U.S. Government Abuse of Apprehended Migrants

By Michael S. Danielson*

Photo Credits: Larry Hanelin, Kino  Border Initiative, 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credits: Larry Hanelin, Kino Border Initiative, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not fulfilling its obligation to protect the civil and human rights of migrants apprehended, detained and deported back to Mexico.  A study released this week entitled “Our Values on the Line: Migrant Abuse and Family Separation at the Border” (full text) found that more than one-third of deported migrants experienced some type of abuse or mistreatment at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities.  The abuses included theft, physical abuse, verbal abuse, and inhumane detention conditions.  In violation of U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, these conditions include but are not limited to being held for over 12 hours in facilities without beds, overcrowding, excessively low temperatures, lack of adequate food, and denial of medical treatment.  Commissioned by the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), the report details the results of an in-depth survey of 358 Mexican migrants deported from the United States to the border city of Nogales, Mexico, from July 2014 to March 2015 – and corroborated by short-form surveys of 7,507 other migrants in the same area.

  • Since 2005 CBP has sought to deter Mexican migrants from attempting to enter the U.S. through a policy of “enforcement with consequences.” Formally launched in 2011 as the “Consequence Delivery System,” this package consists of measures against individual migrants that are so harsh as to be obviously intended to cause hardship and suffering.  In so doing, Border Patrol has abrogated its previous commitment, undertaken in 2004, to use its authorities to preserve family unity and ensure humane treatment of apprehended migrants.  Making things worse, Border Patrol agents often incorrectly enter names into computer databases, deny access to phone calls, and deny access to the individual’s consulate.
  • Two out of three migrants surveyed who crossed into the U.S. with immediate family members and apprehended together by the Border Patrol were separated from each other and deported to different ports of entry days, weeks, or months apart.
  • Twenty-eight percent of migrants surveyed were deported at night – to Nogales and other destinations with high levels of violence – making them particularly vulnerable to abuse by criminals and corrupt police and other public officials. One of every seven women was placed in this vulnerable position.
  • Migrants alleging abuse were unlikely to file a formal complaint. Less than one out of every 12 deported migrants in the survey claiming some type of abuse filed a complaint with U.S. immigration authorities.  Reasons for not filing a complaint include being unaware of the right to do so, fear of retaliation, and a belief that it would not make any difference.
  • The abuses were not carried out by “a few bad apples,” but rather reflected policies across Border Patrol and poor oversight of their implementation. The patterns of abuses are too extensive to argue otherwise.

Punitive border enforcement punishes people whose suffering in their home countries had already grown unbearable, and there is no evidence that these policies deter unauthorized immigration.  In fact, a recent report of the DHS Inspector General found that the CBP has failed to accurately measure the deterrent effect and the cost-effectiveness of the core policies of the Consequence Delivery System.  Evidence is much stronger of the negative and unintended consequences of these policies, both for migrants and border security.  In personal communication presented in the report, CBP’s former Assistant Commissioner of Internal Affairs James Tomsheck attests that an attempt to enhance the enforcement capacity of the agency through a hiring surge of some 12,000 new agents in just over two years was marred by a predictable deterioration of the vetting process and a sharp and consistent decline in “the quality and suitability of the Border Patrol applicant pool.”  This new report points to several key areas for reform to help limit abuse by Border Patrol agents, including stronger independent and internal oversight mechanisms to tackle misconduct and abuse; an accessible and accountable complaint process; an overhaul of CBP training; equipping CBP agents with body-worn cameras; and improving CBP short-term detention conditions.  The study also recommends that deportations to Mexican border towns occur only during daylight hours and that DHS, responsible for CBP, put in place a process to identify family relationships and preserve family unity upon deportation.  Such measures would begin to address the most pressing problems faced by migrants and their families – without triggering a spike in migrant traffic.

September 17, 2015

*Michael S. Danielson, a CLALS Research Fellow, was the principal researcher and drafter of the report.

Child Migrants: Deepening Challenges

By CLALS Staff

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A surge in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing criminality, family problems, and violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico underscores the personal tragedy of undocumented immigrants – they escape old threats only to face new ones – but the issue so far has sparked only the usual partisan acrimony in Washington.  According to U.S. government sources, the number of child migrants reaching the United States has increased 92 percent over the past year.  Some 47,000 have arrived since last October, and a draft document by the Department of Homeland Security speculated the figure could reach 90,000 by the end of the fiscal year.  (Only 5,800 children arrived alone each year 10 years ago.)  Mexican children still outnumber others, but the current surge is coming from the northern-tier countries of Central America.  Polls conducted by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that about half of these children are driven by criminal insecurity; 21 percent by abuse and other problems in the home; and the rest by other forms of violence.  The influx of these refugee migrants is not a strictly U.S. phenomenon: Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama have seen a 435 percent increase in child arrivals from the northern tier since 2012 as well.  The UNHCR has made an urgent plea for assistance.

