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 these deportations threaten a range of fundamental human rights including the right to family unity, the right to seek asylum from persecution, the right to humane treatment in detention, the right to due process, and the rights of children. (Our recommendations for rights-respecting immigration reform can be read here.)

Every day, people who call the United States home—including the mothers and fathers of US citizen children, tax-paying employees, and respected community members---are being arrested, locked up, and deported under a system that often does not even weigh their deep and longstanding ties in the balance. 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. 

Deported After Years Spent Saving for a Home

Ruben Rojas was close to fulfilling his dream of buying his first house. But, in less than 10 hours, his dream crumbled.

On June 7, around 7 p.m., a group of police officers showed up at his apartment and arrested him. Ruben still remembers that he opened the door thinking that it was his wife knocking. He never suspected the authorities were looking for him. When the officers said he was being arrested for theft, Rojas was in disbelief. From whom? What?

The details were revealed little by little. One of his clients, “a documented paisano,” as Ruben described him, accused him of theft after the client refused to pay the full $3,500 Ruben charged him for a construction job.

Ruben Rojas speaks with Human Rights Watch researchers at the Instituto Tamaulipeco in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

“When I finished the job, he did not want to pay me. He gave me $1,500 and then, out of nowhere, he asked for my electrical technician license, Ruben told Human Rights Watch at a migrant reception center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

“We had a verbal confrontation, but I thought that the issue would resolve itself. This happened around 9 in the morning and by the evening, I was facing deportation,” Ruben said while removing photographs and papers from a black backpack where he keeps the only belongings that he could take with him after 22 years in the United States.

Originally from Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, Rubens says he was known in his neighborhood of East L.A. for his good work as an electrical technician and his affordable prices.

“I charged the paisas [other Mexicans] very little. I just wanted to buy my house. My wife is documented and we were about to buy it,” he said. He still cannot fathom that he is at this center, more than 1,300 miles away from his children, Jhona, 17, and Jessenia, 22.

After the theft accusation, Ruben spent one month behind bars in the Los Angeles County jail. A criminal record check showed no indication of a conviction. He was then transferred to the Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto, California, where he spent 15 days.

“The deportation officer asked me to sign my voluntary departure. Years back I had used drugs and that’s why they told me, ‘If you do not sign, we will deport you anyway.’ I never spoke to any immigration lawyers,” he explained. Nearly all drug convictions make it extremely difficult for undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation.

When Rojas migrated to the US in 1989, he was just a teenager. He came fleeing poverty along with his partner, Aura, with whom he worked to raise their children and fulfill the dream of owning their own house.

“Now I feel as if I came here [to Mexico] without papers. I am filled with despair. I do not have anything to do here. My life is in California. Whenever I buy a bottle of soda and they tell me that it costs 10 pesos, I think, how much is that in dollars? 15 cents? 10 cents? I don’t know.”

Sixteen Years of Hard Work in the US

In 2001, 34-year-old Carlos G. passed through the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo on his way north to enter the United States without papers. Sixteen years later, he found himself back in the same town, telling his story to Human Rights Watch researchers in a deportee reception center.

When he reached Houston in 2001, Carlos found work in remodeling. He learned painting, stucco work, and other crafts, and eventually opened up his own business, T’NO’s Painting. At the peak of T’NO’s operations, Carlos owned his own equipment and employed five other craftsmen. Unfortunately, his business didn’t last, and he went back to working for others; he liked his new bosses, who were fair, he said, and gave him good work.

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

 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

In December of 2015, Carlos went to a cousin’s house to watch a soccer game between the US and Mexico. He thinks he left the house to head home through Houston at about 2 a.m. and says he was completely sober. When he saw emergency lights in his rearview mirror, he didn’t worry, because there was another car behind him, driving – from what he could tell from glances in his rearview mirror – slightly erratically. He figured the police were stopping that vehicle. But Carlos was stopped and charged with evading arrest.

