Every day, people who call the United States home—including mothers, fathers, and spouses of US citizens; tax-paying employees; and respected community members—are arrested, locked up, and placed in a deportation system that rarely considers their deep and longstanding ties to the United States before summarily removing them from the country. Under President Donald Trump, border-crossings and thus deportations at the border are down, but immigration arrests and deportations from the interior of the country have skyrocketed—showing the Trump administration’s disregard for the rights of individuals who have built their lives and families here.
Donald Trump launched his campaign for president in 2015 promising a major crackdown on undocumented immigrants, whom he characterized as “bringing crime” and as “rapists.” He told voters that as president he would repeal Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA), a temporary protection from deportation for nearly 800,000 immigrants who arrived in the US as children, build a massive wall along the US-Mexico border, and create “a massive deportation force” to remove millions of people living in the United States without papers.
After President Trump’s inauguration, this anti-immigrant rhetoric was soon reflected in official policy. During his second term in office, President Barack Obama had taken a series of executive actions that offered many unauthorized immigrants with longstanding ties to the US some degree of protection from deportation. Upon assuming office, President Trump moved to reverse all of this, quickly signing two executive orders that made nearly all unauthorized immigrants living in the US priority targets for arrest, detention, and deportation, and revoking Obama administration guidance that prioritized noncitizens who had committed crimes or who were recent border-crossers. Then, in September, the Trump administration repealed DACA, exposing hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who grew up in the US to potential deportation.
The impact of these actions has been immediate and severe. All undocumented people in the US now have reason to fear deportation, regardless of the strength of their ties to the US. And while the number of new border-crossers, and thus summary deportations at the border, has decreased markedly since Trump took office, the number of people seized in the interior of the country—wrenched from their families and communities—has increased sharply. The most dramatic such increase has been among undocumented people without criminal convictions: 28,011 were arrested between inauguration day and the beginning of September, nearly triple the 10,031 in arrested during the same seven-and-a-half-month period in 2016.
This report sets forth the 2017 official data on immigration arrests and deportations and details the often-wrenching human impact of Trump’s policies on undocumented immigrants, their families, and their US communities. The latter analysis draws heavily on 43 in-depth Human Rights Watch interviews with long-term immigrants deported since Trump’s election. Taken together, the data and firsthand accounts illustrate how the enforcement machine President Trump has moved so eagerly to accelerate rarely ever considers people’s deep and longstanding ties to the United States before deporting them.
There is no recognized human right to migrate to another country and obtain legal status, and governments have considerable leeway under international law to remove non-citizens from their territory, particularly when they are unauthorized. But this discretion is not without limits. The United States has obligations to protect basic rights, including the right to family unity and the right to due process. However, these rights are routinely violated within the US immigration and deportation system, which in most cases gives no airing or weight to immigrants’ ties to home and family. Even when immigrants are able to secure an individualized hearing, under US law these factors are in most cases of no legal relevance in deciding whether the person should be removed from the country.
Since the mid-1990s, the US government has deported approximately five million people under a harsh legal framework that provides for automatic or fast-track deportations and routine and widespread detention. The Obama administration’s record was marred by its early aggressive enforcement of these laws, resulting in the separation of millions of families, including the families of many immigrants who had only minor criminal convictions or none at all.
Starting in 2010, however, the Obama administration began a major shift in immigration enforcement, announcing a series of policies that focused deportation efforts on recent border-crossers and people with criminal convictions. In 2012, the Obama administration created a program that granted people who came to the US as children a temporary legal status through a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In 2014, Obama announced more targeted priorities for immigration enforcement and attempted to expand temporary protection to some parents of US citizens (the latter effort was blocked by the courts).
Because of these new policies, arrests and deportations of immigrants living in the United States fell. This did not change the fact that US law and administration policy still unjustly criminalized immigrants and did not provide adequate consideration to the family ties of long-term residents or to the asylum claims of recent border crossers. But the Obama enforcement priorities provided most of the millions of deeply-rooted unauthorized immigrants living in the US some assurance that the government would not arbitrarily tear them from their homes and loved ones.
That progress has now been erased.In the first seven months of the Trump administration, total arrests of immigrants in the interior of the US increased by 43 percent from what they had been from late January to early September in 2016 under the Obama administration, from 68,256 to 97,482. Many of these are people uprooted from communities where they have families and deep roots.
This increase is driven in part by a staggering leap in arrests of immigrants with no criminal convictions at all, as noted above.
During those months, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers also made 19 percent more interior arrests of non-citizens with criminal convictions than they did during the same period last year. This increase, too, raises concerns because there are good reasons to believe that most of those deported as criminals pose no threat to public safety, and many have equally strong ties to the United States. The government has not released data detailing the criminal convictions of deported immigrants since the end of February 2017. Between early October 2016 and the end of February 2017, mostly under Obama’s more targeted enforcement policies, two-thirds of those deported with criminal convictions had convictions for non-violent and non-predatory behavior, including immigration offenses (including entering the country without papers), traffic violations (including running a red light) or drug offenses (including possession of a controlled substance).
The Trump administration’s deportation surge is affecting people who have lived for decades in the US, often with no criminal convictions, or with only immigration, traffic, or drug offenses, including drug possession, on their records. Some have grown up in the United States. They have US citizen children, spouses, parents, and grandparents. They have worked in a wide range of industries, like construction, landscaping, and agriculture. They are business owners and US military veterans.
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, to 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.
