Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation

Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation

by Deborah Boehm

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Returned follows transnational Mexicans as they experience the alienation and unpredictability of deportation, tracing the particular ways that U.S. immigration policies and state removals affect families. Deportation—an emergent global order of social injustice—reaches far beyond the individual deportee, as family members with diverse U.S. immigration statuses, including U.S. citizens, also return after deportation or migrate for the first time. The book includes accounts of displacement, struggle, suffering, and profound loss but also of resilience, flexibility, and imaginings of what may come. Returned tells the story of the chaos, and design, of deportation and its aftermath.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520962217
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #39
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Deborah A. Boehm is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women's Studies/Gender, Race and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans.

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Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation

By Deborah A. Boehm


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96221-7



Your government is throwing everyone out! — Raúl

"You've heard, haven't you, about los deportados [the deportees]? There are many who have returned. It seems you are sending us all back!" Mariela was tidying the house as we spoke. She walked into the courtyard, threw some food to the dogs there, and came back inside. Her joking tone quickly passed: "Quién sabe que van a hacer ... ¿Quién sabe? [Who knows what they are going to do ... Who knows?]." When I first went to rural Mexico to conduct fieldwork in 2001, everyone in the community was talking about migration north — a family member who was there, plans for one's own migration, life on the other side. Years later, the conversation had shifted notably. Now as people welcomed me into their homes and chatted with me at community gatherings, they had a common topic on their minds: return to Mexico and the experiences of deportees who had arrived in recent months. As Mariela said, the future of those who had been deported and their loved ones was indeed uncertain.

Beginning with my first conversations with migrants — during research about the ways that migration affects family life — transnational Mexicans have repeatedly expressed a desire to "go and come," to move freely between the two countries. This has been more or less a possibility at different points in history, as demonstrated by generations of Mexican migration to and from the United States, but movement has always been in some way defined, controlled, facilitated, and/or prevented by the state. As a result, the mobility and immobility of people between Mexico and the United States over time has directly served the state. Even when movement has been relatively open, the terms have been set by the U.S. government.

What does it mean to return in the context of deportation? How can we understand departures and destinations in this disorienting milieu? Deportation touches many lives and includes multiple forms of return: being returned, returning, "returning" for the first time. The return of deportation can be removal, forced migration, return migration, exile, displacement, or homecoming. Although states enact deportations as supposed returns, the very notion of "return" is problematic. Is return a revocation? A regression? A reinvention? As I demonstrate, deportation by the state reverses, or undoes, several processes. Removals, and the multiple forms of return that follow, upset the geographic direction of transnational migrations, confuse temporal narratives, strip communities of a sense of security and well-being, deunify families, separate couples, disorient young people, and problematize — and in the end, erode — citizenship and de facto membership in the nation. The difficulty of assessing removal's multiple effects rests in large part on the disappearance of its subjects from the geographic and social scene, its official emphasis on unidirectionality, and the overwhelming right and power of the state and its apparatuses. Yet removal's dis/order and dismantling can be traced through returns, as people go to and come from nations north and south.


The many forms of transnational movement I describe throughout this book begin with deportation, expulsion, or "removal." This is return by force — the act of being returned — carried out at the borders of the nation and from places within the country's interior. Since the 1990s, deportations of foreign nationals from the United States have been on the rise. Mexican nationals make up the largest number of individuals identified by DHS as "deportable aliens," foreign citizens who may be deported. The statistics tell a story of increasing removals, with record highs, for example, of 478,000 foreign nationals detained in 2012 and more than 438,000 people removed in 2013. Removals — forced returns carried out by the state — are ever more common, in the United States and elsewhere.

As a result, the number of deportees and other returnees living in Mexico grows as people arrive each day. The many statistics on deportation reflect the experiences that I witnessed during research. In 2001, when I first went to a Mexican farming community with approximately three hundred inhabitants, I heard people talk about only a few cases of deportation in the area, but I knew no one personally who had been deported. In 2008, six people had been returned. In 2010, nearly twenty community members had been deported from the United States, and in 2011, as a year of fieldwork came to a close, more people continued to arrive after long stretches in el norte. The numbers of family members who have returned with or followed deported loved ones, as well as those who have come back because of the increased risk of deportation in the United States, are much higher than those the government categorizes as "officially" removed, changing the character of communities throughout Mexico.

