Originally published by The New Yorker
On June 9, 2009, just after 2 a.m., Laura S. left the restaurant where she waitressed, in Pharr, Texas, and drove off in her white Chevy. She was in an unusually hopeful mood. Her twenty-third birthday was nine days away, and she and her nineteen-year-old cousin, Elizabeth, had been discussing party plans at the restaurant. They’d decided to have coolers of beer, a professional d.j., and dancing after Laura put her three sons to bed. Now they were heading home, and giving two of Laura’s friends a ride, with a quick detour for hamburgers. Elizabeth said that, as they neared the highway, a cop flashed his lights at them. The officer, Nazario Solis III, claimed that Laura had been driving between lanes and asked to see her license and proof of insurance.
Laura had neither. She’d lived in the United States undocumented her whole adult life.
“Do you have your residence card?” Solis asked.
“No,” Laura said, glancing anxiously at her cousin and her friends. Solis questioned them, too. Only Elizabeth had a visa, which she fished out of her purse. Solis directed the others to get out of the car. “I’m calling Border Patrol,” he said—an unusual move, at the time, for a small-town cop in South Texas.
Laura panicked. At five feet two inches and barely a hundred pounds, she looked younger than her age. She often wore tube tops and short shorts, and styled her hair in a girlish bob. Her affect was “attached to childhood,” her older brother told me; she collected porcelain dolls, and loved Japanese anime and Saturday-morning cartoons. Laura’s friends saw her trembling. Like her, they had kids who were U.S. citizens and steady jobs they didn’t want to lose, but they knew that Laura’s fear was distinct. She had an ex-husband across the border, in Reynosa, Mexico, who had promised to kill her if she returned.
“I can’t be sent back to Mexico,” Laura told Solis, beginning to cry. “I have a protection order against my ex—please, just let me call my mom and she’ll bring you the paperwork.”
Laura’s two-year-old had an operation scheduled for later that week, to remove an abscess in his neck, and Laura also told Solis about that. “I need to be here,” she begged, in Spanish. In English, Elizabeth detailed the threats from Laura’s ex, Sergio. “You can’t do this,” Elizabeth said. “He’ll kill her.”
“Sorry,” Solis replied, shrugging. “I already called.” (Solis could not be reached for comment. He was later sent to prison for unrelated convictions, including bribery, extortion, and drug conspiracy.)
Laura had started dating Sergio when she was eighteen, and he soon became physically abusive. After a particularly horrific night the previous spring, when Sergio assaulted her, Laura had finally called the police, and coöperated with them to secure his arrest. He was later deported. In the year since then, Laura had tried to create a normal childhood for her sons. She shared a small trailer with Elizabeth and the boys near the Sharyland Plantation, a gated community of houses with lima-bean-shaped swimming pools and Roman-pillared porches which advertised its “delicate scent of hibiscus and bougainvillea flowers.” Sometimes she’d dress the boys in cowboy outfits, and use the neighbors’ sheep and horses as their personal petting zoo. At night, she’d sneak into the citrus groves and pick oranges for breakfast, humming her favorite song, “Single Mom”: “A single mother who does not worry, who will always fight to be a mom. Tell him she can be a mother without him.” Still, Sergio haunted her. In Mexico, he’d reportedly joined a local drug cartel. He often texted Laura death threats.
Laura and her friends waited by the roadside until a U.S. Border Patrol agent named Ramiro Garza arrived and ordered the three of them into his vehicle. Laura pleaded with Garza as he drove them to a nearby processing center, where Laura’s friends saw her, under pressure, sign paperwork for a “voluntary return.” Three hours later—after holding off until dawn “for safety reasons,” Garza later explained, “since there were females involved”—he drove them to the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, which crosses the Rio Grande and leads to Reynosa, a city so violent that the U.S. State Department forbids its employees there from venturing out after midnight.
As the sun rose, Laura stepped onto the bridge and into a much larger story, one that has launched a major legal battle over the U.S. government’s duty to protect prospective deportees who plead for their lives. The lawsuit, and others like it, has implications for the treatment of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have found refuge in the United States, and for whom deportation can be tantamount to death. Some, like Laura, are survivors of domestic violence seeking safety in the U.S. Others, like Elizabeth, are Dreamers, undocumented youths who were granted relief from deportation under President Obama, only to have their status imperilled by his successor. Still others are asylum seekers from Central America, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere, who have fled gangs, climate crises, and armed conflicts, and then been misinformed or turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, some of whom have been emboldened under President Trump.
In the final moments before Laura crossed the bridge, she turned to Agent Garza. “When I am found dead,” she told him, “it will be on your conscience.”
When Donald Trump announced his bid for the Presidency, he made anxieties about whiteness under siege a signature part of his platform. On the campaign trail, he promised to “deport all criminal aliens and save American lives.” After his Inauguration, the Department of Homeland Security created an office for the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, called voice—Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. The office is compiling an online database to track “illegal alien perpetrators of crime.” (Data show that immigrants actually commit crimes at lower rates than U.S. citizens.) There is, however, no White House initiative to track a more sprawling set of legal violations involving immigrants—violations for which the U.S. government is largely responsible.
In the past decade, a growing number of immigrants fearing for their safety have come to the U.S., only to be sent back to their home countries—with the help of border agents, immigration judges, politicians, and U.S. voters—to violent deaths. Even as border apprehensions have dropped, the number of migrants coming to the U.S. because their lives are in danger has soared. According to the United Nations, since 2008 there has been a fivefold increase in asylum seekers just from Central America’s Northern Triangle—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—where organized gangs are dominant. In 2014, according to the U.N., Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate; El Salvador and Guatemala were close behind.
