Earl Rinehart The Columbus Dispatch
The four women were roused from sleep before dawn, shackled by the hands and feet, and removed from their cells on the days each was to be deported. They were driven to Toledo Express Airport, where each was put on a plane, given a ham sandwich and flown south.
It would be nightfall by the time they stood on the Laredo, Texas, side of a bridge and were ordered to cross over the Rio Grande into Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, for which the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning “due to violent crime, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion and sexual assault.”
“They always drop them off at night,” said Veronica Dahlberg, executive director of HOLA, an immigrant-advocacy organization. “There are all kinds of predators just waiting for them.”
Immigrants deported to Mexico and other Latin American countries risk being kidnapped and held for ransom. Men could be forced into working a drug cartel‘s poppy or marijuana field, and women into lives as prostitutes.
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On July 25, two men who had lived in Painesville, Ohio, were deported and then kidnapped within hours of being released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They were held for five days before their families raised $4,000 to ransom each of them, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland reported.
Criminals “know there are times when people are being dropped off in Mexico, they know the schedule,” said Josue Vicente, executive director of the Ohio Hispanic Coalition.
Vicente contends that there are investigations of police departments on the American side of the border for allegedly tipping off cartels when deportees are released, but he wouldn‘t say who is doing the investigating. He also alleges that federal immigration authorities intentionally drop off returnees at dangerous border locations, such as Tamaulipas, as a message to other Mexicans and Central Americans considering entering the United States illegally.
More than 240,000 individuals were deported in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2016, according to data from ICE. More than two-thirds were returned to Mexico. Figures on how many of them were kidnapped or killed are virtually impossible to track because most just disappear, advocates said.
HOLA had been helping one of the four women flown from Toledo to the border: Fabiola Hernandez, 25, the mother of three U.S. citizens, including a 6-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Hernandez had obtained a stay of removal while her immigration case was appealed. She was arrested this month when she showed up for what she thought was a routine annual check-in with ICE.
Hernandez and the other three women, all mothers, left behind a total of 14 children.
In other cases, the returnees are those who have been caught transporting drugs for cartels from the Southwest to Columbus and other points. The drug shipments are seized.
Once they are deported, their former employers will be waiting for them with a new assignment to make up for the lost revenue, said Columbus attorney Joe Mas.
“A lot of my clients have gotten involved with serious offenses,” Mas said. “The drug business is all about money. In my experience, there usually is a debt to be paid from a lost shipment.”
Criminals also know that immigrants working in the United States send money back home. They target those families, threatening to kidnap a member, or worse, unless the family pays a ransom, immigrant advocates and attorneys said.
Attorney Jessica Rodriguez Bell of Worthington said a client reported that criminals in Mexico had threatened his sister, whose husband was in the United States. They said that unless she paid 150,000 pesos — almost $8,000 — their daughter would be kidnapped and probably sold into prostitution.
The family paid.
“While the U.S government cannot comment on what, if any, relief or protection from removal aliens may have sought or be seeking, the U.S. government provides all an opportunity to apply and be considered for all relief,” said Khaalid Walls, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE.
The fear of what awaits detainees in Mexico or other Latin American countries has prompted more of them to seek asylum in the United States, arguing that they risk death if deported, Mas said.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reacted to the increase by asking Congress in October to tighten the rules on people seeking asylum.
“We also have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum,” Sessions said.
Asylum requests increased 35 percent in fiscal year 2017, to more than 30,200 from 22,300 the previous fiscal year, according to Syracuse University‘s nonpartisan, nonprofit research center that tracks immigration data.
Denials of asylum requests also grew to 68.1 percent, according to the data.
Sometimes gangs don‘t plan to kidnap someone yet will still receive a ransom payment from relatives, Vicente said.
For instance, the “kidnapper” will somehow shut down an uncle‘s phone and call the family to say they have kidnapped him.
“You pay $300, or I kill him,” the kidnapper says, according to Vicente. “Then the nephew calls, but no answer. He keeps trying, but no answer.”
The nephew believes it‘s true and wires the money via Western Union.