By Jorge Encinas
On a warm day in September, a young man sits in a soup kitchen on the Mexican side of Nogales. He has just been deported from the United States without his belongings. Here at the comedor, he is surrounded by more than 30 others who have also been deported and are in need of assistance to get home.
Luis, who was only willing to give his first name, is 24 years old and unsure of what awaits him when he returns to his hometown. Still wearing the identifiable prison release uniform, a light blue shirt and blue jean pants, Luis just finished serving almost 16 months in an Arizona prison.
When he was released from detention and returned to Mexico, Luis was missing two smart phones, clothing, $200 and his Mexican identification card.
The only money available to him is a check for $53, the amount he was paid for his work while in prison. In this instance Luis is lucky. At the comedor that day is an advocate who cashes the checks issued to the migrants by U.S. authorities.
Normally, many of the migrants who are not at the comedor will find the checks are impossible to cash once in Mexico, especially those who did not have their identification returned to them.
Luis is quiet and reserved as he tries to figure out what the future will hold for him in his small town outside of Obregon, Mexico. There, he will be fortunate to find work that will pay him 600 pesos, about $29, a week laboring in fields, which he will have to use to support his mother, daughter and four younger sisters.
As he contemplates his next move, Luis admits the strain to provide for his family with little work and low wages may force him to make the journey back into the U.S. in the hopes of earning a living.
How the process is broken
Luis' situation is neither an isolated incident nor a new phenomenon. It is the result of broken system that fails on multiple levels to return deported migrants' possessions.
The first failure is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's policy of holding personal possessions for 30 days before they are destroyed. The policy does not account for incarceration longer than 30 days.
This policy is, in part, the cause of more than one-third of migrants' personal property becoming lost in the deportation process.
It also runs counter to agreements the Department of Homeland Security, which CBP is part of, has made on repatriation with the Mexican government and with standard law enforcement practice of returning detainee possessions after release. Announced in February, stipulations in the agreements state that the U.S. government will ensure personal property is returned to the migrants.
While the 30-day policy is a contributing factor, another issue is the lack of CBP agents adhering to established guidelines on how to properly record and take custody of migrants' possessions.
The most prominent failure in the system is the federal government's lack of a single set of protocols for handling migrants and their possessions that encompasses all agencies involved in their apprehension, transportation, trial, detention and deportation. The result of which is migrants being moved across multiple agencies while their possessions remain with CBP.
Advocates and researchers who study property loss in the deportation process agree that the federal government should develop and enforce a chain of custody standard that all agencies involved in the immigration process are required to follow to ensure personal property is returned.
The failure of the United States government to ensure those who have had personal belongings confiscated while being apprehended by immigration enforcement was documented in a study from 2013, and continues to this day.
Daniel E. Martinez, Jeremy Slack and Josiah Heyman conducted the study, "Bordering on Criminal: The Routine Abuse of Migrants in the Removal System," and found that from 2009 to 2012, 34 percent of 1,110 randomly selected migrants who were deported did not have their personal possessions returned to them.
According to statistics released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for removals, there were more than 1.5 million deportations for the 2009 and 2012 time period in the study.
If the randomly selected sample was representative of the overall deportations, it could mean there was more than 540,000 migrants who did not have personal possessions returned to them between 2009 and 2012.
In the same report from ICE, there were 235,413 deportations for the 2015 fiscal year.
Like those in the study, Luis also found himself being deported without his possessions. While all of his personal belongings are important to him, the hardest to replace was his Mexican identification card.
According to the study's authors, they found that 70 percent of the people surveyed had some form of Mexican identification documents with them, but after being deported 26 percent of those with documents did not have them returned.
"We conclude that this problem stems from a lack of inter-agency standardization and cooperation, particularly between Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Department of Justice's Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Department of Corrections (DOC)," the authors said.
The problem surrounding the unreturned identification documents is especially troubling for one advocate helping those recently deported in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Connecting El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, the Paso del Norte Bridge spans the short walking distance between two countries that can, at times, seem worlds apart. This is where the U.S. sends those they deport from El Paso. There, the migrants are released on the American side and left to walk across the crowded bridge back to Mexico.
