The Regional Costs of North America’s Deportation Drive

A group of illegal immigrants leave a plane after being deported from the US to Guatemala. Guatemala City, September 2, 2016. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Deportation has become a defining issue of the 2016 United States presidential election, with Republican nominee Donald Trump announcing his intention to target illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, bolster the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and create a “special deportation task force” targeting undocumented residents. While critics have called Trump’s proposals extreme and unconstitutional, even a continuation of President Barack Obama’s policies would mean millions more deportations. After all, Obama—dubbed the “deporter-in-chief” by immigrants’ rights groups—has overseen more deportations than any previous US leader, with some 2.5 million between 2009 and 2015.

While primarily seen through the lens of US domestic politics, it is worth considering the impact of this forced migration on America’s neighbors to the south. Washington is also not the only contributor to the situation, with Canada and, further afield, the United Kingdom, also sending thousands of deportees to poorer countries in the Americas each year. For some of these, the number of returnees is overwhelming. In Jamaica, for instance, the annual number of criminal deportees from the US, Canada, and the UK is double the number of individuals released from its own prisons. Over the years, deportation to Jamaica has taken place on so large a scale that today deportees make up as much as 2% of the island’s population. One study found that 5% of rapes and murders in Jamaica could be directly attributed to criminal deportees. Unsurprisingly, over 80% of Jamaicans believe that criminal deportation is a major cause of their country’s soaring crime rate.

Jamaica is not the only country grappling to reintegrate large deportee populations. In fact, the association between deportation and crime has been acutely felt throughout Central America for nearly two decades. Beginning in the 1990s, US policy contributed directly to the explosion of gang violence in the region, when MS-13 and Barrio 18—which had originated as Los Angeles street gangs—were “exported” to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Between 1998 and 2005, the US deported nearly 46,000 convicts to Central America. As one report put it, “evidence shows that criminals returning from the US to Mexico and countries in Central America have been a major catalyst for violence and crime in the region.”

Today, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala all lack the resources to properly address the public security issues caused by criminal deportees. The added strain of deportation has pushed already overburdened law enforcement and justice institutions to their breaking point. Overcrowded and lawless prisons have become important sites for “gang coordination, training and recruitment,” undermining police efforts to arrest and incarcerate gang members.

Throughout the region, deportation is not merely a security issue, but also a complex humanitarian challenge. Deportation itself is a profoundly painful experience for those forced to leave and for families left behind. The majority of deportees to Central America and the Caribbean have not committed any crime other than residing in the US and Canada illegally. Nevertheless, deportees across the region face severe social stigma in their home countries and often struggle to meet basic needs for shelter, healthcare, food, and employment. They are particularly vulnerable in the days and weeks after their return, where those lacking support networks or suffering from mental illness are vulnerable to exploitation. Faced with limited opportunities, some join street gangs and other organized crime groups, which offer solidarity, social support, and economic opportunity.

Cash-strapped local governments have been unable to respond effectively to this issue. The Honduran government publicly acknowledges that it lacks the capacity to absorb the large number of deportees it receives. Struggling to meet the basic needs of its citizens, the government lacks the infrastructure to allow deportees to meaningfully reintegrate into society. Throughout Central America, reintegration programs are limited to a few small-scale programs funded by the Catholic Church, non-governmental organizations, or the International Organization for Migration.

Critics of US and Canadian deportation policy argue that the Western Hemisphere’s wealthiest countries are attempting to pass off their crime problems to their neighbors to the south. Officials in Central America and the Caribbean point out that criminal deportees have often spent decades living in North America and, as such, their criminality is a by-product of conditions there rather than their home countries. Moreover, criminal activity in Central America and the Caribbean fuels regional security challenges and further undermines security in the US and Canada, for instance through the proliferation of drug trafficking or the crisis of unaccompanied child migrants.

Regardless of who is to blame, more needs to be done to help neighboring countries mitigate the consequences of deportation, both on humanitarian and self-interested grounds. Programs supporting law enforcement and judicial institutions are a vital component of this, as are steps to improve information sharing and provide more complete criminal histories of deportees. US-funded multilateral initiatives like the Central America Regional Security Initiative and Caribbean Basic Security Initiative have provided $979 million since 2008 and $437 million since 2010 to their respective regions to improve local capacity to confront organized crime, drug trafficking, and armed violence. Yet the US and Canadian governments could still do more to support reintegration programs aimed at providing deportees with the tools they need to contribute to society.

Deportation is likely to retain a central role in US and Canadian public security strategy for the foreseeable future. The benefits of removing violent criminals from society are obvious, and, after all, both countries enjoy a legitimate right to determine the rules immigrants must follow.

However, the policy of large-scale deportation with limited support for reintegration is shortsighted. Removal is only the beginning of the story of deportation. Faced with the prospect of living in a society marked by violence and with few educational or professional opportunities, many deportees immediately make plans to return to the US. One study by the United Nations found that among Hondurans who had migrated to the US to flee violence and had been deported, 44% had concrete plans to return.

Merely expanding the scope and scale of deportation will not address the economic and social factors that push so many to seek a better life in North America. A more durable migration strategy must approach deportation as only one of a number of policy tools, and one which is insufficient on its own to shield the US and Canada from the realities of crime and poverty in the Americas.

Geoff Burt is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance and a Senior Associate at the Security Governance Group. He is co-author of a series of reports on deportation and organized crime for Public Safety Canada, on which this article is based.