In July 2016, former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale explained to Congress the protocol to deport a foreign national.
“Two things are generally required,” he said. “An administratively final order of removal, and a travel document issued by a foreign government.”
An order of removal is a deportation order.
Of the two, the travel document is the hardest to obtain. Travel documents can be permission from the deportee's country or a valid passport. But both require cooperation from countries. Usually, there are written repatriation agreements. But often, a deportation is done on an “ad-hoc” basis, said Leon Fresco, a former Department of Justice immigration official.
He explained, using a hypothetical case in which an immigrant is to be deported to the U.S.
“This isn’t actually a real thing. But suppose we were trying to deport someone to America. 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 do some of that.”
Fresco added that if deportees are to be sent back by plane, permission from the destination country is required, and that is where repatriation agreements come in.
"The countries, receiving these removals, see the flight manifest — the list of people who are on the flight — and approve. So, there is multiple steps along the way where the receiving government is issuing travel documents, approving that the flight comes to their airspace, and approving the people on the flight," an official with ICE explains.
As VOA reported earlier this month, President Donald Trump’s administration has removed more than a dozen countries from its list of “recalcitrant” countries — nations that refuse to take back their nationals when the U.S. wants to deport them.
That would seem to indicate that more countries are accepting their citizens. And ICE said it, along with other government agencies, is forging agreements.
"The U.S. government, particularly (Department of Homeland Security) with ICE and the State Department, with the Bureau of Consular Affairs are engaging diplomatically with those governments to kind of work on in the entire process in bilateral relationship," the ICE offfical told VOA.
But negotiating a repatriation agreement can be fraught with challenges.
Talks with Laos
VOA has obtained documents that offer a small window into the arduous process of hammering out a deportation agreement between the U.S. and Laos.
A pair of embassy cables from 2008 and 2009 — released earlier by the online whistleblower organization WikiLeaks — describes attempts of U.S. and Laos officials to work out a repatriation agreement.
The documents show that in February 2009, three U.S. officials from the State Department and ICE traveled to Vientiane, Laos’s capital, to examine ways to repatriate Laos nationals.
While the State Department was invited to participate in this particular meeting, “ICE is the one who tries to engage in diplomatic efforts to remove people,” Fresco said. But in his view, it is the State Department that has the clout “to get countries to do things.”
He concluded, “So, what ends up happening as a result of that, is that we end up with situations where we don't have these very formal diplomatic arrangements.”
Notes of the 2009 meeting reveal that Laos repeatedly requested that deportation agreements be negotiated one-by-one, while the U.S. was hoping that each case could be resolved in 60 days.
But Laos said that verifying its citizens, particularly after a long absence, could be problematic because the names of rural districts and villages were often changed.
The individual may only remember the name of his native village, but that name may have disappeared, said Mai Sayavongs, then-deputy director of the Europe and Americas department for the Laos government.
Another problem for Laotian deportees: Expired citizenship from their home country.
Expatriates were required to register with the embassy in the country in which they were living or lose their citizenship after 10 years.
By the end of the embassy cable in 2009, both countries were still hoping to “reach agreement on basic procedures covering all cases.”
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 Trump.
A current State Department spokesperson told VOA the agency could not confirm or comment on “something reported to be an internal department document.”
When talks fail
When a travel document is not issued, ICE then moves on to other actions, such as sending letters to the nations’ embassies in the United States urging cooperation with the removal process and recommending inclusion of countries to 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. It doesn’t work that way in a number of aspects," the ICE official said.
If none of the above work, ICE requests the issuance of demarches (formal instructions) to the uncooperative country by the Department of State. The agency can recommend visa sanctions under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
That is exactly what the Trump administration did in September when it imposed 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 during the administration of George W. Bush in 2007, the U.S. had tried to send 26 people back to Laos, “but the repatriation procedures had not been consistent and had sometimes created problems, as when the Lao were unaware of a return until the individual debarked from a plane in Laos.”
Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said recent enforcement actions show a more aggressive strategy on the part of the U.S. government, especially toward Southeast Asian countries.
“That’s the scary part. They [ICE] can deport people, even if they don’t have a (memorandum of understanding) with a country. There’s nothing that prohibits the U.S. from deporting folks who are not U.S. citizens back to different countries,” she said.