Politicians often invoke the prospect of death by deportation in debates about the fate of these immigrants and others with precarious status, like the Dreamers. In February, 2016, in a speech criticizing the lack of legal representation for Central American children seeking refuge, Harry Reid, at that time the Senate Minority Leader, warned Congress, “Deportation means death for some of these people.” That summer, Senator Edward J. Markey, of Massachusetts, told the press, “We should not be sending families back to situations where they can be killed.” He added, “That’s just un-American.”
These conversations have been largely theoretical, devoid of names and faces. No U.S. government body monitors the fate of deportees, and immigrant-aid groups typically lack the resources to document what happens to those who have been sent back. Fear of retribution keeps most grieving families from speaking publicly. In early 2016, as the director of the Global Migration Project, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I set out, with a dozen graduate students, to create a record of people who had been deported to their deaths or to other harms—a sort of shadow database of the one that the Trump Administration later compiled to track the crimes of “alien offenders.” We contacted more than two hundred local legal-aid organizations, domestic-violence shelters, and immigrants’-rights groups nationwide, as well as migrant shelters, humanitarian operations, law offices, and mortuaries across Central America. We spoke to families of the deceased. And we gathered the stories of immigrants who had endured other harms—including kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault—as a result of deportations under Obama and Trump.
As the database grew to include more than sixty cases, patterns emerged. Often, immigrants or their families had warned U.S. officials that they were in danger if sent back. Ana Lopez, the mother of a twenty-year-old gay asylum seeker named Nelson Avila-Lopez, wrote a letter to the U.S. government during Christmas week in 2011, two months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement accidentally deported him to Honduras. Nelson had fled the country at seventeen, after receiving gang threats. He’d entered the U.S. unauthorized and been ordered removed, but an immigration judge then granted him an emergency stay of his deportation so that he could reopen his case for asylum. An ice agent told his family’s legal team that Nelson was deported because “someone screwed up,” and ice alleges that the proper office had not been notified of the judge’s stay.
“His life is in danger,” Ana Lopez wrote, begging U.S. authorities to reverse her son’s deportation. Her efforts proved fruitless. Two months later, Nelson died in a prison fire, along with more than three hundred and fifty other inmates. His lawyer told me that Nelson had been detained by the Honduran government without charges, in an anti-gang initiative. Survivors of the fire alleged that it was set intentionally, perhaps as an act of gang retaliation, and that the guards had done little to help the men as they screamed and burned to death in their cells.
We discovered, too, how minor missteps—a traffic violation or a workplace dispute—can turn lethal for unauthorized immigrants. At eighteen, Juan Carlos Coronilla-Guerrero was deported from Texas to Mexico. He later returned and settled in Buda, Texas, with his wife. He worked as a carpenter and raised three kids. In January, 2017, someone in his neighborhood reported him for a domestic dispute; police found him in possession of a quarter of a gram of marijuana.
In March, Coronilla went to the Travis County courthouse for what, before Trump’s election, would likely have been a quick misdemeanor hearing. Travis was a “sanctuary jurisdiction,” meaning that the sheriff there declined to honor most federal detention requests for undocumented individuals without a warrant or an allegation of a serious crime. But Trump, within days of his Inauguration, had ordered a crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions, and ice agents in Travis County had suddenly appeared in the courthouse. After Coronilla left his proceeding, his lawyer noticed two men who, he recalled, were “dressed like hunters.” The men followed Coronilla into an elevator, then identified themselves as ice agents and arrested him for reëntry after deportation, a felony.
Coronilla’s wife begged a federal judge to spare her husband. Gangs had overrun his home town in Mexico, and deportees were prime targets for crime, since they were presumed to have money. Coronilla was deported in June. Three months later, gunmen woke him from the bed where he slept with his young son. According to the Austin American-Statesman, he tried to soothe the boy, saying, “Don’t worry, my love.” His body was found about forty miles away, filled with bullets. When I spoke to Coronilla’s wife shortly after his death, she told me that she’d returned to Mexico to claim his body. She now fears for her own life. “He was a good man,” she said. “Now I have to prepare for his funeral.”
In the years following the Second World War, the United Nations established a principle of international law known as non-refoulement, or non-return, which forbids the removal of asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to be tortured or killed. The principle was enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, formalizing the concept of the “refugee” and insuring safe harbor for people who could show “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” No one with a credible fear of persecution could be expelled “in any manner whatsoever to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.”
For the U.S., the effort to protect refugees was also an act of atonement. In 1939, the government had rejected a boat carrying more than nine hundred Jewish escapees from Nazi Germany. At least two hundred of them were later killed in the Holocaust. As the refugee crisis worsened, countless more were refused entry. President Franklin Roosevelt had warned the public that Jews posed a national-security threat, and argued for tighter restrictions on their numbers. “In some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies,” he said at a press conference. Among those denied entry was Anne Frank, whose father applied for refugee status for his family in 1941, unsuccessfully. “What is done cannot be undone,” Anne wrote in her diary, “but one can prevent it happening again.” She later died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
In 1980, Congress incorporated the idea of non-refoulement into the Refugee Act. The act established protocols for vetting and resettling refugees and assured asylum seekers that they would not be treated as criminals, even if they arrived unauthorized in the U.S. The act, which had bipartisan support, was also meant to bolster relationships with allies and to provide a humanitarian model of resettlement for the rest of the world.
Today, the first screening of asylum seekers at the border often falls to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, who attempt to separate out candidates for asylum and other forms of protection. Many agents treat the task with great care. In the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas, several told me that they view the work of identifying individuals who may have fled serious harm as one of the most rewarding parts of their job.
A field manual for C.B.P. agents lists a series of questions that agents must ask an unauthorized immigrant before subjecting him or her to immediate deportation. “Do you have any fear or concern about being returned to your home country or being removed from the United States?” one reads. “Would you be harmed if you were returned?” another asks. C.B.P. agents are not authorized to evaluate the validity of the fear expressed. Instead, anyone answering yes to these questions must be referred to an asylum officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and given a chance to explain his or her fear. “The inspector should err on the side of caution,” the field manual reads, and “apply the criteria generously.”
