Official violence and misconduct during the deportation process
by Marisa García Perez and Nathally Fernandez
Local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are entrusted to protect communities from crime or anyone they may deem a threat to public safety. However, cases detailing violence and misconduct towards undocumented people by local law enforcement and ICE officials are continuously reported by activists, citizens, journalists, news outlets, and migrants themselves. Yet, too often they are overlooked or ignored by the government and state. There is limited information available to the public on instances of ICE and law enforcement’s misconduct and abuses of power, and even less information about who is punished or held accountable for these accusations. The absence of a national database available to the public detailing accusations, investigations, and convictions is a form of protection for these immigration officials and police officers, as it upholds the narrative that officers are indeed keeping communities safe. Any horrific incident of police or ICE brutality can be painted as an isolated event. It can simultaneously discredit stories and information shared by undocumented folk or migrants because of the general public perception of undocumented people. While undocumented people are stereotyped as criminals who are stealing resources, police officers are seen as respectable leaders, and are therefore “trustworthy” which can be attributed to the lack of transparency on the behalf of the police and ICE on a national level. In our report, we highlight how at each stage of the deportation process (i.e. being apprehended, detained, and deported) Latino men are being mistreated by police and immigration enforcement.
The inhumane treatment towards migrants and undocumented folk is not a new revelation; civil rights groups and organizations advocating for migrants’ rights have been demanding official accountability from these government organizations for a decades now. The abuse of power by ICE and local law enforcement is only further supported through the research my peers and I conducted at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. We conducted 20+ interviews with deported men staying at Casa del Migrante, which provides temporary housing, meals, and various resources for migrants or recently deported people. Within the time spent at the shelter, we were able to connect with migrants and talk to them about their experiences in the United States. The deported men we interviewed recounted how police and immigration officers would physically assault them, verbally accost them by calling them names or yelling at them, force them to sign documents they didn’t understand, and even plant contraband on them.
Through our research around immigration law, we found that undocumented folk have the right to an interpreter if they do not understand documents given to them and can remain silent until they speak with a lawyer (Immigrants’ Rights, n.d.). Based on our interviews with the deported men we found that some didn’t fully understand or speak English, and did not receive a translator or documents in their preferred language. Additionally, they were often unaware of this right, and officers failed to provide this as an option during apprehensions. Furthermore, in an article published by Mother Jones (2018), a court found ICE agents violating the constitutional rights of undocumented migrants, and yet the defendants were still deported. The article explores how ICE violated migrants’ rights by racial profiling, forcing undocumented folk to be fingerprinted and sign documents, as well as conducting illegal searches. Unprovoked and unconstitutional searches should therefore not result in migrants’ lives being completely changed, where they can face detention, and or deportation. The criminalization of undocumented folk and the notion that they are “continuously breaking the law” is what enables the unlawful treatment and misconduct on behalf of the immigration officials. The lack of accountability within the immigration system creates a sanction for ICE officials and ensures that they will not face consequences for their inappropriate behavior.
Additionally, according to a report done by ProPublica (2018) on the role of local police in the apprehension of undocumented individuals, certain counties cooperate with ICE while others have restrictions on what they can ask regarding immigration status. It highlights that oftentimes local police officers take immigration matters into their own hands, despite having limitations and no proper training. This article also touches upon the patterns of racial profiling that local law enforcement part take in, such as selectively questioning individuals that adhere to specific physical characteristics about their immigration status. One of the examples given in the article covers the interactions between one Pennsylvania state deputy and the individuals he pulled over. Many of the individuals the deputy would stop were identified as “Hispanic” and were harassed about their status, even when they presented proper documentation. There is evidence of racial discrimination in this officer’s record, as he disproportionately stopped “hispanic” people, even though they make up a small proportion of the town’s population.
Methods and Data
Our findings draw on 23 in-depth interviews with deported men in Tijuana, Mexico. The interviews were conducted by the authors and graduate and undergraduate students at the University of California, San Diego between January and March 2020. To prepare the graduate and undergraduate students, training sessions were given that reviewed interview methods, recruitment, and how to cultivate trust throughout the program. The interviews with deportees were conducted in Tijuana, primarily in Casa Del Migrante. All interviewers lived in the Casa Del Migrante shelter for one week to establish relationships with deportees and staff before interviewing them. Over the following two months, the interviewers did bi-weekly visits to volunteer at the shelters. By having the interviewers live with deportees for a week and volunteer, they were able to become friendly with deportees to build trust and allow deportees to feel comfortable telling their story even if some of the information was unflattering.
We recruited deportees by making announcements in the main waiting areas of the shelters, speaking directly with deportees, and interviewing anyone who felt comfortable being interviewed. If deportees agreed to be interviewed we proceeded to speak with them in private offices or semi-private spaces in the shelters. The interview length ranged from fifteen minutes to two hours. For the majority of the interviews, the first question asked was “can you tell me a bit about your childhood or where you come from?” From there we allowed deportees to guide the interview and would ask for more details where we felt it was appropriate.
