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date: 23 September 2020

The History of Immigrant Deportations

Summary and Keywords

Since the 1880s, the US government has deported more than 55 million immigrants, the majority of whom came from Latin-American countries. But the history of immigrant deportations from the United States dates back further, as both colonial and state governments practiced expulsions. Many expulsions were not based on immigrant status, but rather integration or membership in a town or state. Citizens from the United States, for example, found themselves expelled from Massachusetts between the 1840s and 1870s under laws that targeted the migrant poor. In the 1880s, US federal authorities constructed the nation’s first deportation policy, building off earlier state expulsion policies. Early federal deportation policy reflected the racism and nativism of the era. In an expression of anti-Chinese racism, one of the very first deportation provisions passed by the federal government targeted Chinese immigrants. Other early federal deportation provisions included ones aimed at idiots, prostitutes, alcoholics, and public charges. The earliest federal deportation policy was narrow in scope, at least initially, in part because the laws held primarily that only people who entered the country in violation of an immigrant exclusion were deportable, and there were time limits that protected most long-term immigrants from deportation.

Beginning in the second decade of the 20th century, lawmakers slowly expanded deportation policy to make actions on US soil deportable offenses or for what has been called “post-entry infractions.” The newly created post-entry infractions included a small number of crimes and provisions that targeted political radicals. After the 1920s, immigration authorities focused their enforcement actions more on Mexican immigrants than on any other group under an expanding deportation policy. They did so on racial grounds, for racist reasons. The numbers of Mexicans deported increased with each passing decade, eventually reaching as many as a million people a year. Almost all immigrant deportations from the United States—more than 48 million—have taken place since 1965. In that year, the federal government entered the business of mass and constant deportations. As deportations multiplied, the proportion of Latin-American countries other than Mexico that received deported people also escalated. Although the majority of deportations in US history have been carried out for entering or remaining in the country in violation of immigration law, major anti-crime campaigns in the last forty years have resulted in a growing number of deportations for post-entry infractions.

Keywords: deportation, Chinese exclusion, expulsion, Operation Wetback, National Origins system, refugees, Mexican Repatriation, Red Scare, crimmigation, War on Drugs

Expulsions and Forced Removals Before Federal Deportation Policy

Before the federal government built its deportation policy, many processes were used to compel a person’s departure from a region or community, including centuries of slave captures, colonial-era “warnings out” and expulsions, early-19th-century Indian removals and colonization of free African Americans, and criminal extraditions. What would become deportations, the bilateral, compelled departure of immigrants from the United States, has roots in all of these. Nineteenth-century state immigration policies aimed at Irish and Chinese migrants, however, would set the most important precedents. At the core of the growth of state-level immigration policy prior to the 1870s, which laid the foundations for later federal deportation policy were: (a) economic concerns about immigrant poverty aggravated by anti-Irish nativism; and (b) anti-Chinese racism. All of this lay the foundation for the large-scale deportation of Latin-American migrants beginning in the 20th century.

Before the nation’s founding, authorities in British colonies compelled the departure of people from localities. Many colonial towns “warned out” or expelled people who could not support themselves financially. These expulsions were based on British poor law that imposed restrictions on the ability of the transient poor to move from one community to another. Warning out aimed to prevent public poor relief from being spent on outsiders who did not belong to the community. Religious outsiders were sometimes banished, too. Church leaders, for example, expelled Ann Hutchinson from Massachusetts Bay in 1637 for her religious beliefs. Some colonial communities banished criminals. These warnings out, expulsions, and banishments were limited in number and largely unilateral. They did not generally specify the destination. Nor did they require the approval of the community on the receiving end of the compelled departure. And, they did not apply specifically to immigrants, but rather a person’s membership in a local community.

Not long after the nation’s founding, the US federal government created a limited power to remove immigrants, but authorities never used it. In 1798, the federal government passed the Alien Friends and Alien Enemies Acts that gave the president the power to expel from the United States foreigners deemed a threat to the nation’s security. Thomas Jefferson, among other democratic republicans, opposed the power, believing that it was unconstitutional. The federal government did not expel anyone under either acts and the constitutionality of the federal government’s power to expel was not tested.

Despite not using the power of expulsion, in the 19th century the federal government did compel the departure of thousands of people. With Indian removals, federal authorities forced the movement of indigenous communities from one place to another. The federal government removed over 70,000 Native Americans west of the Mississippi by 1840. Some of these were conducted with the imprimatur of the law; some were not. The Cherokee Removal, carried out by federal troops between 1836 and 1839, for instance, took place in violation of Supreme Court decisions. Before the Civil War, federal authorities enforced another form of compelled departure when they returned escaped enslaved African and African Americans in the name of enforcing fugitive slave laws. The colonization movements before the Civil War called for and then carried out the compelled removal of people of African heritage from the United States to various places in Africa.1 The federal government also formally started extraditions. Federal officials began surrendering foreign fugitives at the request of foreign governments after 1848.2 Of all the processes, only extradition solely affected immigrants, and it was bilateral. Extradition depended on the existence of treaties between two nation states or empires.

In the 19th century, US states, rather than the federal government, did most of the regulation of immigration, and Massachusetts and New York took the lead of state-level immigration control. Driven by strident anti-Irish nativism or an “anti-foreign spirit” in the 1830s, policymakers in Massachusetts and New York built upon existing poor laws to develop state laws for restricting the immigration of indigent people, many of whom were Irish. These laws targeted paupers and those classified as “likely to become a public charge.”3 The anti-Irish nativism animating officials from New York and Massachusetts was in some ways unique to the United States. It included bias against the Irish, assumptions about causes of their poverty, criticism of gender roles, and anti-Catholicism. The anti-Irish nativism that drove state immigration policy was also part of a global trend. Historian Hidetaka Hirota documents that the state expulsion policies of New York and Massachusetts “operated within a wider system of banishing and alienating nonproducing people that emerged in the Atlantic world,” linked to global industrialization.4 American, British and some Irish officials categorized poor Irish migrants as the underserving poor, stereotyped as lazy, with moral failings. Policymakers from New York and Massachusetts revised and operated their migration policies through much of the 19th century.

The state immigration policies of Massachusetts and New York included the power to prevent an initial landing and expel. Sometimes both were called expulsions, but for this article, expulsions refer to the act of removing a person who had lived in the state. In one three-year period, between 1855 and 1857, Massachusetts authorities expelled just over 4,000 people.5 Massachusetts expelled many more immigrants as New York did not pass a formal expulsion law until 1880. Most expulsions took place from local poorhouses and hospitals that cared for destitute migrants. Women were disproportionally represented in the total number of people expelled, in large part because gender roles restricted economic opportunities and legal rights.6 The destination of most of these state removals was not specified. Many of those expelled from Massachusetts went to neighboring states like New York. Some would be sent to Ireland, Britain, and Canada.7 These state policies against the migrant poor would develop into federal immigration policy and serve as the basis for early deportation categories.

California’s unsuccessful attempts to build an anti-Chinese immigration policy also laid important grounds for federal deportation policy. With the Gold Rush beginning in 1848, migrants poured into California, including a small immigration stream from China. The Chinese very quickly faced racist legal discrimination and violence. As historian Erika Lee explains, the racism faced by Chinese migrants “was grounded in an American Orientalist ideology that homogenized Asia as one indistinguishable entity and positioned and defined the West and the East in … opposite terms, using those distinctions to claim American and Anglo-American superiority.” These ideas combined with other racist stereotypes about gender, class, and race also operating in the United States.8 Acting on these racist and nativist racial scripts, a growing lobby in state government worked to restrict immigration from China over the next three decades. In an example of the anti-Chinese laws, California passed a state law in 1858 that prohibited the immigration of “the Mongolian race.”9 The California State Supreme Court, however, repeatedly ruled unconstitutional the California legislature’s efforts. In 1875, after the US Supreme Court struck down yet one more of California’s anti-Chinese immigration laws, the federal government stepped in. The US Congress responded by passing the Page Act, with which lawmakers intended to stop the migration of Chinese women. It was the first of several anti-Chinese laws in which the federal government took up the role of gatekeeper. Deportation would emerge as a central part of that project.10

In the last decades of the 19th century, the federal government began building its deportation policy. The new policy was built on the power of federal authorities and their national and international standing to remove people. It incorporated the state policies of Massachusetts and New York against the Irish as well as the anti-Chinese ones attempted by California lawmakers. Deportation policy, however, only applied to immigrants and it soon diverged from state policies, as well as other forms of compelled departures carried out in the original colonies and the United States.

