explains that the police are allowed to ask an individual for their identification; the migrants then must prove that they maintain “an honest lifestyle.” Effectively, this means they have to provide an address of residency — an impossible task for most migrants.

After removal from the United States, deportees are immediately processed at the Instituto Nacional de Migración (National Institution of Migration). Here, “they are given identification, permitted two phone calls, are given maps, and the institute pays for the flight back to their home city.”

That’s according to an official at the institute, who wished to remain anonymous. He adds however, that roughly half of forced deportees do not return home.

“This is normally because they don’t want to go back and look bad,” he tells me. “They came all that way for the American Dream, and they don’t want to return as empty-handed as when they left.”

Those who stay wander the streets in search of work, at the mercy of a police force that operates under an informal quota. As González puts it, “We have to prove that we did something [on our shift]. So [if you’re low on numbers] you go out and grab some people here or there.”

The existence of the quota was later corroborated in an off-hand comment by the official from the National Institute of Migration — if police are down on numbers, they go to Zona Norte, rustle up some migrants, and take them to jail.

Even González admits that problem is a structural, economic one.

“If they had jobs at home [here in Mexico], they would have never left in the first place,” he says. He complains that the Mexican government washes its hands of the migrants, exerting little energy to get them back to their home cities once deported. Programs do exist to return individuals back home after being expelled, “but for every ten they get back home, there are still hundreds more.”

Indeed, the difficulty of finding work is at the core of migrant grievances.

“I left [Mexico] for a simple reason — to find work,” says Eliseo, a painter who originally came from Michoacán. “In Mexico there wasn’t any work at that time. And I needed to feed my mother. That simple.”

Throughout the migrant shelters that are sprinkled along the northern neighborhoods of Tijuana, the standard protocol is to limit the number of nights migrants can stay. If they’re lucky they can find work there as volunteers and are given a bed and free meals.

David, a worker at a migrant shelter in an eastern neighborhood in the city, is one such person. He was deported in 2008 following his arrest for drug possession. After spending two nights on the streets of Tijuana, he landed at the migrant shelter.

“The way it works here, you come in, you line up. Write your name, state where you’re from, age, and how many years you’ve been in the United States. It’s 15 [pesos] to sleep and 5 [pesos] to eat.”

When asked why they charge, he says, “Sorry but it doesn’t say ‘government,’ [above the door] does it?”

Taking a tour through the facility, the rooms are silent and empty. The bunks are kept clean and lined up along the room and color-coded. “Gotta keep orderly,” David says. Dormitories are spartan, with dozens of bunks cramped into the room. Lockers are permitted for some and are chain-locked by the migrant themselves, holding the little possessions migrants have collected.

Typical procedure at the migrant shelter is to lock migrants into the complexes and force them to leave in the morning.

At the shelter where David works, he explains, “everyone gets up at seven to pick up, eat, and pray, and you have to be off the facility by 10 AM. From there, you try to get a job.”

Some deportees have been able to find work in Tijuana’s call centers due to their knowledge of English. But for the rest, everyday life is marked by a constant struggle to find food and work — especially for those of advanced age.

As Eliseo explains, “Past the age of forty-five, it gets harder to find work. As if it wasn’t hard already. The thing is that they might keep you for a little while, washing cars for example, but they let you go as soon as someone younger comes along.”

David agrees: “Between 18 and 50 [years of age], you got a chance. But if they send you out after fifty, man.. . . That’s different. Then there’s no going back. Then they just give up on life.”

“There needs to be a social program,” he says. “This isn’t enough.”


There has been minimal movement by the Tijuana government to help the migrant population. This summer, it held a job fair for deportees, in which local employers offered little more than a thousands jobs. Considering the volume of migrants in the city, however, such an event was a joke of a gesture, good press for the government and business associations that did little to improve the material conditions of migrants.

And even such negligible efforts are counterbalanced by other forms of social neglect. Along “El Bordo,” (the canal that cuts through the city center, which has become a makeshift home for some migrants), activists say the police have used rubber bullets against the down-and-out.

According to Arnulfo Bañuelos Pérez, director of planning and projects of the municipal police, due to the concentration of drug-addicted persons that reside along el Bordo, the area has become a prime marketplace for drug dealers. A violent turf war has ensued. (The turf war itself, of course, is the result of the city’s social abandonment.)

Aside from this area, the official from the National Institute of Migration says that migrants have become a commodity for kidnappers:

Migrants go to Plaza Bicentenario in Zona Norte looking for polleros [also known as coyotes] to cross them back. They tell them that family will pay them once they get across. Problem is, they put them in a trunk, and then they end up ransomed. They call the family and tell them to come up with even more money, and if not, they end up dead.

What’s perverse is that even as they’re discarded and disregarded, migrants’ bodies continue to be useful for the neoliberal state. Despite neoliberalism’s claimed aversion to all things government, the criminalization of migrants fuels an industrial complex on both sides of the border that promotes spending in security apparatuses and lines the coffers of private prison companies.

New institutions are created (such as the Institute of Migration) while pre-existing institutions (such as local police forces or the Border Patrol) expand their activities. Both the city police and the National Institute of Migration have more reason to receive funds, under the pretext of a growing criminal wave. Rather than put money into social programs that employ the unemployed, following the example of many progressive governments in South America, the Mexican government funds security complexes.

What has been created in Tijuana is an orphaned section of the working class. Unmoored and beaten down, workers can no longer sell their labor, but value is still extracted from them. Their misery is the inevitable product of capital’s war on labor.

As Guevara, a working-class organizer from Alianza Migrante Tijuana, put it, “There’s no such thing as the American Dream. The only thing I see is the result of an American nightmare.”