Almost 50 people held on immigration charges in New Mexico signed letters saying that if they are deported over the state's border, they will be immediately kidnapped or killed.
One missive, written in June in broken English, was sent to David Hill of the nonprofit No More Deaths by 21 detainees held at the facility in Torrance County, N.M. “Please save us,” they wrote. They pled to be deported through the Arizona or California border instead.
They said that if sent through either New Mexico or Texas, they will be kidnapped by a drug gang known as Los Zetas and will almost certainly die.
The letter-writers knew each other only from being in the detention center together, according to No More Deaths. One of the men had been kidnapped after a previous deportation, and he shared the story with others in the facility.
The detainees’ letter also says the municipal police in Mexico kidnap deportees and turn them over to gangs that hold them for ransom. “They take you to an abandon alley or house and waiting for you is this group Los Zetas at gunpoint your eyes are bandaged and your feet and hands are tied, and so begins the nightmare!”
“It's not entirely clear to us when, in fact, and how they're going to be deported and what their immigration status actually is.”
Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-NM
No More Deaths started a letter-writing campaign on behalf of the detainees, and about 7,000 letters were sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The participation has been more than double anything we’ve done before with this campaign,” says Hill, a volunteer who works in Nogales, Ariz.
Other activist groups were relieved that dangerous deportations were being spotlighted, Hill says. Several national nonprofits, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have become involved in the case.
Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-NM, says he has been in contact with the detainees and sent an email to the directors of the Torrance County Detention Facility. But, he adds, there is no appeal process possible through the U.S. justice system. He says the ACLU is considering the possibility of appealing to an international body, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—a course of action that ACLU-NM has never pursued before. Any decision rendered by such an organization would not be legally enforceable, he says. “Basically, the hammer behind it would be political pressure.”
Simonson says he's unsure of the locations of some of the detainees. “It's not entirely clear to us when, in fact, and how they're going to be deported and what their immigration status actually is.”
“The humanitarian consequences ... are enormous, as is evidenced by the case of these detainees that are terrified for their lives.”
Lena Graber, a policy associate with the National Immigration Forum
No More Deaths released a statement on its website on Thursday, June 23, indicating that seven have already been deported. A volunteer with the organization, Hannah Hafter, says other letter-writers are being held indefinitely at a facility in El Paso. Since they perceive a threat to their lives, they may be able to apply for asylum. Still, many are frantic about the indefinite detention, she says, and wish they could be returned to Mexico to continue supporting their families.
Representatives of ICE declined to comment for this story but issued a response to the call for safer deportations. ICE recommends the detainees contact the Mexican Consulate with safety concerns. The response notes “ICE recognizes the current situation relating to violence in Mexico,” but the agency does not allow people to choose the location they will be deported to.
The statement goes on to say that as of March 3, ICE has not been deporting “criminal aliens”—that is, immigrants facing criminal charges unrelated to immigration status—through Ciudad Juárez.
Hafter says the response letter from ICE is upsetting. “It’s basically both acknowledging that they know that this is happening to people and saying that they don’t do anything about it, and it’s not their responsibility.”
Furthermore, reaching out to the Mexican Consulate or other government agencies for help could be dangerous. Simonson says the detainees told him in conversation that Mexican immigration services have been known to collaborate with drug cartels. He says the detainees told the ACLU that “the receiving immigration office is actually conspiring with the drug cartel to hand people over to the drug cartel so they can be held for ransom.”
ICE generally sends deportees to a different location from where they were apprehended, according to Lena Graber, a policy associate with the National Immigration Forum.
“They believe that it's part of a fair strategy of deterrence to re-entry,” she says. “The humanitarian consequences for that are enormous, as is evidenced by the case of these detainees that are terrified for their lives.”
Hill of No More Deaths says getting people deported through Arizona or California would be a great help to the people who sent the letters, but more drastic policy reform is needed on the border.
“The things that people are experiencing immediately on deportation are happening all over the border—kidnappings, extortion, beatings, ” he says. “Obviously, we would like to see fundamental immigration reform.”