"Shakedown: How Deportation Robs Immigrants of Their Money and Belongings"

by Joseph McKeown

Out of the 400,000 people deported from the US in fiscal year 2013, nearly one third were deported without their money or personal belongings, a new report by No More Deaths says. Using data from No More Deaths' Property Recovery Assistance Project, the report argues that dispossession has become a prevalent and dangerous deportation practice. The report explains the three main ways whereby immigrants being deported lose their money and/or their belongings: complete failure of US officials to return money and belongings before they are deported; cash or funds returned in forms that cannot generally be accessed internationally, such as personal checks, money orders, or prepaid debit cards; and, least common, money directly stolen by US agents.

While the report acknowledges that some Customs and Border Protection (CBP) "agents have indicated that they go out of their way to ensure the return of confiscated belongings," these officers "view this activity as a favor outside of the scope of their duties." This view as well as comments by "higher-level officials suggest a willingness, at all levels of CBP, to use the power to seize belongings at will rather than in accordance with the law."

While the money lost is generally valued at under $100 USD per person, nevertheless this amount represents significant funds for many deported immigrants. As a result of their loss of funds or property, these immigrants reported that they could not afford to travel home, afford shelter or food, were unable to obtain employment due to loss of identification documents, or were exposed to dangers such as threats, robbery, or attacks. This is not to mention the psychological trauma of the loss of personal keepsake and family heirloom items.

The report recommends that detained immigrants be granted access to vital belongings including medications while in custody, that belongings should never be destroyed while detained immigrants are serving a sentence, and that funds are provided to immigrants in cash before they are deported.

In response to the allegations, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in an email that the "agency has standards to ensure detainees' property is safeguarded and returned when they are released or deported" and that any "'allegation of missing property will be thoroughly investigated[.]'"