The impact on families is often devastating. In an interview after her deportation to Mexico, Lucia H. told Human Rights Watch her five-year-old son stopped eating and was hospitalized, her husband had to leave his job working in the fields in California to take care of him, and their 14-year-old son suffered a breakdown and is now receiving therapy. “My little one tells me, ‘come back, mami. I’m not going to eat anymore. I don’t want to live because you don’t come back,’” she said.
To meet US obligations under international human rights law, US immigration authorities would need to allow for individualized hearings that consider not only the government’s interest in deporting an immigrant but also the immigrant’s family ties and connections to the United States—including the extent to which the country is in truth his or her “home”—when deciding whether to remove the immigrant. There is simply no provision in US law that would allow deeply rooted immigrants to avoid deportation and gain legal status, except in rare cases. Even in those rare cases where immigration law treats an immigrant’s ties to the US as a relevant consideration, people facing deportation are often unable to benefit from this because they cannot access accurate and reliable legal advice.
The Trump administration should reverse its efforts to ramp up deportations of people who have made their homes in the US. To stem the harm, the US Congress should decline any requests to increase funding to executive agencies involved in haphazard and harmful enforcement and to abusive detention facilities.
To truly fix the problem, through legislation and executive discretion, US law should be changed to offer a fair, individualized hearing to anyone facing deportation, in which the person’s ties to US families and communities can be weighed against the government’s interest in deporting the person. And to effectively address the widespread threat of deportation faced by millions, the US Congress should create a fair and inclusive legalization program for unauthorized immigrants that accords due weight to immigrants’ ties to the United States.
President Trump has requested $7.5 billion dollars to expand the immigration enforcement and deportation system. Each day that passes, more deeply rooted immigrants, including those who once had DACA or other temporary protection, become vulnerable to deportation. The stories of the deported contained in this report describe serious harms that—without action—could very well increase dramatically in the coming years.
This report is based on recent government deportation data and on Human Rights Watch interviews with 43 people recently deported from the US.
The data includes publicly available data from the US government and data provided to Human Rights Watch by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding arrests, deportations, and returns during the first seven and a half months of the Trump administration. Data for 2016 and 2017 was provided by ICE aggregated for the time period from January 22 through September 2 in 2017 and January 24 through September 3 in 2016. For 2016 and for earlier years, we also analyzed data that was aggregated at the monthly level. In comparing trends over time, data from earlier years was filtered from February through August, the closest comparable time frame to the aggregated data. Publicly available data from US Customs and Border Protection was also analyzed. We also examined data from the Mexican government. As described in the report, these data show a striking increase in deportations of immigrants arrested inside the United States.
To understand the meaning of these numbers, we analyzed 43 interviews with recently deported individuals in Tijuana, Baja California, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, from April to October 2017, which were published on the blog “The Deported.” We focused on individuals with strong ties to the United States whose right to family unity and ties to home are at stake. In all but five of the accounts we published we were able to corroborate at least some aspects of the account in court documents or in other public records, or were able to speak separately with family members, employers, attorneys, or others who knew the deported immigrant and could corroborate at last some aspects of their accounts. Our goal in these accounts was not to prove that any particular individual should not have been deported, but to show that in each case there were significant human rights at stake that the US immigration authorities utterly neglected to weigh.
Interviews were conducted in person or by telephone, and in English and Spanish by Human Rights Watch staff fluent in these languages. All participants were informed of the purpose of the interview and consented orally or in writing. No interviewee received compensation for providing information. Where appropriate, Human Rights Watch provided interviewees with contact information for individuals and organizations providing legal, counseling, or other supportive services at the conclusion of the interview. We have used first names and last initials to protect the privacy of individuals and their families, or pseudonyms at the request of some individuals. Where we have done so, we have indicated the use of the pseudonym by placing the name in quotation marks.
Major Shifts in Policy from Obama to Trump
The Pre-Existing Machinery of Deportation
United States immigration law and policy were flawed long before President Trump came into office. Beginning in 2011, the Obama administration worked to move some aspects of immigration enforcement policy in the right direction, particularly by deprioritizing deportations of some deeply-rooted immigrants. This long overdue policy shift has now been abandoned under President Trump.
Since the mid-1990s, the US has developed what former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Doris Meissner has called a “formidable machinery” of immigration enforcement. Between 1996 (when a particularly harsh set of deportation laws were passed) and 2016, the amount of the federal budget allocated to immigration enforcement increased seven-fold.
The Obama administration used this enforcement apparatus to deport nearly three million people and to criminally prosecute hundreds of thousands for the act of crossing the border illegally. Deportations under Obama included hundreds of thousands of people deported for minor crimes, people who had no convictions at all but were nevertheless swept up in immigration enforcement, and hundreds of thousands of people whose most serious crime was an immigration violation. The New York Times found in 2014 that two-thirds of the nearly 2 million people the Obama administration had by then deported from the border and the interior of the country were people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record. Human Rights Watch analyses of US government data in 2009, 2013, and 2015 showed that hundreds of thousands of people with minor nonviolent criminal convictions, many with strong family ties in the US, were swept up into detention and deportation.
In 2010, the Obama administration began shifting immigration enforcement policy in a new direction, seeking to provide a measure of security to many deeply-rooted undocumented immigrants that they would not be uprooted from their homes.
The two main policies that provided this security were Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) and guidance to immigration agents on how to exercise their discretion over who to deport. Announced in 2012, DACA gave unauthorized immigrants who came to the US before age 16—a group sometimes called “Dreamers”—a chance to stay in the U. to study or work provided they met certain conditions such as being enrolled in high school or having a high school degree or GED equivalent, and not having a serious criminal conviction. Those approved for the program were given a work permit and protection from deportation for two years, and could apply for renewal.
