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US Policies Separate Families, Kill the Sick and Create Havoc on the Mexican Border

Alberto was in Nogales, Sonora, now, and home was about as far away as a place could be for Alberto that night, his first after being deported

Alberto Laborin Villa got to Mexico with what he had on: a pair of slacks and a gray dress shirt. His pockets were empty: no money and no identification. He had no phone numbers either because his phone was back home in Pasco, Washington. Alberto was in Nogales, Sonora, now, and home was about as far away as a place could be for Alberto that night, his first after being deported.

He’d soon be bedding down at one of the three migrant shelters in Nogales. Albergue San Juan Bosco was almost at its capacity of 100 – an easy feat given recent, record-setting US immigration enforcement trends – and the stench of sweat-crusted clothes, dirt and creosote filled the men’s dormitory. Many at the shelter had recently been picked up by the Border Patrol (BP) days deep into the Sonoran Desert, a desert where BP found 192 migrants’ bodies in 2011. Others, like Alberto, had been torn from well-established lives and dropped off in a country as foreign to them as it is to most US citizens.

Los DeportadosMigrants leaving the San Juan Bosco shelter to be taken by Grupo Beta to the comedor for their morning meal. (Photo: Murphy Woodhouse)

“I had the wallet, the other jacket and a cell phone and they didn’t give it to me. So I don’t have them with me right now,” he said in English. ‘They,” in this case, are the Washington police officers that arrested him and turned him over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after he was pulled over without a valid license. ICE is the federal agency responsible for interior immigration enforcement. That arrest had happened several weeks prior in late January 2012, and his family hadn’t heard from him since. As far as they knew, Alberto had simply vanished. “I don’t have a way to call [my family] right now, to let them know I’m here in Mexico.”

He was eventually able to get a hold of his family,(1) and they told him to head south to Hermosillo, Sonora’s state capital and largest city, where he had relatives he hadn’t seen in over a decade. That’s likely where he is today, more than 1,500 miles away from Pasco, with the hyper-securitized US-Mexico border and increasingly punitive US immigration law separating him from his home and family.

“I can barely remember my grandma,” Alberto said in the shelter’s simple chapel. “It was a long time ago … I haven’t been here in ten years.” Like an increasing number of deportees, 22-year-old Alberto had spent much of his life in the United States. “I’ve been living in the United States for ten years. I grew up over there.”

When Alberto was 13, he arrived in Washington State, where he went to high school and earned a GED. He was driving to his job when he was arrested. His mom and younger sister are there. He speaks fluent English with a Northwestern accent.

He wouldn’t hesitate a second if you asked him where home was: Pasco.

“They don’t think about … that they’re separating the family. You know, I’ve been with my mom all the time, since I remember,” Alberto said. “And now, they separated our family. It’s just destroying it, you know. I mean, I didn’t get any felony or anything. It was just driving with a license suspended. It’s not a big deal.”

According to numbers from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), Alberto was just one of 5,583 Mexican nationals deported to Nogales in February of 2012. There were 3,970 repatriations the month before. Of 405,455 deportations border-wide in 2011, Nogales received 54,977, making it the fourth-largest repatriation site on the border, and full of stories highlighting the human consequences of one of the US’s most extreme and far-reaching policies. Indeed, with more than a million deportations under the Obama administration and counting, the trauma, disruption, disorientation and tragedy of the deportation experience have reached record levels on both sides of the border.

Once deported, migrants face numerous challenges and difficult decisions. Tens of thousands are deported without Mexican identification. Many don’t have cell phones, so they can’t call their families to plan next steps. Some have children back in the States with no one to care for them. Most have little to no knowledge of their repatriation site. Many have little or no money. Some have been separated from spouses during detention and have no idea where their spouse is, where they are going to be deported and when that is going to happen. A few are deported with serious and insufficiently treated injuries and illnesses. Criminals prey on others.

As one of the principal investigators for the University of Arizona’s Migrant Border Crossing Survey, one of the largest quantitative studies of migration and deportation experiences on the US-Mexico border, Jeremy Slack(2) has spoken with hundreds of deportees at repatriation sites across the border. Few researchers have spent as much time as he has witnessing the aftermath of our country’s increasingly punitive immigration and deportation policies.

“Generally, people are just driven to the border and dropped off there. They may or may not have any of their possessions, any money, any identification. I think that we’re around only [half] of people we’ve talked to have identification,” he said. “This is a really important point because [without ID] you can’t get a money transfer, you can’t get a job, at least a formal job at the border … There’s been a lot of issues, especially in Tijuana, about the police forces harassing, extorting and even kidnapping people who don’t have identification.”

