Hansen on Caldwell, 'Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico'

Beth C. Caldwell
Tobin Hansen

Beth C. Caldwell. Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. xii + 232 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0390-8; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0360-1.

Reviewed by Tobin Hansen (University of Oregon) Published on H-Diplo (November, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54241

Deported Americans is a well-crafted ethnographic and legal analysis of the US government’s deportation of Mexican-born adults who came to the United States before age thirteen. The exponential rise of interior deportations from the United States in recent decades has increased the expulsion of long-time US residents, such as those considered here. Beth C. Caldwell calls these people “deported Americans” to highlight their identification with the nation that they consider home. In emphasizing the mismatch between their juridical identities (“Mexican”), on the one hand, and their social and cultural orientation (“American”), on the other, Caldwell rejects rigid conceptualizations of belonging as merely a function of legal status. She claims instead that the law exists in relation to social context: family, language, education, employment, community, economy, and civic life. The book shows the interconnectedness of law and society by presenting immigration law and enforcement practices as changing and constructed phenomena, deportees’ narratives of social inclusion in the United States, and their experiences of social marginalization in Mexico. Deported Americans argues forcefully and effectively for consideration and understanding of social dynamics in shaping legal belonging in the US nation.

Caldwell’s experience as a legal practitioner, legal scholar, and ethnographic researcher permits original insights. As a public defender in Los Angeles in the mid- to late 2000s, she became unsettled by an uncanny phenomenon: the immigration consequences that many of her clients suffered seemed more severe than the criminal punishments. Later, in the 2010s, Caldwell’s work on another project throughout Mexico led her to see firsthand the opposite end of deportation processes, as she encountered increasing numbers of people whom she calls “deported Americans.” She began to systematize examination into their experiences via semi-structured interviews. Thus, Caldwell’s study began the way that many of the best ethnographic studies do—she stumbled into it. 

This thin volume taps into a prodigious archive of 112 semi-structured interviews that revolve around family and migration history, experiences of being processed through the US government’s vast deportation apparatus, and perceptions of everyday life before and after deportation. Deported Americans benefits not only from the number of interviewees but also from longitudinal depth, as Caldwell was able to conduct repeated follow-up interviews with a core group of fifteen deportees over a five-to-seven-year period. This richness permits a keen sense of the lives of these deported people, known in the United States as “1.5-generation” immigrants. They are so called because their birth outside the United States renders them technically of the first generation, whereas their significant cultural identification with, and socialization within, the United States approximates that of the second (US-born) generation. Caldwell’s interlocutors are English-dominant speakers who attended US schools and became enmeshed in US communities and families.

The book sketches prominent mechanisms for identifying, apprehending, and expelling noncitizens, for example, local police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Criminal Alien Program’s identification of noncitizens in jails and prisons. It is at its best, however, when explaining the intricacies of US immigration law, historically and contemporarily. Caldwell meticulously describes the legislature’s and judiciary’s roles in establishing the machinery of expulsion.

To explain today’s behemoth immigration enforcement system, Caldwell points to a series of legislation. Immigration control intensifies with the 1986 Immigrant Reform and Control Act, 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and 1990 Immigration Act, and builds to a crescendo with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, both passed in 1996. These laws expanded the categories of crimes considered “aggravated felonies” in immigration law (many of which are misdemeanors, such as shoplifting, in criminal codes), instituted fast-track administrative deportations, and, perhaps most significant, narrowed the discretion that immigration courts could exercise in particular cases. Caldwell provides a clear, comprehensive overview of how legislative changes, especially those of 1996, restricted judges’ ability to consider individual cases and make legally sound and intuitively moral determinations. This nullified administrative criteria that, since the 1970s, had mandated consideration of family ties to the United States, length of residence, and the potential hardship of deportation on a noncitizen or their family, among other factors. 