Nevertheless, my team and I heard stories from more than a dozen women who say that they were never asked the required questions, or were ignored, mocked, or even sexually propositioned by U.S. agents after expressing their fears—and then deported to harm. In Queens, we met Rosaleda, who had worked as a police officer in Comayagua, Honduras, until her investigation of a cousin’s murder revealed a high-ranking colleague’s involvement in the crime, which Rosaleda reported to the department. Menacing phone calls began, followed by a drive-by shooting while she worked the overnight shift. “This is a warning,” read a note bearing her name that was left at the scene. “Leave things alone or we will kill you and next time we won’t miss.” Rosaleda asked a supervisor to transfer her; he said he’d consider it only in exchange for sex. In a second attempt on her life, while she was on patrol, two of her colleagues were killed. Rosaleda decided to risk the journey north. Her situation is surprisingly common, in some ways. In a recent study conducted by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, ten per cent of the women interviewed, who had fled El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, or Mexico, indicated that “the police or other authorities were the direct source of their harm.”
When Rosaleda arrived in Texas, she was apprehended and deported without seeing a judge or a lawyer. She hadn’t shared details of her escape from Honduras, fearing that it would further endanger her. She attempted to cross the border again, and was kidnapped by a cartel and held for ransom. Eventually, she made it to New York, where she found pro-bono legal help. But, because of her earlier—and, her attorney argues, unlawful—deportation, she is now ineligible for asylum. (She was granted a “withholding of removal,” which has allowed her to remain in the U.S. but offers no path to permanent legal status.)
Allegations abound of Customs and Border Protection officers dismissing asylum seekers more brazenly. According to a 2014 American Civil Liberties Union report based on conversations with nearly a hundred people who were removed without seeing an immigration judge, “Fifty-five percent said they were not asked about fear of persecution or torture,” while “forty percent who were asked and said they were afraid were ordered deported without seeing an asylum officer.” For years, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has documented Customs and Border Protection’s noncompliance with asylum-seeker protections, including, in more than fifty per cent of cases, officers at ports of entry neglecting “to read the required information.” More recently, after Trump’s election, civil-liberties groups began documenting an apparent increase in rejections in some places on the border. According to a recent lawsuit, C.B.P. officers have told prospective asylum seekers, “The United States is not giving asylum anymore,” and “Trump says we don’t have to let you in.”
On the night Laura was sent back across the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, her mother, Maria, put her grandkids to sleep and lay down on Laura’s bed. Lately, she’d been helping Laura with childcare. After her daughter got back from her waitressing shift, she would often get into bed next to her mom and tell stories from her day before falling asleep. When Maria noticed, around sunrise, that her daughter hadn’t returned, she began to worry.
Maria had raised Laura and her brother as a single mother while working at a Black & Decker plant in Reynosa, on the assembly line. She’d also done a stint at a laundromat, where Laura kept her company. Laura grew into a mischievous preteen. Once, she riled her brother by shaving off half his mustache while he was sleeping. At eighteen, Laura started seeing Sergio, who lived on her grandmother’s block. Sergio had a buzz cut, a square jaw, and an awkward sense of humor. He and Laura talked on the phone for hours, until Maria complained, “My phone bill—it’s a whole year’s salary!” Sergio had Laura’s name tattooed on his arm. After a year, Laura, who had a son from a previous relationship, gave birth to their first child. When Sergio later moved to Texas to work in construction with his father, Laura joined him. In 2007, the couple had another boy. Laura found work as a waitress and sold homemade candied apples door-to-door, while also taking care of the children. They were a handful, and, Maria recalled, “her partner was like a fourth child.”
Maria told me that Sergio had been abused as a child and had struggled with addiction. “He came from a tough psychological background,” Laura’s brother said. One time, Maria told me, Sergio dragged Laura across the floor by her hair. Another day, in March, 2008, when Laura said she was going to leave Sergio, he grabbed a knife and threatened to commit suicide. As Laura protested, he shoved her to the floor and kicked her in the ribs. He beat her so badly that she called the police and prepared to file charges against him. A judge signed an emergency protection order forbidding Sergio from going within two hundred yards of Laura’s home, but the order seemed only to enrage Sergio. After multiple threats against Laura, he was arrested, charged with assault, and deported to Mexico.
In the years since Laura and Sergio had left Reynosa, the town had become a cartel battleground. In 2008, at least five thousand Mexicans died in the drug war, more fatalities than the United States suffered during the Iraq War. That year, a drug kingpin was captured in a shoot-out near Laura’s childhood home, and the military seized five hundred and forty rifles, a hundred and sixty-five grenades, and fourteen sticks of TNT. A turf war began, to determine his replacement. After Sergio returned to Reynosa, he reportedly started working as a cartel grunt. Maria told me that he continued to threaten Laura, saying that if she ever returned to Mexico he’d set her on fire, and texting, “I’m going to smoke you.”
On that Tuesday morning in June when Laura didn’t come home from her waitressing shift, Maria considered the dark possibilities right away. Then the phone rang. It was Laura, from Reynosa. “I did everything I could,” she said, crying. “I even told the police, ‘Arrest me, and I’ll show you the documents,’ ” referring to the emergency protection order.
Laura called Elizabeth, too, and the cousins made a plan to meet in Reynosa. Elizabeth, trying to lighten the mood, asked whether the border agent who deported Laura was cute. Laura said that he was, and Elizabeth asked if she had tried to flirt. Laura replied, “I told him, ‘You’re sending me straight to the slaughterhouse.’ ”
For years, most undocumented immigrants facing deportation in the U.S. were given a chance to go before a judge—to show evidence, call witnesses, and make a case for why they should be allowed to stay. In 1996, Congress revoked that right for tens of thousands of immigrants, expanding forms of “summary removal,” which can take place without a hearing or judicial input. By 2013, more than eighty per cent of deportations were nonjudicial, with the result that life-or-death decisions now routinely rest in the hands of immigration authorities at the border.