According to Jeremy, this goes hand in hand with the increasingly punitive, or “consequences-based,” trends he sees in the agencies enforcing contemporary immigration policy.

“They are going to make this generally a miserable experience that no one wants to have again, so [migrants] won’t come back again,” he said. “The problem with that thinking is, people that have family, children in the US and they consider their home to be in the US, are returning to the US. It doesn’t really matter how bad you make it, eventually they’re going to try again … A lot of the first time people, they know probably won’t go back if you make it really, really tough on them, they probably won’t try it again. But there’s an almost infinite supply of first-time crossers.”

Alberto certainly wanted to get back to Washington. But, because the limited humanitarian infrastructure keeps deportees fed and sheltered for just a handful of days, Nogales is a place where deportees like him must make big decisions quickly: Do I try to cross again? How do I pay for it if I do? Is it worth the year in prison the judge said I’d get if they catch me again? Do I bring my family with me to Mexico? Do I go back to my home in Mexico where my debt for this failed journey is waiting for me? Who should take my children if I can’t make it back?

Alberto, who had arrived just hours before the interview, hadn’t even made it to some of those questions yet. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “It’s kinda hard.”

In his work at the Center for Attention to Deported Migrants (CAMDEP), a dining hall for deportees known locally as the comedor, Jesuit Father Ricardo Machuca Hernandez has had a front-row seat to the human drama of deportation since he started working there last October. The comedor, one of the only places in town where deportees can get a free hot meal, is a project of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational Jesuit service organization. While recognizing the complexity of every deportee’s story, Ricardo puts deportees into two broad groups.

First, he said in Spanish, are “those that are trying to cross into the US, are detained by the Border Patrol and are then administratively deported. They take them to a detention center, or, if it’s the second or third time, possibly to prison. Then they’re there for a few months or up to a year and then they’re deported.”

Los DeportadosMigrants waiting in line for their morning meal at the comedor. Deportees spend most of their days drifting among here, Grupo Beta and Nogales’ three migrant shelters. (Photo: Murphy Woodhouse)

It’s migrants in the second category, migrants like Alberto, that often have the most heart-rending stories.

“The other type of deportees are those with established families in the interior of the United States; there are many of these deportees and their numbers have been recently rising. They are people that have 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 years living in the United States and they’re deported. This makes deportation all the more tragic,” he said. Numbers from the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan immigration think tank, back up Ricardo’s observation: between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of repatriated Mexicans that had spent at least a year in the United States rose from 5 to 27 percent. Ricardo is blunt about what deportation means for migrants in this category:

“They don’t have anywhere to return to in Mexico,” he said. “On the border, what they say is, ‘no matter how, I have to be with family and I have to return to the US That’s where my life is.'”

Los DeportadosFather Ricardo Machuca Hernandez at the comedor. “The work we do here is nothing more than assistance, first aid,” he says. “Of course this is just a palliative for the problem. It’s like taking an aspirin when you’re ill. It takes the pain away, but the disease or virus is still there. Obviously this is a structural problem, it’s a systematic problem.” (Photo: Murphy Woodhouse)

Salinas, California is certainly where Roberto’s life is – as well as his eight-, six- and there-year old children. He had been living in California for eight years, picking broccoli to support his family, and had only come back to Mexico to see his mother who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. As he and his wife were trying to cross back into the US, BP apprehended them. Roberto was deported with a voluntary departure, meaning he would not be charged with felony re-entry if he were to be detained again. But his wife was given an Expedited Removal (ER) and, if caught, would be charged with a felony and likely given a prison sentence. Under the terms of an ER, a deportee is barred from entering the country for five years. This was weighing on Roberto’s mind as he thought about how he and his wife were going to get back to their children.

“I’m worried that if they catch her again, something could happen to her. They could detain her for more time. But obviously my children want to be with their mother,” he said. Like many undocumented parents, there is simply no wall high enough or punishment severe enough to keep Roberto and his wife from their children.

“I don’t have a choice. I have to take the risk. If they detain me again, I’ll just have to try it again because I can’t leave my children without parents,” he said, his eyes slicked with tears. “I’m going to do it again, as many times at it takes, until I can be with them.”

This was not a pledge Roberto made lightly, given both the extreme danger of crossing the desert and the experience he and his wife had in a BP processing facility.

Roberto said he and his wife endured verbal abuse, overcrowded conditions, forced sleeplessness, and other humiliations.

