Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to amend the immigration reform bill yesterday to limit a set of deportation policies known to put immigrants at risk of violence. The amendment, introduced by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., would curtail the practice of deporting migrants to dangerous locations along the U.S.-Mexico border, sometimes in the middle of the night. It would also limit removal practices that separate travelling companions and family members.
The amendment targets the Alien Transfer Exit Program. As described by a recent Congressional Research Service report, under the program, “certain Mexicans apprehended near the border are repatriated to border ports hundreds of miles away—typically moving people from Arizona to Texas or California—a process commonly described as “lateral repatriation.”
The federal government has long said that the practice reduces second crossing attempts by disorienting deportees. But recent government and non-governmental research suggests that lateral repatriation has little impact on whether people cross again and places migrants at risk of violence and trafficking by organized crime groups.
In the process of moving migrants far away from cities they know, deportees are often separated from family members. According to a recent University of Arizona report, “[w]hile, officially, only men go through ATEP, this leaves women travelling with male relatives or signiﬁcant others deported alone to unfamiliar border towns” and vulnerable to violence.
On a recent trip to the border, I met a couple, Juan and Susana Peña, who’d been separated as a result of lateral repatriation. They were detained by border patrol as they attempted to return after deportation to reunite with their seven-year-old daughter in Georgia. When Susana and Juan heard their names hollered by a guard in the Arizona detention center, they assumed they’d be bused to the border and deported together. But instead, Susana was routed directly to Nogales, Arizona, while Juan was moved to a different detention center and then deported the next day in Mexicali, a border city in Baja California a day’s ride from Nogales.
“We asked the Migra to deport us together, but the guard said ‘no, they’re going to send him somewhere else’,” Susana told me. “When I got here to Nogales, I thought they kept him in jail or maybe he didn’t know I was here.”
It took days before the couple reunited. While she waited, Susana says she was scared to move around the city, even to find a meal to eat.
The Coons amendment would limit the Department of Homeland Security’s use of lateral repatriation as well as deportations after 9pm and to “location[s] where a dangerous lack of public order would threaten the life and safety of the migrant.”
In addition, the amendment would require DHS to return property to immigrants before they are deported. Many immigrants detained by Customs and Border Protection or Immigration and Customs Enforcement are deported without the belongings they arrived with. As I’ve reported previously, this includes their identification documents, without which many migrants find themselves effectively undocumented in Mexico.
The Committee passed a number of other amendments yesterday, in the second long day of work on the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill. And in a display of broad commitment to the bill’s basic outlines, 17 of the 18 members rejected an amendment from Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions that would have dramatically reduced the number of immigration visas available to non-citizens. The committee also rejected an amendment from Sen. Sessions to implement a broad-based biometric ID system. The concept has come under attack from civil liberties groups.
The amendment process will last several more weeks, at which point the committee is expected to send the bill to the Senate floor. While the legislation is expected to gain enough support to pass the Senate, it faces a less certain path in the House.