My friend Jaime crossed the border illegally in late 2015. He didn’t climb the fence, sneak through a tunnel, or swim around the wall. He walked up to the Otay gate and told a Customs and Border Protection agent that he had lost his non-existent passport after a night of partying. With help from a “white boy” that he met at a strip club, Jaime’s story and American mannerisms were convincing enough that the agent let him through. After a year and four months of living undocumented in California, Jaime decided to self-deport back to Tijuana.
“You got fat,” were my first words to Jaime before we hugged. I had not seen Jaime since he walked across and went to live in Pomona, 30 miles east of Los Angeles, with his aunt and grandma. He wasn’t really fat, but he had gained some weight. We met in downtown Tijuana the day after he self-deported to catch up over beers.
“I got to my sister’s house, it was nighttime on a Sunday. I opened the door, they cried, I hugged them,” Jaime starts narrating what it was like to be back in his California home. Jaime grew up undocumented in Pomona with his aunt and his grandmother. He refers to his aunt, who is a couple months older than him, as his sister. Because his grandmother raised him, he calls her “Mom.”
“All my friends wanted to give my family the surprise that I was coming. But my family already knew, because I posted on Instagram that I was at a Starbucks in Chula Vista. It was in October, so I spent Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my mom’s birthday with them. I wasn’t working throughout all that time. It was all family time. They were just happy to have me back.”
“So, the way you get a job over there,” Jaime explains, “is to buy a fake Social [Security card] and a fake green card. It was the shittiest fake green card ever. My name was signed not even in cursive — they signed it for me. I found my jobs on Craigslist. I always had to go for low-paying jobs, start-ups, or family owned businesses, because I knew they wouldn’t check my Social Security for authenticity like a Walmart or other large corporation would. After three or four months with my family [not working], I got a job at a chiropractor’s office.”
The chiropractor’s office was only a few blocks away from where Jaime grew up. “They were paying me $10 an hour. They hired me to do one thing, but while I was there, two people left, so I had to do their jobs as well. They hired me to do assessments; most of his patients were workers’ compensation cases. It was really easy shit, and I was just on the computer typing their issues.
“But then I had to help them with therapy. Which was disgusting when they were old fat ladies, you know? I had to put electric patches wherever it hurt, and it was usually on their lumbar spine. The good thing was I learned a lot of medical terminology, but the bad… I would have to give them massages with a machine and rub lotion on them. It was not fun and uncomfortable. I was also answering calls, talking to lawyers, insurance companies, clients, doing the appointments, all in both languages.
“I told them, ‘Look, hey, I have no issues doing these jobs, but you gotta pay me at least one dollar more.’ And they had me for a month telling me, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that.’ I was doing a three-people job, so I insisted, and they said, ‘We are not giving you more.’ I just quit the next day.
“After that, I didn’t have an actual job for a month. I was going through stupid-ass jobs. Have you heard about the Kirby vacuum? No? They don’t advertise on television or have any other type of advertisement, because they pay people like me to go door-to-door. I didn’t like it at all. During the training, I was, like, ‘I’m not doing this shit.’ That’s the thing about living over there, I had to do these type of bullshit jobs.”
“It was a ’98 Nissan… uhh… Sentra, I think?”
Jaime realized that to get a better job, he was going to need a car.
“It was a shitty car. I got it for $500. It was my friend’s mom’s car and said she was selling it for $1000, but she would give it to me for $500. A day or two after I bought it, I got pulled over because I was talking on the phone. The motorcycle cop asked for license and registration right away. But I had just got it. I didn’t have insurance or registration. He was actually pretty cool. I was shaking. I was, like, Oh, f#@k.”
Jaime had an AB 60 license, which are the product of a law signed by Governor Brown in 2013, directing the California Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a driver’s license to any California resident who is eligible, regardless of immigration status.
“I was, like, ‘Sir, I just bought this car a week ago. It’s my friend’s mom’s car. I don’t have any of that yet, but here’s my license.’”
The cop looked at his license and asked, “Federal limits apply...what does that mean?” To restrict undocumented migrants from voting, AB 60 licenses denote that the rights of the holder are limited and only apply to the State of California.
“I was, like, ‘I dunno,’” Jaime responded.
The cop asked, “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
“I went, like, ‘Uhh… no.’”
The cop waved his hand in a dismissive way and said to Jaime “It doesn’t matter anyway. But here’s the thing, though, you don’t have registration, you don’t have insurance, that is a $2000 fine.”