In addition, beginning in 2014, the Obama administration issued guidelines to prioritize enforcement at the border and people with criminal convictions it considered most serious. The guidelines further stated that an immigrant in one of the priority categories should be removed, but could be granted prosecutorial discretion, and that such a decision should be made based on such factors as “extenuating circumstances involving the offense of conviction; extended length of time since the offense of conviction; length of time in the United States; military service; family or community ties in the United States; status as a victim, witness or plaintiff in civil or criminal proceedings; or compelling humanitarian factors such as poor health, age, pregnancy, a young child, or a seriously ill relative.”
Trump Policy Changes
In the first week of his administration, President Trump signed two executive orders that began the process of putting the US government’s deportation machinery into overdrive. Premised on the false and dangerous conflation of illegal immigration and crime inside the United States, Trump’s first order called for hiring 10,000 new interior enforcement officers and deputizing more local law enforcement agencies as immigration agents, and threatened to take away federal funding from jurisdictions that limit local law enforcement collaboration with ICE. The order essentially eliminated priorities so that enforcement now encompasses deeply rooted immigrants living in the interior of the country, including those with no criminal convictions.
In a second order focused on the border, Trump called for the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico and directed immigration authorities to massively increase detention of immigrants in removal proceedings, expand the use of fast-track deportation procedures, increase the number of local jurisdictions deputized to enforce immigration law, and prioritize criminal prosecution of immigrants for illegal entry.
Some of the directives contained in the executive orders—like a massive increase in the number of immigration enforcement officers—were and remain aspirational unless and until they receive funding from Congress.
In February, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued two memorandums that marked a fundamental shift away from the Obama’s administration guidelines on immigration enforcement. In particular, the DHS memos revoked Obama administration guidance directing immigration enforcement resources primarily toward people with criminal convictions and recent border-crossers.
The Trump interior enforcement memo states, “The Department will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” The priorities listed are noncitizens who:
- Have been convicted of any criminal offense;
- Have been charged with any criminal offense that has not been resolved;
- Have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense;
- Have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter before a governmental agency;
- Have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits;
- Are subject to a final order of removal but have not departed the US;
- In the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.
The priority category of those who have committed “[a]cts which constitute a chargeable criminal offense” is so broad that it would encompass anyone who has ever jaywalked or driven without a license or entered the country illegally. Combined with the border security memorandum’s call for increased criminal prosecutions for immigration offenses, this indicates that anyone who ever entered the US without a visa, about half of all undocumented immigrants in the US, would be considered a priority for deportation (most of the others overstayed visas, which is not a crime but a civil offense). Anyone who has “engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation” could include anyone who ever claimed to have work authorization to get a job—which would include nearly everyone without legal status who has worked in the US. The catch-all, anyone who “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose[s] a risk to public safety or national security,” without any additional guidance as to what that might mean, makes clear these priorities are not really priorities at all, but are intended to encompass any one of the millions of people who are technically removable.
In its analysis of US data earlier this year, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, a data research organization, found that the Trump Administration sharply decreased the number of immigrants granted discretionary relief from deportation (relief usually granted based on strong ties to the US) during the first five months of 2017. During those months, discretionary closures of deportation cases precipitously dropped to fewer than 100 per month from an average of around 2,400 per month during the same five-month period in 2016.
In early September, the Trump administration made a move that could potentially dramatically expand the number of deeply-rooted immigrants vulnerable to deportation: it announced that it would roll back DACA, the temporary status held by over 790,000 immigrants who came to the US as children. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that current DACA recipients would retain currently held work authorizations, which expire sometime in the next two years, and those up for renewal before March 2018 would be able to apply for renewal within one month of the announcement. Although the lion’s share of DACA recipients retain their status as of the time of writing, a CNN analysis of DHS data found that, starting in March 2018, as many as 983 undocumented people previously covered under DACA would lose their protected status every day until 2020 – nearly 30,000 people a month.
President Trump has at times expressed a desire to see Congress replace DACA with functionally equivalent legislation, but he has also held open the possibility of conditioning his approval of any such bill on support for his administration’s larger restrictive immigration agenda. In October, the White House released “Immigration Principles and Policies,” a list of changes it cast as necessary components of any legislative deal that would provide protection for unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children. The list includes major changes weakening protections for child migrants and refugees, as well as significant increases in funding for immigration agents and immigration detention.
Even while DACA was in force, many young people who were eligible for it did not receive or did not maintain their status. A 2014 Pew Research Center estimate found that about 1.1 million unauthorized immigrants were eligible for DACA, and that only 78 percent of those potentially eligible had applied to the program. DACA renewal fees totaled nearly $500 every two years, and some who gained status within the program subsequently let it lapse for lack of funds.
Arrests and Deportations of Immigrants Living in the US Interior Have Increased Dramatically Under Trump
During the first seven and a half months of the Trump administration, its rollback of Obama’s second-term reforms triggered an immediate increase and widening of enforcement activity, with profound implications for families and communities across the United States.
This section analyzes multiple datasets, as well as aggregate data released by ICE to Human Rights Watch and other publications.
The number of deportations from the interior of the country, as well as the proportion of deportations involving people apprehended in the interior, shot up towards levels not seen for several years. In particular:
- The number of interior arrests of non-citizens never convicted of any crime has almost tripled. Between late January and early September 2017, ICE arrested 28,011 immigrants with no criminal convictions from inside the US, up from 10,031 during the same period in 2016.
