The Paradox of Mexicantown: Detroit's Uncomfortable Relationship With the Immigrants it Desperately Needs

Mexicans have made a productive home for themselves in a city largely known for its shrinking population. So why are they being deported?

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Zoe Strauss

“He called me from there.” Rojelia Vargas pointed toward the Detroit Immigration and Customs Enforcement building where her husband, Gustavo, an undocumented immigrant, sat detained on a May afternoon. Two dozen Latinos marched on the sidewalk outside. “Powerlessness. Sadness. We cried.”

State representative Coleman Young, Jr., dressed in a crisply-contrasted black suit jacket and red shirt, addressed protesters through a translator: ICE, he said, behaved like an "apex predator." The baby-faced 28-year-old, son of Detroit's first black mayor and progenitorial embodiment of its post-1960s political elite, is at ease speaking to the newest members of the city's downtrodden working class.

Young and the rest of the civic leadership on hand are, like this troubled city, grappling with significant demographic changes as black residents follow long-departed whites into the suburbs and new immigrants arrive. Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO President Christos Michalakis, whose father is a United Auto Workers (UAW) member, was born in Greece and camped out with Occupy downtown last year. State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, represents Southwest Detroit's Mexicantown neighborhood.

"I thought the Obama Administration was not deporting people like him," a frustrated Tlaib tells someone at ICE's Washington, D.C. headquarters over her cellphone. "Well, I'm a state rep, who should I talk to?"

A man on the street in Mexicantown expresses his love of country. Photo by Zoe Strauss



Rojelia and Gustavo Vargas both grew up in Michoacán, on Mexico's Pacific coast. They met in Chicago and then, like a growing number of their compatriots, moved to Detroit. Gustavo found work installing floors and carpets. 

News accounts of Detroit typically focus on, and too often gawk over, what's missing: vanished industry; land abandoned to pheasant and fox-occupied prairie; empty or burned out houses; and, of course, departed people. Detroit is also a border city, the larger half of a 4,615,496-person bi-national metropolis, just across the river from Windsor, a similarly faded but far less devastated city in Ontario. Because of the geographic quirks of this Great Lakes landmass, Detroit lies due north of Canada. But the scrutiny Mexican and Middle Eastern immigrants receive here can make it feel more like Arizona.

Detroit, says Tlaib, is overrun with officers who act like they "were trained on the Southern border and dropped on the Northern border."

Detroit receives special attention from the post-September 11th homeland security state. Here, immigrants contend not only with the ICE agents who raid workplaces and track down fugitive aliens nationwide, but with Border Patrol officers whose green and white vehicles patrol the inner-part of a 100-mile wide strip the U.S. government designates as the "border." The ACLU calls it a "constitution-free zone."

Like sister cities on the Southern U.S. border, the people of Detroit and Windsor now live proximate but decidedly separate existences. After September 11th, 2001, truck traffic dipped somewhat in the wake of new security measures and then the recession. But passenger crossings have plummeted by more than half since 2000. Border-crossers must now carry a passport, or a more expensive "enhanced ID," to make it to Canada and back.

Ruben Torres and his mother. Photo by Zoe

Strauss

Ruben Torres, a native Detroiter and public school building engineer of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent, ran into the Border Patrol on a drive across town.

"I thought it was the police. Who else would it be?" said Torres, recalling the afternoon of March 24, 2011. He was sitting in the living room of the home he shares with his mother in Corktown, between Southwest and downtown, nearby where she grew up. “I pulled out the wallet and said 'I just need to get out my registration and my insurance papers for the truck.' And he's like, 'Oh I don't need that.' I said, 'Oh.' He says, 'I'm looking for your visa.'"

Torres was puzzled: why did the officer want his credit card? The officer explained that Torres was an immigrant worker whose visa expired in 2004. Apparently, someone in America named Ruben Torres was undocumented, and Torres had to demonstrate that he was not him. The officer went on to request every sort of document that might prove his citizenship. All documents, of course, that no citizen carries to travel within the United States.

"I said why, 'would I carry a birth certificate if I was born here?' I said, 'if you want a birth certificate, they have it at Herman Kiefer Hospital'...I said, 'why do I need a passport when I was born here in the United States?'” Torres, who does not speak Spanish, continued. “I understand you as clearly as you understand me.”