Founding Years of Federal Policy in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

The federal government began deporting immigrants in the late 19th century. Congress formally created its first deportation provision in 1882. That year, in the Chinese Exclusion Act, lawmakers passed one of the first laws that federal authorities used to deport anyone. The law created an immigrant exclusion which held that Chinese laborers could no longer lawfully immigrate to the United States. If a Chinese laborer immigrated in violation of the new immigrant exclusion, then the law’s deportation provision made him or her deportable. Over the next ten years, the federal government expanded immigration law so that by 1891 deportation provisions targeted people who fell into one of several categories: Chinese laborers, “idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become a public charge, persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease, persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, polygamists,” and contract laborers.11 During the first decade that the federal government operated its deportation policy, people behind state immigration policies helped the federal government to consider how to begin implementing deportation policies. Enforcement of the new deportation provisions were carried out in large part by state officials, the courts, and private individuals. In 1891, though, lawmakers created their own enforcement agency—the Bureau of Immigration. In time, these policies and enforcement agency would turn against Mexican migrants.

In 1893, a group of Chinese immigrants challenged the legality of the nation’s new deportation policy. The year before, in 1892, Congress revised Chinese exclusion to increase the number of deportations of Chinese laborers. The Chinese immigrant community quickly organized against the clear racial bias of the new law.12 One pillar of their opposition was a court case, brought by three long-term immigrants: Fong Yue Ting, Wong Quan, and Lee Joe. Each man had lived in the United States for over ten years, and since they had entered the United States before the law’s passage, none of them were technically in violation of the exclusion provision of immigration law. They were, however, in violation of a registration requirement in the 1892 law. As part of a protest against the racism of the law, like most other Chinese immigrants at the time, the three men refused to register with the government in protest against the law’s racism. Their refusal put them in violation of the 1892 registration requirement and government officials ordered their deportation. The three men challenged their deportation orders and their case was soon heard by the US Supreme Court. In Fong Yue Ting v. United States, lawyers for Fong Yue Ting, Wong Quan, and Lee Joe questioned whether the federal government could deport anyone—they challenged the power of federal authorities to deport immigrants. No one had ever posed this question to the Supreme Court before. The three men also questioned the legitimacy of the law. They argued that Chinese exclusion violated the Fourteenth Amendment, because it clearly discriminated along lines of race. In addition, they made the argument that if the Supreme Court upheld the federal government’s power to deport and the racism of the law, then the Court should rule that deportations represented punishments. A great deal was at stake in this last argument. The designation of deportation as punishment would affect the kinds of Constitutional rights immigrants could use to defend themselves against deportation.

The Supreme Court ruled against Fong Yue Ting, Wong Quan, and Lee Joe in 1893 and its decision set the precedent for much of the scale and scope of US deportation policy ever since. The Court upheld the government’s power to deport immigrants, rooting it in something known as the Plenary Power Doctrine. This doctrine holds that the federal government’s power to operate immigration policy derives from national sovereignty. One incredibly significant outcome of the Court’s lodging the power is that the plenary power “shields from judicial review invidious classifications under the US immigration laws, including discrimination that would be patently unconstitutional if applied to US citizens,” as legal scholar Kevin Johnson writes.13 Based on the plenary power, the Court upheld the racism written into the Chinese exclusion law. On the question of whether deportations represented punishments, the justices designated deportations as civil procedures. They were not punishments. Therefore, the Constitutional rights guaranteed to criminal defendants under the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments did not and largely still do not apply in deportation hearings.

A defining feature of the new federal policy was its bilateralism. Before a government could carry out a deportation, officials needed to secure approval from the officials of the nation receiving the deportees, a fact that made policy bilateral. Policy development in the United States took place in an era when nations around the world were, like the United States, building their immigration policies, or revising unilateral policies, like France, Belgium, and Germany. The Supreme Court lodged deportation policy in the Plenary Power Doctrine, in part, due to the international nature of deportations—that they are a matter of foreign policy.

Trends in enforcement in the first forty years of deportation reflected assumptions about the purpose of governmental policy and racism of the era. Immigration enforcement was heaviest in Chinese immigrant communities, where immigration raids and arrests were common. While there were not, until 1917 and 1924, racial laws providing for the deportation of people from South Asia and Japan, immigration authorities used some deportation categories for a racial end. People from Asia, for instance, systematically found themselves deported as “likely to become a public charge.” Many Mexicans found that broadly framed categories were used against them, too. Immigration officials also used the “likely to become a public charge” to deport Jews and many single women.14

During these years, however, immigration agents deported only a few hundred to a few thousand people annually. Several legal reasons explain the low numbers of deportations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One significant reason was that there was almost no unlawful immigration. As many people as wanted could immigrate each year, so long as they did not fall into one of the qualitative categories. Until the 1920s, there were no numerical limits. And for everyone other than Chinese immigrants, immigration law contained a time limit, which meant even if a person immigrated outside the law, if he or she lived in the country between one and five years, that automatically legalized his or her status. So, if you were a Canadian who immigration authorities determined to be mentally impaired, and lived in the United States for more than five years, you were not deportable. Yet another legal reason for the low numbers of deportations was that for the first thirty years the US government operated its deportation policy, no law empowered immigration agents to deport people for their actions taken on US soil, for what today can be labeled as a post-entry infraction. Even the criminal status provision only applied to people who entered the United States with a criminal conviction from another country. The federal government carried out few deportations, in part because what an immigrant did after arriving to the United States did not make her or him deportable.

Post-Entry Infractions: Deportation for Actions on US Soil, 1910–1965

Federal lawmakers changed the nature of deportation policy in the early 20th century when they expanded provisions to deport immigrants for actions they took while on US soil. They did so in three main areas. First, Congress declared a small group of immigrants found guilty of committing crimes to be deportable. Second, policymakers expanded the ideological grounds for deportation, which came to play an important and sometimes controversial role in the Red Scares and Cold War politics. Third, immigration authorities created guest worker programs, primarily populated with laborers from the Caribbean and especially Mexico. All three of these changes introduced some type of post-entry infraction, meaning, what immigrants did on US soil could make them deportable. And, with the last of the three, Mexican immigrants would become deportable in far more significant numbers than any other immigrant group.

The first explicit provision to deport people for actions taken on US soil centered on one crime: sex trafficking. In 1910, Congress passed a law that added a post-entry infraction to the government’s anti-prostitution policy. The post-entry infraction meant that, for the first time, immigrants could face both a criminal punishment for prostitution—there were state and local criminal laws against this—and deportation. In the same law, Congress removed the time limit on deportations for people involved in the sex trade. By 1910, then, no matter how long an immigrant had lived in the United States, an immigrant involved in prostitution could be deported.

In 1917, Congress expanded the post-entry infraction for criminal status to include a host of offenses falling in a category of laws known as “moral turpitude.” This vague category applied to various crimes that involved some alleged moral failure. The charges and sentences changed from one jurisdiction to another because local officials decided what a moral failure meant and when to apply it to another crime. This criminal status provision included a statute of limitations—immigrants who had lived in the United States longer than five years were not subject to it.

Despite these changes, deportations under the criminal status provision of deportation policy were relatively few between 1918 and 1960. On average, the US government deported about 800 immigrants each year.15 Throughout the first half of the 20th century, not much support existed for expanding the criminal grounds for deportation. In 1929, for example, Congress experienced significant pushback when it debated a bill removing the time limit on post-entry infractions. Some state governors opposed this expansion of federal deportation policy. The governor of New York said if the bill passed, he would pardon every immigrant coming out of a New York state jail to prevent his or her deportation by the federal government.16 Many lawmakers agreed. Expanding the criminal status provision seemed like an additional punishment that only applied to immigrants, and was thus unfair, even unconstitutional (remember that the Fong You Ting verdict declared that deportations did not constitute punishment). Some lawmakers thought that expanding post-entry infractions might cross the line into punishment. They also worried about what would happen to the families of deported immigrants who remained in the United States, many of whom were US citizens.17

The second form of post-entry infraction created by Congress, which would begin in World War I and played a significant role through the Cold War. The first law empowering immigration officials to deport people for their beliefs was passed in 1903. It applied only to immigrants who believed in anarchy (a leftist ideology of the time) before they moved to the United States. In 1917 and 1918, though, Congress revised the ideological grounds for deportation to apply to actions taken on US soil. This meant an immigrant could be deported on leftist ideological beliefs that she or he had developed after lawful entry. With these WWI-era legal revisions, lawmakers also removed the time limit and expanded the list of what represented a deportable belief.