- The number of interior arrests of non-citizens with criminal convictions increased 19 percent between late January and early September 2017, compared to the same time period in 2016.
- Overall, interior arrests are up by about 43 percent during the same seven-month time period. Extending the time frame over the last two years of the Obama administration, average monthly interior arrests are up 40 percent, from about 9,400 per month under Obama to nearly 13,200 per month under Trump.
- With the decrease in apprehensions at the border, the increase in interior arrests has significantly increased the proportion of people who are removed from the interior versus the border. In the last year of the Obama administration, only 27 percent of all removals were of people arrested in the interior of the US. In the first seven months of the Trump administration, the proportion shot up to 40 percent.
These statistics should be understood in the context of policy and migration shifts under the Trump administration.
During the first seven months of the Trump administration, the overall number of deportations was down compared to the same period in 2016 due to decreases in arrivals to, and removals from, the US border. Total deportation figures are a combination of deportations of people who are arrested by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), usually soon after they cross the border or arrive by plane, and people arrested in the interior of the country by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In 2009, the year President Obama entered office, officials deported about 369,000 people. That annual figure would stay consistent through his first term, peaking in 2012 when nearly 410,000 were removed. By 2013, the number of annual removals had begun decreasing. In the last two years of the Obama administration, annual removals had decreased by nearly half (43 percent) from the 2012 peak to plateau at 235,000-240,000 per year.
According to aggregated data on removals during the first seven months of the Trump administration released by ICE, between January 22 and September 9, ICE made 130,277 removals, a 15 percent decrease from the same time period in 2016 and nearly the same number as was deported during an equivalent time period in 2015.
However, much of this reduction is likely due to a decrease in border crossings and therefore border removals. Border crossings, and therefore arrests, have traditionally followed seasonal trends with increases in the late winter and early spring months each year. This seasonal migration trend peaked in 2014 with a surge in arrests, especially of unaccompanied minor children. Following the response to this surge, border arrests were historically low in 2015 and began to increase again in 2016. Border arrests reached another peak of over 66,000 in the month prior to the November 2016 election. Following the 2016 election, crossings plummeted to levels not seen in years.
The decrease in removals from the border, combined with an increase in the number of interior arrests, has resulted in a larger proportion of deported people under Trump originating from the interior. When Obama took office, the proportion of total removals comprising people arrested in the interior of the US was 64 percent. This proportion decreased rapidly during Obama’s second term in office as the administration focused government resources on removing people recently arrested at the border. In fiscal year 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, only 27 percent of all removals were of people arrested in the interior of the US. Under the Trump administration, with the decrease in border arrests, as noted above, the proportion has shot back up to 40 percent.
From November 2014 through January 2017, ICE made an average of 9,400 interior arrests per month. In the first seven months of the Trump administration, that number increased to nearly 13,200 per month on average.
Criminal Records of People Deported
One of the starkest changes under Trump has been the increase in the number of people arrested with no criminal convictions, which corresponds to administrative officials’ statements that no category of people is exempt from enforcement.
From late January to early September, 28,011 people with no criminal convictions were arrested, nearly triple the 10,031 arrested during the same seven-and-a-half-month period in 2016.
Looking at interior arrests of non-citizens with no criminal convictions in earlier years makes clear 2016 was not an anomaly, but part of a downward trend in the last years of the Obama administration.
ICE has also made 19 percent more interior arrests of non-citizens with criminal convictions than it did during the same period in 2016.
As Human Rights Watch analysis has revealed in previous years, the large majority of people removed with “criminal” arrest or conviction records are not the dangerous, violent criminals highlighted in the president’s rhetoric and in ICE press releases. In the most recent data available, which only covers one month of the Trump administration, strikingly few of the non-citizens arrested by ICE who had criminal convictions had been convicted of crimes of a violent or dangerous nature. One in three “criminal” arrests involved someone whose most serious crime was an immigration offense, almost always the act of entering the country illegally. About 16 percent had been convicted of a drug offense and another 15 percent had a traffic offense as their most serious crime. Fewer than 1 percent had been convicted of a homicide, and the most serious offense of only 19 percent, fewer than one in five, included violent or potentially violent crimes. This is consistent with Human Rights Watch analyses of deportations in prior years that found only a small percentage of the most serious crimes committed by non-citizens arrested by ICE were violent or potentially violent.
Despite these facts, ICE appears to have an internal policy aimed at bolstering the narrative of the “dangerous” criminal immigrant, as evidenced by press releases that regularly focus on the most grievous cases and ignore the vast majority of non-citizens caught in enforcement actions. In fact, in February 2017, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly ordered ICE chiefs-of-staff around the country to identify the “most egregious” cases, apparently for communications with the media following the first weeks of enforcement under the new administration. At least some ICE staff reportedly struggled to do so.
The data released by ICE thus far is insufficient to fully gauge the impact that Trump administration changes in immigration enforcement practices are having on American communities. For example, there is no information available to understand, at the aggregate level, the ties that deported non-citizens have to communities in the US, including their length of residence in the US; how many US citizen children, parents, or other family members they have; their years of military service; their employment or other economic contributions; their educational history; or their immigration status at time of deportation. Human Rights Watch has recently filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking some of this information.
Many immigrants facing deportation from the US have much stronger ties to the US than to their countries of origin, but these ties receive almost no consideration in deportation proceedings. The following analysis is based on accounts of 43 people recently deported from the US whose accounts Human Rights Watch published on our blog “The Deported.”
