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When Deportation is a Death Sentence: The Fatal Consequences of U.S. Immigration Policy

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As the battle over the DREAMers and DACA heats up in Washington, we look at a stunning new piece in The New Yorker titled “When Deportation is a Death Sentence.” It looks at how an unknown number of men and women have been killed in their home countries after being deported or turned away by the United States. The article focuses in part on a Mexican-born woman named Laura. Despite living her whole adult life in Texas, she was deported to Mexico after a traffic stop. She warned a U.S. Border Patrol agent, “When I am found dead, it will be on your conscience.” Within a week of her deportation, she was murdered by her ex-husband. We are joined by the award-winning journalist and New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman. She is also director of the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Capitol Hill, Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Chris Coons have introduced a bipartisan bill aimed to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. The future of the nearly 800,000 DREAMers has been at the center of a major political battle in Washington. But on Monday, President Trump took to Twitter to criticize the bipartisan bill soon after it was introduced. Trump wrote, quote, “Any deal on DACA that does not include STRONG border security and the desperately needed WALL is a total waste of time. March 5th is rapidly approaching and the Dems seem not to care about DACA. Make a deal!” unquote. This comes as immigrant rights activists are preparing to hold a protest in Washington Wednesday to push for a clean DREAM Act to be passed before Thursday, when the government faces another possible shutdown.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as the battle over the DREAMers heats up in Washington, D.C., we look at a stunning new piece in The New Yorker magazine headlined “When Deportation is a Death Sentence.” It looks at how an unknown number of men and women have been killed in their home countries after being deported or turned away by the United States.

The article looks in part at a Mexican-born woman named Laura. Despite living her whole adult life in Texas, she was deported to Mexico after a traffic stop. She warned a U.S. Border Patrol agent, “When I am found dead, it will be on your conscience.” Within a week of her deportation, she was murdered by her ex-husband.

We’re joined now by the award-winning journalist and New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman, also director of the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Sarah.

SARAH STILLMAN: Thank you so much for having me here.

AMY GOODMAN: This is such a significant piece. It seems, though, that the government should be collecting this data, not you and a group of students at the Columbia Journalism School, about what happens to immigrants who are deported.


AMY GOODMAN: But start off where you started in the piece, with Laura’s story.

SARAH STILLMAN: Right. So I wrote about this young woman, Laura, who had been living in the U.S., as you mentioned, most of her adult life. She’s driving home from work one night, and she’s pulled over by a traffic cop. And at the time, it was relatively unroutine for a cop to actually ask about her immigration status, but that’s what he did. And he chose to turn her over to Border Patrol.

AMY GOODMAN: In the middle of the night.

SARAH STILLMAN: Exactly, this was in the middle of the night. And so, no lawyers’ offices are open at that hour. She’s driven with some friends, while crying and pleading and saying, “Look, I have this really violent husband back in Mexico. He’s threatened to kill me if I’m sent back. Please just give me some time to show you my protective order to show you why I should stay here.” And instead, she was quickly turned over to Border Patrol, quickly then, while continuing to cry and plead, taken to the border and sent right back across the bridge, after being coerced into signing some voluntary paperwork.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And she spent most of her life here in the U.S.? Could you talk about her life here?

SARAH STILLMAN: Exactly. So, she had U.S. citizen children. And, you know, she had grown up in Mexico, but in her adulthood had been living in Texas, in a community with many other people who were undocumented and who, at the time, didn’t tend to worry that traffic stops would lead to their deportation to harm. But I think that’s becoming more and more typical in recent months. But this was under the Obama administration that this occurred.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, clearly, the Mexican government doesn’t do any tracking of the people that are repatriated from the United States. Is there any attempt, even within Mexico, to do a more comprehensive look about what’s happening to the folks deported?

SARAH STILLMAN: Yeah, I think we really see it piecemeal. We’ve seen some human rights workers and some scholars who try to document this. It’s extraordinarily hard, because, as you can imagine, when people are sent back, it’s quite hard to track what becomes of them, partly because families are so afraid, when something does happen, that the fear of retaliation often means that we don’t hear about the awful things that happen to people post-deportation.

