Last year, the United States deported a record number of immigrants. Almost 400,000 people in the country illegally were arrested and sent back to their home countries. The vast majority are Mexican and many were released into border cities that are among the most dangerous places in Mexico. The state of Tamaulipas, just across the Texas border, is struggling to deal with the thousands of deportees who arrive each month. And NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that in the border city of Reynosa, deportees are vulnerable to attacks by thugs, drug gangs and corrupt officials.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: For many Mexican migrants who've just been deported, Reynosa is where the American Dream dies. Maria Nidelia Avila Basurto is a Catholic nun who runs a shelter for deportees in Reynosa.


BEAUBIEN: Many of them arrive with nothing, she says. We have to give them everything - clothes, shoes, everything. Her church-run shelter feeds the deportees and offers them bunks to sleep in, but only for three nights, then they have to leave. In the past, the shelter was shut during the day. Residents were expected to go out and search for work or try to line up help from relatives. But Reynosa has gotten so dangerous over the past couple of years that now, rather than the deportees being locked out of the shelter during the day, they're locked in.

BASURTO: (Speaking Spanish)

BEAUBIEN: Avila says that when the deportees were out during the day, many of them were abducted, beaten or robbed. But now, by keeping them in the shelter, the nun says, they've been able to avoid this.

Mexican kidnapping gangs often target people who have family in the United States, under the assumption that most can quickly raise a ransom of 500 or $1,000. This part of Mexico isn't dangerous just for migrants. Even the former mayor and his son were kidnapped over the summer.

Avila says her problem is that the number of deportees continues to rise, making it harder for the shelter to help these men - and it's mostly men - make the transition back into Mexico.

BASURTO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Lately, the deportations are happening every day, she says. Many days, 100 or 120 deportees are released by U.S. Immigration officials at the international bridge adjacent to downtown Reynosa. For some of them, this is their first taste of freedom after serving lengthy criminal sentences in the U.S. Others were picked up for drunk driving or traffic offenses.

Or, like 58-year-old Santana Castrejon Alvarez, they were arrested after being caught using a fake Social Security number.

SANTANA CASTREJON ALVAREZ: (Through Translator) In the United States, everyone buys fake documents - everyone. Unfortunately, I bought them, too, like everyone else.

BEAUBIEN: Castrejon says he spent much of his 21 years in the U.S. working at a McDonald's in Chicago. He also worked in a plastic factory and a pizza restaurant. Castrejon had just started a new job, when the employer turned him in to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. He says he has no intention of staying in Mexico and plans to try to cross again illegally into the U.S.

ALVAREZ: (Through Translator) Here, I don't know where to go because all my family is still over there in Chicago - my wife, my sister, nieces, nephews, everyone.

BEAUBIEN: For the deportees who do decide to stay in Mexico, they face more than just the perilous streets of Reynosa. Jobs are scarce. The minimum wage is the equivalent of five U.S. dollars a day. And corruption is rampant.

Many of the deportees arrive in Reynosa with no form of identification. As the drug war has spread in Mexico, so have security checkpoints. It's nearly impossible to move through the country without a picture ID. Volunteers from a local human rights group make temporary credentials for anyone who needs one.

The volunteers have just returned from the printer and are distributing them to the deportees.

Jose Elejarza Maldonado, with the Center for Border Studies and Human Rights in Reynosa, says that without some form of identification, the returning migrants will fall prey to corrupt officials.

JOSE ELEJARZA MALDONADO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Elejarza says his group regularly gets complaints that corrupt police and other authorities steal from these individuals.

The Mexican government does help deportees with one-way bus tickets to their home states, and the U.S. government has started flying more of them into central Mexico. But still, thousands end up being exiled each month into violent border cities such as Reynosa.

Migrant advocates here say many deportees, roughly 30 percent, immediately turn around and head north. They'd rather take their chances with the U.S. Border Patrol than venture out into an environment where they could get beaten, robbed, kidnapped or worse.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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