Carlos was jailed for two months. Then, his bosses helped him pay his bond, and he spent six months in and out of court hearings. His records indicate prosecution was deferred. In August of 2016, he began a three-year probationary period, appearing every month, he says, never missing once.

On April 27, 2017, he showed up to see his probation officer, as always. Just inside the door, a man dressed in an ICE uniform asked him for his name – and cuffed him.

After seven weeks in the Houston CCA immigration detention center, he was deported in June. At the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, he was still fretting about a painting job left undone in Texas – his boss’s house. All he had left was the roof trimming. 

Twenty-Three Years in the US Ends with a Traffic Stop

“Moises R.” had no other way to get to his restaurant job than driving the family’s Honda the half hour from his apartment complex in South Minneapolis to the nearby town of Eden Prairie. On the night of June 3, 2017, as he was heading home from work at 2 a.m., Eden Prairie police stopped him because the license plate had a June expiration date. The car was in the name of Moises’s wife, “Zoraida,” whose driver’s license was suspended – and they soon discovered that Moises’s license was suspended too. Since 2003, undocumented immigrants have been barred from receiving drivers’ licenses in Minnesota, and Moises and Zoraida were unable to get new, valid licenses.

Moises said a judge released him after two days in Hennepin County jail – despite a previous arrest in 2013 for driving without a license – but immigration agents were waiting for him. Moises was deported to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, on June 21.

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

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

Moises said he first crossed from Mexico to the United States 23 years ago, at age 15. The Border Patrol sent him back once, but he made it on a second try and settled into an American life, rising in restaurant work from dishwasher to prep-cook, cook, busser, and server. He and Zoraida met when she was working as a restaurant cashier. Their two boys and two girls range in age from 8 to 18, and Moises is most worried about the eldest, “Mark.”

Moises told Human Rights Watch at a migrant reception center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, how Mark, at 18, passes the basket at the family’s Baptist church, plays club soccer, doesn’t drink or use drugs, and is an all-around “good kid.” “But at that age they are exposed to all kinds of things, and they need their fathers,” Moises said. Moises had just adjusted his schedule so that he could attend Mark’s soccer games during the coming season when he was arrested. “Why can’t I be with him?” he asked, shaking his head.

Moises remembers his own mother, who was a migrant worker, saying what she most regretted was not being able to sit down to a meal each day with her children, and Moises has dedicated himself to doing that. “I’m a homebody, and what we all like best is sitting down to dinner,” he said. He and Zoraida are both good cooks, the kids pitch in with mealtime chores, and the TV is turned off. Zoraida or one of the children leads the prayer.

During his deportation, Moises asked a police officer why authorities targeted those who came to start a new life rather than concentrating on those selling drugs or fighting. The answer, Moises recalled: “Hell, you guys are easy to catch.”

Zoraida, who used to work only two mornings a week, has, since Moises’s arrest, taken a full-time job. “She can’t even speak for crying” during phone calls, said Moises.

Moises thinks that moving the family to Mexico would be too hard on the kids, so he is contemplating going back. “But that could mean a year or two in jail,” he said, for “crossing the border to see my family.” He paused. “They will be with me one way or another, but I know it is going to take a little time.”

A Lifetime of Work in the US

As the youngest of five children of a single mother, “Juan S.” never got to go to school. He became his mother’s partner in maintaining the home and earning wages in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “We didn’t have money,” he said; “what we had, as they say, was hunger.”