In a small building near the crowded Mexican port sits a woman by the name of Rocio Melendez Dominguez. This was her last stop of the day as Dominguez showed the various places where newly repatriated migrants can go to receive assistance after being deported.
Dominguez is a lawyer with the Programa de Defensa e Incidencia Binacional, (PDIB, the Binational Defense and Advocacy Program), an advocacy group in Mexico that works to address civil rights violations against Mexican people while in the U.S.
The PDIB and Dominguez also work closely with the American Civil Liberties Union. Both groups help address the issue of property loss in the deportation process. Lately, Dominguez noted, there have been fewer migrants returning by route of the bridge. What once had been a regular flow of dozens of people a day was now down to approximately 18 migrants per day.
Sitting on a chair in the waiting area, Dominguez talks about the importance for U.S. authorities to ensure repatriated migrants have their personal belongings returned, especially their identification.
"They are undocumented in their country," Dominguez said. "It's very difficult to get other official IDs here in Mexico. You have to have another two official Mexican IDs and it takes like a month to get the official documents."
To make it more complicated, in order to get a new ID, the person must travel to their hometown. For people from the southern part of the country, this is difficult because they have been deported to northern Mexico without identification, Dominguez said.
The failure to return ID can also cause other problem leading to a cycle of deportation and illegal re-entry. Vicky Gaubeca, the director of the Regional Center for Border Rights, part of the ACLU of New Mexico, explains how being deported without ID can leave the migrants with few options.
"Ironically, because in Mexico without an ID, a government issued photo ID, you're no one," Gaubeca said. "Without that you can't open a bank account, you can't get on a bus to go back home and we sometimes actually force individuals who have been deported, we kind of force them, to come back to the United States because they can't get back to their town of origin."
Joanna Williams, the director of education and advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative, an organization that works with migrants in Nogales, Arizona and Mexico, points out that many of the migrants arrive with blank inventory tags attached to their bags.
Vicente E. Paco, Border Patrol agent and public information officer for the Tucson sector, said the tags, known as an I-77 by the form number, attached to the personal property bag will not have itemized listings of what was placed in the bag. There are itemized inventory forms, but unless it is considered a high-value item the possessions will not be recorded, he said.
At a market in Tucson, a former Border Patrol agent spoke anonymously about the process of recording the personal possessions of those in custody.
While he acknowledged that the agents did take great care to record American currency, he did say that many of the other possessions were often left unrecorded and bagged with little accountability.
Multiple attempts were made to obtain records from CBP through the online Freedom of Information Act, but no data has been provided.
The data requested was for copies of inventory records, both the electronic forms and the I-77, as well as the standard operating procedures for handling personal property.
The request for the standard operating procedures, filed on Aug. 5, was supposed to have been provided on Sept. 19. However, the request remains unfulfilled without reason for any delay.
The request for inventory records was filed with the online processing site on Sept. 28, and included both Tucson and El Paso sector for the past five years.
Despite the online site stating the records would be completed by Nov. 4, they still remain unfulfilled without any explanation. Multiple conversations with a CBP records representative also failed to produce the data requested.
On April 6, 2016, the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol about 26 incidents of personal belongings not being returned during the deportation process for the El Paso sector alone.
The complaint was a joint effort from advocacy groups on both sides of the border. The Kino Border Initiative and PDIB were among the contributing members.
The 26 incidents were identified through interviews conducted in Ciudad Juarez by Dominguez from PDIB. These incidents showed more than $2,816, 19 Mexican identification documents, including a passport, and 11 cell phones were not returned, at the time of deportation, by U.S. authorities.
According to the authors of the 2013 study, the median amount of money lost was $55 per person between 2009 and 2012. For someone like Luis who can expect to make 600 pesos a week, this is a loss of almost two weeks of pay. Among the possessions missing from the migrants, 20 percent did not have their money returned to them.