AMY GOODMAN: As you point out, the Trump administration has formed a new office, called VOICE.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that it.

SARAH STILLMAN: So, initially, when, you know, Trump came into office, he expounded quite a bit on what he perceives as immigrant criminality. And one of the things he said he would do is create a special office for the victims of crimes committed by immigrants. He did not square that with the data that tells us that immigrants actually do not commit more crime than U.S.-born individuals. And, in fact, the opposite has been proven true in most scholarship on this issue. So, this database was essentially going to also log all the different immigrant crimes that had been committed. And so, part of what I thought about with my Columbia team at the Journalism School was, in some respects, we were building a shadow database to that. We were building a database that showed the many, many people, both under Obama and under Trump, who had been deported and then either killed or sexually assaulted or subject to other kinds of harm.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as you note in your article, the United States obviously has a long history of providing sanctuary for those seeking to avoid danger or killing in their home countries. What are Customs and Border Patrol agents supposed to do if a person claims that they fear possible persecution? And what are they actually doing?

SARAH STILLMAN: Yeah, that’s a great question, because I think it’s—a lot of people don’t realize that in both international law and domestic law, a fundamental U.S. value has been that we have guaranteed, post-World War II, that we will never again make the mistake of deporting people to their deaths, when they come to us seeking sanctuary. That was, you know, created out of World War II, in part because we sent many people back amidst the Holocaust who had fled Nazi Germany.

And so, what we’re seeing at the border today, and what many human rights groups have been documenting, is that—you know, Border Patrol’s job is, essentially, when someone arrives at the border, they’re supposed to ask them a set of questions, which includes “Do you fear for your life, if you are sent back?” And if the person says, “Yes, I do,” it is not their job to adjudicate that or to try to figure out whether they think it’s credible. Their job is simply to pass someone along to a trained asylum officer. We have people who are very well trained in the next stage of vetting. And people often get to go before an immigration judge. What we’re finding is that in upwards of 50 percent of cases, often Border Patrol isn’t even asking that initial required question. And sometimes—I spoke to many women who have said that they had answered in the affirmative, had said very clearly they did fear for their lives, and nonetheless the Border Patrol paperwork was marked that they did not.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in the case of Laura, following on this questioning at the border, when she’s handed over to Border Patrol and she says to the agent, “When I am dead, it will be on your conscience,” what was it his obligation to do?

SARAH STILLMAN: Well, this is currently being disputed in the courts, because there’s been a lawsuit on her behalf, after she was in fact killed when sent back. But ideally, someone in her situation would get to go before an immigration judge. And, you know, that—historically, that was the case, that for a long time people in the United States, when they did articulate these fears, if they articulated them immediately at the border, they would go to an asylum officer, and then they would get to go before immigration judge. Increasingly, we’re seeing that the vast majority of deportations are what’s known as summary deportations, so people who are very quickly turned around directly at the border and never given a chance to see a judge. Or, in the case of someone like Laura, who had lived in the country for a very long time, in that case, you would certainly be entitled to a judge.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what have you and your students found?

SARAH STILLMAN: There’s been quite a few patterns that we’ve seen in this database. One of them is just how often people like Laura get rounded up in pretty minor offenses, so people who had traffic violations, people who had minor workplace disputes, that actually led to very high-stakes repercussions, so being deported and then killed. We’ve also seen a real pattern of women who had fled gender-based violence, who in fact had explicit documentation of the men who had harmed them in the past, and then they came here seeking to escape from that, and instead were sent back to the very same men who had harmed them.

And, of course, we’re seeing an uptick under Trump in the number of people who are rounded up in the interior of the country. So, previously, we focused mostly on people who were turned back at the border, but increasingly we’re seeing people like Laura, who had very deep roots here, who had lived here for a long time, who had U.S. citizen children, who were sent back.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Laura—the cop who arrested Laura ended up going to jail himself, is that right? He said she was wavering on the road or something?