Even when asylum seekers get the opportunity to see a judge, it can be difficult to prove that their fears merit legal relief. Asylum seekers aren’t entitled to lawyers, and children as young as three have been told to represent themselves in immigration court. According to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, at Syracuse University, asylum seekers who find legal representation are five times more likely to win their cases. Geography is a strong determining factor in their fates. When the Government Accountability Office studied the outcomes of asylum cases in courts nationwide, it found significant geographical disparities in the responses to nearly identical situations. Between 2007 and 2014, some sixty per cent of asylum applicants won their cases in New York City, while in the courts of Omaha and Atlanta less than five per cent did.
Perhaps the most formidable challenge for asylum seekers is that the Second World War-era categories of protection aren’t well suited to immigrants fleeing modern gang violence. Courts resist recognizing the asylum claims of people who have been targeted by MS-13, for instance, because the motive for violence rarely fits the criteria. For victims of domestic violence, the legal protections, including the Violence Against Women Act, are slightly more favorable. If Laura had gone before a judge, she could have had multiple options for potential relief, including a U visa, for crime victims. Still, the legal scholar Blaine Bookey writes, “Whether a woman fleeing domestic violence will receive protection in the United States seems to depend not on the consistent application of objective principles, but rather on the view of her individual judge, often untethered to any legal principles at all.”
Not long ago, I met a young mother who asked to be identified by her middle name, Elena. In Honduras, where she grew up, her teen-age brother was murdered by MS-13 for being gay, another brother was killed for refusing to join the gang, and her sister was shot for ignoring a gang leader’s sexual advances after he’d raped and impregnated her. A different gang member began pursuing Elena, and fired shots at her house after she turned him down. She reported the crime to police, and then learned that he was planning further retaliation against her.
In 2012, Elena crossed the U.S. border near Eagle Pass, Texas, and told a Border Patrol agent that she feared for her life. He logged her possessions: a black sweater, a hairband, gray shoelaces, and a key chain with photographs of her two children, whom she’d left behind in Honduras. He asked, “Would you be harmed if you are returned to your home country?” He wrote down a single word: “No.”
In detention, Elena fought back against this supposed denial, and won a hearing with an asylum officer, who corrected the record. Here she encountered a new obstacle. After she related her experiences, the officer asked her whether she was persecuted on account of her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group—the refugee criteria created by the United Nations to reflect the political threats of 1951. Elena answered no on all counts, and the officer determined that she did not qualify to apply for asylum.
Elena appealed, requesting a hearing with a judge. Asking to go before an immigration judge often means a long stint in detention, and detention can mean poor food, minimal medical care, and scant access to legal counsel. In the past, federal policy has encouraged releasing asylum seekers while they await court hearings, sparing taxpayers the cost of detention. But in the last year of Obama’s Presidency, and then under Trump, the percentage of asylum seekers who were granted parole plummeted. Government data obtained in a civil-rights lawsuit showed that, in one New York facility, fifty per cent of parole requests were granted in the months immediately before Trump’s Inauguration. In the months after, twelve per cent were.
After three months in detention, Elena was granted a rare hearing before an immigration judge. The hearing took place virtually, with the judge appearing on a video monitor. He asked Elena one question.
“Did you move to any other city in Honduras before coming to the United States?” he inquired.
“No,” she said.
“Well, the government of the United States doesn’t afford you protection for this type of reason. I affirm the asylum officer’s decision. Nothing further.” Elena was deported two weeks later.
Back in her home town, Elena was assaulted at gunpoint by the man she’d fled. He tortured her, holding a lighter to her skin. Other gang members cracked her thirteen-year-old son’s skull. She fled, with her kids, to a tobacco-farming town in western Honduras, where the man who’d been pursuing her found her again. Once more, she escaped to the U.S. This time, authorities agreed that Elena’s fear—and the threat to her kids’ lives—was credible. But, like Rosaleda, she is barred from receiving asylum because of her prior deportation.
Many immigrants, after being deported, never get a second chance to prove their claims. Constantino Morales was a cop in Guerrero, Mexico, until he tried to break up a drug cartel and became a target of violence. He escaped to the U.S. and worked at a Cheesecake Factory in Des Moines, Iowa, and then became a popular laborers’-rights advocate. As with Laura, a minor traffic stop led to his removal, which he initially fought. At a community meeting with Tom Latham, at that time a Republican congressman, Morales said, “If I am sent back, I will face more violence, and I could lose my life.” Morales had applied for asylum a month earlier. He was denied. At the time, the U.S. State Department called Guerrero “the most violent state in Mexico.” Seven months after Morales’s deportation, he was shot and killed.
In October, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decried the “rampant abuse and fraud” in the asylum system and said that “the system is being gamed.” The Trump Administration has called on Congress to crack down, which federal immigration judges may be doing already. For the past several years, asylum grant rates have declined. In 2017, judges rejected some sixty per cent of asylum seekers, the highest denial rate in more than a decade.
Protections have also evaporated for many refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S. Trump has portrayed refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Somalia not as candidates for humanitarian assistance but as national-security threats. In his first days in office, he banned many of them from travelling to the U.S. The ban is being contested in ongoing litigation. Several asylum and refugee officers told me they worry that the ban, and the inflamed discourse about refugees more generally, misrepresents their highly comprehensive vetting process, and undermines core American values.
“We have a great mission characterized by extreme caution and care,” Michael Knowles, a U.S. asylum officer for the past twenty-five years, told me, speaking as the president of Council 119, a union representing refugee and asylum officers and other staff of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Ours is a dual mission—to identify people who aren’t refugees and who, worst case, might wish us harm, but also to identify and protect refugees.” At a meeting in March, 2017, with John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, Knowles warned that asylum and refugee officers are “deeply concerned” about the future of the program. Knowles told me what he wished he could have said to Kelly: “You’ve already unshackled Border Patrol. Please, don’t put the shackles on us.”
