ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Many immigrants from El Salvador are also afraid that if they return to their home country, they could be killed. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Sarah Stillman investigates when deportation is a death sentence. Stillman runs the Global Migration Project at Columbia University's journalism school. Over many months, she and a team of students created a record of people who had been deported to Mexico and Central America and then killed or harmed. Sarah Stillman, welcome to the program.
SARAH STILLMAN: Thanks so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: You begin this article with a story of a 23-year-old woman named Laura who lived in Texas, had a restraining order against her husband in Mexico and was detained in a routine traffic stop. What happened to her?
STILLMAN: So Laura had actually been living in the U.S. for most of her adult life. She had U.S. citizen children. She was living in Texas. And one night, she was driving home from work when she was just pulled over for allegedly driving between two lanes. And the cop, when he stopped her, found out that she was undocumented. And he made the, at the time, unconventional decision to call Border Patrol to the scene.
And she pled for her life saying, I've got this protective order. I've been getting death threats from my ex-spouse who's back in Mexico who has joined a drug cartel. He really will kill me if I'm sent back. Nonetheless, that very same night, she was coerced into signing immediate removal paperwork and was marched across the bridge.
SHAPIRO: She said something really chilling to the border agent who detained her.
STILLMAN: Yes. Her last words actually to the Border Patrol agent who was sending her back across the bridge were, you know, when I'm found dead, it will be on your conscience. And indeed, that's exactly what transpired. Her body was found in a vehicle incinerated after she had been strangled.
SHAPIRO: What is supposed to happen when somebody who is in the country illegally says they have a legitimate fear of being killed if they're sent back to their home country?
STILLMAN: What's supposed to happen both before international law that we have all agreed to through the United Nations and through protocols that we came up with after World War II is that people who present themselves to Border Patrol with claims that they may be killed or harmed if they are sent back to their home countries are supposed to get a shot before an asylum officer and if their claims are deemed credible before an immigration judge.
But our immigration laws have changed quite a bit since 1996 when it was made possible to very instantaneously deport people right back across the border, sometimes without giving them a chance to really make their claims and certainly without a chance to ever be heard by an immigration judge.
SHAPIRO: It seems as though those claims would be very difficult to prove, especially if people arrive in the U.S. with little to no documentation.
STILLMAN: It's really tough, and it's made all the more tough by the fact that many of the people showing up right now are people who fled gang violence in Central America's Northern Triangle - so El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. And those are people who often don't even qualify for asylum despite the fact that they really do fear for their lives because, you know, we came up with these refugee protections in the aftermath, as I mentioned, of World War II. And at that time, we were thinking about claims that people who were being politically persecuted, who were being persecuted on behalf of their race or their nationality. And many of these people can't cross the bar for legal asylum even when they do get a shot before an immigration judge despite the fact that they very genuinely are fearful of harm if sent back.
SHAPIRO: Part of what makes this reporting project so remarkable is that you and the students that you work with created a database of immigrant stories. And you did it by contacting hundreds of shelters, law offices, mortuaries. What did you find?
STILLMAN: So we reached out both domestically and internationally. And we found many law enforcement agencies were particularly cooperative because they were able to attest to the fact that they believe public safety is harmed by overly aggressive immigration policies because people who are victims of crime - if they're undocumented, they may fear going to the police if they don't know that they will be secure in their immigration status. And we found many patterns in the data of people who had been deported to harm or deported to death.
One of those things was that oftentimes it starts with a really tiny infraction. So it may be someone like Laura who I documented in the story who, you know, had this minor traffic violation. It may be, you know, a workplace dispute that led to someone calling ICE on someone and getting apprehended. Sometimes it was even an accident.
SHAPIRO: What did the U.S. government say when you presented your findings to them?
STILLMAN: Part of what's so complex about the immigration system is that there are so many systems involved here. So Customs and Border Patrol did denying a number of the cases that the people had even brought forth claims for protection. And what we heard again and again from parents and surviving family members of the dead is that their dead loved ones actually had petitioned verbally. And CBP often claimed that they had not presented such allegations.
SHAPIRO: Even though arrests and deportations have increased under President Trump, many of the stories you tell took place under President Obama. This pattern didn't begin with the current administration.
STILLMAN: Absolutely. And I think that that's been something I've reflected on a lot in the course of reporting this piece - is how little attention people were giving to the immigration issue despite the fact that under Obama, more people were deported than under any other previous president. And it was largely ignored, to be honest.
SHAPIRO: Sarah Stillman's article in The New Yorker is when deportation is a death sentence. Thank you for joining us.
STILLMAN: Thanks so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "SEPTEMBER SONG")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.