Workers from a Koch Foods plant being taken away by ICE agents during a raid, Morton, Mississippi

Rogelio V. Solis/AP Images

Workers from a Koch Foods plant being taken away by ICE agents during a raid, Morton, Mississippi, August 7, 2019

The United States is in an age of mass deportation. This may not be surprising, given how consistently President Trump has denigrated, demonized, and threatened immigrants. His administration has waged an assault on the entire immigration system, shutting down access to asylum, pressuring the immigration courts to churn out removal orders, and adopting rules that narrowed the avenues to legal immigration and crippled US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers it. According to the most recent official figures, from the beginning of Trump’s term through September 2019 his administration carried out more than 584,000 formal deportations. As of last October, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was monitoring more than 3.2 million cases of immigrants who were in active deportation proceedings.

Yet despite Trump’s repeated warnings that he planned to expel more than one million unauthorized immigrants, he has not reached the numbers achieved by President Obama, whose administration expelled over three million people and holds the record for formal deportations in a year—more than 432,000 in 2013. Trump has remained preoccupied with the Mexican border and constructing his wall. He has also been increasing ICE’s funding and staff, which now numbers more than 20,000. In doing so, he has built on a steady expansion of immigration enforcement initiated two decades ago, in response to the September 11 attacks.

The deportation system held sway over immigrant communities long before Trump became president, but under his direction it has become even more far-reaching, arbitrary, and cruel. Immigrants have regularly been arrested at home and work, sometimes as “collateral” when ICE has come looking for someone else. They’ve been handed off to ICE after being arrested by local police, often for minor offenses. They’ve been picked up from county jails and courthouses and detained at highway checkpoints. Some were abruptly deported after appearing at ICE offices for routine check-ins. At times these enforcement actions made news, as when ICE swept into chicken-processing plants in Mississippi on August 7, 2019, in a blitz that yielded 680 arrests. But in general, they have attracted little attention.

Because of orders Trump issued early in his administration that made any immigrant without legal status vulnerable to deportation, families have been increasingly separated. The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has risen and fallen, but since 2004 it has remained at more than 10 million. Many are settled in American communities and have mixed-status families, with some members who are undocumented, others who may have some kind of legal immigration papers, and others—mostly children—who are American citizens. When the head of a household is deported, these families are shattered and can plunge into poverty. The abrupt banishing of a parent leaves children hurt, disoriented, and angry. Undocumented family members who remain are forced into an existence framed in fear. Yet the country has not tended to view deportation as a punitive measure, like incarceration, even though its effects on communities can be no less disastrous.

In his superbly researched and briskly narrated The Deportation Machine, Adam Goodman, an assistant professor of history and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, comprehensively recasts the way we think about expulsions from the US and their effects. Although formal deportations—those ordered by an immigration court or other federal authority—have become a dominant means of enforcement only since the 1990s, Goodman shows that coerced departures by various means have been a powerful form of immigration control, exercised by federal and sometimes local authorities, since at least the late nineteenth century.

Digging into archives of the immigration bureaucracy, including some that he was the first scholar to locate and explore, Goodman estimates that nearly 57 million people have been deported since the 1880s, far more than the number of immigrants who were given legal papers allowing them to stay. For long periods border and interior enforcement were haphazard and underfunded, and so authorities relied on recurrent mass purges and scare tactics to frighten immigrants into agreeing to depart, or into packing up and leaving on their own. “Officials have long used everyday policing, immigration raids, and mass expulsion drives to remove unauthorized immigrants from the country,” Goodman writes, “but they have also relied on rumors and publicity blitzes surrounding these initiatives to spur self-deportation.”

Many immigrant nationalities have been spurned and persecuted in upsurges of xenophobia since the early 1900s, but the impact of deportations has fallen overwhelmingly on Mexicans. For more than a century, Goodman writes, “repeated apprehensions, detentions, and deportations have affected Mexicans’ material and psychological well-being, as has living in the United States under the constant threat of forcible separation from one’s family.” Goodman also dispels any notion that deportation is merely a civil administrative procedure, though it is codified that way in immigration law. He shows that authorities have long designed removals to be so painful that migrants would be deterred from trying again to enter the country illegally. “Frequently,” he writes, “punishment became the point.”

