Criminal Deportations: Effects On U.S., Latin America

Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently announced that it deported nearly 400,000 people in fiscal year 2011, and that more than half had criminal convictions. Michel Martin learns more from Associated Press Writer Laura Wides-Munoz, and Alex Sanchez, who illegally came to the U.S. as a child and was deported after serving time in a California prison. Sanchez now legally lives in the U.S.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, after a few bumpy weeks on the campaign trail Texas Governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry releases a new proposal for a flat tax. Will it smooth his path to his party's nomination? We'll ask in the Beauty Shop. That's in just a few minutes, but first it's been a week since Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, announced that the agency has set a record in the number of people deported from the United States.

In the fiscal year 2011, which ended last month, the agency deported nearly 400,000 people. Among those deported the agency said 55 percent were convicted of crimes, including homicide, drug trafficking and sexual offenses. The Obama administration has been defending its record, saying it is appropriate as a national security measure to rid the country of people who have committed serious crimes.

Today though, we wanted to talk about the other side of this story. In particular we want to talk about how deporting criminal immigrants affects the areas where they've lived in the U.S. and how it affects their home countries once they have returned. Joining us to talk about this, Laura Wides-Munoz. She is a Hispanic affairs writer for The Associated Press in Miami. Also with us, Alex Sanchez. He is a former gang member and was himself deported to his native El Salvador in the mid 1990's.

He's back in the U.S. legally. He's now the executive director of Homies Unidos. That's the group that tries to combat gang violence in both the U.S. and in El Salvador, and tries to offer assistance to deportees. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

ALEX SANCHEZ: Thank you for having us.

LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ: Good to be here.

MARTIN: Laura, let me start with you. You've reported that people on both sides of the immigration debate have been critical of these figures from ICE. What specifically are their concerns about this 55 percent of deportees who are convicted criminals?

WIDES-MUNOZ: Sure. There are a couple issues. People who said the government is not doing enough say that too many folks are just being returned across the border and they're not actually getting official deportation which means they don't face serious penalties upon return. The other side, immigration groups, complain that too many of the folks who are being deported aren't sort of this high priority serious felon but in fact are people who get sort of swept up for either smaller crimes or actually for the felony of being convicted of having returned to the U.S. after you've been deported.

MARTIN: OK. Well, Alex let me bring you into the conversation because you have a unique experience. You and your family came to this country - think there's no dispute is there that you came without proper documentation at the time, right?

SANCHEZ: Correct.

MARTIN: OK. Then you were deported in 1994 after you got involved with gang activities after spending time in state prison. Could you talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

SANCHEZ: Well, the issue of being - thinking that you're going to be released from prison after serving your time for the crime that you committed, and I had in mind that attitude that I wanted to change. When all of a sudden, you know, a day - two days before my release, you know, immigration shows up at the prison and yanks me from my cell and tells me that I'm going to be facing deportation. It hit me but I wasn't surprised.

All I thought was, you know, to come back home because I had made home, the United States in Los Angeles since I was 7 years old when my parents sent for me. So, yeah, it was an epiphany of what life was going to be for me in a country that I didn't know.

MARTIN: What happened when you got back to El Salvador? What was it like there?

SANCHEZ: In some ways I was going back to go to see those places that everybody else that came older than me to the United States will talk about. Going over there as a tourist, I guess, and within in a month coming back. The unfortunate thing was that as soon as I got dropped off at the airport I panicked, I feared and I said, no, I can't be a tourist. Now, I got to be in a survival mode because I don't know where I'm going to and the stories that I used to hear about people in El Salvador were horrific.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about that if you would for a minute there. You're saying, well, what are some of the stories that you had heard about what happened to people who had been deported particularly if they had gang affiliations and went back to El Salvador. What were some of those stories?

SANCHEZ: Well, the many people because they didn't know the perimeters of the areas where different gangs exist so, you know where to go, where not to go was one of the main factors in many of these individuals being targeted by rival gangs. The other thing was the law enforcement, you know, was also part of this way of reducing violence which was killing some of the gang members that they found, you know, along the way.

MARTIN: You were hearing that they were target assassinations actually?

SANCHEZ: Right, exactly.

MARTIN: Of former gang members?

SANCHEZ: I mean, there were...

MARTIN: (Unintelligible), yeah.

SANCHEZ: ...people disappearing from the airport because they didn't have anybody waiting for them was scary enough, you know?

MARTIN: Laura, can I just ask you about this, in fact the Los Angeles Times has previously reported about the deportation of former gang members back to central America.

WIDES-MUNOZ: Right.

MARTIN: They talked about people actually being recruited by their former gangs in their home countries. The El Salvador's then vice-minister of security called it a, quote, "unending chain" of gang members just being shuttled back and forth across the borders, and then, of course, you heard stories like Alex's. What have you heard?

WIDES-MUNOZ: Well, I think one of the main issues is we've all heard stories about folks, you know, just for having a tattoo they're then targeted. This is obviously a major problem for Central America which, you know, at the same time is facing a huge uptick in gang activity and drug trafficking. You know, one of the fallout from all this is that people want to come back here and the number of Hispanics now in prison, you know, is more than 50 percent of all people in for felonies and a large percentage of that increase has to do with immigration-related convictions.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in for a minute. If you're just joining us I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about figures showing that the Obama administration has deported a record number of people in the last fiscal year. The administration says the majority of them are people with criminal records. We're talking about what happens when these people do get deported and when they go back to their home countries. We're speaking with Laura Wides-Munoz, the Hispanic affairs writer for The Associated Press in Miami.