For our report, we analyzed 23 interviews with deportees and are using 9 interviews as evidence for our report, as the content pertained to our specific research focus. The people we interviewed were deported men ages twenty-three to fifty-nine. They were either living at migrant shelters and/or receiving free dinner. The shelter requires those who stay at Casa Del Migrante to return to the shelter at a certain time every day, with respect to their work schedules. Most would congregate in the center of the shelter and were usually willing to talk to the students.
To avoid sample bias, interviewers did not screen the migrants before interviewing them. Generally, students generated genuine conversations with migrants, which eventually led to migrants agreeing to conduct a formal interview. While each student had their research focus, no migrants were denied an interview if their stories did not align with their specific theme. Once we had collected all of our research, we filtered out the interviews that detailed the themes that matched our focus. There are some gaps within our research that may represent areas of limitations. In many of the interviews, we attempted to capture the full story and ask for as many details as possible. However, is it possible for some stories to be missing some details.
Physical and Verbal Abuse at the hands of Local Law Enforcement & ICE
My peers and I conducted extensive interviews with 23 deportees in Tijuana. From those 23 interviews, we noted that five deportees had experienced verbal and physical abuse and many were forced to sign documents without proper knowledge of what they had signed. Migrants experienced this state-sanctioned violence while they were in the custody of local law or immigration enforcement, and in some cases, both. Thus, we explored how immigration and local law enforcement vow to follow their basic code of ethics, but instead violate their code by meeting undocumented folk with various forms of violence when they are apprehended.
When officers begin their career, they are required to take an oath to hold themselves accountable for their actions and uphold the community they serve. Considering police officers are first responders, their top priority should be the safety and well-being of members of the community: nowhere in their code of ethics does it specify that individuals must be U.S. citizens. Subsequently, based on the interviews with deportees it is clear officers have used their position of power to fuel their political agenda that can often be anti-immigrant.
The anti-immigrant sentiment is illustrated by Eddie’s story and his interactions with police and immigration officials. Eddie is a father of 3 who had come here at a young age and built a life in the United States. His experience begins with him riding his bike near his home; he is suddenly stopped by an officer for not having bike lights in a well-lit street. Eddie questions the officer and the officer responds by verbally assaulting him. He explains “[the officer] was saying bad words, so… I told him the same thing, you know? I talked back to him, and then he… He searched me.” The police officer showed no restraint towards Eddie and talked to him in a derogatory manner. The officer verbally harassed and violated Eddie’s rights by searching him without a warrant. After searching him the officer decides to take Eddie to San Bernardino County jail for riding his bike without lights. This would be the first of many searches Eddie would be subjected to during his short time at the county jail.
Once at the county jail, Eddie speculated that the first police officer had alerted his colleagues that he had disrespected the officer. Eddie recounts how different officers proceeded to physically assault him in order to “teach him a lesson.” This misconduct by other officers exposes how police officers abuse their position of power to intimidate undocumented folk.
Eddie was then taken into a room to be searched and made to strip down to his socks, even though the first officer had already searched him. Eddie explained he would be searched in this room multiple times; the last time he was searched he was told to stand up and give his shoes and socks to the officer. Eddie recalled how the officer said he was searching for drugs, and once he had Eddie give him his shoes he allowed him to get dressed. However, as Eddie was standing up the officer pointed to the bench behind him and yelled, “That’s yours!” Eddie continuously denied that whatever they found was not his. He was confident he didn’t have any drugs or general contraband on him and refused to sign any documents charging him for the mysterious object the police officer claimed to have found. After all, the officer never explained what he was being charged for and attempted to intimidate him into signing the document by continuously yelling at him to sign for the object. Eddie was physically assaulted once more and left in a room. Eddie stated after an hour or so he was ready to sign his warrant documents but nothing more. Once he had signed for his ticket the officer became aggressive once more, yelled at Eddie and grabbed him by his neck, and physically assaulted him to get him to sign for the mysterious item he had apparently found. Eddie explained, “he took my handcuffs, one hand, and he put a pen in there, and… They just, they did some kinda scribble. It wasn’t my signature…” After being physically forced to sign documents, Eddie was thrown back into a room and the officers continued to verbally harass him by saying things like “f*** you” or “you’re a b****.” The next morning, a different officer approached his cell and said “ … If you gonna keep arguing, he gonna beat you down again. That’s the way he works. That’s the way they work. I don’t work like that.” The acknowledgment by the officer that his colleagues are participating in criminal behavior further exemplifies the institutionalized oppression some officers engage in without consequences to their actions.