Although Juan has spent his adult life working in the United States, crossing over the border at the age of 15 to find work, he remained close to his mother. So when she died last November back in Mexico, the 53-year-old carpenter said he got drunk after work at a friend’s house in Marshall, Texas. Heading home, he grazed a tree. He scratched his Chevy Malibu, and the accident earned Juan a drunk driving charge. By his June 18 court date, Juan said he had made several payments on a US$1,500 fine. As he left the courthouse, he was planning on starting classes and 140 hours of community service that would complete his obligations under his sentence. But immigration authorities were waiting for him outside the courthouse, and on June 22, he was deported to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

A plaque on the bridge between Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, demarcating the border crossing. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

Juan said he left behind a house he had rented for 10 years and the kind of work that had allowed him to support five children, now ranging in age from 19 to 29, who grew up in the care of his wife and mother back in Mexico. Like millions of Mexican men, he lived separate from his wife and children, who remain in Mexico while the fathers live and work in the US in order to earn enough to support them. His arrest, ironically, fell on Father’s Day.

Juan told Human Rights Watch at a migrant reception center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, that when he first went to the US, he found jobs in Texas and Louisiana, harvesting watermelon, tending horses – work he’d learned in Mexico – and raising turkeys. He moved on to laying cable for television in Georgia and working as a framer on building projects in Tennessee. In Marshall, he said he became a high-end carpenter, doing finish work and building furniture on his own, which he proudly shows in photos on his phone.

This wasn’t the first time he had been deported. The Border Patrol caught Juan in 2009, after he was visiting his family, but he soon crossed again. “Better to try crossing than to die of hunger,” he said. Where he comes from, it’s hard to find work without getting tangled up in organized crime, he said.

Now, his friends will sell the Chevy Malibu with the tree-scratched door for him, and they will collect the belongings he was never allowed to recover when he left them in the courthouse parking lot. Meanwhile, Juan said he will head for San Miguel de Allende, and after a family visit, he will probably try to cross again to seek a family-sustaining wage north of the Rio Grande.

“Being Without My Wife and Son is Awful”

“Jose R.” sleeps on the streets of Nuevo Laredo when he can’t earn enough pesos to get a bed for the night. The 42-year-old construction worker has been hoarding what little he saves while working in a Mexican port city since being deported in March, and he has been biding his time for an opportunity to cross the Rio Grande and return to his wife and 4-year-old son in Kansas City, Missouri. He stopped by the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants to borrow a phone and call them.

“I have to be patient,” he told us, eyes welling. “But being without my wife and son is awful.”

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

Jose, who is from Chiapas in southern Mexico, said he was first deported when he tried to cross alone in 2009. He tried again in 2012, after marrying “Maria,” and this time they made it. Jose found remodeling work in Laredo and then San Antonio, Texas, where Maria gave birth to their son, “Santiago.” Eventually, they made their way to Kansas City in search of better opportunities, and settled in. Jose became a loyal fan of the Royals and the Chiefs – though he’d still rather play or watch soccer – and the couple enjoyed taking Santiago to Lexington Park, near their apartment. Their term of endearment for Santiago is in English: “We call him Happy Boy,” Jose said with a wistful smile.

Jose rotated among three employers, earning about US$100 a day, getting rides to work from the bosses so that he could leave the family Hyundai for Maria. On a Saturday in early February, Kansas City police stopped an employer’s car that was transporting Jose and three others home. “I don’t know why,” Jose said. “Maybe the driver had tickets – or just – he was a moreno [a dark-skinned man]. They let him go and arrested the rest of us for not having identification.”

After two days in Jackson County Jail and two weeks in an immigration detention facility in Missouri, Jose was stripped of his belt and shoelaces and flown – shackled and manacled – to Alexandria, Louisiana, where he received his final deportation order.

Back in Kansas City, Maria has gone to work as a housekeeper. She and 4-year-old Santiago have given up the apartment to save money and rented a room in a house, but she is barely making ends meet. “My wife has to be two people now to take care of our son,” Jose says. He is worried that Maria, too, will be deported. “If they take her, what will become of Santiago?” He stepped out onto the sidewalk, heading for a bus that could take him to a Nuevo Laredo construction site where he might earn the equivalent of about US$2.25 a day.

“I don’t have any idea how to get back,” he told us, “but I have to do it. I miss them so much.”

An American Who Desperately Needs Her Husband

One phone call upended Omar G.’s life.