Caldwell grounds present-day enforcement in historical context. Deported Americans links past approaches, explicitly race- and gender-based, to noncitizen exclusions with today’s practices, which, on the surface, appear race and gender neutral. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, sought to achieve the fiction of racial “purity” and maintain the ideal of whiteness. At that time, selective immigrant admissions were determined on racial grounds but deportation was not a regular practice. In fact, deportation’s very constitutionality was, in the late nineteenth century, as yet undetermined. Caldwell provides a cogent summary of the contemporaneous Supreme Court decisions on which the fulcrum of deportation history teetered, with the fate of future noncitizens in the balance. In the 1889 case Chae Chi Ping v. United States and the 1893 case Fong Yue Ting v. United States, the Court placed sharp limits on its own powers to conduct judicial review of deportation cases. In recognizing congressional authority over immigration as part of Congress’s national security purview, the Court enshrined the so-called plenary powers doctrine, ceding to the legislature consideration of immigration matters.

The contemporary construction of Mexicans, racialized as nonwhite, as the preeminent “illegal immigrants” perpetuates the logics underpinning historical exclusions of foreign Others. The Supreme Court has reaffirmed this thinking in recent decades, in United States v. Ortiz (1975) and City of Indianapolis v. Edmond (2000). “In 1975,” Caldwell asserts, “the Court wrote of the ‘silent invasion of illegal aliens from Mexico,’ and in 2000, an opinion expressed concern for the ‘northbound tide of illegal entrants into the United States’” (p. 25). “Comparing Mexicans to threatening invaders,” Caldwell continues, “is reminiscent of the reasoning the Supreme Court used to uphold the Chinese Exclusion Act, a parallel that demonstrates how invasion rhetoric is employed to perpetuate racial subordination” (p. 25).

Gender, in addition to race, has constituted a key social identity category with legal implications for noncitizens. From the 1850s to the 1930s, legal mechanisms formally stripped women of their US citizenship when they married foreign nationals. Thus, women’s subjectification to the sovereign became legally disrupted by the notion of heteronormative, patriarchal subservience to husbands. Caldwell again makes a cogent connection with contemporary deportations. In demonstrating ethnographically the difficulties of relocation to Mexico in order to maintain family unity, she argues that spousal deportation therefore presents a Hobson’s choice—most commonly to wives of deported men, since men make up around 90 percent of all deported people. In today’s gendered deportation regime, Caldwell states, “citizens whose spouses are deported lose access to fundamental privileges of citizenship” (p. 117).

In the second half of the book, Caldwell describes, as the subtitle Life after Deportation to Mexico suggests, the impact of US immigration enforcement on social life across temporal, spatial, and politico-legal divides. Caldwell’s depictions of deported people’s experiences are modest yet pointed. She discusses the gut-wrenching “choices” that deported people’s significant others, children, or other family members must make between staying home in the United States or moving to Mexico and becoming de facto deportees themselves. The book delves into the desolation of family separation—and the depression, drug addiction, and social alienation that may accompany it—as well as, conversely, the difficulties of relocation to Mexico in search of family unity. The latter includes the struggles of English-dominant children in adjusting to Mexican public schools and of significant others in adapting to an unfamiliar economic, civic, social, and cultural life. Moreover, only 4 of Caldwell’s 112 respondents reported having immediate family ties in Mexico. Fewer than 1 in 4 had contact with extended family and, strikingly, the majority could not identify any family in Mexico (p. 58).

The narratives of post-deportation life do include, however, more than hardship. The book also captures the trajectories of a minority of deported people who view their situation as another chance at life. They flourish, building small businesses or making the most of unique professional possibilities available through English-language education, English-language tourism, and Spanish-English call center work. While these stories are infrequent, Caldwell is unflinching in neither overemphasizing them nor neglecting the possibilities some have for achieving well-being that these narratives reflect.

In the final chapter, Caldwell proposes judicious policy recommendations that need to be seriously considered. The detrimental effects of deportation on deported Americans’ pursuit of a good life in Mexico, as Caldwell documents, compel her reconsideration of immigration law. Caldwell urgently advocates for a harm-reduction approach for immigration enforcement. With the backdrop of acute intensification of immigration enforcement since 1996 having been set out in previous chapters, she argues not so much for a departure from historical deportation practices as for a return to the long period of US immigration policy that was less consumed with interior expulsions, wherein a “balancing test” would determine the state’s interest in deporting an individual and pathways for returning to the United States are established (p. 181).

