A Nation of Deportees: An Interview with Adam Goodman
“What kind of nation is the United States? Although celebrated in popular mythology as a nation of immigrants that has welcomed foreigners throughout its history, the United States has also deported nearly 57 million people since 1882, more than any other country in the world.” These assertive words open The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020), Adam Goodman’s account of 140 years of immigration enforcement in the United States. Although the book chronicles the historical development of a government bureaucracy, it is far from a cold, detached account of policies and regulations. Goodman showcases the flesh and the bones at the core of the United States’ deportation policies, from the millions of families unjustly separated to the enormous profits made by companies in charge of physically removing people. Goodman’s encompassing account of deportation policies accomplishes a virtuous balance between the general and the particular; between the long-run history of immigration enforcement and the short-run lives of those targeted by it. The author introduces us to the many governmental and non-governmental actors responsible for the 57 million deportations –a straightforward figure with a heavy weight – that have taken place in U.S. history. Goodman also takes the time to look at the displays of immigrant-led collective action that have managed to throw a wrench at the machine, and to affirm the dignity of people dehumanized by unjust policy.
At the core of the book is Goodman’s argument that the United States’ “deportation machine” has relied on three “coercive mechanisms”: formal deportation, self-deportation, and voluntary departures. The first one, formal deportation, is the most self-evident. Authorities place immigrants they deem undocumented or undesirable through proceedings resulting in their removal from the U.S. The second mechanism, self-deportation, does not rely on the direct intervention of U.S. immigration agents, but rather on the indirect production of fear by government actors and even by regular citizens. Through the production of fear in migrants’ everyday lives, societal and governmental actors can make life so unbearable as to force people to leave of their own volition. Goodman illustrates this mechanism through the case of Truckee, California, where white citizens in the late 19th century conducted bottom-up campaigns of intimidation against Chinese migrants in response to what they saw as the U.S. government’s inability to control Chinese migration. These racially motivated fear campaigns, Goodman told me, are not a thing of the past; he sees echoes of them in policymaking efforts like Proposition 187 in California.
Goodman’s greatest contribution to immigration policy scholarship lays on his unearthing of the third coercive mechanism, “voluntary departure,” as a driver – if not the driver – of American deportation policy. In both his book and our conversation, Adam Goodman is quick to point out that voluntary departures are a fundamental misnomer. Through this method of removal, U.S. authorities coerced migrants into choosing whether to go through a painfully bureaucratic process of formal deportation, often languishing in detention centers indefinitely, or to simply sign away their rights to due process and be deported immediately. It is not hard to imagine why most removals in U.S. history, per Goodman’s account, have happened this way. Goodman makes the case that cruelty has been an effective, cost-saving measure for the machine. By depriving immigrants of due process, immigration bureaucrats save resources, time, and manpower. And while scholars have historically understood the role of voluntary departures in U.S. policy, the topic has gone understudied due to the difficulty of proving these removals. Indeed, the point of these deportations is precisely to create as little fuzz, as few paperwork, as possible. Goodman managed to count and chronicle these procedures through painstaking archival work in the United States and Mexico. In doing so, he unearthed the ways that the Mexican government contributed to the dehumanization of its own citizens.
Goodman’s book is a wondrous rarity: an academic history book that has broken into the mainstream. Part of it, he acknowledged, is the high salience that immigration took during the Trump presidency; for four years, the cruelty at the system’s core came to public view through the most openly nativist political administration in recent history. However, he argues that Trump was more a continuation than a rupture from past trends on the bipartisan criminalization of immigrants and their violent removal. Goodman has expounded on these points elsewhere. A scholar of immigration politics myself, I was most interested in Goodman’s historiographical approach, particularly his masterful use of a variety of sources and detailed cases to showcase the 140-year history of immigration enforcement. How to fill the purposeful silences on the historical record? What parallels can we make between past and present? How have people resisted the violence of the deportation machine?
The interview below, edited and shortened for readability, is the result of our conversation, guided mostly by my curiosity in the minutia of Goodman’s painstaking research.
On the Origins of the Machine, and the Centrality of Voluntary Departure
We start the interview by discussing how Goodman arrived at his main question and argument, and how he documented removal processes that were, for the most part, purposefully concealed. Of course, I also had to ask about his book’s notion of “mechanisms of removals.”