"Their study has been very helpful in our advocacy, because we bring up those numbers and then what we were able to see in these recent cases was that the problem still persists in the El Paso Sector," Gaubeca said. "And this is exactly what their study shows too."
The study from 2013 does show El Paso sector as having the worst rate for possessions not being returned. From the 34 percent who did not have their possessions returned to them in the study, 65 percent were deported from El Paso.
"We've been hearing about it for a couple of years, that it's been happening in a lot of the sectors, including in the Tucson and Yuma sectors," Gaubeca said.
According to the study, Tucson and San Diego sectors also have higher rates of possessions not being returned at 35 and 38 percent respectively.
There have been policy changes enacted to ensure possessions are returned to migrants after deportation. One such policy change came in October 2015, with the CBP's National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention and Search, also known as TEDS.
Under section seven of TEDS, all detainee property that is not contraband should be itemized and recorded electronically. It also states that when possible, agents will make every effort to transfer the property with the migrants, both internal and external agency transfers.
Without a single chain of custody protocol for all agencies involved in the handling of the migrants, efforts to ensure the property follows them may not be possible. The result is migrants' possessions will be subject to a provision where their property will be destroyed.
According to the complaint filed by the ACLU, section seven of TEDS fails to address the problem of unreturned property.
One reason cited by the complaint is the preservation of the 30-day period for migrants to reclaim their possessions before they are destroyed. The Border Patrol has long had a standard of destroying unclaimed belongings 30 days after a migrant has been detained. A policy which has been in place long before TEDS went into effect.
However, this 30-day period is no longer adequate considering the longer periods of time migrants are being held in detention. In addition, many of the migrants are now passing through several federal and state agencies as they are prosecuted for illegal entry or re-entry and are increasingly being detained in federal, state and county jails and prisons.
"It used to be that individuals were apprehended and then they would be repatriated and their custody went through, sort of, the same agency," Gaubeca said. "Now it's gotten very complex."
The complexity Gaubeca is referring to are the multiple layers of agencies the migrants now have to pass through, many of which have their own procedures for handling property. This movement across different agencies could be one potential source of property not being returned.
In the study from Martinez, of the 34 percent who did not have their property returned, 57 percent were migrants processed through Operation Streamline. The operation is a federal program where migrants are given mass trials to convict them of illegal entry or re-entry.
"All of these agencies are being involved, and the theory is that their belongings should be following them to all these different agencies," Gaubeca said. "But I think that what we were finding was in the sectors where individuals were being referred to all these different processes, that was where the problems were the worst."
For Gaubeca, an improvement would be better coordination between the agencies to ensure the personal belongings are following the migrants and being returned once repatriated back to Mexico, she said.
There does appear to be a lack of cross-agency coordination when handling the property of those being held by CBP. For instance, if the migrants are facing any criminal charges related to their crossing, they can be transferred to any of the local, state, federal or tribal agencies involved in the case.
If they are facing any federal immigrations charges, they can be transferred to the custody of the U.S. Marshals.
“If an individual is prosecuted criminally, for example the individual has past criminal history or was encountered in a smuggling violation, such as a drug mule or drug trafficker, and he has personal property, then the individual is required to sign a hold harmless form releasing his property to CBP after 30 days,” Paco said.
By signing the hold harmless form, the personal property is confiscated by CBP while the migrants are in custody of one of the many different agencies they may have been transferred to. After the 30-day period, any property that is left unclaimed by the migrants is then destroyed by the CBP.
While drug trafficking is one criminal charge that can cause those apprehended by CBP to serve long sentences, illegal entry and re-entry also carry imprisonment as a potential punishment.
For the Tucson sector, many of the mass trials from Operation Streamline take place regularly throughout the week in downtown Tucson at the Evo A. Deconcini U.S. Courthouse.
The convictions for illegal entry alone can have sentences of six months in detention, well past the 30-day period for reclaiming possessions from the Border Patrol.
Whether or not the marshals, or any other agency, will take their possessions does not seem to be consistent. In some cases, Paco said he has seen the marshals take possession and in other cases they did not.