A caller tipped police off there was an undocumented person in Omar’s Waco, Texas, home. He was picked up, and deported to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in March 2017.

His common-law wife Laura, a US citizen, followed as soon as she could, and when Human Rights Watch researchers met them in a migrant reception center in June, they had rented an apartment nearby and were seeking advice on a legal way to get Omar back to the United States.

Omar G. and his wife, Laura, speak with Human Rights Watch researchers at the Instituto Tamaulipeco in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

“We’ve got kids and grandkids back in Texas, so I’ve got to get him home,” Laura says of Omar.

While Waco has a reputation as being aggressive about arresting undocumented immigrants, Laura and Omar loved living there despite the risks. “Waco is beautiful and it’s getting prettier all the time,” says Laura, who has lived there all of her 52 years.

Omar, who is 51, arrived in Waco from Monterrey, Mexico, when he was 28, and moved in with a brother across the street from Laura’s mother. Laura had custody of three small children from a previous marriage, and as their romance blossomed, Omar became a dedicated step-father. “The kids love him,” Laura says, “and he has had a big impact on the life of every single one of our eight grandchildren.”

Omar could fix anything, and he was a good carpenter, so he always had work. Laura, too, brought home wages, doing manual labor in warehouses. In 2008, she said crippling pain in her arms – whether arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or nerve damage hasn’t been determined -- disabled her, and a surgery two years later didn’t help much. At times when Laura couldn’t even bathe herself, she said Omar cared for her with his usual competence, and with nurturing smiles.

They said Omar had his first run-in with the immigration system four years ago. Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for drivers’ licenses in Texas, and after Waco police noticed expired tags on Omar’s Buick, they found that he had no license. When an immigration judge learned that Omar was caring for Laura – his common-law wife – he urged the couple to formalize their relationship by marrying. But when they wrote down the wrong date for a court appearance – and missed it by one day – Omar was deported for the first time.

After that deportation, Laura traveled south and met him in Monterrey, Mexico. Together, they reentered the US and were living in Waco when Omar was deported for the second time.

This time, Laura said, “we want to do it right” – which is why they are seeking legal advice. They’re going to marry, she said – she regrets having postponed it as something frivolous and expensive. She’ll also emphasize to immigration authorities her need for Omar as a caregiver; she has another surgery scheduled, and will need more. Unfortunately, under current law, Omar’s deportations and reentries are likely to have made it extremely difficult for him to return to the US legally.

The couple misses their family and their neatly-maintained two-bedroom cottage, on which they’ve paid off the mortgage and furniture. Omar’s tools are waiting for him in the workshop he built out back.

“They call me grandpa,” Omar said of the little ones, a tear sliding down a cheek.

“It’s not a good feeling, being deported from your home place,” Laura said. “You may not have been born there, but you’ve had your whole life there – and a part of me will never be over there if Omar’s not.”

Desperate to “Come Home”

Twenty-eight-year-old “Diego L.” took a break from his flooring job in Amarillo, Texas, one chilly January afternoon to fill the tank of his Ford Focus at a nearby convenience store. As he rolled out of the parking lot to head back to work, Diego said an Amarillo police officer pulled him over, saying he had failed to yield properly. That stop led to his deportation in June, eighteen months later.

“I don’t have family here in Mexico,” he said in English, when Human Rights Watch researchers met him at a deportee reception center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He was born in Mexico City, the youngest of five children, and carried north with the family when he was two. “My parents still live in California – they sew for a factory in Santa Ana.”

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

Diego’s US-born wife, “Amanda,” is desperately seeking legal remedies to get him back – her 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son miss him terribly. “He’s a good step-dad,” she told researchers by phone from Amarillo. “He’s never really done anything wrong. He was just born somewhere else.”

