Mario Ramos stirs a pot of beans with a bent spatula as the men crowd into the kitchen, the ragged line stretching out the splintered doorway.
Years ago, Ramos, 45, grilled up pricey seafood in a tiki-themed restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. Now, he's serving starchy meals on plastic plates. One of his busboys worked at the Shanghai Grill in Beverly Hills; another is a 28-year-old U.S. Marines veteran.
The diners, who remove their sweat-stained caps to accept the food with grateful nods, have been deported from the U.S. as recently as eight hours ago. They are penniless, unshaven. Some are barefoot.
PHOTOS: Hotel of the Deported Migrant
Mario Ramos has served thousands like them.
Some helped build Las Vegas subdivisions. There was a sushi chef from Anaheim, a tree trimmer for the city of Oakland and a man who swept the stands at Chicago's Soldier Field. There was a pig farmer from South Dakota and a Hollywood High School graduate who helped design sets. A janitor from Philadelphia who had learned Hebrew working at a yeshiva.
Ramos keeps one eye on the food and another on the dining area with the torn tablecloths. He spots a man reaching for his plastic fork. "No eating until we pray," he says. After the last man takes his seat, heads bow.
FULL COVERAGE: Without a country
In this quiet moment, the men think about how they got to this decrepit hotel named for their plight: El Hotel Del Migrante Deportado — the Hotel of the Deported Migrant. Traffic infractions, drug offenses and drunk driving tickets mostly; in some cases, violent crimes.
They blame America for exploiting their labor, then discarding them. But they also are haunted by their mistakes, accomplices to their own downfall.
The U.S. offered me opportunities, and I blew it.
We're here for being reckless.
I lost everything because of my stupid mistake.
My wife warned me: You shouldn't be drinking and driving.
Honestly, the American dream is over.
A 39-year-old former day laborer dedicates a prayer to his teenage son in the San Fernando Valley: "For our families who lack food because of our absence, we pray that we are reunited one day."
Ramos, too, feels the tug of family in the U.S. He lived in Rancho Santa Margarita until 2010, when he says police found cocaine in a car he was in with friends. Within weeks, he was deported and living at the hotel. Ramos plans to embark on an illegal journey back to Orange County. Until then he cooks for dozens every day.
He slides his cap back onto his bald head, the signal for the men to begin eating. Some pause to wipe away tears before digging in.
A different era
El Hotel Centenario was among the grandest in Mexicali, in an era when the arcades and honky-tonks of downtown drew round-the-clock revelers.
Over the decades, vice blighted downtown. Drug addicts carved the Centenario's 50 rooms into crack dens.
Two years ago, Sergio Tamai, a civic activist and candy store owner, visited the building. He was searching for a place to house the rising number of deportees. "The hotel had been vandalized and destroyed," he says. "It looked good to me."
Mexicali, a long bus ride from major illegal crossing routes, had become a strategic place for the U.S. to send illegal immigrants. In 2011 alone, some 63,000 deportees — a population about half the size of Pasadena — arrived in this sprawling desert city, the capital of Baja California.
Many had spent much of their lives in the U.S. and were rootless in Mexico. They clustered around all-night taco stands, slept in parks and streets, cowered before corrupt cops.
A former Mormon bishop who slept on a cot in a print shop, Tamai had drained his business profits to bankroll causes helping the poor. With a flair for fiery rhetoric, the wiry 59-year-old had taken on governors and mayors over high utility bills. He had led protests at the border, wielding his bullhorn against U.S. and Mexican officials alike. "They can't criticize the U.S. for criminalizing immigrants when we do the same here," Tamai said.
In January 2010, temperatures dipped into the 40s and Tamai saw the number of shivering migrants keep growing. He rented the building for $1,000, using profits from his candy store.
Tamai rounded up deportees, handed out brooms and led them to the old hotel.
Over eight days, he watched them cart out the filth. There was no electricity, running water, functioning bathrooms or beds. But when the doors opened, the migrants came.
El Hotel del Migrante Deportado, the Hotel of the Deported Migrant, Tamai called it, and he hung a banner from its rose facade. It was different from other shelters, which catered to migrants headed north. It was open all night. Most migrants stayed a couple of days, but those with nowhere to go could stay as long as they wished if, like Ramos the cook, they joined the fellow deportees working as cleaners, night porters and security guards.