SARAH STILLMAN: Exactly. He said she had been driving between two lanes. And who knows? I mean, that’s certainly possible. But it didn’t tend to be the case, as I mentioned earlier, that people in that circumstance would be deported, whereas now we’re seeing legislation in Texas, known as SB 4, that may soon be replicated elsewhere in the country, that says law enforcement, in fact, has to ask these questions, and, in fact, law enforcement can be prosecuted criminally if they do not turn people over for immigration enforcement purposes. So that’s a huge transformation of law enforcement, that many cops that I spoke to were worried about.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you, in her case, in particular, because it’s one thing, a catch-and-release situation right at the border, but if she was already here in the country, wasn’t there a requirement, a minimal requirement, for them to—for her to go through some immigration process? A lot of times people voluntarily agree to be deported, to not be detained and put in an ICE jail. But was she never offered the opportunity to try to adjudicate her case?

SARAH STILLMAN: Yeah, I think that’s a critical distinction, right? We have different entitlements for people who have been here for a long time. And in her case, she—her signature appeared on the form that was a voluntary removal form. So, that’s what’s currently being disputed in the courts, is that—you know, can this be accurately described as a voluntary removal, when in fact she was pleading and crying and protesting? Border Patrol says that she voluntarily signed and was sent back as a result of that. And her friend, who was there at the scene, says that, in fact, she had been desperate not to sign the paperwork. So that’s the mystery at the heart of the case, and that was what a judge argued made her family not able to proceed with the case. So, we’ll see what happens in court.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Stillman, you mentioned SB 4, known as the “Show Me Your Papers” bill, in Texas. Explain what that does.

SARAH STILLMAN: Well, SB 4 will do a number of things. And right now it’s currently also tied up in litigation. But one of the things is, as I mentioned, regarding local cops, that they are supposed to now ask people about their immigration status.

It also means that, you know, there’s the sort of crackdown that Trump has also called for, in regard to what he and some others know as sanctuary cities, so places where they have decided not to turn people over to immigration enforcement once they’re held in local jails. So, one of the other patterns we saw in the database was that there were some people who came into the criminal justice system through minor offenses, like one man, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, that I wrote about. He had come to the courthouse for a minor misdemeanor case, and then ICE had actually appeared in the courthouse, apprehended him, and then he had been deported despite claiming that he believed he would be killed if sent back to Mexico. And he was also murdered. And this was more recently. And that crackdown had been explicitly, many believe, a retaliation for the fact that Travis County, Texas, was a sanctuary city—sanctuary area.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about President Trump’s recent remarks at his State of the Union, where he was actually talking about the MS-13 and the increasing dangers from undocumented immigrants to the general American population, criminal gangs. Did you—were you able to hear that? I don’t know if we have the clip available of his—that part of his speech. But could you—

AMY GOODMAN: I think we have a clip.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, we do. All right. Let’s see—let’s hear it.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They’ve allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you respond to the president’s framing of the issue—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —of why it’s necessary to deal with immigration?

SARAH STILLMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s absolutely necessary to treat MS-13 seriously. And that’s part of the paradox of how Trump has reckoned with this, is that simultaneously he’s saying it’s OK to revoke temporary protected status for hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador and send them back to this country that is really grappling with a very real MS-13 crisis, and he’s saying, “Oh, it’s perfectly fine and safe to sent them there,” despite the fact that, you know, MS-13 may actually pose a really serious threat to those people. And he’s saying those people don’t deserve protection here, but then he also seems to really be intent upon sort of acting as if MS-13’s crisis here has a gravity that I think, empirically, we could say doesn’t necessarily compare to a lot of other threats that we could be focused on. But I think we should take it seriously, and I think we should also be realistic about the fact that immigrants do not pose a disproportionate threat when it comes to crime. And, in fact, as I mentioned earlier, the opposite has been proven to be the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah, can you talk more about gender-based violence?

SARAH STILLMAN: Absolutely. I mean, that was a big theme that we were seeing. And going back to the realities of needing to reckon with MS-13, I think one of the things that we heard from quite a number of young women is that they were being recruited by gang members in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, who were basically telling them, “If you don’t become my sexual partner, then you will be killed.”