Lengthy Residence in the United States
Prior to their deportation in 2017, many people interviewed by Human Rights Watch had lived in the US for years and even decades, some since they were young children. Nineteen arrived as children under 18; eight before they had turned five years old. “I don’t have family here in Mexico,” “Diego L.”, 26, 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 by his parents when he was two.
Given the depth of their ties to the United States, many of these immigrants were deeply disoriented upon their return to Mexico. “I don’t even know how to buy something to eat here,” said David B. “I feel as if I came here [to Mexico] without papers,” Ruben R. told Human Rights Watch. “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.” 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.
Several of the people we interviewed would have or did at some point qualify for DACA, an Obama-era program to grant young immigrants protection for deportation which President Trump rescinded in early September 2017. Some said they had never been able to afford the $500 application fee; others told us that they had been unable to renew their work permits for lack of funds.
Families Uprooted and Separated
One of the harshest consequences of deportation is family separation. Over recent decades, hundreds of thousands of families throughout the United States have been forced apart by punitive and inflexible US deportation policies. Although some families decide to leave the US and join the deported family member abroad, many families make the difficult decision to keep some or all of the remaining family members in the US because of the challenges these family members would face abroad.
- A US citizen named Laura told Human Rights Watch that the deportation of her common-law husband Omar G. is depriving her not only of her partner but also her caregiver.  In 2008, she said crippling pain in her arms—whether arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or nerve damage has not been determined—disabled her, and she said a surgery two years later did not help. At times when Laura could not even bathe herself, she said Omar, who first arrived in the US over 20 years ago, cared for her. The couple told Human Rights Watch they were planning to marry legally in an attempt to return to their Waco, Texas home. 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. “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.”
Deportations also cause whole families to be uprooted.
- Human Rights Watch met Ohio-born Leah in Mexico, where she had gone to join her deported husband. She described Marco G. —her husband of 16 years and 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. “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.” 
Children Left Behind
Parents of young children are often deported from the United States. Their anxiety over the harm that their children are suffering as a result of the deportation and extended separation permeated many of our interviews. We spoke with many such parents. In most of the cases, the children left behind were US citizens.
- “I have to be patient,” “José R,.” the father of a four-year-old US citizen boy, told us, eyes welling. “Being without my wife and son is awful…I don’t have any idea how to get back, but I have to do it. I miss them so much.”
- Santiago H. choked up and sunk his face in his hands as he described family life in Michigan. He took a deep breath to collect himself: “We used to go out to dinner and a movie or we’d order food and have movie night at home…It’s the first time they have been without me,” he said.
- When “Andres L.” was deported to Mexico in July, one of the first things he did was tattoo his US-born son Anthony’s name and birthdate on his wrist. “I want him always to be with me. He’s my world,” Andres said. Throughout his ordeal, memories of Anthony have sustained Andres. “Anthony loves playing in water,” he said, with a smile. “I used to give him a bath, and he would spend hours splashing and waving his hands around.”
- “Lucia H.” told Human Rights Watch that after repeated deportations left her unable to rejoin her family in the US, her 5-year-old stopped eating and was hospitalized, her husband had to leave his job working in the fields to take care of him, and their eldest son, 14, suffered a breakdown and is now receiving therapy. “My little one tells me, ‘come back, mami. I’m not going to eat anymore. I don’t want to live because you don’t come back,’” she said.
- Since Sonia H. ’s deportation in August, her nine-year-old US-citizen son “David” has been living with nuns at a children’s home in Laredo, Texas. Sonia felt that leaving her son with the nuns to continue his education in the US was her best option. “It’s hard, so hard,” she said. “But I’ll just have to be here, seeing him whenever I can.”
- “Marco T.” showed a photo of his three children to a Human Rights Watch researcher. The kids are pictured 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.”
- Deported migrants worry about who will pay the bills for their families without their contributions.  Maria, the wife of “Jose R.” and mother of their four-year old US citizen son, gave up the family apartment in Kansas City after Jose’s deportation and rented a room in a house with her child. “My wife has to be two people now to take care of our son,” Jose said.
Workers, Taxpayers, Businesses Owners, Military Veterans, Community Members Deported
Immigrants are a crucial part of the US economy, as taxpayers, homeowners, valued employees, and entrepreneurs. The recent deportees we interviewed had spent years or decades working in restaurants, agriculture, construction, and other industries; had paid taxes; had started and owned businesses; and had bought homes.
“Manuel P.” told us that during his 12 years in the US 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. That card offers a pocket-sized glimpse into the immigrant story: for Spanish speakers, it says, call Manuel; for English, call his son Carlos.
- Many of the deported told us they worked backbreaking jobs for years. Born in Mexico, Luc ía H. first came to the US in 1999. For more than 10 years, she worked with her husband to harvest lettuce in the California countryside. “The pain was terrible, but I kept at it,” Lucía said. “I didn’t mind working 14 hours a day to get my children ahead.”
- When he got to Houston in 2001, Carlos G., 34, 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.
- “Santiago H.” told Human Rights Watch that he owned a construction company with his brother in Pontiac, Michigan, that employed seven other people, predominantly family members.
- Jos é Luis O. told Human Rights Watch he is worried about how his mom, alone since his stepfather died, will manage after his deportation. A US citizen, she gets Social Security benefits, but José Luis used to help her with income he earned as an Uber driver.
- The first thing “Orlando” wanted Human Rights Watch to know was that his last tax payment to the US government was $17,655. As he told the story of his 33 years living on and off in the US, he kept returning to the theme of having never, “cost the United States a nickel…I never asked for anything.” He said he owns a building in Fort Worth, Texas, worth, he estimates, $500,000. “My wife and I each have $500,000 life insurance because if we die I don’t want to give the United States any trouble,” he sobbed. “What did I do? What did I do?”
