Adam Goodman’s new book was in the works well before Donald Trump made a grotesque spectacle of the mass detention, deportation, and exclusion of migrants. Yet it could not be timelier. The Deportation Machine provides new, crucial insights into the history of migrant expulsion and the origins of today’s crises.
Most scholarship on deportation focuses on the formal proceedings. Goodman, however, identifies three mechanisms of expulsion: formal deportation (now termed “removal” by DHS), voluntary departure (“return”), and so-called self-deportation. Goodman’s research centers on the latter two, emphasizing their coercive nature and centrality to U.S. immigration enforcement historically. As he notes, “more than 90 percent of all expulsions throughout U.S. history have been via an administrative process euphemistically referred to as ‘voluntary departure.’” Self-deportation, in turn, is impossible to quantify, but Goodman emphasizes its role in achieving what official policy would not.
By focusing on voluntary departure and self-deportation, Goodman expands our understanding of deportation to include these important and overlooked mechanisms of expulsion, which historically have proven far more significant means of removing people from the country than formal deportation itself.
While he is attentive to political-economic context, Goodman doesn’t engage with contemporary theories of the political economy of migration that analyze the uses, methods, and goals of deportation. Expanding this conceptual framework, I think, helps explain the transformations charted in Goodman’s book beyond their internal institutional logics.
Origins of Immigration Policy
Goodman traces the institutionalization of U.S. immigration bureaucracy to the turn of the 20th century, spurred by anti-Chinese nativism and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The author highlights early instances of “self-deportation” campaigns waged by white civilians to drive out Chinese migrants, often in the name of “white labor.” These actions included mob violence and lynchings, but also a nominally peaceful strategy of boycotts and “incendiary scare tactics, pervasive psychological violence, [and] the strategic use of the newspapers.”
Formal, federal deportation arose as a result of the anti-Chinese campaign, with an 1888 ban on return of departed Chinese migrants to the U.S.: Chae Chan Ping, famously, became victim to the first formal federal deportation after attempting to return to the U.S. where he had resided for 12 years. Subsequent legislation in the 1890s expanded the discretionary authority of U.S. immigration officials and sought to define and broaden the categories of undesirable migrants for exclusion and deportation, including those “likely to become a public charge”—a notion heavy with misogynist, homophobic, and racist presumptions—and political radicals.
Much of the scaffolding of today’s deportation apparatus was erected in this period. In a far-reaching 1893 decision, the Supreme Court determined that deportation was not a punishment, but rather an administrative procedure; this ruling “stripped noncitizens facing expulsion of basic constitutional safeguards, like the right to due process.” The 1917 Immigration Act added crimes of “moral turpitude” to deportable offenses, and the Border Patrol was formally established in 1924.
“The deportation machine that legislators and immigration bureaucrats established during these decades prioritized speed and economy over people’s constitutional right to due process,” writes Goodman. To this end, voluntary departure emerged as an “alternative, ad hoc means of expulsion,” sidestepping costly and lengthy hearings and detention, while avoiding burdensome consequences like re-entry prohibitions for migrants. Federal data on voluntary departures is only available beginning in 1927, but Goodman finds records from as early as 1907.
This mechanism was largely applied to Canadians and, increasingly, Mexicans. Mexican labor migration to the U.S. took off in the early 1900s as Asian migration was reduced. After the 1917 Immigration Act implemented literacy tests and a head tax for formal entry, unauthorized migration from Mexico surged, and with it, voluntary departures. Between 1918 and 1921, nearly two-thirds of deportations took the form of voluntary departures, the vast majority of them to Mexico.
Raids and Returns
The Great Depression triggered widespread anti-immigrant backlash, with racist calls for mass deportations in the press and much-publicized federal raids on “homes, churches, picket lines, public spaces, bars, dance halls, and pool halls.” Not long after, the Bracero Program (1942-1964) was launched to meet wartime demand for Mexican labor, bringing hundreds of thousands of migrants to the U.S. After the war, as documented and undocumented Mexican migration continued to grow, the media fanned the flames of anti-Mexican sentiments. In the summer of 1954, the notorious Operation Wetback sought to expel undocumented migrants and expand the entry of contracted braceros.
Throughout these major mid-century deportation operations, voluntary departure and fear campaigns to incite self-deportation became the “dominant mechanisms of expulsion,” and Mexicans became the primary target of immigration enforcement. The campaigns involved few formal removals, but they provoked the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from the U.S. Goodman notes that voluntary departures constituted more than 90 percent of the six million expulsions executed between 1927 and 1964, a figure that does not include the unquantifiable number of self-deportations that also took place in this period.
