The Deported

The Trump administration has dramatically ramped up immigration arrests inside the US while it scapegoats millions of people by painting them as violent criminals who should be deported. The administration claims it is focusing on serious, violent criminals, but President Trump’s new policies make every unauthorized immigrant a target, regardless of their actual criminal histories. The crackdown is also sweeping in immigrants who are legal residents but who have been convicted of sometimes only minor or old criminal offenses. Many of the people targeted for deportation have strong family and community ties in the United States.

The impact of these arrest and deportation policies is borne by people who in no way present a threat to national security or public safety—including the mothers and fathers of US citizen children, tax-paying employees, and respected community members who are being arrested, locked up, and deported. Our researchers have traveled to interview people who have recently been deported—or are facing potential deportation---since President Trump was elected. These are their stories. If you would like to share your story, please contact us here.

Mother of Three Deported After Traffic Stop

On an inky black night in late May, 29-year-old Rosalinda C. was drifting on the Rio Grande in an inflatable raft, the only woman in a group of 41 migrants. Crossing the desert in the early hours, she nearly stepped on a rattlesnake – “you could only hear them,” she recalls – but kept moving ahead, only to be stopped by Border Patrol after two more days of walking. She spent 25 days in a detention center in Encino, Texas, and then was deported to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Like some 15 percent of Border Patrol deportees, Rosalinda is a parent of US-born citizen children.

“If I try again, supposedly, I’ll get three months,” she told Human Rights Watch in Nuevo Laredo, referring to a warning given her by a Border Patrol officer. “It doesn’t make any difference to me. I’ve got to make it back to my kids,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek.

Rosalinda C. speaks with Human Rights Watch researchers at the Instituto Tamaulipeco in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

Immigration crimes like illegal entry are the single biggest category of cases on the federal criminal docket nationwide, and sweep up large numbers of parents of US citizens.

The US has been home to Rosalinda for as long as she can remember. When she was just 4 years old and her brother Martín was 3, they left Matamoros, Mexico for Georgia. Her parents worked the fields for ten years, picking cucumber, squash, tomatoes, blueberries, peaches, and tobacco all over the south.

Pretty soon, Rosalinda was just plain Linda, speaking English and roaming the playground at her elementary school. She completed middle school but not high school. Eventually, the family began a new life in Corsicana, Texas, where Linda’s dad found work in construction. Her mother stayed home while her brother went to school. Linda married her sweetheart, Abel, who was also Mexican-born. A year later, their first child, Justin, was born in Dallas, where Abel was working in construction. Not long after came Anthony and Axel.

Linda’s peaceful world was rattled soon after Axel was born in 2015. Police stopped her father, Martín Sr., for a broken tail light – and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported him. Back in Matamoros, Martín Sr. was crossing a street to enter a store when gunfire erupted. He was killed in the crossfire.

“I couldn’t even go to his funeral because I couldn’t risk crossing the border and getting separated from my kids,” Linda said. That same year, Abel and Linda’s marriage ended in an amicable divorce. Linda took the kids, moved in with her grieving mother, and went to work repairing phones at Samsung. She worked from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., took the boys out on Saturdays for walks, shopping, or to the movies, and on Sundays, when Abel had the boys, she and her mom cleaned house and did the laundry. The tattoo on Linda’s left arm shows a dove flying up from her mother’s name in cursive: Rosalaura.

Linda wishes she had been able to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which, since 2012, has allowed some undocumented people who entered the United States as children to defer deportation and receive a work permit if they have finished high school. Linda has no criminal convictions that would disqualify her for DACA status; her brother, Martín, Jr., has it. But between the kids and work, Linda was too busy to finish her GED and apply.

On April 18, 2017, Linda and her mother were taking Justin to the doctor when the Dallas police stopped her Ford Explorer. “I don’t think I was speeding – I was with my mom and kid – but they said I was going 45 in a 40-mile-an-hour zone.” As Justin cried and begged – “please don’t take my mother!” – they arrested Linda for driving without a license.