- 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 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 but instead of being released he was stripped of his green card and deported to Mexico. “I’m clean now,” he says. “The worst thing is that I wasted years of my life.”
- Manuel G. led a group of 25 regulars —five nights a week—for meetings of the Nueva Vida office of Alcoholics Anonymous in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for years. In 2011, police stopped a friend’s car in which Manuel was riding, and arrested Manuel for public intoxication, he said. He served two months in Tulsa County Jail, was deported, but soon crossed the border again to return to his family. That’s when he stopped drinking, he said, and Laura joined him as a leader in the AA movement, sharing her experiences as the wife of an alcoholic. “I really like helping people who are drinking because I remember what it’s like,” he told Human Rights Watch researchers in the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants reception center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. His co-leader of the Alcoholics Anonymous group in Tulsa, Nancy Munoz, described Manuel as a “man of faith” and praised his “passion to help others.” Manuel has not had a drink in five years, he said, and he lived an orderly life in Tulsa. “I opened my own business, detailing cars, a year ago and I had just bought a trailer that my wife and I were remodeling.”
Minor Criminal Histories or Undocumented Status Alone Lead to Deportation
Some of the long-term migrants we spoke with had criminal convictions but most of the convictions were drug-, traffic-, or immigration-related.
- “Moises R.” told Human Rights Watch he 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.
- 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 said he may have been going too fast. A sheriff pulled him over. Marco was arrested and charged with driving without a license. Within days of his arrest, Marco was in ICE custody facing deportation from the country he has lived in since 1997.
- Lucía H.’s criminal record stems from trying eight times in less than two years to get back to her children in the US. In 2013, after 14 years in the US, she returned to Mexico to care for her mother who was ill with cervical cancer. Because she had been undocumented, she could not re-enter the US legally. Separated from her children, she repeatedly tried to enter but was caught each time and sent back to Mexico. In January 2016, she was criminally prosecuted for illegal reentry. “They brought me to the Aransas County prison in Rockport, Texas, where they gave me a three-month sentence.” She was then transferred to a private immigration detention center in Houston, where she was locked up for 10 months while she tried to find a way to remain in the US, but she was ultimately deported in April 2017.
Other people we spoke with were deported for reasons having nothing to do with any kind of criminal offense.
- “Sonia H.” told Human Rights Watch that she was stopped by Border Patrol agents in July as she got off a city bus. It happened to her at 3 a.m. as she made her way home from a shift at Denny’s. Immigration and Customs Enforcement locked her in immigration detention and deported her 10 days later. “I’ve never committed a crime, I’ve never been in jail,” Sonia said. “I didn’t drive because I didn’t have a license; I never broke the law except by not having papers.” She blinked back tears. “Trump shouldn’t kick out people who are just taking care of their families.”
- 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,” Linda said. 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 living in the United States, Linda was deported.
- Manuel G. was giving a friend a ride back to his hotel from an Alcoholics Anonymous event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when was stopped by police, he said, for making a wide U-turn. That stop led to Manuel’s deportation from the country that had been his home for 29 years.
Inadequate Opportunity to Defend Against Deportation
The US system of deportation looks and feels like a criminal justice system. Many immigrants are detained in jail-like settings and deportation is a “punishment” that feels more severe to many immigrants than any prison sentence. Yet the system lacks key protections accorded many or all criminal defendants, such as court-appointed counsel for those who cannot afford lawyers, regular opportunities for bail, and meaningful protections against illegal searches and seizure.
Mired in a massive backlog, the immigration court system fails to provide timely, consistent decisions. And the vast majority of cases in which the government issues formal removal orders—83 percent as of 2013—never reach the immigration courts. The lion’s share of deportations are reinstatements of prior removal orders, expedited removals “issued by front-line immigration officers acting as investigator, prosecutor, and judge, thus bypassing the immigration courts entirely.”
Detention has a particularly pernicious impact on due process. In late 2016, the immigration detention system hit a record high, with more than 41,000 people detained on average each day, many of whom were subject to detention with no opportunity for release on bond.
Few detained immigrants—only 14 percent from 2007 to 2012—have legal representation. People are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney in immigration court, despite the enormous complexities of immigration law, and low-income immigrants cannot afford to hire an attorney on their own. One immigration judge compared immigration hearings to “death penalty cases heard in traffic court settings.”
Conditions in immigration detention are often poor and even abusive. And for ailing detainees they can be deadly due to inadequate and substandard medical care. Numerous individuals and practitioners have reported to Human Rights Watch over the years that the prospect of prolonged detention in such conditions leads many detainees to accept immediate removal rather than wait for a full hearing before a judge.
- Alexis G., married to a US citizen, described how the immigration detention center he was held in was so full, he and his brother, arrested at the same time, slept under a staircase. His brother, who had been deported twice before, advised him to sign for voluntary removal. Alexis said, “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.”
Lack of Individualized Consideration of Immigrants’ Deep Ties to the US
US immigration law is an inherently harsh and unyielding framework, and it is being applied in a particularly rigid and draconian manner by the Trump administration. US immigration law affords extremely limited opportunities for individualized consideration of immigrants’ deep ties to US communities and families. The president, however, has discretion that can be used to influence which and how many people are put in removal proceedings to begin with.
During President Obama’s second term, new policies directed federal officials to de-prioritize the deportations of long-term non-criminal unauthorized immigrants. As described above, the Trump administration has rolled these back and effectively made all unauthorized immigrants “priority” targets for deportation. This change under Trump has resulted in the well-publicized deportations of many immigrants who had been “checking in” with ICE on a regular basis without being removed from the country.
