Recalcitrant countries now taking back U.S. deportees
Sierra Leone for years had thumbed its nose at U.S. officials, slow-walking deportations so badly that it earned its way onto Homeland Security’s “recalcitrant country” naughty list. Over the last two years of the Obama administration, Sierra Leone took back just 21 deportees.
President Trump took office vowing action, and one of his first executive orders instructed his administration to stop issuing visas to the worst-offending countries. After the Sierra Leone government was targeted with sanctions in August 2017, change came quickly, with 44 deportees sent back that year and 79 in fiscal 2018.
While much of Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda remains tied up in the federal courts or stalemated in Congress, he has made extraordinary progress on recalcitrant countries such as Sierra Leone, cutting the number of deadbeat countries from a peak of 23 in 2015 to nine as of last month.
The number of countries on the atrisk list, or close to recalcitrant, has been slashed from 62 to 24 as of May.
Longtime deadbeats such as Cuba, China and Vietnam are taking back hundreds more people, even though they remain on the naughty list.
Guinea earned its way off the list by increasing its acceptance of deportees by more than 1,200 percent from 2016 to 2018. Eritrea went from 13 deportees in President Obama’s final year to 62 last year. Myanmar rose from three to 40.
In fact, only one country on the recalcitrant or at-risk lists did worse last year than in the final year of the Obama administration, according to a Washington Times analysis of Homeland Security data. The holdout, Ethiopia, accepted 37 deportees in 2016 but just 36 last year. Even it, however, did take back 46 of its deported citizens in 2017.
“Under President Trump, we have made historic progress in ensuring countries take back their nationals who have no legal right to live or work in the United States,” said Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security Department.
The State Department issues visa sanctions after the Homeland Security Department notifies it that a country is delaying or denying acceptance of its deportees.
That power has been on the books for years but had been used only twice — once in 2001 by the Bush administration and once in late 2016 by the Obama administration.
Under Mr. Trump, six countries have already been slapped with deportee-related sanctions.
In each of those cases, the U.S. government said it would no longer issue business or tourist visas to government officials and their families — and warned that broader sanctions could follow.
That got the attention of diplomats in the target countries and elsewhere.
“Now these countries understand that the party is over and they — government officials in particular — will face consequences for blocking deportations,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “The sanctions work.”
Still, a massive backlog has built up of people waiting to be deported. China is the worst offender with more than 40,000 in the queue, followed by Cuba with nearly 38,000.
More troubling is that almost all of them have been set free into U.S. communities thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling limiting detention to just six months in cases when the government doesn’t appear likely to be able to get the other countries to take back deportees.
That means convicted criminals are often released, including more than 30,000 of the Cubans, nearly 8,000 Vietnamese, nearly 4,000 Laotians and more than 2,000 Chinese.
Ms. Waldman called that a “remarkable public safety risk” that requires action by Congress.
U.S. authorities last year won a five-year sentence against a Ghanaian man who ran a heroin distribution operation from his apartment in National Harbor, in the suburbs of Washington.
Jeffrey Okyere had amassed a criminal record and was deported. He sneaked back into the U.S., was caught and served time for that illegal re-entry. Ghana refused to take him back afterward, and he had to be released into the community. He was nabbed after selling thousands of dollars of heroin to an undercover officer.
The Ghanaian government has refused to respond to repeated requests for comment about its decision-making.