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Report: Migrants often deported without cash, IDs or belongings

No More Deaths gathered data on personal property of undocumented detainees

Alejandro had $226.24 in cash, a cell phone, his Mexican voter ID, and a change of clothes on him when he was picked up by Border Patrol in the desert outside of Nogales. After two months in a private corrections facility in Florence, Alejandro was deported back to Mexico at 3 a.m. with only the clothes on his back. His belongings remained inside one of six trailers at the Tucson Sector Border Patrol headquarters.

Alejandro was not an isolated case, according to a new report released this morning by No More Deaths, an immigrant rights group based in Tucson.

Using four years of data accumulated by the group's Property Recovery Assistance Project, the group evaluated nearly 1,500 cases of people detained in Arizona, including 165 in-depth interviews specifically about money. They found a series of problems in the chain of custody, which allowed people to lose their belongings as they are shuffled from agency to agency.

Someone could be apprehended by Border Patrol and transferred several times before they are returned to Mexico. This includes not only Border Patrol, but U.S. Marshals during court proceedings, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, private or county prisons, and then back to either Border Patrol or ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations.

Some people can be transferred to other states during this process and there is a different process for Mexican nationals and those who Border Patrol categorizes as "other-than-Mexican," which could include Central Americans, as well as those from Europe or the Middle East. 

The report, "Shakedown: How Deportation Robs Immigrants of their Money and Belongings," found three central problems in the handling of cash and personal effects: officials failed to return money or belongings, cash was returned in checks or debit cards impossible to use outside of the United States, or agents kept the money.

"We have a chain of custody for all items," said Peter Bidegain, a spokesman with Tucson Sector Border Patrol.

When someone is apprehended in the desert, the agent has them declare the amount of money they are carrying and the agent counts it in plain view. According to Bidegain, all personal effects are then placed in a backpack, if available.

When they return to a station, the items are given a tag and placed in a plastic bag. One tag stays with the immigrant, one tag stays with their items, and the last tag is placed with the person's "A-file," a document kept by Border Patrol on file that lists a person's "contact" with the agency, said Bidegain. 

In the case of money, pesos are kept in the plastic bag, but U.S. currency is given back to the person and should stay with them in their transfer from Border Patrol to either U.S. Marshals or ICE.

Coins are kept with their belongings because the metal can set off metal detectors, he said.

Bidegain noted that in some cases, when someone is given a "notice to appear" from ICE and don't return to Border Patrol, they have 30 days to request their belongings.

Tucson Sector breaks from other sectors when it comes to retention of personal items. These items are kept for 30 days after the person is released in Tucson, where other sectors keep items for 30 days after a person's detention. After 30 days, however, the Tucson Sector will "destroy" the items, however, it remains unclear what exactly that process is.

In many sectors, this policy means that for someone given a 120-day sentence in prison for crossing the border, this means that their items will be destroyed before they leave the facility.

The Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of Customs and Border Protection and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement responded to the allegations.

In an email, Marsha L. Catron, the press secretary for DHS wrote that the agency has "strict standards in place to ensure that detainees’ personal property — including funds, baggage and other effects — is safeguarded and controlled while they are in detention and returned to them when they are released from CBP/ICE custody or removed from the United States."

"Any allegation of missing property will be thoroughly investigated," wrote Catron.

Among the 165 people the group interviewed specifically about money issues, 13 percent said they did not receive any belongings when they were deported to Mexico. In 5 percent, money was completely gone. 

More than two-thirds reported that they did get their money returned, but it was given to them in the form of a personal check or money order, which No More Deaths said was "impossible to cash inside Mexico."

One man said was told by an employee at a money exchange business in Mexico that the jail had tricked him. "It's a joke that they are playing on you," he said. According to the group, some people simply ripped up the checks, thinking they were worthless, while others were able to cash the check but paid a 25 percent fee for the service. Some money exchanges would only cash checks from the Arizona Department of Corrections, but not from other states.

Roberto was desperate to get out of Nogales, Sonora, because he had been kidnapped there in 2013 and held for six days while the kidnappers extorted money from his family. He was released and he then went on to cross the border where after four days lost in the desert, he was able to flag down a Border Patrol vehicle. Aid volunteers took his check to the United States and cashed it. 

No More Deaths volunteers have recovered around $15,000 in checks alone, issued by 26 prisons in at least six states, the report said.

A small group of these cases were given a prepaid Visa or Mastercard, which had their own problems.

Immigrants found that the cards were set to a pin based on a Social Security number, which they may not have, and many found they were charged fees for purchases or withdrawals; some cards stopped working because the use of the card in Mexico was considered suspicious. 

One man, known as Julio, was shot in the leg in Nogales, Sonora, because a cartel member learned he was informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. He brought his family to the border and asked for asylum, but after he was treated for his wound, he was sent to the Pinal County Jail in Florence. His asylum claim was rejected and though he asked not to be deported to Nogales, officials ignored his request and deposited him in downtown Nogales with $80 on a debit card. The card didn't work, leaving him stranded in the city until volunteers intervened, the report said.

Lastly, around 5 percent of the people interviewed claimed that agents simply stole their cash. This included officials with Customs and Border Protection, Tempe Police, U.S. Marshals and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Without phones, cash or documents, the people deported to Mexico found themselves unable to buy food, find shelter or simply return home. And, without documents, they were unable to get work in Mexico and became easy prey for extortion and harassment by local police, as well as kidnapping and sexual assault.

The report's findings echo a report from last year by the Immigration Policy Center.

The report, "Bordering on Criminal" was the second part of an assessment of compiled interviews by that group, the University of Arizona, and the Ford Foundation. Relying on interviews with more than 1,110 recently repatriated immigrants, the report found serious problems in how Border Patrol and other agencies treated migrants in custody.

According to the December 2013 report, over half of the people who went through Operation Streamline lost their belongings. Additionally, the report found that 34 percent of those interviewed lost personal items, including documents, cash, phones and personal effects like rosaries and photographs. More than a quarter lost documents.

The Immigration and Policy Center noted that one in five had money, an average of $55 per person, taken and not returned. The report said that this was an "especially problematic occurrence because it is hard to determine whether or not loss of money is due to systemic issues or individual-level negligence by U.S. authorities."

"The combination of a lack of oversight and the frequency of lost belongings creates the appearance of corruption, if not conditions that are rife for exploitation," it said.

No More Deaths has worked to recover money, working with U.S. officials and the Mexican consulate. According to their own figures, around $12,580 was recovered with assistance, out of an estimated $37,000 that had not been returned.

Money that remains unclaimed eventually ends up in U.S. Treasury accounts, the group said. However, along the way private companies like MoneyGram, NUMI financial also take their own piece, charging fees up to $2.50 for a weekly account maintenance fee. 

A request for information on the amount that goes to U.S. Treasury was not responded to by deadline.

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No More Deaths recommends a change in custody so that immigrants can carry retain access to their belongings, stopping the destruction of items in custody, an increase in accountability and oversight, and ensuring that funds can be used either in commissaries at U.S. prisons or can be withdrawn or accessed before deportation.

The group also recommended that the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency for Border Patrol, CBP and ICE should release a yearly report on the total number of belongings destroyed and the total amount of money left unclaimed.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A bus carrying people to federal court in Tucson destined for Operation Streamline. Many of the people who go through Streamline lose their personal belongings in the process, leaving them vulnerable once they are deported to Nogales, Sonora.