The U.S. Deportation System’s Human Toll

Written by on May 27, 2014 in Enforcement, Family-Based Immigration with 18 Comments


The injustice of the U.S. deportation machine is apparent in many ways. There are the senseless deportations of people whose worst offense was a traffic ticket. There is the tearing apart of families as wives are separated from husbands, children from parents—not to mention the impact on communities within which those families live. And there are the big businesses that profit from the “detention” (imprisonment) of immigrants who are waiting to be deported, or waiting to hear if their appeals will save them.

A recent story in the Washington Post puts a human face on what is perhaps the most painful part of the deportation system: the separation of families. The story documents the hardships experienced by a native-born, U.S.-citizen woman and her Bangladeshi husband. The husband overstayed a student visa 15 years ago, got snagged for a DUI offense in 2009, and finds his deportation to Bangladesh inevitable. The story details the couple’s final, agonizing days together, illustrating in vivid terms that the deportation issue is not purely a numbers game

This story highlights another aspect of the deportation system that is just as nonsensical as the breaking up of families: the deportation of immigrants who committed minor offenses—some criminal, some not. A New York Times analysis of data obtained from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found that, as of 2013, “two-thirds of the nearly two million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.” Likewise, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that that from Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 to FY 2013, “two large categories that ICE has classified as convicted criminals shot way up: those with a traffic violation (up 191 percent) and individuals convicted of immigration offenses (up 167 percent).” In FY 2013, “these two categories comprised half of all those classified by ICE as ‘criminal’ deportees.”

In other words, most of the people being swept up by ICE are not hardened criminals. But they are certainly treated as if they were. A recent New York Times story reveals that, while “the federal government cracks down on immigrants in the country illegally and forbids businesses to hire them, it is relying on tens of thousands of those immigrants each year to provide essential labor — usually for $1 a day or less — at the detention centers where they are held when caught by the authorities.” While the government maintains that this is “voluntary, legal and a cost-saver for taxpayers,” immigrant advocates point out that the rules which govern prison work programs for convicted criminals don’t apply because the people being held by immigration authorities are civil detainees—not criminals.

Another red flag with regard to the use of detainees as low-cost labor is that many of the government’s immigration detention facilities are run by for-profit companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). These are companies with a vested financial interest in filling as many detention beds as possible—and in utilizing the labor of detainees at the lowest possible price. It is a recipe for abuse when civil immigration detainees are turned into commodities in the hands of profit-driven corporations.

These examples show that there isn’t just one thing wrong with the U.S. deportation system. It has numerous, intertwined problems which must be dealt with in their entirety if we are to create a just and fair system that actually works.

Photo by Spring Dew.

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  • Anna Here is a very sad story about the real tragic costs of deporting parents of US citizens. I am friends with the family.

    • Josie Gomez

      This video should have been seen by the President of the United States and the Congress. Its very very sad.

  • kwgriff

    The separation of families occurs hundreds of times a day; it is estimated there are hundreds of thousands of US citizens caught up in this immigration nightmare. The ones left behind face an uncertain future, as many times the main breadwinner is the one deported; the broken families then turn to government assistance for their needs. The ones left behind also face an uncertain future emotionally, as a long-distance marriage is not only expensive financially, but emotionally too; many once-strong marriages break up due to the distance between them. The emotional toll on the one deported is unmeasurable; many are deported to a place they don’t know, having come to the US a decade (or more) prior. They are inhumanely deposited back to a place foreign to them and must learn their country’s ways again; the lack of jobs and the pressure from the families who relied on them for subsistence, combined with the massive feeling of failure, creates this recipe for disaster and most fall apart, turning to drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. There are instances where the family decides to no longer live in the US, feeling as if their own country has turned its back to them; they exile themselves to the country of their spouse, living well below their standard of living and the US-documented poverty level, just to keep their family together. They make the sacrifice to put family values above the ever-declining values of the US.

    How do I know this? I am one of the hundreds of thousands. My husband was deported. My country turned its back on me, so I chose to move to his place of birth. I live in a tiny shack of a house with a steel lamina roof, I wash my clothes in a pila outside, I drink the water and get sick from the intestinal parasites that are contained within that contaminated water. I buy our food from the mercado, including the meat – unrefrigerated and, at times, covered with flies, because if I didn’t we wouldn’t eat. I’ve watched my husband become someone he never was in the US; his family still (after almost a year of being there) demands that he support them, yet he has no job despite knowing English and putting in almost a hundred applications in his time there. He drinks way beyond excess to numb his pain of failure, his family talks to him like he’s a dog. He is the shell of the man I knew in the States, once strong, vivacious, and hard-working seven days a week but now only working odd jobs here and there.

