Nogales International, Curt Prendergast, August 19, 2014
Javier Gutierrez wasn’t smiling as he sat down at a table inside the Kino Border Initiative’s dining hall on Wednesday morning.
The day before, the 23-year-old was deported to Nogales, Sonora, after serving a seven-year term at a prison in Florence for a gang-related shooting in Prescott, where he grew up after being brought there by his parents from Puebla, Mexico as a child.
Sitting at the dining hall, located just south of the Mariposa Port of Entry, Gutierrez said he planned to leave this unfamiliar city as soon as he could.
But he had a more immediate problem: All his financial assets were contained in a $50 check from the Arizona Department of Corrections, earned from washing dishes and landscaping while in prison, that he couldn’t cash in Mexico.
“That’s all I got for transportation, for food, if I want to get in touch with my family,” he said in frustration.
“How are you supposed to start brand new?” he said. “They should at least provide you with the tools to start over.”
That’s where Nogales resident Lupita Aguirre steps in. She is one of five volunteers with San Toribio Romo Migrante (STRM), an aid organization named after a Mexican priest who has become a patron saint of migrants. She and her colleagues go to the dining hall every week to help deported people cash their checks.
One by one, four men sat down with Aguirre on Wednesday morning and handed her their checks and deportation papers, which are the only form of identification any of them carried.
They signed over their checks, labeled as being from the ADC’s Inmate Trust Account, to STRM and she handed them cash, down to the penny of the check’s value.
“Now, go into the bathroom, count it, and then come back and sign,” she told each of the men, saying security is always an issue for deported people.
After Aguirre makes the transaction, she brings the checks to David Hill, a Nogales resident and volunteer with the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths who acts as the liaison with the ADC.
The ADC has an arrangement with STRM and No More Deaths in which the organizations mail the checks to the ADC with a letter authorizing the department to re-issue the checks payable to the organization, according to department spokesman Doug Nick.
Since the arrangement was put in place in January, 237 people have needed help cashing about $37,000 in checks at the dining hall, with a daily average of about $300, according to numbers provided by Hill, who keeps a database on the transactions.
After arriving in Nogales, Sonora, the deportees quickly find Mexican banks do not recognize checks issued outside of Mexico, Hill said, adding: “These checks weren’t meant to leave the United States.”
The ADC checks are instruments for transferring a deportee’s assets from one government agency to the next and each agency, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, should take responsibility for those assets, Hill said.
Agencies “should embrace the principle that a detainee and his or her funds are a package deal,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s just a bus company instead of a law enforcement agency.”
While the efforts at the dining hall help some people, STRM and No More Deaths deal with only a small portion of the thousands of people deported through Nogales, Sonora every year, Hill said.
“Separating the chains of custody of the detainee and of the detainee’s property is exactly how dispossession happens, and it’s happening on a massive scale, as our report will show,” Hill said in reference to a No More Deaths report on the issue that is scheduled to be published in September.
The people who arrive at the dining hall come from a complex web of law enforcement agencies. In addition to the ADC, other agencies, such as ICE, Border Patrol, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, and even county jails play a role.
More than three-quarters of the checks seen by STRM and No More Deaths are issued by ADC, but checks and money orders from other agencies also show up at the dining hall, Hill said.
If ADC checks are not cashed within 180 days, the funds are put into the inmate trust account for one year, said Nick, the ADC spokesman. After that, the funds are sent to the Arizona Department of Revenue as unclaimed property.
The unclaimed funds are held in perpetuity by the state and can be claimed at any time by the rightful owner or heirs, according to Sean Laux, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Revenue.
When asked how much money had been sent from the ADC to the ADR, Laux said that number can not be released due to confidentiality concerns.
Any ADC inmate who is released to ICE custody is issued a check, Nick said.
When detainees are released from county or state jails and transferred to ICE custody for deportation proceedings, they can cash checks issued by those facilities while in immigration detention, according to ICE spokeswoman Amber Cargile.
However, when Mexican detainees who are scheduled for deportation the same day are transferred to ICE custody, they are not placed in detention and are deported with whatever cash, checks, or other belongings they have when they are released from jail, she said.
Border Patrol detainees who are not being criminally prosecuted keep their money with them, according to a statement issued by the agency in response to a request from the NI.
If the person is prosecuted, the money is transferred to the U.S. Marshal’s Service. If the currency exceeds a certain amount, the money is converted into an international money order.
The detainee or family member, friend, lawyer, or consular representative can claim the cash within 30 days after they leave Border Patrol custody or 30 days after their release from prison.
Unclaimed money is tagged with the person’s name and case number and deposited into a U.S. Department of Treasury account. A Treasury spokeswoman declined to provide information on how much money is put into the account.
When asked what law enforcement agencies should do so deported people have access to their cash, Aguirre said they should allow deportees to cash their checks in the United States prior to deportation.
“But do you think they would be agreeable to spending that time?” she asked doubtfully.
In addition, many people who arrive at the dining hall do not have identification documents, Aguirre said, which means they can’t receive cash through wire transfers, such as Western Union, sent by family members.
Blank money orders might help, but it often costs more than 25 percent of the total amount to cash them at exchange houses, she said.
“One solution would be to give them their cash in a little bag,” she said.
Deported people sometimes are issued debit cards, but “there are so many problems with those,” Hill said, giving the example of a man who tried to use the debit card in Mexico, but triggered an anti-fraud protection that froze the account.
Others reported a variety of surcharges, such as for checking account balances, that shrank their already minimal cash. Even more common is the fact that the cards can only be used at ATMs, which disburse cash in certain denominations, often leaving the account with much-needed amounts that can’t be accessed, Hill said.
If opening an account and then refunding the balance is impractical, then a daily check-cashing service at the processing center is needed, Hill said.
“Bottom line, ICE needs to ensure the deportee crosses the border with his commissary funds in his pocket in cash,” he said.