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Goodman traces the origins of the deportation system to the hostility toward Chinese immigrants that arose in the American West after economic boom-and-bust cycles in the nineteenth century. A newspaper in 1854 editorialized that Chinese immigrants were “uncivilized, unclean and filthy beyond all conception,” and likely to carry contagions. In the Northwest, white supremacists who were allied with labor organizations, some taking inspiration from the Ku Klux Klan, hounded Chinese immigrants from dozens of communities, torching their homes and adorning their streets with gallows.

Starting in the 1880s, Congress passed laws to exclude Chinese laborers and to authorize deportations of any immigrants who were “likely to become public charges” or carry diseases. In 1893 a momentous Supreme Court decision in the case of a Chinese immigrant set the legal foundations for deportation, determining that the United States’ right to expel foreigners was “absolute and unqualified” and mostly not subject to judicial review. The Court also concluded that deportation was not a punishment but merely “a method of enforcing the return” of a foreigner to a home country.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, as the US fought in World War I and then was devastated by the Great Depression, the government became more concerned with its southern border, and Mexicans became the primary targets. A century-long cycle of migration was set in motion as Mexicans came north to fill farm labor shortages and escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution.

In 1929 a white supremacist senator, Coleman Livingston Blease of South Carolina, persuaded Congress to make it a federal crime to cross the border without authorization (now a misdemeanor on the first offense, a felony upon reentry). But the law was left mostly unenforced until a border crackdown initiated by President George W. Bush to quell an outcry from conservative activists, and then it was applied only selectively. Instead, Mexicans faced constant pressure to get out: vilified in the press as lawbreaking aliens and subjected to raids by authorities and attacks by nativist “alien-hunting” groups with names like America for Americans. “The farmer rids his barn of rats, his hen-house of weasels,” argued an editorial in a San Antonio newspaper in 1930. As many as half a million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were expelled from the country in the decade after 1929.

Using records and correspondence from the immigration service, Goodman looks inside Operation Wetback, the expulsion campaign against undocumented Mexicans in 1954 whose name indicates the ease with which anti-Mexican slurs were used. It came during a period when the US offered a designated route to temporary legal status for Mexican laborers through the Bracero Program, which from 1942 to 1964 issued more than 4.6 million contracts to more than 400,000 men, who came mainly as seasonal farmworkers. Demand for Mexican labor far outstripped the program, however, and unauthorized immigration soared. President Eisenhower tapped a retired general, Joseph M. Swing, to be commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and to command Operation Wetback like a military mission—“to stamp out the wetback practice and all its attendant evils,” as Swing declared.

It began with noisy publicity campaigns to persuade Americans that unauthorized Mexicans “propagated disease, committed crimes, drained the tax base, and degraded the labor standards and living conditions” of American workers, Goodman writes. Hundreds of Border Patrol agents in mobile task forces fanned out through cities and towns far from the border, in California, Texas, and Illinois. Charging through agricultural fields and into factories, grabbing people in parks and on their front stoops, agents apprehended more than 44,000 Mexicans in California in one month alone. The immigrants were bussed to Arizona and deported from there, a detour designed to raise the time and costs of return. After three months Swing said the purge was making “splendid headway,” having “netted over 140,000 wetbacks.” Once it ended, he declared, “The so-called ‘wetback’ problem no longer exists…. The border has been secured.”

The vast majority of the more than one million deportations in 1954, in which Mexicans were rounded up, penned, and shipped like livestock over the border, were registered in official records as “voluntary departures.” Operation Wetback was only a high point of what Goodman calls “mass deportation on the cheap,” policies that avoided time-consuming and costly legal proceedings, in which detainees might have a chance of arguing their case, in favor of harassment and fear propagation that drove them to agree to pay their own way out, and convinced many immigrants to leave before they were arrested. Swing’s announcement of the success of his operation proved to be a major misjudgment, and unauthorized crossings continued, but the fear-based regime loomed over Mexican communities into the final decades of the century.