The Palmer Raids in the first “Red Scare” of 1917–1920 represent the most the infamous enforcement of the ideological grounds provision of immigration policy. The Palmer Raids were motivated by an unfounded panic about a threat posed by Russian radicals. Led by US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and a young J. Edgar Hoover, immigration authorities and the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI) attempted to carry out the deportations of thousands of Russians. The first of several ocean voyages returning deportees to the new Soviet Republic included the noted anarchist Emma Goldman (although formally she was not deported, her departure was compelled after immigration authorities began deportation proceedings against her). The deportation of Russian immigrants ended in 1921, when Soviet officials refused to admit more deportees. US federal courts also halted aggressive, capricious enforcement of the ideological grounds for deportation.

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, immigration authorities carried out deportations of communists, socialists, and union organizers on broader ideological grounds, especially with the outbreak of the Cold War after World War II. But these deportations never matched the scale of the First Red Scare.

In the early years of the Cold War, Congress enacted two major laws significantly expanding deportability on ideological grounds: the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act and the 1952 McCarren-Walter Act. Some Americans saw these new laws and enforcement actions as safeguarding national security. The laws helped federal authorities to protect against an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union after the end of World War II and to stop the spread of communism. Other Americans saw these deportations on ideological grounds as an assault on unions, intellectuals, leftist organizers, and civil rights activists. Many of those targeted for deportation on ideological grounds had actively campaigned for greater workplace and housing rights, for better wages, and against racism.18 Several people challenged the ideological grounds for deportation as a violation of the First Amendment. The US Supreme Court, however, refused to fundamentally limit the reach of deportation on ideological grounds.

While the federal government established deportation provisions specifically for actions on US soil, immigration officials used other provisions for the same end. Immigration authorities, for example, used other deportable categories as proxies when unable to make a case for a deportation on ideological grounds. Civil rights activists deported in this manner include Marcus Garvey and Claudia Jones.19 Labor leaders, too, were deported in this way. In 1940, for example, US Border Patrol agents in California attempted to deport Mike Gutiérrez, the president of a local chapter of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who they said was likely to become a public charge.20

The third post-entry infraction policymakers created in the early 20th century was for violating a guest worker contract. This post-entry infraction primarily applied to people from the Caribbean and especially from Mexico. Federal immigration authorities built the nation’s first guest worker program during World War I in response to employers’ demand for immigrant workers. In 1917, railroads and agriculture employers in the US West asked the federal government for help to secure temporary labor. Immigration authorities brought in over 72,000 workers, mostly from Mexico.21 A provision of this guest worker program held that participants could be deported if they left the employment they were hired for, or if they remained in the country after their contract expired.22 This guest worker program ended in 1921.

During World War II, the federal government built two larger guest programs. The largest, the Bracero program, ran from 1942 to 1964. Four and a half million work contracts were issued to Mexican agricultural laborers, popularly known as “braceros.” Each year, an average of 200,000 Mexicans worked in the United States under Bracero contracts.23 The H2 visa program was a smaller guest worker program. It ran from the 1940s until the 1980s. Almost all H2 workers migrated from Jamaica.

How should we interpret the guest worker programs? The answer is complicated. The deportability of Bracero and H2 workers restricted workers’ rights to leave or take new employment. Workers’ deportability often deepened the racism they faced in the United States. The programs also enabled hundreds of thousands of migrants to work in the United States. Many unions lobbied against the guest worker programs, believing immigrant laborers drove down wages and undermined collective bargaining. While some growers appreciated the guest worker programs, many others resented the terms set by the government to establish basic wages and labor conditions. The Bracero program is discussed further in the section “Deportation Policy, Race, and Mexican Immigrants, 1921–1965.”

Deportations for post-entry infractions exponentially increased because they intersected with two trends developing over the 20th century. The first was a significant rise in undocumented immigration and policymakers’ related decision to enforce deportation policy disproportionately to Mexican immigrants. The second, discussed in the section titled “Mass Deportations and Criminalization of Immigration, 1965–2018,” took place after the 1980s, with the War on Drugs and the rise of the carceral state, and it led to expanded deportations for post-entry infractions.

Deportation Policy, Race, and Mexican Immigrants, 1921–1965

In the 1920s, lawmakers overhauled the nation’s immigration laws to create the National Origins Quota Law. One of the stunning developments under this new system was the creation of a nationality and racist bias in immigration policy against Mexican immigrants. Lawmakers created this bias over the next several decades, driven by racism and labor practices, along with the methods and intent of immigration officials’ enforcement of deportation policy. Three of the most significant consequences of this bias were: (a) the expansion of the numbers of Mexicans without the correct documents; (b) the dramatic increases in deportations of Mexicans; and (c) the emergence of deportation as a major factor shaping the racialization of people of Mexican descent in the United States.24 These consequences, once triggered, became a part of and intensified the bias operating in deportation policy under the National Origins system, which would be in operation until 1965.

The initial target of the National Origins system was not Mexicans, but rather Eastern and Southern Europeans, Jews, Catholics, and people from Japan. In 1921 and 1924, Congress imposed numerical restrictions—or quotas—on immigrants from the eastern hemisphere based on eugenicist and racist assumptions that some people made better US citizens than others. The quotas were unequally distributed, which inscribed ethnic and racial hierarchies into law. For example, England received more than 60,000 visas while Italy received under 4,000. Congress also included in the National Origins system racial restrictions that prevented or barred any remaining immigration from Asia—and this was aimed at Japan.

The targeting of Mexican immigrants under US deportation policy was gradual and, at least initially, unintended by most Washington lawmakers. Neither the numerical limits nor the racist bars of the National Origins system affected Mexican migration, but other parts of the new immigration system did. Two of the most important were administrative requirements for lawful entry (inspection through an official point of entry, health inspection, literacy test, and $18 head tax) and a deportation provision for people who entered in violation of the new inspection and fee requirements. In the 1920s, due to economic and political upheavals in Mexico, the number of Mexican immigrants going to the United States grew. Many entered without an inspection or paying the head tax and, over the decade, the Mexican immigrant population in violation of immigration regulations increased.25

In 1924, Congress created the US Border Patrol which very quickly began to enforce deportation policy on Mexican immigrants to augment racist labor practices in the Southwest. Since the late 19th century, employers in mining, railroads, and agriculture increasingly relied on racialized Mexican labor. Employers systematically paid ethnic Mexican workers less than white laborers. They segregated Mexican and Mexican-American workers in the lowest paying jobs. After 1924, employers began calling on the Border Patrol to deport Mexican immigrants who protested low wages or harsh working conditions. Border Patrol agents responded. When the Border Patrol began enforcing immigration policy in the US-Mexico borderlands, they did so largely according to these racist customs and interests of agribusiness and large employers in the region.26 The Border Patrol did not deport the majority of Mexicans who did not have visas. Rather, they often deported people challenging racial inequality and poor working conditions. In the 1920s, Border Patrol agents turned deportation policy on Mexican immigrants, targeting them because they were non-white, low-wage workers. Enforcement of policy became tied to racist practice in the United States and contributed to the maintenance of a Mexican, migratory agricultural labor force with few rights.27