Diego’s immigration troubles started in 2012 when he and Amanda were arguing in their apartment – only verbally, they both insist – and a neighbor called the police. Diego said he calmly went out to meet them, and allowed himself to be cuffed. He pleaded guilty to obstructing police because, he said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t able to talk to anybody.” Diego served two months in Potter County Jail, and then a Border Patrol officer collected him. “They threatened me that if I didn’t sign a paper, I was going to go to prison and would never see my family again,” Diego says. “I didn’t read the paper, I just signed.”

That first deportation was hard on Diego, who got caught twice trying to cross back. “I didn’t know nobody,” Diego says. “I got robbed in Mexico, they took all my money, about US$100. When I was walking in the desert, I saw two dead bodies, lying in the dirt.”

When police stopped Diego at the convenience store on that January day, he couldn’t produce a drivers’ license – Texas doesn’t issue them to undocumented migrants. Police also found a small amount of methamphetamine in the car, which Diego says he has used occasionally in recent years, “like Red Bull,” to stay awake at work. This time, his stay in the Potter County Jail lasted nine months, and he was released to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, only to spend nine more months in detention. Although Amanda urged him not to sign anything – she was seeking ways to help him stay legally – Diego signed deportation papers.

Amanda said the first choice for them both is to get him back to Amarillo legally. But for the time being, Diego is fending for himself in a strange country. “This time, I got to know an old man in detention with me, so I feel a little safer,” he said, as he waited to use a phone at the deportee reception center. “He’s going to let me stay at his house.”

“His instinct,” said Amanda of Diego, “is just to come home.”

Young Couple’s Dreams on Hold

Twenty-year-old Alexis G. had been living in the United States almost his entire life when he was deported in June to Nuevo Laredo, south of the Rio Grande, in a country he barely knew.

“My parents brought me [to the US], and I grew up in the United States. If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be the Star-Spangled Banner – I don’t know the Mexican anthem,” he said in an interview.

Alexis G. and his wife in an undated photograph. © Private

From pre-kindergarten through high school, Alexis studied in Dallas-area public schools. One of his most poignant memories is of the arrest of his undocumented, single mother, when he was in 7th grade. She had gone to make good on unpaid traffic tickets, not knowing authorities had issued a warrant for her arrest because of them. Immigration authorities released her five days later to go home to her four sons – Alexis is the youngest of the boys – and her US-born daughter. He doesn’t know exactly how she avoided deportation.

“I cried in school for five days,” says Alexis, “and the teachers kept asking what was wrong, but I was too embarrassed to say… I felt ashamed.”

An honor-roll student, Alexis played baritone in his high-school marching band and electric bass in another school band. When he started junior year, he qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status, which allowed him to work in a supermarket after school. He said he finished in the top 15 percent of his class.

He met his US-citizen wife, Maryjo, online after high school, and moved to San Antonio, Texas, for a while to be near her “amazing” old-San Antonio, German-Mexican family. But the high-paid stucco work of Dallas drew him back, and Maryjo went with him. The move was expensive, Alexis had no work for a month-and-a-half, and he didn’t have the US$500 for his two-year DACA renewal in 2016.

Still, by March 2017, he and Maryjo managed to get married. Their honeymoon ended on June 4, when a fight broke out at a flea market and carnival. Alexis had gone with his brothers, Francisco and Andres, and Andres’s family. He says that he doesn’t know exactly what happened, but that as Andres stepped off a ride with his 3-year-old, the operator shoved him. In the scuffle that followed, Alexis said his sister-in-law, with a baby strapped to her chest, was knocked down, and he “snapped,” shoving a security guard. He was arrested by police, charged with assault, and handed over to ICE.

The immigration detention center was so full that night that Alexis and Andres, arrested at the same time, slept under a staircase. It was Alexis’s first time in immigration detention, and Andres, who had been deported twice before, advised him to sign for voluntary removal. He did.

“I think a few years ago, you really were able to fight a case and have a fair trial, and they’d give you a chance. Now I think they’re just deporting us for anything. It’s not worth staying in detention.” He thinks the assault charges were dropped; a criminal record check turned up nothing.