    Is this what America had in mind when it passed those terrible hate-filled laws in 1996? I’d like to think not, but the more I learn the closer I come to the realization that it probably is.

    • John Rohan

      If you are a US citizen, you could have obtained legal residence for your spouse and avoided that whole mess.

      How do I know this? That’s what I did.

      It’s also ironic that you lament people being deported to “places they don’t know”, since that is what illegal immigrants do when they try to settle in America illegally. Heck, I’m in the military, and I’ve been sent to “places I don’t know” more times than I can count, and I couldn’t drink the water there either.

      • kwgriff

        John, the laws of 1996 made it impossible to adjust my husband’s status and obtain legal residence. We tried and were unsuccessful. Prior to 1996, it was easy to do; yet with his prior voluntary departure, he was banned for a lifetime and as his spouse, I can apply for a waiver to that ban, but only after he’s been out of the country for 10 years. It’s section 212 9(c) of the IIRIRA, passed in 1996 and put into effect in April, 1997.

        Also, if one meets their spouse while in the US, they eventually will have to return to their home country for the interview at the US Embassy. There they run the risk of being given a ban and being separated for a long time from their family. I know countless families who have run up against this very thing. For this reason, most families don’t try to adjust the status, since there is no benefit to doing it the so-called “right” way when the “right” way is punitive in nature.

        As far as you being sent to places you don’t know, that was your choice. Neither he nor I had that choice, no matter how you decide to rationalize it. Before you judge him or me, spend just a day in our shoes; don’t try to say you already have, because you haven’t. IF you did what you say you did, then your case was not very complicated at all and most likely did not involve being in the country undocumented, otherwise there would have been a ban imposed of at least 3 years (if not more).

        • Monica

          Thanks for sharing your story kwgriff:) I hope it all works out for you and your husband in the end…

          • kwgriff

            Thank you. It is a constant day-to-day struggle but we persevere. The worst part of all is the dashed hopefulness we get from both Congress and the President with empty promises of Immigration Reform.

          • kwgriff

            email me at I’d be happy to talk to you there.

        • MissJax

          Would you mind if I ask you a little more about your husband’s case? I’m facing a similar problem. Married to a US citizen, overstayed my visa for 18 months. I should have left the country, since I do (did) have a B1/B2 and have always had a visa to entry the USA legally. I believe John has this idea that all immigrants are jumping fences, uneducated and can’t contribute to the economy. I didn’t stay in the USA because of work opportunities, I have a job. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how much the alien makes, it’s about the US citizen making enough $ to support you. My husband lost his job a week after we got married. This killed the possibility of applying for my green card. During the following months, he was hired and let go three times, always one day before the 90 days trial that would have allowed him to get healthcare thru his job. There was a mortgage to pay, food to put on the table and the fear of a medical emergency, so I stayed. I have a steady income. I took care of the bills, the house, etc. Yes, as an American citizen he has the right to file for unemployment and food stamps and all that, but I have an income that is enough to take care of the bills. Morally, for us, it would have been wrong for him to become yet another burden for the state of Virginia. We believe it would have been taking advantage of the system, and that goes against our values.
          I left Virginia last November to care for my own medical conditions since I have better health care in my country. I had no idea of what was gonna happen when I tried to get back. I was detained at Atlanta international, questioned, treated like a piece of garbage and put on the first plane back to my country. Not only I have a 10 year ban, I have a 5 year ban on top of that for being removed. Without me there, my husband is struggling. I took care of the food, the clothing, the household items, cleaning supplies, pet care, etc.
          The worst part is that I suffer from MS and I honestly don’t think I’ll be around in 15 years from now. I honestly don’t know what will happen.

        • MissJax

          Why is it that you have to wait 10 years to file the waiver? My immigration lawyer, the US Embassy Dept for American Citizens in my country and other immigration experts told us that my husband first needs to ask for my residence. Fill in the I-130. Then, they ask the National Visa Center to grant me an interview for a Visa here in the American embassy. They will deny me the Visa, and that’s when they send me a letter that says they are denying me the visa because of the ban, but that I’m eligible for a waiver. You have to proof “extreme hardship” for the American Citizen. My husband is not sleeping and is depressed. I paid for his cholesterol prescription which is $80 and he can’t afford it with just one income. That’s proof the DHS can’t ignore. You must look into more options, maybe there’s no need to wait for so long. My immigration lawyer is expensive, but the three times I’ve needed him, he’s delivered in record time. He’s worth the $200 consultation. Find human rights organizations, there’s gotta be a way to jump some hoops and get him back sooner.

