‘Punishment and Profits’: Q&A with Adam Goodman, author of The Deportation Machine

National Archives of the United States

A family deported from McAllen, Texas, begins the 400-mile trek home to the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, 1953.

Since coming into office almost four years ago, President Donald Trump and his administration have taken a wrecking ball to the country’s immigration system — and their efforts have only intensified during the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the last seven months, the Trump administration has turned away 150,000 asylum seekers at the southern border without due process. The administration also cut the number of visas issued to new immigrants by 92% in the second half of 2020 — the steepest decline in recorded U.S. history — while choosing to take in fewer than 12,000 refugees this year, down from 85,000 in 2016.

The pandemic exacerbated health and safety concerns at immigrant jails and detention centers, leading to the most deaths of immigrants in detention in a single fiscal year since 2005, according to a CNN tally of government figures. Meanwhile, thousands of asylees, most of them from Central America, are forced to live in squalid border camps as their cases wind through beleaguered immigration courts.

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The administration also found new ways to make immigrants suffer, like separating thousands of parents from their children immediately after being apprehended at the border, while empowering low-level federal agents to quickly deport immigrants without a court hearing.

Many of Trump’s critics, including Democratic challenger Joe Biden, accuse him of destroying the nation’s standing as a welcoming country for immigrants.

But in his new book, The Deportation Machine (Princeton University Press), historian Adam Goodman shows how the U.S. has for decades been better at kicking immigrants out than it has been at letting them in. In an interview with Injustice Watch, Goodman, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, lays out the story behind the well-oiled bureaucracy that has deported 57 million people in less than 150 years, the companies that profited off those deportations, and how the country became obsessed with inflicting state-sanctioned trauma on immigrants.

This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you break down what you mean by the “deportation machine”?

The “machine,” as I describe it, is composed of three mechanisms: formal deportations, voluntary departures, and self-deportation campaigns.

We know most about formal deportations, which is when an immigration judge orders someone removed from the country and that order is carried out by immigration agents. Journalists, historians, and scholars have written about those cases a lot, and the government also releases data on them. And if I had to describe self-deportation campaigns in the simplest terms, it would be that you make peoples’ lives so miserable that they decide to pick up and leave the country without ever being apprehended by an immigration official.

Jennifer Boles

Adam Goodman

But the vast majority of the 57 million expulsions throughout U.S. history — more than three-quarters of them — have been through these euphemistically-termed “voluntary departures.” Voluntary departures occur after an immigration agent has apprehended someone and forced, coerced, encouraged, or, in some cases, even tricked them into signing a waiver that says they will not contest their case and agree to leave supposedly on their own. At that point, there’s very little advocates or lawyers can do.

The way I describe it in the book is that voluntary departures play a similar role in the immigration system as plea bargains do in the criminal justice system. In the criminal justice system, the vast majority of cases never make it to trial. That’s how the system is set up — it simply cannot handle the sheer number of cases, so plea bargains keep the process moving.

That’s how 48 million of the 57 million deportations through the last 140 years have taken place.

Data from the Department of Homeland Security. Graph by Adam Goodman

Formal deportations and voluntary departures, fiscal years 1892–2018.

You mention in the book that Mexicans represent 90% of all of those deportations. One of the most pivotal forced migration campaigns was Operation Wetback in the mid-1950s. What did Operation Wetback entail and how did it impact Chicago’s Mexican community?

Operation Wetback — and it should be noted that “wetback” was a racial slur used to refer to Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande without authorization — started in 1954 when officials planed a large-scale campaign to deport as many as one million Mexicans from the country. We now know that they ended up deporting far fewer than that, but officials publicly celebrated that number to look good in the eyes of the public and get more congressional funding.

The operation started in California and moved to Texas. There were mass roundups led by hundreds of border patrol agents at people’s workplaces, their neighborhoods, ranches, farms and industrial factories. People were generally held for a short amount of time and then expeditiously deported from the country with few questions asked.

This was mass deportation on the cheap. People were often not given the opportunity to gather their belongings or to contest their cases in front of a judge.