In the hours after Laura’s deportation, Elizabeth drove across the border to meet her. “Ay,” Laura joked, after Elizabeth arrived at her grandmother’s house, in Reynosa. “What’s going to happen to my birthday party?” Maria and the kids came soon afterward, and they set up an inflatable pool in the back yard so that the boys could play while the adults discussed what to do.
Sergio soon learned of Laura’s return. He began driving by the house, shouting obscenities. A few days after her arrival in Mexico, Laura went to the pharmacy with Elizabeth and her youngest child. As she pulled the car out of the driveway, another vehicle T-boned her, blocking her exit. Sergio leaped out of the car and dragged Laura from her seat through the window, shouting, “You bitch!” He bit off a chunk of her ear and tried to strangle her, as their child cried in the back seat. Elizabeth grabbed a fallen tree branch and hit Sergio on the head. He stumbled, muttering, “You better not get involved.”
“I’m calling the cops,” Elizabeth told him, flipping open her phone. The gesture was a ruse—her U.S. cell phone didn’t work in Mexico, and, anyway, the local police were known to collaborate with the cartels. But it worked. Sergio staggered back to his car and drove off.
The incident gave the cousins new urgency. Elizabeth emptied a coffee can and wrote “Help bring Laura back!” on it. She took it to friends and family members, asking for money to pay a coyote to smuggle Laura into the U.S. Laura’s trailer in Texas was only a twenty-minute drive from Reynosa, but it would take hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, and a risky crossing, to get her there.
The next day, Laura left the house in her mother’s Ford Contour to buy food for the kids. By evening, she had not returned. “We called the Red Cross, we called the hospitals, we called the police,” Elizabeth said. The following morning, Maria turned on the local news, and a grisly image flashed across the screen. It was an incinerated vehicle, with a charred human skeleton in the front seat. The car was a Ford Contour.
Sergio seems like the kind of immigrant few Americans would object to deporting. In speeches, Trump has often warned the country about “bad hombres,” emphasizing the spectre of violent men to justify his deportation policies. Obama, whose Administration deported more immigrants than any other, also divided undocumented immigrants into neat categories: the longtimers versus the newcomers, those keen to “get right with the law” versus those trying to skate beneath it. “We’re going to keep focussing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” he promised, in 2014. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”
But even some immigrants who have committed felonies or other crimes have stories that are more complicated than they first appear. At a law office in San Francisco, I met the surviving family members of a woman named Yadira. She’d come to California from La Lima, Honduras, in the early two-thousands, to escape an abusive boyfriend. In 2010, she was deported on a drug-possession charge, despite articulating her fear of return. After she was back in La Lima, her brother, who was confined to a wheelchair, was murdered by the Mara 18 gang. (He had left a competing gang more than a decade earlier, after being shot and paralyzed.) Together with her grandparents, Yadira’s fourteen-year-old daughter discovered his body. Yadira began speaking out publicly against the gang, and became a target. Afraid for her life, she went north, hoping to get back to San Francisco.
At the U.S. border, she told officials about her brother’s murder but was detained nevertheless. “They’re going to deport me,” she told her father, in a call from detention, saying that she had begged for protection. (The C.B.P. stated that Yadira “did not claim fear of persecution.”) She stepped off the tarmac in Honduras wearing her favorite “California” sweatpants, hoping to go unnoticed. Her father, a trucker for Chiquita bananas, drove her home. A few days later, her youngest daughter found her body in front of the house, riddled with bullets.
Under Trump, ice arrests of undocumented immigrants—including those accused, but not convicted, of minor crimes—have gone up by nearly forty per cent. Trump describes these roundups to the electorate as a public-safety measure, but many law-enforcement leaders argue that they can have the opposite effect, lowering the rate at which crimes are reported. In February, a group of sixty law-enforcement officials warned, in a letter to Congress, that Trump’s policies “could harm community trust and make it harder for state and local law enforcement agencies to do our jobs.” In March, Los Angeles’s police chief noted that reports of sexual assault among the city’s Latino population had declined twenty-five per cent in the first three months of 2017, Trump’s first months in office. Domestic-violence reports dropped ten per cent. (The decline was not found among other ethnic groups.) In April, Houston’s police chief noted that the number of Hispanics reporting rape was down more than forty per cent.
My team and I filed public-record requests in the twenty U.S. cities with the highest populations of undocumented immigrants, in order to determine the extent of this change. We obtained sexual-assault and domestic-violence reports from heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, and contacted more than a hundred police departments, district attorneys, legal-services providers, and domestic-violence shelters.
The results were striking. In Arlington, Virginia, domestic-assault reports in one Hispanic neighborhood dropped more than eighty-five per cent in the first eight months after Trump’s Inauguration, compared with the same period the previous year. Reports of rape and sexual assault fell seventy-five per cent. Meanwhile, in Chicago, domestic-incident and sexual-assault reports from Hispanic victims dropped seven per cent. In Denver, the city attorney, Kristin Bronson, told us of more than a dozen Latina women who had dropped their domestic-abuse cases since Trump took office, citing fear of deportation. She estimates that the number of women who have avoided pursuing legal action against an abuser is far higher.
Many local law-enforcement officers are also concerned about state-based legislation, including bills requiring local cops to act as subsidiaries of ice. A Texas law called SB4, known as the “show me your papers” law, threatens to jail or fine sheriffs who don’t coöperate with immigration holds. The law, which was supposed to go into effect in September but is in litigation, would make routine the process by which Laura was turned over to Border Patrol. Last July, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of police chiefs and sheriffs representing dozens of large cities, joined with two other groups condemning SB4, warning the court that the law “will dangerously impact local communities by eliminating law enforcement discretion of how to effectively serve public safety needs.”
