On February 23, 2016 the United States and Mexican governments announced the finalization of new Local Repatriation Arrangements (LRAs) to regulate the return of Mexican migrants at nine points of entry along the border. The agreements represent important efforts of both governments to establish procedures to curtail many of the practices that negatively affect this vulnerable population.
For the past few years, WOLA has highlighted deportation practices that put Mexican migrants at serious risk, including returning migrants in the middle of the night to some of the most dangerous cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and the failure to return migrants’ essential belongings, including identification documents, money, and cell phones.
Halting Nighttime Deportations
A 2013 University of Arizona survey of repatriated Mexican migrants revealed that nearly one in five of them were deported between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. As most migrant shelters, transportation, and financial or other services are closed overnight, locating a safe place to sleep, communicating with family, and accessing services are challenging and even dangerous outside of daylight hours. Night deportations also put migrants at higher risk of robbery, extortion, and kidnapping—risks that are heightened when migrants are deported at night to cities where organized criminal groups operate.
In a July 2014 meeting of the Executive Repatriation Policy Steering Group, both governments announced important changes to address this problem. This included agreeing to carry out repatriations “primarily during daylight hours” and exploring ways to improve “managing the belongings of repatriated Mexican nationals.” The renegotiated local repatriation arrangements reflect a continuing effort to fulfill these commitments. While schedules vary depending on sector and time of the year, repatriations of Mexicans will now only take place between 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. A modified schedule is in place for more vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with medical concerns or other special needs.
Returning Migrants’ Belongings
Often, as migrants move through multiple federal agencies in the detention and deportation process, their possessions are taken and never returned. The University of Arizona study found that 39 percent of migrants reported losing their possessions during these processes, including cash and credit or debit cards, identification documents, and cell phones. Without these, migrants may be left stranded and vulnerable in unfamiliar and often dangerous border cities, unable to travel by bus, access their funds, or communicate with their contacts; migrants have also been detained and extorted by local police for lack of identification.
The new LRAs require agencies to “take all feasible steps to ensure that property, valuables, and money” confiscated from detained migrants are returned prior to repatriation. This is a critically important step to ensuring the safety of repatriated migrants, as their access to services and networks is impaired without their essential belongings.
Protecting Unaccompanied Mexican Migrant Children
As WOLA has documented, unaccompanied Mexican children are not granted the same protections as their Central American counterparts under U.S. law. Currently, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents are charged with conducting screening interviews to detect protection concerns for Mexican children. In practice, this has meant that the majority of these children are returned to Mexico without having a chance to tell their story to an U.S. immigration judge.
The new LRAs reflect an important recognition by both governments of the need to adequately screen these children and establish a safe and orderly repatriation process for those who are returned to Mexico. They reference the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), and specify the requirements for protecting children established in this law. The new arrangements also refer to the application by Mexican consulate officers of the Consular Protection Protocol for Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Adolescents. This protocol, which was developed in 2015 by the Mexican government and UNICEF, aims to improve consular interviews with unaccompanied minors to detect international protection concerns or other areas that should be addressed if the child is repatriated to Mexico.
The increased focus on protecting unaccompanied children included in the LRAs, along with CBP’s own process to address the recommendations made by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to improve screening procedures for unaccompanied migrant children, should significantly improve both countries’ capacity to adequately screen and protect vulnerable Mexican children.
Further Actions to Protect Migrants in the Repatriation Process
The new local repatriation arrangements undoubtedly represent a significant improvement in how Mexican migrants will be repatriated at the border. However, there are important additional actions that need to be taken to protect migrants during this process.
1. The LRAs include exceptions to the timeframe in which Mexicans can be deported. These may result in some migrants arriving in Mexican border cities in the middle of the night. One of the exceptions to the repatriation schedule may be made for “operational tempo.” Although not clarified in the arrangements, we believe this refers to situations when a high or increased volume of migrants are detained in Border Patrol’s short-term detention centers. Overcrowding in these centers, particularly by migrants from other countries who require more time to be processed, has in the past led to numbers of Mexicans being deported at any hour—even the middle of the night. As the LRAs are implemented, we hope that U.S. agencies continue the trend seen in the past year and that night deportations become the rare exception, rather than the norm.
2. The base document for the LRAs includes preserving family unity, this should be a priority in the implementation of each local repatriation arrangement.* A recent study by the Kino Border Initiative and the Jesuit Conference based on an extensive survey of over 350 repatriated migrants in Nogales, Sonora in 2014 and 2015 found that “two out of three (64.6%) migrants who crossed into the United States with immediate family members and were deported to Nogales were separated from at least one of those family members by the Border Patrol during the process of detention and deportation.”
Family separation increases the risks for deported migrants, especially women, who find themselves alone in unfamiliar and often dangerous border cities. Family separation also results in hardship for the migrants who struggle to learn where along the border their loved ones have been deported. While not stipulated in the agreements, we urge U.S. authorities to do everything possible to ensure family unity during the deportation process.
A related concern that often leads to family separation is the continued practice of “lateral repatriation,” officially the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP), in which repatriated male migrants, but not their families, are moved from the sector in which they were detained to another location along the border. While occurring less frequent than in the past, migrants that are laterally repatriated are returned to unfamiliar locations and their spouses or families have limited information on their whereabouts.
3. Deported migrants, particularly individuals who are being repatriated from the interior of the United States, are often sent to unfamiliar cities where they do not have trusted connections or access to resources. These dangers are worsened in locations with high crime and violence, where migrants may be targeted by criminal organizations. This is particularly a concern in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Although deportations of Mexicans have dropped significantly in recent years, according to Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación) 207,273 Mexicans were repatriated to Mexican border cities and the airport in Mexico City in 2015. Approximately 27 percent of migrants who were repatriated in 2015 were sent to border cities in Tamaulipas. In 2014, 32 percent (77,859) were repatriated to Tamaulipas, the highest number of any Mexican border state.
In its January 2016 travel warning for Mexico, the U.S. Department of State cited Tamaulipas as a state with frequent crime and violence along its northern border. The cities of Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo—all cities where repatriated migrants are sent—are cited for numerous gun battles and attacks with explosive devices in the past year, as well as having one of the highest number of reported kidnappings in the country.
As it determines where to repatriate Mexican migrants that were not apprehended at the border, the Department of Homeland Security should work with the Mexican government to identify border cities that present the highest risks and reduce to the greatest extent possible any deportations to these cities.
The recently finalized Local Repatriation Arrangements demonstrate a new effort on the part of both countries to develop repatriation practices that ensure the safety, security, and human rights of all deportees, with a particular emphasis on vulnerable populations and unaccompanied children. However, the true impact of these new arrangements will be seen in their implementation. Both the U.S. and Mexican government must work to ensure full compliance, oversight, and reporting on repatriation procedures. Where exceptions exist, specifically in regards to nighttime deportations, they should be minimal and implemented as infrequently as possible. We further encourage both countries to continue to work to ensure that repatriations of Mexican citizens are carried out in the safest and most humane manner possible.
*This has been updated to reflect the fact that the Local Repatriation Arrangement Base Document was made available after our original commentary was published on February 26, 2016.