Eddie was subjected to physical and verbal harassment and coerced into signing documents without ever being allowed to speak with someone about the officers inappropriate and abusive behavior. Instead, he was charged with a felony for an object the officer claimed to have found. Eddie reflected on the events and expressed that if he would have just gone in for his ticket, “Me and you would not be having this conversation.” His life was turned upside down for riding a bike without lights in his neighborhood. The next day he was picked up by border patrol in Rialto, San Bernardino where he would once more be coerced into signing documents he didn’t understand. He had asked to see a judge, but his requests were denied. Eddie was deported and left feeling like his rights were violated in the U.S. by the police officers and immigration enforcement who are meant to protect their community. The entire progression of his situation exemplifies the lack of concern law enforcement had for his livelihood.
Eddie lived 41 years in the United States and is the father of three kids. His story is a testament to how the police officers failed him and themselves by not holding true to their oath of protecting communities. He was separated from his kids and thrown into an unsteady circumstance when he was deported. Eddie didn’t know anyone in Tijuana when he was deported and fell into a deep depression. It was very difficult for him to adjust to life in Mexico where he had no family or friends. However, with the help of the migrant shelters in Tijuana, he was able to work through his depression and hopes to reunite with his family soon.
Unfortunately, his story is not unique and other deported men report being harassed by police officers and immigration officials. Out of the 23 interviews we examined, 5 of them reported being either physically or verbally abused and generally being treated poorly by police and ICE officials. While the percentage of individuals who experience this kind of abuse at the hands of law enforcement may seem low, five men are five too many. These individual men were subjected to various forms of verbal abuse or physical violence by officials of the state and in some cases falsely accused of crimes they had not committed. Moreover, these officials have made a promise to hold themselves accountable and to not betray the trust of the public. Nevertheless, they have shown themselves to deceive the public and have not been held accountable for treating a portion of the population unjustly.
Lastly, it is important to note that the number of deported men reporting physical and/or verbal abuse may be low due to not having standardized questions for our specific population. My peers and I allowed space for migrants to tell their stories the way they wished to do so and to have the liberty to include or omit details. Thus, the number of deportees being treated poorly by officials of the state may be higher.
Police and ICE Withholding information That Could Aid Migrants’ Cases
Furthermore, migrants also reported that police and ICE officials would withhold information that could be useful to defend themselves from their deportations. Out of the 23 interviews that we analyzed for our research, 8 of the deportees expressed feeling like officials were withholding important information.
Undocumented immigrants are entitled to their rights of remaining silent and to a fair trial. When undocumented folk are apprehended by police or an immigration official, they have the right to ask questions, remain silent until the presence of an attorney, and to refuse a search without a warrant. Many of the interactions deportees have had with immigration officials and local law enforcement illustrate how their concerns and questions are disregarded; officials would ignore them or leave out details of their deportation process. In some cases, migrants explain how officials would withhold information that could aid them in their deportation case.
One individual, who will be referred to by the alias Ulises to protect his identity, was brought to the US at the age of 5. He had been deported four times since then, his last time being the most recent in winter of 2020. In his interview, Ulises discusses how he expressed his genuine concern and confusion during his deportation process to state officials. The interactions that Ulises describes with immigration officers suggests that they consciously omitted important information that he could have used to defend himself against deportation. Based on his multiple experiences with immigration officers, Ulises comments on the relationship between them and migrants, which he describes as distant. Furthermore, he explains that he felt ICE officials didn’t understand why people were migrating and would often result in immigration officials mocking them.
Ulises was last apprehended for a prior misdemeanor which resulted in his fourth deportation. He was in his driveway about to leave for work when he was approached by law enforcement. He recounts being very confused when he realized he was being arrested. “Disfrazados nomas con los chalecos the police, pero no dice ICE, no dice immigration. ¿Por qué lo hacen? Están burlando la ley por su, lo que tienen…. Se disfrazan para llevar a de civiles y llegan y te engañan.” Ulises points out that the officers who were detaining him did not have uniforms that indicated that they were ICE. This lack of transparency was very disheartening for Ulises, as he recounts feeling very deceived.
At this stage of his apprehension, Ulises still had not been told why he was being detained. “Hice mi tiempo. Salí limpio. Tengo misdemeanor, para mi no es felonía. Por que vienen a ese caso? ¿Cual es el caso que me están arrestando?” “No pues tienes este el caso que tienes orden de arresto.” Ulises is aware of his prior misdemeanor but knows that he has already fulfilled all of his court-mandated orders and required duties. He asked the officers several questions regarding what case he was being arrested for, yet received no clear answer and was left in a disoriented state.
Thinking that he was going to be transferred over to the county, he soon realized that he was being handed over to immigration services. “En mi caso, en vez que me llevaran al condado para hacer mi tiempo, me avientan acá y donde me agarran para llevarme a migración. Me hacen el papel, me deportan, y me dicen que yo estoy deportado de por vida.” As described by Ulises, the development of his deportation was a very fast, and vague process, where he was given minimal information. He was taken to ICE, where they prepared his documents and ordered his deportation for life. His future was determined within those short, quick steps.
