Dangerous Deportations

AP Photo/Guillermo Arias

The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which sits across the border from Texas, can be a scary place. With one of the largest ports of entry to the United States, Tamaulipas is a coveted drug-trafficking corridor disputed by the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, and an outside gang called Sinaloa. The spiral into violence began in 2006, when the Mexican government started an all-out war against these criminal organizations. At the height of conflict, newsrooms got attacked, battles often involved grenades, and gruesome mass killings were common, even as the military patrolled the streets. Drug-trafficking organizations are not only into smuggling these days; they engage in theft, piracy, extortion, and, more recently, kidnapping.

A U.S. Department of State travel warning in July 2013 advises U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to the area: “The kidnapping rate for Tamaulipas, the highest for all states in Mexico, more than doubled in the past year.” Mexico’s National Public Security System reported 887 cases of kidnapping in Tamaulipas in the first eight months of 2013. Yet the United States still plays an unwitting role in supplying kidnapping victims through deportations. According to Mexico’s National Migration Institute, deportations to Tamaulipas increased five-fold between 2006 and 2012, from 25,376 to 122,036. Migrants deported from the United States are valuable for criminal organizations because many have family members that will pay a handsome ransom—in dollars

The Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, recently sent a documentary team to the border city of Matamoros in Tamaulipas, across from Brownsville, Texas, to investigate deportation practices and their impact. In the short video below, Raymundo Martinez, one of the seminarians working at the Dioceses of Matamoros migrant shelter, explains the plight of migrants. “The majority of migrants that pass through this house have had run-ins with people who attempt to kidnap or extort them,” Martinez says.

The migrant shelter has been attacked, too. On Christmas Eve, armed men entered the shelter and kidnapped 15 men from the dining room. Shelter officials never heard from them again.

Not only is Tamaulipas incredibly dangerous; it is also not equipped to receive the high number of deportees the United States is sending. There are only five migrant shelters in the state's border cities—one in Matamoros, two in Reynosa, and two in Nuevo Laredo. As a result, many migrants deported to the area have nowhere to go, making it even easier for criminal groups to target them. Moreover, migrants are easy to identify. They are dropped off every day at the ports of entry, often wearing American clothes, holding their belongings in Customs and Border Protection transparent plastic bags, and looking vulnerable. “When they arrive here they become easy prey of organized crime,” said Father Francisco Gallardo Lopez, who runs the Matamoros migrant shelter. “They are transferred to the bus depot, which at times can become overcrowded with migrants.”

Migrants’ safety is further compromised by the fact that many of them are deported in the middle of the night. According to a recent University of Arizona survey of Mexicans deported from the United States, one in five migrants report being repatriated between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., when services are closed. In addition, 39 percent of the migrants surveyed said that American authorities did not return their belongings to them. That means they were left stranded in dangerous territory without their IDs, wallets, or cell phones. They can’t call for help, get money from the bank, or prove their identity to Mexican authorities. “I was carrying my Mexican passport and my voter ID,” said Daniel Luján González, who had been deported from Arizona and was staying at the Matamoros shelter. “They [American authorities] took it all. My money, everything.”

Another troubling and sometimes dangerous deportation practice is “lateral repatriation.” For example, a migrant may be apprehended in the San Diego, California, sector but deported hundreds of miles away to a city across the border from Texas. This is purportedly done in an attempt to break the link between migrants and their smugglers. But a recent Congressional Research Service report found that migrants deported through this program are not deterred. In fact, they attempted to recross at a higher rate than other migrants. Lateral deportation is not only ineffective; it can break up families and put female migrants at additional risk. Only men are laterally deported, and they can be separated from spouses or female traveling companions in this process. This practice leaves women alone and separates families, who are then left without knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones.

No evidence suggests that migrants are sent to dangerous places in a deliberate attempt to put them in harm’s way. But the fact remains that the United States is not taking into account what is happening on the ground in Mexico and the potential danger that migrants face when deported. Moreover, there is growing evidence that deporting people in the middle of the night to violence-riddled border cities, separating families through lateral deportation, and depriving migrants of their belongings is as ineffective as it is dangerous. The majority of migrants attempting to cross the border today aren’t newcomers to the United States, but deportees who are trying to reunite with their families or return to what they consider home. More than 50 percent of deported migrants have family in the United States, and almost 75 percent have been in the United States for more than seven years, according to the University of Arizona survey. Deportation will not deter migrants from attempting to return to the United States. There is no deportation practice, no border fence, and no threat that will deter a parent from attempting to reunite with his or her children. 

Senator Chris Coons of Delaware added an amendment with bipartisan support to the immigration-reform bill that would limit night deportations. While Congress debates the bill, migrant rights advocates say the Obama administration has the authority to end these dangerous deportation practices without congressional action. “The Obama administration should take steps to ensure that migrants aren’t exposed to additional risks to their safety when they are deported to Mexico,” said Maureen Meyer, senior associate at WOLA.

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