Ramon Garibaldo Valdez
My first question is, why make deportation the center of your research inquiry. Did it start that way? Did it take that turn at some point?
This has a lot to do with the timing and the moment in which my project emerged, which was at the start of the Obama administration, the year after Daniel Kanstroom published his book Deportation Nation, when I started graduate school. At this point in time, there wasn’t that much academic scholarly work on the history of deportation, or deportation politics. Combined with the fact that I became increasingly interested in immigration politics and policy, as well as activism. And the fact that young undocumented people were coming out across the country as unafraid and unapologetic, protesting the inhumane policies the Obama administration was implementing, made me more curious about how people had organized and resisted against what I came to think of as the deportation machine.
It was kind of a confluence of those factors that my interests were increasingly moving toward immigration history and policy. I initially went into graduate school thinking I would study education history and social inequality, which remains an interest of mine, but didn’t become the focus of my academic work. And the fact that the Obama administration at that time was formally deporting around 400,000 people a year. And yet I came to realize that that was just capturing a small sliver of the total number of expulsions taking place throughout U.S. history. And I became aware of the fact that these other mechanisms that I discuss in the book were actually central to understanding the broader history of deportation.
Do you remember the moment when you figured that there was a story in voluntary departures that we were not telling?
I think it was when I crunched the numbers and just saw how stark the difference was between the tens of millions of voluntary departures and the millions of formal deportations that have mostly occurred since 1996. Voluntary departures historically outnumber formal deportations around six-to-one or more, perhaps. And for much of the latter half of the 20th century, as I discussed in the book, they represented 98 percent of all expulsions. So there seems to be something missing there, that if we wanted to understand the history of deportation in terms of its historical import and the periodization, the chronology, as well as how the federal government was operating and implementing immigration policy, we needed to take these coercive mechanisms seriously.
And in discussing the idea kind of early on, I ran into a number of roadblocks: people who are skeptical and kind of set me back temporarily; heard from people I respected and admired that voluntary departures weren’t real deportations, [that] we shouldn’t consider them deportation, we should just stick with, kind of a really narrow definition of formal deportation as the government defines it. And what I came to realize was that what most people thought, most scholars, journalists and government officials…what they thought didn’t reflect what I was seeing in the archives. And there seem to be a disjuncture there that I wanted to explore more, and I thought that if people understood and saw the same sources that I was seeing, they would come to realize that we need to take these coercive mechanisms seriously. And in fact, voluntary departures were not just used for people apprehended while trying to cross the border and turned back immediately. Deportation occurred in almost all cases in the late 19th and for most of the 20th century.
Is voluntary departure this thing that starts as a practice? Like, are agents saying among themselves, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this, but then don’t let the superiors find out?’ Or is this from the get-go something that the sort of superiors are saying, ‘Hey, this is going to be our policy, even if we don’t make it explicit?’
Maybe somewhere in the middle, and I don’t have a smoking gun document on this, but what I think happened was that as early as the late 19th century with the Geary Act and other acts that targeted Chinese labor migrants, we saw that the law on the books was not fully funded by the federal government, so that the bureaucracy could execute it and implement it on the ground.
So you have a certain number of people that are all of a sudden now considered deportable, which increases over time as the categories and the types of offenses that might lead to expulsion expand. But the federal government never matches that with a sufficient number of funds. So voluntary departures became, in many ways, a cost-saving measure early on, and just the way for local low-level officials to take care of their business, and in an expedient way. And to do so immediately or relatively quickly, as opposed to having to run it up the ever-growing bureaucracy.
Some of it was happening organically on the ground, and there are moments in time where we’ve seen some of the memos that these early officials send, which I discuss briefly in the last part of the first chapter, where local officials write to the central office and say, ‘We gave a woman who was pregnant voluntary departure to Canada to save money and because she represented no threat. But like, should we have done that? Or was that OK?’ And they get word back basically saying, like, ‘In this case, fine, we understand what we were doing. But in the future, if someone has a deportation order against them, please run it through the central office before taking action.’