However, the individuals in CBP custody are given directions on how to reclaim their belongings along with the hold harmless form and information about doing so through the assistance of their consulate office and lawyers, Paco said.
While the 30-day period is an agency-wide standard, each sector has control over how to implement it.
"There is an exception," Gaubeca said. "What they do in the Tucson sector, and also I believe in Yuma, is that the individual serves out a sentence at one of the facilities up in Eloy and then when they're being deported, they actually swing by the Border Patrol stations and pick up their belongings.
"So there, the sector actually holds their belongings for 30 days after their sentences are completed," Gaubeca said. "Which is a far more reasonable timeline for these individuals to be able to recuperate their belongings."
Williams, in Nogales, agrees with Gaubeca about the 30-day period.
"The most solvable problem would be the chain of custody," Williams said. "In the El Paso sector, it's impossible for someone to recover their belongings.
"If they're in jail for two months, then their belongings are destroyed while they're still in custody," Williams said."So that's why we see a lower percentage than in El Paso."
While Paco could not speak for the other sectors as to why they do not have the same policy for holding property until 30 days after their sentence like Tucson, he did say that one factor may be resources.
“We’re one of the largest sectors in the nation,” Paco said. “So we have a lot of resources that allows us to do those types of things, such as holding the property after the end of the sentence of the owner.”
The 30-day period is not the only issue the ACLU found with section seven of TEDS. The complaint filed by the group claims another issue is the Border Patrol agents apprehending the migrants are not always following the procedures stated in the guidelines.
Records have also been an issue with the 26 incidents provided by the PDIB in the ACLU complaint. From improper record keeping to a lack of recording property, these TEDS violations could be a potential source of property being lost during the chain of custody.
During the interviews conducted by Dominguez, one individual by the name of Jose Lorenzo Reyes Lopez received an electronic inventory form with the incorrect amount of pesos recorded. According to TEDS section 7.1, all cash, currency and negotiable instruments must be recorded electronically.
However, when Lopez informed the agents about the incorrect amount listed on the inventory sheet, they manually crossed it out with a pen and recorded the correct amount after recounting the currency. The agents also failed to record his wallet, hat and clothing on the inventory list.
After being deported, Lopez did not receive any of his belongings and feared he would not be able to be properly compensated due to the lack record keeping.
In El Paso, at an ICE processing center, a guard took 1,000 pesos from Maria Trinidad Andrade Frausto. The guard failed to record the 1,000 pesos, deposit them into her commissary account or give her a receipt for the currency.
When Frausto contacted the Mexican consulate to assist her in reclaiming her belongings, they were informed by ICE there was "no record" of the 1,000 pesos and subsequently the money was never returned.
Much of the money from the more than $2,816 came from the loss of pesos that were not properly recorded or returned to the migrants at the time of deportation. In some cases, the pesos were treated as property and not currency, therefore they were not added into the commissary accounts while in detention.
As for identification and the tickets to reclaim their belongings, they will stay in the individuals’ possession while in CBP custody and detention. However, once transferred it becomes personal property and it will be the agency who is taking custody of them that will determine how it is handled, Paco said.
The 30-day period for migrants to claim their possessions is one aspect that causes personal property to be lost, but it is not the key issue contributing to the problem.
The major issue is the government's inability to establish a cross agency protocol for migrants' possessions. When migrants are transferred from CBP custody to other federal, tribal, state, local or private agencies, their possessions may not follow them.
"This is kind of a consequence of late modernity, where a lot of aspects of securitization become privatized, and so there are multiple entities involved in assuming custody of immigrants when they're apprehended, then transferring them from one place to another," Martinez said.
With more agencies being involved in the process, migrants and their possessions become exposed to more procedures handling their property.
"There are a lot of different players involved, there are a lot of different entities involved that have different protocols and different policies in place regarding immigrant's possessions," Martinez said. "Obviously, we need standardized policies and practices regarding chain of custody when it comes to immigrants and their possessions."
However, no matter how many agencies or what level of government they belong to, the federal government is responsible for ensuring the possessions are returned according to nine repatriation agreements between the Department of Homeland security and the Mexican government announced in a DHS press release on Feb. 23, 2016.
