Human trafficking victims often deported before they testify

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — In a dingy reception center across from the new terminal at La Aurora International Airport, Guatemalan immigration agents don surgical masks and brace for another day of controlled chaos.

A U.S. government passenger jet — one of up to seven a week — taxis to a stop. More than 100 disheveled deportees shuffle down the stairs and head for the center. Agents check for criminal records and swine flu and return shoelaces confiscated stateside, usually as a suicide precaution.

One thing the agents won't do, however, is check to see if the deportees were victims of human trafficking while on U.S. soil.

"We don't look at that," said a Guatemalan immigration agent. "That's done by the U.S. government before they send them here."

In fact, that's not the case.

Instead, The Kansas City Star found, the U.S. government compounds their suffering by deporting them back to the same impoverished conditions they fled in the first place. Up to one-fourth of the victims who might have testified against their traffickers were deported.

What's more, deportees on one of two Kansas City-based government airlines have been abused or sedated in violation of federal regulations, The Star found.

"These are very disturbing allegations and this is not permitted under our system," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who heads the House subcommittee that oversees detention and deportation procedures. That is "completely at odds with our policy," she noted, adding that The Star's findings should be investigated.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials who charter the flights said they take great care to identify trafficking victims, but would not comment specifically on whether they screen all deportees for human trafficking status, or whether they are aware of deporting trafficking victims.

They said they have guidelines to prevent abuse of deportees, but they acknowledged that earlier this year at least one deportee was sedated on a Marshals Service flight in direct violation of those regulations.

Yet ICE said in a statement that it "takes allegations of trafficking very seriously and investigates any claims that a person makes to indicate they have been a victim of trafficking or trafficking-related crimes."

The State Department and Congress recognize the need for more aggressive screening to keep from deporting human trafficking victims, said Luis CdeBaca, the director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

"We are going to be working to make sure those vulnerable populations are not just shown the door," he said.

Top officials, however, have known about the problem for years.

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