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In some of his most vivid passages, Goodman recounts the voyages of the “hell ships,” Mexican cargo ships hired by the immigration service in the 1950s to transport tens of thousands of deportees from south Texas to Veracruz in southern Mexico, an early episode of private profiteering in immigration. The voyages were planned with conditions so indelibly subhuman that deportees would never again want to return to the United States. They were crammed in “very filthy and foul-smelling” holds, retching with seasickness, in suffocating heat by day and numbing cold at night.

A navy captain sent to inspect the ships insisted that these deficiencies didn’t matter, because Mexicans were used to “living in general not much better than animals.” Finally, in August 1956, an uprising erupted among the deportees on one ship, forcing it to reroute to the port of Tampico, where several dozen hurled themselves overboard to escape. The ship transfers came to an end, but Goodman concludes that “enduring state-sanctioned violence and trauma was—and continues to be—a central element of the immigrant experience.”

Immigrants and their allies at times succeeded in resisting the deportation regime. In May 1978, during a period of intense activism by Latino groups in California on immigration issues, the INS raided the Sbicca shoe factory near Los Angeles, detaining 119 employees and hustling most of them onto buses that headed straight to the border. Goodman introduces us to several young attorneys who rushed in to try to stop the deportations. Among them was Peter Schey, who had grown up in South Africa and came to the United States when his father, a critic of the apartheid regime, had to flee. Only five years out of law school, Schey went to federal court armed with ambitious, untested legal arguments and convinced a judge to issue a restraining order on some deportations. Fourteen years later, the case was finally settled. Schey and his team won agreement that the INS would inform detainees of basic rights, allow them to consult lawyers, and provide a list of available legal services. In the end, thirty-one immigrants were spared deportation. It was an early example of the tenacious work that has been required to win even minimal rights for immigrants in the deportation system.1

Goodman also examines a law Congress passed in 1996 at the urging of President Clinton, who was seeking to prove his law-and-order credentials as he campaigned for reelection. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, known as IIRIRA—a name that stirs loathing among immigration lawyers but is not widely known beyond them—has “done more to reshape the deportation machine than any law over the last half-century,” Goodman writes. The statute added to the list of offenses that could lead to deportation, enhanced the authorities’ powers to deport, diminished immigrants’ due process rights, imposed mandatory detention in many cases, and made most deportations an irrevocable ten-year sentence to banishment. Combined with the hardening of border security that began in those years, IIRIRA marked a systemic shift toward formal deportations, which left a record in an immigrant’s file, exposing those who came back again to felony prosecution and up to two years in prison. Over the years, the law’s sanctions have resulted in the quiet dismemberment of countless families, including those of Americans who married undocumented immigrants, expecting that their citizenship gave them the right to obtain legal residency for a spouse, regardless of his or her status. Instead, they saw the government expel the person they loved.

As his title announces, Goodman presents the US deportation regime as a machine. This allows him to reveal with new precision the vast dimension and oppressive power of an unseen system. In practice, however, the machine has not been nearly as well oiled and effective as the image suggests. Immigration enforcement has frequently been improvised in response to crises, and riddled with inconsistencies and unintended consequences, as Americans lurched between embracing immigrants and shunning them. Time and again, when employers needed labor, immigration agents were encouraged to go easy. In addition, Goodman fails to grapple with the difficult question of who does merit deportation. It has become an unavoidable issue, since Trump has convinced a lot of Americans that the US is overrun with foreign criminals.

The destructive impact of this enforcement regime on day-to-day life in immigrant communities is described with refreshing clarity and heart by Michael Kagan in The Battle to Stay in America. Kagan, a law professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, tells stories of his neighbors and of clients at the university law clinic he runs. He provides an unusually accessible primer on immigration law and a valuable guide to the ways it currently works to perpetuate an excluded immigrant underclass with diminished rights.

