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September 2020 Issue [Reviews]

Cage of Gold

The corrupt business of deportation
Asian women and children detained at Angel Island Immigration Station, California, circa 1910. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Asian women and children detained at Angel Island Immigration Station, California, circa 1910. Courtesy the Library of Congress


Cage of Gold

The corrupt business of deportation

Discussed in this essay:

The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, by Adam Goodman. Princeton University Press. 336 pages. $29.95.

What we imagine when we think of deportation proceedings, if we stop to imagine them at all, is an immigration hearing. The judge presides in her black robes. The migrants appear without lawyers, since the right to counsel does not apply. Toddlers as young as three “represent themselves,” whatever that combination of words is supposed to mean. The hearing may take as long as four hours or as little as a few minutes. An attorney with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) presents the evidence—an arrest in the desert, an expired visa—and the judge considers whether the person in front of her will be deported or allowed to remain. She rules. But this is not what actually occurs in the vast majority of deportation cases adjudicated in the United States.

Over the past hundred years, a stunning 90 percent of deportations from this country were “voluntary departures,” as the historian Adam Goodman shows in his new book, The Deportation Machine. It is as inaccurate to imagine an immigration hearing for most deportees, Goodman writes, as it is to imagine a jury trial for most criminal suspects. Prosecutors in the United States today use plea bargains to reach convictions in 90 percent of federal cases. Plea bargains make the question of innocence secondary, if not irrelevant. They are the criminal justice system’s trump card. Voluntary departure, throughout the twentieth century, was the immigration system’s trump card—yet most people have never heard of it.

Voluntary departure is one of those euphemistic legal terms that mean the opposite of what they sound like. It is a formal administrative process, not an autonomous decision made by a migrant. It works like this: People in the custody of immigration authorities have the right to ask for a hearing, but if the judge rules against them they are automatically barred from ever legally reentering the United States. If, instead, they sign forms agreeing to leave the country voluntarily, the record of their removal order can be expunged, and they remain theoretically free to return. They can also avoid extended periods of detention. Given the long odds of prevailing at a hearing, most people decide not to take the chance. Those who sign voluntary departure forms often pledge to pay, in part or in whole, for the trip back to their country of origin. Goodman writes that immigration authorities sometimes cajole or coerce people into voluntary departure, “making it seem like the best of all the bad options facing people who have been apprehended.”

Goodman breaks deportations down into three categories: forced removal, voluntary departure, and “self-deportation”—terrorizing people into leaving of their own accord by announcing raids in advance, a tactic known as “scareheading.” He sets for himself the ambitious task of tracing all three deportation techniques from the nineteenth century to the present—how they developed, how they were challenged by immigrants and their families, and, importantly, how they were paid for. Formal deportation, hearing and all, has until recently been relatively infrequent because it is time-consuming and expensive. It was Goodman’s keen attention to the economics of deportation that led him to focus on voluntary departures. Without that mechanism, he notes, we could never have achieved such industrial capacities for kicking people out of the country.

A photograph (detail) from immigration les in Sierra County, California, 1890–1930. Courtesy California Historical Society, San Francisco

A photograph (detail) from immigration files in Sierra County, California, 1890–1930. Courtesy California Historical Society, San Francisco

Histories take a long time to write, and much of Goodman’s extensive and exuberantly footnoted study predates the election of Donald Trump. It must have been strange to spend years researching deportation history in archives across the United States and Mexico—writing an academic book often feels like a private obsession—only to see it all burst into the open in 2015, when Trump began raving about Mexican rapists and promising to deport the millions of people living in this country without papers. What had previously been a question for historians like Goodman—and for the undocumented and their families, who are so rarely listened to—became a matter of public urgency. Are we, or were we ever, a “nation of immigrants”?