There’s a tension between how much discretionary power to give the low-level local agents and how much should run through the bureaucracy, and I think that changed over time. But what I clearly came to understand was that when formal deportations are created through the federal government in 1891, when the bureaucracy is established, rather than no longer relying on these informal measures, voluntary departure, scare tactics, or fear campaigns that led to self-deportation…those coercive tactics get folded into the inner workings of the deportation machine. Or they become essential components of the deportation machine, and low-level agencies of the state come to rely on them because of what they see as limitations on their ability to carry out the law as stated.
A book that’s very much on my mind is Deborah Kang’s The INS on the Line. Kang’s making a very bold claim that when it comes to immigration law in the borderlands, policy made law rather than the other way around. One example is warrantless searches. Border Patrol was doing all of these warrantless searches and rather than lawmakers step in and say, ‘Hey, you cannot do that, that’s against the law,’ they changed the law to match the practice on the ground. Is that something that you see, not just with searches, but also with the removal? To say, ‘Well, we’re already doing it, we might as well sanction it.’?
I think that she’s a hundred percent right to say that, in many ways, agents on the ground were making the law, or effectively making it through the implementation of whatever the state law was, and it’s important to recognize that. I certainly see my work kind of building on hers and in conversation with hers. I can’t think of anything, off the top of my head, that kind of points to where, you know, there’s a systematic effort to kind of make that case, to push for the change. But I think it definitely did happen, when it comes to expulsion. They [Border Patrol] had a reality on the ground, there’s kind of the de facto reality on the ground, and encouraging people in the central office to recognize that, and either change the law to implement it…and I guess you could say that that happens actually, decades later.
It’s not until 1940 that voluntary departure is kind of written into the federal statutes and the code, By that point, it’s been happening for half a century. So maybe that is actually a good parallel to what you’re describing! Voluntary departure is written into the statutes in 1940, but it had been happening for at least 50 years prior to that. And similarly, here’s an example where I think it’s important for us as scholars and as researchers to always be questioning, and to be skeptical of, our sources and especially the federal government. Through just random digging and spending way too much time going through archival boxes, I found sources indicate in 1907 or 1908 that voluntary departures were happening. And my guess is, although I can’t prove it, that they started happening as soon as federal officials exercised the authority to formally remove people. That coercion and those coercive mechanisms were built into the system, even if unacknowledged or unintentional at the beginning.
Yeah, which actually brings me to my next question, on documenting the undocumented. You’ve mentioned that trying to make arguments about the nature of immigration enforcement often results in apologizing because we [researchers] don’t have a smoking gun. Although, in our defense, if there are smoking guns, they are purposefully concealed. So you just said it, if these sources started, they’re purposefully being hidden, and there is very good reason to think that a lot of the data on voluntary departures was purposefully scattered. So how did you go about documenting that? I mean, in the book, you mentioned, “a wide array of archives from LA to Mexico City.” Walk me through your Indiana Jones-ing there.
This is certainly something that took me a long time to figure out. I had the initial, quantitative data from the federal immigration bureaucracy, which publishes these statistics in their yearbook. And they have historical data, which sometimes changes over time. It can be confusing, that the categories are cut in and cut out – that can be hard to trace over time, so you don’t have the same classifications or even the categories what they mean. What they’re called shift over time. And that was something I learned along the way, to be really mindful and careful about drawing false equivalencies or drawing a straight line when in fact that wasn’t going to be possible based on the sources available to me.
So I knew based on the numbers that there were millions of voluntary departures that happened. I knew that there must be some trace and trail. I did not know exactly where to find it. And I ran into some, frustrating roadblocks – temporary, fortunately – along the way of people saying, that’s kind of the whole point of these coercive mechanisms, right? It’s to not generate paperwork, it’s to streamline everything, to lower and minimize costs and chances are, you’re not going to find much. So I had to get creative. And I would also say that I had other scholars tell me that I wasn’t going to really be able to do much after 1965, in part because the National Archives records dry up in 1957. And there’s all kinds of privacy concerns and reasons for that monstrous backlog in processing. But there was a while, when I was early on in the project, when I didn’t know whether I would be able to tell kind of the sweeping chronological story that I was hoping to because I was very much interested, as I mentioned, in connecting this up to the present, helping to explain how the immigration system evolved over time and got to be so screwed up.