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, government officials, acting on mounting racist stereotypes, widened deportations beyond the fields and even carried out extralegal expulsions of immigrants and US citizens now known as “Mexican Repatriations.” In the 1930s, racism against people of Mexican heritage increased. As historian Natalia Molina writes, “while Mexicans had long been seen as a racially inferior but generally malleable workforce, now stereotypes of Mexicans as criminal, a social burden, diseased, and inassimilable intensified.”28 Most white people who subscribed to these racist stereotypes did not distinguish between Mexicans and Mexican Americans—they tended to depict all people of Mexican descent as foreign, ignoring US citizenship. Moving on these stereotypes and under the direction of President Hoover and Secretary of Labor William N. Doak, immigration authorities disproportionately began deporting Mexican immigrants.29 Yet, there were limits to how many people immigration authorities could deport. Only immigrants who fell into a deportable category could be deported and it was unconstitutional to deport US citizens. Many white Americans, subscribing to the proliferating racist stereotypes and frustrated by what they understood as an inadequate number of deportations, undertook the extralegal expulsions of Mexican Repatriations. City and local governments forced not just Mexican immigrants, but also Mexican Americans out of their communities in the United States to Mexico. The City of Los Angeles carried out the most infamous repatriation campaign. These were not deportations in the formal sense, they did not go through the federal process, and as many as 40 percent of those deported might have been US citizens. These “repatriations” were, therefore, conducted in violation of federal law and when carried out against US citizens, in violation the US Constitution. Scholars estimate that between 500,000 and 1 million people were repatriated to Mexico.30 The experience of repatriation was “a traumatic, disorienting, and sorrowful course undertaken under extreme duress,” writes historian David Gutiérrez. “Despised and vilified after spending ten, fifteen, or even twenty or more productive years as hard-working, though isolated members of the American working class, Mexican immigrant workers” and US citizens of Mexican descent bore “the brunt of [white] Americans’ resentment about the economic catastrophe.”31 In 2005, in recognition of the racist motives and the harm inflicted on Mexican-American communities, the State of California officially apologized for Mexican Repatriations.32

With the conclusion of the Great Depression and the start of US involvement in World War II in 1941, the momentum behind repatriation declined as demand for Mexican agricultural labor increased to new heights. The Bracero program, developed by policymakers in 1942 to supply temporary workers to agribusiness, led to a significant increase in the population of Mexican immigrants in the United States and, subsequently, to those deemed to live in the United States without the right documents. This guest worker program ran from 1942 through 1964, and tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of Mexicans annually migrated with Bracero contracts. A growing number of Mexican immigrants became deportable as a consequence of violating Bracero contracts. Many left their employment before completing their contracts to take on other jobs while others remained in the United States after the termination of their work contract. Both actions made a person deportable. The Bracero program also encouraged increased migration of people without visas: friends and family followed Bracero laborers and former Braceros immigrated to the United States outside the program. Growers throughout the southwest hired Mexican immigrants without the requisite documents. Many employers, including a notable group in southern Texas, preferred hiring workers without the right documents as it meant they were not bound to the wage requirements and employment protections of the Bracero program.33

In a policy change following World War II, leaders in the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) widened the agency’s enforcement of deportation policy and that decision quickly brought immigration authorities into conflict with growers. Deportations rose from just over 18,000 in 1942 to over 70,000 in 1952.34 Almost all of these deportations were to Mexico. To reach these numbers, immigration officials revised a fast-track deportation proceeding, called Voluntary Removals, to carry out more deportations.35 Immigration authorities built immigrant detention facilities and a transportation infrastructure to process the growing numbers of people they deported. Many growers in the Southwest opposed the INS’s new enforcement priorities. Since the 1920s, immigration officials had carried out much of its enforcement of policy at the behest of agribusiness, deporting Mexican immigrants who challenged their wages and working conditions. Growers understood the INS’s new enforcement actions of the 1940s as a threat to their low-cost labor supply. In order to prevent deportations, some agribusiness blocked immigration agents from gaining access to Mexican immigrants on their ranches and farms. In 1948, for example, southern Texas farmer L.S. Fletcher threatened to kill the border patrol agents who tried to deport undocumented workers laboring in his fields.36

For the Mexican immigrants facing the growing deportation regime in the post-World war II era, they were processed through either a Voluntary Removal or a longer drawn-out deportation hearing. After being arrested by an immigration official, describes historian Cristina Salinas, a person had “the choice of [a Voluntary Removal] or several weeks or months of detention, followed by an administrative hearing with no counsel, and then almost certain deportation.” Most Mexican immigrants facing deportation choose Voluntary Removal. “At that point,” continues Salinas, “the migrant remained in custody for several hours in detention facilities at or near immigration offices, until Border Patrol officials could transport him or her to the nearest international port of entry and release the migrant to cross the border to Mexico.”37

Operation Wetback, a massive deportation campaign carried out in 1954, is emblematic of the ways immigration policy by the middle of the 20th century tried to balance federal enforcement priorities and employers’ demand for racialized, low-wage, Mexican labor. Operation Wetback spoke of the INS’s desire to expand the numbers of deportations. Immigration officials claimed to the public they deported more than one million people under Operation Wetback.38 Almost all of these deportations were from Voluntary Removals. Almost all those deported under Operation Wetback were men, but immigration official also deported nearly 9,000 families, including children.39

Yet, Operation Wetback also focused on labor needs and revealed to be a large-scale “regularization” program that supplied undocumented workers with guest worker papers. One part of Operation Wetback not popularized in the press or touted by INS leadership was the fact that immigration officials issued Bracero contracts to thousands of Mexican immigrants in the United States who were in violation of immigration policy. This “regularization” process brought immigrants into compliance with immigration law. Immigration authorities pressured growers to hire the newly made guest workers over unauthorized workers. Many growers, especially in Texas, preferred to employ undocumented workers because it meant they could pay them less money and did not have to meet the terms listed in the Bracero contract. “To appease the employers’ complaints about the Bracero program’s requirements,” writes historian Kelly Lytle Hernández, “the officers offered two stripped-down versions of the Bracero Program.”40 Immigration authorities promised employers that in exchange for hiring Braceros, INS officials would lighten up enforcement after the very public deportation campaign. If they refused, Border Patrol officers threatened constant enforcement. Employers largely complied. True to their word, immigration officials lightened up enforcement of deportation policy throughout the Southwest. In the following decade, the numbers of Mexicans deported dropped by hundreds of thousands. Thus, one part of Operation Wetback that was not widely publicized regularized the status of hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants.41

For many in the Mexican-American community, made up of both US citizens and immigrants, Operation Wetback illustrated the nationality and racist bias in immigration policy. Immigration authorities widely publicized the deportations of Operation Wetback, but downplayed from the wider public the ways policymakers easily solved the problem of not having the right documents by supplying people with Bracero contracts. The decision from immigration authorities not to publicize the regularizations of guest workers during Operation Wetback reinforced racism and rampant stereotypes of people of Mexican heritage as deportable. The deportations themselves had material effects. They separated mixed-status families—families made up of people with different legal statuses, including US citizens, immigrants with correct documents, and immigrants in the United States outside the law. For people of Mexican descent, writes historian Natalia Molina, Operation Wetback shaped their “sense of (not) belonging the Unites States and contributed to the collective memory of racialized communities as yet another experience that marginalized them, both symbolically and materially.”42

Over the 1950s and 1960s, lawmakers worked to take out much of the explicit racism in immigration policy. They were motivated by immigrant rights advocates, the Civil Rights movement, and the legacies of World War II. Congress eventually removed the racist bars and the discriminatory quotas which constituted the nationality and racist biases against eastern hemisphere migrants. Yet, policymakers did not address the ways that a nationality and racist bias operated in policy against Mexico and Mexican immigrants. Instead, policymakers broadened it, launching an era of mass and constant deportations.

Mass Deportations and Criminalization of Immigration, 1965–2018

Between 1965 and the early 21st century, the federal government got into the business of constant and mass deportations. The federal government has deported more than 48 million people since 1965.43 The vast majority have been deported to Mexico, but a growing number to other Latin-American countries. In the process, policymakers have intertwined the immigration and criminal justice systems to create a sweeping, punitive deportation regime made up of laws, policies, priorities, detention facilities, prisons, and enforcement agencies. In the past half century, because of these developments, immigrant deportations have come to play an unprecedented role in shaping life in the United States, not only for immigrants, but also for citizens.