After three days in Richardson County Jail – and 25 years of life in the United States – Linda was deported to a country she hadn’t seen since she was 4. “I’d never been deported before,” she said. “I didn’t know Mexico.” But an aunt in Monterrey took her in. For about six weeks, she spoke constantly by phone with her sons, who all missed her. She wanted to bring them down to join her. But Mexico wouldn’t work for her ex, Abel, who is starting a family with another woman, and Linda understands: Mexico and separation from their Dad wouldn’t be good for her American sons, either.

So she paid someone US$2,000 to help smuggle her over the border and on that May night, hiking in her sneakers through a rattlesnake-infested desert, she almost managed to rejoin her family.

When we saw her in Nuevo Laredo, she was buying a bus ticket to go again to her aunt’s in Monterrey. But only for a while, she insisted. Next time, she’s, confident, she will to make it back to her kids.

Recovery From Accident Followed by Rapid Deportation

One morning in late April, Calixto L. was driving to work, ready to start another early shift at his factory job making chlorine tablets for swimming pools. By evening, he was back in Mexico, deported to a country he hadn’t seen in more than a decade.

Calixto, 39, and his 8-year-old daughter Emily left home that day at 5:30 a.m. to get her to before-school childcare so his wife Blanca could work her shift at Taco Bell. About five blocks from home, he noticed a car was following him. A few blocks later, as he rolled to a halt at a stop sign, another car and a van came out of a side street.

Calixto L. and his family in an undated family photograph. © Private

They were full of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. When Calixto couldn’t produce a driver’s license, the agents ran his fingerprints through the database and told him he was being arrested for being in the country illegally after a prior deportation in 2004 after he was caught working with false papers. His US citizen daughter was left alone in the car, guarded by strangers in black uniforms, until her aunt picked her up. “They didn’t even let him say goodbye to her,” Blanca told us. “She was so scared.”

Calixto and his family had been through some hard times recently, but things seemed to be looking up. In early September 2015, while driving his daughter and now 15-year-old US citizen son Erik home from another child’s birthday party, he swerved his Honda Accord to avoid another car, careening down an embankment and into a tree. The accident severely injured his back and left him bedridden, but more upsetting for him was that his daughter broke her left femur. Making matters worse, he had been drinking with another father at the party. Calixto was convicted for causing serious bodily injury while driving under the influence and sentenced to probation, community service, and a US$6,400 fine.

It was a long road to recovery for both Calixto and his daughter. His injuries made continuing to work as a tree cutter impossible. “I spent two months in the hospital and three months in rehab,” he said. “I saw a movie about a boxer who was in the same situation. He did exercises to get better and so I also did that. And I got better.”

It took a year and a half, but when his final court date for the DUI came in February 2017, Calixto had a new job and Emily was walking without a hitch. “She does have a scar,” he told us. “She’s not going to want to wear skirts.” Blanca told us that Emily cries and asks when her father is coming back after his deportation. “She’s very close to him.”

In ICE custody, agents asked Calixto to sign a paper, and he obeyed. He told us that when he realized soon after that he might have signed his own deportation papers, he asked to speak to the officer who had told him to sign. Not possible, the agents said, and a couple of hours later, he was on a bus to the border.

That evening in Tijuana, Calixto’s mind raced on what would come next for his family. They were struggling to pay the rent already because of his court fines. What if they were evicted? How would they make ends meet?

Father of 3 Deported from US After 20 Years

One night in April, “Marco T.” was driving to his Dallas-area home from his factory job recycling dangerous chemicals, where he had worked for two years. He may have been going too fast. A sheriff pulled him over. Marco was arrested and charged with driving without a license.

But that was only the beginning of troubles for Marco, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Within days of his arrest, Marco was in ICE custody facing deportation from the country he has lived in since 1997. “My family tried to get me an immigration lawyer, but there was no case,” he said. Detained and frustrated, he decided to agree to return to Mexico without a hearing before a judge. 