That’s not the most eloquent way to put it, but you know, how did things get to be how they are? How did we get to the point where we’re at today, where clearly things are incredibly punitive and of exacting extraordinary human cost? So I started searching far and wide, and it took me to archives across the United States, as I mentioned in the book, as well as Mexico, where I spent a few years researching and writing, in the initial kind of draft when I was still in graduate school and conducting oral histories and interviews with people who had been affected by deportation or migration or in some way been involved. And slowly, I was able to pick up the trail in different places and piece together the sources. So I think you can see if you look at the chapters, I kind of draw on distinct discrete source spaces for each one. And what I ended up needing to do was, if I’m going to tell a story that traces a hundred and forty years of how the deportation machine has changed, as well as how people organized and fought back against it, I need to figure out what sources I’m going to use for each of those time periods. And the federal government records were very helpful. The Mexican government records were helpful in some ways. Newspapers, but then also organizations, records and papers of migrant service groups and activists, as well as lawyers’ legal records. These all proved to be incredibly eye-opening and revealing, especially for the latter part of the book.
As a student of James Scott, I’m fascinated by record- and legibility-production. So what sort of data is the Mexican government producing?
Some of it was correspondence between government officials, so between U.S. And Mexican migration officials. Some of it was related to Mexican consular officials located across the United States. Much of the data they include are letters and memos and telegrams that Mexican citizens wrote to the Mexican government, asking them to advocate on behalf of themselves or their families. And in a lot of those records came personal stories and kind of that allowed me to get into the social history that I wanted to trace. Just to give you one example, in the second chapter of the book, I discuss these instances of how Mexican women would travel to the border when their children were in detention, kind of insist on getting their release and you know, they weren’t going to go anywhere until their children returned with them. Or another instance where I came across these surprising archival finds where Mexican women use deportation as a way to have U.S. officials remove their husbands so that they return to be with their family. So there is, you know, really, I think, crucial records that I discovered in the Mexican Migration Institute archive. But most of that was from the early to mid part of the 20th century. And the Foreign Relations Archive in Mexico City also had some information from the 1970s which proved very useful; newspaper sources, as well as some of the telegrams and kind of diplomatic sources between the two governments.
On the Truckee Method, and Bottom-Up Deportation
Goodman’s book opens with a tragic account of the ways that 19th century white elites in California drove out undesired immigrants, mostly Chinese, through campaigns of fear and humiliation. Goodman zeroes in on the case of Truckee, California, and its 15-year campaign of “economic boycotts and […] public shaming” (p. 16) against Chinese ethnics and even supportive white Americans. By opening with these fear campaigns, Goodman showcases the variety of governmental and non-governmental actors that have been historically involved in driving people out of the United States.
I did want to talk about the Truckee Method. I broke my scholarly composure reading it just to say ‘yikes.’ It’s a harrowing account. I think you do a great job of it. These are anti-Chinese societies, and they have plans and they have a whole architecture for how they’re going to deter migration. Why did you decide to write about that? And what was it specifically about this community in California whose name I actually had never heard of, that made you say, ‘this needs to be a key part of my one-hundred-and-forty-year history?’
I think this speaks to the fact that I trace those three mechanisms. And I understood the history of formal deportation and voluntary departure, as carried out by federal officials dating back to a particular moment in time. And the way that I understood in my head was that once the federal government gained control over immigration, they’d be able to formally deport people and then rolling off of that, or kind of coming from that, would be their reliance on coercive mechanisms such as voluntary departure and self-deportation campaigns. My assumption proved kind of to be the exact opposite order when I went to the archives and saw more of the records, and I came to understand that it makes a lot of sense in retrospect. These informal mechanisms in some ways predated the federal government’s control over migration and the creation of formal deportation.
So the Truckee method, which I discussed in the 1880s before the federal government had control over immigration, before the creation of a federal bureaucracy was what I saw as a precursor, or one of the earliest instances of what would come to be formal deportation. I think towns, localities, states, countries have always relied on a variety of mechanisms, including threat, the kind of possibility of action, of forceful action. So what I think drew me to this was that I saw it as a real, a clear example of how I could show self-deportation-like tactics in action, while also making sure to emphasize the fact that they only work because the threat of violence and the threat of violence was all too real for the Chinese in Truckee and the Chinese across the West Coast.
