migrant woman stands facing a border patrol officer in front of a border patrol pick-up truck
LA JOYA, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 17: A border patrol officer begins processing a migrant woman after she crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. on Nov. 17, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Immigration advocates are sounding the alarm about the number of immigrants disappearing for prolonged periods while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Services. They also disappear in the borderlands—both in the U.S. and Mexico, which now hosts thousands of asylum-seekers waiting for their claims to be processed in U.S. courts. Most disappearances last a few days, but advocates say some have also been prolonged for weeks or months or, at worst, are never resolved. These disappearances are categorized as such when immigrants go unaccounted for within ICE’s digital locator system, leaving loved ones, immigration attorneys, and advocates unable to contact them and in the dark as to their whereabouts. 

Advocates say that the immigration policies of the Biden administration are contributing to these disappearances within the U.S. immigration detention system, causing profound psychological harm to immigrants and their loved ones. As of June 5, there are 24,591 immigrants under ICE detention, a notable climb since the last month of the Trump administration, January 2021, when ICE had 15,444 individuals in custody before being forced to release vulnerable detainees amid the pandemic. Immigrant rights advocates are disappointed by the rising number of detainees under Biden’s presidency. Even though the administration cut ICE detention in the 2023 budget proposal from an average of 34,000 to 25,000 detainees kept in custody, advocates argue that this is still a distressing number of people.

Biden has also invested more on border security than president Trump, with a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE combined budget topping $26 billion—the highest ever for immigration enforcement. A tighter border control pushes migrants into increasingly dangerous territory. At least 651 people died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021, more than in any year since 2014, and advocates say that many more migrants are still missing. 

The precise number of immigrants who disappear is unknown, but according to advocates, on any given day, hundreds of families are unable to locate their loved ones and friends who manage to arrive in the U.S. or are detained by local or federal authorities. And immigrants, their families, and advocates are all too familiar with how immigrants are routinely subjected to violence, including retaliation against those who file complaints while in the detention system. 

“We tried to emphasize that any amount of time not knowing where your loved one is can be really traumatizing,” said Rebecca Merton, director of visitation and independent monitoring of Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit that advocates for abolishing immigrant detention.

ICE did not respond to a request for a general comment about immigrants disappearing within the detention system. 

The trauma of disappearances

Although ICE is legally mandated to update information within 48 hours of an individual’s entry into detention and 24 hours of a transfer, its online locator routinely fails to identify immigrants in custody, according to a report by Freedom for Immigrants. The time gap when an immigrant’s whereabouts in custody are unknown can be critical. It’s crucial for lawyers and other representatives to know the location of immigrants they’re representing, especially as they’re often the only source of outside contact, support, and advocacy for detained immigrants trying to survive in a hostile environment. In addition, immigrant families have to rely solely on those representatives for information about their loved ones in custody, and the amount of trauma these disappearances cause spreads in multiple directions.

After more than a year in detention at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, four Indian immigrants (whose names are withheld by their representatives because of confidentiality commitments) went on hunger strike in the summer of 2019 to demand their release on bond while the courts resolved their cases. After their protest went public, ICE transferred three of the protesters from the center in what advocates say was an act of retaliation. Volunteers with the grassroots organization Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) found that the ICE locator indicated the four immigrants had been placed in the Aurora Detention Center in Colorado, but that was untrue. One individual had been deported almost immediately, and the remaining three immigrants had been moved to Krome Detention Center in Florida, where some were taken to a hospital for treatment related to the hunger strike. In fact, Margaret Brown Vega, lead coordinator at AVID, says that ICE never notified their attorney of their transfers or location.

ICE has stated that it “does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers,” though reports of ICE officers at the Otero County Processing Center retaliating against hunger strikers indicate otherwise.

After several weeks, and only after an inquiry by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, it became clear that two of the original four immigrants on hunger strike had been deported back to India even though they were still protesting. To this day, advocates from AVID don’t know how they arrived in their home country. The remaining fourth immigrant was transferred several times and eventually made it back to Otero. According to Brown Vega, he was “absolutely traumatized” by how he and the others had been treated in detention. His ordeal throughout the hunger strike and multiple transfers were so traumatizing that he was relieved when he was eventually deported. His family had been wondering if they would ever see him again. 

“[The way those four immigrants were treated is] an example of someone who has been intentionally disappeared, kept from supporters and their legal representation on purpose,” Brown Vega said. “ICE is fully capable of doing this all the time, and they probably do it more frequently than we realize.”

“Willful punishment”

While most immigrants who disappear within the immigration detention system are eventually located, many are removed abruptly even while their cases are pending. In other instances, it is not clear if the immigrants were detained in the first place.

On June 29, 2021, Mauryory Johany Mejía Meza left her home in Potrerillos, Honduras, determined to cross the U.S. border and meet her uncle and family in Tampa, Florida. Mejía Meza, 21, emigrated “because she did not have any income,” her father Jorge Antonio Mejía Landaverde said in a phone interview from Honduras. On July 19, Mejía Meza called to say that she had crossed the Río Grande into the U.S. A few days later, she recorded an audio message saying that she was resting in a warehouse in McCallen, Texas, before resuming her journey and that the smugglers had told her that they needed to take away her phone for her own safety. That was the last time the family heard from their daughter. 

The family thought that U.S. law enforcement agents had detained Mejía Meza. She could have been held in a local jail or placed into federal, ICE, or CBP custody. In addition to the nearly 400,000 or more people detained by ICE each year, over 1 million immigrants are placed annually in the custody of other federal agencies, like the U.S. Marshals Service. Those detainees, not registered in the ICE locator, are often held for periods well beyond the legally designated maximum of 72 hours, during which families or advocates lose track of them. 

