Humanizing Deportation is a community archive of digital stories (testimonial video shorts) that recounts personal experiences related to deportation and deportability. The largest qualitative archive in the world on this topic, its bilingual (English/Spanish) open access website, as of March 2020, holds close to 300 digital stories by nearly 250 different community storytellers and continues to expand. All digital stories are created and directed by the community storytellers themselves. While the vast majority of the stories were created by Mexican migrants currently living in Mexico’s largest border cities (Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez), and other major urban metropolitan regions (Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey), it also includes some stories of migrants living in the United States, as well as other migrants, many in transit, passing through Mexico from such countries as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Cuba, and as far from North America as Cameroon. Launched in 2017, Humanizing Deportation’s teams of academic facilitators remain active, and the archive continues to grow.
David C. Brotherton and Sarah Tosh
While deportation as a practice has roots that reach far back into history, the state’s removal of immigrants in the modern era is unprecedented, in terms of both its mechanisms and its breadth. Over the past few decades, the United States in particular has developed systems of immigrant enforcement, detention, and deportation that serve to restrain and remove hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year. In the late 20th century, along with a punitive turn in criminal justice and drug policy, came an era of punitive immigration legislation in the United States, culminating in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. Among other laws, IIRIRA laid the groundwork for astronomical rates of deportation in the early 21st century—rates the current administration vows to exceed in coming years. The increasingly criminalized immigration policy of the United States has been paralleled in many ways in immigrant-receiving countries around the world, resulting in a “global deportation regime” that transcends national borders. Theories that frame deportation as a necessary product and constitutive practice of social membership in our modern system of sovereign nation states are supplemented by those that view it as a tool used by neoliberal governments to control a vulnerable surplus population of immigrant workers. Another theoretical thread on deportation focuses on the culture of vindictiveness in late modernity, and the social bulimia of contemporary societies that simultaneously integrate and exclude the immigrant Other. Theories of subcultural resistance are also relevant for attempts to understand individual agency and collective mobilization, both of immigrants against deportation, as well as deportees against stigmatization. Post-deportation studies focus on the deportee experience, with a focus on social displacement/exclusion and stigmatization.
Benjamin H. Johnson
When rebels captured the border city of Juárez, Mexico, in May 1911 and forced the abdication of President Porfirio Díaz shortly thereafter, they not only overthrew the western hemisphere’s oldest regime but also inaugurated the first social revolution of the 20th century. Driven by disenchantment with an authoritarian regime that catered to foreign investment, labor exploitation, and landlessness, revolutionaries dislodged Díaz’s regime, crushed an effort to resurrect it, and then spent the rest of the decade fighting one another for control of the nation. This struggle, recognized ever since as foundational for Mexican politics and identity, also had enormous consequences for the ethnic makeup, border policing, and foreign policy of the United States. Over a million Mexicans fled north during the 1910s, perhaps tripling the country’s Mexican-descent population, most visibly in places such as Los Angeles that had become overwhelmingly Anglo-American. US forces occupied Mexican territory twice, nearly bringing the two nations to outright warfare for the first time since the US–Mexican War of 1846–1848. Moreover, revolutionary violence and radicalism transformed the ways that much of the American population and its government perceived their border with Mexico, providing a rationale for a much more highly policed border and for the increasingly brutal treatment of Mexican-descent people in the United States. The Mexican Revolution was a turning point for Mexico, the United States, and their shared border, and for all who crossed it.
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.
Vincent J. Cannato
The Ellis Island Immigration Station, located in New York Harbor, opened in 1892 and closed in 1954. During peak years from the 1890s until the 1920s, the station processed an estimated twelve million immigrants. Roughly 75 percent of all immigrants arriving in America during this period passed through Ellis Island. The station was run by the federal Immigration Service and represented a new era of federal control over immigration. Officials at Ellis Island were tasked with regulating the flow of immigration by enforcing a growing body of federal laws that barred various categories of “undesirable” immigrants. As the number of immigrants coming to America increased, so did the size of the inspection facility. In 1907, Ellis Island processed more than one million immigrants. The quota laws of the 1920s slowed immigration considerably and the rise of the visa system meant that Ellis Island no longer served as the primary immigrant inspection facility. For the next three decades, Ellis Island mostly served as a detention center for those ordered deported from the country. After Ellis Island closed in 1954, the facility fell into disrepair. During a period of low immigration and a national emphasis on assimilation, the immigrant inspection station was forgotten by most Americans. With a revival of interest in ethnicity in the 1970s, Ellis Island attracted more attention, especially from the descendants of immigrants who entered the country through its doors. In the 1980s, large-scale fundraising for the restoration of the neighboring Statue of Liberty led to a similar effort to restore part of Ellis Island. In 1990, the Main Building was reopened to the public as an immigration museum under the National Park Service. Ellis Island has evolved into an iconic national monument with deep meaning for the descendants of the immigrants who arrived there, as well as a contested symbol to other Americans grappling with the realities of contemporary immigration.
Ramón A. Gutiérrez
The history of Mexican immigration to the United States is best characterized as the movement of unskilled, manual laborers pushed northward mostly by poverty and unemployment and pulled into American labor markets with higher wages. Historically, most Mexicans have been economic immigrants seeking to improve their lives. In moments of civil strife, such as the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) and the Cristero Revolt (1926–1929), many fled to the United States to escape religious and political persecution. Others, chafing under the weight of conservative, patriarchal, tradition-bound, rural agrarian societies, have migrated seeking modern values and greater personal liberties. Since the last quarter of the 19th century, due to increasing numeric restrictions on the importation of immigrant workers from Europe, Asia, and Africa, American employers have turned to Mexico to recruit cheap, unskilled labor. Before 1942, Mexico minimally regulated emigration. While attentive to the safety and well-being of its émigrés, the Mexican government deemed out-migration a depletion of the country’s human capital. Monetary remittances helped compensate for this loss, contributing perhaps as much as 10 percent of the country’s yearly gross national product, vastly improving national life, particularly when emigrants returned with skills and consumer goods, seeking investment opportunities for their accumulated cash. Since the 1980s, single Mexican women have become a significant component of this migration, representing 40 percent of the total immigrant flow, employed mostly as service workers, domestics, and nannies, and less so in agricultural work. Mexicans also have gained authorized entry into the United States as highly skilled professionals, but their numbers remain relatively small in comparison to unskilled laborers. Beginning in 1942, and particularly in the 1990s, Mexican immigrants have been stigmatized as illegal aliens, subject to deportation as significant security threats to the nation; a rhetoric that intensified after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.