By Clay Boggs
In the coming weeks, the Obama administration is expected to conclude its review of immigration enforcement policies. The administration is likely to announce that it will suspend deportations for certain categories of migrants who have not committed serious crimes, including those serving in the U.S. military. While these changes would fall short of the demand made by many immigration advocates to halt deportations altogether, they could significantly reduce the total number of deportations. Nonetheless, many individuals will still be deported, including many Mexican nationals. If the administration truly aims to make deportations more “humane,” it must also pay attention to what happens to Mexican migrants after they are repatriated at the U.S.-Mexico border, and it must recognize that deporting migrants to dangerous parts of the border, especially in the night, places them in grave and unnecessary risk.
The current situation in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which borders Southeast Texas, clearly illustrates the potential risks faced by migrants at the border. In recent weeks there has been a sharp increase in violence in Tamaulipas. Daytime gun battles have been common: at least 64 people were killed in a series of shootings in April, including fourteen people who died on April 29 in a series of daytime shootouts in the border town of Reynosa. Two of the dead were federal police officers. On May 5, gunmen shot and killed the head of intelligence for the Tamaulipas Secretary of Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, SSP) and his two bodyguards.
Even before the recent spate of violence, there were disturbing indicators from Tamaulipas. In particular, while Mexico’s federal government reported a decline of homicides in the state, its own statistics showed a significant increase in the frequency of kidnappings and extortions. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of kidnappings in Tamaulipas quadrupled, from 47 in 2010 to 211 in 2013, and the number of extortions doubled, from 107 to 225. Early data from 2014 is not encouraging; in the first three months of 2014, there were 69 reported incidents of kidnapping. Tamaulipas now has the highest reported rate of kidnapping and extortion of all border states and the second-highest rate of kidnapping in all of Mexico. These numbers likely represent only a fraction of all kidnappings and extortions that occur in Tamaulipas, as both of these crimes are typically under-reported; in April, U.S. authorities told the Dallas Morning News that there were 4 to 5 kidnapping victims every day in the border city of Nuevo Laredo alone, including several U.S. citizens.
Given the security situation in Tamaulipas, it is disturbing that the United States returns so many migrants to this state. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM), between 2006 and 2012 repatriations of Mexicans to Tamaulipas increased nearly five-fold, from 25,376 to 122,036. Over the same period, the yearly number of reported homicides there more than doubled. In 2013, even as Mexican immigration to the United States fell to record lows, the United States repatriated 88,038 people to Tamaulipas, which represented approximately 26 percent of all returns of Mexicans to border cities. This trend has continued in 2014; in the first four months of 2014, the United States deported 27,000 people to Tamaulipas, more than any other state except Baja California.
Returned migrants, who often find themselves in an unfamiliar city without resources or contacts, are easy prey for kidnappers. In recent weeks, Mexican authorities have rescued dozens of migrants, both Central Americans and Mexican nationals, from “safe houses” in Tamaulipas, where they were being held by criminal groups. Amnesty International reported that, on March 18, 2014, three recently deported Mexican women were kidnapped while waiting in line at a Western Union in Matamoros; a human rights defender familiar with the case recently told WOLA that the women were still missing.
The risks faced by returned migrants in Tamaulipas are exacerbated if they are deported at night, when most shelters and services are closed and migrants are more vulnerable to being preyed upon by criminal organizations. A 2013 University of Arizona survey of returned Mexican migrants in five border cities found that 1 in 5 of the migrants reported being deported between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. According to the head of the migrant shelter in Matamoros, Father Francisco Gallardo López, more than 200 migrants were deported in a single night in April 2014.
Given the shifting nature of violence in Mexico’s border cities, the Department of Homeland Security should work with the Mexican government to identify border cities that present the greatest risks for migrants, in order to reduce repatriations to these areas to the fullest extent possible. Migrants who are detained and repatriated from the interior of the United States should not be sent to dangerous border cities when other options are available. In particular, the administration should include a policy objective to eliminate night deportations, which needlessly put migrants at risk, as part of its efforts to make immigration enforcement more humane. In the Border Patrol’s San Diego and El Centro sectors in California, the U.S. and Mexican governments have begun a pilot program that stops night deportations in these areas. This program is a welcome development, and it should be replicated throughout the border.
These practical, common-sense steps to ensure that migrants are not needlessly put at risk are an essential part of making deportations more humane.