In July 2016, United States lawmakers met with former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale. He told them about the rules for expelling a foreign national.
“Two things are generally required,” Ragsdale said. They are “an administrative final order of removal, and a travel document issued by a foreign government.”
An order of removal is also called a deportation order.
Of the two, the travel document is the hardest to get. Travel documents can be permission from the deportee's country or a legal passport. But both require cooperation from countries. Usually, there are written repatriation agreements. They describe how foreigners are to be returned to their home country.
But often a deportation is done without planning, on what Leon Fresco calls an “ad-hoc” basis. Fresco, a former Department of Justice immigration official, explained how a U.S. citizen living overseas would be deported to the United States.
“What we might be able to do, if we couldn’t land a flight in America, is to land a flight in, like, Tijuana and walk the person up to the border. And sometimes they take that person at that point. And so, we do some of that.”
Fresco added that if deportees are to be sent back on an airplane, permission from the other country is required, and that is where repatriation agreements are helpful.
"The countries, receiving these removals, see…the list of people who are on the flight — and approve,” an official from ICE explained. The official added there are many steps to the process.
As VOA reported earlier this month, President Donald Trump’s administration has removed over 10 nations from the list of it calls “recalcitrant” countries. Officials describe recalcitrant countries as ones that refuse to take back their nationals when the U.S. government wants to expel them.
That would seem to say that more countries are accepting their citizens. And an ICE official told VOA that it and other government agencies are making new repatriation agreements.
But negotiating such an agreement can be difficult.
Talks with Laos
VOA has gathered documents that offer a look into the process of establishing a deportation agreement between the U.S. and Laos.
Two embassy cables from 2008 and 2009 describe attempts by U.S. and Laos officials to work out a repatriation agreement. The documents were published earlier on the WikiLeaks website. They show that in February 2009, three U.S. officials traveled to Vientiane, Laos’s capital, to find ways to repatriate Lao nationals.
While the State Department was invited to this meeting, ICE is the government agency that takes part in diplomatic efforts to remove people, Fresco explained. He added that, in his opinion, only the State Department has the ability to “get countries to do things.”
“We end up with situations where we don't have these very formal diplomatic agreements,” he explained.
Notes of the 2009 meeting show that Laos repeatedly requested that deportation agreements be negotiated one-by-one. The U.S. side was hoping that each case could be completed in 60 days.
But Laos said that confirming the identity of its citizens could be a problem because the names of villages in the countryside were often changed.
The individual may only remember the name of his childhood village, but that name may have disappeared, said Mai Sayavongs, then-deputy director of the Europe and Americas office for the Laos government.
Another problem for Laotian deportees: Expired citizenship from their home country.
Laotians were required to register with the embassy in the country in which they were living or lose their citizenship after 10 years.
The 2009 embassy cable said the two countries were still trying to reach an agreement by the end of 2009, but it never happened.
Laos was not on the recalcitrant list during former President Barack Obama’s time but has been added to the list under President Trump.
A State Department spokesperson told VOA the agency could not confirm or comment on the documents.
When talks fail
When a travel document is not available, ICE then tries other actions, such as sending letters to the nations’ embassies in the United States. The letters ask for cooperation with the removal process or asking for the country to be put on the recalcitrant list.
"If the United States could just fly a plane whenever it wanted and drop people off, there wouldn’t be recalcitrant countries,” an ICE official said.
If nothing works, ICE asks the Department of State to approve formal instructions for dealing with the uncooperative country.
The State Department can then call for visa sanctions under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
That is exactly what the Trump administration did last September when it set visa sanctions on Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone for failing to accept removable nationals.
In the 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks, Sayavongs noted that in 2007, during the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. had tried to send 26 people back to Laos. But there were problems, such as when the Laotian government was informed of a deportee only when he arrived at the airport.
Quyen Dinh is head of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. She said recent enforcement actions show a more aggressive policy on the part of the U.S. government, especially toward Southeast Asian countries.
There’s nothing that stops “the U.S. from deporting folks who are not U.S. citizens back to different countries,” she said, adding that ICE has the right to expel people, even if they don’t have an agreement with a country.
Aline Barros reported this story for VOANews.com. Susan Shand adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
deportation - n. the act of removing from a country someone who presence is considered unlawful
repatriation - n. returning someone to his or her home country
expire – v. to come to an end
instruction – n. order; direction
sanctions - n. a punishment or other action that results from failure to obey a rule or order
folk – n. a group or class of people