SAN DIEGO – Carlos Gonzalez has lived nearly all his 29 years in a country he considers home but now finds himself on the wrong side of the border — and the wrong side of a proposed overhaul of the U.S. immigration system that would grant legal status to millions of people.
Gonzalez was deported to Tijuana, Mexico, from Santa Barbara in December, one of nearly 2 million removals from the United States since Barack Obama was first elected president.
"I have nobody here," said Gonzalez, who serves breakfasts in a Tijuana migrant shelter while nursing a foot that fractured in 10 places when he jumped the border fence in a failed attempt to rejoin his mother, two brothers and extended family in California. "The United States is all I know."
While a Senate bill introduced earlier this month would bring many of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally out of the shadows, not everyone would benefit. They include anyone who arrived after Dec. 31, 2011, those with gay partners legally in the U.S., siblings of U.S. citizens and many deportees such as Gonzalez.
With net immigration from Mexico near zero, the number who came to the U.S. since January 2012 is believed to be relatively small, possibly a few hundred thousand. They include Isaac Jimenez, 45, who paid a smuggler $4,800 to guide him across the California desert in August to reunite with his wife and children in Fresno.
"My children are here, everything is here for me," Jimenez said from Fresno. He lived in the U.S. illegally since 1998 and returned voluntarily to southern Mexico last year to see his mother before she died.
So far, advocates on the left have shown limited appetite to fight for expanded coverage as they brace for a tough battle in Congress. Some take aim at other provisions of the sweeping legislation, like a 13-year track to citizenship they consider too long and $4.5 billion for increased border security.
"It's not going to include everybody," said Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It's not perfect. I think you hear a lot of people saying, 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,' and this is good."
Peter Nunez, who supports restrictive policies as chairman of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, rates the bill an 8 or 9 on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most inclusive. He criticizes a measure that allows deportees without criminal histories to apply for permission to return if they have spouses or children in the U.S. legally, a step that supporters say would reunite families.
"I just don't understand why we are going to basically undo a deportation," said Nunez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego.
Senate negotiators were more forgiving of criminal records than the Obama administration was when it granted temporary work permits last year to many who came to the U.S. as children. The administration disqualified anyone with a single misdemeanor conviction of driving under the influence, domestic violence, drug dealing or certain other crimes. The Senate bill says only that three misdemeanors or a single felony make someone ineligible.
Deportations topped 400,000 in fiscal 2012, more than double from seven years earlier, sending Mexicans to border cities like Tijuana where they often struggle to find work. The Padre Chava migrant shelter serves breakfast to 1,100 people daily in a bright yellow building that opened three years ago because it outgrew its old quarters. Director Ernesto Hernandez estimates 75 percent are deported.
"Many come wearing sneakers that cost hundreds of dollars and nothing in their pockets," Hernandez said.
About 10 percent of the shelter's deportees speak little or no Spanish, including Salvador Herrera IV, 28, who came to the U.S. when he was 2 in the back seat of a car and grew up skateboarding and playing basketball in Long Beach. With a conviction for grand theft auto putting his legal status out of the question, he is considering paying $8,000 for someone else's identity documents to try to return illegally to Southern California.
"I'm basically American," he said. "I'm a beach boy. I do American stuff."
Many at the shelter have convictions for DUI or domestic violence, said Hernandez, reflecting the Obama administration's priority to target anyone with criminal records for deportation.
Gonzalez was arrested in Santa Barbara on suspicion of disorderly conduct, landing him in Tijuana for New Year's Eve. He said he had several misdemeanor convictions, including a DUI, which he committed shortly after turning 18.
"That's when you party a lot and you think it's not going to matter," he said.
Gonzalez was born in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, and came to the U.S. by plane when he was 2 years old, never leaving Santa Barbara. After graduating from Santa Barbara High School in 2002, he took automotive classes at community college, worked about four years at a Jiffy Lube outlet and held jobs as a mechanic, gardener and telemarketer in the picturesque California coastal city of 90,000 people.
Gonzalez doesn't know where he will settle after his foot heals. His family helped with more than $3,000 in medical expenses, including a metal rod that holds a toe together.
He may try to find an aunt in Cuernavaca but doesn't have her phone number or address.
"I never thought I would be in this predicament," he said.