In Nevada, one of every thirteen residents is an undocumented immigrant; one of every seven schoolchildren has an undocumented parent. Kagan goes to the homes of mixed-status families, like that of Olivero and Manuela, Mexican parents who have lived in Las Vegas since 2002, working their way up to high-ranking jobs in the kitchens of swanky restaurants on the Strip. One of their children has DACA, a temporary form of legal protection, and two others, born in Nevada, are US citizens. Kagan does not dismiss the fact that the couple broke the law when they crossed the border illegally. But he says the system should offer a proportional punishment. Under Nevada law, he notes, some traffic violations are misdemeanor offenses approximately equivalent to the crime of improper entry, but they are punished with fines and suspensions, and perhaps short jail time, not years of separation from family. Although Trump administration officials insist that immigrants have to come “the right way,” Kagan explains that there are no legal visas reasonably available for Mexicans who come to the US to work hard in low-wage jobs and rejoin family. Nor does current law offer Olivero and Manuela, neither of whom has ever been arrested, a way to atone and move past their original violation. “This family embodies so many values that we Americans say we hold dear,” Kagan writes. “And yet, the only thing the law offers them is deportation.”

Kagan is candid about the demoralization that lawyers have experienced under Trump as they fail again and again to win asylum for their clients in immigration courts, especially for those from Central America. Asylum law obliges attorneys to prompt migrants to relive unspeakable violence and degradation—rape, gang torture, beatings by a family member—in order to present their story to a judge. Yet a case can depend entirely on the luck of the draw; in Las Vegas one judge granted asylum to only fourteen people in 452 cases over five years. Revisions to the law under Trump have made the odds much steeper. Kagan recalls having to prepare an appeal in the case of a Salvadoran girl who had barely escaped a gang rape. The judge was persuaded that the teenager was in danger but ordered her deported anyway, determining that her rape would not have been “for one of the legally relevant reasons.” Kagan admits feeling nausea informing clients of these denials.

Immigration law also offers nothing for Fernando Gonzalez, a Guatemalan handyman who failed to pay a fine for a broken brake light on his truck and was arrested in 2018 by Las Vegas police, then turned over to ICE as a result of a cooperation agreement between the two agencies. After fourteen years in the US, the married father of two American children was awaiting the outcome of his deportation case without much hope. While community leaders were preparing defensive tactics to respond to splashy ICE raids, Kagan realized that these cooperative law enforcement partnerships were leading to far more deportations. What ICE usually did was “just persuade local police departments to hand local residents over to be deported, quietly, behind closed doors, and often in the dead of night.” Emergency deportation cases overwhelmed his law clinic.

Mexican deportees on the SS Mercurio

National Archives and Records Administration

Mexican deportees on the SS Mercurio, August 1956

Kagan joined a group of young lawyers, some just out of law school, and a growing number of activists and recently elected state lawmakers to resist the program of cooperation with ICE. After false starts, their pressure convinced the sheriff of Clark County to suspend it.

Yet these victories hardly mitigate Kagan’s sense that he is failing: “On most days I read my email and I know: we’re losing.” (Indeed, at times he burdens his narrative with too many confessions about his job stress and his parenting travails with daughters adopted from Africa.) Looking at his immigrant neighbors, he sees “a community under siege,” as workers who are essential to Las Vegas’s high-rolling lifestyle are treated as “expendable, optional, invisible.” Kagan says that lawyers who practice in this field know that “the machinery of cruelty was built into immigration law more than a century ago and was never taken out.” The Trump administration has “removed the safety valves…and as a result the machine can increasingly only do one thing. It removes people.”

These books confirm that the language and practice of xenophobia in American politics have been remarkably consistent. In the 1920s aliens were expelled on the grounds that they spread disease, brought crime, and took jobs from Americans. A century later, Trump used the same claims and seized on the 1929 statute that criminalized border-crossing to bring record numbers of federal immigration prosecutions, creating new legions of immigrant convicts.