In the 1960s and 1970s, policymakers revised the nation’s immigration system, and their efforts led directly, albeit initially unintentionally, to yet another explosion of the undocumented population. In 1964, immigration officials ended the Bracero program. In 1965, lawmakers imposed numerical restrictions on the western hemisphere in 1965. In 1976, they set country caps on the nations of the western hemisphere. The revisions did not pay attention to the historic migration flows of Mexican migrants to meet US labor market demands. Nor would the new visa restrictions prove adaptive to growing migrations from Latin America. Many Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Hondurans fleeing violence and political persecution, much of it worsened or triggered by US foreign policy, would find it difficult to migrate within the law. People from Mexico and Central America immigrated in spite of the restrictions. They overstayed visas or entered without inspection. The population of people without the right documents grew from around 3.5 million in 1980 to an estimated 11 or 12 million in 2013. The majority, up to 70 percent, were from Mexico. The next six nations, as of 2016, with the largest populations with undocumented populations are El Salvador, Guatemala, Columbia, Honduras, China, and Ecuador.44

Many of the revisions to policy begun in 1965 were motivated in part by the Civil Rights movement and intended to limit the nationality bias operating in policy, but lawmaker’s efforts worsened the nationality and racist bias already operating against Mexico. Lawmakers in 1965 paid attention to formal equality between nations. Each country received an equal number of visas. This is how policymakers undid explicit national biases written into the National Origins system. The revisions were, therefore, partly motivated by a spirit of multiculturalism and anti-racism. Yet, policymakers did not address the ways a national and racist bias operated in policy against Mexico and Mexicans. Instead, they worsened it with the addition of country caps that disregarded the causes of migration and labor demands in the United States.45 As the growing numbers of people out of status exploded, legal status increasingly served as a proxy for racism. Historian Ana Raquel Minian writes in her study of Mexican migration between 1965 and 1986 that, “in the wake of the civil rights period, illegality provided a way to express racial animus while still extolling the virtues of multiculturalism.”46 Asserting anti-immigrant positions reinforcing the nationality biases against Latin-American countries, year after year, became politically effective at the polls and in politics, especially for conservatives.

Immigration authorities built their enforcement capacity in light of the political climate and the growing numbers of people without the right documents. INS agents chartered flights, buses, and trains to transport the hundreds of thousands of deportees each month. US officials expanded formal arrangements with Mexico to facilitate deportations. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the enforcement agencies were reorganized under the new Department of Homeland Security into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and US Customs and Border Protection (USCBP). Federal authorities dramatically increased ICE and USCBP’s budgets and further built out collaborations with local and state law enforcement. Policymakers made immigration enforcement of the interior of the country into the largest law enforcement agency in the country. With this infrastructure, immigration authorities deported on average a million people annually since 1965 through 2010.

In 2011, there was a significant change in the nature of deportations, which reflected the escalating punitive nature of the country’s immigration policy. The majority of deportations since the government got into the business of mass deportations were carried out through fast-track proceedings, but in 2011 the government deported more people through longer, more formal proceedings. Congress renamed these two legal processes of deporting people in 1996: longer proceedings became known officially as “removals” and fast-track proceedings (previously known as voluntary departures) as “returns.” Both are compelled departures and represent different processes of immigrant deportations. The majority of the deportations since 1965, some 86.5 percent, have been carried out by the expedited process of returns. Between 2011 and 2016, however, removals overtook returns; immigration agents have carried out 2,307,319 removals and 1,129,888 returns.47

The History of Immigrant Deportations

Figure 1. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Aliens Removed or Returned: Fiscal Years 1892 to 2016,” Table 39, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2016.

What contributed to the increase in the number of removals was the fact that policymakers and law enforcement made prisons into a pipeline to deportation.48 In the 1960s, state, local, and federal governments launched major anti-crime campaigns. The most famous of these initiatives was the War on Drugs, started in the 1960s under President Nixon and continued through the 21st century, which expanded prosecutions and enforcement of drug-related criminal offenses. State and federal prison populations exploded. Congress made the War on Drugs a core component of immigration policy. In 1986, lawmakers expanded the number of post-entry infractions on criminal grounds. Ten years later, Congress added more criminal post-entry infractions and, even more significantly, eliminated the five-year time limit, protecting long-term immigrants from deportation on criminal grounds.49 Ending the time limit effectively stripped from policy older notions that it was inhuman, perhaps even unconstitutional, to deport long-term residents. In addition, lawmakers mandated that most people be deported through a formal return proceeding once an immigrant was released for a criminal conviction. After 1996, the growing numbers of post-entry infractions on criminal grounds drove the striking increase in the number of removals.

The shifting proportion of removals to returns reflects multiple ways that racism operated in immigration policy. African Americans and people of Latinx heritage were disproportionately incarcerated during the War on Drugs and other major anti-crime campaigns. Lawmakers imported this racism into the immigration system when they expanded the grounds for deportations after a criminal sentence. In particular, immigrants of African descent are overly represented in the total number of people deported for post-entry infractions. In addition, white nationalist organizations integrated discourses about criminal aliens into their racist platforms.

The rise in post-entry infractions for criminal status deportations also accelerated expansions underway in the immigrant detention system. Before the 1990s, most deportations did not usually involve immigrant detention. Immigration authorities had operated detention facilities since the government began deportation. Ellis Island, for example, had been used to detain Russian deportees during the First Red Scare. In 1929, a bill proposed by South Carolina Senator Coleman Livingston Blease and a zealous white supremacist passed, making an unlawful entry a misdemeanor, punishable for up to one year in jail, and returning to the United States after a deportation a felony, punishable for up to two years in prison. Over the next decade, immigration authorities arrested and detained tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants for unlawfully entering the United States.50 In the 1980s and 1990s, though, immigration authorities built permanent and nationwide detention facilities to detain a growing number of people from Central American and the Caribbean, especially Haiti. When states and local governments began to remove people for criminal status violations after the 1996 law removed the time limit protecting long-term immigrants from deportation, they created a bed shortage in these new detention facilities. Additional regulations held that more people were subject to immigrant detention after a criminal sentence until their deportation. In order to free up beds for the growing number of people being deported from jails and prisons on criminal grounds, the Border Patrol and Detention and Removal officers paroled apprehended Central American migrants without criminal convictions and released them on recognizance. Conservative critics in Congress renamed the practice of detention parole, which had been ongoing for a century, a “catch-and-release policy.” To put an end to catch and release, Congress increased funds for detention bed space. Between 1995 and 1997, the number of INS beds jumped from 6,000 to 11,500. By 1998, it had grown to 18,000 beds. In 2009, Congress also instituted a bed mandate that requires the Department of Homeland Security to maintain a minimum of 33,400 beds per night.51 Immigrant detention had become a central and permanent fixture in immigrant deportations.

The numbers of removals also increased because policymakers made deportations a pipeline to prisons, as the scholar Patrisia Macías-Rojas put it.52 In the 1990s, federal law enforcement increased criminal prosecutions of immigrants who re-entered the country after a deportation. Policymakers soon adopted a zero-tolerance policy under which federal authorities prosecute all immigrants who re-entered the country after a deportation. To help implement the zero-tolerance policy, federal authorities launched Operation Streamline in 2005. Operation Streamline hearings are expedited, and federal authorities prosecute up to 70 people at a time. Immigrants have little representation and sometimes a trial lasts only couple of minutes. In 2009, over 44,000 people were tried through Operation Streamline.53 In light of the drive to prosecute and the enforcement capacity of Streamline, immigration-related crimes became the most common federal crime, ranking just above that of federal drug convictions. In 2009, immigration-related crimes totaled just over 32 percent of all federal crimes; federal drug-related crimes were just under 32 percent. Three quarters of all people incarcerated for immigration-related crimes are sentenced for the crime of re-entry. “The federal prisons, therefore, are filled with immigrants confined simply because they are deportable.”54

In 2011, as removals increased to new heights, the number of returns suddenly dropped significantly. That year, the government removed nearly 400,000 individuals while the number of returns declined to under 325,000 for the first time since 1970.55 Much of the explanation for the drop in returns is still being puzzled out. One causal factor is related to the intertwining of the criminal and immigration systems driving the number of removals upward, which legal scholar Juliet P. Stumpf coined “crimmigation.”.56 Crimmigation refers to the blurring between the immigration system and the criminal justice system. It leads to the rise of criminal status violations and prosecutions for illegal entry and illegal re-entry. (Crimmigation is also tied to the ways in which immigrant detention is operated by many private prison companies, and for immigrants detained, they experience the same conditions as imprisonment.) Under the crimmigation system, more and more immigrants are removed rather than returned. The decline in returns also partially resulted from a White House policy directive. Responding to the calls of immigrant rights advocates, President Barack Obama directed ICE to prioritize the deportation of people with criminal records and people crossing the border, which led to a decline in returns.57

At the time of writing, the deportation policy in place is facing dramatic changes in light of immigrant rights advocacy and the Trump administration. Immigrant rights advocates are raising awareness to the negative impact that prosecution for the crimes of entry and re-entry has had on families, employers, and communities in the United States. They draw attention to the ways immigrant removals and returns continue to ignite racial tensions and lead to racist violence. The Trump administration, by contrast, has been working toward increasing both returns and removals. President Donald Trump is motivated by extreme anti-immigrant sentiment. He has largely taken down the priorities in enforcement that contributed to a decline in returns, and has hired thousands of additional immigration agents to enforce immigration law. His administration has increased cooperation with state and local authorities to carry out deportations. Authorities in some locales have been willing to cooperate, and in others they have resisted cooperation. The Trump administration has also rolled back a number of measures developed over the past several decades to protect immigrants from deportation.