Three more officers arrived. Torres says that he was finally released after an hour-long roadside interrogation. 

•       •       •       •       •

News that Gustavo Vargas was detained quickly reached immigrant rights advocates.

Gustavo's wife Rojelia told Rodrigo Padilla, the owner of Mexicantown's El Nacimiento restaurant. Padilla contacted the Alliance for Immigrant Rights and Reform, which, in turn, organized the protest. But the details as to why Vargas was detained remain murky.

"I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me," Padilla told me, laying out a number of recently acquired business cards on the table. "Gustavo is a good friend of mine."

Rodrigo Padilla, the owner of Mexicantown's El Nacimiento restaurant. Photo by Zoe

Strauss

Padilla told me that Vargas had been picked up at a secret ICE checkpoint down the road from Bongos, a popular Latin American music club in the nearby city of Pontiac, where Gustavo helped book shows.

"Bongos Latino Club is the fashionable spot," he continues. "When he left to take the freeway, three blocks away was immigration with unmarked cars."

Bongos owner Jose Luis Vasquez disputes that account. I reached him over the phone just before he left for a visit to Mexico: the rumor was false, he says, and it was keeping clients away from his dance floor.

"The people are saying that immigration is stopping people when they leave the club. This isn't true," says Vasquez. “I'm worried. As a businessman and as a Mexican.”

ICE actions are often clouded in secrecy, and the agency recently suffered a major embarrassment after it was revealed it had misled members of Congress and the public about a major enforcement program called Secure Communities. Here and elsewhere, rumors run rampant in the wake of raids and deportations.

ICE spokesperson Khalid Walls did not clarify matters. Gustavo Vargas, an immigrant with no criminal record beyond immigration violations, was "stopped as part of a targeted enforcement action which sought out specific individuals" carried out "by both local and federal officers." Deported in 2000 after being caught at the border returning from a visit to Mexico, Vargas did "not qualify for prosecutorial discretion under the current guidelines."

Walls told me that Vargas was a target of the operation, but a local newspaper reported that the sting was aimed at tracking down gang members. And no one alleges that Vargas is a gang member.

Padilla predicts that people will return to dance to the Tejano and ranchera bands that pass through Detroit on national tours. "They'll forget afterward. Because they have to live."

•       •       •       •       •


Southwest Detroit's inaugural meeting of Latinos for Obama did not go as I imagine it was planned.

"I don't have an explanation for what the president has done," an anxious campaign representative told an upset crowd gathered at Mexicantown's Cafe con Leche one May afternoon. He did his best to parlay the criticisms and put the focus on November. "But I do know what we can do now."

"Speaking on behalf of Latinos, what you're hearing right now is passion," said one man. "We have a lot of promises that were not delivered."

Latino voters supported Obama by large margins in 2008. But that love is far from unconditional: the Obama Administration has deported a record number of immigrants since he took office.

"When you come across the border, immigration treats you like an animal," the man continued. "The promises made in 2008 need to be delivered."

A sign for a flea market in Detroit's Mexicantown. Photo by Zoe Strauss

The nationwide battle over immigration frequently sweeps through Representative Tlaib's district outside the cafe's door.

In July 2011, border patrol agents detained a legal resident on the grounds of St. Anne Catholic Church. That March, parents and students were sent into a panic when ICE staged a raid outside a nearby elementary school.

"ICE is concerned by reports about the manner in which this operation was conducted and is conducting an internal review of the facts surrounding it," ICE Director of Public Affairs Brian Hale told the Detroit Free Press at the time. "Elements of the operation appear to have been inconsistent with policy and our standards and priorities."

"Border patrol has always had a big presence here," says Tlaib. But recently "I've noticed there's an increase in patrolling in areas where there is no border."

In June, Obama attempted a late but major overture to the Latino community, and announced that the government would allow many immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to apply for temporary work visas and avoid deportation. On August 15, young immigrants, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, and a United Auto Workers (UAW) representative gathered before Detroit's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office to celebrate the temporary reprieve—and to demand a permanent fix.