“Why are you shaking?” asked the cop, “a pretty big white guy” by Jaime’s description.
Jaime replied, “I’m shaking because you are scaring me and you are making me nervous, sir.”
“Don’t worry,” the cop said in a friendly tone. “I’m going to let you off with a warning, and I’m going to give you a ticket for being on the phone.”
Jaime recalls the ticket was around $150. He also believes he could have been screwed — they could have taken his car, or much worse, face jail and deportation. But local law enforcement cannot discriminate against people with AB 60 licenses.
“So, anyway, after a month not working, I ended up getting a job at a collections agency. It was basically taking money from poor people, and as it turned out, I was pretty good at it.” Jaime chuckled. “But my morals wouldn’t let me keep getting money from them. Their debt was, like, ten years old; you know, it was not good debt. I did that job for seven months and had to quit. And again I went another month not working. I was just going to interviews, and it was the same shit, collection agencies, call centers, door-to-door salesmen. It was all bullshit jobs.
“I ended up going to this interview to be a car salesman at this dealership that was for like BMWs. I thought it was going to be the same thing as before. I thought it was Mexican-owned, because the name of the place was Perez Motors or something like that. So I thought I would be good; I thought, I can work there and be okay. I aced the interview, they gave me the job. They said I could start on Monday since it was Friday but that I had to go to the DMV as soon as possible to get my California license to sell cars.”
Applicants for car-selling licenses in California must undergo a criminal background check. Jaime knew he would not be able to get his salesman license as an undocumented migrant.
“I just lost hope. Being a car salesmen is not my thing, but it’s fine, it’s whatever. I’m good at selling, I’m good at talking to people, it was going to be good money. But when they told me I needed the license to sell cars, I was, like, ‘I’m done. I’m going back to Tijuana. [email protected]#k it.’”
“As soon as I got to San Ysidro and saw the Mexico side...my heart was coming out of my chest. In my head, I was, like, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Is it too late to go back?’ But I just had to do it. It was nerve-wrecking, it was scary. It was scarier than the first time. The first time I was decided. This time it was so fast.”
At age 24, this was the second time that Jaime self-deported to Tijuana.
“I didn’t want to come back to Tijuana without a job, so I started looking for some. I knew the call centers were going to get me in no time. There was this call center that wanted me at a management position; they were going to pay me pretty good, but it’s just not what I wanted to do.”
The first time Jaime moved to Tijuana at age 20, he had a job as a writer and editor for an English-language sports website startup.
“Out of nowhere, my friend Pablo sent me a message saying, ‘Hey, we are looking for content writers, but you have to live in Tijuana.’ It was exactly what I wanted, so I sent my application and articles. Two weeks after that, I had my interview in San Diego. The employer liked me. He was talking shit on Pablo, wondering why I would be friends with him if I were such a normal guy. He wanted me to start the next day, but I told him I had to go to Pomona to get my stuff and say my goodbyes.”
Once south of the border, Jaime knew he would rarely be able to see his stateside family and friends. “My family understood,” he says. “My friends were, like, ‘You’re stupid.’ They said I took the easy way out, like going to Tijuana is easy. They said I should hustle over there and get past it. I am not the first or the last to be working undocumented. But [email protected]#k that. I don’t want to be working in a factory or a bullshit job.... I want to be mentally stimulated at my job. I want to grow and learn. Even though I’m getting paid way less than what I would get paid working for McDonald’s over there, the experience I am getting is…priceless, you know? What good am I going to do working over there when I’m not learning anything and I’m not growing. I’m just getting money and spending it. That’s not life.”
Jaime went home to Pomona, packed his things, sold his car for $750, hugged his family goodbye, and partied one last time with his friends.
“My last Friday, my friends came to San Diego, we got a hotel, we partied, and I paid for everything. The $750 was supposed to come back with me to Tijuana, but it was gone after the weekend. We went back to Pomona on Saturday, still drinking, still partying. The next morning we were all hungover, but I told them I had to be in Tijuana that night.
“My friends were going to come over with me; they were going to cross and have a beer. But as soon as we got to the border, they reneged and didn’t cross. They were hungover, and they had never been to Tijuana. I told them that I got it, that they didn’t have to. And now, well, now I’m here.”
After spending over a year undocumented in California, Jaime is now living with his brother in Tijuana as if he never left.
“In the end, and I knew from the beginning, it was not permanent, and I need permanent. I don’t want to be living in limbo over in the U.S.”