“The worst thing that happened to us was the verbal abuse directed at us,” he said. “Many of the agents insulted us in English, thinking we wouldn’t understand and they made fun of us. Another thing is that they put more than 100 of us in rooms with a capacity for 40, like 110 people in one room. You couldn’t breathe and we asked [the agents] to leave the door open and they slammed the door in our faces. We couldn’t sleep because we were so many and had to be standing. Even when you went to the bathroom, there were people sitting and standing around you.”

“Yeah, it was an ugly experience that we had with Border Patrol,” he said. “We spent three days like that. Every day we were like that.”

When asked about the conditions in processing facilities described by Roberto and other migrants interviewed for this story, Tucson Sector Border Patrol Spokesman Mario Escalante said that such conditions and behavior are contrary to the agency’s rules and values.

“If [abuse] happens to [migrants], we want to know. We want them to come and tell us,” he said. “I can’t do anything if someone says, ‘You know, I was in Border Patrol custody two months ago and I was mistreated.’ We need to know when these incidents occur, immediately.”

When it was pointed out that migrants reported that conditions inside of processing facilities were not conducive to the open reporting of abuse, Mario seemed to acknowledge this in his response.

“Right and that’s why I’m saying we need to know about it. I can tell you from my personal perspective that I’ve written plenty of agents up and I’ve taken action myself when I’ve seen it … If it happens to an illegal alien, I want them to let me know.” Earlier in the interview, Mario suggested a possible explanation for migrants’ unwillingness to report abuse. “A lot of the time and rightfully so, some of the people that we apprehend, they’re in awe. They don’t know what’s happening. They’re trying to gather an understanding of where they are, what’s going on. And they don’t feel comfortable coming to us …” he said.

Mario said that BP’s processing facilities are regularly inspected by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican Consulate, which sends representatives who ensure “that everyone is being treated well.” Additionally, Border Patrol holds regular meetings with regional migrant advocacy groups, such as No More Deaths.

“All these things are discussed. We listen to these things because they are important to us,” he said. “But, we’re not perfect.”

It was what happened after their deportations that was the hardest for Juana Martinez(3) and Yesenia Rodriguez, not what happened in Border Patrol custody. Both had crossed the desert with their husbands; been detained with them near Tucson, though in different rooms; and then deported without them to Nogales, Sonora. Despite repeated calls to the Mexican Consulate, Juana could not get any information on where her husband was or where and when he was likely to be deported. Yesenia’s husband, on the other hand, had ended up 300 miles away.

“Look, where’s my husband now? He’s in San Luis Rio Colorado,” Yesenia said in Spanish. “I don’t even know where that is. He doesn’t have a peso, no money at all.”

Yesenia had learned this from talking to her husband on the cell phone of a friend with whom she had been deported. The friend had crossed the desert with Yesenia and her husband had happened to write down her number before getting captured and called it from a pay phone shortly after his deportation. Without that number, Yesenia might not have found out where her husband was. In Nogales, Sonora, a phone number can make all the difference for a deportee.

Both women had asked BP agents at the processing center to help them ensure that they were deported with their husbands. Both were rebuffed. While not denying the women’s testimony, Mario said that family separation during the detention and repatriation process is extremely rare and against BP policy.

According to Yesenia, a sympathetic BP agent had offered to help her get deported with her husband, but was told it was not possible by a supervisor.

“The young man came back angry and told me, ‘I did everything I could but … they didn’t agree. But go along with it, you’re going with your sister. Let’s hope they send your husband after you,'” she said of the conversation.

Juana was able to see her husband through a pane of glass at the detention center as she was leaving, but couldn’t speak to him.

“I might not have been so afraid if I had been able to speak to him,” she said. “I had him close, we were in the same place. We weren’t in different states. We were in the same place: Tucson. The same place, maybe 10 meters apart, if not less. And they didn’t let us talk; they didn’t let us come up with a plan.”

Experiences like Yesenia’s and Juana’s aren’t accidents, said Jeremy, citing his work for the Border Crossing Survey. “It’s deliberate.”

“You have people constantly asking, ‘What happened [to my spouse]’?” he said. “Some people are sent to a program like Operation Streamline and they’re an extra seven or eight hours there and then they might be deported later or they might be sent to a detention center for two or four months and people don’t have a way to get in touch with them.”

Operation Streamline is an ongoing Bush-era program that seeks to criminally prosecute all illegal border crossers. It has been criticized for overwhelming federal courts in the southwest, diverting limited resources away from the investigation and prosecution of crimes more serious than illegal re-entry and, because of the en masse hearings with up to 80 migrants that are its defining feature, violating the due process rights of migrants.