On June 17, 2009, a week after Laura’s return to Reynosa, a coroner confirmed that her DNA had been found in the Ford Contour, and the police delivered her remains to Maria. The next day was Laura’s twenty-third birthday, and Elizabeth kept her promise to throw a party. She and Maria got balloons, prepared a cake, and hired a mariachi band. The birthday also served as a burial. At the gravesite, Laura’s family called her Texas friends on video chat. Laura’s eldest son brought his mother a gift, a figurine of his favorite cartoon character, and placed it in the coffin.
That week, Sergio was arrested by the Mexican police and confessed to Laura’s murder. He’d strangled her, according to the local press, then doused her in gasoline and set her on fire. Maria and Elizabeth testified at his trial. He was sentenced to forty years in prison.
Grief, for Maria, was soon subsumed by the challenge of caring for Laura’s sons. A teacher called her to complain that one of the boys had told his class that his dad had killed his mom. “He cannot do that!” the teacher said. Maria told her, “He’s a child, and he’s in pain.” One day, Laura’s middle child Googled his mother and discovered disturbing details about her murder. He threw a fit, smashing furniture and crying, “I don’t want to be here without my mom!” At home, the youngest boy asked his grandmother, “Can you make her again, so that I can see her?”
I went to Texas to meet Maria, and she welcomed me into her darkened apartment wearing black. She had the same deep-set eyes and velvety brows as her daughter, whose photograph hung above an overstuffed couch. “What I’m most proud of is what she left me—my grandsons,” Maria said, as she made coffee, gesturing toward the boys’ grade-school portraits in the living room. She added, “There’s a reason they’re alive.”
She showed me a cigar box on a shelf by the front door, the boys’ Mom Box. “If they find something girly outside, they bring it home and put it in the box,” Maria said. We looked through the contents: pink ribbons, a Disney Birthday Princess pin, a Mr. Potato Head ring, a Peter Pan figurine, and assorted trinkets that reminded the boys of Laura. Underneath was a copy of Laura’s emergency protection order, carefully folded.
When Maria realized that the boys would soon be home from school, she told me that there was one last thing she wanted to show me. “You know how usually, when you box up someone’s clothes, and then you take them out, they smell bad?” she asked. “Well, my daughter’s clothes, they don’t smell that way. They’re still fresh.” She went into the bedroom and returned with an armful of clothing. At her urging, I pressed my face into one of Laura’s red satin blouses. A gentle scent lingered—unobtrusive, vaguely floral, verging on nothingness. I found it strange, after so many hours spent searching for Laura, to find her here.
Maria told me that shortly after Laura’s death she began encountering problems raising the boys. She wasn’t their legal guardian, and doctors wouldn’t allow her to make decisions about their medical care. Signing off on school activities and therapy dates was complicated. So, one day in 2013, she packed up the boys and took them to the law offices of Jennifer Harbury, a civil-rights attorney.
Harbury told me that, in the meeting, the boys “were a wreck.” She explained, “The older one was rocking back and forth, and the middle child looked scared—crying and hyper and desperate—and the little one was very upset.” The whole family, Harbury said, showed “every sign of post-traumatic stress you can think of.”
Maria told Harbury that she needed help getting custody of her grandsons, and then recounted the circumstances of Laura’s death. “When a woman is afraid,” Maria asked, “why can’t you give her the opportunity to show her documents, to show her evidence?”
Harbury was stunned. Her team could help Maria get custody of the kids, she said. But, as the pair discussed the case, another idea emerged: filing a lawsuit against agents of the Border Patrol.
Harbury, who is sixty-six, has made a career of challenging alleged abuses of immigrants, including refoulements. She grew up in Connecticut and California, in a family that had fled Nazi persecution in Holland during the Second World War. After graduating from Harvard Law School, in 1978, she moved to the Rio Grande Valley to defend farmworkers’ rights. In the early eighties, she noticed an alarming trend: thousands of Salvadorans and indigenous Guatemalans were crossing the Rio Grande, fleeing civil wars. Most were denied asylum and forced to return—often, she said, “to face torture chambers and death squads,” some of which were funded in part by the U.S. government.
In 1990, Harbury went to Guatemala to conduct research on indigenous women rebels fighting in the country’s civil war. Atop a volcano, she met a young Mayan rebel commander, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, who went by the war name Everardo. They fell in love and travelled back to rural Texas, where they married and, in the tradition of leftist guerrilla fighters, exchanged silver spoons. A few months later, with Harbury’s support, Bámaca returned home to fight the Guatemalan Army. Then he disappeared.
At first, the Army claimed that Bámaca had been killed in combat. But Harbury grew suspicious when she reviewed the autopsy report. “Everardo was a walking war museum,” she said, explaining that he was covered in scars—and yet the report noted none of them. Later, a rebel fighter who had been captured by the Army escaped, and claimed to have seen Bámaca alive, being tortured on a Guatemalan military base.
Harbury began a series of hunger strikes, sleeping on the pavement in front of Guatemala’s Presidential palace for thirty-two days, demanding answers. She attracted the attention of U.S. news shows and celebrities like Bianca Jagger and Charlie Rose. “If you kill him, I’m going to die on your doorstep with convulsions in front of every camera in the world,” Harbury said, addressing the Guatemalan government. “You’re going to be seen.” CBS reported that the C.I.A. knew that Bámaca had been captured alive and tortured, and Harbury moved her hunger strike to the gates of the White House. On the twelfth day of her fast, the congressman Robert G. Torricelli revealed that a Guatemalan Army colonel being paid by the C.I.A. had been involved in Bámaca’s torture, as well as in the earlier killing of a U.S. citizen, in 1990. President Clinton’s Administration ordered internal investigations into the United States’ role in the murders and their coverups.