•       •       •       •       •

The high-stakes machinations of the global economy play out across this landscape: $120 billion in goods moves across the Ambassador Bridge each year, rushing past a city hollowed out by the same forces of mobile capital. This is North America's busiest border crossing. The U.S. end abuts Southwest Detroit, which stretches along the Detroit River from downtown to the adjacent city of Dearborn, the undisputed capital of Arab-America. The Mexicantown neighborhood, populated in large part by Latin Americans pushed and pulled north by global economic currents, exudes a vibrancy that could make a visitor forget they are in a city that has lost 25-percent of its population in just the past decade.

Detroit built cars to power suburbia and, through the high wages delivered by militant strikers and collective bargaining, a significant portion of the blue-collar middle class. That prosperity to a great degree excluded blacks, denied entry into suburban neighborhoods and to the jobs that could have paid the mortgage. As a result, Detroit is today a profoundly fractured and segregated metropolis. And it is through these cracks that immigrants have slipped: Chaldeans and Lebanese now run grocery stores and gas stations, the sorts of businesses once owned by Jews and earlier Arab immigrants; Mexicans can buy a house for under $30,000 in a neighborhood abandoned by many in the white middle class. The urban success that immigrants have built in Mexicantown is, it should be noted, not just Mexican. They hold together one of Detroit's few diverse neighborhoods, with large numbers of white, black and Latino residents.

People crossing borders transformed Detroit from farmland into an industrial giant. Polish, Lebanese, Irish, and Italian immigrants (among many others), along with Southern African-Americans and whites, arrived in droves during the 19th and 20th centuries to work in auto and other manufacturing plants. During prohibition, Jewish mobsters smuggled liquor across the Detroit River to keep the city wet.

Today, the Ambassador Bridge sends thousands of trucks each day past a city that global capitalism has long since written down as a loss (for a profit), past the towering and shuttered Michigan Central Station, the hollow train depot that now immortalizes Detroit, much to Detroiters' chagrin, across the internet. Southwest Detroit, however, still includes a number of industrial plants, and is heavily polluted. But it is one neighborhood that, alongside the somewhat gentrified downtown, continues to attract new residents in a city that otherwise hemorrhages.

Stores and streets in Detroit's Mexicantown. Photos by Zoe Strauss

"Do you know when I was a kid that my mom wouldn't let me go to Clark Park, that's how bad it was?” says Tlaib. She's pointing across the street from Cafe con Leche, where she frequently schedules meetings. "You see the growth in the immigrant community. Throw some water on it! Throw some water on it and watch it grow."

The Mexican population in Detroit is actually quite old. Thousands arrived early in the century to work in steel, auto, and agriculture. But many were repatriated, both voluntarily and by force, during a campaign of economic scapegoating in the 1930s. Diego Rivera, who lived in Detroit while painting the enormous paean to the industrial worker that covers the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, played a high-profile and controversial role in encouraging his compatriots to return home. He founded the Marxist-nationalist Liga de Obreros y Campesinos (Workers and Peasants League), which organized Mexicans in Detroit and encouraged them to make their way back south to form revolutionary settlements that ultimately failed.

Today's Mexicantown is where the community began to resettle in the 1940s. Toward the intersection of Vernor and I-75, along Bagley Street, restaurants catering to suburban tourists pack the sidewalk. Margaritas and colorful trinkets are for sale, a scene resembling the crowded shopping districts of a Mexican border town before the last decade's drug war scared visitors away.

The Mexican community in Southwest Detroit soon began to creep west down Vernor, and the Lithuanian Hall became Hispanos Unidos Hall. By 1969, Holy Redeemer Catholic Church had a weekly Spanish mass.

During the 1990s, the population exploded, thanks to a wave of migrants from the state of Jalisco, as the overall citywide population continued a vertiginous downward spiral. The Hispanic population has grown by more than 70 percent, to 48,679, since 1990. The Mexican population stood at 36,452 in 2010.

Taquerías, churches, bakeries, tortilla factories, a donut shop, laundromats, and a CVS line Vernor Highway.

"Robust immigration is very positive for this regional economy," says Steve Tobocman, Mexicantown's former state legislator and current director of Global Detroit, a group that promotes immigration and its economic impact in the region. "For central cities like Detroit, Dearborn and Hamtramck, this is probably the most powerful revitalization strategy.”