The bridge between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

Now, interviewed in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Marco shows off his cell phone screen saver, which is a collage of photos with a title in Spanish saying, “the women in my life.” It has photos of his mother, his sisters, his daughter, and his wife.

Marco has three United States-born children – 10- and 14-year-old sons and a 7-year-old daughter – all pretty typical American kids. The eldest wants to play football professionally, and the second wants to join the army like his uncles and cousins on his mother’s side. Marco’s daughter wants to do what her mother does – manage apartments. A photo of the three children he showed a Human Rights Watch researcher has them embracing, the 10-year-old pulling funny faces.

His hands shook a bit and his eyes teared up as he showed off his family. “It hurts,” he said. “Not that they send us back, but that they are separating us from our family.”

At least, Marco said, his wife has a good job that can keep the family going while he deals with the turmoil of deportation. His wife also doesn’t have papers, though she came to the US when she was only a few months old.

Under current US immigration law, there is generally no way for someone who has US citizen children and a long period of noncriminal unauthorized residence to gain legal status.

Marco said he had no prior deportations, and no prior criminal convictions. “It’s just that the government now is very harsh. Sooner or later they will get you for a minor offense. And then the consequence is deportation.”

Green Card Holder Deported for Over Decade-Old Minor Crimes

On their way home from a trip to Mexico last December, 36-year-old José Luis O. and his wife – then girlfriend – Estefania got in line to go through immigration at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Estefania, a United States citizen, entered with no problem, but José Luis was detained and five months later was deported to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

At the time, he had no idea why. Though born in Mexico, José Luis had been living in Houston since he was 3, had an up-to-date green card, and had traveled to Mexico and back just a few months earlier without incident. What he didn’t realize was that two scrapes with the law as a young man had remained on his record like hidden time bombs, waiting for the right combination of circumstances to explode.

José Luis O. was deported from Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in 2017, separating him from his wife and two stepdaughters. Human Rights Watch researchers spoke with José Luis in Nuevo Laredo after his deportation. He shared three photographs of himself with his family taken before he was deported.

José Luis's record included a sentence for burglary, at 17, after he took some clothing from a house; when a friend was caught, José Luis turned himself in. Later, when he was 26, police arrested José Luis as he waited outside a friend’s apartment, and he served 15 days for misdemeanor trespass. On neither occasion was José Luis deported.

After that, he stayed out of trouble, getting a GED (high school equivalency diploma), taking community college classes, working as a car salesman and Uber driver, and helping raise his two stepchildren and two children – all of whom are United States citizens. His green card allowed him to make visits to Mexico and return to the US easily – until last December.

That’s when he learned that green cards – permanent resident visas – aren’t necessarily permanent; they can be revoked, even for old, minor offenses. José Luis spent five months in immigration detention, fighting unsuccessfully to hold onto his green card and return to his family in Houston.

When he talks about his stepdaughters Christina, age 9, and Violet, who will turn 4 next month, his eyes light up and he laughs. “Little Violet calls me ‘babe,’” he chuckles during an interview in Nuevo Laredo, “because that’s what she always hears her mom call me.” He misses all of his kids, including two from previous relationships – an 18-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, who also live in Houston.

He worries about how his absence is affecting them. His son visited him once while he was detained, but started crying and had to leave the room. He is most worried, though, about how his mom, alone since José Luis’s stepfather died, will manage. She gets social security, but José Luis used to help her with everything. He told the immigration judge how much she needed him. “I guess it didn’t matter,” he says. José Luis might have been eligible for a discretionary benefit allowing the judge to cancel his deportation, but he just missed a cut off that required him to have his green card for seven years before his first conviction.

When we met him, José Luis was on his way to Acapulco to stay with his dad, whom he barely knows, and figure out options for returning to his family in Houston. 

