The U.S. Deportation System’s Human Toll


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.

      • 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.

  • Alfredo Lozano

    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.