President Obama last Monday declared the problem was an “urgent humanitarian crisis,” and he directed the delivery of aid to house and provide care to the children, who remain in government custody while relatives in the United States are located or other solutions are planned.  The White House also announced an initiative to assign legal advisors to those under 16 who are facing deportation but are not in government custody.  Republican critics reacted forcefully.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the crisis was a “direct consequence of the President’s illegal actions,” including allegedly lax enforcement of immigration law.  The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives called it an “administration-made disaster.”

Shifts in immigration numbers traditionally have been a function of “push” factors (poverty, violence and other problems) in sending countries and of “pull” factors in the United States – particularly the perception that safely entering the country and finding work is easy.  The Obama Administration’s aggressive deportation policies – physically removing about two million undocumented migrants – arguably have reduced the “pull” over the past six years, and it seems premature to conclude that the Administration’s recent rhetorical shift has shined a bright green light as far as Honduran hamlets.  That the influx is occurring in countries other than the U.S. provides further evidence that local push factors (as the UNHRC posits), and not Obama Administration policies, are the most credible cause of the surge, in spite of the fact that criminality and violence in Central America’s northern triangle have not shown a commensurate increase during this period.  Regardless, predictable demagoguery around this growing crisis probably will further complicate the Administration’s efforts to carry out those few progressive steps it has launched by Presidential order, including programs to normalize the status of “Dreamers” – undocumented migrants’ children eager to overcome the stigma and obstacles to citizenship.  The approach of mid-term elections in the United States promises that this humanitarian crisis will sustain more name-calling and political paralysis in Washington.

Obama’s Deportation Debacle: Time for Executive Action?

By Eric Hershberg and Dennis Stinchcomb

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Amid fierce debate over the Obama administration’s record on the deportation of undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. without serious criminal records, insiders confirmed to the Associated Press on Monday that the White House is seriously considering unilateral action to reduce deportations.  Preliminary reports suggest that a review of the policy by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson may result in executive action curbing deportations.  Rumors of White House movement on the issue surfaced last week, when members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus presented Johnson with a memo outlining their demands.  Most notably, they recommended an expansion of the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the elimination of “Secure Communities,” a program initiated during the Bush era that mandates that local law enforcement agencies enforce federal immigration laws and which has led to reported abuses.

The increased pressure on the president to further limit forced removals comes at a moment when deportations are on the decline and interior enforcement is at a five-year low.  New statistics released by the Department of Homeland Security (via FOIA requests from The New York Times) and the Department of Justice provide the most comprehensive view to date of an enforcement policy fraught with political miscalculations.  DOJ reports, for example, a 43 percent drop in the number of new deportation cases filed in federal immigration courts in the last five years.  In hopes of gaining credibility and leverage for Democrats in a potential immigration deal, the administration in 2011 reallocated massive enforcement resources to the U.S.-Mexico border.  The plan was to ease interior enforcement that disrupted established families and communities – and ran up deportation numbers in the past – while deporting higher numbers of recent border crossers, who under previous administrations would have been sent home without formal charges.  In the interior, workplace raids all but disappeared, but state and local police, under the Secure Communities program, continued to identify “high-priority offenders.”

The Obama administration’s five-year attempt to placate Republican lawmakers through record-setting deportations has backfired politically, and the collateral damage is high, with nearly 2 million deportations to date and an outraged electoral base.  Though current and former administration officials argue that concerns over public safety and border security have guided immigration enforcement since day one, the evidence suggests that political expedience has driven Obama’s deportation policy and – with midterm elections just around the corner and maneuvering toward the 2016 presidential elections already underway – is likely to continue to do so.  Obama’s eagerness to impress Republicans with his toughness, without any guarantee the maneuver would work, has alienated Hispanic and Asian communities who feel betrayed and whose turnout at the polls is crucial for a Democratic victory.  The leaks of executive action indicate a White House focused on damage control with those important constituencies, while essentially signaling the definitive end of any chance of bipartisan Congressional immigration reform.  Despite some handwringing among American conservatives that the Republicans’ position will lock out Hispanic voters for years to come, most of the party’s leaders appear to give priority to their nativist base.  Obama ultimately may be calculating that, with chances of passage of immigration reform nil anyway, his energy is best spent on rebuilding ties with constituents whose communities have been torn apart by policies pursued during his first five years in office.