Los DeportadosThe crucifix at the San Juan Bosco shelter is adorned with the detention bracelets of recent deportees. With the advent of Operation Streamline under the Bush administration, thousands of migrants are serving prison time for immigration infractions that were previously handled administratively. (Photo: Murphy Woodhouse)Yesenia’s husband may have ended up in Rio Colorado because of another BP program called ATEP, which seeks to disrupt Mexican coyote and smuggling networks by deporting migrants far away from where they were caught crossing.

“Programs like lateral repatriation, known as the Alien Transfer and Exit Program (ATEP) … is supposedly only for men. But when it’s only for men, their wives and family are de facto being sent somewhere alone,” Jeremy said.

BP’s Mario seemed sincerely disturbed when told about Yesenia and Juana’s testimonies and denied that spousal separation was a frequent occurrence.

“That shouldn’t be happening,” he said. “In the 12 years of my career supervising, I never have seen a family separated. These are the kinds of things that we want to be sure that we’re aware of because they shouldn’t happen. A family shouldn’t be separated. We don’t separate families, we don’t separate spouses.”

Silvester Benjamin, a migrant from the Mexican state of Puebla, tried to cross the border without his wife, so spousal separation wasn’t a risk he was running. However, like Yesenia and Juana, he was also deported without something: the ability to walk in his case. Most migrants cross into the US through the desert and mountains, but some still try to jump the massive border walls that divide many frontier cities. The new wall in Nogales that Silvester tried to climb is anywhere from 23 to 30 feet high and is topped in most places by a five-foot sheet of metal designed to give little purchase to climbers.

Los DeportadosThe border wall a mile west from downtown Nogales. (Photo: Murphy Woodhouse)

Silvester fell from the very top and hit concrete on the US side. The impact fractured several vertebrae and broke both of his feet. He was taken to a hospital in Tucson where, according to him, he received some treatment for his back, but none for his feet. He was discharged after four days, driven to the border and deported in a back brace and wheelchair. When he was interviewed for this story he had been stuck in Nogales for 20 days and was bedridden at the San Juan Bosco shelter.

“I came from [Puebla] to try to cross the border, to try to get out of the poverty we’re in there. All I got was this,” he said in Spanish, pointing to his injuries. “All I want to do now is return home, with half the health I came with.”

Silvester believes he received inadequate care due to BP’s callousness. “For them the most important thing is, when we fall, they don’t want to see us again and they try to get us out as fast as possible,” he said.

But there might also be financial considerations, Jeremy said. “If Border Patrol takes you to a hospital, they have to foot the bill. Agents do a lot of things to avoid this, like dropping people off without actually signing them in to the hospitals and then picking them up afterwards and making the hospitals pay for it versus the Border Patrol,” he said.

BP policy is to take all injured migrants to a medical facility and emphasizes that no migrant is denied medical treatment, Mario said.

“What we do is, we’ll take that gentleman to a medical facility … and we’ll put him in the hands of the experts,” he said. “They’ll provide medical treatment until the doctor says he’s good to travel. When he’s good to travel, we bring in the consulate of their nationality and then the consulate makes arrangements for them to either receive additional medical treatment or make some sort of arrangement to get them home.”

It’s unlikely, however, that Silvester would have described himself as “good to travel.” “This is how they left me here,” he said, his back brace upright in a wheelchair near his cot in the San Juan Bosco Shelter. “I’ve been here for days like this, in the shelters and the hospital and I can’t go home because I have no way of getting there.”

It’s hard desert in all directions from Nogales: rugged scrublands covered in cactus and ocotillo and the punishing slopes of the Tumacacoris, Santa Ritas and Patagonia Mountains. Because the inhospitable landscape affords a degree of cover from enforcement agents, BP’s Tucson sector, which includes Nogales, sees a disproportionate level of undocumented migration and drug smuggling. Indeed, about half of all migrant apprehensions, marijuana seizures and migrant deaths happen here.

Los DeportadosA migrant from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, sits alone at Transportes Fronterizos waiting to make a call home. He had run out of money by the time he got to Nogales and was unsure about crossing. Transportes is one of several migrant shelters in town, all of which limit migrants to three nights. After that, they have to move on. When their time at the shelters runs out, some turn to sleeping in the nearby cemetery. (Photo: Murphy Woodhouse)

Look south from Tucson on any given day and you can be certain there are hundreds of people in the desert heading north, enduring and sometimes succumbing to all manner of hardship. But this is a recent phenomenon, largely in response to the build-up of immigration and border enforcement in popular urban crossing sites like El Paso, San Diego and Nogales during the mid-90s. What resulted was not the decrease in migration and smuggling promised to the American public, but a channeling of migrants and smugglers into the most hostile and dangerous areas of the American Southwest.

