Importantly, the 90 percent receive formal deportation notices, making them ineligible for any type of visa for five years. If the deportees are caught again, they are more likely to face criminal charges or do jail time before being returned to their home countries. They also are banned from any legalization process for at least 20 years. Those who have a record of other crimes in the U.S. could face prison terms from 10 to 20 years.
These tougher policies have prompted criticism from a humanitarian perspective. The harsh consequences of deportation are a sore spot for advocates who say that the hard-core laws split up law-abiding families. It is not uncommon for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens, who if not picked up would qualify for green cards, to find themselves deported to their countries of origin with orders not to return for a decade. The federal government’s dramatic increase in formal deportations means that the people who cross the border just to find work have a permanent mark against them if they are caught.
That’s exactly the point, according to Customs and Border Protection’s Special Operations Supervisor Donna Twyford, who runs the Tucson Coordination Center where 90 percent of the foreigners caught in Arizona are processed. “We are trying to provide multiple layers of effect,” she told National Journal. “We want to impress on their psyche” that they have broken the law. Part of that message comes through showmanship. The Tucson center has a courtroom and a full-time immigration judge who gavels daily “quick court” sessions dressed in full robes for some of the people being deported. They admit under oath that they entered the country illegally. “It makes an impression,” Twyford said.
The most common punishment for illegal entrants in Arizona is a formal removal in which they are transported to border crossing in California or Texas, far from where they crossed into the United States. About 43,000 aliens met that fate in Arizona last year. “We want to try to break the smuggling cycle,” she said. “To smugglers, aliens are a commodity. We take that commodity [from there] and put it over here.”
Twyford showed NJ the record of a typical candidate for the Alien Transfer Exit Program: a male who was caught twice in the same month in 2005. He was captured twice again last year, once in January and once in July. After his last apprehension, he was formally deported. Agents on site said he was typical of those who come through the center, with multiple crossings but no other criminal record.
For illegals believed to be higher up in the smugglers’ pecking order, the Border Patrol conducts full-fledged prosecutions. Those who enter the country through highly trafficked “zero-tolerance” zones or have records of drug or human smuggling can serve 30 to 180 days in jail before being deported. Those with drug or other criminal convictions are referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Last year, almost 26,000 illegal entrants in Arizona were tried under these circumstances. The minimum charge was criminal entry; nearly 10,000 faced more serious charges.
Bolstered resources and improved technologies have made it easier for Customs and Border Protection to be more deliberate—and, in some cases, harsher—about the fates of illegal entrants. In the past, an alien’s identifying information mostly came from interviews and a few scattered records. Now, each processing terminal has electronic fingerprint readers. Using consolidated databases that began in the previous administration, an agent can pull up records within a few minutes.
The Tucson Coordination Center is a hub of activity. Last year, it processed more than 100,000 foreigners. The buses that deport them run daily on a schedule. “Just like Greyhound,” Twyford quipped. The turnover is quick. People usually cycle through within 48 hours. The Tucson agents are less busy than they were several years ago, though. Twyford said that the decrease in apprehensions has allowed them to refine their investigative techniques. For example, agents now have more time to interview border-crossers privately to ferret out higher-level smugglers.
Illegal entrants all are treated initially as potential criminals—albeit, criminals with human needs. Even before they arrive at the processing center, they are searched for weapons or contraband. Cheese crackers and juice boxes are available every four hours. Men are separated from women, but families with children are allowed to remain together. Hot food, usually hamburgers, is offered every eight hours; non-beef-eaters get chicken sandwiches or salad.
Upon arrival at the center, they undergo another search in a secure holding area. Agents take their belongings in the manner of airport baggage checkers. If the bags don’t contain drugs or other contraband, they are returned to their owners when they leave—minus any U.S. money. Border-crossers hide their valuables in clever places, in part to guard against robbery in the desert. NJ observed one search in which a young man removed several $10 and $20 bills from inside the collar of his polo shirt.