10News anchor Steve Atkinson reveals eye-opening pictures of desperate people living in sand bunkers

Police chief: Homelessness the 'biggest problem'

SAN DIEGO - No matter where you stand on immigration reform, our long-standing debate and lack of resolve has become a major problem for our neighbors to the south.

Deportations of Mexicans and South Americans who entered the United States illegally have caused the homeless population in Tijuana to explode.

10News anchor Steve Atkinson and a production crew recently paid a visit to Tijuana to see the problem in person. Below is his firsthand experience.

It's difficult to comprehend. In a way, it's something you actually have to see to believe and a little stunning when you do. There are people -- hundreds of homeless -- living in the riverbed of the Tijuana canal.

Our 10News crew was given a personal escort by Tijuana Police to see the large number of tents, shanties and underground bunkers built into the sand dunes that line the concrete canal. The conditions are rough even by homeless standards, but a place these desperate people call home.

The encampments don't end there. Others choose to live inside the dark maze of canal tunnels built to funnel flood waters off Tijuana streets and into the river. Our crew was only 50 yards inside the tunnel before we found a collection of discarded materials and several small shanties built by the homeless who live in the dark, cavernous place.

Escorted by a dozen Tijuana Police, we arrived at a shanty inside a tunnel where we found a woman sleeping. She told us her name is Michelle and that she has lived in the tunnel for the last two months after her deportation from Arizona. She worked at a small grocery store while living in the United States. Michelle tells us through a Spanish interpreter, "I'm willing to get out of this life, but I just need some help. I’m tired of living like this."

Our 10News crew was here in 2006 when only a handful of drug addicts were hiding inside the canal tunnels just to get high. Back then, Tijuana Police hauled them off to jail. But we have returned to find the police no longer make arrests. The homeless population is just too overwhelming.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), more than 400,000 individuals were deported out of the United States last year alone. Most are from Mexico or South America and every day hundreds are dropped into Tijuana.

They have no transportation, no job, no money and no home. And many end up in the canal of the Tijuana River.  

"We think there are at least 4,000 living there today," says Tijuana Chief of Police Alberto Capella, describing the number of homeless living in or around the Tijuana canal. "Right now, this is our biggest problem."

It is a bold statement coming from the man whose biggest problem just four years ago were the violent drug cartels that fought for territory in Northern Baja California.

"A lot of these people have the idea to go back to the United States," says Capella. "They want to stay in the canal and wait to (sic) the opportunity to go back."

Rather than return to their native cities, most of the deported immigrants stay near the border for a chance to return to America. Many have families back in the United States.

Some are like Ismael, who we met living in an underground bunker built into the sand dunes within the canal.

"Yes, I want to go back to the United States," says Ismael, who worked construction in Riverside before being deported. "My family is there."

Ismael and three other men live in a rectangular bunker the size of a small car. He was pulled over by police for speeding a few months ago and immediately deported for living in the United States illegally. His wife and two children were left behind. Ismail lives in these conditions for the opportunity to one day return to his family.

The homeless problem is everywhere along the canal. They build tree houses and small shacks under bridges near the border. But most are not afraid to make their homes right out in the open in the canal.       

Some like Arturo, who we found inside a bunker, make money by recycling. His goal is to raise enough money to hire a "Coyote" and get back across the border to his family in Santa Ana. We asked if it was worth the danger of crossing the border illegally.

"Yes, I don't have a choice," says Arturo, who was a dishwasher for a Santa Ana restaurant. "It's the choice I have to make with my family over there. It's what I'm willing to do to try and go back."

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