Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Deported Americans



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Chris Levesque. Chris is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities and Population Trainee at the Minnesota Population Center. His research interests are U.S. immigration, demography, and procedural fairness in immigration court. He is on Twitter @krislevrek

Review of Deported Americans: Life After Deportation to Mexico by Beth C. Caldwell (Duke University Press 2019)

At one point in Deported Americans, Beth Caldwell (p.  67) writes, “deportation affects people’s lives so completely that over half of the people I interviewed compared the experience to death.” This should not come as a surprise to some readers. Caldwell points out how separation from one’s family, friends, and community can mean death for deported individuals, both figuratively and literally. She extends this line of thinking to illustrate how deportation from the U.S.—particularly for those who spent most of their lives as Americans—can lead to various ways of coping that express forms of vulnerability, grief, and resilience. In interviews with deported individuals and their family members, Caldwell asks: what does it mean to be an American excluded from their own country? And, based on moral and legal grounds, should the U.S. deport people from homes and lives they have created for themselves, with no option for return?

Written for a general audience but also appealing to lawyers and social scientists, this book adds to the growing number of studies of individuals deported from the U.S. to their so-called “home countries.” Caldwell interviews people of Mexican descent who are members of the 1.5 generation (migrating between the ages of six and twelve) and the 1.75 generation (who migrated before they turned six years old), as conceptualized by Ruben Rumbaut. Her respondents are what she calls “Deported Americans”—those who migrate to the U.S. at an early age and identify as Americans, even if the law sees them as non-citizens. By interviewing her research participants multiple times between 2009 and 2016, Caldwell obtains a longitudinal understanding of deportation’s consequences abroad.

A former public defender in Los Angeles, Caldwell uses her law background to connect her subjects’ deportation experiences back to the pitfalls of the U.S. immigration legal system. Chapter 1 gives insight into how the U.S. immigration system neglects empathy in favor of dehumanizing non-citizens. These practices are embedded within systems of racialized oppression that portray non-citizens as “threats,” as Leo Chavez argues. For those familiar with the history of U.S. immigration, Caldwell’s book goes further by using the personal stories of her interviewees to explain the laws, concepts, and motivations of crimmigration, i.e., the ongoing merger between criminal and immigration law. In line with Tanya Golash-Boza and Susan Bibler Coutin’s work, Caldwell humanizes respondents while arguing that the social conditions of their existence are formed in part by larger, more global power structures, such as the law, which remain rigid within an increasingly migratory world.

Chapter 2 dives into Caldwell’s qualitative findings, focusing on deportees’ initial arrivals and periods of adjustment in Mexico. She emphasizes how culture shock for deportees can be multilayered, as some may not just be leaving the U.S., but are also adjusting to a non-incarcerated life. This shock is exacerbated further for deportees who lack meaningful family ties in Mexico and/or face stigma and barriers to social inclusion on account of their perceived “criminality” or foreignness. One highlight is the attention Caldwell pays to social cues and symbols that mark a deportee as foreign: the paper bags they carry at the bus station containing their personal belongings, their mode of dress, their American accent. Her observations make clear that deportation does not imply acceptance from another side; instead, Caldwell shows how isolating deportation can be, and how long it can take before adjustment occurs.

Chapter 3 focuses on deportees’ life trajectories and adaptation in Mexico. Here, Caldwell interviews respondents multiple times to see how they adapt to life in a new country. She notes how deportees can sometimes fall into criminogenic systems of homelessness and drug abuse, and/or reconstruct places as “American” (often through work and education), and/or return to the U.S. despite the risk of death or incarceration. Meanwhile, chapters 4 and 5 examine the effects deportation has on spouses and children. One spouse told Caldwell that she felt “shell-shocked” after moving down to Mexico to be with her husband (p. 106), expressing shared feelings of anxiety, fear, and exclusion. Some couples maintain contact across borders, while others choose to live with their spouse and drive their children into the U.S. each day to attend school. These interviews emphasize deportation’s residual consequences, which include family separation and its negative mental health outcomes. But they can also highlight deportees adapting to a new life and, in rare instances, harnessing their English skills to start small businesses or work jobs in tourism and consumer services.

Towards the end of the book, Caldwell asks an important question: why do policies not allow a path for deportees to return to the U.S., even when someone demonstrates their rehabilitation? This question strikes at the deportation regime at two ends: first, it shows a disparity between the criminal justice and immigration systems in the U.S., as the former considers rehabilitation a central tenet, while the latter has become more punitive without any pathway towards recourse. Second, it shows how deportation can be “deadly” as often a departure erases people’s livelihoods. Caldwell advocates for rehabilitation as a way of bringing people back, but there are limitations to this argument. Criminal law is not immigration law, even if the two are inextricably bound together (see: traffic stops). But without a statute of limitations in immigration law, immigrants can be criminalized in ways that extend beyond the criminal justice system. Because the system frequently deports people for minor offenses or crimes committed long ago, we must not let rehabilitation continue to normalize what Leisy Abrego calls “the linkages between human mobility and crime.” Caldwell rightly points out the pitfalls of the U.S. deportation regime, but considering these, her book could elaborate a moral case for rehabilitation which avoids framing deportation as simply “serving time” abroad.

Despite this critique, Deported Americans still makes a unique contribution, namely in its interrogation of what it means to be an American citizen for those who migrated to the U.S. at an early age, and how that meaning is uprooted not just at the moment of deportation, but also after people exit from the U.S. Caldwell’s policy suggestions articulate a conception of informal citizenship within a nation’s borders which assumes a contract between the subject and state, in recognition of the reality that deported Americans are still “more like citizens of the United States than of Mexico.” For her respondents, deportation reinforces narratives of American belonging even as it excludes them. Channeling Hiroshi Motomura, she argues that in the absence of legal protections and formal citizenship rights, deportation betrays the reality that many non-citizens rely on the ties they have made over the course of their lives. She advocates for a system that welcomes judicial independence, giving room to repair the harm that immigration restrictions inflict on individuals, families, and communities; and one that includes a lawful path to return home to the U.S.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Levesque, C. (2022) Book Review: Deported Americans. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/05/book-review [date]

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