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From the immigration debate, now, to live after deportation. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers have been deported from the U.S. back to Mexico, specifically to the border town of Tijuana. Reporter Amy Isackson has that story.

AMY ISACKSON, BYLINE: Though the rush of water you hear sounds idyllic, the Tijuana River is lined in concrete. The banks are about 30 feet high. It cuts through the city for miles and drains sewage and runoff. Trash swirls around in eddies. A dead bloated dog just floated by me. No one knows exactly how many people live along this river.

Estimates range between 1 and 3,000. Many of them were deported from the United States, like Abimael Martinez.

ABIMAEL MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) This is the main entrance I made for when the police come.

ISACKSON: Martinez stands over a hole he dug. This is where he lives. The riverbed hasn't always been home. Martinez owned an automotive body shop in Riverside, California, for eight years. He went to church, had a girlfriend and was like a dad to her kids. But two years ago, he was deported for driving without a license.

So he's homeless in the Tijuana canal and has fallen into police crosshairs. They think deportees are vagrants and criminals, and sweep through the river canal to flush them out.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) A policeman took my backpack and threw it in a fire when they came and burnt our stuff.

ISACKSON: After that, Martinez began to bury his belongings for safekeeping. That worked well, so he made himself a hole. He invites me down. And here we are. It's...

MARTINEZ: (Speaking foreign language)

ISACKSON: Martinez has reinforced the walls with wood. He brags that a police truck rolled over a few days ago and it didn't cave in. There's no room to stand up inside. Martinez made a lid for his hole from a Styrofoam cooler. When the police come, he pulls it over the entrance. It lies flush with the riverbed and looks like just another piece of trash.

The U.S. government has returned hundreds of thousands of people from the U.S. to Tijuana since 2009. That includes a combination of people formally deported and those caught and returned the same day. In fact, more people have been removed to Tijuana than to any other Mexican border city.

ALBERTO CAPELLA IBARRA: (Speaking foreign language)

ISACKSON: Tijuana's police chief, Alberto Capella, says deportees have become Tijuana's number one problem.

IBARRA: (Through interpreter) It has social repercussions, repercussions in the city's image because it's people that look like they don't have anything to do wandering around the city.

ISACKSON: Many deportees stay in Tijuana because they consider the U.S. home. They want to cross again or at least feel close to their families there. But beefed up border enforcement means deportees are bottled up. That's why hundreds live in the fetid canal, in drainpipes, even in trees. Capella blames these people for crime, especially, he says, the ex-convicts who served time in U.S. prisons.

IBARRA: (Through interpreter) What are we going to do, cross our arms and hope that the problem resolves itself? Or do what we need to, assuming the risk that one of us could go too far?

ISACKSON: Capella has been criticized for violating deportees' civil rights. He says it isn't police policy, but may happen in the course of keeping the peace. The number of people removed to Tijuana actually dropped to an historic low last year. Of those U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent home worldwide, fewer than 0.3 percent were murderers. Many had no criminal record.

Nevertheless, blaming deportees for crime has caught fire among Tijuana's leaders.

FATHER ERNESTO HERNANDEZ RUIZ: (Through interpreter) We can't think that all migrants are criminals.

ISACKSON: Father Ernesto Hernandez Ruiz runs the Padre Chava soup kitchen in downtown Tijuana. Volunteers, many of them were deported themselves, flip tortillas on a hot griddle...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

ISACKSON: And say grace. Twelve hundred people eat breakfast here every morning. Father Hernandez says the vast majority are deportees. Many live in the river canal, like Martinez.

RUIZ: (Through interpreter) For the police in Mexico, just seeing someone dirty and disoriented like that is enough to detain them.

ISACKSON: Hernandez says for deportees, it's a quick slide into desperation.

MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

ISACKSON: Back beneath the riverbank, Martinez sorts scrap metal to try to make a few pesos. He saves the nails because he's remodeling.

MARTINEZ: (Through Translator) People have begun dropping off their backpacks with me for safekeeping before they go to work. So, I want to separate the drop-off space from the bed.

ISACKSON: He says he's proud of his ingenuity.

MARTINEZ: (Through Translator) It set an example and a lot of people are building now.

ISACKSON: Martinez estimates he's seen at least 25 people digging recently. He says they all hope to get out of their holes soon and cross back to the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

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