She could also have been deported immediately back to Honduras or released to the community after filing a successful asylum claim. For desperate families, these unconfirmed possibilities are excruciating. Mejía Meza’s family made dozens of calls trying to locate her.

“This situation has been very hard,” Mejía Landaverde said.

The nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants, which advocates for abolishing immigrant detention, tracked 698 cases of “enforced disappearances” within ICE’s detention system from January 2017 to August 2021. In a report issued last year, it defined “enforced disappearances” as the refusal of a state agency to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty of an individual for five days or longer. The disappearances documented are likely a fraction of the real figure, Merton said.

Advocates agree that disappearing immigrants—especially for long periods of time—seems like a willful punishment carried out by ICE, part of the deterrent paradigm to spread the message that coming unauthorized to the U.S. carries steep consequences. For example, “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a strategy implemented in 1994 by the U.S. Border Patrol to discourage undocumented migrants from crossing the southern border, has pushed at least 3,200 individuals to their deaths through drowning, violence, exposure to harsh environments, and more since 2014. 

”It is extremely common that immigrants disappear for a few days at a time [and] seems to happen almost every time someone is transferred to another facility,” Merton said. “But when people disappear for weeks at a time, that seems to be correlated with ICE retaliating against someone inside a detention facility.” 

While the exact scope of how widespread “enforced disappearances” is unknown, it’s impossible to understate the heavy burdens of heartbreak and grief borne by the loved ones left behind. 

Weeks after Mejía Meza’s audio message, the family got an email from Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez from Brooks County, Texas. Mejía Meza had called 911 on Aug. 18, leading emergency responders to a point between Brooks and Kennedy counties. They did not find any trace of her. 

“I called the Border Patrol, but to this day, there are no positive results,” Martinez wrote. 

That was the last Mejía Meza’s family heard from Martinez. Her fate remains unknown.

Victims of human trafficking

Policies implemented by the Trump administration, explicitly framed as deterrents meant to dissuade migrants from coming to the U.S., multiplied immigrants’ vulnerability. Created in September 2019, Migration Protection Protocols (MPP, also known as Remain in Mexico) sent about 70,000 individuals back to Mexico to wait for their asylum claims to be processed. There, immigrants were targets of criminal activity, according to human rights organizations. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision this summer about the legality of the program. Another Trump-era program, Title 42, which went into use in March 2020 to prevent asylum-seekers from entering the U.S. purportedly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is still operating.

During the first 15 months of the Biden administration, the civil organization Human Rights First (HRF) tracked at least 9,886 kidnappings, torture, rape, and other violent attacks on people expelled to Mexico under Title 42. Cartels and organized criminal groups in Mexico systematically prey on asylum-seekers and migrants, often with the complicity or active participation of Mexican officials, according to HRF.

Despite the dangers in Mexico, crossing the U.S. border is not a guarantee of safety for undocumented immigrants. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), immigrants make up more than 70% of the human trafficking victims in the country. Human trafficking, as defined by the United Nations, is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion,” and its average victim in the U.S. is a 20-year-old immigrant woman from Latin America or the Caribbean. 

The Trump administration’s immigration policies exacerbated the risks of being trafficked, wrote Carter Quinley in The International Affairs Review. An expert on human trafficking, she recommended the Biden administration address the vulnerabilities immigrants have faced in the last five years to curb human trafficking and disappearances in the U.S. Advocates also point out how many victims are deterred from seeking help out of fear of punishment for being undocumented and being deported. This leaves victims in horrific situations where they can be abused or worse.

María Rosalba was one of six minors who were smuggled into the U.S. from from the Mexican state of Tlaxcala and forced into sex trafficking in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey. For over a year, she was sexually assaulted by up to 40 men during shifts that went from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m., seven days a week, in locations in Queens and the Bronx. Eventually in 2020, the five adult brothers who had smuggled Rosalba and other youth were arrested, tried, and sentenced to almost 40 years in prison in the Eastern District Court of New York. In her testimony, Rosalba said that she didn’t seek help from the police because she thought that would lead to her deportation. If she had been forced to return to Mexico, she would have been at risk of further control and manipulation by the defendants and their associates. 

Luckily, Rosalba was able to avoid deportation. She now holds a U-Visa for immigrants who cooperate with authorities as victims of serious crimes. But the trauma of that year still remains, for both Rosalba and her family back in Tenancingo, Mexico, who spent that entire time with no idea of her whereabouts or if they’d ever hear from her again.

Too few improvements

Despite the numerous risks to immigrants, advocates have scored some victories. Concurrently, policies such as MPP and Title 42 are being contested and may be eliminated altogether. Still, the U.S. immigration system remains hostile and unpredictable for those trapped within it, and immigrants in detention continue to disappear, leaving their families and loved ones in fear and uncertainty.

Romeo Konneh, an immigrant from Liberia, went on a hunger strike in the fall of 2021 to denounce institutional neglect of his medical condition. He had diabetes and high blood pressure, and the medical staff at Essex County Correctional Facility in New Jersey had recommended his humanitarian release. Instead, ICE agents transferred him to the Batavia Detention Center in New York, Konneh said to Prism in a monitored phone interview from the facility. 

For four days, Konneh was disconnected from his attorney, his four children, and his pregnant wife, terrified of what could happen if he was deported. Konneh did not want to go back to Liberia, where his family participated in the civil war from 1999-2003 and fled to save their lives. 

“I can get killed there,” he said.

After speaking with Prism in March, Konneh was transferred to the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. Afterward, advocates lost track of him again. A coordinator at Pax Christi New Jersey said the grassroots organization believed Konneh was held at a facility outside of Dallas, Texas, but they’d been given no notification of his location.

On June 1, Konneh was deported to Liberia.

Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City who covers immigration, social justice issues, Latin America, and the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter at @mauriziogro.