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This Is What Deportation Looks Like

By Margaret Regan

ICE arrest
Photo credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)

What if Donald Trump follows through on his vow to deport millions of undocumented immigrants as soon as he becomes president?

Due process for the immigrants may slow him down, but he says he’s determined to get started right away with deportations of immigrants convicted of crimes. (He says the number is two to three million but others dispute that, citing a lower figure of 1.9 million.) In August 2016, in a blistering campaign speech in Phoenix, he vowed to create a “new special Deportation Task Force” to root out “criminal illegal immigrants,” but he didn’t spare immigrants not convicted of crimes.

“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” he said. More recently, after the election, he said he would look at the cases of “terrific” immigrants once the border is secured.

But his plans and statements shift rapidly, and his actual practices after January 20 are unknowable. In November, after the election, he said he would move ahead first with the rapid deportation (or incarceration) of criminals. He showed a possible softening, though, when he said that after he’s secured the border, he would look at the cases of immigrants who are “terrific people.”

If he proceeds with the expensive wholesale deportations, the eleven million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States now would not be the only people affected. The round-ups would have a devastating impact on mixed-status families, on the US citizen children who would lose a mother or father, and on the legal permanent residents who would lose a partner, or a child. The 700,000 DACA recipients—the young people who came here as children and got temporary waivers allowing them to stay, work and go to school—could easily be rooted out. The federal government already has detailed data on their whereabouts.

What would mass deportations look like? Trump could revert to the giant raids of the George W. Bush administration: the armed invasions of factories that took 361 seamstresses in a textile mill in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 2007; and nearly 400 meat workers in a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, in 2008.

Or he could follow the pattern of President Obama. Obama mostly avoided major workplace raids; in his administration, ICE officers more often knocked on doors and hauled families out of their homes. But the sheer numbers in Trump’s plan might require more drastic measures. Obama has deported a record 2.5 million immigrants, but it’s taken him eight years. By contrast Trump promises to deport that many or more in a very short period at the beginning of his term.

Ironically, Trump’s plan to start with convicts mirrors Obama’s stated intent to go after only those with criminal convictions. In real life, of course, deportations haven’t always worked out that way. Sometimes the person nabbed by ICE is not a hardened criminal. Sometimes it’s a peaceful, hard-working single mom with kids dependent on her. Sometimes it’s an immigrant like Elena Santiago.

The first time I met Elena, she was standing in Mexico, on the south side of the massive metal post wall that divides the border town of Nogales, Arizona, from its sister city of Nogales, Sonora. She liked to stay near the border wall—it was as close as she could get to her two kids up in Phoenix.

Elena (not her real name) was a native of Mexico City who’d been brought to the United States by her mother at age thirteen. She spent her teen years picking onions and carrots in the agricultural fields west of Phoenix, sacrificing her education to put food on America’s tables. As an adult, she moved onto restaurant and retail work, a work history that had been interrupted the year before by a knock on the door. At age thirty-nine, she’d been wrenched from her home by ICE. When I met her, she was just turning forty. And she hadn’t seen either of her children in almost a year since the day she was deported from the United States and dumped down here over the border in Mexico.

Elena did eventually get her daughter back, but not without a court fight. And when the little girl returned after fourteen months of separation, she and her mother no longer spoke the same language. The son was a different story. Elena never got him back.

Below is a piece of Elena’s complicated story, as she told it to me. In my book Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, she has her own chapter: it’s called “Woman Without a Country.” She begins with the account of the raid on her house.


Detained and Deported“It was on the third of November 2011,” Elena said in Spanish, slumping a little at the table at Leo’s restaurant in Nogales, Sonora. “ICE came to my house. They didn’t come inside.”

It was a school day and Elena was up early, as usual, in her rental house in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix, getting her family ready for the day. She had her job at a store to get to, fifteen-year-old Luis would be going off to high school, and little Camila, just two, would tag along with her mom to work. Among the million morning tasks she faced as a single working mom, she had to feed the pets. The family had a whole menagerie of animals, “two dogs, two cats, two turtles,” she said proudly. “I bought them for my kids. I had a big yard.”

When she went out back to tend to them, she heard odd noises coming from out in front of the house. She came back in, and when Luis had his backpack on and Camila was zipped into her jacket, Elena opened the front door and saw what she most feared. A platoon of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, armed and ominous, were gathered outside. A fleet of law enforcement vehicles idled in the road.

“They closed the street, like I was a criminal,” she said, trembling at the memory. “There were a lot of cars, a lot of agents.

Elena was terrified but she buckled her toddler into her car seat and shooed her son into the car. At the moment she started to get behind the wheel, an agent called out her name on a megaphone, broadcasting it full blast for all the neighbors to hear.

“Elena Santiago,” he bellowed. “Elena Santiago.”

The officers came over and handcuffed her in full sight of the kids, marched her over to one of their SUVs, and locked her into the back. Seeing their mother in the hands of the police, both kids started wailing.

“The police turned on their car radio so I couldn’t hear the children,” Elena said.

Inside the ICE SUV, over the din of the radio blaring and the kids screaming, the officers started asking questions. “Are you pregnant? Sick? Taking medicine?” Then they came to the most fateful: “Who are you going to leave the kids with?”

Elena had no one who could help her. Her mother was dead. The kids’ fathers were out of the picture. She had only one real friend, a woman who was in no position to take in Luis and Camila. So the agents called Arizona’s Child Protective Services, the agency that takes abused, neglected, and abandoned children and puts them into foster care.

