Return(ed): Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation
By Deborah A. Boehm (Anthropology Department, University of Nevada, Reno)
Artemio described his deportation as a night filled with uncertainty and fear. Several weeks earlier, after having been stopped for a traffic violation and driving without a license outside of Dallas, Texas, Artemio, a Mexican national and labor migrant to the United States, was arrested. He spent two weeks in a county jail, followed by time in a U.S. immigration detention facility where he was told that as an “illegal alien” he was being formally removed from the country. Then one night while Artemio was sleeping, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents threw open the door, took him from the cell where he was being detained, and transported him with a group of about fifty other migrants to the border town of Laredo, Texas. The busload of Mexican citizens, their wrists and ankles shackled, arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border close to 3:00 a.m. After filing off the bus, ICE officials removed the cuffs and pointed the migrants in the direction of the bridge that joins the two countries. Artemio crossed into Mexico, expelled from the nation where he had worked for several years.
Among Artemio’s most vivid memories of his return are the darkness and the chaos. He spoke of loud voices, disorder, confusion. Earlier, while in detention, other migrants had advised the newcomers to move in a group after their release, warning of the many dangers in border communities. With ICE agents standing behind on the U.S. side of the border and unidentifiable crowds of individuals in front on the Mexican side, Artemio and his fellow citizens crossed into Mexico. They were met by a large group of people waiting for them, calling out and offering information and services: cab drivers, people suggesting hotels or selling bus tickets, coyotes willing to facilitate crossings back into the United States. Artemio confided that the experience was terrifying.
When Artemio was deported, he became one of more than three million others to be formally “removed” from the United States by the government in the past decade. The chaos of that night reflects a broader turmoil that shapes transnational movement today. This book chronicles and tries to make sense of the chaos of the current moment. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been characterized by unprecedented numbers of deportations of migrants, in the United States and around the globe. In the name of state sovereignty and national security, nationstates are increasingly carrying out removals of foreign nationals. Restrictive immigration legislation is expanding and debate about immigration, deportation, and enforcement is at the center of public and policy agendas. By focusing on the calculated and well-orchestrated state effort that both contrasts and informs the chaos of deportation, the book considers the contradictory ways that state policies unfold within families and communities.
For people whose everyday lives are directly affected by immigration policies and practices, deportation and other forms of return are disorienting, extending and intensifying the separation caused by migration: families are divided and reconfigured, parents and children live in different nations, and partners must maintain relationships that span international borders. As places of departure and destination blur, migrants, deportees, and other transnational subjects describe “going” and “coming” in ways that challenge traditionally linear understandings of migration. By tracing the experiences of those deported and their loved ones, this book explores a global shift in human experience. The effects of deportation reach far beyond the individual deportee, as family members, including U.S. citizens, also return after deportation or migrate for the first time.
A parallel and intertwined line of inquiry situates this chaos in structural context. There is an order to the mass deportations that the United States has carried out in recent years. So, while the primary focus of the book are the disorienting effects of deportation on the ground, the backdrop to this unpredictability includes the focused and well-organized strategies of “the state” in its many forms. By closely detailing the experiences of individuals and families, I also uncover the cumulative effect of state action, a product of the diverse actors—governing bodies, policymakers, and representatives of government agencies—who design, formulate, implement, and reimagine U.S. immigration and deportation laws, as well as the informal and often undocumented exchanges between state agents and migrants that shape this structured chaos. As the stories of those who have been deported make clear, millions of people have not been expelled from the United States by chance.
Research that studies deportation and return is timely and significant in local, national, and international contexts, and the words of migrants can provide a particular and telling view of state policies. By presenting material in an accessible ethnographic style, the book will be of interest to a wide audience within academia, among policymakers, and in the public sphere. Since the analysis is developed through engaging vignettes and emphasizes the everyday experiences of Mexican transmigrants, the book will be appropriate for adoption in a range of undergratuate and graduate courses, and can contribute to public discussions about deportation policy and comprehensive immigration reform.
The book disentangles the disorder—and order—of removal and return. Focusing on several individuals and families whose lives have been upended by removal, I present an ethnography of deportation within one of the world’s most significant migration flows. This is an account of struggle and suffering, but it is also a story of resilience, flexibility, and imaginings of what may come. As deportations are enacted in record numbers in settings throughout the world, it is imperative to understand the character, reach, and effects of return.