His wife Maryjo told Human Rights Watch that since Alexis’s deportation, they talk on the phone every day. “We want … to go to school together, start a family, get a house,” she said, plans which are for now on hold.

“It’s tough,” Alexis told us. “Sometimes you feel like you don’t belong anywhere, you’re stuck in the middle. Growing up, I met kids from Mexico who arrived during their teen years, and they’d say, ‘You’re not Mexican.’ And then you’ve got the other side telling you you’re not American because you don’t have papers. It hurts. Do I not count?”

Family Fights to Stay Together

Every time Marco G. gets deported, his Ohio-born wife, Leah, takes the kids and follows him to Mexico until they can all get back home.

They can’t stand being apart. They’ve been married for almost 16 years.

After recently being deported for the third time, the family was starting to contemplate another possibility – if it would be possible to settle a while in Mexico. Their US-born kids – Antonio, who is 14, and Sofia, who is 10 – need Mexican papers to enroll in school.

Marco G. and Leah in an undated photograph. © Private

In an interview at the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants in Nuevo Laredo on June 14, Leah described Marco – the only boyfriend she has ever had – as the “smartest man ever.” She said Marco crossed the US-Mexico border illegally when he was 18, which would have made it nearly impossible for him to get a green card through his wife, especially after his repeated deportations. Whether working with horses in Ohio, managing a huge apartment complex, or repairing Japanese-made motor-building equipment in Michigan, the couple told Human Rights Watch Marco’s US bosses find him invaluable. One employer called him an “excellent employee” and told us he is having a hard time finding his replacement.

Marco was first deported in 2010, after being put on probation for driving while intoxicated. Leah went to bring him home from a bar, where he wasn’t supposed to be, and they quarreled. “Exactly what I was trying to prevent is what happened,” she says. “The police came, and they wouldn’t listen to me saying we were okay. They took him and deported him.”

The second deportation happened in 2013, when they were trying to sell a trailer he had remodeled, to put a down payment on a house; the buyers, whom they had allowed to move in, refused to finish paying and called the police, saying Marco and Leah had assaulted them, which Marco and Leah deny. Marco was deported so quickly he wasn’t able to attend his court date for the assault charge.

The third deportation happened in January 2017. Leah had been driving Marco to work at a Kentucky Derby training track, but he drove himself one day, and police stopped him “for no reason,” she says. They said the warrant on the assault charge showed up, and authorities held him in Claremont County Jail for three months, subpoenaing the complainant. She never showed up, and they turned Marco over to ICE for deportation.

Even harder than overcoming the setback of Marco’s latest deportation has been healing from the trauma of their last stay in Mexico, after Marco’s 2013 deportation. They told us back in his hometown of La Barca, Jalisco, Marco built the family a big house that, along with his foreign-born wife, attracted the attention of a gang. They kidnapped Marco and, to intimidate Leah into paying ransom, fired an automatic-rifle fusillade in front of the house. Cowering inside with her screaming children, Leah called the US consulate in Guadalajara, and within half an hour, the Mexican military arrived. “It was a half hour that lasted a lifetime,” she says. Leah and the children were whisked onto a bus back to the US, not knowing what had become of Marco. A month later, he showed up in Ohio. His relatives in La Barca had given the house, with all its furnishings, to the gang in exchange for his release.

“They’re scared, being back here,” Leah says of their children. “We’re all pretty traumatized.”

The family told us they collect US Social Security payments – for Leah’s Crohn’s disease and Antonio’s blood platelet disorder – but they haven’t been able to find medication since arriving in Mexico. They are hoping to move out of the sweltering cinderblock apartment they rented in Nuevo Laredo and head for Cancun – about as far from La Barca as possible – where they figure Marco will find work.

“He’s more of an American than what some people up there are,” Leah says of Marco, waving a hand northward toward the far side of the Rio Grande, “because he works hard and takes care of his family, and you can’t say that about everybody up there.”

