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  • The Human Costs of Outsourcing Deportation
  • Adam Goodman (bio)

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have sought asylum in the United States. Most of them are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the three countries that compose the Northern Triangle, one of the most violent regions in the world. Rather than providing Central Americans humanitarian assistance or a place of refuge, the United States—first under Barack Obama and now under Donald J. Trump—increased its detention capacity and expedited deportations. In fiscal year 2014 alone, U.S. Border Patrol officers apprehended more than 237,000 people from the Northern Triangle, including nearly 52,000 unaccompanied children and over 61,000 people who arrived with their families. They also removed more than 121,000 Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, 70 percent of whom the government classified as “non-criminals.”1

The following year, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended half as many people from the Northern Triangle, leading some people to declare that the “surge” had ended. In reality, however, the decline in apprehensions was a product of the U.S. government’s outsourcing to Mexico the deportation of Central American asylum seekers. From 2014 to 2015, the number of people Mexico deported to the Northern Triangle shot up from 91,000 to more than 165,000, more than making up for the nearly 40 percent drop in U.S. deportations to the region. When considered together, the number of people the United States and Mexico deported to the Northern Triangle actually increased, from 213,000 to more than 251,000. The difference was whereas the United States accounted for more than half of all deportations in fiscal year 2014, Mexico was responsible for two-thirds of the deportations in 2015.2

Far from a new policy innovation, the United States has pressured and paid Mexico to carry out its dirty work since the early 1980s, when civil wars throughout Central America—funded in large part by billions of dollars of U.S. aid to right-wing governments in El Salvador and Guatemala—left at least a quarter of a million people dead and three million more displaced.3 According to Larry Richardson, the U.S. Border Patrol chief in McAllen, Texas, at the time, “the United States ha[d] quietly been paying Mexicans to deport Central Americans to Guatemala” since 1981. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) also “organized a spy ring in Mexico to assist in intercepting Central Americans headed for the United States” and offered immigration enforcement training to Mexican officials. For at least three years in the early 1990s, the U.S. Congress appropriated $350,000 a year to pay Mexico to deport transit migrants. In 2001, as part of Mexican president Vicente Fox’s “Plan Frontera Sur,” the United States offered its southern neighbor as much as $2 million per year to deport Central Americans to their home countries instead of just across the border [End Page 527] to Guatemala. As a representative of the Roman Catholic Church put it, by the 1990s the border “ha[d] moved south. It [was] no longer between Mexico and the United States but between Guatemala and Mexico.”4

The United States’ outsourcing of deportation to Mexico was part of a larger strategy of preventing all refugees from reaching U.S. soil, effectively denying people their human right to seek asylum. During the early years of the Clinton administration, the United States implemented a policy of interdiction in order to skirt the asylum process by redirecting boats of smuggled migrants to other countries. Then, in 1997, the INS launched Operation Global Reach, an $8.2 million initiative based on “combating illegal immigration through emphasis on overseas deterrence.” Between 1997 and 2001 the INS established forty overseas offices, staffed by 150 U.S. government employees who focused on intelligence gathering, reducing migrant smuggling, and training foreign law enforcement and airline officials to identify fraudulent documents. During the Operation’s first four years, the INS trained more than 45,000 foreign officials around the globe, from West Africa to Western Europe, from East and South Asia to Latin America—and including San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City, Mexico City, Ciudad...