But what I discovered when I got deep into the research was that there was a whole part of Operation Wetback that had gone mostly unstudied, and that was the interior campaign, primarily in Chicago, which would become, according to the top immigration official at the time, the “first major city in the United States to be cleared out.”

Immigration officials estimated that 75,000 Mexicans, including 10,000 who were in the country without authorization, lived in Chicago in 1951. By 1954, officials estimated that it had grown to 125,000, including some 20,000 to 40,000 unauthorized migrants.

Chicago History Museum

Mexican men wait for voluntary departure letters at the Chicago Border Patrol office on the ninth floor of the old Post Office building downtown, September 1954.

As with other campaigns, officials during Operation Wetback relied on voluntary departures to meet their deportation quotas, but they also turned to the third mechanism of expulsion: the self-deportation campaigns. They did so by using the media to invoke fear throughout the Mexican and Mexican-American community.

More people left Chicago in the fall of 1954 because of these campaigns than immigration officials apprehended and forced to leave. The majority of people stayed, though, even as the INS claimed that only 600 unauthorized Mexican immigrants were left in the city by 1955.

What were the political and economic motivations behind Operation Wetback?

Operation Wetback maintained an exploitable labor force that would maximize profits for employers and keep prices down for consumers. This was essentially a system of labor control.

The immigration service saw this as a way to push people into the Bracero Program, a guest worker program in the middle of the 20th century that brought hundreds of thousands of Mexican migrant workers to the U.S. on short-term contracts.

By enforcing deportations in the country’s interior against Mexicans, this ensured that workers would remain exploited while providing crucial labor to the U.S. The immigration service hoped that by cracking down on unauthorized migrants they would be able to encourage employers and migrants to go through the official channels.

Courtesy of the National Border Patrol Museum, El Paso, Texas

Packing apprehended migrants into trucks after mass roundups in McAllen, Texas, 1954.

In the book, you argue that a longstanding impact of allowing Mexicans and other migrant workers to come into the country as short-term guests justified their brutal treatment by employers, immigration officials, and companies hired to detain and deport them. One of the most disturbing sections in the book talks about the Emancipación and El Mercurio, two Mexican cargo ships contracted to haul deported Mexicans across the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950s. How did the squalid conditions on the ships play into the U.S.’s plans to deter Mexican immigrants from coming into the country and the role of trauma as a deterrent in immigration policy generally?

My book traces how deportation policy has changed over time, but I’m also interested in the experiences of migrants going through those deportations. So I looked into the different transportation networks that immigration officials relied on — the busses, the trains, the boats and the planes that they used, and many of them were privately contracted companies that carried out these expulsion operations to make a dollar off the misery of migrants.

Two things have largely driven immigration policy and its implementation: punishment and profits. This played out in the mid-1950s, when US officials deported nearly 50,000 people across the Gulf of Mexico on cargo ships that took bananas from Mexico to Alabama and then on their return trip south would pick up deportees to take advantage of the empty hull space. They treated Mexican migrants as human cargo and this allowed the companies to maximize their profits by keeping the conditions incredibly bare. It also, in turn, served the interest of the immigrant service, which set out to make the deportation voyage as difficult as possible.

National Archives of the United States

Mexican deportees in the forward hold of El Mercurio, August 1956.

We might think of this as a precursor to more recent “prevention through deterrence” campaigns, such as separating Central American parents from their children, the idea being that if people know that they could be separated from their children, they’ll be less likely to come to the United States. This is the exact same motivation from the 1950s. In fact, during a congressional hearing in 1955, the top immigration official at the time remarked that, “They [the Mexicans] hate the boat trip like a devil hates holy water.”

We know now that these deterrence tactics do not stop people from coming, but they do inflict extraordinary physical, psychological and material costs on migrants, and that’s something we see as a through-line in U.S. history, which raises a lot of questions about how state-sanctioned trauma has defined the immigrant experience.

It seems as though that level of fear peaked during what you call the “era of mass expulsion,” the late 1970s up until the Great Recession. What makes these 30 years different from the rest and how did the fear of deportation shape immigrant’s lives?

