Federal immigration agents may be looting or failing to return personal belongings to immigrants before deporting them back to Mexico, leaving them vulnerable to extortion without their identification cards or money, alleges a new complaint from various human rights and immigrant advocacy organizations.
The complaint, which was submitted on behalf of 26 migrants deported from the El Paso Border Patrol sector in 2015 and 2016, accuses U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials of confiscating items of “great personal value and necessity,” including U.S. dollars, Mexican pesos, identity cards, legal papers, cell phones, clothing, prescription eyeglasses, and prescription drugs.
The implications of depriving deportees of their personal belongings are huge — particularly if they’re deported in the middle of the night to Mexico, where emergency shelters, transportation, and other services may not be open. About one in three people (including nearly 16 percent of women) are removed at night, one previous study found.
Being without their personal items could also affect migrants long after they return to their home communities in Mexico, the complaint indicates. Border agents who take away money have left some complainants without weeks of wages. When identity and other legal documents weren’t returned, deportees found themselves unable to purchase basic items like bus tickets, receive a money transfer, or pass through military checkpoints in the interior of Mexico. And those who were able to get back home had to wait upwards of a month to replace their voter cards, leaving them effectively undocumented while they wait for replacements.
“Imagine what it would be like you suddenly got dropped in a town that you didn’t know, without your cash or ID,” Vicki B. Gaubeca, the director at the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. The ACLU-NM is one of several organizations that signed onto the complaint.
“In Mexico, basically you prove your identity by showing your voter ID card or your electoral card. Without it, you’re no one,” Gaubeca added. “You can’t cash the check at the bank. You can’t even open an account at the bank. You can’t even travel in Mexico without showing some kind of identification. It puts them at risk of harm’s way. They wind up sort of being exposed to more criminal activities because of this.”
The Department of Homeland Security — which oversees the ICE and CBP agencies — has measures in place requiring the return of possessions to immigrants. In October 2015, CBP announced new National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search (TEDS) to provide uniform standards for agents to follow in returning personal property to migrants. CBP’s administrative process for reclaiming belongings in the El Paso Border Patrol sector requires individuals or a designated third party to reclaim their items within 30 days of their arrest or items become subject to destruction.
But it’s clear that these policies aren’t always followed in practice. A 58-year-old complainant alleged that Border Patrol agents wrongly told her to wait until she was deported to reclaim her belongings. After she was deported, she said that she could not reclaim her belongings because more than 30 days passed between her arrest and deportation.
“Technically they’re not following policy,” Gaubeca said. “And they’re making people vulnerable by deporting them without cash, cell phones, and ID. Our hope is that we do get a full investigation of these 26 cases and they actually do adjust their policies so individuals are repatriated with their belongings.”
The complaint follows a systemic pattern of mass dispossession and rights violation among border agents, particularly in the El Paso region. A 2013 study found that along the El Paso sector, at least 65 percent of people deported reported that the government failed to return at least one of their possessions. And nationally, a 2015 study by the immigrant advocacy organization Kino Border Initiative (KBI) found that more than one-third of deported migrants experienced some type of abuse or mistreatment by immigration agents, including confiscation of possessions.