Documented: US Border Patrol Shakedowns of Deported Migrants

Migrants who are sent back to their country of origin without their money or belongings are exposed to deprivation and abuse.
Migrants are routinely sent back to their country of origin without their money or personal belongings. (Flickr)

EspañolFor migrants attempting to reach the United States, the obstacles are not faced on the journey north alone. Once on US soil, they run the risk of deportation, detention, and the loss of valuable property. According to a study by the University of Arizona, in which researchers interviewed 1,110 deported Mexicans, more than one-third were sent back without any of their belongings.

The humanitarian organization No More Deaths, a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, focuses on this issue in a report released on December 10, titled “Shakedown: How Deportation Robs Immigrants of Their Money and Belongings.”

The report identifies the three most common ways immigrants who are deported lose their money and belongings: negligence on the part of US officials to return money and property; money returned in forms that cannot be accessed internationally; and money directly stolen by border agents and police.

The study is based on 1,481 cases from 2011 to 2014 processed by No More Death’s Property Recovery Assistance Project, which assists immigrants recover their property after being detained in Arizona. It also uses information gathered from 165 interviews with immigrants who were deported “without some or all of their money” from 2013 to 2014.

In those 165 money-specific cases in the last year, migrants reported US$37,025 that was either lost or unusable. The NGO helped recover $12,851, but the majority of the cash was never returned.

While the total amount lost rarely exceeded $100 per person — a seemingly small sum of money — the organization the figure often represented more than a week’s wages for an illegal immigrant.

Unquantifiable Effects

For the study’s researchers, this “shakedown” is about more than just the monetary loss. They consider the theft a violation of human rights, and note the potential psychological effects on migrants. Aside from cash, items reportedly confiscated included IDs, wedding rings, clothing, cell phones, photographs, and other personal possessions of sentimental value.

Most of the money stolen from migrants is in foreign currency, according to the Arizona NGO No More Deaths.
Most of the money stolen from migrants is in foreign currency, according to the Arizona NGO No More Deaths. (No More Deaths)

The report highlights an increase in property loss beginning in 2005 when US Border Patrol established its Operation Streamline: a daily court hearing in which detained migrants plea en masse to criminal charges. Under this scheme, illegal immigrants are sentenced to an average of 30 days in jail for illegal entry, or an average of 19 months for re-entry.

Under US law, once illegal immigrants are sentenced, they are transferred to the prison facility, but their belongings stay with Border Patrol. All items left behind are then destroyed within 30 days of the arrest.

Personal Shakedown Stories

“When I was detained, Border Patrol threw my necklaces and belt in the trash yelling ‘esto va a la basura‘ (this goes in the trash). They put my cell phone and birth certificate in a bag and said they’d hold on to it for me. I asked for it from ICE when I was being deported and they told me, ‘You don’t have anything!’ I showed them a slip with the items listed and they said, ‘Border Patrol has that, not us,’ and told me there was nothing they could do,” said one of the victims from Tijuana, Mexico.

Researchers conclude that in accordance with a respect for human rights, migrants should never be deprived of their essential belongings, such as medicine or emergency phone numbers.

They say all of their belongings, even those of seemingly small value, should be returned to the owner at the time of his or her deportation. The organization is also asking for a change to the policy of destroying the property of jailed migrants after 30 days.

Since 2008, over 1.9 million people have been deported from the United States, potentially exposed to the same abuses documented in this report.

Elisa Vásquez and Adam Dubove contributed to this article. Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

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