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A risky return to the U.S.

Desperate to get back home after more than a year in Mexico, a young deportee makes another perilous border crossing.

December 27, 2012|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

The barrilero never stops moving.

All day he wheels cardboard barrels stuffed with used clothing through the narrow aisles of the warehouse. He dumps the apparel atop tables for sorters, who separate nylons from cottons, satins from silks, denims from plaids. If a sorter is standing around with no garments, it's the barrilero's fault. Supervisors hover nearby.

Tons of old clothing come in every week, and tons go back out, to India and Pakistan, where it's sold at outdoor markets.

The factory hired the barrilero in September, a few weeks after the now-21-year-old showed up at the manager's door looking for work. Right away, the manager had recognized him as Anthony, that cute kid who walked his factory floor selling Helen Grace chocolates to workers years ago.

Anthony didn't say much about where he'd been, or what he'd been doing since. He was polite, upbeat, and his knock on the door still had the soft touch of a child. But his hair was falling out, and there was something unfamiliar in his eyes.

"He seemed sadder," the manager said, "like he wanted to say something but didn't know how."

There were many things the barrilero would keep to himself. First among them: His name wasn't Anthony.


Luis Luna returned to his hometown of South Gate in May. His arms and legs were scraped raw from cactus needles and his eyes kept blinking, still starved of moisture from his eight-day journey through the Arizona desert the week before.

His friend, Julio Cortez, said it was hard to believe that this gaunt young man with patches of missing hair was the same person he knew at Southeast Middle School.

"I was in shock to see him back and see all he had gone through," Cortez said. "It made me sad and angry."

Cortez, a 22-year-old Cal State Long Beach student, took Luis to buy some clothes. Another former classmate gave Luis a cellphone. Luis slept on couches and in spare bedrooms and spent his days passing out resumes filled with the jobs of his teen years: flipping burgers, waiting tables at I-Hop. He fudged the dates to account for the 15 months he spent in Mexico after he was deported for being in the country illegally.

Luis had been pulled over three years ago for a broken headlight in Pasco, Wash., where he and his mother lived. He was cited for driving without a license, jailed and ordered out of the country in February 2011.

He had a wife back in Washington, but she had left him, in part because of the long separation. Luis decided to build a new life in Southern California, where he had grown up and where he still had friends

Weeks after arriving, he was still jobless and borrowing money to eat when he decided his future might lie in his past. He started retracing the route he took as a boy selling chocolates at warehouses and factories. The assembly line workers, truck drivers and managers knew him as Anthony, the name his mother told him to use to hide his identity.

They could vouch for his strong work ethic — that he'd been working for a living since he was 5 years old.

He eventually found the barrilero job, and a place to live. A swap meet vendor who picked through the bins of cast-offs looking for vintage garments told Luis he had extra space at his house.

Luis goes home to a converted two-car garage with no address in a middle-class neighborhood with trim lawns and streets lined with late-model cars. Much of his clothing is stuffed in a battered dark green suitcase that sits at the foot of his bed. The only other furniture is a mini refrigerator and two lawn chairs.

In some ways, he's a typical youngster with edgy tastes. He has a sleeve tattoo, wears skinny jeans and earrings, and is part of a deejay crew that plays at house parties. He cheers his beloved Los Angeles Lakers and hangs out in hookah bars, and is constantly texting flirty messages.

But his future is dimmer than most. Many of his friends are planning for life after college. Some are applying for work permits and temporary reprieves from deportation, taking advantage of an Obama administration program, announced in June, to help young people who were brought into the country as children.


Luis was 3 when his mother smuggled him across the border. But Luis won't be getting a reprieve. His attorney told him that he's disqualified because he was arrested twice trying to re-enter the U.S. after his deportation.

Luis eventually told friends that his struggles to get back in the country had been chronicled in a Los Angeles Times story that appeared in January. The article had ended with Luis stranded and homeless in Mexico.

A teacher at South Junior High School in Anaheim who had read the story found out Luis was back and invited him to speak to students. The students, some of whom were undocumented immigrants, sat riveted as Luis spoke in a soft but steady voice.

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