And connecting those two things is really important, and there are ways in which you could say that voluntary departures or self-deportation campaigns in later years and decades, it’s kind of the preferred solution that liberal states or liberal democracies take, and the United States is not alone in this. But it’s kind of a soft power mechanism, not as punitive as detention and formal deportation. Yet they also only work because of that threat that is, again, all too real for people actually facing expulsion. There was this story, the history of anti-Chinese violence that undergirded what became known as the Truckee method, the kind of upstanding citizen that would never rely on violence to push people out, but still had the same end goals and did terrorize the Chinese community. And there are a variety of mechanisms, but this is a way that I was able to trace how some of the coercive mechanisms pre-dated the establishment of formal deportation, and then, as I note, were incorporated into the deportation machine after the federal government gained control in the 1890’s.
I struggle to call it civil violence because it’s again, it’s one of those times where the sort of civil-state line is blurred, but did those campaigns sort of wane after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act or after the federal government shows that they’re doing something?
So this is something that localities and some dimension, sometimes local and state officials, as well as federal officials and ordinary citizens, rely on to either push the government officials to act or to take matters into their own hands. And I think we can see this in all kinds of other realms, perhaps as well addition to immigration, but it’s not something that disappears. In fact, because of some of the dynamics we talked about earlier, how the federal government creates formal deportations and starts restricting Chinese migration, but they don’t necessarily have the money to carry out the apprehensions and expulsions. And as a result, people get really upset because they feel like the government is not doing its job, even though the law has changed, the law on the books. They’re not actually seeing that much change on the ground. And there’s a very similar dynamic that I think plays out a century later. You look at California in the 1990s, with Prop 187 being critical of the federal government for not enforcing the border, and they try to take things into their own hands, which eventually leads the federal government to act and implement harsher policies that militarize the border and put more agents on the border and made migration more dangerous and deadly. Yet, you know those calls and those kind of actions, don’t disappear after a federal act, just become stronger in some sense.
On the maritime business of deportation in the mid-20th century
Another powerful component of Goodman’s text is his description, in Chapter 3, of private shipping companies and their role in deporting immigrants back to Mexico. One of the examples he provides is that of the Mexican-owned ship Mercurio, which entered a contract in the 1950’s with the U.S. government to transported deported migrants along with banana shipments. Conditions inside the ship were so inhuman that on August 26, 1956, the Mercurio saw a “mutinous uprising led by deportees upset about their treatment” (103). Goodman’s account once again broadens our analyses of the multiple actors literally transporting people from one nation to another, and to the profoundly dehumanizing experiences enabled by both the U.S. and Mexican governments in the past and the present.
I wanna’ talk about Chapter Three and the whole saga of ships. If I’m writing a literature review before reading your book, I would write. ‘And one of the most recent developments of immigration enforcement has been the privatization of some of its services.’ But what you’re telling me here is, that privatization has been going on way earlier. So why write a whole chapter on the business of migration? And why do you decide to focus specifically on the case of boats?
Yeah, this is a good question, and this one was on my radar early. And part of it was, I think, wanting to get at the human costs of the policies, and the intersection of punishment and profit motives, and how those two things really shape immigration enforcement and what they mean for real people. So I try to paint a broader picture and look at the actual physical process of removal. And I know that it happens: busses and trains and boats and planes and that it happened before the example of the boat that I focus on and happened after. So the chapter in a way goes from the 1920s to the 1970s, but in broad strokes for most of it, and really looks at the case study in the 1950s in the boatlift to look at the inner workings of what this looked like, what it meant, the contracts and the business side of things, how profit motives influence people’s decisions and how rather than immigration policy just being something of domestic politics or international relations, it was also something profoundly shaped oftentimes by corrupt public-private relationships.