Nogales, Sonora, is hard in its own way, though not as hard as it used to be. Drug-related homicides reached a peak in January of 2010 with 45 murders, one of the highest rates in the country at the time, but have since declined to no more than a handful monthly. Many attribute the relative calm to the Sinaloa Cartel’s now undisputed dominance of the region. But that doesn’t mean that the city’s safe, least of all for deportees. Because many Mexicans are deported without money, friends, identification, knowledge of the city or resources of any kind, they are extremely vulnerable to the criminal networks that have made big business of migrants and deportees.

“We’re talking about a safe city if you compare [Nogales] to Ciudad Juarez or Matamoros,” said Father Ricardo, referring to two deportation sites that have been wracked by cartel violence. Juarez, which received 9,895 deportees in 2011, is widely considered the most violent city in the world. “But that doesn’t mean that [Nogales] is safe.”

Victoria,(4) who has lived most of her life in Phoenix, Arizona, knows first hand how dangerous Nogales can be for deportees. She was deported there in November of 2011 after a complicated, yearlong legal mess stemming from a 2010 arrest for driving with a suspended license. Since her arrival, Victoria has endured innumerable unwanted sexual advances, which she says are extremely common for female deportees, and two kidnapping attempts. One of the kidnapping attempts happened just a few blocks away from where she’s been staying, in broad daylight and less than a mile from the port of entry. Her two US-citizen children, a 15-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter, are back in Phoenix in Child Protective Services’ (CPS) custody.

“All of the people that approach you, at least the men, need sexual favors and then they’ll help you. If not, they won’t. The border is a hard place. It’s like we’re on the streets among animals. There’s no one to help you,” she said. “There is nothing good.”

Because she was a victim of a violent crime in the United States and assisted in the investigation, Victoria likely qualifies for a U-Visa, which grants undocumented victims of certain crimes temporary legal status and work visas for up to four years. However, fighting for the visa as a deportee in Mexico has been a bureaucratic nightmare for her. For example, she was told by caseworkers that for her application, she needed to get a Mexican passport – a near impossibility.

“The lady at the office told me I needed a bank account, water and electricity bills in my name, property, a business to be able to take out a passport. That’s impossible for me. I’ve been living in the United States for 29 years,” she said. “I don’t have anything in Mexico. Not one peso.”

As the case has dragged on, month after month, Victoria has become increasingly disillusioned with the possibility of getting back to her kids and increasingly certain that the state will terminate her parental rights. Because of everything that has happened to her in Nogales, she’s also extremely uncomfortable with the idea of bringing her children to Mexico. In their case against her, CPS claims that Victoria is a negligent parent in part because she did not take steps to provide for her children’s welfare in case she was deported.

“Being separated from my children has been very hard,” Victoria said. “I’m accused, now formally, of being a negligent mother … Why? Because I didn’t arrange to leave my children with someone, with their family. How could I do this? I don’t have family. I don’t have a husband. Who would I have left them with? Who prepares for their deportation? Please. Not even the smartest would do it.”

According to Nina Rabin, the director of the University of Arizona’s Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program, this sort of family separation has become increasingly common as deportations have risen. Her 2011 report “Disappearing Parents” begins with this somber declaration: “Quiet, slow motion tragedies unfold every day in immigration detention centers throughout the country, as parents caught up in immigration enforcement are separated from their young children and disappear into the detention system. If no relative is identified who can take the children at the time of an immigrant parent’s apprehension, the children may be placed in state custody and find themselves in foster homes, abruptly unable to communicate with their parents or even know where their parents are. If parents choose to accept their deportation, they risk being forever separated from their children …”

While doing research for the report, Nina has seen how dramatically an immigration arrest or deportation can affect both citizen and non-citizen family members.

“My view is that there is a very significant impact from detention and deportation policies on immigrant families,” she said. “I think it touches all immigrant families in one way or another, particularly because so many families are mixed status. Some family member could be caught up in the detention and deportation system at any given time … I think it’s impacting a huge number of families here.”

Indeed, the Applied Research Center (ARC) found that in just the first six months of 2011, 46,000 mothers and fathers were deported from the United States. ARC estimates that there are, at the very least, 5,100 children living in foster care in the United States as a consequence, or roughly 1.25 percent of all foster children in the country. Victoria’s children are among them.

“People like [Victoria], whose children are in Phoenix …” Nina said, trailing off. “If I were deported and my children were on the other side of the line, there would be nothing to stop me, I mean nothing, from coming back.”