The impact of deportation policy reaches beyond the act of being deported, and since the 1960s, has intensified. Migrants struggle with the hardships of being deportable. The threat of deportation inflicts great emotional and financial stress on individuals, families, and communities. Being deportable narrows people’s employment options to only the lowest paying jobs, restricts access to public services, and limits workplace protections available under the law. Families fear being separated by deportations. When policymakers eliminated time limits that had provided some degree of protection for long-term immigrants from deportation, the stresses significantly increased. For example, as anthropologist Heide Castañeda writes, immigrant parents with US-born children “live in constant fear of having their families torn apart.”58 Many immigrants facing the threat of deportation have lived in the United States for decades and culturally felt American. This is especially true of people who were brought to the United States as young children by their parents, a group now popularly known as the Dreamers.59 Many immigrants and their advocates have organized on social justice grounds. Scholars like Raquel Ana Minian document the work that migrants have done to promote the idea that undocumented immigrants “deserved rights in the United States.”60 Young people, the Dreamers, have had particular success, lobbying for access to education and protections against deportation.

Protections Against Deportations since 1965

The dramatic increases in deportability since the 1960s have been tempered, to some degree, by programs that protected immigrants from deportation. One type of protection people have against deportation originated in the US government’s commitment to providing humanitarian relief for refugees and asylees. Policymakers also created a second form of protection that, according to historian Mae Ngai, “unmade” the deportability of people within the country without the right documents.61 Programs “regularized” the documents to provide permanent or temporary protections against deportations. Both types of protections have operated with significant limits.

The federal government’s refugee and asylee policies include protections against deportation. This is called “non refoulement,” and it is the practice of not deporting a person who fled persecution or torture back to his or her country of origin, where he or she may be tortured or killed. US officials built non refoulement into deportation policy in the 1880s, but they enforced it on a case-by-case basis.62 Policymakers made non refoulement an elemental component of refuge policies after World War II, when they created the nation’s formal refugee policy. Non refoulement is written into US law and several international agreements, the most important of which is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which the United States signed in 1968.

Cold War foreign policy objectives limited protections against immigrant deportations between the 1950s and the mid-1980s. People fleeing left-wing governments, such as Cuba, Nicaragua, or Vietnam, which the US government opposed, were often granted formal refugee status and, therefore, were protected from deportation. People fleeing right-wing governments that the US government supported—like El Salvador and Guatemala—faced a harder time gaining refugee or asylee status and, therefore, were not protected from deportation. During the 1980s, due to changes in the law, advocacy work, and the courts, the federal government delinked the strict Cold War objectives from immigration status. US Officials began granting asylee status to many Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and other people who fled from right-wing governments,. They, too, were protected under the government’s commitment to non refoulement.63

Over the past thirty years, the US government launched a number of other temporary and permanent programs to protect refugees and asylees from deportation. Policymakers addressed the needs of people fleeing political violence or natural disasters not covered by the legal category of amnesty or refugee with temporary protected status (TPS), including people from Somalia, Sudan, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador. Similar policies have been enacted in the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act and the 1998 Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act. By the early 2000s, due to the work of advocates, asylee protections were widened to include women fleeing domestic violence and people escaping gang violence in places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Victims of human tracking can be shielded from deportation with the issuance of the T visas.

While the trend since the 1990s has been toward broadening the ways that people can gain protection against deportations through TPS, asylum or refugee policies, there have also been developments limiting protections. In 1996, policymakers created a formal process called an “expedited removal.” As originally created, expedited removals are a fast-track proceeding and not officially related to amnesty. However, immigration officials regularly process a person who has entered the United States without the right documents through an expedited removal, and it often does not allow a person time to claim amnesty.

Regularization programs are the second form of protection against deportation developed by policymakers and deal with the dramatic increase in the number of people without the right documents in the United States. President Ronald Regan signed the largest “regularization” program in the 1986 Immigration and Control Act (IRCA), which provided nearly 2.7 million immigrants, mostly from Mexico, with lawful status.64 In some ways, this helped supply the agricultural industry with millions of workers who were in the United States legally. In 2012, President Obama announced the most recent program designed to shield people from deportations when he enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This program protects young people without the right documents from deportation if they were brought at an early age by their parents.65

Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has rolled back both forms of protections from deportations. His administration, at the time of writing this article, is attempting to end TPS for Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans. President Trump is actively working to restrict the ability of women fleeing domestic violence to claim amnesty. The Trump administration is also trying to deter asylum claims through immigrant detention. The forced separation of children from their parents, one of Trump’s policies in 2018, is an example of the deterrence programs. He has also tried to end DACA and has restricted new enrollments.

Discussion of the Literature

Since 2005, there has been a flourishing of scholarship detailing the history of immigrant deportation. An important subset of this literature documents the changing shape and reach of deportation policy. Hidetaka Hirota, Kunal Parker, and Daniel Kanstroom study expulsions in the colonial years through the late 19th century, years before the US government established a federal deportation policy.66 They illustrate the precedents state expulsion set for federal policy, and in Kanstroom’s case, models set by other kinds of compelled departures, including Indian removals and the fugitive slave captures. Looking at the early federal period, important scholarship examines the deportation policy of Chinese exclusion, including books by Erika Lee and Lucy Salyer.67 Deirdre Moloney, Torrie Hester, Ethan Blue, and Adam Goodman have written wider studies on the federal government’s early deportation policy.68 The jurisdiction of the federal government over immigrants, especially the plenary power, is well-covered by legal scholars T. Alexander Alienekoff, Stephen Legomsky, Gerald Neuman, and Hiroshi Motomura, among others.69 Critical for examining the history of deportation under the National Origins system, in operation from 1921 through 1965, are Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects, which focuses on policy broadly, and Kelly Lytle Hernández’s Mígra! and S. Debbie Kang’s INS on the Line, both of which study the US Border Patrol.70

The burgeoning of scholarship on deportation policy has been in part a response to the escalating rates of deportations and expansions of grounds for deportability. Scholars examining the intertwining of the immigration law and criminal law that has taken place since the 1960s include Bill Ong Hing, Tanya Golash Boza, and Patrisia Macías-Rojas. Juliet Stump coined the term crimmigation to capture this intertwining. The term has gained explanatory traction.71 On immigrant detention, perhaps the fastest growing subset of scholarship on the crimmigation regime, see the work of David Hernández, Jenna M. Loyd, Alison Mountz, Carl Lindskoog, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, and Mark Dow.72

Since deportations have so disproportionately impacted Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, historians studying Mexican-American and Chicanx history have produced critical work on immigrant deportations. Studies on Mexican Repatriation have been written by Francisco Balderama and Raymond Rodríguez, Camille Guerin-Gonzales, and more recently Fernando Saúl Alanís Enciso.73 Key texts in the field of Mexican and Mexican-American history, such as monographs written by George Sanchez, David Gutierrez, Vicki Ruiz, and David Montejano, include detail on the history of immigrant deportations, although they are not the specific focus.74 Newer publications by Natalia Molina and Kelly Lytle Hernández, among others, have advanced even further our understanding of the impact of deportation on race and the racialization of people of Mexican descent.75 Historian Ana Raquel Minian’s Undocumented Lives, on the deportability of Mexican immigrants and the responses to Mexican immigration by the US and Mexican governments between 1965 and 1985, is an example of new work studying the meaning, construction, and impact of deportability.76

