David Hill never knows what he'll find when he catalogs the belongings seized from immigrants who are awaiting deportation. Shirts, socks, and belts are common. Then there are the sentimental: weddings rings, rosaries, and children's artwork. But the items that strike him most are the student ID cards from US schools. While Hill does not know many details about the people he helps, he takes the ID cards as an indicator that the person on deportation row has a history, a life here in the United States.
"I don't carry my junior high school ID in my wallet, but then, I never have to prove that I belong here," Hill told VICE. "That's important to him. That's a token of the fact that he belongs here."
Hill lives in Nogales, a town cut in two by the border. One side is in Arizona; the other is in Mexico. He splits his time between his job as a freelance copy editor and his role heading up the Property Recovery Assistance Project with volunteer organization No More Deaths, which helps to retrieve and return the belongings that are separated from people during the deportation process.
"We are talking about working people who can't easily replace what is lost," said Hill.
The project started in 2008, a few years after the United States began pressing criminal charges against immigrants who were in the country illegally. Once picked up by authorities, people generally have 30 days to get their belongings back from Customs and Border Protection (CBP). But instead of just dropping people back over the border, those arrested for unauthorized entry or reentry now faced a prison sentence. This meant the majority of those arrested were released past the 30-day mark, ensuring their belongings—money, IDs, cellphones, medications, and more—were slated for destruction, according to Hill.
A CBP official told VICE that belongings are held for 30 days following the person's release from prison and deportation, and it's on the individual to work with Mexican consular officers to retrieve the items from the US within 30 days. But Hill and other advocates following the issue said that in practice, this longer timeframe only applies to the CBP compound in Tucson, Arizona. Everywhere else, belongings are only held for 30 days from when the individual is arrested and charged.
"Border patrol agents are destroying what results in grave consequences to people being deported to border towns," said Vicki Gaubeca, from the Regional Center for Border Rights with the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with VICE. It doesn't help that those who are picked up go through numerous government agencies, including Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Bureau of Prisons.
This February, the US and Mexico signed new repatriation arrangements that include, for the first time, a mention of belongings. It states that "all feasible steps" should be taken to return property to the owner when he or she is released from custody. But advocates say even with the policy in place, the procedures are still lacking.
"It is hard to find out how that is going. I've heard mixed results," said Jeremy Slack, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who researches immigration. "There are some places where it seems to have improved, and other places where it remains the same."
Gaubeca said immigrants are taken from detention centers or prisons to the border, which can be thousands of miles from their homes in Mexico, if they even have homes in Mexico. Due to the 30-day rule and the potential for belongings to be lost between agencies involved, immigrants are regularly deported with only the clothes on their back. No cellphones, no ID, no cash.
In a statement to VICE, a spokesperson for ICE said the agency "takes all possible steps to ensure that property, valuables, and money retained are available for return to the rightful owner at the time of removal." But in some cases, stuff still gets left behind.
When Juana Padron's now ex-husband was arrested in January 2016 during an attempted border crossing, she connected with Hill at No More Deaths to retrieve his belongings, which included money and three forms of identification. Padron told VICE she couldn't take the time off from work to make the drive from Dallas, where she lives, to Tuscan, where CBP was holding her ex-husband's possessions.
Hill sees this as another problem with the system: Leftover belongings can only be picked up by the owner or if someone gets power of attorney; CBP won't mail them anywhere. In Padron's case, it would've been a 14-hour drive each way to pick them up. "Some families live even farther away, in the South, the Midwest, the East Coast," Hill said.
In 2015, No More Deaths helped 151 people retrieve their belongings after deportation. They are a mix of would-be immigrants picked up during a border crossing or those who already live in the US.
The process is straightforward but time consuming. Initial contact comes through a letter from someone being held during deportation proceedings, according to Hill. News of the program is spread by word of mouth.
"I'm not really sure we could handle the demand, so we don't do any outreach," Hill told VICE.
He sends them back a form to fill out, giving him power of attorney, thus permission to retrieve the belongings. If their belongings aren't already destroyed, he heads to a CBP compound in Tucson where dispossessed belongings are stored. Then he catalogs each item, so the owners know what they will eventually get back.
"It is delicate because people's belongings are private," said Hill.
Depending on the owner's request, Hill either holds on to them until the deportation or the items are posted to contacts in Mexico or in the US. The aim is always for the people to be reunited with their possessions as soon as they are deported—whether it be Hill crossing the border and handing it to them, or contacts meeting them at the border in Mexico.
"The real humanitarian impact that we are focused on is how vulnerable people are in the minutes, hours, and days right after deportation," he said.
While the acknowledgement of belongings in the new repatriation agreements represents a big victory, there's no indication if any policies have changed, according to Slack. "Overall, the agreement is a huge step in the right direction, but they have been lacking in specifics about what they are actually doing to improve it on a systemic level," he told VICE.
With this step toward a better system, Hill hopes that the No More Deaths program will one day be redundant.
"One thing I can't do is, I can't do what ICE can do," he said, "which is get their stuff, put them on the bus with their stuff, and release them at the border with their stuff."
Follow Serena Solomon on Twitter.