After 12 Years, Deported from US Home and Family

The first thing “Manuel P.” wanted to do when he arrived at the state-run deportee receiving center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was get his wife, “Rosa,” on the phone to hear how their three US-born kids were doing – and to help him plan.

“I’ve got to ask her about what to do next,” he told us. “We always walk in lockstep.”

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

Manuel, 33, went north from Durango, Mexico, 12 years ago and settled into construction and plumbing work in Amarillo, Texas. In 2007, when his eldest, “Carlos,” was just five months old, Manuel rear-ended a car on his way home from work. He waited for the police to arrive – nobody was injured – was arrested and deported. A year later he headed north again, was returned to Mexico by the Border Patrol, and immediately crossed again, making it back to Rosa and Carlos in Amarillo.

“Daniela” was born three years after Carlos, and “Gloria” a year after that. In 2010, Manuel and Rosa signed a rent-to-own deal on a one-bedroom home, which he quickly remodeled to three bedrooms. He was careful to pay rent and taxes on time and launched two of his own businesses, a handyman operation and a construction company. His business card shows a high-end outdoor fireplace that he designed and built for a client – and it’s a pocket-sized glimpse of the immigrant story: for Spanish, it says, call Manuel; for English, call his son Carlos.

This spring, Manuel’s life was interrupted again.

On the night of May 27, an officer stopped Manuel in the sturdy Dodge pickup he used for toting tools. Manuel told Human Rights Watch he’d had one beer, and the officer said he would be charged with driving while intoxicated. He said he was taken to jail and then released after ten days. A criminal record check, however, showed only a ticket for speeding.

As Manuel left his jail cell in relief, he found Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents waiting to pick him up. They held him for three weeks in Dallas before taking him over the border with a warning not to try to return to the US for 20 years.

Since Manuel’s arrest, Rosa, who is also undocumented, has found work as a hotel housekeeper, but says she is struggling to take care of their three kids since Manuel was deported. On weekends, she takes them to the hotel where she works. Rosa says the children are very upset and constantly ask about their father.

“I want to go back,” Manuel told us. “I’m not going to lose the house for this. I’ve got to care for my wife and kids.”

Father of Three Deported After ICE Check-in

For 18 years, “Alberto Z.” was “getting ahead” in suburban Atlanta: marrying, having kids, and on the salary of a mechanic at a used car dealership, moving up from a trailer to a ranch house and acquiring an SUV and a pickup. One day in mid-June, we found him in the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, following his second deportation in three months, trying to get a message through to his wife, “Marta” – and to his son, “Thomas,” who was turning 13 the next day in Georgia.

“I’m going to call Marta and tell her I’m okay, and talk, because, really I don’t know what to do,” Alberto said. “I have houses, mortgages, my taxes in order, three kids born in Georgia… The judge said the only thing that might help me is that if one of them had a chronic disease, I might get a humanitarian visa. But – thank god – none does.”

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

Alberto left Cuernavaca, Mexico, when he was 21 and hitchhiked up to the United States, knowing nobody. He and Marta, who is also undocumented, met when he was a cook and she was a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in suburban Atlanta. They married, moved to Sugar Hill, and started a family.

With their three children, the family attended a Pentecostalist church on Sundays, whiled away weekends in the park, and took short family vacations to Savannah, Georgia, or Clearwater, Florida. Their baby, “Natalia,” was born last November, around the same time that the boys – Thomas and “Nelson,” who is 10 – got black belts in mixed martial arts.

Alberto’s job was only ten minutes from their house, but five years ago, on the way home from work, he was stopped at a police checkpoint. The police saw he had no driver’s license – Georgia doesn’t issue them to undocumented immigrants – and detained him for three days, until Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed up and took him to the detention center in Irwin County, Georgia. “My mortgages, my taxes – everything was in order,” Alberto says. He had a DUI from 2007 but had completed all requirements to put it behind him. His lawyer applied for “cancellation of removal,” which allows some people who have lived in the US for at least 10 years without status and whose US citizen family would suffer “exceptional and unusual hardship” if the person were deported, to remain in the US. While his case was pending, Alberto received a temporary work permit, renewable each year.