The view that the United States is a nation of immigrants was popularized in the Fifties by Oscar Handlin, who is credited with inventing the field of immigration history. For the next half century, immigration historians largely played into the happy melting pot myth of assimilation, focusing on the experiences of immigrants from Europe. But in the early Aughts, a group of scholars calling themselves historians of migration began writing the history of racism, exclusion, and “illegal aliens” instead. Considering the United States as a nation of migrants, rather than of immigrants, pulls in the forced or coerced migrations in our history: Native Americans torn from their land, Asian contract laborers, Mexican guest workers, and enslaved Africans.

Goodman is part of this newer cohort of migration historians who see the United States as a “deportation nation”—to borrow the title of a 2010 book by the law professor Daniel Kanstroom, the only other full-length national study of deportation history. In The Deportation Machine, Goodman calculates the total number of deportations from the United States over the past hundred years—and the result is staggering. Between 1920 and 2018, the latest year for which data was available, the country deported 56.3 million people, more than the 51.7 million who were granted lawful status. Roughly nine out of ten deportees were Mexican. (Goodman does not include self-deportations in this number, since he acknowledges that they are “unquantifiable.”)

This darker view of U.S. history is less controversial than it once was, thanks in large part to Trump’s willingness to say out loud that which was once tacit. In February 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. Last year, the Trump Administration introduced a new policy that allows for the denial of green cards to immigrants who have used food stamps or other forms of public assistance. Ken Cuccinelli, then acting head of USCIS, was asked on NPR whether Emma Lazarus’s words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty were “part of the American ethos.” “They certainly are,” Cuccinelli said. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Braceros, by Domingo Ulloa © Smithsonian American Art Museum/Art Resource, New York City

Removals were common even before the United States gained independence. In Colonial New England, the practice was called “warning out,” and the first recorded case in Plymouth County was a man named Robert Titus, who in 1654 was called to the town court and told to take his family elsewhere because he had allowed “persons of evil fame” to live in his house. It is possible that the persons in question were accused witches, though most warnings out were of indigents considered likely to become a drain on the public purse. The majority of people left “voluntarily,” but those who didn’t could be chased out by the town constable. Between 1751 and 1800, more than 20 percent of those warned out were people of color, many of them recently manumitted.

In 1788, Massachusetts began requiring foreigners to register with the local government and prohibiting people who were likely to require public relief from coming ashore. Six years later, the state passed one of the country’s first deportation laws, which authorized the forcible removal of the poor to “any place beyond the sea, where he belongs.” Goodman is very good on the windup of the country’s deportation machine: how immigration officials came to wield broad discretionary power, how the “immigrants are taking our jobs” narrative spread during anti-Chinese agitating and lynchings in the 1890s, and how successive Supreme Court cases limited the rights of noncitizens and denied them due process.

People sometimes say that, before 1924, America’s borders were open. Goodman notes that that’s not quite right. If you arrived at a port of entry, paid a “head tax,” demonstrated that you were literate, passed an often intrusive and humiliating medical inspection, proved that you were unlikely to become a public charge, and—after the 1882 exclusion act—were not Chinese, then you could come on in. But it is true that the 1924 Immigration Act, which first introduced national-origin quotas, marked the beginning of the country’s broader effort to restrict entry on the basis of race. It was an attempt to choke off large-scale immigration from Southern Europeand Asia, but there were no restrictions whatsoever on countries in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico. America’s agricultural bosses did not want to lose access to cheap labor.

Prohibition started the first wave of panic about Mexicans crossing the border, loaded down with whiskey and rum to meet U.S. demand. The Border Patrol, which was founded in 1924, was so focused on Mexicans that it had a term for everyone else—OTMs, “other than Mexicans”—which is still in use today. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was no official policy of releasing migrants if they agreed to pay their own way out of the country, but individual agents began facilitating voluntary departures on an ad hoc basis. As one border agent wrote, “If the alien does not want his day in court, why not let him return to Mexico instead of holding him anywhere from two or three weeks to a month or more?”

