The institutional cruelty of migrant shakedowns
John Washington, Al Jazeera, January 14, 2015
On Jan. 31, the U.S. Border Patrol detained a migrant named Alejandro in the Arizona desert and stripped him of his belongings: $226.24 in cash, his cellphone, his ID and his only change of clothes. After 60 days in jail, he was put on a bus headed across the border. It was 3 a.m. The bus did not stop at the Border Patrol station in Tucson, Arizona, where he was supposed to be able to pick up his belongings, and he was dumped in Mexico with nothing more than the clothes on his back.
Far from a nightmarish accident, stories such as Alejandro’s are an all too common plight many migrants face upon deportation. A comprehensive new report, Shakedown, details the inhumane deportation practices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol: Thousands of migrants are being robbed of their belongings, their security and their dignity before being dumped into dangerous and unfamiliar streets across the border.
Deported migrants with no resources are more likely to sleep on the streets of Mexico’s violence-ridden border towns, making them vulnerable to further theft and brutality. Many deported migrants assume their money and belongings are lost for good. Their accounts make clear that institutional cruelty toward migrants has repercussions after they have been deported.
According to the study, which was released by the humanitarian group No More Deaths, more than one-third of deported migrants are repatriated without at least some of their belongings, ranging from cash and IDs to clothes and personal effects. A December 2013 report released by the University of Arizona, Bordering on the Criminal, found that 1 in 4 Mexican nationals was deported without their Mexican voting ID card, which serves for many as the only form of state-issued identification and is needed for such basics as cashing checks, getting jobs and boarding a plane to go home. “Without ID,” the report explained, “the risk of extortion, kidnapping and sexual assault drastically increases.”
Even when belongings are returned to the migrant upon deportation, all cash is first converted into money orders, personal checks or bank cards—forms easier to handle for detention centers but nearly impossible to use in Mexico. Money orders and personal checks are domestic financial payments; Mexican banks do not accept them for deposits, and the few exchange facilities that cash them do so with exorbitant fees attached. Debit cards often do not work outside of the United States. The only other (and often far-fetched) option, according to the report, is for migrants to have the money order or check cashed on the US side by someone able to cross the border. Shakedown surveyed 165 migrants, who in total reported more than $37,000 lost or unusable. Through the efforts of No More Deaths volunteers, nearly $13,000 was eventually recovered, but the rest was lost.
In effect, the Department of Homeland Security’s policy of issuing checks is flipping migrants upside down and turning out their pockets before deporting them. The title of the report couldn’t be more accurate: It’s an undisguised and brutal shakedown. It’s also clear who profits. Most of the money ends up in the Treasury Department, though some of it is siphoned off by private prisons (if the funds aren’t cashed and stay in prison accounts) or companies such as Numi, which handles inmate finances for many private prisons and calls itself “the leader in stored value card solutions.” Numi charges extortionate fees—as much as $2.50 a week in administrative costs—to migrants with often very little but much-needed money in prison accounts. Such companies have an obvious pecuniary interest in maintaining the status quo, locking away migrants’ money in uncashable checks and useless debit cards.
Shakedowns may seem mild compared with the physical and sexual abuse, the family separation and the inhumane detention conditions migrants experience. But in further castigating and imperiling people who are already vulnerable and hypercriminalized, these shakedowns make day-to-day living dangerous, even impossible. “The psychological damage,” the report states, “of being stripped away not only from one’s home but also from the resources and autonomy may be felt for a lifetime.”
Offsetting these shocking lapses of decency, ad hoc nongovernmental migrant aid organizations on both sides of the border are working to support dispossessed and downtrodden migrants. In Nogales, Mexico, for example, the migrant shelter San Juan Bosco, the Jesuit-run Kino Border Initiative and No More Deaths provide food, shelter and social services for the deported and work to retrieve belongings and money.
Alejandro’s story highlights the host of abuses that the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement heap onto migrants. He was robbed, denied due process and deported. Sadly, his story is a familiar one. Accounts like his demand greater transparency and accountability from Homeland Security agencies to ensure that due process rights are respected and fair procedures enforced. Taking these overdue first steps shouldn’t distract, however, from the need to overhaul a system that incarcerates and deports migrants in violation of their basic human rights.