And that’s where I came to it and also just knew that there was this incredible cache of documents that told the story. And I became really interested in trying to recreate as best I could what it would have been like for individuals to actually be on the ships, to look at it again from a material perspective. Like, what does the experience of deportation look like? Yeah, I saw a lot of other scholars that had written very thoroughly and smartly about the policies. Legislation, looking at the debates in Congress and the creation of these laws, but the social history from the perspective of migrants themselves targeted by these policies. what would that experience look like? And of course, we can never fully understand and recreate that, but I tried to do that as best as I could while combining the history of how these policies came to be in the first place. And then also getting at the the role the Mexican government and the private Mexican companies play.
That seemed important in this case to note that it wasn’t just kind of an evil Anglo- dominated white U.S. officials and private companies that were looking to cash in on migrant suffering. But those Mexican companies, companies from other places in the Caribbean write to the US officials and more or less say, ‘Look, we hear that you’re getting into the deportation business. We’d love to help you out with that.’ I mean, so there’s something important there as well about showing the intersection of punishment, which I discovered was an explicit goal of this campaign. And I liken it to the prevention through deterrence efforts in later decades. But how punishment and profits, profit motive, intersected to create what I think has largely been the reality of the deportation machine, actual physical removal of people since the middle of the 20th century, if not before. And the only other thing I would say that it’s kind of a caveat here, which I’ve gotten some interesting feedback and some of the discussions about the book involves researching it as well. I think it’s important for us to note that while private companies have been involved, the influence they have has shifted or expanded over time. So I don’t see the private companies in the middle of the 20th century playing the same role or having an influence on the creation of policy, let’s say private prison companies who spend millions of dollars lobbying this in recent decades have. The earlier examples, it’s more in the implementation of the policy, which has such a tremendous impact on the lives of migrants, but didn’t play the same role that companies would in the future in terms of big-business influences creating policy
That is a good caveat. Two things came to mind when reading this . There’s this really good paper by legal scholar Jennifer Gordon. It’s called “People Are Not Bananas,” which, is meant to be a critique of the sort of political economy approach that thinks of the trade of products versus the trade of people. So if you think that people are bananas, then the idea that globalization opens borders for bananas but not people, it’s a surprise. But if you acknowledge that they’re not the same, then it’s not a puzzle which then when you are reading your chapter, which is such a visceral… with agents purposefully saying, ‘Well, let’s treat them as if they were bananas.’ It’s just a blunt response for an awful reality, saying, ‘Well, we’re going to pretend like they are, at least for these purposes, for the purpose of exclusion.’ And the other thing I kept thinking, because you know, you write of how humiliated people felt at being deported not by the evil white American Anglo but by their compatriotas, other Latinos. In some ways, I also think of David Cortez’s work on Latino ICE agents.
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this book.
Yes, same! And you know, one of the things that Cortez has…well, it’s not just one of his findings, it’s one of the things that people in detention say is, it’s even worse when it’s a Latino person doing it. It adds to the sort of moral injury.
That’s an important piece. It’s always important to note and emphasize kind of the role that class and social status play here. Because, you know, in justifying the conditions of the boat lift, the Mexican and U.S. officials both say, this is fine given the type of people being transported, transported as if there’s this essential almost like, eugenic biological racism that play on both sides of the border. But Mexican and U.S. government officials were totally fine with the deportation, until it blew up in their face with a mutiny. And that’s always an important thing that I try to emphasize to people, so they understand a little bit more: the history of how Mexican officials and Mexican companies could treat migrants like this as well. We have the ways in which they describe them, and kind of the centralization of their very being and kind of the studies they did, and I ended up finding this photo, which I include, of the way these kind of teenage migrant boys, which was just, really disturbing, obviously, in all kinds of ways, but very revealing as to how they could justify the inhuman treatment of the migrants. And I think that that has a lot to do with what we’re seeing today play out at the border. And this connects to the importance of changing the narratives of migration and really breaking down the false binary between the supposed us and them. They’re saying, it’s only when that kind of binary exists, and when there’s a distancing of oneself from migrants that such horrific policies can exist at all.
On the 1970’s rise of immigrant activism
Goodman’s book ends in a hopeful note. Chapter 5 discusses the efforts of Southern California-based immigrant and labor organizers in the 1970’s to push back against the spread of immigration enforcement from the borderlands into the interior of the country. Their efforts were based on border patrol’s denial of due process to migrants in deportation proceeding: if migrants began demanding a formal removal process, activists reasoned, perhaps they could grant their communities a fighting chance and bring the deportation machine to a halt. One of their strategies was distributing marked-up copies of the voluntary departure form used by Border Patrol, with handwritten messages telling people not to sign it if they found themselves in deportation proceedings. I asked Goodman about these fliers, which would not be out of place today in the form of social media infographics.