As the number of removals grows, so do the legal consequences. DHS distinguishes between "removal" and "return": removal is what is commonly understood as deportation, a legal process with "administrative or criminal consequences placed on subsequent reentry owing to the fact of removal"; return is "not based on an order of removal." According to DHS, the majority of "voluntary returns" are those of Mexican nationals who are apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents and then sent back to Mexico. Notably, these supposedly voluntary returns have declined, while removals, or formal deportations, have reached a record high. In other words, "returns" as they are officially defined are decreasing, while deportations or "removals" — with their accompanying legal ramifications — are ever more common.

Current deportations of Mexican nationals must be considered "within a long historical frame" of migration between Mexico and the United States. Previous "returns" to Mexico have frequently been forced, for example, the "repatriation" of Mexican (and U.S.) nationals after World War I (1920-23), during the Great Depression (1930s), and through Operation Wetback beginning in 1954. In addition, many other forms of return have been understood as "voluntary," such as seasonal migration, although, as is evident through the returns of removal, this forced/ voluntary dichotomy inadequately captures the many complexities of transnational movement over time.

For Mexican nationals, and for those with ancestral ties to Mexico, the U.S. government's systemic removal of people living within its borders is both reminiscent of and a departure from mass deportations of previous eras. Although return and involuntary removal are familiar processes for Mexicans, since the mid-1990s return migration to Mexico has taken on a shifting character. According to oral histories I conducted, migration and return were relatively open from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. In fact, many migrants received amnesty under the Special Agricultural Worker provisions (SAW I and II) of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. However, the U.S. Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (1996) — which systematically criminalized undocumented migration — and the government's response to the events of September 11, 2001, have set the stage for the current increased control of undocumented migration through deportation.


When Mariela described the many people being "sent back," she listed first those who were returned by the U.S. government. But as she talked more about the uncertainty in people's lives, she also described the networks of family members affected by removal and the many other forms of return that accompany deportation. She spoke of the young children of one deportee and concerns surrounding their father's ability to provide for them now that he had been expelled from the United States. She told me about a man whose teenage daughter had just arrived in their small town, against her wishes, more than a year after her father's deportation. Mariela captured the uncertainty for those who are returned but also for those who return, who come to Mexico for the first time, or, because of age, gender, or other aspects of subjectivity, who may never migrate to the United States but depend on the migration of others. Deportation alters many lives, even those of individuals who have never gone north.

In 2008, the state government of Zacatecas began a program called Por los que regresan / For Those Who Return. The program provided grants to aid migrants returning from the United States. The funds were directed to small development projects that would benefit return migrants and their local communities; for example, grants could be used to start a business or to make improvements on a home that a family returned to after a long period away. When I spoke with program administrators, I noticed the fluidity of the broad category "those who return." The program, according to staff, was to provide assistance to any resident of the state who had previously lived outside of Mexico, including return migrants, deportees, or those who had lost jobs in the United States and come back to Mexico looking for work. By grouping returnees with different motivations and experiences, the state government seemed to recognize the diverse meanings of return for its residents and the difficulty of delineating specific categories.

Indeed, migrants and those connected to them experience the return of deportation in many ways: this includes being returned — return as deportation — and returning — return because of deportation. Artemio was returned, removed from the United States by force. This is deportation as expulsion by the state. As "immigration and criminal law converge," deportation can take on diverse forms. In this age of "crimmigration," types of removals are expanding: expedited removal (which bypasses the legal proceedings typically associated with deportation) or removal through judicial processes, deportation from the country's interior or at the border, deportation after or without detention, returns labeled "voluntary" by DHS, removals of individuals, mass deportations through programs such as Operation Streamline, and so on.