For example, Maribel Trujillo Diaz was ordered deported in 2014, after she was caught up in a 2007 immigration raid at Koch Foods. In recognition of the impact her deportation would have on her children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decided not to enforce the order and scheduled her for yearly check-ins under a supervision order. Trujillo has four young US citizen children, aged 14, 12, 10, and 3. She was the main breadwinner for her household and had lived in the United States since 2002. She was undocumented but had no criminal convictions. Yet the Trump administration decided to deport her in March.
As of 2014, about 900,000 people with deportation orders from an immigration court had not been deported. Under the Trump administration, people like Trujillo, who check in with immigration authorities regularly, are “low-hanging fruit,” said Trujillo’s immigration attorney, Emily Brown. “The reason these people are on orders of supervision is that they have compelling circumstances that make them good candidates for discretion,” she told Human Rights Watch.
Some of the people Human Rights Watch spoke to in Mexico after their deportations should have been considered for such exercise of discretion.
- For example, “Alberto Z,” who is the father of three young US citizen children, had been checking in with ICE for five years until the agency decided to deport him at a check-in February. Alberto’s application for immigration relief based on his long residence in the US and his US citizen family was denied in 2016.
- “Marco T.” might have been the kind of person who qualified for such discretionary treatment under the Obama administration. He said he has three US-born children–10- and 14-year-old sons and a 7-year-old daughter who he described as pretty typical American kids—no prior deportations, and no prior criminal convictions. He entered ICE custody after a traffic stop near Dallas. “It’s just that the government now is very harsh,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Sooner or later they will get you for a minor offense. And then the consequence is deportation.”
There is no recognized human right to migrate to another country and obtain legal status, and states enjoy considerable leeway to remove non-citizens from their territory—particularly those who are present unlawfully. But this discretion is not unlimited, and the US should ensure its immigration policies meet its obligations under international human rights law. In particular, US law should take into account the often profound human rights impacts of deportation, and weigh those in the balance against its interest in deporting a person. US law does not, at present, allow meaningful scope for this except in very limited circumstances.
The accounts described above—and in far greater depth in the appendix below—demonstrate how the current US immigration system fails to meet these obligations and responsibilities. Our aim is not to prove that any particular individual should not have been deported, but to show that in each case there were significant human rights equities that the US immigration utterly neglected to weigh. The individual accounts are evidence of the urgent need for reform of immigration enforcement priorities and for a fair legalization program.
Human Rights, Family and Home
Human rights treaties binding on the United States protect the right to family unity. Article 17 of the ICCPR states that no one shall be “subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” Article 23 provides that “[t]he family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state,” and that all men and women have the right “to marry and to found a family.” The right to found a family includes the right “to live together.”
The UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body that interprets and monitors state party compliance with the ICCPR, has explicitly stated that the right to family unity entails limits on states’ power to regulate immigration. In Winata v. Australia, the HRC found a violation where Australia sought to deport two Indonesian nationals whose 13-year-old son, Barry, had been born in, and had become a citizen of, Australia. Under these circumstances, the Committee found, the state would have to identify government interests beyond the “simple enforcement” of Australia’s immigration laws to justify the deportation of both of the child’s parents. Because it did not do so, Australia’s attempts to remove the child’s parents constituted an arbitrary interference with the right to family unity. 
The HRC has since applied the same analysis in other cases, with varying results. One clear constant in the HRC’s jurisprudence is that any interference with a person’s family caused by deportation is inevitably “arbitrary” if the state fails to weigh that human rights impact in the balance against its own interests in deporting the person. This is precisely what US immigration law does as a matter of routine.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights on non-citizens has stated, “[D]eportation is justified only if the interference with family life is not excessive compared to the public interest to be protected.”
Even without strong family ties, an undocumented individual develops stronger ties to the country of immigration over time. Children brought as unauthorized immigrants to the United States, popularly known as Dreamers, often have no ties at all to their country of origin, other than birth, yet are subject to deportation without consideration of their ties to the US.
Article 12(4) of the ICCPR requires that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country,” and the Human Rights Committee has found that the definition of “one’s own country” is broader than the concept of a person’s country of nationality. In two cases involving people who were brought to Australia and Canada from other countries as young children, the Committee found a violation of Article 12(4) where the state sought to deport those individuals later on in life. The facts in both of these cases are closely analogous to the situation of US “Dreamers.”
Article 17 of the ICCPR provides that “[n]o one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy ... home or correspondence…. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” The Human Rights Committee has stated that the term “home” is “to be understood to indicate the place where a person resides or carries out his usual occupation.”
International standards also explicitly protect children’s right to be raised by their parents. These standards should be reflected in immigration proceedings to counsel against the separation of children from their parents through deportation. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about half of all unauthorized immigrants have minor children. These children’s rights are given little consideration in US immigration law.
Article 24 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party, entitles children “to such measures of protection as are required by [their] status as a minor, on the part of the family, society and the state.” The Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed but not ratified by the United States, provides useful guidance on the measures of protection required by children—including children who may be affected by the deportation of a parent. The convention recognizes the family as “the fundamental group of society” and states that children “should grow up in a family environment.” Article 9 of the convention provides that “States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when … such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.”