One of the things I love about historians is how much better they are at graphic culture than social scientists. I love the image of the Know Your Rights card, in Chapter Five. And I love it because I totally see this being done today. This can be a Facebook infographic now, even though it’s from 1970’s L.A. Can you like, historicize that image? What was the logic of the activists at that time in the 70s? What was their logic for challenging the system?
I think this is a key moment in change. So much of my book is about the continuities that exist and the throughlines that we see, the targeting of non-citizens for expulsion, the various reasons that people targeted immigrants throughout history, from explicit racism to economic interests to seeing them as a cultural threat or public health threat, political threat, et cetera. But one moment of crucial change is in the mid to late 1970s. And. I refer to this as the dawn of the age of mass expulsion. This is really in Chapter Four and Five, just for your point of reference. This is where we start to see the possibility of apprehension and deportation become a fact of everyday life now for Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and anyone perceived to be Latino.
And this is when things really shift, and I think we can actually see the throughlines change. And I think you’re exactly right that what we know today, the general dynamic begins then, in the mid to late 1970s, where we have mass expulsions, an average of 900,000 people deported each year from 1978 to 2008, the Great Recession. The presence of immigration officials in migrant communities and ethnic Mexican communities leads people to alter their routines, creates these internal borders of stopping going to the market, or in order to go to the market, they no longer go to the movies. They stopped going to Sunday Mass when immigration officials show up at the church. And in response to that new present and new reality, and the fact that deportation was becoming normalized at that time, people start organizing and pushing back. This has a lot to do, certainly with the momentum coming out of the Chicano movement. Many people involved in immigration organizing and activism trace their original interest, or their original experiences, start to the Chicano movement or people like Jose Jacques Medina, who was a Mexican political exile from 1968 who fled the Mexican government targeting him, became a political exile in the United States to face his own deportation case while also organizing on behalf of undocumented people.
So they start adopting strategies that are familiar to us today of organizing know-your-rights campaigns and educating people in the migrant community as one of the best ways to empower them. They organize mass marches. They incorporate legal strategies, they take to the courts as well. This is, as you know, at the same moment when organizations like MALDEF [Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund] are created, and the NCLR [National Council of La Raza], albeit with the backing of large foundations like the Ford Foundation, which might moderate their politics or push them to take less combative, controversial stances. But together, I think the variety of people interested in pushing for broader rights and insisting on the belonging migrants, who by that time in some cases live in the United States for years or decades and whose families were swept across the border. I think it becomes something very recognizable to us today, on both sides, in terms of the fear that existed and the possibility of deportation, as well as the ways that people organized and fought back.
One of the things that I loved about this is that you use the metaphor of the machine throughout, which, as you say, doesn’t mean the deportation regime is a well-oiled machine. It just means it’s a machine, period. And my read of that chapter is that activists figured, ‘Wait, these guys are trying to deny us due process, so maybe the wrench we can throw in their engine is, to demand due process.’ I mean, is that is that a fair read of what happened?
Right. So that’s part of what I was interested in doing here, too, right? And I certainly trace activism and resistance throughout the book, but usually kind of smaller touch and go moments prior to this. With this chapter, I really wanted to focus on the ways that people at this moment in time started systematically organizing and fighting back. And you’re right that key to fighting against deportation machine is first understanding how it works and the migrants and the union organizers and the activists, lawyers and others, accurately assessed that the whole machine ran on voluntary departures. And implicit to that was people waving their rights, saying they’re not going to fight their case. They agree to leave the country and the federal government leveraged the threat of formal deportation to encourage people to accept that. And that was all obviously by design. So what they realized is that by rejecting voluntary departure, they could essentially bring the deportation machine to a screeching halt if enough people insisted on hearings, if enough people insisted on fighting their cases.