Voluntary departures became routine during the Great Depression, enabling the country to carry out its first mass deportation of Mexicans. Raids throughout California, the Southwest, the Midwest, and even Alaska marked a turn in deportation history: expulsion as spectacle. Herbert Hoover’s secretary of labor authorized immigration agents to monitor strikes involving foreigners and to deport radicals. Announcements were published in the Spanish- and English-language press ahead of raids on businesses. Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, authors of the authoritative history of this period, Decade of Betrayal, estimate the number of deported Mexicans at between five hundred thousand and one million, which includes people who were expelled through formal removals and voluntary departures as well as those who were terrorized into leaving.

The first of these mass raids was conducted on February 26, 1931. That afternoon, about four hundred people were out sunning themselves in a park that was then called La Placita, a center of Mexican and Mexican-American life in Los Angeles. At three o’clock, six immigration agents in khaki uniforms entered the park, accompanied by a cadre of police. Two policemen stationed themselves at each entrance to prevent people from leaving. They forced everyone to remain seated, which “caused tremendous panic,” according to a newspaper story the next day. For over an hour, agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), ICE’s predecessor, interrogated people one by one, as a crowd gathered outside the park to watch. Those who didn’t have passports or evidence of legal entry with them were detained.

Moisés González, a legal resident, happened by the park while the raid was under way, so the immigration agents questioned him too. González produced his papers, which showed he had been living legally in the United States since crossing the border eight years prior through a port of entry in El Paso. Nevertheless, an immigration agent pocketed González’s paperwork and told him to wait with the others. Balderrama and Rodríguez estimate that as many as 60 percent of those caught up in raids in this era were in the United States legally. California formally apologized for its Depression-era deportations in 2005, noting that Mexican and Mexican-American families had been “forced to abandon, or were defrauded of, personal and real property, which often was sold by local authorities as ‘payment’ for the transportation expenses incurred in their removal.” The federal government has never apologized.

Braceros being sprayed with DDT by Department of Agriculture personnel, 1956. Photograph by Leonard Nadel. Courtesy Leonard Nadel Photographs and Scrapbooks, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

After deporting hundreds of thousands of Mexicans during the Depression, the United States had the little problem of needing them back to solve the labor shortage created by the Second World War. From 1942 to 1964, the United States and Mexico came to a series of agreements to issue more than 4.6 million short-term contracts to Mexican agricultural guest workers. The deal became known as the Bracero Program, from brazo, the Spanish word for “arm.” Labor abuses were common, and medical examinations at the border were extremely invasive. Incoming workers were fumigated with toxic chemicals, among them DDT, a carcinogenic insecticide that is now banned. A photograph from 1956, in the Smithsonian’s collection, shows a U.S. official in a white face mask spraying a shirtless bracero in the face with DDT while a long line of people behind him wait their turn.

At the end of the war, GIs returned, but the pattern of Mexican migration had been set. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans—with and without bracero contracts, including undocumented women and children accompanying men with contracts—continued to travel to the United States. Some U.S. citizens called the migrants by the derogatory term “wetback,” because many of them waded or swam across the Rio Grande to enter the country. The largest deportation campaign in U.S. history, and not coincidentally the first since voluntary departure was made official policy in 1940, was named after this racial slur: Operation Wetback. Trump referred to the operation approvingly at a debate in 2015. “Moved them way south,” he said. “They never came back.”

Operation Wetback officially began on June 17, 1954, with a burst of military-style roundups mostly along the border, but also in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. Goodman found that in Los Angeles, the INS leased a recreation center from the city for $125 a day in Elysian Park, near where Dodger Stadium stands today, and converted it into an open-air detention facility. That year, the government recorded thirty thousand formal deportations and more than one million voluntary departures. When a district director of the INS suggested that every migrant be given a hearing, another official wrote in the margins of his memo: “Costly detention point not necessary if processing is streamlined” and “Hearings not necessary if idea is to clean out volume—not make records.”