Along the way, Harbury became something of a celebrity herself. The writer Chris Kraus centered part of her cult hit “I Love Dick” on her, describing Harbury’s pre-fasting aesthetic as “Hillary Clinton on a budget”—“a well-proportioned face with good WASP bones, blonde tousled bubble-cut, a cheap tweed coat, clear gaze”—and noting that, mid-fast, people looked at Harbury as “a strange animal.” Ted Turner bought the film rights to her life story, and a Times reporter suggested Madonna for the role, writing, “It would take a certain controlled irreverence and mad gusto to get Jennifer Harbury on the screen.”
In 1995, Bill Clinton suspended covert C.I.A. funding to the Guatemalan Army after the agency admitted to making mistakes in Bámaca’s case. To Harbury, this was far from sufficient. By then, she’d learned that her husband had been killed by men on the C.I.A.’s payroll. The next year, she sued officials from the State Department, the C.I.A., and other government bodies for denying her access to information that might have helped prevent her husband’s killing.
The case was filed as a “Bivens” claim, so called because of the case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, which, in 1971, established that citizens could sue federal officials if their rights had been violated. Harbury’s claim was simple: if the government hadn’t lied about her husband’s whereabouts, she could have petitioned for his rescue. Her case eventually went to the Supreme Court, where, in an unusual move, Harbury argued it herself. The Court acknowledged “appreciating Harbury’s anguish” but ruled against her.
In Maria’s story, Harbury saw a grief similar to her own, and a chance to hold the government accountable for another family’s anguish. “The U.S. government should not be free to submit people to torture and murder,” she said. “They did it in my husband’s case, and they did it in Laura’s case.”
Maria worried about antagonizing the authorities, but she was desperate for ways to draw meaning from her daughter’s death. Recently, she had given Laura’s porcelain-doll collection to a center for abused girls. “In the case of my child,” she said, “there are many lessons that could be useful for other women.” Maria decided to press ahead with a lawsuit.
They had to work quickly, because the statute of limitations in Laura’s case had nearly expired. Harbury partnered with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit that often pursues civil-rights cases on behalf of immigrants, and she was soon joined by one of the group’s attorneys, Efrén Olivares. On June 5, 2013, they filed Maria S. v. John Doe, on behalf of Laura’s three sons. U.S. immigration agents, they alleged, had arrested Laura, then “violated her procedural due process rights” and “refused to consider her clear eligibility for relief from removal.” Laura had the right to a full and fair hearing before a qualified immigration judge, and the right to counsel at her own expense, as afforded by the Fifth Amendment. Instead, the complaint claimed, agents had sent Laura back to “extreme danger, resulting in her battery and death.” Their decisions, the complaint said, “shock the conscience.”
Holding U.S. Customs and Border Protection legally accountable is difficult but not impossible. The day before Maria S. v. John Doe was filed, the A.C.L.U. brought a class-action case against officers from Border Patrol and ice in Southern California, alleging the widespread use of coercion, threats, and deception to get immigrants to sign their own expulsion orders, including a form called the I-826. In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security and other defendants agreed to a settlement. A long list of reforms resulted, including a stipulation that prospective deportees could use a phone to call a family member, a legal-service provider, or a Mexican consulate before removal. The reforms, however, applied only to Southern California.
Other suits are pending. Last July, a nonprofit called Al Otro Lado sued officials at the Department of Homeland Security and at Customs and Border Protection, alleging that asylum seekers are being “systematically turned away at ports of entry.” Last year, the city of Chicago sued Trump’s Justice Department over a plan to withhold federal public-safety funds from sanctuary cities.
Harbury has become involved in still more cases. After Trump’s election, she began interviewing recent deportees in Reynosa about their experiences with U.S. immigration authorities, and gathered accounts of asylum seekers who’d been kidnapped or otherwise harmed after being turned away. She compiled her findings in a sworn legal declaration, and shared it with a national network of civil-rights attorneys. In September, she filed a suit against officers from ice and other government entities on behalf of a group of “young civilians who were forced to flee their homelands due to the ongoing violence.” These asylum seekers had come from places as diverse as Ghana, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone, but faced the same “danger of severe persecution” if deported. Although they had committed no crimes, the suit alleged, they had been “wrongfully denied parole and subjected to prolonged and arbitrary detention in prison-like conditions.”
The case of Maria S. v. John Doe, filed on behalf of Laura’s kids, ended up on the docket of Judge Andrew Hanen, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, in Brownsville. His rulings on immigration are infamous. In 2015, he accused the Obama Administration’s Department of Homeland Security of “criminal conspiracy” after the agency chose not to arrest and deport an undocumented mother who had paid a smuggler to bring her child to the States. Hanen said that the decision set a “dangerous and unconscionable” precedent.
Government lawyers argued for the dismissal of Maria’s suit, saying that U.S. Border Patrol agents enjoy wide immunity from civil lawsuits. It seemed likely that Hanen would side with the government, but, in 2015, in one of his first decisions in the case, he took a surprising position. He refused to dismiss the suit, writing, “Even aliens who have entered the United States unlawfully are assured the protections of the Fifth Amendment due process clause.” The case, he said, could move to discovery, which would have to focus on a single issue: whether, and how, Laura’s deportation had been coerced.
At a pretrial hearing of Maria S. v. John Doe, Hanen clarified this critical question. Laura, he noted, had signed an I-826 form in the hours before her removal, checking the box giving up her right to seek asylum, which reads, “I admit that I am in the United States illegally, and I believe I do not face harm if I return to my country.” Why? If Laura really feared for her life, had she signed under duress? Or did she check the box voluntarily?