          • kwgriff

            Section 212(a)(9)(c) of the IIRIRA deals with the ban for multiple entries. If someone only comes once, stays more than one year, they will be given a 10-year ban but a US citizen-spouse can apply for a waiver earlier than that based on “extreme” hardship. Anyone who comes more than once is subject to what’s commonly referred to as the 9c ban: a lifetime ban with the possibility of a US Citizen-spouse waiver only after the immigrant has been out of the country for at least 10 years.

            There are no human rights organizations out there that will address this; we’ve tried numerous times. The laws have to be changed because they’re death penalty outcomes based on traffic-level charges. Anyone who was caught speeding goes to traffic court, pays a fine, and goes on with their life; getting caught in the US w/o papers (which, btw, isn’t against the law – only crossing the line is) is thrown out for years. At no time have I ever said my husband did not break the law; what I have always said is we should be able (and are very willing) to pay a fine and adjust his status. I work with a group called American Families United; they lobby Congress for changes in the laws that affect US Citizens, namely these punitive immigration laws that separate and destroy families. I’ve walked the halls of Congress with them, I’ve written, called, and emailed representatives, all to no avail.

            The extreme hardship waiver is very complicated and complex; depression is considered part of the process and therefore doesn’t qualify one for the waiver. The proof has to show that you, the US Citizen spouse, would suffer extreme hardship by not having the immigrant here in the US and that you, the citizen spouse would suffer extreme hardship by going to your spouse’s country.

          • MissJax

            I’m sorry, I’ve been reading this post on my phone and for some reason the comments don’t appear as they should and I missed your first comment in which you mention your living conditions. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling, what a shock it must be from the life you had in America. These are crimes in which the only victims are our families. How long have you been living in those conditions? How much longer until you can ask for a waiver? Has the U.S. Embassy been of any help to you at all when you’ve needed it (when you’ve been sick, needed medications, etc?) such harsh punishments seem to me as if the government is almost aiming for families to separate. Not to mention the process of breaking into your home and taking them as if they just killed someone, parading them around and spending tax money like its water. For what? What’s the point? You’re one brave woman, tho. Things have to change before this law ends up with blood in their hands. Blood of American citizens that got too sick when they followed their spouses into their countries of origin just because someone overstayed their visa or got stuck in the catch 22 that the immigration system is.

      • Monica

        I’m glad that it was easier for you John Rohan but please don’t put other people down if you don’t know their situation. You are obviously not as well informed as you thought since a lot has changed since you obtained your residency or citizenship.

      • MissJax

        Yes, John, of course that’s what everyone wants. Have you checked the costs of immigration forms lately? Just the I-310 is $420. I was lucky my ex husband made enough money for us to be able to hire an attorney, however not everyone is so lucky. My current husband lost his job a week after we got married and we spent months of uncertainty because he got hired and let go right before the 90 days trial was over. That caused me to overstay my visa. Why? because I refused to let my family become a burden of the state. I was in a position that allowed me to pay the bills necessary to avoid foreclosure and put food on the table so that the state of Va didn’t have to. Did I do the right thing? Legally, no. Morally, I believe I did.

  • It’s obvious that reform is long overdue. Unfortunately it has sat in the House for nearly a year without budging. If Republicans want a chance in 2016 they’ll need to address the issue.

  • John Rohan

    Since they aren’t supposed to be here in the first place, they are subject to deportation. I am confused why that would even be controversial. It means the government is actually doing its job.

    • kwgriff

      Funny, John….being in the country without papers is not against the law. It’s the act of crossing the imaginary line that is breaking a law – and even that is a civil law, not a criminal law. The punishment for breaking that law is so insanely punitive, it’s not funny. Driving 1 mph over the speed limit, crossing the double yellow line, operating a car with a headlight or break light out are civil violations; would you like to have your license taken away for 3 or 10 years or more? Of course not, yet the bans and bars for crossing the imaginary line imposes penalties of 3 or 10 years, and sometimes even a lifetime!

      Americans are so quick to condemn everyone else when breaking OUR laws, yet are so reticent in condemning ourselves for breaking laws. We are a nation of lawbreakers, whether we want to admit it or not. The difference is we try to rationalize it away when it involves us!!

      Our immigration system is severely flawed and needs to be fixed. There is no “right” way any more; that’s a fact that has been admitted by our lawmakers. The only remedy to it is to fix it through reform.

  • mfan2

    The worst crime was not a parking ticket! It’s fraudulently being in the US which is also criminal trespass. And no one is “tearing apart” anyone’s family. The US citizen can follow his wife to Bangladesh until reentry can legally be obtained, whether that’s a year or several years. My own father had to leave the US and apply for the right paperwork so he could come back and marry my mother. Follow the rules, people.