According to the ACLU complaint, the language includes a provision regarding personal belongings.
As stated in the complaint, "The signatory participants should take all feasible steps to ensure that property, valuables, and money retained, are available for return to the rightful owner at the time of initial release from DHS custody."
"Even though there are all these different agencies, even the local county jurisdictions, are all beholden to federal policy," Gaubeca said. "So it's all the U.S. government whether it's the marshals, or the bureau of prisons, whether it's ICE, whether it's CBP, all of them are beholden to a federal contract in the management and transfer of these individuals from one agency to another.
"So the policy needs to be fixed at the federal level by the U.S. government," Gaubeca said.
According to the Marshal's property procedures, found in their policy directive 9.20, "cellblock operations," all prisoner property is to be inventoried and recorded. The property is then secured until given to the prisoner's attorney, family, transporting officers, other representatives or mailed out within five business days. Any unclaimed property is donated or destroyed after 30 days.
As Paco stated for CBP's Tucson sector, the marshals taking custody of migrants will sometimes take their possessions with them and other times they will not.
Lynzey Donahue, spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service headquarters in Washington, DC., issued a statement on how marshals handle prisoner property.
This policy (directive 9.20, cellblock operations) applies to all U.S. Marshals prisoners, regardless of citizenship, Donahue said.
According to the statement, the marshals will not accept the personal belongings if the facilities they are being transported to are not equipped to store large amounts of personal property, Donahue said.
This will leave those possessions in the custody of CBP and their 30-day policy.
"Many detention facilities are not equipped to store large amounts of personal property for extended periods of time," Donahue said. "Accordingly, the U.S. Marshals Service generally does not accept property that the federal, state, local and private detention facilities where Marshals prisoners are housed will not accept."
With federal agreements in place by DHS and the Mexican government to return migrant property, American authorities would need to ensure all detention facilities are equipped to store the confiscated possessions until they are released.
"I think the responsibility is up to the U.S. government," Gaubeca said. "Because CBP will blame it on the U.S. Marshals, I mean, they are just pointing fingers basically.
"It's just a problem that does not require a tough solution, just a willingness of the U.S. government to solve it," she said. "That's all it takes."
The federal government's failure to establish a single policy on the chain of custody for migrants' possessions leaves them subject to CBP's 30-day policy and the instances of property being unreturned during deportation.
However, the Marshals service did acknowledge there are issues surrounding property being transferred to their custody from DHS.
"The U.S. Marshals Service is aware of the property challenges associated with the transfer of detainees from the Department of Homeland Security and is currently reviewing its policies and procedures, in conjunction with other concerned agencies, with a view towards expanding the types of property authorized for retention," Donahue said.
Ultimately, any solution would have to come from the federal government and be capable of putting a single protocol for handling migrants and their possessions in place for all agencies involved in the process.
"I think it would take initiative from the feds, but it seems to me like immigration just has kind of taken a step back," Martinez said.
Multiple attempts were made to get comments from government officials about what could be done to solve the issues, but met with limited success.
The U.S. Marshals' headquarters was the only national level agency willing to provide comment through an issued statement.
Neither the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons nor the Homeland Security responded to request for comment. Multiple request made to Congressman Raul Grijalva’s office also went unanswered.
The national CBP headquarters redirected a request to the Tucson sector public information officer which Paco already commented from. However, they did not respond to a request for leaders to comment at the national office who could speak for all Border Patrol sectors made on Dec. 10.
"The thing is if they're refusing to give you a statement and that they're refusing to work with NGOs on finding a solution, they're basically saying 'It's okay to rob these people of their belongings,'" Gaubeca said. "That's basically what they are saying."
Without all the involved agencies cooperating and elected officials providing legislation on handling migrants and their property, personal possessions will continue to be lost during the deportation process.
"It's going to be business as usual and we're going to see people being repatriated to northern Mexico or Central America without possessions which puts them in a precarious position, it puts them in a dangerous situation," Martinez said. "It puts a lot of strain on local border communities as they're dealing with the influx of people who are deported or repatriated."