Overview of the Chapters
The book opens with Artemio’s removal by the U.S. government, a deportation that captures the chaos of the current moment. As Artemio is deported from the nation he is emblematic of the disorder, unpredictability, violence, and confusion that characterize the record number of deportations being carried out each day. Although deportations follow a structured, even ritualistic, course, the state creates undeniable chaos in the lives of those deported and their family members.
The introduction focuses on the experiences of return that direct transnational movement between the United States and Mexico in the early twenty-first century. What does it mean to return in the context of deportation? How can we understand departures and destinations in this disorienting milieu? I consider return as removal, forced migration, return migration, exile, displacement, and/or homecoming. The chapter situates today’s deportations within the context of removals and returns of the past. People have always moved, and been removed, from places they call home, but the character of the current forced return of foreign nationals is also new. The U.S. state’s systemic removal of those living within its borders is both reminiscent of and a departure from mass deportations of previous eras.
I find myself following ghosts, tracing the outlines of those who have been deported and those who have departed. The departures of deportation most often take place as crisis, sometimes visible and sometimes not; the destinations and aftermath of return are much less known. Recording the absence of family, friends, neighbors, and community members as they move to uncharted destinations is at the center of the book.
1 – Alienation
Chapter 1 outlines processes of criminalization and dehumanization as the U.S. government and the public construct human beings as “alien.” I closely trace the experiences of transnational Mexicans to record this process and to consider how immigration laws are chaotic. The state easily marks people using the legal term, “deportable,” justifying and enabling the widespread removals of recent years. I outline the encounters of transnational Mexicans in the United States within policed spaces, with law enforcement, in detention facilities, and through judicial processes. Readers are briefly introduced to the individuals and their family members who are the focus of later chapters. Describing the experiences of Fatima and her family, and several other kin networks plagued by deportation, this chapter focuses on the effects of state actions within intimate spheres. I conclude the chapter by outlining how deportation is linked to and often results in disappearances. Deportees disappear from daily life in the United States, sometimes after decades of calling the country their home. Similarly, there are those who disappear from the United States with deported loved ones, those who preemptively return to Mexico because of their fear of deportation, and those who stay in the United States and become invisible (intentionally or unintentionally) because of their undocumented status in the nation. Deportation and displacement can cause migrants to vanish from everyday life, to experience phantom or reluctant returns to Mexico or the United States, and to move between spaces of presence and absence with unsettling speed.
2 – Violation
In Chapter 2, I describe the violence of return and being returned. Beginning in the 2000s, drug violence in Mexico started to escalate just as the United States began deporting Mexican nationals in record numbers. As individuals and families migrate or are forced to move both north and south, they witness and experience the transnational circulation of violence. Migrants and deportees move through multiple sites of violence: in home communities before their departure or after their return, at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing north or south, and in locations throughout the United States where they fear the possibility of deportation. For transnational Mexicans such manifestations of violence converge, creating a climate that people call the “inseguridad/insecurity.”
The many stories of violence—including those told by Dina, Miguel, Tito, and others—are framed by depictions of Mexico’s lawlessness and lives consumed by U.S. laws. Through violence, those deported and their loved ones find that chaos shapes lives before, during, and after removal. The collective response to multiple forms of violence involves the search for security in its absence as transnational Mexicans describe “just trying to survive.” Here, survival means waiting—waiting for U.S. immigration reform, waiting for a political solution to end drug violence, waiting for a future characterized by tranquility. The narratives of those affected by return show how state actions in the name of national security—be it the deportation of migrants or efforts to combat drug violence— repeatedly result in insecurity in everyday life, even within the borders of the United States.
3 – Fragmentation
Chapter 3 considers how deportation and return migration divide families and restructure kinship among transnational Mexicans. The deportation of Mexican nationals has an undeniable effect on kin relations and is resulting in emergent forms of transnational and mixed-status families. Forced return upsets family ties, as kin groups aim to relocate family members in settings that will foster wellbeing and stability—a daunting task when confronted by transnational violence and the disorder of deportation. In this chapter, I describe the experiences of Federico, Carlos, and their families as a way to further describe the chaos of return.
