WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Mar 2014 | Commentary

Multimedia Package: Five Ways to Stop Unsafe Deportations

Nearly two million people have been deported from the United States since 2009 and President Obama has been under increasing pressure to do everything within his power to halt this high level of deportations. On March 13, President Obama announced that he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review enforcement of existing immigration laws in order to “see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.”

More than 70 percent of the total number of U.S. deportees are Mexican and they are increasingly sent to border cities in Mexico with high levels of criminal activity. WOLA has found a disturbing trend: the most violent sectors are receiving the most deportees. Current U.S. deportation practices are putting these migrants at risk of being kidnapped, extorted, and even killed by drug cartels and criminal groups operating along the border.

These unsafe deportations practices include returning migrants in the middle of the night and deporting migrants to Mexican border cities with high levels of violence and criminal activity.

Below are five things that the Obama administration could do to stop unsafe U.S. deportation practices and bring greater order and security to the deportation process.

1. Stop Night Deportations

A recent survey by the University of Arizona found that approximately one in five migrants report being deported between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. At this rate, tens of thousands of people have been deported at night. And thousands more will be left in the middle of the night in the coming year if night deportations are not discontinued. Emergency shelters, transportation, financial and other services are not available overnight in many cities. Night deportations to unfamiliar cities present commonplace challenges, such as finding a place to sleep and figuring out how to communicate with friends and family. Worse, night deportations put migrants at more risk of being robbed, extorted, or even kidnapped. These risks are greatly exacerbated when migrants are deported at night to cities where organized criminal groups routinely operate.

2. Reduce Deportations to Mexico’s Most Dangerous Border Cities

Between 2009 and 2012, research conducted by WOLA identified a troubling trend: the United States increased deportations to Mexican border citiesin Coahuila and Tamaulipas even as homicide rates were on the rise in these states. Repatriations to Sonora and Baja California have decreased while homicides in those states have also declined since 2011. Even as indices of violence remain elevated today, deportations to these dangerous cities continue at rates higher than many safer cities on the border.

According to Mexico’s National Migration Institute, between 2006 and 2012 deportations to the troubled Mexican state of Tamaulipas have increased five-fold, from 25,376 to 122,036. Over the same period, reported homicides there have more than doubled. Tamaulipas’ city of Matamoros, which borders Brownsville, Texas, is one of the most turbulent cities in the country. The State Department’s January 2014 Mexico travel warning affirms that Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, all border cities, “have experienced grenade attacks in the past year, as well as numerous reported gun battles.” Tamaulipas also has the highest kidnapping rate in the country. In spite of these security risks, deportations to Matamoros have risen dramatically, increasing nearly five times since 2008.

See this video from the shelter in Matamoros, Tamaulipas:

The Department of Homeland Security could work with the Mexican government to identify border cities that present the greatest risks and reduce to the fullest extent possible any deportations to these cities. Migrants who are detained and repatriated from the interior of the United States should not be sent to dangerous cities. If lateral repatriations continue, and U.S. authorities continue to expend the resources to transport migrants through great distances, they should make sure that they are returned to Mexican border cities that have relatively low levels of crime and violence.

3. Don’t Separate Families Traveling Together in the Deportation Process 

The practice of “lateral repatriation,” officially termed the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP), puts migrants at risk. The practice moves undocumented male migrants—but not their wives or families with whom they were traveling—from the sector where they were detained to another location, often hundreds of miles away. Concerns about the practice of “lateral repatriation” have been rising as documented cases of families being separated in the process continue to mount. ATEP frequently results in the repatriation of Mexican migrants to cities with which they are unfamiliar, and which may lack service providers.

When a husband and wife are detained while traveling together, and only he is laterally repatriated, his wife will be repatriated alone. This unnecessarily exposes women migrants to a high risk of assault and sexual exploitation. Deportees are frequently given no information regarding the whereabouts of their spouses. Every effort should be made to ensure that migrant families are kept together during the deportation process.

4.  Return Migrants’ Belongings to Them

The lack of access to services and safety networks is exacerbated when migrants’ belongings are not returned to them during the deportation process. According to the University of Arizona study, 39 percent of migrants report losing their possessions during the detention and deportation process. In many cases, their belongings are taken and not returned, particularly as migrants are handed over from one federal agency to another. Migrants carrying cash do not have this money returned to them; instead, they receive a check for this money, which is often only valid at U.S. banks.

Without important documents such as IDs, cash, credit and debit cards, and cell phones, many migrants are left stranded in unfamiliar, often dangerous, border cities without the ability to access funds or communicate with family or friends. They are exposed to harassment and can be detained by local police because they do not have identification documents.

5.  Work with Civil Society Organizations at the Border

Civil society organizations and faith-based groups that provide shelter to recently deported people report that U.S. government agencies are not adequately coordinating with them to ensure that the necessary services are available to migrants. These organizations often have crucial information about the schedule and availability of social services, as well as the challenges associated with safeguarding migrants’ lives and wellbeing through the deportation process. For example, in Tijuana, just south of San Diego, California, there are 12 migrant shelters. However, the United States has reduced deportations to this service-rich environment by a full third since 2009. In contrast, only one shelter operates in Matamoros, a city that has seen massive growth in deportations. Better coordination with civil society organizations and faith-based groups, in the form of a clear, transparent, and public process, can provide U.S. authorities with critical information as they negotiate local arrangements with the Mexican authorities for the repatriation of Mexican nationals. This would be a simple practice that could meaningfully increase the safety and security of deported migrants.

Click here to see WOLA’s video on the need for safe and orderly deportations.

See press release here.