A 30-year-old Mexican woman lived in the US for six years before she was picked up by immigration officials. In an interview with human rights advocates, the unnamed woman said she felt like she'd been intimidated into signing her paperwork to be deported—even though she might have qualified for protections due to her reports of domestic violence.
"I got scared because I had already asked if I could place a call to my lawyer and [the agent] said no," the woman said. "I had a private lawyer, but when I returned to El Paso, they didn't let me make calls and I couldn't communicate with her. She had told me that I could file something because of the [way] my husband was [treating] me."
The woman's story is just one of the many testimonies featured in a report released on Tuesday from the American Immigration Council; it aims to document how Mexican migrants are mistreated during their apprehension, custody, and removal by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. The report's authors used data collected by interviewers with the Mexico-based initiative Binational Defense and Advocacy Program, who talked to 600 migrants deported to Mexico between August 2016 and April 2017.
"The results are unnerving," the report states. Together, the testimonies paint a bleak picture of how immigration officials often interfered with migrants' rights by coercing them into signing paperwork they hadn't had time to read or didn't understand; not informing them of what their actual rights are; and even, in some cases, abusing them.
"There is a history of these agencies being known for not following the law and overstepping their boundaries of their authority."
According to the report, among the sample of people interviewers talked to, 43.5 percent were not advised of their right to contact their consulate. Doing so, the report notes, could have paved the way for these people to pursue asylum or other claims of protection. Researchers also found that half of respondents who signed repatriation papers said they were not allowed to read the documents, while 57.6 percent said they didn't even receive a copy of those documents.
"Lack of information and coercive tactics by U.S. officials compound the confusion migrants often experience as they undergo a complicated removal process," the authors point out. "If they are subject to expedited removal, regulations require agents to inform migrants of the charges against them and provide them with the opportunity to review the sworn statement prepared in their name. Yet, as noted in some of the testimonies, immigration authorities often ignore these significant requirements."
What's more concerning is that almost a quarter of respondents reported being abused or otherwise dealt with aggressively in some way. One 40-year-old deportee told researchers: "They called us fucking wetbacks."
Guillermo Cantor, the director of research at the American Immigration Council, is one of the authors of the report. He tells Broadly that while he and his colleagues had heard anecdotally of these types of problems with immigration officials, he was surprised to learn the extent to which these issues are indicative of a systemic problem rather than isolated occurrences.
"It is important to keep in mind that there are rules and laws that immigration officials should follow regardless of immigration status of the people they're dealing with," Cantor says. "Immigration agents should follow laws and the Constitution, and policies that are in put place by those very agencies. This is not only an issue of the rights people have."
But these problems are not new, Cantor says. "There is a history of these agencies being known for not following the law and overstepping their boundaries of their authority."
What is new, he points out, is how the current anti-immigrant rhetoric pervasive in the political climate really seems to support this kind of behavior. "When you hear this discourse that portrays immigrants in very negative terms, that may send a message to these agencies that it is OK to proceed in any way they want."
"I think there is a cultural background in which these agents operate," he continues, "and if you send a message that it's OK that these people don't have rights, that it's OK to really abuse them and all that, then agents may feel emboldened and use that as an excuse to behave in … manners that are not only not appropriate and also not legal."