Deportations and the denial of human dignity

As President Obama’s administration approaches a record-setting two millionth deportation, an immigration enforcement “accomplishment” never achieved by any other president, many faith leaders are rightly focusing on the hardship that each of these deportations inflicts on families and communities torn apart by our broken immigration system. However, lost in this important debate as to whether Obama should suspend deportations is the dangerous manner in which these deportations are being carried out.

Migrants are frequently deported after midnight without identity documents, prescription medications and valuable personal belongings. Families are routinely split up during the deportation process, and men are, at times, deported to Mexican border towns the U.S. State Department has deemed too dangerous for tourists and its own personnel. Inadequate provision for the safety of particularly vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, pregnant women, and elderly or infirm individuals, is a pervasive concern. Unsafe deportation practices also fuel the organized crime economy of Northern Mexico border towns by supplying women, men and children for robberies, extortions, kidnappings, and trafficking.

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My Catholic faith teaches that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, possess human dignity and are worthy of respect. In its memorandum of understanding on the safe repatriation of Mexican nationals, the U.S. government recognizes in word the human dignity of the migrant by demanding that deportations to Mexico be carried out in a “safe, orderly, dignified and humane” manner. However, a review of the evidence indicates that in deed this commitment is not carried out.

Safe deportation procedures would not allow for deporting an individual at 3 a.m. when local shelters close their doors at 9 p.m., leaving the deported migrant at the mercy of local gangs or organized crime for the remainder of the night. An orderly deportation process would not fail to return a migrant’s money, cell phone or documents, stranding him on the border with no way to contact family, journey home, or prove his identity. A dignified deportation practice would not permit the deportation of a woman in serious medical distress without notifying Mexican authorities in advance so they can prepare for her care. A humane deportation does not separate family members, sending a woman and her children to one location while deporting her husband to a town hundreds of miles away without providing any information on the spouse’s whereabouts or how to reunite.

Unsafe deportations and careless disregard for the lives and security of migrants contribute to a humanitarian crisis on the other side of our border.  This reality is undermining our nation’s commitment to preserve and protect human rights globally.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has the authority, opportunity and the moral imperative to reform our nation’s deportation practices. He could do this by ending nighttime deportations and those to particularly dangerous locations, by maintaining family unity during the deportation process, and by ensuring the return of all migrants’ belongings.

It is immoral and intolerable that deportations so often endanger the lives of deportees and cause trauma and tragedy. I join many others in the faith community in calling on the Administration to immediately enact simple deportation safeguards to protect migrant lives. 

Smolich is the president of the Jesuit Conference of the United States.