Deported migrants said that fears of returning to their home countries often went unheard or ignored by immigration officials, according to a new Human Rights Watch report. The report is the latest critique lobbed by advocates and professionals who are accusing the government of largely ignoring the legal process for immigrants in deportation proceedings and are returning them back to conditions that could place them in serious harm.
“Virtually all of those we interviewed who had been apprehended at or near the border were deported summarily, via expedited removal or reinstatement of removal,” the report charged. “Many said they had expressed their fears to US Border Patrol officials charged with screening for fear of return before being deported, but fewer than half of these were referred by US Border Patrol for a further assessment of whether they had a ‘credible’ or ‘reasonable’ fear of returning to Honduras.”
The HRW report, which is based on interviews with 10 Central American migrants in detention and 25 recently deported Hondurans, found that migrants often received cursory screenings even when they expressed a fear of returning to their home countries. Some of those deported “had fear so acute that they were living in hiding, afraid to go out in public.”
Jacobo E, a deported Honduran man, told HRW that he wouldn’t leave his sister’s house and feared telling his four young children that he was back in the country because he was afraid to be found by gangs. On the rare occasion that he left the house, he wore a motorcycle helmet with a darkened visor. He told HRW that the gang MS-18, “is nearly everywhere. Being locked up like this is ugly. I think about my children all the time. I can’t contact them or tell them that I’m back in the country though. That would be dangerous.”
Alicia R, a deported woman said that she moved from house to house because she was afraid of retaliation by gangs for witnessing the murder of her mom. “The people from the gangs don’t have any heart, whether with adults, children,” Alicia said. “They don’t have hearts. We buried my mother … and then I had to leave the house we lived in because they came to look for us. I left everything.”
Still others interviewed said that they had fled to the United States because they “had been subject to serious threats from gangs in Honduras” including one man who was shot seven times in the back. HRW also interviewed people who refused to make payments to gangs, victims or witnesses to gang crimes, feared being recruited into a gang, or fled abusive domestic partners or violence related to sexual origin, which HRW stated is “grounds for asylum under US law.” Those deported back to Honduras did not feel that Honduran authorities were willing or even able to protect them and many said that they would make the journey again.
But once they were detained by U.S. immigration officials, migrants told HRW that border agents “ignored their expressions of fear and removed them with no opportunity to have their claims examined; others said border officials acknowledged hearing their expressions of fear but pressured them to abandon their claims.” Individuals who were referred to USCIS for credible fear interviews felt pressured and unable to navigate the “complex immigration court asylum proceedings.” Though HRW was unable to independently verify the specific details of their interviews, the interviews echo similar statements made in the past by migrants who felt coerced into returning to their home countries.
When undocumented migrants are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, both Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and USCIS officials are required to screen migrants and ask whether they are being persecuted or feel threatened in their home countries. If their claims are credible, immigrants are referred to immigration court where a judge decides whether that person can stay in the country based on asylum or under some other humanitarian protection.
As data from previous years indicate, migrants crossing the border are becoming less likely to be deemed eligible for asylum. Between 2011 and 2012, at least 80 percent of Hondurans were fast-tracked for expedited removal and reinstatement of removal proceedings, while CBP agents deemed about 1.9 percent for valid “credible fear” screenings. Migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the three other Latin American countries that have seen an increased exodus in recent years into the United States, similarly were often fast-tracked for deportation.
Obama administration officials said that the rate of migrant crossings sharply dropped in August, but migrants are just as at risk of death in their home countries now as they had been before. As a case in point, a Honduran morgue director said that between five and ten migrant children have been killed since February after they were deported.
U.S. immigration attorneys are scrambling to help detainees stay in the country, but it’s been difficult. Affidavits by lawyers representing clients at an immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico charge that the center was created to “limit successful asylum claims,” with one agent telling a lawyer, “Our job is to get them deported and there’s maybe one in 1,000 entitled to stay in the United States, and the rest are going to go.”