Although U.S. immigration policies are ostensibly designed to facilitate family reunification, deportation results in fragmented families. When deportation and distance constrain family relations, profound suffering takes place. The hope and desire for family security that most often directs migration is quickly displaced by pain, trauma, and fear of what the future may bring. I show how the state controls millions of migrants and their loved ones precisely through immigration policy and deportation. The dispersal of families in the wake of deportation is a telling reflection of the disorder of removal.
4 – Separation
In this chapter, I outline the gendered aspects of returning and being returned. The unpredictability of deportation results in uncertainty within gendered exchanges and relationships. Transnational Mexicans have most typically come to the United States as a result of male-led migrations, with men migrating first and women partners and children staying and/or following after months or years of separation. As a result of deportation, these gendered migrations are increasingly mixed up or inverted. The majority of deportees are men, although as the U.S. state expels male migrants, women are also affected. Today, as men are deported, women are again left behind—perhaps this time in the United States—or follow partners to new or previous destinations. In the few cases when women are deported, gender relations also shift, as the care of children and future roles in partnerships are renegotiated.
With a focus on Tomás, Emy, and their families, this chapter shows how deportation can result in new configurations of transnational partnerships and relations. For example, after deportation, women may consider future migrations to the United States as men stay or are potentially left behind. Family connections may be experienced in fleeting ways, as relationships are forged without face-to-face interaction, maintained through brief phone calls, or limited to glimpses of photographs. Through descriptions of these and other challenges families face, the chapter outlines the gendered character of deportation.
5 – Disorientation
Chapter 5 considers the everyday lives of young people—unauthorized migrant youth and U.S. citizens—affected by deportation and return. The focus is on children and youth who return or are de facto deported to Mexico with deported parents, as well as young people who are themselves deported. Exclusion best describes the places, as both location and position, of children and youth affected by deportation. Detailing the experiences of Jaime, deported as a teen, and the children of several deportees, I show how young people experience deportation as disorienting.
In the wake of deportation, young people increasingly find themselves out of place, dislocated from familiar settings. Children move geographically as they are relocated to long forgotten or new places. As the result of removal, children also confront a kind of displacement of self, as identity, too, becomes disjointed. In both the United States and Mexico, young people may be on the margins of the nation in terms of formal membership and one’s sense of belonging. Dislocation and disorientation come to be defining aspects of experience for children caught within state removals.
The conclusion explores the narrowing possibilities for family members who stay in the United States and those who return to Mexico after deportation. While migration is typically driven by hope and perceived future opportunities, deportation and return migration result in its inverse: despair and limited potential trajectories. After deportation, transnational Mexicans experience change and uncertainty in nearly every aspect of social life, from employment and schooling to kin relations and daily routines. In the concluding chapter, I return to the chaotic effects of deportation as a way to speculate about the future paths of those impacted by return.
Despite the state’s intention to expel foreign nationals permanently, removal can generate new forms of migration and return. As the experiences of individuals and families in this book demonstrate, deportation is never a one-way trip. U.S. citizens will inevitably return to their nation, be it for visits, educational opportunities, or relocations imagined as permanent. There are also the potential migrations of a new generation of deportees and their family members without documents. Many deportees do return to the United States, but with high legal stakes and unprecedented risk to personal safety.
Because of deportation, there are multiple forms and moments of return. People return— reluctantly, by force, or by choice. People may return, return again, or “return” for the first time. In doing so, there is the possibility of a return to the past, but also the chance for a different course. I conclude with a consideration of how the unpredictability and chaos of deportation can usher in struggles as well as innovations. “Coming” or “coming back” also involves “becoming,” as returnees imagine new futures for themselves and their loved ones. These are indeed reinventions, even in the most limited of circumstances.
In the book’s closing, I discuss “ciuadadanos perdidos/lost citizens,” a term used by Mexicans to describe those who return. The difficulties faced by those who are formally and informally expelled from the United States cannot be denied. As Jaime explained, “everything falls apart” after deportation, but, as best they can, people pick up the pieces, put lives back together, reconstruct identities, and/or fashion something new. The homecomings described throughout the book are multiple and manifold: as migrants and deportees go, come, go and come back again, much is lost, but as the lives of those touched by deportation reveal, return—in its many forms—can guide the nation and those it deports to new destinations.