Frontera Fund News

Police and Border Patrol Are Robbing Immigrants

Migrants being deported. Photo courtesy No More Deaths.
Migrants being deported. Photo courtesy No More Deaths.

When Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office detectives searched the home of rogue deputy Charley Armendariz in May 2014, they found heroin, meth, and video evidence he’d hidden from the court in the Melendres v. Arpaio trial.

They also uncovered something more disturbing: a trove of IDs, Mexican money, credit cards, and prepaid debit cards.

As the racial-profiling trial continued, a court-appointed monitor caught the MCSO dropping off a stash of IDs for destruction. The MCSO claimed the IDs were used as examples of fraudulent documents during trainings.

“But they couldn’t name a single training where these were used,” said Judge Murray Snow during the MCSO’s contempt of court hearing last month.

Furthermore, the judge said, it’s unlikely the IDs were fake. “Most of these IDs are Mexican. It wouldn’t make sense to make fraudulent Mexican documents if [the detainees] were trying to pass themselves off as U.S. citizens.”

More likely these incidents are evidence of a widespread malignancy: Law officers, border patrol, and ICE agents are systematically stealing from immigrants.

“Border Patrol threw my necklaces and belt in the trash, yelling ‘Esto va a la basura.’ They put my cell phone and birth certificate in a bag and said they’d hold on to it for me. I asked for it from ICE when I was being deported, and they told me, ‘You don’t have anything!'” Yolanda from Tijuana, Mexico

So many migrants have sought help in recovering stolen belongings that humanitarian group No More Deaths released a study last year entitled Shakedown. The study reported that more than a third of the 400,000 people deported in 2013 had their money and/or personal belongings taken and not returned.

This means deportees are often dumped in violent border towns in the middle of the night with no ID, money, or phone. Sleeping on the streets, lacking the documentation to apply for legitimate work, and unable to afford food, medical care or transportation, these migrants are essentially thrown into a gladiator arena with nothing to defend themselves. “Without ID, the risk of extortion, kidnapping, and sexual assault drastically increases,” the report states.

$37,024.50
Amount reported stolen from 165 interviewed migrants.

$12,850.98
Amount recovered with the help of No More Deaths.

The report found that deportees are dispossessed in three main ways:

1. U.S. officials fail to return money and belongings due to breakdowns in coordination and policy.

2. Money is returned as a check, money order, or debit card that cannot be used or cashed in Mexico (or if they can, require a fee of 25 percent or more).

3. U.S. agents steal money from migrants in plain sight.

When Leticia was booked into a Maricopa County jail, she had to hand over her $374, consisting of three $100 bills. The officer told her the jail didn’t accept $100 bills. He didn’t include those bills on the inventory. When she was deported, she got back only $74. The MCSO actually has no policy disallowing $100 bills.

These shakedowns are part of a national malaise that No More Deaths calls a “culture of cruelty” toward migrants. At the least, this culture is negligent and idiotic: Obviously a system was put into place to return deportees’ cash in the form of checks, money orders, and debit cards. How many people along that chain of command never asked the obvious question: “Can these migrants actually use these monetary forms in Mexico?” Or did they ask, but they didn’t care that the answer is “no”?

Julio was shot by drug cartel members in Nogales after he’d informed on them to U.S. officials. Pursuing asylum in the U.S., he was told his appeal could take years. So he signed a voluntary departure, asking only that he not be deported to Nogales. He was deported to Nogales. His $80 was given to him in the form of an unusable Visa debit card, so he couldn’t afford to leave town. Desperate, he sought help from a volunteer, who gave him $80 for the card. The volunteer made several calls to Visa but was never able to get the card to work.

The worst symptoms of this national malaise include the physical and verbal abuse of migrants – which often goes unpunished.

“[Border patrol] is the largest federal government agency, and it has no oversight and no standards by which it’s supposed to operate,” says No More Deaths’ co-founder, Reverend John Fife. “These guys just operate with impunity.”

A marshal at a Tucson Border Patrol facility took $360 that Manuel had sewn into his underwear. “What is going to happen with my money?” Manuel asked. The marshal replied, in Spanish, “Don’t count on getting that money back. I’m going to buy beer with it this weekend.” Around 40 other detainees heard the statement.

No More Deaths says the shakedown problem can be alleviated by allowing migrant detainees access to their belongings, ensuring that every person can convert funds to cash before they’re deported, and increasing agency accountability.

But surely something must be done to change the countrywide culture of cruelty toward the most vulnerable people among us.