In short order, a CPS woman arrived and leaned into the window. “Do you want to sign the children over to us?” she asked.

“I said, ‘Yes. Temporarily,’ ” Elena recounted.

Armed with the document that Elena signed, the CPS worker turned to the kids. Luis always an attentive big brother, cradled the screaming Camila in his arms and climbed into the CPS van. In that anguished moment of seeing her kids taken from her, Elena suddenly remembered the family pets.

“I said to one of the agents, ‘What about my dogs? My dogs are going to die.’”

The agent, she said, turned to her and sneered, “Who cares about the dogs?”

Elena trembled as she remembered his casual cruelty. “It was all for my kids,” she said of the animals. Ten months later, she had no idea what had become of the dogs and cats and turtles, not to mention the family’s furniture and electronics and clothes and car.

The family, divided into two vehicles, went their separate ways, the children to CPS, their mother to ICE. Elena watched out the window of the ICE SUV as the kids’ van disappeared into the distance. She hadn’t even been allowed to say good-bye.

The agents, and the US government, had everything they needed to deport Elena from the country where she’d lived since she was a young teen, and away from the country where she’d given birth to her two children, both of them US citizens.

“En horas,” Elena said—within hours—ICE put her on a bus headed for the Mexican border. Three hours and 180 miles later, she walked south over the line with other deportees, past the dusty canyons separating Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Sonora, past the border wall, into Mexico, a country where she had not set foot in twenty-seven years.

She would get no news of her children for a month.


In Nogales, Elena found herself in a shifting community of deportees, all of them suddenly stranded in a confusing town that few of them knew. Elena was used to Phoenix, a wide-open city sprawling out over the flat desert between the mountains, its millions of residents, Elena included, routinely negotiating its boulevards by car. Nogales was completely different. A teeming hill town of about 212,000, Nogales was jammed with pedestrians, street vendors, and cars jockeying for position on narrow, bumpy streets. Taxis honked and music spilled out of the stores. Hemmed in on the north by the border wall, the town climbed up and down crazily steep hills.

In 2011, the year that Elena was deported, 54,977 deportados flooded the town, the equivalent of a quarter of the city’s population.

They had become a familiar sight in town. The border crossers who’d been caught in Arizona by the Border Patrol and quickly returned were still dusty from the desert, their mochilas—backpacks—strapped to their backs. The detainees who’d been in Eloy or Florence lugged all their worldly goods in the clear plastic bags issued by ICE. Elena didn’t even have that much. She had only the clothes on her back, no ID, no money, no nothing.

Like many of her fellow deportees she had lived in the United States for years and was traumatized by the abrupt separation from her family. She was desperate to return North.

Elena stuck close to the border, near a soup kitchen and the migrant shelters. Typically the guests had to leave these refuges at first light. Winter and summer, the displaced men and women spent dreary days in the elements, idling outside offices, roaming the streets. They sat on benches outside the office of Grupos Beta, the Mexican border force whose mission is to help migrants. Or they took naps in the cemetery, sleeping behind gravestones to escape the scrutiny of the local police.

Elena found her way to the shelter at the bus station Transportes Fronterizos, right by the border wall, and stayed for a month and a half. It was a rough, bare-bones affair in a shabby set of buildings, but it provided the wayfarers with a bed or maybe a mattress on the floor. The men slept in a crumbling trailer outfitted with bunk beds and the women on double beds and floor mats in an upstairs room reached by a set of rickety stairs. Temperatures in Nogales drop down to the twenties at night in winter, when Elena was there, and the shelter’s showers were outdoors, open to the sky.

Elena was afraid in the crowded city. Twice, she told me later, men had tried to drag her into their cars. The Sinaloa drug cartel controlled the region; known by migrants as la mafia, the narcotraficantes had expanded into the lucrative human smuggling trade. The federales—armed Mexican soldiers—were in town too. As we talked at Leo’s, we saw a truckload of helmeted soldiers bouncing down the rough street, their rifles propped up, aimed at the sky.

It’s hard to know what might have happened to Elena if she hadn’t encountered some journalists from Los Angeles. They were in town interviewing deportees, and told her about No More Deaths, a human rights group out of Tucson that helps deportees in Nogales and migrants in the desert. The volunteers ran a telephone ministry, proffering cell phones to deportees to phone home. A month into her time in Nogales, Elena went to them for help.

Elena told the workers that she hadn’t talked to her kids in a month and didn’t even know where they were. The only number she had was for CPS, and she hadn’t been able to connect to a live person when she called on a borrowed phone.

Volunteer Hannah Hafter got in touch with social worker in Tucson, who quickly worked her contacts at CPS. Within days, she found out the whereabouts—and phone numbers—of Luis and Camila. Luis was in a group home in Glendale, and Camila was living with English-speaking foster parents in a suburban town way east of Phoenix. When Hannah got the numbers, she handed Elena a phone, and for the first time in a long and painful month, Elena was able to speak with her children.

When Elena heard Camila’s high-pitched voice say “Mamá?” she “just cried and cried and cried,” Hannah said later. “It was like you could see this darkness lift off of her.”


About the Author

image from www.beaconbroadside.comMargaret Regan is the author of two award-winning books: Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire, a 2015 Southwest Book of the Year; and  The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, a 2010 Southwest Book of the Year and a Common Read for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A longtime writer for the Tucson Weekly, Regan has won many regional and national awards for her immigration reporting, including the 2016 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lectureship at Roosevelt University, Chicago. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.