Border Patrol Separates People From Their Survival Tools

Marisa Demarco
5 min read
Deported and Dispossessed
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He’s dropped off in Mexico, a country that’s changed drastically since the last time he was there. He doesn’t have a cell phone.

He can’t call his family in the States to say he’s OK. He can’t call people in Mexico who might help him out. He doesn’t know their numbers. Usually he just holds down a quick-dial button, and the phone does the rest.

He doesn’t have an ID, which is a problem when he’s stopped at the military checkpoints that dot the highways.

This story belongs to many undocumented immigrants deported to Mexico, says Lizeth Martinez, coordinator of the legal department at
Centro de Derechos Humanos del Migrante in Juárez.

She’s been working since May to document civil rights violations that result from the detention of immigrants. "I found out that one of the most common concerns of the immigrants was that they don’t have their belongings—and especially their credentials or IDs."

The problem stems from a U.S. Border Patrol policy. When someone is arrested on suspicion of being an undocumented immigrant, their items are confiscated, according to a Border Patrol spokesperson who’d prefer not to be named. IDs, family photos, money, cell phones—all of it is taken and inventoried, he says. Suspects are told they have 30 days to get their stuff back. After that time, the items are destroyed.

But some folks are sent through
Operation Streamline, a program in place since 2005 that rapidly shoves captured immigrants through several U.S. agencies. The idea is to convict people of a federal crime as an added deterrent to entering the country.

Vicki Gaubeca is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union
Regional Center for Border Rights in New Mexico. She says Operation Streamline often means that people are transferred into the custody of the U.S. Marshals and end up with sentences in federal prison. After they’re released, they’re sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be deported.

Personal belongings don’t follow the defendants through that process, she says, which can take longer that 30 days. "It may seem inconsequential, but it really has huge repercussions on the fathers, the mothers, the siblings who are being deported to Mexico, particularly because we’re seeing individuals who have established roots in the U.S."

People who’ve been living in America for more than a decade have adjusted to our way of life, she says, and then they’re torn from their families and sent to a country that’s embroiled in a drug war. "Without IDs and debit cards, they basically wind up homeless and unable to get a job. To get back to their original hometowns, they first have to get enough money for the transportation."

That’s just one example of how people are separated from their property, Gaubeca says. Other immigrants are picked up at a port of entry, she says, have their stuff confiscated, and then get the runaround about how to get it back. An ICE detainee must sign a notarized power of attorney form authorizing someone else to pick up their belongings, she adds, but there are no notaries in the detention facilities.

The Border Patrol spokesperson says people are usually reunited with their personal effects. There are procedures in place that allow them to file for reimbursement if they feel items have been inadvertently lost or misplaced.

The Regional Center for Border Rights filed a Freedom of Information Act request to better understand U.S. Customs and Border Protection policy. The request turned up a memo dated November 2006 that indicates belongings should remain tied to people when they’re sent to ICE for deportation. "Somehow, that practice changed," Gaubeca says.

Martinez, the lawyer in Juárez, says some of the people she’s interviewed feel like the tactic is meant to make things harder for those who’ve been deported. This is particularly true when family photos or Mexican money is thrown away despite policies dictating otherwise, she adds. "Sometimes they return some of the belongings but not the IDs. But there is no strong reason to keep them. It’s very frustrating to the people and makes them feel more vulnerable."

It also means deported folks can become prey for corrupt Mexican law enforcement officials or criminals who will kidnap them and hold them for ransom, says Gaubeca.
Kidnapping rates have soared, with a more than 300 percent increase since 2005, according to a Mexican congressional report.

"I actually do think that Border Patrol is engaging in a get tough policy," Gaubeca says. "It’s like some kind of deterrence method to make them suffer as much as possible. If they understood the hardship they were creating for people with this process and how inhumane it is, they would try to change the policy."

Some public defenders are taking on the issue and personally trying to safeguard clients’ property, Gaubeca says. The Mexican Consulate is also working on it, as well as activist organizations such as
No More Deaths in Arizona. The Regional Center for Border Rights is trying to get the attention of the White House.

Gaubeca advocates a multi-agency policy that ensures personal property follows people through whatever process they’re referred to. "In Mexico, they know about the problem," she says. "In the U.S., there’s no awareness of the severe consequences of this policy."
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