Harbury tracked down one of the friends who had been in the car that night. She was frightened but agreed to testify. While seated at the processing station, the woman recalled, Laura wept and begged the border officer—Ramiro Garza—not to send her back. The officer, she said, had a gun and an “annoyed” expression. He put the paperwork in front of Laura, and ordered her to sign. “This is an injustice!” Laura objected, according to the friend. Garza, she said, “mocked” Laura, and pressed again. The pair went back and forth until Laura caved. (Garza denied this version of events, and said that he would never force anyone to sign the form.) Laura’s friend said that her own decision to sign was influenced by the prospect of the long detention that often accompanies fighting deportation. “I didn’t want to be locked in,” she said, “because I have children.”
In July, 2017, Hanen finally handed down his ruling. “This case presents one of the most lamentable set of circumstances that this Court has ever been called upon to address,” Hanen wrote. It left the court with “a profound sense of sadness about the disastrous chain of events that ended in the defendant’s murder.” But he said that he couldn’t overcome the problem that “the only person who can truly reveal Laura S.’s motivation” in checking the box—Laura herself—“was killed.” As a result, coercion was hard to prove. Perhaps she was coerced, Hanen said, or perhaps she signed the I-826 so that she wouldn’t be in detention during her son’s surgery, or for some other unknown or unknowable reason.
“Despite their best efforts,” Hanen ruled, “Plaintiffs have failed to clear the evidentiary hurdle created by the death of Laura S.” The case was dismissed.
Harbury felt heartsick, but she’d always known that the case might have to wind its way through higher appeals courts. Last August, Harbury and the other lawyers filed with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the case should be heard by a jury. They noted that the lawsuit’s outcome “directly affects ongoing life and death situations” for other immigrants. Harbury is hopeful that, if success eludes them in the initial appeals, the case will eventually reach the Supreme Court. And if no justice emerges there? Harbury and her team will turn to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. There, they can draw on treaties meant to protect immigrants like those the United States failed in the Second World War.
For Laura’s family, the stakes of the case are profound. But they also have other, more immediate worries. Not long after Laura’s murder, Elizabeth’s purse was stolen from her car. Her visa—her only proof of legal status—was inside. Then, in 2015, she learned about Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or daca, which was intended for people who had come to the U.S. as children and, in many cases, grown up here, who wanted to work legally, get an education, and stay in the place they considered home. Elizabeth decided to apply. She had to prove that she’d come to the U.S. before the age of sixteen, posed no threat to national security, and met a list of other criteria. Not long after submitting her materials, she was notified that she had won legal relief, and officially become a Dreamer.
Politically, Obama’s daca policies have been hugely popular. Recent polls show that more than three out of four Americans support allowing Dreamers to remain in the U.S., and two-thirds of Republicans back a pathway to citizenship for them. But, last September, Elizabeth got frightening news: Trump had ordered an end to the program, and had given Congress six months to extend its protections. Elizabeth had to submit a renewal request before an October deadline, but she couldn’t afford the legal fees. Her immigration attorney, she told me, refused to return her paperwork without a substantial payment.
In December, Elizabeth’s daca status expired. If a legislative solution isn’t reached by early March, nearly seven hundred thousand people in the U.S. will be stripped of their legal status and their protection from deportation. Earlier this month, three former Homeland Security Secretaries, including Michael Chertoff, who served under George W. Bush, wrote a letter to Congress underscoring the importance of a daca fix. “We write not only in strong support of this legislation, but to stress that it should be enacted speedily, in order to meet the significant administrative requirements of implementation, as well as the need to provide certainty for employers and these young people,” the letter read.
Some Dreamers fear for their lives if sent back. Elizabeth testified against Sergio at his murder trial, and she told me that he has called her relatives in Reynosa from prison to make death threats against her. When she lost her legal status, she also lost her work permit, and therefore her job. Some days, anxiety overtakes her. “I’m still trying my best,” she recently texted me, “which is what matters.”
Still, when I asked Elizabeth what she would tell President Trump if they ever met, she immediately thought of Laura’s boys. “Please be conscious of what happens when a woman gets deported,” she said. “It’s not only what could happen to her—it’s the family she leaves behind, in America. Please think of those kids.”
At home last summer, Laura’s boys celebrated what would have been their mother’s thirty-first birthday. Maria decorated a vanilla cake with fresh carnations and hung streamers from the ceiling in Laura’s favorite colors: purple, pink, and light blue. She gathered the family in the living room—the three boys and Elizabeth, as well as aunts and uncles and cousins—and handed out pens. Each person wrote a message to Laura on a piece of notebook paper, which they tied to pink balloons and launched into the sky.
“Hi, mami,” Laura’s youngest wrote, in Spanish. “I miss you.” He said that he hoped to have four careers—as “a basketball player, a Nascar driver, an engineer, and a YouTuber”—so that he could send his earnings to his mom in Heaven, after buying himself a “fancy refrigerator.”
The oldest boy told me of his plans to persuade the rapper Drake to adopt him. He loved Drake’s music, and his style, and his Instagram feed, and he knew Drake would love his, too. “Hey, Mom,” he wrote. “I need you to take care of me.”
Laura’s middle child kept his note secret, but he showed me a poster board he’d made for his mother, with colorful pompoms and photographs glued above a poem he’d written: “Wave after wave / Crushes onto my legs / I remember Mom’s every word / To help me stand on my own two feet.”
At the kitchen table, the boys played with an iPhone. “Siri, what is ten to the thousandth?” the youngest asked. “Siri, who am I?”
“Who is my mommy?”
“Who is Donald Trump?”
“How old is Donald Trump?”
The oldest chimed in, “Siri, can I call my mom?”
Maria sometimes envies the boys’ approach to death. She told me that twice Laura’s eldest son had stood at the bus stop after school, craning his neck, waiting. “What is it?” she asked.
“When is Mom coming?” he replied.
“Mom’s not coming,” she told her grandson. “Remember where we left her?” she asked gently, pulling him close. “We left her on the other side of the border.” ♦
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