Also with us, Alex Sanchez, executive director of Homies Unidos. That's an anti-gang an anti-violence organization. He was deported himself and he's now back in the country legally. But Laura you can imagine the people hearing this in this country anyway are probably not going to be terribly sympathetic to this.

WIDES-MUNOZ: I was about to say, that's, you know, that's the issue.

MARTIN: So, I would like to ask you why should Americans even be concerned about this? If they say, look, people committed crimes in this country, that's what supposed to happen. You know, why should I be concerned about this?

WIDES-MUNOZ: Well, I'm not sure that you will be able to convince many Americans that they should be worried about gang members who are deported after committing crimes here. I think what Americans should be concerned about is whether families are getting split up. That does have an impact on schools, on health services because, again, sometimes families, you know, half are here legally and half maybe not. But what I do think, you know, it sort of gets lost in this is that there are a lot of folks who are not gang members who are getting picked up for very minor crimes.

It could even be things like, you know, in driving without a license because obviously you're an illegal immigrant these days it's much tougher to get a driver's license, and within the number of convicted criminals there's sort of this huge number of unknowns of how many of those folks were actually convicted of anything as I said more than just the felony of reentry or even a minor crime. And that would be really helpful if we could get more stats breaking those down from the Department of Homeland Security.

MARTIN: Laura, does your reporting indicate whether these countries - particularly the countries that are destination countries for the deportees - do they feel that they're adding to instability in their own countries? Do they feel that they're basically a recruiting ground for criminal...

WIDES-MUNOZ: Yes, I think (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: ...syndicates in their countries?

WIDES-MUNOZ: Right, I think the answer is yes and yes, and then the question is are they in a position to sort of lobby the U.S. not to send people back? And I think the answer is probably no. You know, they get aid from us. We are collaborating with them. Our DEA, you know, DEA folks are collaborating with them on the ground. I don't know that they have the voice to say don't send these folks back, and again, they are citizens of those countries.

MARTIN: I see. Alex, can I ask you quick before we let you go, how did you take care of yourself when you were in El Salvador? As you mentioned, this is a country you hadn't lived in since you were seven years old. So how did you take care of yourself and how did you eventually find your way back to the U.S.?

SANCHEZ: Well, one of the first things, as you know, you're confronted by everything that's out there; the violence, the lack of jobs, even the lack of understanding the language, you know, because it's different from the language that you speak here. And, you know, it was difficult. I wasn't able to get a job down there because of the tattoos that I have.

And, during the time that I got there was when the Death Squad, the Black Shadow, or La Sombra Negra, was publicly executing gang members, specifically those that had been deported. So, obviously, I had to be bouncing from one place to another place until I was able to get enough money for me to take this route that, believe me, if I wouldn't have a son over here or if I wouldn't have been persecuted, I would not have risked coming back into the United States.

As an undocumented immigrant, I have to experience this inhumane treatment coming across that border. On top of that, I mean, to face federal reentry charges just for crossing the border, which eventually, I faced. You know, so it wasn't of my choosing that I had to flee. It was just my human instinct for survival that I had to flee El Salvador.

MARTIN: And you eventually were granted asylum. Do I have that right, that you were eventually granted asylum here in the US?

SANCHEZ: I eventually - you know, I was able to get involved with an organization. I was able to prove to the immigration courts that I have been targeted by Death Squad, that I have been tortured in the prisons down there when arrested. You know, and I had documentation of those incidents and I have people from El Salvador also come to testify in the courts. So I was able to win political asylum.

MARTIN: OK. Final thought from you, Laura?

WIDES-MUNOZ: Well, I think one thing that's interesting is that, you know, the notion that, well, you were a guest in this country and you should know better. You know, you're sort of held to a higher standard. I think many Americans feel that way, but I think one thing to remember is that a lot of these kids who ended up in the gangs got in trouble pretty young and may not have known that they could be deported.

And so the difference between an adult who commits a crime who's here illegally and knows that they can be deported and a 14 or 15 year old, you know, there is some difference and maybe within communities, whether there needs to be greater education about the risks you face as a youth, you know, if you commit crimes when you are not documented here in U.S.

MARTIN: Alex, can you just give me a final thought about how you would ask Americans to think about this very difficult issue? As we've discussed, this is not an easy question for people to wrap their heads around.

SANCHEZ: Right. I think that there should be a process and an opportunity. I know that U.S. citizens believe in second chances, and we should start thinking about that in that perspective. You know, somebody that has paid their dues, that went to prison already and they want to reestablish themselves and they need to take that into consideration. If this person is doing the right thing, he's contributing, you know, to their community with their children, definitely, you know, we need to look at the reasons why people are fleeing.

We have never really taken a close look as to why they're using immigrants' remittances. They're exporting immigrants to maintain a country and that's where we really start looking at; how to tell those governments to stop exporting immigrants.

MARTIN: Alex Sanchez is the executive director of Homies Unidos. That's an anti-gang and anti-violence organization in Los Angeles. He joined us from his office in Los Angeles.

Laura Wides-Munoz is a Hispanic affairs writer for the Associated Press in Miami. She joined us from her office in Miami.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SANCHEZ: Thank you for giving us the opportunity.

WIDES-MUNOZ: Thank you very much, Michel.

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