In a far corner of the Mexico City Airport, past all the shops inside the international arrivals terminal, you’ll find the N door.
This is a special exit for passengers who arrive on deportation flights from the U.S.
More than a hundred men started to trickle through on a late Tuesday morning. In one hand, they each carry a white bag, like a potato sack, with their personal belongs. In the other hand is a government-issued sack lunch, containing a juice box, a sandwich, a water bottle, an apple and a cupcake.
“I left everything behind — my daughters, everything” said Gustavo Martinez, who lived in Utah 18 years. His daughters are ages 13 and 6.
Martinez said he was deported a few months ago. He was just caught again trying to cross back.
Odds are many of passengers that came off this flight with Martinez have been deported from the U.S. before, and several will be again.
Federal data show more than half of people deported in the past decade were deported more than once. For many it’s a revolving door, although one that may be slowing. Still, this pattern raises questions in the U.S. about the various costs of deportation — financially, and on a personal level.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates three weekly deportation flights between Texas and Mexico City.
Gustavo Lavariega knows the routine well.
“Hours in the plane, eating with one hand,” Lavariega said, pushing his hands together to show how detainees travel in handcuffs. “Everything just one hand.”
Lavariega came through this N door himself last year, after he was deported from Eastern Washington. He’d lived in Walla Walla for 17 years.
“I felt bad — bad,” he said. “I don’t have nothing.”
Now, Lavariega is here at the Mexico City Airport as part of a volunteer group called Deportados Unidos, or Deportees United.
They greet deportation flights and try to help people who land here, disoriented and alone. It’s a shoestring operation, and mostly what they offer is moral support and networking.
Ana Laura Lopez started this group last year, after she was deported from Chicago.
“Every time I come, I relive what I felt when I arrived,” said Lopez. “I remember the first time I arrive to Mexico. Nobody was here to receive me, to give me a hug, to tell me you are not alone. That’s the reason we come every week here.”
Lopez and Lavariega share a lot in common. They both lived in the U.S. half their lives. And they’re both trying to find some lawful way to get back — to their homes and their children, who are American citizens. Lavariega has two teenage daughters. Lopez has two teenage sons. All are still in the U.S.
“I’ve lost all these months,” Lopez said. “Their graduation, taking them to school, to be with them.”
This is part of the price her family will pay, the emotional turmoil. This deportation is also a big financial hit for Lopez and her family.
“Because it’s really hard to find a job here,” Lopez said. “There’s a lot of discrimination against women, sometimes for age, for many circumstances. My country is beautiful but it’s hard to find opportunities here.”
This frustration is what drove her north to the U.S. in the first place.
For deportees who land back in Mexico, an increasing number of them spent a long time in the U.S. And it’s these people who say they’re most likely to return, according to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
In Eastern Washington, Lavariega ran a painting business. Lopez worked as a community organizer in Chicago.
Their work experience is not lost on Mexican officials. The government recently ramped up efforts to get returned migrants back in the job market.
That’s why Mariselia Anaya Flores was also posted at the N door as deportees exit. She’s with the Mexican labor department.
“Sometimes we see people [deportees] come through days after we just saw them,” Flores said, as she handed out pamphlets about unemployment benefits and job training.
She said she’s glad to welcome these deportees back, although she’s no fan of U.S. immigration policy.
“I really don’t know why they want to throw them out,” Flores said. “ Trump should value them...and stop pushing them out. My people are very hard working and making your economy great.”
Lopez tapped into this government help. Thanks to a small grant, she opened a print shop making items stamped with Deportees United brand name.
But for Lopez, the goal is not to stay in Mexico. She wants to save money, hire a lawyer and try to fight her deportation case.
That’s the hope. But most days, she said she just feels stuck.
“I don’t have a plan,” Lopez said. “All my plans was in Chicago. All my life was in Chicago.”
Once past security, and out of the N door, Gustavo Martinez beelined to the payphones.
“I’m trying to call my sister in Utah, so she can call my sister here in Mexico,” he said in half English, half Spanish.
Martinez said he overstayed a visa and his ex-wife reported him to ICE. But after 18 years in the U.S., he also plans to find a way back. He thinks most parents in his situation would.
“If they left their family, yeah, they’re going to try again,” he said.
Volunteer Lavariega said he meets a lot of new deportees who don’t stay long.
“Yeah, they come and buy a flight to Tijuana and jump back,” he said.
Lavariega “jumped back” himself several years ago, after ICE deported him to Tijuana. He tried to get to family in Mexico City, but he didn't have enough money.
“And I have a couple guys with me and we decide, 'Let’s go back to Washington. OK, let’s go.’ And the next day, boom. Jump again,” Lavariega said.
His boss at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Washington helped him with the trip. Lavariega was deported a second time last year.
A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office showed a 29 percent recidivism rate for people caught along the southwest border, and also concluded the U.S Border Patrol method to track recidivism leads to inaccuracies and underreporting.
On average, ICE paid $10,854 for each individual deportation in 2016, as part of the agency’s $6 billion budget that year.
“This cost includes all costs necessary to identify, apprehend, detain, process through immigration court, and remove an alien,” said Lori Haley, an ICE spokeswoman.
President Donald Trump has pressed for tougher enforcement of illegal immigration, and has proposed a budget increase of nearly 30 percent for ICE’s 2018 budget. That includes funds to hire 2,000 more employees and add 51,379 detention beds.
“The costs really add up,” said Ben Gitis, director of Labor Market Policy at the American Action Forum, a center-right economic think tank.
He co-authored a report in 2015 that focused on candidate Trump’s pledge to deport all undocumented immigrants and what that effort would cost.
“It requires quite a bit of manpower, a lot of detention space, a pretty elaborate court system, which already has a significant backlog,” Gitis said, ticking off a laundry list.
“And of course, transporting undocumented immigrants is not as simple as buying folks a bus ticket and sending them over the border. They require often chartered flights with agents on board.”
Constraints showed this year, as immigration arrests spiked nearly 40 percent, but deportations could not keep up.
Then there’s the economic cost. Gitis said removing all undocumented workers would leave millions of jobs open, even after Americans fill in the gaps.
"Removing all undocumented immigrants would cause the labor force to shrink by 6.4 percent, which translates to a loss of 11 million workers," the report states.
Overall, Gitis argues for policy changes to allow more immigrants to live and work in the U.S. That’s one way to address the revolving door.
Another is with harsher penalties.
“For those who seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April.
Sessions has directed prosecutors to crack down on people who re-enter the country after being deported. These prosecutions have dropped off in recent years.
A bill in Congress also aims to add more prison time. Currently, first offenders face up to two years, but the sentences can increase to 20 years for those with more serious criminal records.
At the Mexico City Airport, two young deportees emerged from the N door, exhausted and shaken.
“We walked two nights in the desert, then they grabbed us crossing,” said one man, who declined to give his name, worried it could harm his family.
Will they try again?
“No, no. Not now,” he said, without hesitation, as his friend tugged him along.
For them, there’s no job or family waiting up north, just the threat of another arrest on their record and possible prison time.