Victoria shares the sentiment, but from Nogales the view is bleak. It’s no more than a three-hour drive to Phoenix, but in some ways she couldn’t be further from her children.

“It’s not racism, it’s a law. It affects everyone equally. It doesn’t matter to them if you have ten kids, if you’re a single mother, if you have hyperglycemia, if you’re sick, if you don’t have family in Mexico, if someone’s going to kill you in Mexico. That doesn’t matter. It’s a law. It’s a border that we can’t cross, ” she said.

Because of the nightmarish places the US is deporting other migrants, Victoria could be considered lucky in a very narrow sense; Nogales is, relatively, safe. Twenty-year-old Luis Luna had no such luck, though. He wound up in Ciudad Juarez, the city where he was born and a city that was averaging eight murders a day when he was deported there in early 2011. After several months living on the street in Juarez, Luis hitchhiked over to Nogales with hopes of crossing back into the US.

“I was born [in Juarez], but I left when I was a child, so I have no memory; I have no family. I was just alone; I was really scared,” he said. “When I first got there, I already saw that it was a different environment from where I came from. Spending my time there, living on the streets sometimes, seeing all the violence, seeing the gang shootings, seeing dead bodies – it was really difficult for me. Spending nights without eating, it was really hard.”

According to Jeremy, Juarez is just one of many repatriation sites along the border that are extremely dangerous for anyone, especially deportees. He singled out the state of Tamaulipas, which received 124,728 deportees in 2011, as an especially egregious place to be repatriating people with few resources. The state made international headlines in August of 2010 when the bodies of 72 migrants were discovered at a remote ranch in San Fernando. Since then, hundreds of bodies have been pulled out of mass graves in Tamaulipas. Some were identified by their deportation documents. The state is also one of the strongholds of the Zetas, one of Mexico’s most infamous cartels. Apart from running drugs, the Zetas have built a multimillion dollar business out of the mass kidnapping and extortion of migrants. Indeed, in a six-month period in 2010, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) documented 214 cases of mass migrant kidnapping that involved 11,333 victims. The CNDH conceded that the actual numbers were likely much higher.

“People know that it’s bad there. Authorities know what’s going on there. They know that that’s an area that’s a lot more difficult,” Jeremy said. “The idea of sending people into those regions as a part of [BP’s] consequences model really needs a lot more attention … We don’t know a lot of what’s going on there, but we know enough to know that people are in a lot of danger being sent there. For the US government to be complicit in that is simply unacceptable.”

But even if it wasn’t dangerous, Luis would still be away from his family.

“Deporting people, separating them from their family, is really wrong, especially for young people like me,” he said. “We’re there from like one-year-old, two-years-old, three-years-old – we’re just raised over there. We go to school; we play sports; we don’t do anything wrong until we do a little infraction, for not having a license or something. You separate us from our families, take that all away from us, from our friends, our moms, our parents. It really affects not only us, but other people out there, like my mom.”

Within view of Ciudad Juarez, President Obama delivered a major immigration policy speech in the border city of El Paso, Texas, on May 10, 2011. He talked an awkward line between recognizing the dramatic social costs of his deportation regime and touting his immigration enforcement record, unrivalled in recent US history. Immediately after trumpeting the doubling of BP personnel, the expansion of the border wall and the use of unmanned drones in border enforcement, among other enforcement highlights, he hit a somber note: the shocking scale of deportation under his administration. To soften the blow, he reassured the audience that “we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.”

But in the frank assessment of the human toll of deportation that followed, he was decidedly less reassuring.
“Even as we recognize that enforcing the law is necessary, we don’t relish the pain it causes in the lives of people just trying to get by. And as long as the current laws are on the books, it’s not just hardened felons who are subject to removal; but also families just trying to earn a living, bright and eager students; decent people with the best of intentions,” he said.

Obama chalked it all up to political necessity, the perceived need to get tough on illegal immigration before expending political capital on comprehensive immigration reform. It is safe to say, however, that the deftness of the calculation has been lost on the hundreds of thousands deported under Obama and their families.

Regardless of the political logic behind it, what is undebatable is that Obama has overseen one of the most dramatic increases in immigration enforcement capacity in American history. Every year of his term, ICE has deported nearly 400,000 people – the vast majority of them Mexican. Along with this, as migration northward has waned, he has presided over a shift to a more “consequences-based” enforcement philosophy in the Border Patrol, which has made enforcement significantly more punitive, dangerous and inhumane. These trends preceded the Obama administration, but he has not, until very recently, shown any real interest in slowing them.