Ulises’ concerns and confusion were completely disregarded during this process. He claims not fully understanding why he was being ordered for deportation, and was clearly not comprehending any of the documents he was signing that were in English. “Pero ¿por que ellos ponen esa orden? ¿Por qué marcan el papel? Y uno tiene que estar firmando papeles sin que… estan en ingles y aveces, digo por el miedo, uno dice “pues ya no quiero estar aquí. Ya quiero ir a mi casa, quiero estar con mis hijos o quiero estar con familia o quiero estar afuera, pero no quiero la cárcel.” There is a clear language barrier between Ulises and the ICE officials. Based on the interviews this issue prevents undocumented folk from being aware of their situations and what they are signing and agreeing to. This obstacle consequently prevents undocumented folk from having an opportunity to properly defend their deportation cases and leaves them confused and afraid. Several times Ulises mentioned that he wished to return to his family and that he did not want to go to prison.
As shown from Ulises’ story, law enforcement and ICE officials completely disregarded any of his concerns and questions. However, Ulises was not the only deportee that expressed these concerns in their interview. Other respondents indicated similar experiences when sharing their stories of deportation. Many also reported having difficulty communicating with officials and understanding the documents that they were being given and essentially coerced to sign.
All of these combined experiences shared on behalf of the deported men exposes a pattern of questionable behavior on behalf of law enforcement and ICE officials. With the lack of acknowledgment of deportees’ basic questions and concerns, ICE officials are not allowing them their due process. Consequently, migrants are left without even the opportunity for a just and fair deportation process. They lack the simple and basic resources that can aid them in properly defending their case. Law enforcement and ICE officials do the bare minimum, if that, to help them. One of the many injustices that they perpetrate is the language barrier. Translating orders, directions, and important documents is the least that officers can do. The sense of distress and confusion migrants feel when they are disregarded is only amplified with the overwhelming sense of despair; knowing that they are going to be deported. They are being forcefully removed from their homes, families, and loved ones. Lives are being drastically changed and torn apart for the worst.
Based on the stories we have collected, at all stages of the deportation process ICE and police officers have used their authority to intimidate migrants into signing documents and verbally or physically abusing them and disregarding their concerns. Deported men are left feeling confused about their deportation process, and some like their rights were violated. ICE and police officers have time and time again been shown to participate in state-sanctioned violence without any consequences to their actions. The lack of accountability and transparency within law enforcement and ICE officials allows this behavior to continue. It is time to listen to the voices of those who have been hurt by these institutions of oppression and demand immigration and police officers treat undocumented folk with respect and dignity and allow them to have their due process.
We urge law enforcement and ICE officials to be mindful of the language barriers that prevent migrants from being able to understand their situation and defend themselves properly. Some action steps that can be made to eliminate this problem are to provide documents in a language they understand, and to have interpreters available to translate conversations and interactions. Secondly, we demand that each of these departments are fully transparent about what officers are charged with misconduct and how many of them are reprimanded. While these suggestions might not already be required, they are the humane strategies to implement. It is vital to remember that these law enforcement officers are directly influencing the lives of the people they interact with. Their jobs are to protect communities and they are enforcing their own racist ideologies, oftentimes bending the law themselves and having a complete lack of regard for human life.
Equally important to understand is that the simple act of deporting someone means uprooting them from the life they’ve built in the US and often placing them in unknown and unstable circumstances. Migrants who have established a life and spent many years in the US report having a lack of familial, financial, and governmental support when they are forced back to their origin country. We hope that our research contributes to this ongoing discussion of “illegality” in the U.S., and prompt people to question the morality of displacing people from where their heart and home is.
Immigrants’ rights. (n.d.). Know Your Rights | American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved August 3, 2020, from https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/immigrants-rights
Police chiefs are often forced to put officers fired for misconduct back on the streets. (n.d.). Washington Post. Retrieved August 3, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/investigations/police-fired-rehired/
Russakoff, D., & ProPublica, D. S. for. (n.d.). For cops who want to help ice crack down on illegal immigration, pennsylvania is a free-for-all. ProPublica. Retrieved August 3, 2020, from https://www.propublica.org/article/pennsylvania-immigration-ice-crackdown-cops-free-for-all?token=6ztk8omKweU8rIcm8bBlBXRV8xDBAzfX
Surana, K. (n.d.). A court found that ice agents violated constitutional rights. The defendants were deported anyway. Mother Jones. Retrieved August 3, 2020, from https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2018/06/a-court-found-that-ice-agents-violated-constitutional-rights-the-defendants-were-deported-anyway/