HOW DO YOU STAY (LEGALLY)? Once someone has come to the U.S. illegally, the process of applying for legal status is also risky. Prior to 2013, an undocumented person applying for a Green Card had to return to their origin country, make the application, wait for a visa interview, and then wait for a response. However, the law barred all undocumented people from re-entry to the U.S. for three to 10 years, depending on the length of their stay. This meant a person could be barred from the country and separated from spouses and children, all while trying to follow the proper legal process. A change in rules in 2014 allowed immediate family members to return to their country, collect their visas, and be readmitted to the U.S. to wait for the response.


Immigrants captured by ICE are subject to a variety of situations. A more lenient approach is described as “catch and release.” Rather than holding someone in a detention center while awaiting a deportation trial, the government may release that person until their court date. The individual must have no criminal record, and during the Obama administration, “catch and release” was granted only to immigrants already living in the U.S. and without criminal records, not to those caught crossing the border illegally.

From the mid-1990s through 2011, the number of illegal immigrants held in detention increased—over 350,000 people were held by ICE in 2010. As ICE rejected “catch and release,” it expanded its network of detention centers to include local jails, prison complexes, special-care facilities, and processing centers. Detention centers are not subject to the same regulations as the prison system, and detainees are not protected by a uniform set of standards. For example, the Hutto Family Detention Center

The Otay Mesa Detention Center Photo: BBC

near Austin, TX was converted from an existing prison in 2006. A year later, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against ICE showing that children at Hutto were forced to wear prison jumpsuits, sleep with lights on, and use open toilets, all while receiving no education. The Obama administration closed Hutto and tried—with mixed results—to improve living conditions in other detention centers. However, watchdog and human rights groups continued to find inadequate and unhealthy conditions in U.S. detention centers through 2016, and reports of horrific conditions have become more severe under the Trump administration.

WHAT IF YOU’RE SENT BACK? Those deported to Mexico are often driven back by government agents and dropped off in Mexican border towns. Here, the first contact may be soup kitchens and shelters run by nonprofit, religious, or humanitarian organizations, which strive to provide clothes, toiletries, medical care, counseling, and phones for deportees to contact their relatives in the United States. Deportees often arrive in a state of shock and may take unsafe measures to return to their families in the U.S. An increasing number of these deportees face homelessness in Mexico or may turn to drugs, gangs, or prostitution, but deportees who arrive with an American diploma and speak English may have an advantage to finding work. Some organizations have emerged to help the deportees rebuild their lives, and in 2014 Mexico’s Department of Interior launched the “Somos Mexicanos” program, whose mission is “to facilitate the social and economic reintegration of Mexican returnees so that their return to the country is dignified, productive and attached to the fundamental principles of human rights.”•



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