Probably the single most important component of the dramatic increase in ICE’s interior enforcement capacity is Secure Communities. The federal program is essentially an information-sharing relationship between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and local law enforcement agencies. Whenever a participating local agency books someone into jail, their fingerprints are sent electronically to DHS which then checks them against their Automated Biometric Identification System, or IDENT. If the records match someone in their 91 million-person database, ICE can order the prisoner held or taken into their custody to investigate their immigration status. While certainly not as dramatic as the workplace raids that were a cornerstone of Bush-era immigration enforcement, Secure Communities has been an extremely effective tool for ICE: well over 225,000 undocumented migrants have been removed through it since its inception, a disproportionate number of them Latino.

The program was announced by President Bush in March of 2008, and first piloted that October, but under Obama it has enjoyed explosive growth. At the end of Bush’s term, it was operational in just 14 jurisdictions but today is up and running in more than 1,700 jurisdictions, at least 44 states and, despite growing complaints from many local police forces and state politicians, is on track to include every jurisdiction by 2013. At first billed as a voluntary program, DHS changed its position and held that every local police force in any state that had signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with them could not opt-out of the program. Indeed, despite their governors’ strong opposition to the program, ICE forcibly imposed Secure Communities on “all remaining jurisdictions” in New York and Massachusetts on May 10. Among other issues, many police officers have expressed concern that the program has made it extremely difficult for them to do their jobs in immigrant communities because of the fear and distrust the program sows.

According to ICE’s web site, Secure Communities helps the agency prioritize “the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety and repeat immigration violators.” However, in October of 2011, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy released a study of the program with a number of disturbing findings, many of which undermine the official line about Secure Communities.

Among other things, the researchers found that well more than half of those deported through the program had either no criminal background or only minor charges; 93 percent of those taken into ICE custody were Latino, despite making up only 77 percent of the undocumented population; nearly 40 percent arrested had a US citizen family member and 37 percent had a US citizen child; and that, extrapolating from the 375 random arrests they analyzed, roughly 88,000 families with a US citizen member were directly affected by the policy between its inception and April of 2011. The families of Alberto, Luis and Victoria, all of whom were deported after arrests for traffic violations, are among them.

Radical change is also afoot along the US-Mexico border. Beyond the doubling of BP since 2004 to more than 20,000 agents and the ballooning of their budget to $3.6 billion, there has been a subtler change in strategy. First tested in the Tucson Sector, the busiest by far, the Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) new Consequences Delivery System is being expanded border-wide and will likely increase the level of trauma and disruption experienced by migrants in BP custody. CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin recently said publicly that the program’s guiding principle is, with a few exceptions, to make sure every apprehended migrant gets “some type of consequence.”

BP Chief Michael J. Fisher put it in somewhat more disturbing terms before Congress last October: “[The] new Consequence Delivery System (CDS) guides management and agents through a process designed to uniquely evaluate each subject and identify the ideal consequences to deliver to impede and deter further illegal activity … This allows the US Border Patrol to match the individual and the consequence in the most effective and efficient way.”

Since the CDS was implemented in the Tucson Sector a little more than a year ago, voluntary returns plummeted from 85 percent of those apprehended to around ten percent. There is no criminal charge when a migrant is given a voluntary return. This shift means that roughly 90 percent of those caught by BP in the sector face some sort of penalty beyond their repatriation.

This could be a number of different punishments: They could be driven hundreds of miles away and deported to another border city through ATEP, as likely happened to Yesenia’s husband. They could be criminally prosecuted in a federal court through Operation Streamline, a Bush-era program that has been heavily criticized for flooding southwestern federal courts with minor immigration cases and undermining migrants’ right to due process. During an Operation Streamline hearing, up to 80 migrants are tried en masse for immigration charges for which they are essentially forced to plead guilty. Migrants, some of whom have no previous non-immigration charge, can receive sentences of six months or more.

Los DeportadosA Border Patrol agent watching the line just East of downtown Nogales. (Photo: Murphy Woodhouse)

They could also be flown back to Mexico City, as 8,893 were last year as a part of the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program (MIRP). Since the program started in 2004, 125,164 Mexicans have been flown back to the nation’s capital at a cost of roughly $90 million. They could receive an ER, which means they would get back to Mexico quickly, but with a criminal charge and at least a five-year wait to apply for a visa. If they were to get caught re-entering before their five-year probationary period was up, they would likely be charged with felony re-entry and given a prison sentence.

Jeremy is referring to this expensive, complicated and poorly understood system when he talks about the new consequences-based philosophy of BP. Because of stories like those documented here, he said it should be raising serious ethical questions for the American people. “The idea that you can just provide enough consequences to people to make them not come back and be away from their families forever – it’s just how brutal are you willing to be as a society,” he said. “How much are you willing to punish people for this act of coming here to work or to be with family, to make them not come back?”

