By Ben Pope, Medill, Immigrant Connect
After navigating a maze of court appearances, after appeals and petitions have been filed and resolved, after the decision to go forward with deportation has been finalized, an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. is physically transported to their country of origin.
The details of how deportation itself works, however, are often under-reported or even unavailable underneath the mass of information surrounding the complex legal proceedings.
That’s partially because neither the immigrant nor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) typically wants attention. In 2010, an Associated Press reporter was allowed a rare opportunity to accompany immigrants as their deportation flight took them from O’Hare International Airport to Harlingen, Texas. The story, “Inside O’Hare Deportation Flights,” depicted a process that started before sunrise in large holding cells in suburban Broadview as they said goodbye to their families through a glass separation.
Most of those being deported had been convicted of a crime in the US. At that point, deportation flights left O’Hare twice a week. From Harlingen, they were escorted onto buses and taken to Brownsville where they walked across a bridge into Mexico.
Though physical removal is wrenching even it if had been anticipated for months, it is also surprisingly straightforward in most cases, according to John Eluwa, an immigration attorney practicing in Raleigh, N.C., with about 20 years of experience advising clients on the deportation process.
Eluwa outlined two standard ways in which individuals can be deported by ICE, once a court makes official the decision to do so.
If individuals are physically in court for the decision, they are given, on average, about 90 days to pack their baggage and arrange other logistics before they leave the country.
If the individual is already being held in detention when the decision is finalized, they are subject to deportation at any time as soon as a visa or other travel document to secure their re-entry into their country of origin is obtained.
But some complications can occur for both ICE and the deportee.
Travel documents can occasionally be difficult for ICE to obtain if the foreign nation is uncooperative.
Twenty-three different countries, including China, India, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia but typically not the countries to which ICE deports immigrants most often, have a history of not always producing travel documents for immigrants the U.S. wants to deport there, according to a recent CNN report, “Trump order seeks to cut through obstacles of deporting criminals.” This situation often occurs when the country to which the individual is to be deported has a limited or poorly organized central government, such as some third-world African nations, or if the individual has a violent criminal history — either in the U.S. or in their country of origin — and if the country doesn’t want them back.
If ICE cannot obtain a document after 12 months, immigrants held in detention must legally be re-released into the U.S. and report back to the ICE at regular intervals, Eluwa said.
Meanwhile, the immigrant must deal with their personal property holdings in the U.S. Physical property can usually be shipped to their country of origin, but other titles and holdings — such as business ownership — must be transferred to a relative, significant other or other U.S. resident, or it will be turned over to the government on the date of deportation.
Once that date comes, the physical removal is routine.
Immigrants being returned to Mexico will usually be bused to the border with other immigrants in ICE vehicles.
Immigrants being returned to overseas countries will be accompanied by ICE agents — typically two of the same gender as the immigrant — and fly on commercial flights alongside normal passengers. Unless other passengers know what to look for, Eluwa said, they might not even realize what is occurring on their flight.
Only in specific, high-priority cases will the deportee be handcuffed or shackled during the removal.
That, at least, is how the removal process usually works and is supposed to work, said Eluwa. But, based on firsthand accounts from individuals, that’s not always the case.
Several deported immigrants interviewed by the American Immigration Council in 2016 claimed they were given false information about their destinations on the date they were removed. One said she was told her family was being moved to another room in the same facility; another said his wife was told she was just being transported to Virginia. On both occasions, the individuals were actually being deported out of the U.S.
Moreover, in states along the Mexican border where immigrants sometimes have as little as 30 days (shorter than the national average of 90 days) to collect their belongings before removal, individuals held in prison for illegal entry are often not released until after the 30-day mark. As a result, their property is often turned over to the government and stored, awaiting destruction, before they are afforded an opportunity to obtain it.