Voluntary departures first surpassed formal deportations in 1942, when the Bracero Program’s implementation prompted a surge in migration. In 1954, some 30,000 deportations were recorded, and more than a million voluntary departures. That year, officials also relied on a national media campaign to encourage self-deportation, announcing the coming execution of Operation Wetback with great fanfare. According to Goodman, “Operation Wetback was not a campaign grounded in hearings, formal proceedings, and the airing of Mexicans’ cases and rights; it was mass deportation on the cheap, by whatever means necessary, in hopes of establishing the INS’ authority and pushing unauthorized laborers into the Bracero Program.”
Punishment and Profit
“By the 1920s, deportation had become a business,” writes Goodman. Brutal, unsafe conditions for deportees were a product of the profit motive, but also evidence of “deportation’s retributive and disciplinary nature”—despite the courts’ affirmation to the contrary: “Not only was deportation punishment; frequently, punishment became the point.” Goodman reviews the use of private contractors to expedite deportations, from shipping companies to railways and airplanes. By 1951, three 60-passenger Flying Tiger Line planes were making nightly deportations runs between California and Guadalajara. But the airlifts were expensive, and the Immigration Service turned to Pacific Greyhound to bus deportees to the border, where Mexican officials would shuttle them south in chartered trains.
To make deportation a more effective deterrent, authorities contracted ships to ferry Mexican migrants far beyond the border. Goodman tells the story of two Mexican companies contracted by the U.S. to ship deportees from Port Isabel, Texas 550 miles south to the Mexican state of Veracruz between 1954 and 1956. The ships were not designed for passenger transport. One company would haul commercial freight—bananas—north and take human cargo south. To win the boatlift contracts, corporations instated miserable, dangerous conditions to suppress costs. This inhumane environment was no secret to U.S. officials, who “hoped the conditions on the ships, along with the destination deep in the Mexican interior, would traumatize migrants and deter future unauthorized migration.” Goodman recounts the harrowing experiences of Mexican deportees in this period. The boatlifts came to an abrupt end following a “mutinous uprising” on board over the deportees’ treatment and the boat’s conditions, resulting in widespread denunciations in the press and prompting the Mexican government to terminate the arrangement.
Mass Expulsion and Incarceration
Goodman identifies the period from 1965 to 1985 as the formative years for today’s regime of mass expulsion and mass incarceration of migrants. 1964 marked the termination of the Bracero Program and 1965 the implementation of quotas for immigration from the Western Hemisphere. He argues that “unlike the episodic deportation campaigns during the Great Depression and early years of the Cold War, the unprecedented magnitude and regularity of enforcement actions marked a break from the past and the dawn of a new era.”
The broader political-economic context of this pivotal period is instructive. Starting in the 1970s, global capitalist economic restructuring in response to recession forged the accumulation regime we now call neoliberalism, and the consolidation of what researchers like Raúl Delgado Wise theorize as el patrón migratorio neoliberal or neoliberal migration system). The restructuring converted the peripheral economies of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean into labor reserves for U.S. capital. Under the new, asymmetrical relationship, this racialized, super-exploitable labor became a systemic part of the deindustrializing U.S. economy. The labor was exported indirectly, in the form of low-wage maquiladora assembly plants, and directly, in the form of mass migration. At the same time, the dependent economies of the periphery became reliant on the outflow of migrant labor and the inflow of remittances to ease unemployment and supplement the miserable wages imposed by the new worldwide race-to-the-bottom.
Key to the migration regime edified in this period was the reproduction of what Nicholas De Genova terms “deportability,” which created a fearful, compliant class of cheap, disposable laborers rendered vulnerable to expulsion from the U.S. The growing criminalization of undocumented migrants did not necessarily serve to end migration flows nor to purge migrants from the U.S., but rather to ensure their unequal insertion in a stratified U.S. labor market. As a result, the undocumented population in the U.S. continued to grow despite increased enforcement.
A Nativist backlash accompanied this process. Goodman gives us a glimpse of the rampant anti-Mexican racism within the INS. He also points to the “devastating” consequences of this system for Mexican migrants, who faced increasing persecution from law enforcement and demonization in the press. The author stresses the disciplinary effect of the increased enforcement, like INS raids on Los Angeles garment factories in the 1970s.
97 percent of the expulsions in this period took the form of voluntary departures to Mexico. Recourse to voluntary departure was largely a cost-saving measure in the face of the enormous volume of apprehensions. But by creating a so-called “revolving door” effect at the southern border it also helped facilitate the supply of cheap migrant labor to U.S. markets. Goodman notes that by 1985, 35 percent of deportees had at least one previous expulsion.
