The Obama Administration has deported some 1.5 million people since taking office and as revealed last year, more than one in five are parents of U.S. citizens. Many more have other relatives here. As the comprehensive immigration reform bill moves from committee to the Senate floor, many immigrants and immigration reform advocates will be watching a provision that would permit some deportees to return to the United States if they left behind U.S. citizen spouses, children or parents. Now, a set of new reports and investigations reveal what’s at stake as members of Congress consider what some advocates are calling the “right to return” provision: without a legal route to come back, many are travelling back over the border to reunite with their family, and thousands are ending up dead in the desert or locked up in federal prison.

Locked Up For Coming Back

In the past decade, the federal government has dramatically shifted the way it deals with immigrants who come back after deportation. Until recently, when deportees were caught trying to cross the border, they were deported. That’s still the case, but now, tens of thousands each year are also prosecuted criminally and locked up in federal prisons.

A report released today by Human Rights Watch today documents the federal government policy of prosecuting returning deportees for crossing back over the border. In the 2002, the federal government prosecuted about 11,000 people for the crimes of “illegal entry” and “illegal reentry.” By 2012, that number grew to 85,000.

The HRW report leads with the story of Alicia, who was deported in 2010. Her daughters were placed in foster care and she decided to try to cross back. When border patrol caught her, she was not just deported again, but also criminally prosecuted. She spent almost two weeks in prison. For those deported previously, sentences can last as long as 20 years.

Grace Meng, the author of “Turning Migrants Into Criminals: The Harmful Impact of US Border Prosecutions,” says a growing number of prosecuted border crossers are returning to reunite with their families because there’s no other way for them to come back.

“Under current law, people who’ve been deported, no matter what their family ties are, have no legal way to come back,” Meng says. She adds that the prosecutions are meant to deter crossings but because a growing number of those crossing are on their way to reunite with their families, deterrence won’t work.

“Their motivations for committing the crime is not the same as many other crimes,” she says. “Unless immigration reform creates a realistic way for people to reunite with families then the US government is doomed to continue prosecuting people who don’t belong in jail.”

The immigration reform bill as it’s written calls for a tripling of the number of these prosecutions in the Tucson border sector. To do so, it allocates an additional $100 million annually until 2018.

Dying To Return

A new investigation from PBS’s Need To Know (video at the end of this story) reveals that prison is not the worst fate for these returning deportees. Increasingly, older deportees who lived in the U.S. for years are dying in the desert as they attempt to return to family.

Even as the rate of border crossing has declined in recent years, deaths have stayed steady. In 2012, 463 migrants deaths were logged by border counties. According to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America, that number is higher than nearly any previously recorded year, despite the fact that border crossings are at a record low.

Nineteen-year-old Gladys Dominguez’s father lived in the U.S. for two decades. He was deported after a California sheriff asked him for ID. Gladys knew her father would try to return to her and his four other kids. Days after he started the journey, she heard from a companion crosser that her father was in the desert, dehydrated and dying. She searched the internet for someone who could help—border patrol, the Mexican consulate, but it took days to get a real response. Her father died of dehydration.

The man who crossed with her father told Gladys what he said as he lay dying. She told Need To Know:

[He] called us and he told us, when your dad was dying the only thing he was saying was “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I want to get back to my kids. I wanna make it with my kids. I have to make it with my kids. I need to get back. And I just imagine him all by himself in the freaking desert, just laying there.

Republican members of the Judiciary committee proposed amendments to strike the family return provision from the bill. They did not succeed, but amendments could be raised again in the Senate. As Emily Butera of the Women’s Refugee Commission said on a press call yesterday, “provisions that keep families together and allow other families to reunite are key to this vision of permanent status for 11 million people.” Whether the majority of Senators agree is yet to be seen.

Here’s the full 25 minute Need To Know episode on border deaths:

Watch Dying to get back on PBS. See more from Need To Know.

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