"How ya doin' today?" one worker says to a customer in Crescent, Oklahoma, 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, Firstkontact 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?" 29-year-old Jonathan Arce asks a fisherman from Cecil, Wisconsin, in a booming voice.
"You take care of yourself," he says before hanging up with another customer in Columbia, Kentucky.
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 after getting drunk behind the wheel, peddling drugs or committing another crime. Some wear tattoos they got while in U.S. street gangs.
"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, Firstkontact's marketing director, who co-founded the company in 2008. "The majority of them have learned that shortcuts are not good."
Arce came 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, California. He enrolled in rehab after being deported to Tijuana in 2001, quit crime and gangs, and joined Firstkontact about three years ago after a stint as a dishwasher.
Arce, whose button-down shirts partly cover a California gang tattoo on the left side of his neck, makes $150 a week, enough to cover rent for a simple one-bedroom apartment that he shares with his wife and their 1-year-old son. He bought a 1994 Toyota Camry with a shattered windshield for $900.
The Acapulco native, who has a trim frame and quick smile, spends his spare time at an evangelical Christian church in the hardscrabble neighborhood where he lives. He shares his story with deportees who show up and advises them on getting settled.
"If you're deported, more than likely you're going to get a job at a call center," he said. "The wages ain't much, but it's good enough for where we're at right now. You can't compare it to the United States."
Many workers have battled depression and culture shock. They complain about being harassed by police for not having Mexican identification documents, sometimes landing in jail.
"When you're first deported, you're not coming down with an open mind," said Antonio Rivera, 37, a Tijuana native who went to the U.S. as a baby, was expelled to Mexico in 2001 and now supervises 13 agents selling auto parts at Firstkontact. "You're coming down here with an attitude, 'Oh, I don't deserve this.' With a negative attitude, you don't see things the way you're supposed to — that they're giving you a new chance."
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