And, you know, I interviewed several women who had come—one woman who comes to mind, this woman Elena, she had actually come here after her brother was murdered for being gay, another brother was murdered for refusing to join the gangs, and then she herself was subject to sexual coercion by a gang member. And when she came here, she was turned away by Border Patrol. She protested, and then she went before an immigration judge.

And one of the really big issues we don’t talk about much is that women who are fleeing those kinds of circumstances, who even do get a chance to go before a judge, often are told that they don’t qualify for asylum or other kinds of legal relief. Because our asylum system was crafted post-World War II, often the concerns that it was crafted around don’t reflect the current reality of gang violence and gender-based violence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, a lot of this gang violence is—the historical roots of it is not really ever discussed here in the United States. I remember back in 1992 covering the Los Angeles riots after Rodney King. And the Chicano community was—the longtime Mexican-American community was very upset about the rise of MS-13 back then. We’re talking 25 years ago. And they saw it rooted in a spillover of the Central American civil wars and the U.S. intervention, that it was—the original MS-13 gang members were actually former national guardsmen from Salvador who had moved here to the United States, and that there was a culture of violence that had actually spilled over from Salvador and Guatemala into the western United States, and they saw it as a direct result of U.S. intervention. But that’s never talked about these days.

SARAH STILLMAN: Yeah, I think you can’t talk about what’s happening right now without talking about that exact history you just pointed to, both the history of the Central America wars and the U.S. involvement in them and also the history of this set of cycles around deportation, the idea that many of these gangs started on the U.S. side and in U.S. prisons and on U.S. streets and then were deported back without a real plan about how that would be dealt with. And then, we’ve seen this cycle before, and so we need to look at how do we address those root causes, I would argue.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura’s mother ultimately ended up working with Jennifer Harbury, well known for her work around Guatemala and the U.S.-backed, sadly, slaughter in Guatemala. Can you talk about that relationship?

SARAH STILLMAN: Yes. Jennifer Harbury is a really fascinating person who’s had a pretty remarkable life. And she was married to a man from Guatemala who actually had been—that had led to litigation that Jennifer had been a part of, after her husband disappeared. She had staged a hunger strike. This was quite some time ago, in the midst of those wars. She later found that there was U.S. involvement in a cover-up about her husband’s murder and torture and pretty violent circumstances. And so, she was certainly a vehicle through which to tell the story of the U.S. involvement back in the ’80s and how that stretched all the way up into repercussions in the present day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you spoke about history, and let’s end there, turning to a clip from the 1976 film Voyage of the Damned, the film based on the true story of the 1939 voyage of the MS Mississippi [MS St. Louis], which sailed for Havana from Hamburg, Germany, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. The Cuban government refused entry to the passengers, so the ship made its way to the U.S., where the Coast Guard delivered the following message, as portrayed in this clip from the film.

MS ST. LOUIS CREWMAN: “Attention, Captain St. Louis. You are violating U.S. territorial limits. Do not approach any closer. Do not attempt to land. You will not—repeat, not—be permitted to dock at any United States port. Acknowledge.”

MS ST. LOUIS CAPTAIN: Signal, “Message received and acknowledged.”

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the 1976 film Voyage of the Damned. The ship was left with no choice but to return to Europe. And talk about what happened, Sarah.

SARAH STILLMAN: Right. So, these people had come here fleeing Nazi Germany, and, in fact, they were turned back. And I believe it was upwards of 250 of those individuals who were turned back were ultimately found to have been killed in the Holocaust. I didn’t know, until researching this story, that others, such as Anne Frank—her father had actually applied to get the family refugee status here, and they had also been rejected. And, of course, she later died in the concentration camps, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you and your students are continuing to search for what happens to deportees?

SARAH STILLMAN: Absolutely. So, we hope to continue searching in the Trump era and finding—you know, again, I mentioned the Obama era had many of these deaths, as well, so we should acknowledge that. But I think we hope to continue this process of logging these deaths in the Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Stillman, staff writer at The New Yorker, also the director of the Global Migration Project at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. We’ll link to her new piece. It’s headlined “When Deportation is a Death Sentence.” This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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