US historians are both a part of and influenced by the broader, quickly expanding field of deportation studies internationally. Nicholas De Genova and Natalia Putz co-edited The Deportation Regime. The essays in this collection in particular advanced US scholars’ study of deportability, or the status of being deportable.77 A recent collection edited by Kenyon Zimmer and Cristina Salinas, with essays by Natalia Molina, Elliot Young, and Emily Pope-Obeda, among others, studies deportation in the western hemisphere.78 Scholars are increasingly documenting life after deportation and the impact of deportations in the country receiving deportees. They build on the work by scholars Daniel Kanstroom and Susan Bibler Coutin, who both published books on the experiences of deportees and the impact of deportation in Central America during the age of mass deportations and crimmigation.79 The history of labor and deportations is another subset of the literature. A number of scholars examine the central place of deportability to guest worker programs. Cindy Hahamovitch’s No Man’s Land studies deportable laborers from the Caribbean.80 Mark Reisner studies the World War I-era program, and work done on the Bracero program includes books by Deborah Cohen, Kitty Calavita, and Ana Elizabeth Rosas.81 Cristina Salinas’s Managed Migrations studies the role of deportation in controlling and exploiting Bracero and other Mexican migrants’ labor.82 Scholars also examine the use of deportation against labor and leftist organizing in the early 20th century. On the anti-labor movement in the early 20th century against the IWW, William Preston’s Aliens & Dissenters is a classic. Books by Kenyon Zimmer and Julia Rose Kraut are part of forthcoming studies on the First Red Scare.83 In Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century, Rachel Ida Buff examines the impact of deportations on labor organizers in the middle of the 20th century, especially during the Cold War.84

There is a growing body of work on advocacy for immigrant rights, challenging the expansion of deportations. Legal scholar César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández regularly publishes on the escalation of the crimmigation system at A number of essays critiquing the deportation regime can be found in three edited volumes, one edited by Michael J. Flynn and Matthew B. Flynn, a second by Daniel Kanstroom and Cecilia Menjívar, and a third by Robert T. Chase.85

Primary Sources

Documents from the federal government provide important information for people researching immigrant deportations. The collections housed at the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) are extremely valuable. A helpful guide is published by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for people beginning research on federal sources. The general collection of USCIS Documents on Chinese exclusion, the Red Scare, and Operation Wetback, along with almost all the other chapters in the history of immigrant deportation can be found at NARA in RG 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. RG 85 includes individual deportation case files, letters, and communications from the Bureau of Immigration and the INS. NARA in Washington, DC, houses the largest collection of RG 85 documents, but researchers will also find part of the collection at NARA regional branches, such as The National Archives at San Francisco and The National Archives at Riverside, CA. The records from the State Department at The National Archives at College Park, MD, are incredibly helpful for documenting the international side of deportation. RG 59 is a repository of documents from American diplomatic and consular posts, correspondence with other US agencies, and memorandums and reports. These files are currently most useful for people interested in the late 19th through the 20th century. More recent records are declassified annually. The Foreign Service posts, found in RG 84, can provide evidence critical for understanding both deportations from the United States and deportations of US citizens to the United States.

There are many federal records available to researchers online. Researchers looking at the legislative history of immigrant deportations have multiple options for sources online. ProQuest Congressional, which is a database available through many university libraries, has a range of documents, including full-text bills and resolutions, committee reports, congressional testimony, and House and Senate documents. The Santa Barbara American Presidency Project provides presidential speeches and executive orders on immigration that go back to the first president, George Washington. The United States Government Publishing Office provides access to official publications from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government from the mid-1990s to the present in most collections through This collection is constantly expanding in both directions.

The USCIS History Office & Library makes some documents available, including many Annual Reports. Annual Reports from the Bureau of Immigration and the INS date back to 1892. The Annual Reports provide statistics of enforcement actions, such as the number of people deported, the destination of deportations, and the categories used to deport immigrants. Many Annual Reports capture the voices of policymakers and agents. Since 1996, these records are now found in the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. The Yearbook provides far less detail than Annual Reports, but they include critical statistics on immigrant deportations. Researchers may consult ProQuest History Vault: Immigration Records of the INS 1880–1930 for additional immigration files. This database is available through some research libraries. In 1931, the Wickersham Committee, tasked by President Herbert Hoover, published a major federal study of deportation policy known as the Oppenheim Report, available online through the Harvard University Library website. Also helpful for documenting the enforcement of deportation policy is the US Border Patrol Museum, which contains oral histories and photographs. For information on the foreign policy side of immigrant deportations, some information can be found online in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS). FRUS currently runs from 1861 through 1976, with selected volumes from Carter and Reagan available into the mid-1980s. FRUS is a series produced by the State Department’s Office of the Historian on US foreign policy decisions.

Federal court records, another source critical to the history of immigrant deportations, are accessible online. Key court decisions like Fong Yue Ting are available through Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute. The subscription database, Supreme Court Records and Briefs, available through many university libraries, contains records of Supreme Court decisions, most importantly, the briefs of individual court cases. The Federal Judicial Center contains resources on the history of the judicial branch of the federal government. For information on legal teams representing people in deportation proceedings, researchers may want to consult the subscription database Making of Modern Law: American Civil Liberties Union Papers, 1912–1990.

Newspaper coverage and periodicals can provide a wealth of information on immigration deportations. The website, Chronicling America, provides select digitized newspapers from 1789 to 1963. Researchers can turn to individual libraries with subscriptions to databases of newspapers such as the LA Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. These will provide access to coverage of the recent past. UCLA’s Chicano Newspaper Collection houses over 1,000 different US, Mexican, and Central-American newspapers from 1900 to the present. The Historic Mexican & Mexican American Press, a collection hosted by the University of Arizona, is comprised of publications from Tucson, El Paso, Los Angles, San Francisco, and Sonora, Mexico from the mid-19th century through the 1970s. Hathi Trust is a massive digital library with sources helpful for people studying immigrant deportations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For people interested in immigrant expulsions before the federal period, Hathi Trust also contains sources. Making of America provides access to journal articles and books from the 19th century, many of them related to deportation and immigration more generally.

There are a growing number of resources for studying individuals who were deported, what it was like to live with deportability, and advocacy on behalf of immigrants. Researching individual people, before and after deportation, can be undertaken by looking at the US Census records made available 72 years after the collection of the census. The 1940 Census is accessible through the National Archives. Researchers can find earlier Census records through and Heritage Quest. The library at the University of California, Berkeley, hosts the Emma Goldman Papers. The Immigration History Research Center Archives at the University of Minnesota is dedicated to documenting the immigrant experience. The Bracero History Archive makes available oral histories of Mexican agricultural laborers between 1942 and 1964. The Herman Baca Papers and UTEP’s Institute of Oral History are other websites researchers may consult for sources on deportability and deportations. UC Davis’s Humanizing Deportation project provides “first-hand knowledge regarding the experience of deportation and removal, and the consequent dehumanized narratives on the topic.”

Further Reading

Balderrama, Francisco E., and Raymond Rodríguez. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Coutin, Susan Bibler. Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2016.Find this resource:

Genova, Nicholas De, and Nathalie Peutz, eds. The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010.Find this resource:

Golash-Boza, Tanya Maria. Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism. New York: New York University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Hahamovitch, Cindy. No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Hernández, Kelly Lytle. Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Hester, Torrie. Deportation: The Origins of U.S. Policy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Hirota, Hidetaka. Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Kang, S. Deborah. The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US–Mexico Border, 1917–1954. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Kanstroom, Daniel. Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Loyd, Jenna M., and Alison Mountz. Boats, Borders, and Bases. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Macías-Rojas, Patrisia. From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post-Civil Rights America. New York: New York University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Minian Ana Raquel. Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Molina, Natalia. How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Moloney, Deirdre M.National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy Since 1882. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Ngai, Mae M.Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.Find this resource:


(2.) Daniel Margolies, Spaces of Law in American Foreign Relations: Extradition and Extraterritoriality in the Borderlands and Beyond, 1877–1898 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 18.

(3.) Hidetaka Hirota, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017); and John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New York, NY: Atheneum, 1963), IX.

