On a hot late spring morning in April, 2017, half a dozen dejected men sat on a shaded bench in front of the Grupo Beta office in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.

Deported the previous day from the United States, the men, who ranged in age from late teens to mid-50s, were making plans to either return to their home towns or try to reenter the States through the desert.

Teodoro was 38 and had been working in construction in Las Vegas for 12 years. He had a wife and 9-year-old daughter in Vegas. He said he had paid $7,000 to get his papers fixed, but he’d been ripped off. He spent nine months in immigration prison before being bused to the border. He was going back to his hometown in Veracruz – a violence plagued region of Mexico — and then somehow try to get back to the U.S.

Javier, 20, also picked up while working construction in Las Vegas, said he was bitten by a Border Patrol dog, and not allowed to see a judge before being deported.

As the men told their stories in Spanish, I translated for students from the University of Arizona Honors College on a day-long field trip. The class of eight, accompanied by their professor, a graduate student, and I, a freelance journalist, had traveled 60 miles south of Tucson for a first-hand look at border issues.

At the office of Grupo Beta, a Mexican immigration police force that operates along both the U.S. and Guatemalan borders, we learned a little about the local migrant population. Depending on the season, Grupo Beta officers in Nogales encountered between 15 and 80 migrants a day.

Some migrants were Mexicans deported from the U.S., some were Mexicans who found themselves in trouble before crossing the border, and, surprisingly, nearly half were from countries other than Mexico. Most of these were Central Americans, but a few were from Haiti, Africa, the Middle East, and other distant lands, detained while trying to enter the U.S.

If these foreigners did not have proper visas to be in Mexico, they were sent to an immigration prison to await deportation. As for the rest, Grupo Beta told us they helped people with bus fare, but the migrants we spoke to out front, all Mexican, said that wasn’t true. They said Grupo Beta just took people to migrant shelters and left them there.

Later that afternoon, we visited one of the places where Grupo Beta took deportees, a clean, orderly, hilltop migrant shelter called Casa Juan Bosco. Migrants could stay in bunkbeds, shower, and eat for three nights, and then had to move on. The place also had ample facilities for women and children, but those rooms were empty when we visited.

At Casa Juan Bosco, we met in small groups with about a dozen men in a small chapel, facing a simple altar and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Most of the men were from southern states embroiled in turmoil. Several were from Guerrero, the state where the 43 student teachers had been disappeared. “Four of them were from my village,” one man said. He had been working in Salt Lake City for two years. Another young man from Morelos had lived and worked in Redwood City, California, for three years and was anxious to get back to his family in Los Angeles.

“There’s no work, just violence,” he said of Mexico. “The mafia have control of everything.”

Another young man described how migrants were accosted on the streets of Nogales.

“They come up to you and tell you to take a package across for them or they’ll kill you.”

While some characterize these deportees as criminals, the ones we talked to seemed decent, honorable, and hard-working. As one man ruefully pointed out, if they were tied to the mafia — as they called the narco traffickers — would they be so bereft?

–June 27, 2017