And the federal government was keenly aware of this and really scared of the potential And one of the things that I ran into on this chapter was that there were some important victories won. People have their deportation order stayed or canceled. The class action suit, which plays out over 14 years, leads to important changes and reforms and the rights that undocumented people have in terms of kind, of Miranda-style rights that immigration officials will now be forced to advise them of when making an apprehension. We see that they do not succeed in bringing the deportation machine to a halt. Deportations continue apace, and it’s totally understandable why that happens. Some of the lawyers involved in these fights told me…Mark Rosenbaum, who’s this incredible lawyer, that is still practicing today, he says that, “No lawyer ever had to spend a night in immigration detention.” It’s important for us not to kind of get things backward here and put our political goals ahead of the well-being of our clients. If you could organize effectively enough, you could potentially convince mass numbers of people to reject voluntary departure, but rejecting voluntary departure meant languishing in detention and hell-like cells. And that’s an ask that you can’t really make or expect people to sacrifice, and to not be with their families and to not have kind of a clear outcome. A key piece here was guaranteeing people bond and ensuring that they could get them out of detention. A lot of their fight would not have succeeded had they not been able to get people out of detention for understandable reasons. And immigration officials use the threat of prolonged detention to encourage people, or to coerce or force or trick them into agreeing to voluntary departure.
On the present and future of the Deportation Machine
We closed our conversation on an ambiguous note, with Goodman pointing out the intersection of mass incarceration and mass deportation that marks the present day. At the same time, we see massive resistance efforts to the deportation machine’s expansion. Past may be prologue, but it is not destiny. And even as history shows bipartisan commitment to deportation, perhaps scholarly and activist work like Goodman’s can demonstrate the injustice at the core of our immigration policy.
I guess the final mater is to bring us into the present: what era of immigration enforcement are we living now in the U.S? You started answering this earlier in reference to the 1970’s. What are the large scale changes that you are seeing that brought us here?
I see more continuity than change in many ways, and for some people that seems surprising. And I think we can do two things at once here, right? On the one hand, the story I tell, traces a century and a half -long bipartisan history of deportation, how Democratic and Republican administrations alike have supported punitive policies that have exacted extraordinary costs on migrants, on permanent residents, on non-citizens and citizens alike. There also have been important moments of change and some particularly bad administrations like the Trump administration, which wreaked havoc in all kinds of ways and launched really an all-out war on immigrants. And we can recognize both of those things at once. On the one hand, Democrats have contributed to the construction or creation of a deportation machine and its perpetuation, while also recognizing that the Trump administration was especially bad in many ways and certainly when it came or when it comes to the attempt to end immigration into the United States, essentially, to limit the rights of non-citizens, and ramping up fear campaigns and anti-immigrant hate speech and rhetoric and actions that only reinforced some of those dividing lines we discussed earlier.
And there’s also the reified notion of who is an America and who is not, which don’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny but have a real, serious effect beyond the rhetoric. So on the one hand, I think people are very hopeful that we would see radical pro-immigrant policies with the Biden administration. And we’ve certainly seen many positive changes when it comes to rolling back the Muslim ban, and DACA no longer is on the chopping block in the same way that it has been in recent years. There’s many ways in which prosecutorial discretion is back in place, and at the same time, there’s all kinds of ways in which we see more continuity. You know, certainly around asylum and refuge, where the Biden administration really hasn’t done as much, as they promised, or as people hoped. And they’ve also continued the fast-track deportations at the border through Title 42 (As of the writing of this article, the Biden administration has announced the phasing out of Title 42 in the border).
I’m not happy to be right on this account, but I do think that my book in some ways shows and explains how and why that continuity can occur from an administration to administration. In the last sentence of the book, I emphasize that the fight against inhumane policies will continue regardless of what happened in last November’s election, regardless of which politician or party is in power, because so much of this has to do with the bureaucracy that’s in place. And as long as the immigration enforcement bureaucracy remains in place with the explicit goal of apprehending, detaining and deporting as many people as they can, many of these problems will continue into the future.
Ramon Garibaldo Valdez, ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow 2021, is a PhD candidate working on issues around social movements, immigration, and ethnographic methods. His research looks at the ways that immigrant communities in the U.S. actively resist – both through political mobilization and every-day defiance – the marginalizing experiences produced by the U.S. immigration policy regime.