Deported with No Possessions: The Mishandling of Migrants’ Personal Belongings by CBP and ICE (Walter Ewing and Guillermo Cantor, American Immigration Council, 2016)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have a serious and longstanding problem with handling the personal belongings of detained migrants in their custody. Too often, some or all of a detainee’s belongings are lost, destroyed, or stolen by the immigration-enforcement agents entrusted with their care. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has attempted to correct this problem through two policy changes: the CBP National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search (TEDS), and Local Repatriation Arrangements between the U.S. and Mexican governments which dictate repatriation practices in nine cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, these policy shifts have yet to bear fruit. As data from the Binational Defense and Advocacy Program (in Spanish, Programa de Defensa e Incidencia Binacional, or PDIB) Documentation Survey with Repatriated Migrants illustrate, detainees from Mexico are still just as likely to have their property retained and not returned as they were before DHS implemented the new policies.

Specifically, before TEDS went into effect in October 2015, 41.5 percent of respondents whose belongings had been retained upon detention reported that not all of their belongings were returned. After TEDS, this proportion was almost identical at 41 percent. Likewise, before the U.S.-Mexico repatriation arrangements were agreed upon in February 2016, 40.4 percent of respondents whose belongings had been retained upon detention reported that not all of their personal belongings were returned. After the agreement, that share stood at 42.4 percent.

The PDIB data also illustrates a relationship between the likelihood of having one’s property returned and the city of detention, which, in turn, reflects both a lack of consistency in local implementation of the national standards and the absence of any national oversight as to their implementation. In Ciudad Juárez, for instance, 69.8 percent of respondents whose belongings had been retained upon detention reported that not all of their belongings were returned. Finally, the data spotlights the all-too-common loss of critical belongings such as cash, identification cards, cell phones, and clothing. Loss of these items can leave newly deported migrants stranded in unfamiliar and possibly dangerous cities with no means of buying a bus ticket home, calling for help, securing government services, or staying warm in frigid temperatures.

It is very difficult for individuals whose belongings have been lost, destroyed, or stolen while in detention to file a complaint after being deported. Even when a complaint is filed, it is highly unlikely that the complaint will culminate in any disciplinary action against the immigration-enforcement agent accused of losing or stealing the property in question. According to data obtained by the American Immigration Council in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, 226 formal complaints were filed against CBP between January 2012 and October 2015. Among the 121 complaints in which a formal decision was made, 87.7 percent resulted in “no action.”