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Effective border wall: Information on ice
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Sonoran Ramblings

Effective border wall: Information on ice

  • Andy Ellison/Cronkite NewsWatch

I like seeing hard work get recognized, which is why Border Patrol's 2013 Golden Padlock Award for governmental non-transparency brought a smile to my face.

At first glance, not divulging information may seem like a simple thing to do. It is, after all, doing nothing. However, after a bewildering three-month attempt to get Customs and Border Protection (BP's parent agency) to comment on repatriation practices and post-deportation migrant kidnapping, I have come to appreciate that non-transparency doesn't just happen: it requires commitment, coordination and dedication.

Watching several CBP public information officers stall, hedge, misdirect and scheme via email left me with no doubt that keeping the public in the dark is an art of the highest order, as well as a talent for which we should all be grateful: if not for their deft non-disclosure, we, the American public, might suddenly find ourselves weighed down by the unsettling knowledge of what precisely they are doing with billions of our dollars in the borderlands each fiscal year.

Governmental non-transparency may also seem abstract to those who haven't been on the receiving end. For this column, sadly my last, I would like to make the concept a little more concrete by recounting my attempt to get honest answers to serious questions about one of our country's most controversial policies.

I sent my first interview request via email to a Customs and Border Protection public information officer in El Paso on Feb. 14, 2014. I had just had a phone conversation with the officer and explained my story and questions in depth. While certainly touching on a difficult subject, the kidnapping of migrants post-deportation, my questions were straightforward and fair: what are the basics of repatriation? How is Border Patrol involved? How are repatriation sites chosen? What steps are taken to ensure that the human rights of migrants are respected post-deportation? And so on.

Three months, nearly 30 emails and about 10 phone calls later, the fruit of my effort was a single email with written responses to some of my questions. Calling them answers would be a stretch, but we'll get back to that later.

Five silent days after my first email, I sent a reminder and got a note the next day: "Murphy, [your request] is being reviewed right now and I will get back with you asap."

ASAP, it turns out, is just shy of two weeks in CBP's estimation. After 12 days, I got this message: "Murphy, did you get a call back from either USBP or CBP in Laredo? I have a feeling you did not."

The PIO's suspicions were correct: no one else had contacted me. I told him as much in an email the next day. One week of silence followed, which I ended with this pathetic plea: "Any idea if anyone is going to get a hold of me?" Another week of silence, broken by an even more pathetic plea: "Should I still be expecting a call from anyone? Is there someone in the Laredo Sector I should speak with? Thanks."

Two days later I was told that an officer from the Laredo Sector had "been trying to reach me." In fact, that officer had not sent an email to me until that very day. In it, the officer asked me to call them to give some "background on what [I needed]." I did just that three days later and followed up with a very detailed email about the focus of my story and the questions I would like to cover in my interview.

One week of silence.

And another email: "I'm writing to follow up on my last email. Have you reached out to anyone with the South Texas Campaign? Is there someone I can just contact myself? I've been getting bounced around a fair amount and I'd like to know if someone will be able to speak with me soon for my story. Many thanks."

The next day I was told that my request was awaiting approval in Washington.

After eight days of silence (we're up to April 9 now), my cool started fraying: "Any news from headquarters? Any idea of a timeline? I first reached out ... more than two months ago about getting an interview regarding CBP repatriation policies. I'm having a hard time understanding why it should take this long for a journalist to get comments from the nation's largest federal law enforcement agency. Please let me know as soon as possible when someone will be able to speak with me."

Same-day response: "I have reached out for further guidance on your request. As I understand it ... you are looking to focus your story on CBP's Repatriation Policies?"

Yes, as we discussed at length, that is the focus of my story. But I didn't write anything like that in response. This is what I wrote instead: "Yep. Thanks!"

The next day I got an unsolicited email from my first contact in El Paso with a three-paragraph description of the Alien Transfer and Exit Program (ATEP), as well as some data on the program (which, like the AP in 2013, showed that the policy actually increased the likelihood of post-deportation return migration). This was a theme that I certainly wanted to cover in my interview, as lateral repatriation has been blamed for deporting migrants to dangerous border cities where they have few, if any, friends and resources.

However, I still wanted to talk to somebody about it and ask, for example, a question like this: Why does CBP continue to carry out a policy that even its own data shows to be ineffective?