(4.) Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 210.

(5.) Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 106.

(6.) Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 8.

(7.) Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 105–106.

(9.) Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 90.

(10.) Lee, At America’s Gates.

(11.) Act of May 6, 1882, § 12, 22 Stat. 58 (1882); Act of Mar. 3, 1891, § 1 &11, 26 Stat. 1084 (1891).

(12.) Act of May 5, 1892, § 3, 27 Stat. 25 (1892).

(13.) Kevin R. Johnson, “Federalism and the Disappearing Equal Protection Rights of Immigrant,” Immigration and Nationality Law Review 73 (2016): 270.

(15.) Immigration and Naturalization Service, Annual Report (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1961), 57.

(17.) Angela M. Banks, “The Normative and Historical Cases for Proportional Deportation,” Emory Law Journal 62 (2013): 1243–1307.

(18.) Rachel Ida Buff, Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2017), 53.

(19.) Moloney, National Insecurities, 182–194.

(21.) Mark Reisler, By the Sweat of Their Brow: Mexican Immigrant Labor in the United States, 1900–1940 (Westport, CO: Praeger, 1976), 38.

(23.) Deborah Cohen, Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 21.

(24.) Molina, How Race Is Made in America.

(25.) Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006); and George J. Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995).

(27.) Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 2004).

(28.) Molina, How Race Is Made in America, 21; David G. Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 72.

(30.) Balderrama and Rodríguez, Decade of Betrayal, 122; Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors, 72.

(31.) Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors.

(32.) California. Legislature. An act to add Chapter 8.5 (commencing with Section 8720) to Division 1 of Title 2 of the Government Code, relating to Mexican repatriation. (S 670). 2005 Reg. Sess. California Legislature. October 10, 2005.

(33.) Lytle Hernández, Migra!, 109–165.

(34.) US Department of Homeland Security, “Aliens Removed or Returned: Fiscal Years 1892 to 2016,” Table 39, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2016 (accessed October 3, 2018).

(35.) For insight into why the INS changed its enforcement, see Lytle Hernández, Migra!, 123–144 and Kang, The INS on the Line, 87–113.

(36.) Lytle Hernández, Migra!, 153–154.

(37.) Cristina Salinas, Managed Migrations: Growers, Farmworkers, and Border Enforcement in the Twentieth Century (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018), 95.

(38.) Lytle Hernández, Migra!; Historian S. Deborah Kang notes that, for Operation Wetback, the INS “consolidated old legal innovations, including expedited removals, adjustment of status policies, and a guest worker program, and repurposed—or rebranded—them as part of a new and more vigorous immigration law enforcement strategy.” Kang, The INS on the Line, 154.

(39.) Kang, The INS on the Line, 160.

(40.) Kelly Lytle Hernández, “Largest Deportation Campaign in US History Is No Match for Trump’s Plan,” The Conversation.

(41.) Lytle Hernández, “Largest Deportation Campaign”; Lytle Hernández, Migra!

(42.) Molina, How Race Is Made in America, 116.

(43.) US Department of Homeland Security, “Aliens Removed or Returned,” Table 39.

(44.) Jeffrey S. Passel, D’vera Cohn, and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, “Population Decline of Unauthorized Immigrants Stalls, May Have Reversed,” Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project.

(45.) Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 258–264.

(47.) US Department of Homeland Security, “Aliens Removed or Returned,” Table 39.

(48.) Macías-Rojas, From Deportation to Prison.

(49.) Marc R. Rosenblum and William A. Kandel, “Interior Immigration Enforcement: Programs Targeting Criminal Aliens,” CRS Report for Congress (2012).

(50.) Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 137–38; and Julian Lim, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.–Mexico Borderlands (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 172.

(51.) To build and operate the growing number of detention facilities, the government contracted with corporations also running privatized prisons. Immigrant detention since the 1990s feels and looks very similar to imprisonment. Macías-Rojas, From Deportation to Prison, 40–76. See also Loyd and Mountz, Boats, Borders, and Bases, (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018); and Carl Lindskoog, Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018).

(52.) Macías-Rojas, From Deportation to Prison.

(53.) Immigration Policy Center, “A Decade of Rising Immigration Enforcement.”

(54.) Torrie Hester, “Deportability and the Carceral State,” Journal of American History 1 (2015): 141.

(55.) U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Aliens Removed or Returned,” Table 39.

(56.) Juliet P. Stumpf, “The Crimmigration Crisis: Immigrants, Crime, and Sovereign Power,” American University Law Review 56 (2006): 367.

(57.) Rosenblum and Kandel, “Interior Immigration Enforcements,” 19–21.

(58.) Heide Castañeda, Borders of Belonging: Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).

(60.) Minian, Undocumented Lives, 9.

(61.) Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 75.

(63.) Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

(64.) Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002).

(65.) Rosenblum and Kandel, “Interior Immigration Enforcement,” 22–23.

(66.) Hirota, Expelling the Poor; Kunal M. Parker, Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600–2000 (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Kanstroom, Deportation Nation.

(67.) Erika Lee, At America’s Gates; Lucy E. Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

(68.) Adam Goodman, The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020); Blue, “Building the American Deportation Regime”; Hester, Deportation; and Moloney, National Insecurities.

(69.) Hiroshi Motomura, Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006); Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff, Semblances of Sovereignty: The Constitution, the State, and American Citizenship (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); Gerald L. Neuman, Strangers to the Constitution: Immigrants, Borders, and Fundamental Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); and Stephen H. Legomsky, “Immigration Law and the Principle of Plenary Congressional Power,” The Supreme Court Review 1984 (1984): 255–307.

(70.) Kang, The INS on the Line; Hernández, Migra!; Ngai, Impossible Subjects.

(71.) Macías-Rojas, From Deportation to Prison; Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (New York: New York University Press, 2015); Bill Ong Hing, Deporting Our Souls: Values, Morality, and Immigration Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Juliet P. Stumpf, “The Crimmigration Crisis,” 367.

(72.) Mountz, Boats, Borders, and Bases; Lindskoog, Detain and Punish; César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, “Perverse Logic of Immigration Detention: Unraveling the Rationality of Imprisoning Immigrants Based on Markers of Race and Class Otherness,” Columbia Journal of Race and Law 3 (2011): 353; Mark Dow, American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); and David Manuel Hernández, “Pursuant to Deportation: Latinos and Immigrant Detention,” in Governing Immigration through Crime: A Reader, ed. Julie A. Dowling and Jonathan Xavier Inda (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 199–215.

(73.) Fernando Saúl Alanís Enciso and Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, They Should Stay There: The Story of Mexican Migration and Repatriation During the Great Depression, trans. Russ Davidson (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017); and Balderrama and Rodríguez, Decade of Betrayal; Camille Guerin-Gonzales, Mexican Workers and American Dreams: Immigration, Repatriation, and California Farm Labor, 1900–1939 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

(74.) Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American; Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors; Vicki Ruiz, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987); and David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987).

(75.) Lytle Hernández, Migra!; Molina, How Race Is Made in America.

(76.) Minian, Undocumented Lives.

(78.) Kenyon Zimmer and Cristina Salinas, eds., Deportation in the Americas: Histories of Exclusion and Resistance (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2018).

(79.) Daniel Kanstroom, Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Susan Bibler Coutin, Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2016).

(80.) Hahamovitch, No Man’s Land

(81.) Ana Elizabeth Rosas, Abrazando El Espíritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018); Cohen, Braceros; Kitty Calavita, Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. (New York, NY: Routledge, 1992).

(82.) Salinas, Managed Migrations.

(83.) Kenyon Zimmer, “The Voyage of the Buford: Political Deportations and the Making and Unmaking of America’s First Red Scare” in Zimmer and Salinas, eds., Deportation in the Americas; Julia Rose Kraut, “Global Anti-Anarchism: The Origins of Ideological Deportation and the Suppression of Expression,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 1 (2012): 169; and William Preston Jr., Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903–1933 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).

(84.) Buff, Against the Deportation Terror.

(85.) Robert T. Chase, ed., Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Cecilia Menjívar and Daniel Kanstroom, eds., Constructing Immigrant “Illegality”: Critiques, Experiences, and Responses (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Michael J. Flynn and Matthew B. Flynn, Challenging Immigration Detention: Academics, Activists and Policy-Makers (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2017).