There are some promising signs of change, though, the most important being ICE’s new policy of “prosecutorial discretion” announced last June by Director John Bolton. In a memo sent out agencywide, personnel were instructed to favorably consider a migrant’s “length of presence in the United States”; the age at which they came to the country; “the person’s pursuit of education”; military service; and “whether the person has a US citizen or permanent resident spouse, child or parent,” among many other factors when making enforcement decisions. Two months later, the Obama administration announced that it would review all of the roughly 300,000 pending deportation cases. According to ICE, as of April 16, 219,544 cases had been reviewed, 16,544 had been suspended and around 3,000 had been closed.

Even more recently, DHS announced in late April that most people arrested for minor traffic violations by local and state police would no longer be held for ICE to investigate their immigration status. A little late for Alberto and Luis, but a good step nonetheless.

Implementation of prosecutorial discretion has been problematic, however. One of the biggest obstacles has been the refusal of the union representing ICE agents to allow its members to go through the new training. Chris Crane, the president of the National ICE Council, criticized prosecutorial discretion as little more than election year theatrics before a House committee last October. He was quoted in The New York Times saying that “law enforcement and public safety have taken a backseat to attempts to satisfy immigrant advocacy groups.”

There are indications, though, that the new policy is having an impact. In a study recently released by the Syracuse University Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, researchers found that deportation cases opened by immigration officials dropped by a third in the last three months of 2011; between July and September of last year, ICE opened 58,639 cases and only 39,331 between October and December. The study’s authors couldn’t conclusively say if it was a direct result of new enforcement priorities, but it was a significant drop.

Though being carried out against the will of the Obama administration, the state-by-state “attrition through enforcement” strategy cannot be ignored as a piece of today’s immigration and deportation landscape. Arizona’s 2010 Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070) and Alabama’s 2011 House Bill 56 ( HB 56) are the most infamous examples, but similar bills have also been passed in Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah. Arizona and Alabama’s laws have a lot in common, most importantly the requirement for law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people they have a reasonable suspicion of being undocumented. Alabama’s, however, went several steps further by outlawing undocumented people’s access to state benefits or renting property and requiring that public schools check students’ immigration status.

As explained by Kansas’ Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the strategy’s head acolyte and a contributing author to both SB 1070 and HB 56, the idea it is to make day-to-day life as difficult as possible for undocumented migrants so they will simply give up and “self-deport.”

“Illegal aliens are rational decision makers. If the risks of detention or involuntary removal go up and the probability of being able to obtain unauthorized employment goes down, then at some point, the only rational decision is to return home,” he wrote in a 2007 think piece. Among other things, Kobach seems unable to conceive of the fact that many “illegal aliens” are already home.

The US Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of certain parts of SB 1070 and is expected to rule this coming June. During oral arguments in April, however, a majority of justices seemed comfortable with the bill’s requirement for law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country without documentation. According to The New York Times’ Adam Liptak, this provision is likely to be upheld in June.

It must be pointed out, though, that a critical element of the “attrition through enforcement” strategy is already a reality: Secure Communities and other interior enforcement programs of ICE have already “increas[ed] the risks of detention or involuntary removal,” as Kobach has called for. However, because Kobach is likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s chief adviser on immigration issues and Romney has advocated a nationwide self-deportation strategy, the possibility of seeing a national 1070 should not be lightly dismissed. As Kobach has written, “every state is a border state now.”

However, it’s back in Nogales and other border cities that all these policies reach their culmination and do so almost entirely out of the US public’s eye. Despite the fact that these new programs and strategies have immeasurable consequences for their targets, the voices of those impacted rarely make it across the border.

“This hugely complicated legal system that’s been built up over the past few years just has so many unknowns about it because the people who go through it aren’t here anymore to talk about it,” Slack said.

One of those migrants did have something to say about it. As Sylvester lay in the bed he’d been stuck in for days, his back and feet broken, he reflected on US immigration law and summed it all up nicely.

“It’s not just that the laws of your country are absurd in my view,” he said. “It’s that they exceed the limits of human rights. They trample on human rights and people because they result in inhumane treatment, treatment we don’t deserve as human beings.”


1. To do this, Alberto gave his Facebook login information to this story’s reporters, who then contacted his mother and sister from Nogales, Arizona.

2. Jeremy Slack is a good friend and colleague of one of this story’s reporters.

3. Pseudonym.

4. Pseudonym.

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