The US Deportation Machine Undermines Workers’ Rights

Adam Goodman

Despite America's self-image as a land of immigrants, over its history, the United States has deported more people than any other nation in the world. Yet migrant workers have found ways to sabotage the deportation machine to win their dignity and rights.

An ICE agent detains a man. / Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

On May 17, 1978, forty investigators with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the precursor to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), raided the Sbicca shoe factory in Los Angeles. Less than a week earlier, the factory workers had voted in a union election filed by the Retail Clerks Union. The election was still under review when the INS came rolling in “like gestapo,” in the words of one union organizer.

The INS that day was relying on tactics US authorities had developed over more than a century of expelling immigrants: detain and deport targeted groups (especially Mexican workers) without due process, before broadcasting news of such actions (and potential future actions) to terrorize other immigrants into leaving the country or receding further into the shadows.

Only this time, the immigrants refused to play their parts.

Rather than being coerced into signing away their rights, more than sixty of the 119 workers arrested by the INS insisted on speaking with lawyers from the ACLU and elsewhere. The workers’ recalcitrance, bolstered by the support of the lawyers, union, and wider community, gummed up the works of the otherwise whirling deportation machine. Buses carrying the workers en route to Mexico were halted, all of the workers who wanted to stay were released from detention, and those who took their cases to court beat the INS by invoking their right to remain silent.

Adam Goodman recounts this story of successful resistance in his book, The Deportation Machine, a history of the US’s often-brutal immigration policy. Contrary to tales of the US as a welcoming nation of former immigrants, Goodman finds that the country has expelled more people than any other nation in the world. And the beneficiaries have been business interests, who rely on the immigration system to coerce, control, and divide immigrant laborers from the rest of the working class.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Goodman about how the US built its deportation machine and the ways that immigrants and other workers have learned to fight back.

Arvind Dilawar

Much of The Deportation Machine is dedicated to revealing how the United States has expelled many, many more immigrants through so-called “voluntary departures” and “self-deportations,” rather than formal deportations. How do you define these three categories — voluntary departures, self deportations, and formal deportations?

Adam Goodman

A startling discovery sparked my interest in writing this book: The United States, the so-called nation of immigrants, has deported more than 57 million people since the 1880s. That’s more than any other country in the world.

Yet we know very little about the vast majority of these expulsions. Journalists and scholars have focused most of their attention on formal deportations, which have typically been by order of an immigration judge. These expulsions have often involved immigration hearings, prolonged detentions, and lots of paperwork. (This has become less true in recent years, as officials have limited noncitizens’ rights by streamlining more than three-quarters of all removals.) But formal deportations represent only a small sliver of total expulsions from the country since the late nineteenth century.

My book reveals that deportation without due process has long been the American way. The overwhelming majority of expulsions — around 85 percent during the past 140 years — have happened via an administrative process euphemistically referred to as voluntary departure. I say euphemistically because there is nothing voluntary about these fast-track deportations, which occur after authorities apprehend someone and then coerce them into leaving the country without fighting their case.

Voluntary departure has played a similar role in the immigration enforcement system as plea bargains have played in the criminal justice system. For noncitizens facing harsher consequences if formally deported, including multiyear or even lifetime bans on reentering the country, voluntary departure has represented the best of all the bad options before them. For the US government, these expedited expulsions have served as a cost-saving measure by minimizing the number of hearings and detention-related expenses. The machine wouldn’t function without them.

Public officials and ordinary citizens have also orchestrated self-deportation drives to effect expulsions at different points throughout US history. The idea here is to make people’s lives so miserable that they decide to pick up and leave, often without ever coming into contact with an immigration agent. The tactics deployed to spark self-deportation include fear mongering, mass immigration raids, the strategic use of the media, restrictive local and state laws, and violence or the threat of violence. The Trump administration relied heavily on such strategies, whose origins date back to before the founding of the country.

Arvind Dilawar

As you relate in your book, the United States was waging a racist, anti-Mexican deportation campaign called “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, while also expanding the Bracero Program for Mexican guest workers. In the eyes of the state and business interests, what was the relationship between the Bracero Program and undocumented Mexican workers?

Adam Goodman

I should first note that authorities have disproportionately targeted Mexicans for deportation since the 1910s. I crunched a bunch of numbers from government reports and discovered that nine out of ten deportees from the United States have been Mexican. That’s astounding and has to do with the persistent demand for Mexican labor, as well as the racist policing practices that have created and reified the stereotype of Mexicans as prototypical “illegal aliens.”

In the middle of the twentieth century, government officials preferred braceros to undocumented workers because they wanted to regulate Mexican labor migration. During the Bracero Program’s twenty-two-year history, from 1942 to 1964, the US and Mexican governments issued more than 4.6 million short-term contracts to upwards of four hundred thousand workers, mostly in agriculture.

