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

Beth C. Caldwell
Kimberly Beaudreau

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 Kimberly Beaudreau (University of Illinois at Chicago) Published on H-Migration (August, 2020) Commissioned by Nicholas B. Miller (Flagler College)

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Beaudreau on Caldwell, 'Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico' (2019)

In Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico, legal scholar Beth C. Caldwell raises the important question of what happens when legal definitions of citizenship conflict with individuals’ sense of belonging. In doing so, she untangles legal identities from social and cultural ones, and explores themes of membership and exclusion as defined by American jurisprudence and by deportees and their family members. Caldwell combines original research and legal analysis to explain the spike in deportations in recent years and to examine the gap between immigration policy and its implementation. She also turns to people’s life experiences to identify possible legal challenges to inhumane policies and enforcement practices. The book’s title highlights the incongruity of deporting individuals who self-identify with the collective identity of the United States, the country from which they are being deported.

Caldwell’s prior work as a public defender in Los Angeles and the more than one hundred interviews she conducted in Mexico provide the evidentiary basis for her findings. This approach provides her with a deep understanding of both the deportation process and its aftermath. Deported Americans is based on a series of longitudinal interviews in which Caldwell followed a group of fifteen deportees over a period of five to seven years. She prominently features six individuals, which helps delineate how their post-deportation lives have unfolded as well as how they have adapted to their new lives in Mexico. Caldwell’s understanding of deportation stems not only from her professional career but also from her own mixed-status family and the removal of her husband’s relatives. In this sense, her personal connection to the story places her alongside the myriad others who worry about and deal with the consequences of deportation on a daily basis.

Caldwell adeptly intertwines historical and legal analysis throughout the deportation narratives she presents. Doing so provides important context as to how the US immigration system has changed over the past several decades and how such changes have led to an increase in mass deportations. Two important examples are the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Together, these pieces of legislation expanded the list of crimes defined as aggravated felonies, thus making them removable offenses, and eliminated judges’ discretion to assess how expulsion would affect potential deportees and their families.

Caldwell focuses specifically on the stories of those who have been deported as a result of criminal convictions. She does so in order to “push back against the totalizing narrative that frames the lives of ‘criminal aliens’ as less valuable” (p. 6). The narratives presented demonstrate the human costs of framing an expanding population within the immigrant community as disposable. One such example is Edgar, who was deported for making verbal threats. Because this crime is categorized as a crime of violence, it was classified as an aggravated felony and led to his deportation. The 1996 law’s restrictions on judges’ discretionary authority prevented Edgar from making a strong argument against his removal despite having attended public school in Southern California, not having any immediate family members in Mexico, and having a US citizen wife and two children.

The reverberations of deportation extend widely, affecting not only individuals targeted for removal but also their family members. Caldwell delineates how because courts have determined that deporting the spouse of a US citizen does not violate the Constitution, the consequences of spousal deportation are numerous. Rather than facing separation from their partners, thousands of predominantly Latina US citizens have left the United States after their spouse’s deportation. Other mixed-status couples live near the US-Mexico border so that the citizen or resident spouse can cross the border and work in the United States. Deportation often takes a toll on marriages. While Edgar’s wife and children visited him in Mexico for the first few years after his deportation, the long drive and lengthy wait to cross back into the United States led to less frequent visits. The stress of deportation ultimately led to their sixteen-year marriage falling apart. Children also experience lasting consequences as a result of their parents’ deportation. While most stay behind in the United States, many leave the country to stay with their parent(s). The trauma children experience in the context of their parents’ deportation “can lead to mental health problems, poor school performance, and behavioral problems” (p. 131). This is often the case regardless of whether or not children join their deported parents. To address the problems inherent to the current system, Caldwell proposes judicial and legislative reforms, such as restoring judges’ ability to balance the state’s interests with those of the deportee.

Caldwell’s research makes important contributions to a myriad of studies on the effects of deportation. By examining the impact of deportation on individuals themselves, as well as their spouses and children, Caldwell builds on the research of Roberto G. Gonzales, Joanna Dreby, Tanya Golash-Boza, Luis Zayas, Naomi Glenn-Levin Rodriguez, and Deborah Boehm. However, Caldwell’s influence also extends into scholarship regarding immigration law, race-making, and citizenship and identity. Perhaps most important to Caldwell’s research is Daniel Kanstroom’s work. By using oral interviews to contextualize Kanstroom’s analysis of deportation as a long-used legal tool to control immigrants’ lives that is used with increasing crudeness in a globalized but xenophobic world, Caldwell is able to truly show the deep and far-reaching impacts of deportation. Finally, her work contributes to key discussions on race-making and notions of American citizenship by conversing with scholarship by Mae Ngai, Natalia Molina, Kelly Lytle Hernández, and Hiroshi Motomura. This allows Caldwell to establish the ways articulations of identity are crucial to understanding the plight of those who are deported despite feeling as if they belong within the territorial borders of the United States.

The stories Caldwell tells are important on many levels. By bringing to light the experiences of deported Americans and their families, she provides insight into the tension between US immigration law and the lived experiences of deportees. Caldwell’s book also expands understandings of social membership beyond classifications of citizenship to include “people, places, institutions, and cultural references” as well as an internal sense of identity (p. 159). At the core of understandings of deportation and belonging is a disconnect between formal, legal dimensions of citizenship and psychological understandings of socialization markers. Viewing deportation through a lens of identity, Caldwell argues, validates the social membership of deportees raised in the United States. Deported Americans is an elegantly written and well-conceived book that makes an important contribution for academics, policymakers, and legal practitioners interested in understanding the causes and consequences of deportation policy.

Citation: Kimberly Beaudreau. Review of Caldwell, Beth C., Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico. H-Migration, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL:

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