To give effect to the best interest principle and to protect children’s right not to be deprived of a family, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on states to “refrain from detaining and/or deporting parents if their children are nationals.” The committee has stated:
“Instead, their regularisation should be considered. Children should be granted the right to be heard in proceedings concerning their parents’ admission, residence, or expulsion, and have access to administrative and judicial remedies against their parents’ detention and/or deportation order, to ensure that decisions do not negate their best interests. Alternatives to detention and deportation in accordance with the child’s best interests, including regularisation, should be established by law and through practice.”
To US President Donald J. Trump
- Commit to protecting the human rights of everyone in the United States, including by ending the use of xenophobic rhetoric and the scapegoating of immigrants as criminals;
- In order to ensure fair and rights-respecting US immigration and deportation policies, direct the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that noncitizens’ ties to the United States are examined and considered before they are identified as priorities for removal from the country, and that such consideration is not automatically precluded for people with criminal convictions;
- Publicly back a fair and inclusive legalization program that provides legal status for unauthorized immigrants in the US who meet a clearly defined set of criteria and that aims to integrate those with strong family and community ties to the US;
- As an immediate step toward such reform, rescind the October 8, 2017 “Immigration Principles and Policies” and support passage of a “clean” DREAM Act with no harmful enforcement tradeoffs;
- In order to ensure due process and fair treatment of immigrants in US immigration courts, continue to work with Congress to ensure immigration courts have adequate resources to provide fair and unbiased resolution of immigration claims.
To the US Congress
In the immediate term:
- Pass a “clean” DREAM Act with no accompanying harmful tradeoffs, such as those described in the White House’s “Immigration Principles and Policies,” which call for weakening protections for children and asylum seekers and major increases in personnel and detention capacity;
- Decline to increase funding to the detention and deportation system, unless such funding increases are for systemic reforms to improve detention conditions and increased transparency and accountability.
In order to move towards rights-respecting immigration policies in the United States:
- Implement a fair and inclusive legalization program that provides legal status for unauthorized immigrants in the US who meet a clearly defined set of criteria and that aims to integrate those with strong family and community ties to the US;
- Enact reforms giving immigration judges discretion, when making any removal decision, to consider a person ’s family and other ties to the US and the impact of potential deportation on family members (especially children);
- Enact reforms aimed at moving the US step-by-step toward a system in which all individuals facing deportation are able to secure a fair, individualized hearing before an impartial judge in which the human rights equities are properly weighed.
- Create avenues for immigrants who are currently inadmissible or who are unauthorized and barred from the United States, including those barred for immigration offenses or who have criminal convictions, to apply for permission to gain legal status if they are able to offer evidence of current good moral character, long residence in the United States, military service, lawfully present close family members in the US, or other similar factors in their favor.
- Repeal laws that provide for automatic deportation of immigrants with a wide range of criminal convictions, including minor and old offenses, without any consideration of their family and other ties to the US.
To the Department of Homeland Security, including ICE and CBP
- Institute immigration enforcement policies that do not target unauthorized immigrants living in the US interior except where there is a compelling government interest in removing such individuals independent of their unauthorized status;
- Exercise discretion, wherever available, to release from detention immigrants who do not pose a flight risk or danger to the community;
- Provide improved due process and fair treatment to people held in remote and isolated immigration detention centers, including by substantially reducing the number of people held in detention, ensuring access to legal information, expanding pilot programs providing legal counsel, rigorously enforcing the right of detainees to challenge the legality of their detention, and ensuring access to detention centers by local stakeholders and media;
- Utilize existing discretionary powers to ensure fair treatment of immigrants who call the United States home by not conducting enforcement actions in “sensitive locations” such as schools, hospitals, or places of worship, and by refraining from arrests of “collateral” people encountered during targeted enforcement actions;
- Regularly publish and disseminate accurate statistics on the types of noncitizens removed from and detained by the United States, with detailed information about their actual criminal histories, family relationships, immigration status, and record of employment.
To States and Localities
- Build trust with immigrant communities by separating local policing from immigration enforcement and limiting the situations in which contact with local law enforcement officials leads to deportation;
- As far as feasible, ensure that indigent immigrants, especially those who are detained locally, are provided counsel when they are unable to retain counsel themselves.
This report was compiled and written by Clara Long, senior US researcher, Brian Root, quantitative analyst, and Grace Meng, senior US researcher. A team of Human Rights Watch staff and volunteers, including Dan Baum, Margaret Knox, Daniel Wilkinson, Maya Goldman, Claudia Nuñez, Clara Long, Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Mirte Postema, Cesar Muñoz, and Rosa Baum, conducted interviews with deportees and recorded their accounts. Thomas Rachko and Maya Goldman, US Program associates, provided research assistance. Jonathan Beeler, Lynn Stopher, Nicola Haubold, Arturo Castellanos Canales, and Raisa Camargo, US Program and Americas interns, also provided research assistance. Jasmine L. Tyler, US advocacy director, reviewed the findings. The report was edited by Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas Division; Alison Leal Parker, managing director of the US Program; Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior counsel of the Children’s Rights Division; Joseph Saunders, deputy program director; and Chris Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor.
We wish to thank the staff and leadership of the Instituto Tamaulipeco in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, for their support and welcome. We also thank the Casa Migrante de Nazareth of Nuevo Laredo, the Casa Migrante of Tijuana, the Ejercito de Salvacion of Tijuana, and Eunice Rendon, Coordinator of Agenda Migrante. We greatly appreciate assistance provided by Raymundo Ramos and the Comité de Derechos Humanos de Nuevo Laredo. We are grateful to the Harman Family Foundation for their support of this work.
Above all, we wish to thank the immigrants and their families who agreed to share their stories with us in the hope that US laws and policies might be reformed and that their stories would help prevent similar suffering for others.