The terms of the Bracero Program were favorable to employers, which resulted in widespread abuses that should serve as a warning about the problems inherent to many guestworker programs. Still, many employers probably preferred undocumented Mexican laborers to braceros, since they could exert even more control over them. Employers’ desire for cheap, exploitable labor and the number of Mexicans seeking out better-paid opportunities far exceeded the number of bracero contracts available. In some parts of Mexico, there were as many as twenty aspiring braceros for every available contract. So many people crossed the border without documents.

We should be careful here not to create artificial divisions between “good” and “bad” migrants. Many Mexicans, including some I interviewed, migrated regularly over the course of many years, sometimes as braceros and other times without authorization. The bottom line is that employers wanted Mexican labor and Mexicans needed work, regardless of whether they had a bracero contract.

As unauthorized migration increased, US authorities ramped up their enforcement efforts. The simultaneous rise in labor migration and deportations left some people scratching their heads. “This Mexican business mystifies me,” one of the pilots hired to transport workers and deportees told a reporter in the 1950s. “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.”

Arvind Dilawar

Labor unions played a changing role in the United States’ history of deportations. Radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World were early targets of immigration, moderate bodies like the AFL-CIO supported anti-immigrant efforts, and finally the mainstream labor movement came around to defending immigrant workers. Why do you think the relationship between unions and immigrants changed over time?

Adam Goodman

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, many labor unions saw guestworkers and undocumented workers as a threat to the rights, wages, and conditions of their members. Organized labor’s staunch opposition to the Bracero Program, combined with public outrage about the abysmal treatment of Mexican workers, contributed to officials’ decision to phase it out.

But in the mid-1970s, as overall union membership declined, some labor groups shifted their position on undocumented workers and started recruiting them into their ranks. As a leader within the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union said at the time, “We’re trying to organize all unorganized workers. It’s not of interest to us what their status is except their status as exploited workers.” By organizing undocumented workers, unions expanded their labor protections and also empowered them to defend themselves from punitive immigration policies.

I show this in the book by tracing the incredible story of a group of sixty shoe factory workers who, after being apprehended in an early morning immigration raid in suburban Los Angeles in 1978, fought against the deportation machine and won.

Arvind Dilawar

The Deportation Machine illustrates how business interests were able to profit from the deportation of immigrants via government contracts for their detention and transport. How much of the United States’ immigration policy is influenced by the profit motives of such businesses?

Adam Goodman

We need to recognize that perverse economic incentives have played an important role in shaping and implementing immigration policy. Over the course of the twentieth century, state policies criminalized migrants and turned deportation into a lucrative business.

Many people have heard about the growth of the private immigration detention industry in recent years. Far fewer know about the history of the US government contracting private transportation companies to move noncitizen detainees within the country and to expel them across international borders. I show how the companies’ desire to maximize profits and the government’s wish to minimize expenses led to inhumane conditions aboard the buses, trains, boats, and planes used in these operations.

Many transportation companies treated deportees as human cargo. I trace the story of a private Mexican shipping line in the mid-1950s that took bananas north to the United States, then made the treacherous, two-day return trip south across the Gulf of Mexico with hundreds of deportees packed into the same ships. US officials deported nearly 50,000 Mexicans this way over a two-year period.

These expulsions also served another purpose: to punish migrants in hopes of discouraging them from returning to the United States in the future. This policy was a precursor to later prevention-through-deterrence strategies, such as the militarization of the US-Mexico border in the 1990s and the separation of Central American children from their parents in recent years.

The toxic combination of profit motives and punishment has exacted an extraordinary physical, psychological, and material toll on migrants. Though we cannot calculate the cumulative impact of such policies, this history makes clear the urgent need to radically reimagine an immigration system that has subjected generations of noncitizens — and a significant number of citizens — to state-sanctioned violence.

Arvind Dilawar

How have immigrants been able to defend themselves from “the deportation machine?” Do you see a change in effective tactics over time? What’s been most successful?

Adam Goodman

Part of my interest in writing this book was to help us better understand how the deportation machine works and how people have defended themselves against it in the past, in hopes that it might prove useful to immigrants and their allies in the present or in the future.

People have been fighting against the deportation machine for as long as it has existed. Many of the tactics they’ve turned to have remained the same during the past century and a half: taking to the streets and to the courts, engaging in bold acts of civil disobedience, organizing know-your-rights workshops, orchestrating sophisticated media campaigns, and pushing for legislative change and executive action to protect all people from expulsion.

The deportation machine has been, is, and will be vulnerable. Activists have to identify which strategies are best suited to a particular moment. Though the machine’s weak points have changed over time, at least one thing has remained the same: sustained organizing and broad-based solidarity are preconditions for effective resistance.