Social membership forms the foundation of these inclusionary recommendations. Caldwell sets forth “four theories of social membership based on 1) identity, 2) affiliations, 3) contract, and 4) the exercise of rights” (p. 154). Each has merit. Identity comprises the subjective sense of belonging with co-members. Affiliation refers to living in concert with others and sharing the places, activities, and values of local and national communities. Caldwell outlines the compelling case that while noncitizens are not explicitly made permanent members of the nation, the encouragement of Mexican noncitizens to labor in the United States constitutes an implied contract. Lastly, the rights that noncitizens, irrespective of documentation status, often enjoy in the United States flow from practical access to the institutions of justice. In aggregate, these theories of social membership make a strong case that noncitizen social belonging should be legally recognized and protected.

The only aspect of the book toward which I am ambivalent is that of the label “deported Americans” itself. In asserting that these deported people “identify as Americans,” Caldwell aptly affirms their indelible bonds with the US nation (p. 50). My uncertainty flows in part from my own ethnographic work in Mexico with deported 1.5-generation immigrants, although the population that I work with is a subset of Caldwell’s—I work with men who were incarcerated in US prisons before deportation.[1] I have found that many of the people I have worked with express reticence at self-identifying as “American,” although they often assert that they are “like Americans.” In the United States, the fact of their Mexican birth, racialization as nonwhite, and recognition as linguistic and ethnic Other relegated them to oppositional social spaces and, today, greatly constrains their free self-ascription as “Americans.” To be sure, Caldwell acknowledges that national identities themselves are freighted with racial, linguistic, cultural, and social meanings. She points to the amorphousness of identity, the equivocation that surrounds assertions of being “American,” and the idea that “identifying as being American does not necessarily imply assimilation into mainstream culture” (pp. 50, 154). I appreciate the boldness of “deported Americans” as an identity category and wholeheartedly support any and all self-ascriptions of “American” by Caldwell’s interlocutors on social, cultural, and political grounds but feel mixed about Caldwell’s decisive labeling given the widespread denial of full membership to noncitizens in the United States—a denial cuttingly felt by those denied.

Despite this slight reservation, the publication of Deported Americans is immensely significant. At a time when migration patterns, deportation practices, and immigration policies have captured national discourse, it could not be timelier. The literature on post-deportation life has shone light on the disorientation and alienation that accompany deportation for long-time US residents who find themselves banished. Caldwell is the first, however, to examine this population systematically in book-length form. In underscoring the humanity of study participants, Caldwell makes a strong case that the hardships and potential for flourishing wrought by US government immigration enforcement policies must be considered. In this, she pushes back on a zealous US carceral state and the enmeshments of the criminal and immigration control regimes that discount social membership. She deliberately acknowledges the criminal offenses that, for some (primarily legal permanent residents), catalyzed their deportations. (Others, particularly undocumented people, faced expulsion following simple traffic infractions or other innocuous police contacts.) This move contests a model migrant narrative that assumes that noncitizens must achieve exceptional heights regarding educational attainment, professional prestige, or community engagement to be considered legal and social members. For Caldwell, living the ups and downs of “normal” lives, which at times includes entanglements with the criminal justice apparatus, does not diminish social membership and does not render people less American.

The vicissitudes of shared, communal life in the United States—the attachment to home and family, the bonds with classmates, the sense of place within a neighborhood and a nation—are a vibrant aspect of the book. It is in these shared regional and national ties that the humanity of the people Caldwell writes about becomes most striking. Through deft description of these ties, and authoritative legal analysis, Caldwell disentangles juridical identities from social and cultural ones. She demonstrates the ways the singular salience of legal status—critical to every contemporary conversation of immigration—has overtaken the centrality of humans as cultural and social beings, who make home where they are, irrespective of the imposition of rigid and seemingly immutable juridical identities.


[1]. Tobin Hansen, “Social Citizens and Their Right to Belong,” in Illegal Encounters: The Effect of Immigration and Deportation on Young People, ed. Deborah A. Boehm and Susan J. Terrio (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 32-44.

Tobin Hansen received his PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Oregon in 2019. He was a 2017-18 predoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for US-Mexican Studies and is an adjunct instructor of anthropology at the University of Oregon. He is currently working on a monograph that examines marginalization and the search for belonging of long-time US residents deported to Mexico after incarceration in US prisons.

Citation: Tobin Hansen. Review of Caldwell, Beth C., Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54241

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.