Army Veteran Deported After Struggling with Drug Dependency

After serving in the Army in Guam during the 1990s, Sergio H. received an honorable discharge and opened an auto body shop in Dallas. He worked hard all his life, he says, to raise two United States-born children, one of whom is now a pediatrician, the other in business administration. But like many aging veterans, Sergio, now 50, has struggled with drug dependency.

His dependency worsened in 2012, he told us in Nuevo Laredo, and two years later, Sergio was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He received parole after serving two-and-a-half years of a five-year sentence. “I’m clean now,” he says. “The worst thing is that I wasted years of my life.”

Sergio H. speaks with Human Rights Watch researchers at the Instituto Tamaulipeco in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

Service in the US armed forces is often a pathway to citizenship for people who hold green cards – permanent resident visas – but it didn’t work out that way for Sergio. Green-card status can be revoked for various reasons, including a drug offense. So Sergio went straight from prison to an immigration detention center near Houston. He stayed there eight months, waiting out immigration court hearings.  

Because Sergio’s mother was born in the US, his lawyers explored whether he might in reality be a US citizen. But he didn’t quite fit the criteria; his mother moved to Mexico with her parents when she was too young. His legal options exhausted, Sergio was loaded into a van full of deportees and driven across the border to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

A growing consensus in the US holds that harsh criminal drug laws and policies – including disproportionately severe sentences – are doing more harm than good. For immigrant families, the consequences can be especially devastating. We have found that the US is deporting large numbers of immigrants like Sergio – both permanent residents and the undocumented – for minor or old drug offenses. Many have strong family and community ties to the US, and some – like Sergio – have served in the armed forces.

Even as Sergio completed paperwork in a deportee reception center in Nuevo Laredo, he spoke as though he were still back in the US.

“I was ready to give my life for this country,” he told us. “I still am… it’s my country.” 

Young Utah Man Desperate to Return to Family and American Life

It was a son’s devotion that left Alfredo R. on the wrong side of the border, separated from his family and the country that had been home to him since he was a baby.  

Alfredo R. with his mother and siblings in an undated photo. © Private

Alfredo, now 22, came to the US from Mexico as a toddler and grew up in Provo, Utah. But when he was 17, his father became seriously ill back in Mexico. The family thought it was heart trouble, and Alfredo went to take care of him. By the time his father was on the mend, Alfredo was stuck. There was no legal way for him to return to the US.

That hasn’t stopped him trying – in April he was arrested and deported after his fifth attempt to cross the border and get back home to his family in Provo.

Despite his warm feelings for his adopted home, Alfredo ’s life in the US was marked by struggle and tragedy. In May, 2008, a truck pulling a trailer T-boned his mother’s Pontiac Grand Am in Provo canyon, ejecting and killing his 8-year-old sister, Jennifer, and 7-year-old brother, Daniel. Alfredo, 13 at the time, escaped with minor injuries. His mother, who was driving, was seriously hurt and emotionally devastated.

“It's been nine years, and it still feels like it was yesterday,” he wrote recently in English in a Facebook post to his deceased siblings. “I wish I could hold you and hug you with all my heart. I would give my life for you to be here.”

Alfredo R. with his mother and siblings in an undated photo. © Private

Alfredo ’s mother, Maria, said in an interview the accident “affected him a lot” and kicked off a difficult adolescence. He spent a year in foster care, receiving therapy for grief and trauma.

“I was having some problems,” Alfredo told Human Rights Watch in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. “I wasn’t going to school, and they started taking me to truancy court.”

Eventually, with the support of family and therapists, things started looking up for Alfredo. He played linebacker on the high school football team and paid more attention in school.

Had Alfredo made it on any of the five dashes through the desert and across the wire, he would have headed straight back to Provo, to finish high school and support his mother and siblings.

These days he works at Zipcar’s customer service call in center in Guadalajara, Mexico. He bides his time, thinking constantly of how to get back and resume the only life he knows.

“I had my whole life over there. Now, if I cross again, I’m probably going to jail.”