Operation Wetback separated families. Parents were deported while their children were at school. Workers were deported before they could gather their belongings. Some American citizens were critical of the raids for humanitarian reasons, others because they stood to lose money. When Operation Wetback swept through Texas, a local newspaper offered a solution to the coming shortage of people willing to do certain kinds of work: “putting 700–800 invading Border patrolmen into the cotton fields picking.” A candy store in Harlingen, Texas, hung a sign: prices double to border patrolmen until cotton is picked. INS officers found it hard to rent a room in some towns, but they did their work one way or another. One South Texas resident wrote to the U.S. attorney general, “I have seen mothers deport[ed] and leave on this side their nursing babies. What is wrong with this country any way?”

Deportation policy in the United States is nonsensical because it is determined by two opposing impulses: racist hate and greed. We want immigrants because they do cheap work we won’t do ourselves, but we don’t want them because they represent, in the eyes of some Americans, a threat to our way of life. At the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, undocumented people who pick strawberries and lettuce in California’s Central Valley received official letters from their employers designating them “essential workers.” Still, ICE conducted a raid on the very first day of California’s lockdown in March. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times noted that it was “business as usual,” except that “the agents had N95 respirator masks in their vehicles, just in case.” Migrant farmworkers are essential, but ICE is essential, too.

Goodman is sharp on this contradiction. He demonstrates that the federal government’s immigration policy emerges from a desire both to control the borders and to cater to employers, who want to maintain a “well-regulated, exploitable migrant labor force.” Recruiting Mexican workers to migrate to the United States was good business. So was getting government contracts to deport them. Those contracts were paid for, at least in part, by migrants who had signed forms agreeing to voluntary departures, making the process almost as cheap as scareheading.

Long before private companies built the detention facilities that now imprison migrants near our borders, deportation was a public-private business. Safety was not a priority, to put it mildly. In 1948, a deportation flight operated by a private contractor crashed in California, killing everyone on board. Woody Guthrie memorialized the accident in his song “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” That same year, INS officials investigated what kind of charter airlines it would be legal for the agency to hire for deportation flights and concluded that the only requirement was for businesses to acquire a “permit for the transportation of non common carrier goods such as personal property.” In the opinion of one of the INS officials in charge of airlifts, “Our contention is that the Mexican aliens are, in a sense, personal property in that they make no decisions as to the means of transportation or destination.”

Contracts for deportation planes, boats, and trains were a corrupt business. Operation Wetback involved a series of seventy-six boatlifts that hauled more than fifty thousand Mexicans south between 1954 and 1956. The Mexican official who made this agreement with the United States was a member and stockholder of one of the Mexican shipping companies that got a contract. His company was already shipping bananas north; why not ship deportees south on return trips? In INS records, Goodman found that the company installed air-conditioning below the main deck “not for the deportees, but to ensure that the bananas arrived in good condition.”

These ships, including one called Emancipación, were vessels designed to carry cargo, and Mexicans were forced down into crowded holds for the duration of the forty-eight-hour trip. Those who weren’t seasick traveled in the vomit of those who were. The conditions were so bad that Goodman convincingly poses the boatlifts as a predecessor to later “prevention through deterrence” policies, which, beginning in the 1990s, tried to dissuade Mexicans from crossing the border by making the trip harder and more dangerous, often deadly. “They hate the boat trip like a devil hates holy water,” crowed Lieutenant General Joseph Swing, the commissioner of the INS who planned and executed Operation Wetback, while testifying before Congress in 1955. “The boatlift is the most salutary thing that we have hit on yet.”

Deportation boatlifts ended in 1956 when deportees mutinied off the coast of Tampico in northeastern Mexico, forcing the captain to bring the ship closer to land. Around forty deportees then jumped overboard and tried to swim to shore. Two men who drowned were later identified as deportees by their Levi’s jeans.

Operation Wetback was supposed to increase the number of bracero workers and decrease the number of undocumented workers, but the distinction was often lost in roundups. It is impossible to know how many documented immigrants and U.S. citizens were deported, or how many deportees were later recruited to join the Bracero Program. In 1954, one of the pilots who worked for an INS contractor remarked: “This Mexican business mystifies me. We just hauled a load of contract laborers from Mexico to Michigan. Now we’re hauling a load of other Mexicans back to Mexico. Well, I just fly the plane.”