As the coronavirus spread this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order in March suspending entry to the US of migrants crossing by land from Mexico and Canada, citing “a serious danger” of introducing the disease, even though at that point transmission was moving from the United States to Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security has used that order to carry out a new form of summary expulsion, sending more than 109,000 border-crossers, likely including many asylum-seekers, back to Mexico with no proceedings or official record, often in less than twenty-four hours. Among them were at least 570 unaccompanied children, some as young as ten years old, who were held in hotels before they were expelled to avoid placing them in legally mandated shelters. The president also cited the pandemic to suspend most legal immigration, denying entry to legal residents and temporary workers. His proclamation conflated several evils he wants to associate with immigrants, calling them “Aliens Who Present a Risk to the US Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak.”

During this year’s anti–police brutality protests following the killing of George Floyd, signs calling for defunding or abolishing ICE have appeared only sporadically. But under Trump, many immigrants live in fear of any encounter with police, at risk of being singled out based on their appearance for a stop that could lead to the catastrophe of deportation, and always worried that ICE will come looking for them. Undocumented parents have their own version of “the conversation” they must have with their teenage children: what to do if they leave for work and do not come home. Deportations of immigrants with no serious criminal record have increased year after year.

More than six million American children live in households with at least one undocumented family member, as I reported in a recent article for the Marshall Project and The Guardian based on data from the Center for Migration Studies.2 Years after a parent or spouse was deported, the families I met in northeast Ohio were still reeling. American teenagers struggled to understand why a caring parent had been forced to leave them. Their schoolwork declined, and two girls in one family tried to kill themselves. American spouses endured anguish and bitter frustration as they tried to sustain families on their own. It was hard to identify anyone who benefited from these removals.

In a speech on August 18 in Yuma, Arizona, Trump framed his second-term policies in the same alarmist terms, almost to the letter, that he used in announcing his candidacy five years ago. “We have people coming into this country, some great people, some really bad people, too. I mean murderers, and I mean rapists,” he said. If Trump is reelected, the enforcement regime will be further strengthened, deportations will increase, and he most likely will make permanent cuts to legal immigration, abandoning, perhaps definitively, the United States’ identity as a nation that welcomes immigrants.

If Joe Biden wins the White House, he has said he will quickly set new guidelines for ICE, halt most criminal prosecutions of border-crossers, restore protections for immigrants brought to the US as children, rebuild the wrecked asylum system, and reopen the gates to legal immigrants and refugees. But to overcome the greatest failing of the system, Biden will have to undertake with Congress what amounts to an act of emancipation, to bring millions of immigrants who have lived good lives in this country out of illegality. Biden was slow to recognize the legacy he carried of deportations under Obama. He said in February that the high numbers were “a big mistake,” and since then his position has continued to evolve. He made pledges to send a bill to Congress on “day one” with a “roadmap to citizenship” for 11 million undocumented immigrants, and at one point he supported a hundred-day moratorium on deportations.

With recession levels of unemployment and the rise of street violence around some protests against police, Biden has recently been a bit more cautious. His latest plan says he will “commit significant political capital” and “immediately begin working with Congress” on the broad roadmap, which includes a fast track to citizenship for farmworkers and for immigrants who came as children. He proposes to make work-based visas more readily available and to create a program to allow cities and counties to petition for legal immigrant workers, to reduce incentives for unauthorized immigration. Biden will face pressure to reverse some of Trump’s most unjust deportations, like those of US military veterans who were denied citizenship, had their green cards canceled, and were expelled, often for nonviolent crimes committed after their service. It is hard to see how he can accomplish any of this without Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. But if he achieves just the essential parts, it will bring some peace to immigrant communities that have lived under the threat of deportation for generations.

  1. 1

    For an expert and eminently readable account of an even more epic case led by Peter Schey, see Philip G. Schrag, Baby Jails: The Fight to End the Incarceration of Refugee Children in America (University of California Press, 2020). It tells the story of the Flores case, brought to improve the conditions of detention for migrant children. The lawsuit was first filed in 1985 and the settlement is still in force—and Schey is still litigating it—today. 

  2. 2

    “The True Costs of Deportation,” The Marshall Project, June 18, 2020.