In 2016, however, Alberto had his hearing for cancellation and it was denied. When the appeal was denied, he continued to check in, as required by ICE. On February 18, when Alberto checked in, ICE arrested him immediately, detained him in a cell for a couple of weeks, and flew him to Brownsville, Texas, to deport him to Matamoros, Mexico.

In early June, Alberto paid US$7,000 to cross the Rio Grande in a boat and be guided through the desert. After three nights and two days of walking in stifling heat, his group of five separated, and he was left with a fellow migrant who was exhausted and fading. “I had to get him out to the highway,” Alberto says – and that’s where the Border Patrol caught him.

Back in Georgia, the family has been living on Alberto’s savings and the proceeds from selling his pickup. Their church gives out fruit and other food once a week.

“I want to arrange things legally now,” Alberto told us. “It may seem faster to cross illegally, but you can die of dehydration or snakebite.” Unfortunately, under current US law, it will be nearly impossible for Alberto to return to live with his family legally. 

Father Determined to Return to Wife and 4-Year-Old Son

After nearly six months in Houston’s Harris County Jail, the first thing 30-year-old Jorge S. wanted to do after he was deported to Mexico was find a phone and call his US-citizen wife, Kaitlynn.

“I need to find out what is going on with my baby,” he told us as he sat down at a desk with a phone at the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, a Mexican state agency that is the deportees’ second stop after Mexican Immigration. “I had about four months when I had no contact with them at all.”

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

Jorge went from Mexico to Houston five years ago, and after working eight months at a carwash, worked his way up to to earning more than US$120 a day building wooden fences. He met Kaitlynn a year after arriving, when she came to help Jorge and his roommates with housekeeping and laundry. Because she has a grandmother from Mexico, she spoke a little Spanish. When they first got acquainted, they used the internet’s automatic translators to chat, teaching each other their native tongues.

Their baby, Ja,dan – Kaitlynn wanted a unique name – was born prematurely in Houston in February 2016, but he was soon off the respirator, and was crawling around by 8 months, following Jorge around, and amazing his parents with his rapid development. He was smiling, as his father remembers it, “all the time.”

Jorge sometimes worked six days a week, but the family would walk to the Parker Road park. On weeknights, Kaitlynn and Jorge would help each other understand TV shows in English or Spanish – La Rosa de Guadalupe was a favorite of Kaitlynn’s.

On November 22, Jorge was arrested – he says for the first time in his life. He was drinking a beer while driving the car, he told us ruefully, and went through a stop sign in Houston without waiting the requisite three seconds. An officer stopped him, got him out of the car, and later accused Jorge of hitting him. “I didn’t,” Jorge says. “He pushed me to get my arms up, and I ducked. He told me to turn around, shoved me to the ground – smashing my mouth – cuffed me, and took me to jail. But he said I resisted.”

Jorge received a reduced, misdemeanor sentence of six months and served his time in maximum security, earning privileges that eventually allowed him to work in the laundry, washing the orange uniforms. That entitled him to receive an extra plate of food and – above all – free use of the phones, so that he could talk with Kaitlynn. At the end, when he was delivered to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), he signed up for voluntary repatriation because he couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight deportation.

When we saw him, Jorge was first planning to go to his parents in Tuzantla, Michoacán and then attempt to return to Kaitlynn and Ja,dan. “I had wanted to get citizenship, but now, with the misdemeanor, getting papers will be more complicated,” he told us. “I want to be with my baby. If God’s willing… a friend I met in jail knows how to get guides for crossing.” 

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?

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.” 

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. 

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.”

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.”