Share story

TIJUANA, Mexico — Henry Monterroso is a foreigner in his own country. Raised in California from the age of 5, he was deported in 2011 to Mexico, a land he barely knew.

But Monterroso, 34, a Tijuana native, feels right at home as soon as gets to work at cubicle-crammed Call Center Services International, where workers are greeted in English. Monterroso supervises five employees who spend eight hours a day dialing numbers across the United States to collect on credit-card bills and other debts.

He is among thousands of deported Mexicans who are finding refuge in call centers in Tijuana and other border cities. In perfect English — some hardly speak Spanish — they converse with U.S. consumers who buy gadgets, have questions about warrantees or complain about overdue deliveries.

At Monterroso’s office in one of Tijuana’s tallest buildings, managers bring meals from Taco Bell in nearby San Diego to reward employees because the fast-food chain has no outlets in Mexico. Workers are off for the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving but work on Mexican holidays.

“The end of your shift comes at 6 and you get hit by reality out there: You’re not in the U.S.,” Monterroso said. “While you’re here, you still get a sense that you’re back home, which I like very much.”

Many workers spent nearly all their lives in the U.S. and have family there, which gives Mexico a boost over English-language industry leaders such as India and the Philippines. The deported workers can chat comfortably about the U.S. housing market and Super Bowl contenders. They know slang.

But the change is a shock. Monterroso’s weekly pay of less than $300 is a humbling drop from the $2,400 he made in San Diego real estate at the peak of the U.S. housing boom in the mid-2000s. And in Mexico, the deportees are often ostracized for off-kilter Spanish or are viewed as outsiders.

“It can’t get any worse for them,” said Jorge Oros, co-founder and chief operating officer of Call Center Services International. “They were deported from a country where they were for so many years, and now they’re stuck here in a country where they’ve never been before. When you’re offering them a job and an opportunity, they become the most loyal employees you can have.”

By the end of the year, Mexico’s outsourced call centers will have more than 85,000 workstations, which may be staffed two or three shifts a day, while there are nearly 490,000 in India and 250,000 in the Philippines, according to Frost & Sullivan. The industry consultant estimates Mexico will surpass 110,000 workstations in 2020, fueled partly by a large pool of bilingual workers and proximity to the U.S.

Baja California state, which includes Tijuana, has about 35 call centers that employ nearly 10,000 people. An estimated 45 percent are deportees, said Oros, who leads a local industry group.

Callers typically start at less than $150 a week, more than twice what they would likely make on a graveyard shift in one of the city’s assembly plants.

The industry has prospered in Mexico’s border cities as deportations spiked under President Obama. The Mexican government says there were 332,865 deportations from the U.S. last year and more than 1.8 million the previous four years.

At Call Center Services International, job applicants read English to voice-recognition software that flags anyone with a strong accent.

First Kontact Center, which has nearly 500 employees — about 200 of them deportees — opened a second building this year in an industrial area to more than double its capacity. More than 100 people in a warehouselike room sell transmissions and brakes for U.S. Auto Parts Network.

“How ya doin’ today?” one worker says to a customer in Crescent, Okla., who wants suspension plugs for a 1986 Jaguar. “Not too good on gas, right?”

At its original location, near Tijuana’s trendy restaurants and shops, First Kontact scrapped plans to convert a garage into an employee dining hall and erected more cubicles to handle calls from Americans who buy marine-navigation devices.

“What’s goin’ on here?” Jonathan Arce, 29, asks a fisherman from Cecil, Wis.

“You take care of yourself,” he says before hanging up with another customer in Columbia, Ky.

Arce is an example of how the centers often give a fresh start to people with checkered histories. Many came to U.S. immigration officials’ attention after driving drunk, peddling drugs or committing other crimes.

“We have employees who, unfortunately, fell in with the wrong crowds and pursued lives of crime but, oddly enough, many of them are very loyal,” said Alvaro Bello, First Kontact’s marketing director, who co-founded the company in 2008.

Arce was taken to the U.S. when he was 6 months old, was hooked on methamphetamine and marijuana as a teenager, and was in and out of jail for stealing cars in Merced, Calif. He enrolled in rehab after being deported to Tijuana in 2001, quit crime and gangs, and joined First Kontact about three years ago.