There are fewer tourists, more liquor stores, and a higher number of vacant properties west of I-75. The area's schools have fought closure from a state-appointed manager with sit-ins and student walkouts. Indeed, the entire city government has been controversially taken over by the state, and voters will decide whether to revoke both authorities in a November ballot question. But the streets here are not derelict. An old man likes to dance outside the neighborhood ice cream store wearing white cotton pants and a large hat. I told the man, who lives upstairs, that I saw him dancing yesterday.

"Did you see me last night at the bar?” he smiles.

No, I said, I saw him right there. Dancing to '80s pop music.

An Arab family owns the dollar store down the street, and the surfeit of cheap goods attracts a large Spanish-speaking clientele. A carpet rendering of Mecca is on sale alongside rosaries featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Down the block is one of the neighborhood's two Coney Islands, the trademark Detroit 24-hour restaurant that serves a chili-drenched hotdog known as the Coney. The most famous of the two is Duly's, where a voluble Mexican-American named Mayo holds court alongside a quiet Albanian man. They have worked together for 30 years.

Duly's Coney Island Hot Dogs. Photo by Zoe Strauss

Mayo, who Detroit's alt-weekly named “Best Coney Island Maitre d',” had modified his typical refrain to "I don't give an F" thanks to the presence of a 4-year-old eating a late-night hotdog with his mother one weekday night. Elizabeth, a Mexicantown native whose parents immigrated from Mexico, had just completed a long day remodeling a house with her boyfriend and business partner Taniel, an immigrant from Honduras.

"May I bother you for one more hot dog?" asks Elizabeth. 

"Hell no," Mayo responds.

He then turned to Julio, the 4-year-old.

"If you don't have enough money, get ready to wash dishes."

Taniel and Elizabeth met at a disco in North Carolina, where she was starting a franchise of Herbalife, an Avon-like herbal supplement company popular with Latin Americans. Taniel, she boasts, does not drink. Elizabeth speaks to her child in English, and Taniel speaks to Elizabeth in Spanish. It is summer, so Julio accompanies his parents to a house in Dearborn, where they work side-by-side installing drywall, retiling the bathroom; doing molding, doors, windows, and even plumbing in a house recently purchased by a Yemeni man.

Elizabeth (left) and Taniel (right). Photos by Zoe Strauss

Farther west down Vernor is El Nacimiento restaurant. Rodrigo Padilla, dressed in a cowboy hat and wearing a thick mustache, met me at his restaurant to discuss Gustavo's deportation. Padilla moved from Anaheim, where he worked for an upholsterer, to Detroit, where he found a job in a Ford parts subcontractor.

Padilla learned how to cook as a young man, after he started washing dishes at a small food stand in the Guadalajara Mercado de Abastos, the city's wholesale market. He soon got a turn at the stove, and then took off to sell tacos on the streets of Guadalajara on his own.

"I worked for myself," he tells me with satisfaction. "No one ordered me around."

"I worked in other companies punching cards. Now I have this, thanks to God," he tells me across a booth, in a restaurant packed with locals, suburbanites and a field trip of African-American students from across town. "If I want to go home and take a nap, I can." Not that he would, he's quick to interject. He's an early riser and a hard worker.

Padilla told me that Gustavo pulled down about $100,000 per year and did everything above board, including paying his taxes. Like many Detroiters, he is baffled that the U.S. government would deport anyone willing to maintain a home and pay taxes in this city. That includes Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who, unlike most conservative leaders today, has made a point of talking up his state as welcoming to immigrants. But some young people, like one teenage boy heading to the University of Michigan, might leave on their own accord. "Detroit sucks," he told me from behind the counter at one of the neighborhood's most delicious taquerias.

Rojelia, says Padilla, will soon take her four children, all of whom are U.S. citizens, and leave too.

"She is going to sell the house, and car, and go to Mexico."

Gustavo was deported and she cannot survive alone.

"They don't know Mexico at all. Those kids, what are they going to do?"

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Photos by Zoe Strauss, an installation artist and photographer living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation-United States as part of the Immigration Journalism Fellowship. Other stories in the series include Millbourne Identity: How South Asian immigrants made one small town their own.

About the Author

  • Daniel Denvir is a staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper and a frequent contributor to Salon and The Atlantic Cities.