From 1978 until the early 2000s, there’s an average of 900,000 people expelled from the U.S. each year. (Editor’s note: The U.S. carried out just over 446,000 deportations in fiscal year 2018.)

For many people in the late 1970s and into the late 1980s, deportation became a possibility anytime someone left their house to go to work, to go to the store, the movies, church — and people simply stopped doing that.

Mass expulsions involving hundreds of people at a time were happening regularly, and you might’ve not known about them unless you yourself were part of the Mexican and Central American community in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston. It wasn’t one-off mass expulsion campaigns like Operation Wetback in the 1950s. This was thousands of deportations day in, day out. It was normalized.

A story that stands out is that of a man in Mexico who described to me in a matter-of-fact fashion how he would get ready for work everyday on a ranch in California. He would put on his clothes, his pants, his socks, and then, just like any other article of clothing, he would hide $20 on his person somewhere knowing that he might be apprehended that day and might need some money until he figured out a plan. That was something that became part of his everyday life.

In the book you point out how President Clinton’s “tough on crime” attitude bled into immigration policy as he successfully expanded the list of deportable offenses through the Immigration Act of 1996. And then, five years later, the Bush administration intertwined immigration and national security interests after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. How did those policy shifts change the way the country carries out deportations?

Deportation today has become more punitive and more draconian. In 2011, formal deportations outnumbered voluntary departures for the first time in 70 years. Those formal deportations come to resemble voluntary departures in that they are streamlined and fast-tracked through the courts. The difference now is that it’s more difficult to reenter the country after you’ve been deported. The separation that deportation represents is more permanent than ever before.

The share of Mexicans apprehended by immigration authorities has declined by half in the last decade. Who are the new targets of the deportation machine?

In recent years the deportation machine increasingly has come to target two main groups: (1) Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, or anyone perceived to be a member of those communities, and (2) Central Americans.

For the first group, their persecution stems mostly from the fear of terrorism. After 9/11, it became much harder to separate immigration — which is largely a question of labor, family reunification, asylum seekers and refugees — from protecting the country from dangerous outsiders. That in turn justified a punitive approach to immigrants from those regions of the world, culminating in the Trump administration’s so-called “Muslim ban” and encroaching on the civil liberties of those who are citizens or permanent residents of this country.

The history of Central American refugee migration to the United States dates back to the 1980s, when the U.S. supported right-wing repressive regimes that carried out mass killings and led many hundreds of thousands of people to flee the region, particularly in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. The U.S. received those asylum seekers by closing the door. They did so in part because if they granted Salvadorans asylum, for example, they would have to reckon with the fact that the country has given billions of dollars to the government they’re escaping. And as a result, 97% of Salvadorans who petitioned for asylum in the 1980s were rejected.

Data from the Department of Homeland Security. Calculations and graph by Adam Goodman.

The share of Mexican immigrants apprehended by immigration authorities was halved between 2007 and 2017, while the number of apprehended immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador grew fivefold.

Central Americans have come to be the outsized focus of the deportation machine in recent years as they are maligned by the president and oftentimes the media as dangerous gang members or a drain on the economy, when in fact a vast majority of them are seeking refuge.

Can the deportation machine be reformed to prevent humanitarian abuses that we’ve become accustomed to? Or do we need to tear it all down and start from scratch?

There are reforms that would mark an important improvement for anyone who finds themselves subject to apprehension and deportation. But we should also be thinking about utopian or idealistic options of dismantling the machine and building a new system.

Congress could pass legislation that accounts for the fact that we’ve long had labor needs that immigrants have fulfilled while prioritizing family reunification. The more opportunities we create for people to enter the country with authorization and also remain in the country in status will reduce the number of people without authorization and who are in the country out of status.

Another concrete change is to get rid of the 20,000 immigrant quota for every country in the world. That makes no sense given the history, geography, political and economic factors. We could grant more visas to Mexico, Canada and Central America.

Guaranteeing legal representation to migrants while they’re in detention would go a long way.

All of this sounds unfeasible, but if we’re talking about reforming the system then all options should be on the table, because what we’re doing isn’t working and it hasn’t worked for a long time. The bipartisan history of the deportation machine makes that clear.