Works Like a Machine: Deportation in a Presidential Election Year

While the Obama administration made promises last year to focus its “removal” efforts on those who pose dangers to national security and public safety, the overall number of deportations remains very high. The outcome is illustrative of how the deportation machine functions: if it can’t find “bad” migrants to send into exile, it simply produces them.

Joseph Nevins 6/13/2012

“Deportations Continue Despite U.S. Review of Backlog,” reads a headline from last week’s New York Times.

It was one year ago this month that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) head John Morton proclaimed a supposed shift in his agency’s deportation efforts, one that would result in a focus on its “enforcement priorities”—those deemed as threats to national security or characterized as gang members, for instance—while allowing agents “prosecutorial discretion.”  In practice, this means that ICE agents, in determining which cases to pursue, can take various matters into consideration. These include how long a person had been in the United States, when—in terms of their age—they arrived in the country, and their familial and community ties.

Building on this supposed policy shift, the Obama administration announced a few months later, in November, that the Department of Homeland Security would begin a review of all deportation cases before immigration courts. This intensified expectations among many in immigrant communities that there would be a significant reduction in deportations of unauthorized residents who were young students, or those who had family members who are U.S. citizens, are elderly, or are members of the U.S. military.

But as the New York Times article makes clear, these hopes have not been realized for the most part. Thus far, less than 2% of the more than 410,000 cases under review have been closed. Meanwhile the overall number of deportations remains very high—a function of election year politics as the Obama administration endeavors to show its toughness and limit the ability of Republicans to cast it as “soft” on “illegals” and “criminal aliens” as well as of the sheer meanness of the deportation machine.

As the Los Angeles Times reported in May, ICE, in response to lower numbers of “removals” overall thus far this fiscal year (about 9% less than last year’s record-setting pace), and of deportations of so-called criminal aliens in particular, has increased by 25% the number of agents tasked with finding and deporting non-citizens with criminal records. The well-founded worry among immigrant advocates is that ICE agents will simply arrest and deport people to meet their quotas while categorizing them as dangerous criminals to justify their actions.

It’s a “labeling game,” says Gregory Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “ICE's definition of who counts as a criminal includes people who have driven without a license or driven without insurance,” he asserts.

This bears out what I learned when I was in Tucson in March. According to a federal public defender with whom I spoke while there, he has seen cases in which individuals have been charged with indecent exposure for urinating in an alley, for instance, and sent into exile as a result. (Such cases would be included among the sex offenders whose arrests and deportations ICE frequently highlights.) He also told the story of one young man he represented—a 19-year old permanent resident who had come to the United States as an infant. The Border Patrol arrested him on a bus near the U.S.-Mexico divide for having on his cellphone a topless photo of his 17-year-old fiancé with whom he was traveling. U.S. officials charged him with attempted exportation of child pornography, and deported him to Mexico.

If the category of “criminal” is a slippery one, that of “terrorist” is perhaps even more so. The ever-flexible nature of the category—the contours and content of which are determined by the political whims and needs of those in power in Washington—also provides a reservoir of would-be deportees for the Department of Homeland Security’s apparatus of exclusion.

Take the ongoing saga of José Barahona, whose case Seth Wessler recently profiled for ColorLines. A native of El Salvador, Barahona has lived and worked in the United States for the last 26 years or so.

Currently, the federal government is trying to deport him for providing material support for terrorists. The reason? In the mid-1980s, Barahona allowed armed guerilla fighters of the FMLN to use his kitchen and sleep on the floor of his home when they seized control of his town and demanded that he do so. Even though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acknowledges that Barahona provided such support under duress, and although the FMLN is now the governing party in El Salvador, DHS refuses to drop the case and continues its efforts to send him back to El Salvador.

Wessler quotes Anwen Hughes, an attorney with the group Human Rights First, to help make sense of this ludicrous case. She says that DHS’s use of the material support bar in cases such as that of José Barahona are illustrative of the effort of “Federal agencies… to retain as much power as they can.”

This demonstrates the myriad dangers of legitimizing the deportation apparatus—and the larger regime of exclusion—in any way. It also shows how the deportation machine functions: if it can’t find “bad” migrants to send into exile, it simply produces them.




For more from the Border Wars blog, visit And now you can follow it on twitter@NACLABorderWars. See also "Undocumented, Not Illegal: Beyond the Rhetoric of Immigration Coverage,by Angelica Rubio in the November/December 2011 NACLA Report; "The Border: Funneling Migrants to Their Doom," by Óscar Martínez, in the September/October 2011 NACLA Report; and the May/June 2007 NACLA ReportOf Migrants & Minutemen.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.