And then a week of silence. My annoyance turned to anger, which I directed at my Laredo contact:

"Am I ever going to be able to talk to someone? I would like a realistic timetable of when someone from CBP will speak with me. Surely this is something that one of the best-funded federal law enforcement agencies can provide. I just got an email ... with a brief description of ATEP and some basic data, but this is not what I want, as I have made clear ... in several emails. You both have received a detailed list of questions ... that I would like to ask someone from CBP. There could not reasonably be any confusion about my request."

I got a response the next day (April 17), which referenced the email from the El Paso officer:

"Did you not get [the email]?" they asked, seeming to imply that they thought the insubstantial ATEP email should have put an end to my inquiry.

After that, I gave up on emails and made several calls to both sources and mostly left messages. On May 13, 78 days after my first message, I got the email alluded to above, which was prefaced by apology of sorts: "I apologize for the lateness in response to your questions. Here are some answers to your questions. I hope that this suffice in what you were requesting."

Here is the entirety of their response, poor grammar, fuzzy math and all:

Who drops migrants off?

Migrants are normally repatriated via contracted transport services or Border Patrol.

How is BP involved, if at all?

Border Patrol verifies each migrant's file (i.e. Biographic data and photo) to ensure that they are the subjects being repatriated. Once repatriated, Border Patrol closes out the file showing the repatriation.

What is the basic procedure?

A local arrangement was established for the orderly and safe repatriation of Mexican Nationals from the United States to Mexico.

Repatriations from the interior, ports of entry and at the border of Mexico and the United States are conducted in a manner consistent with the respect of human rights and dignity of Mexican nationals found in the United States in violation of U.S. immigration law.

How are repatriation sites chosen?

Sites were initially established by members of various agencies/departments, to include the Government of Mexico.

What steps are taken to ensure that the human rights of deportees are respected post-deportation?

Communication to consular officials is afforded to migrants at all times.

Subjects are repatriated 24 hours a day however, every effort is made to repatriate persons with special needs during daylight hours with notification and coordination with the Mexican Consulates Office.

What are the hours of repatriation as per local agreements with GoM on returning females, children, elderly or other high risk UDAs?

Every effort is made to repatriate females, elderly, and persons with special needs during daylight hours in coordination with appropriate GoM agencies.

What is the average nightly repatriations (after 10 pm)?

Every effort is made to repatriate migrants during daylight hours. Migrants are only repatriated after 10 p.m during exigent circumstances; there is no nightly average.

How much advance notice do you provide INMI prior to repatriating UDAs?

The average advance notice and coordination with INMI is 30-40 minutes.

What is your sector's policy regarding consular notification and access to detainees?

Detainees have the right to communication with their perspective consular at any time.

I feel my reply was commensurate with the situation's absurdity:

"Is it CBP's policy to simply not grant phone interviews? That this list of vague, non-answers is the best I could get after three months of sustained pestering really says a lot about your agency's commitment to transparency."

What happened next was a little strange. The first contact, not the Laredo Sector CBP officer, responded to my curt email:

"Murphy, I am sorry but we cannot provide an interview or any additional information on this subject matter. You are also welcome to contact the ICE Office in San Antonio for any further data or information regarding detention and removals of undocumented immigrants from south Texas. Thank you for your interest."

I cannot imagine he meant to send along the chain that preceded his message. In that chain, the Laredo officer had written the following:

"Would you like to respond to him (sic) apparently he was not happy with the answers to the questions I submitted to him but that is the best we can do. As it is the Sector really scrubbed those answers. He wants a more national perspective interview but as I mentioned before I sat with Commander and he will not do a phone interview on this subject."

I responded with an email to both officers requesting clarification of the seemingly compromising message. I got a response from the El Paso officer, who was the higher ranking of the two:

"Murphy, I know it took a while to provide you information on the questions you posed, and that was my fault early on, but it was not intentional...From what I saw in the info you received, I thought you received as much information as we could provide without getting into the arena of ERO (Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations)It was not an attempt to withhold info, it was to allow DRO/ICE to address the detention and removal part of your questions. May I ask if you contacted ICE to get their take on these questions?"

In other words, as the officer clarified in an unsolicited early morning phone call the next day, the "scrubbing" referred to taking out portions of the answers that might best be answered by ICE, not to any attempt to distort or remove potentially damaging information. You have just read most of my exchange with CBP. You can decide for yourself.

As to ICE, I did send a detailed email with all of my questions to a PIO a little over a week ago. They responded the same day:

"I am working on your request. I'm having to research to draft responses to your questions. I will do my best to get this done as soon as possible. Please be patient with me."

I was patient for a week: "Just checking in to see where my request stands. Thanks!"

Same-day response: "Let me check to see where my bosses are with the approval process."

"Great. Thanks!"

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