The Bracero Program ended in 1964, a year before Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act during a ceremony at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The act, which laid the foundation for today’s immigration law, called for immigrants to be admitted not on the basis of their race or national origin, but on the basis of specialized skills, refugee status, or family reunification. It opened the door for a huge increase in immigration from places other than Europe, much larger even than its backers had anticipated, but it also capped immigration from the Western Hemisphere for the first time.

In her excellent book Undocumented Lives, the historian Ana Raquel Minian shows that between 1965 and 1986, a permanent class of Mexican workers cycled seasonally between the two countries. The rise in arrivals in the United States was 86 percent offset by departures. This pattern of circular migration ended only because of harsher new policies at the border. In 1986, Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to three million undocumented people, and in exchange, Congress agreed to militarize the border, allocate more funding to Border Patrol, sanction employers who hired undocumented people, and pass deportation laws that were more insulated from judicial review. The stakes of deportation rose. Mexicans who wanted to earn a wage in U.S. dollars, Minian writes, “found themselves trapped in the United States, which they referred to as the Jaula de Oro, or Cage of Gold.”

Braceros at a detention center in McAllen, Texas, early 1950s. Courtesy Special Collections, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries

Braceros at a detention center in McAllen, Texas, early 1950s. Courtesy Special Collections, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries

What finally moved the United States away from voluntary departures was another punitive change in the law. Democrats were the ones who oversaw the shift to formal deportations, in an effort to appear tough on crime. In 1996, Congress passed a new set of immigration laws that provided for “expedited removals” and “reinstatement of removal,” allowing immigration officers to arrest, charge, and formally deport people without any investigation or the participation of a judge. As a result, formal deportation came to look more and more like voluntary departure—speedy and unprotected by due process. Consequences were serious: formal deportation resulted in a ban on reentry from five years to life, and possible felony criminal charges if caught again in the United States. Kanstroom, the legal historian, calls 1996 “the year in which the rule of deportation law died.”

Goodman’s book covers so much ground that he can hardly be faulted for not giving more space to asylum. But because the formal deportation process has sped up so much, seeking asylum is now the primary and sometimes the only way that people can slow down the system enough to claim rights. Over the past decade, the most pronounced change at the border has been that more people are seeking refuge rather than just work. In 2008, only one in a hundred border crossers applied for asylum or humanitarian relief. By 2018, it was one in three.

The development is a result of changing conditions in Latin America. Due to the improving economic outlook in Mexico and the Great Recession in the United States, Mexicans are leaving in larger numbers than they are entering. For the first time in almost a hundred years, our immigration system is now concerned primarily with deporting what the government still calls OTMs—people mostly from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Central Americans are fleeing gangs, anti-indigenous violence, domestic violence, poverty, political corruption, and instability—a whole host of overlapping problems that the United States helped create by funding military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Asylum seekers allege that they are being tricked and coerced into signing ICE Form I-210, a version of the same voluntary departure paperwork that the country has used since Operation Wetback. Some parents who were separated from their children at the border said they were told they had to agree to voluntary departure before they could be reunited. And now, during the pandemic, the Trump Administration has moved to shut down the asylum process for the first time since it was created after the Second World War. Thousands of asylum seekers are waiting in squalid and dangerous camps in Mexico for their asylum claims to be heard—when, they do not know.

As the pandemic stretches on, undocumented people are risking exposure to COVID-19 while picking fruit, cleaning homes, and delivering food and packages all over the United States. Such workers are always “essential,” but it is never so clear as during a national crisis—a point underlined in The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, a writer who is herself undocumented. Of 9/11 she writes: “The first responders were firemen and EMT workers. The second responders were undocumented immigrants.” New York City hired contractors to clean up the holes where the twin towers used to be. The contractors hired subcontractors, who hired day laborers who were mostly Eastern European and Latin American. “Many of the women knew the area well,” Villavicencio writes, “having cleaned offices and apartments in Lower Manhattan for years. They knew they’d be called to dust. There was so much dust.”

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