The emotional impact
One such border community is Ciudad Juarez.
On a hot afternoon in July, Rocio Melendez Dominguez walks along the crowded streets of Ciudad Juarez. As kids run by playing games and street vendors sell everything from handmade hats to fresh grilled meats, she talks about the impact the deportation process has on the migrants.
Many of them return depressed at the thought of what to do next, they have a tradition of being the head of the household and to go to the U.S. in order to provide, but can’t because they got caught, she said.
At one location, she is familiar with, Dominguez arranges a meeting with Marisol Borrego Gallegos, the director of migrant affairs in Ciudad Juarez. Her office works with many of the migrants addressing their issues when they arrive in the city.
Among all of the problems facing them, Gallegos immediately identifies one she continually encounters while assisting the migrants.
“The feelings,” she said. “The feelings, because they feel like they failed, so they don’t pay attention to the process, it’s like they are in a cloud.”
The problem with this is the migrants are so distraught by the ordeal they are often left unaware of the violations to their basic civil rights. Many times, the various agencies involved in the deportation process leaves the migrants confused as to which agency they were dealing with.
The addition of many other agencies becoming involved with the immigration process has had the effect of making it harder for migrants and advocates to track missing possessions. Among the migrants, they typically cannot distinguish between the different agencies and therefore cannot determine who last had custody of their belongings.
As a result, many of the migrants do not know what they are entitled to from both the U.S. and Mexican governments, Gallegos said.
According to statistics available to Gallegos’ office, one in nine people who are deported to the city stay there. They try to convince them to return to their hometowns for the added support of their families, but many refuse to go.
The problem is many of them want to try and return to the U.S., despite the risks. But for Gallegos, these people are left in an unfamiliar city without family and hope, which puts them in danger of making another desperate attempt to reach the U.S.
“They sometimes have the expectations that the only thing they can do, is go to the United States,” Gallegos said. “They can’t do anything else, it’s the only thing they can think of.”
What Gallegos wants them to realize is that there are opportunities they can find in Mexico with their family and support structures by their sides.
At the comedor in Nogales, Mexico, an elderly woman holds a microphone as she speaks with the migrants waiting for breakfast to be served. Around the crowded tables, filled with mostly young and middle-aged men, they laugh and smile, playing along as Sister Maria Engracia Robles Robles engages them with word games, songs and dances.
Although it is hot and outdoors, under the shaded roof with an enclosed fence, the sisters who run the comedor, and are part of the Kino Border Initiative, say it is important to keep the migrants engaged with games to lift the spirits and keep their minds sharp.
“Those who have been separated from their family members, in a sense, they left so much in the U.S. that their body is here, but their spirit is there,” Sister Engracia said. “From economic things, their possessions are there, but also the people they’ve left behind.”
Among the concerns for Sister Engracia are the conditions the migrants suffer, both the conditions while in prison and the hardship of crossing the desert to reach the U.S.
One of the untold tragedies are the debts migrants carry when making attempts to cross into the U.S., she said. The migrants need money to make the journey, often used to pay cartels for access to crossing points along the border.
The loss of their personal property, such as phones to call home, identification to travel and money to pay back debts and survive, can exacerbate this situation while struggling to cope with the emotional impact of the deportation process that often leaves them confused and depressed.
“They owe debts to somebody in the town where they asked for money, somebody in the U.S. they asked to borrow money from, or sometimes they’ve sold their house, they sold their car, they’ve sold everything to come up here,” Sister Engracia said. “That’s really tragic and it’s something that’s not talked about much, but when they talk to us that’s one of the tragedies they carry.”
For Sister Engracia, there are many reasons the migrants are coming with their heads down from the weight of the humiliation through the whole process, she said.
“That’s why we try to create an environment in which they feel that they are people, that they have dignity, they have rights that and that they can feel their humanity again,” Sister Engracia said.
Jorge Encinas graduated with a master's degree from the School of Journalism in December 2016. This report is his master's project.