When Deportation Is a Death Sentence

Sarah Stillman, When Deportation Is a Death Sentence. The New Yorker, Monday, 15 January 2018. “Hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S. may face violence and murder in their home countries. What happens when they are forced to return? In the past decade, a growing number of immigrants fearing for their safety have come to the U.S., only to be sent back to their home countries—with the help of border agents, immigration judges, politicians, and U.S. voters—to violent deaths. Even as border apprehensions have dropped, the number of migrants coming to the U.S. because their lives are in danger has soared. According to the United Nations, since 2008 there has been a fivefold increase in asylum seekers just from Central America’s Northern Triangle—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—where organized gangs are dominant. In 2014, according to the U.N., Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate; El Salvador and Guatemala were close behind….

Politicians often invoke the prospect of death by deportation in debates about the fate of these immigrants and others with precarious status, like the Dreamers. In February, 2016, in a speech criticizing the lack of legal representation for Central American children seeking refuge, Harry Reid, at that time the Senate Minority Leader, warned Congress, ‘Deportation means death for some of these people.’ That summer, Senator Edward J. Markey, of Massachusetts, told the press, ‘We should not be sending families back to situations where they can be killed.’…

These conversations have been largely theoretical, devoid of names and faces. No U.S. government body monitors the fate of deportees, and immigrant-aid groups typically lack the resources to document what happens to those who have been sent back. Fear of retribution keeps most grieving families from speaking publicly. In early 2016, as the director of the Global Migration Project, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I set out, with a dozen graduate students, to create a record of people who had been deported to their deaths or to other harms—a sort of shadow database of the one that the Trump Administration later compiled to track the crimes of ‘alien offenders.’ We contacted more than two hundred local legal-aid organizations, domestic-violence shelters, and immigrants’-rights groups nationwide, as well as migrant shelters, humanitarian operations, law offices, and mortuaries across Central America. We spoke to families of the deceased. And we gathered the stories of immigrants who had endured other harms—including kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault—as a result of deportations under Obama and Trump….

Under Trump, ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants—including those accused, but not convicted, of minor crimes—have gone up by nearly forty per cent. Trump describes these roundups to the electorate as a public-safety measure, but many law-enforcement leaders argue that they can have the opposite effect, lowering the rate at which crimes are reported. In February, a group of sixty law-enforcement officials warned, in a letter to Congress, that Trump’s policies ‘could harm community trust and make it harder for state and local law enforcement agencies to do our jobs.’ In March, Los Angeles’s police chief noted that reports of sexual assault among the city’s Latino population had declined twenty-five per cent in the first three months of 2017, Trump’s first months in office. Domestic-violence reports dropped ten per cent. (The decline was not found among other ethnic groups.) In April, Houston’s police chief noted that the number of Hispanics reporting rape was down more than forty per cent.

My team and I filed public-record requests in the twenty U.S. cities with the highest populations of undocumented immigrants, in order to determine the extent of this change. We obtained sexual-assault and domestic-violence reports from heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, and contacted more than a hundred police departments, district attorneys, legal-services providers, and domestic-violence shelters.

The results were striking. In Arlington, Virginia, domestic-assault reports in one Hispanic neighborhood dropped more than eighty-five per cent in the first eight months after Trump’s Inauguration, compared with the same period the previous year. Reports of rape and sexual assault fell seventy-five per cent. Meanwhile, in Chicago, domestic-incident and sexual-assault reports from Hispanic victims dropped seven per cent. In Denver, the city attorney, Kristin Bronson, told us of more than a dozen Latina women who had dropped their domestic-abuse cases since Trump took office, citing fear of deportation. She estimates that the number of women who have avoided pursuing legal action against an abuser is far higher.