Chicago Sun-Times: “Booted across the border with bogus checks”

Booted across the border with bogus checks

Marlen Garcia, Chicago Sun-Times, March 12, 2015

The first step for immigrants deported from the U.S. to Reynosa, Mexico, is to check in with Mexican authorities at the Tamaulipeco Institute for Migrants at the end of their walk on the International Bridge.

Almost all arrive penniless, though some have money to their names. They are deported with checks or debit cards drawn from U.S. banks and issued by American detention facilities, prisons or jails for money either earned for working while in custody or sent by family.

Last week in Reynosa I watched deportee Marco Aguilar-Velazco approach a Mexican immigration officer with questions about cashing a check for $75.62 drawn from the Inmate Trust Fund with GEO Corrections & Detention in Texas. The officer told him the check was worthless. No bank or currency exchange in Reynosa would cash it.

Aguilar-Velazco said the check would have covered his bus fare to the state of Hidalgo.

Mexican officials and staff members for humanitarian agencies on the border are frustrated that deportees continue to arrive from the U.S. with checks that have no value in Mexico. Debit cards can also be useless.

“It’s an injustice,” Edith Hinojosa Perez, director of the state-run Tamaulipeco Institute, said in a phone interview this week.

Without funds, deportees get stranded in dangerous border towns until families can wire money. The organization run by Hinojosa Perez can secure bus fare for deportees with no money, but it takes time to verify addresses, especially when they arrive without identification, she said.

The loss of personal effects, including IDs and cash, during deportation is a common complaint on the border. The Tucson-based humanitarian group No More Deaths issued a report on it in December.

The group helps immigrants recover belongings, mostly for deportations from Arizona. It has an agreement with the Arizona Department of Corrections that allows it to cash migrants’ checks, David Hill, co-author of the group’s report, said by phone. Most checks are for less than $100.

“Checks don’t cross borders,” Hill said of his message to U.S. agencies. “Debit cards don’t cross borders without problems.

Sometimes issuing agencies don’t activate debit cards properly, or hefty ATM surcharges eat up their value, Hill said. Sometimes the cards don’t meet the ATM’s minimum withdrawal amount.

Jails serving as detention centers under the jurisdiction of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Chicago issue pre-paid credit cards to deportees except for a small group that receives cash, ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said. A former Illinois detainee I met in Reynosa had a card with a PIN number but had not yet attempted to use it.

In response to a question about checks that aren’t cashed and debit cards that are not used, Pablo E. Paez, a vice president for the GEO Group, said in an email: “Generally when checks are not cashed within three months, the funds are sent back to the respective federal agency under the individual’s name.

The GEO Group, which issued Aguilar-Velazco’s check, is a company that houses inmates and detainees for the government.

I asked ICE about unclaimed funds and was told the response could come next week.

Hill says the U.S. should find a way to cash checks before releasing deportees because, as a migrant told him, cash allows them to get out of a border town fast.