Of course, migrants fought back. Goodman recounts the Immigrant Rights Movement’s “growing resistance to deportation at the dawn of the age of mass expulsion” in the 1970s, especially in the workplace. The author highlights the work of grassroots groups like El Centro de Acción Social Autónomo-Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA) in Los Angeles, which fought INS racial profiling and “employer sanction” bills, organized public protests against raids and mistreatment, and ran know-your-rights workshops for migrants. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), which began to include undocumented workers in 1975, and the Comité Obrero en Defensa de los Indocumentados en Lucha, fought workplace raids and abuses. He explores the organized response to a 1978 INS raid on an L.A. shoe factory following a unionization drive, in which contesting coerced voluntary departure signatures proved vital for eventual legal victories.
Goodman marks 1986 as the start of a steady increase in enforcement and criminalization that set the stage for what he terms “the deportation machine’s punitive turn.” That year, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which granted legal status to some three million undocumented migrants, but enacted employer sanctions, prioritized so-called “criminal aliens” for deportation, and increased funding to the Border Patrol.
The mid-1990s saw the implementation of a new enforcement strategy. “Prevention through deterrence” did not dissuade migration. But by tightening controls near populous border towns, authorities forced migrants to rely further on dangerous and costly smugglers, while driving them deep into the wilderness, causing thousands of deaths. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded the scope of deportability, broadened the use of detention, accelerated formal deportation proceedings, and limited judicial discretion. That same year, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act eliminated due process rights for the undocumented, while welfare reform barred them from accessing most public benefits. Enforcement and criminalization surged again following the September 11, 2001 attacks, including the targeting of Middle Eastern, Muslim, or Arab migrants, the dramatic expansion of the Border Patrol, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
Importantly, Goodman reveals that when we include voluntary departures, total deportations actually fell over the course of the 21st century after peaking in 2000, as formal deportations began to overtake voluntary departure as the preferred mode of expulsion. This turn to formal removal was accompanied by the privatization of migrant detention. By 2011, formal deportations were the majority of expulsions for the first time since 1941. This shift constituted, according to Goodman, a “radical break from the past century of immigration enforcement policy and practice.”
Theorizing the Crisis
The contemporary regime of mass deportation and exclusion is in many ways a continuation of past trends signaled by Goodman’s research: a consequence of the preceding decades of expanding enforcement and criminalization, including the implementation of Secure Communities in 2007. But in other ways, it marks a qualitative shift, attributable in part to the global economic crisis and recession that destabilized the prevailing modes of financialized neoliberal capitalist accumulation and, with it, the corresponding patrón migratorio.
For researchers like Tanya Golash-Boza, mass deportation—and, I would add, exclusion—constitute a repressive state response to the crisis, a violent strategy to forcibly transfer racialized relative surplus population to the global periphery in order to accommodate migration patterns to the shifting demands of U.S. capitalist accumulation. The broad transformations in U.S. immigration enforcement strategies and of migrant populations themselves in the post-crisis period lend credence to this argument.
In the wake of the crisis, the population of undocumented migrants in the U.S. fell after decades of steady growth, due in large part to an exodus of Mexican migrants during the recession. The new primacy of formal deportation over voluntary departures meant more severe consequences for deportees, including re-entry prohibitions, making expulsion more final. The externalization of migration controls to Mexico, which as Goodman notes predates to the 1980s, saw an enormous boost in 2014. By 2015 Mexico was deporting more Central Americans than the U.S. itself. Trump’s asylum prohibitions, the “Remain in Mexico” program, and Safe Third Country agreements have only exacerbated these trends. The population of migrants apprehended at the Southwest Border, once predominantly undocumented, single, male Mexican job-seekers, has been increasingly comprised of Central American women and children asylum-seekers: in Fiscal Year 2019, CBP reported 280,288 “single adult encounters” in the Southwest border region and 457,858 “family unit encounters.” 98 percent of those families were from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.
Goodman writes that “the machine’s mechanisms have largely remained the same over time and have functioned in unison, though at different levels at distinct moments.” Indeed, his research makes clear that the current migration regime of mass deportation and exclusion was not crafted by Trump, and that its roots extend deep into the 20th century. Nevertheless, his own work reveals how the last decade of U.S. migration history marks a critical departure from post-1965 and even post-1986 realities.
The 2008 collapse and its aftermath threatened neoliberal capitalist accumulation and upset the migration relations that have bound peripheral economies to the U.S. empire for decades. Today, the Covid-19 pandemic has destabilized markets and migration once again, while Trump takes deportation’s “punitive turn” to new heights. The history presented in The Deportation Machine dispels widespread presumptions about deportation and its deployment over time, providing us with new tools to interpret our present crisis. The better we understand the mechanics of mass expulsion, the better we can fight it.
Hilary Goodfriend is a doctoral student in Latin American Studies at the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM). She is a member of the NACLA Editorial Board.