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Deported to Death: Cases That Reveal the Danger of U.S. Immigration Policy

Tina Vasquez

"The dangerous conditions that people from different countries are facing are well understood, and it's well-documented that specific types of people are very much in danger if they are deported back to their home countries."

Two immigrants with ties to Texas have died within weeks of each other, and advocates say Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is partly to blame.

On September 17, Felipe Almazan-Ruiz became the 12th person to die in ICE custody in fiscal year 2017. Ruiz died after being held at the IAH Secure Adult Detention Center, in Livingston, Texas, where he was transferred from Florida in anticipation of Hurricane Irma. The Livingston detention center is notorious for detaining immigrants under dangerous conditions, including insufficient medical care. Ruiz lived in the United States since 1985 and according to ICE, died of cardiac arrest.  

The murder of Austin, Texas, resident Juan Coronilla-Guerrero last week in Mexico also illustrates how undocumented immigrants are funneled into President Trump’s deportation machine, no matter the policies so-called sanctuary put into place, because of the aggressive efforts made by ICE, the federal immigration agency advocates refer to as a “rogue agency.”

In the weeks after Trump took office and began his attacks so-called sanctuary cities, Texas’ Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez made headlines for implementing a policy that limited her jurisdiction’s cooperation with ICE, including refusing to honor ICE detainer requests to hold undocumented people for non-violent crimes. Hernandez’s policy was in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s efforts to force jurisdictions to hold undocumented people in custody until ICE detained them. Under Hernandez’s policy, Guerrero was one of the estimated 30 undocumented immigrants released from Travis County custody, despite having ICE detainers in their name. 

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In February, ICE conducted immigration raids in Austin and it was revealed by a federal judge during a March court proceeding that these raids were conducted as retaliation against Hernandez for refusing to comply with ICE detainer requests. Guerrero was one of the undocumented immigrants targeted in ongoing Austin raids. In March, ICE took unprecedented steps to detain him, sending agents in plainclothes to apprehend him at his court hearing.

After Guerrero, 28, was detained by ICE in March, his wife told officials that if Guerrero was deported, he would be murdered. Despite her warning, ICE deported Guerrero in June. After being kidnapped in front of his family by armed men, Guerrero’s body was found last week on the side of a road in San Luis de la Paz, Guanajuato, near where he had lived with his wife’s family since being deported, the Austin American-Statesman reported. It is believed the same gangs that prompted the family’s move to Austin are the ones responsible for his murder. 

“When I asked that they not deport him they did it knowing that I told [government officials] that he couldn’t go back because they were going to kill him. Look, now he’s dead and nothing can be done, nothing can be remedied,” Coronilla-Guerrero’s wife said in a statement. “My son saw everything and now he is asking me for his dad and what can I tell him if I don’t have the words to say that he is dead? Now all of my family is in danger.”

Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher and organizer at the Austin-based immigrant rights organization Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire that she is aware of “multiple instances” in which immigrants were killed after being deported from the United States.

“The dangerous conditions that people from different countries are facing are well understood, and it’s well-documented that specific types of people are very much in danger if they are deported back to their home countries. This is the basis of U.S. asylum law, but sadly it doesn’t cover everyone who is in danger and [Guerrero] is an example of that,” Carson said. “ICE treats people like numbers and price tags. Juan’s wife made it very clear her husband would be murdered if he were deported, but ICE didn’t listen.”

While it is the responsibility of asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to conduct interviews with asylum seekers to ascertain whether they have a valid asylum claim, ICE does have a great deal of discretion in who the agency targets for detainment and deportation, who it releases from federal custody, and who it deports.

“In their public statements, ICE completely defers all responsibility, but they are the ones that are ultimately carrying out these deportation policies and it is our stance that the deportation system is inherently violent,” Carson said. “They’re deporting so many people to their deaths or back to situations where their lives are in immediate danger. Even if this doesn’t happen all the time, what’s more common is that we are in contact with people who are still afraid of where they’re living [after deportation] and nothing has happened yet, but they live in daily fear that something willand they’re usually right.”

Maureen Meyer, the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights, told Rewire that no numbers exist for how many people in the United States have been deported to their deaths. News organizations like the Guardian have attempted to track these stories, especially as they relate to Central Americans, but much of what’s known is anecdotal. 

“There are reported cases of people being deported back to Central American and murdered, but there’s no reason to think this doesn’t routinely happen with Mexican deportees as well,” Meyer said. “There are several documented cases of migrants who are deported from the United States and kidnapped at the border, pretty shortly after they’re deported. There have also been cases where literally just moments after being released from Mexico’s custody [upon being deported], migrants are crossing the bridge and kidnapped right there. For a long time, we’ve had concerns for the safety of people who are being returned to the Mexican side of the border, particularly in parts of Mexico that are very much overrun with organized criminal activity and violence.”

The United States and Mexico last year announced new repatriation arrangements to curtail the unsafe conditions faced by those who had been deported, including being deported between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to some of the most dangerous cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, without their personal belongings, and long after bus lines and shelters had closed for the night. Meyer said that though the new arrangements were a positive step, Mexico must do more to ensure that those returning to the country after being deported are protected from the circumstances that caused them to flee in the first place. On the U.S. side, ICE must evaluate each person’s case individually and if nothing else, stop funneling deportees to areas of the border where the U.S. State Department has issued travel advisories for U.S. citizens, “but seems fine deporting Mexican immigrants there,” Meyer said.

Carson said that while these repatriation agreements are valuable, they’re limited and do nothing to help people like Guerrero, who was targeted and murdered well after his deportation from the United States. Meyer said that ideally, each person’s case would be considered on an individual basis related to what kind of risk they are facing if deported, especially as it relates to the locations where they are being deported. Meyer suspects that there will be an uptick in efforts to track deportees and the conditions they face as Temporary Protected Status for Haitian immigrant nears its end in January and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients’ lives hang in the balance after Trump rescinded the immigration program.

Carson and her organization are fighting to one day stop deportations entirely.

“It’s important to have good data on what happens to people after they’re deported, especially if it can contribute to exposing how much deportations impact not just whole families, but communities here in the United States and in other countries,” Carson told Rewire. “But we also believe deportations aren’t the answer. They don’t address our immigration issues, nationally or internationally. People are migrating because of root causes in their countries and often, the United States has contributed to the root causes of why people migrate. Deportation doesn’t address any of this.”

Meyer said it’s not unusual to hear of cases in which an asylum seeker has been deported only to be “on the road again” the day after being returned to Central America. This is part of the reason why the effects of deportation are so hard to track.

“People migrate because their lives are at risk and if they’re deported, they’re not just going to hang out and wait to be killed,” Meyer said. “There are circumstances in many countries where no matter how many times they’ve been deported, people will keep trying again and again to leave and save their own  lives, whether that’s returning to the United States or heading somewhere else. The United States has to do more to consider not just where we’re deporting people back to, but also in doing its due diligence to listen to the people who are telling  us their lives are at risk and making sure they have all of the legal resources they need to make their case to remain in the United States.”

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