Alongside those who are returned are the many transnational Mexicans who also return or who migrate across the international boundary for the first time. These returns are more difficult to track, as they are not easily or generally accounted for in statistics. There are those who return because of the deportation of another, such as Mexican citizens who go back to their nation of origin when a loved one is forced to do so. In addition, there are other Mexican citizens who return after the deportation of a family member, though because they first migrated at a young age, they may have no memory of or little connection to Mexico as their homeland. In this case, "return" is an especially problematic and paradoxical label. In addition, many of those who are affected are U.S. citizens, confounding popular understandings of deportation as a process that expels only persons who are not formally recognized members of the nation. After deportation, the U.S. citizen children and partners of deportees frequently move south. And there are U.S. citizen children — usually very young — who are sent by their parents to live in Mexico because their parents are undocumented in the United States and fear their own deportation. Thus many U.S. citizens who accompany deportees to Mexico have never been to Mexico, placing them in the curious position of "returning" for the first time.

"Deportability," or the threat of deportation, also produces migrations south as individuals and families return because of a pervasive climate of fear among unauthorized migrants in the United States. This kind of preemptive return has been tagged with the politically charged label "self-deportation." As many former migrants told me, "Ya no vale la pena" — with fewer jobs and increased risk of incarceration and deportation in communities throughout the country, it may be "no longer worth the effort" to stay in the United States. And finally, there are forms of return that while not caused by deportation, are nonetheless part of the broader context of an increasingly commonplace "going" and "coming" of north-south movement. Such returnees might include a retiree — a previous bracero and U.S. permanent resident — who plans to spend his retirement in Mexico; a labor migrant who returns because an economic crisis makes work scarce; an elder in the community who dreams of returning "home"; or even the bodies of Mexican nationals who have requested that they be "returned" to Mexico after death.

Just as deportation moves widely through families and communities, so, too, does my research. I focus on the multiple forms of return that deportation produces, from the forced expulsion of deportation itself to the supposedly "voluntary" north-south migrations and de facto deportations of U.S. citizens that are driven by the U.S. government's removal of people living within its borders. My analysis focuses on those who are deported and the many people who experience deportation even if it is not technically their own — partners, children, siblings, and parents of deportees — as well as members of communities to which returnees go or come. The reach of deportation is so extensive that it is impractical and unfruitful, if not impossible, to consider deportees in isolation. The fallout of deportation is profoundly damaging. It upends families, unnerves people without formal status in the United States, and frightens those who have ties to undocumented migrants. I consider these many diverse experiences as I piece together the story of return.

Throughout the book, I draw on the lived experiences of interlocutors to demonstrate how people go and come through force or will, move and stay, migrate to some locations or find themselves unable to relocate to others. As their experiences show, tracking emergent processes and experiences of return enables us to begin to document the larger impacts of deportation and its intended and unintended, official and unofficial consequences and effects. I consider the multiple ways movement takes place or is channeled, forced, controlled, or prevented by the state. The very categories or terms for return and those who return — deportees, migrants, returnees — are shifting and not easily assigned. The return and movement of transnational Mexicans is disorienting, as people describe "here" and "there" as unfixed places. These forms of movement can be arrivals as well as departures, passages to multiple destinations, or border crossings in both directions. Narratives of "going" and "coming" capture the chaos and uncertainty of return. Tracing such narratives and the trajectories they describe are a way to follow those forced to leave a nation, and the many others who leave with them.


The accounts of deportees and those close to them do indeed focus on uncertainty. Mariela's question, "¿Quién sabe?," was echoed in nearly every conversation I had with interlocutors about return. On the one hand, Mariela's words indicate the unpredictability of migrant experience and the economic and social precariousness of undocumented migrants: anyone might be targeted for removal, and all may be affected in some way by the experience of deportation. On the other hand, her repeated phrase is almost an ironic evocation of the certainty of the trajectories of those who are targeted for removal. Exceptions are rarely made within the current legal system, and so the paths before and after removal are, sadly, common to many. Uncertainties of time, geography, and immigration status thus permeate processes of removal that are themselves conceived of in terms of ineluctability, certainty, and unidirectionality.

This erasure of presence has effects elsewhere and close to home, wherever "home" might be located. Constructions of "illegality" and "deportability" in one nation-state can perhaps best be understood by extending an analysis of deportation to migrants' nations of origin or current nations of residence. Legal categories formulated in the United States circulate transnationally. Ethnography among deportees is especially fruitful in explicating processes that may be difficult for researchers to "reach," including "vast institutional machinery — consisting of local jails, prisons, detention centers, INS and FBI surveillance and interrogation, transport, and more." Because the impact of U.S. immigration policy extends well beyond the boundaries of the nation — and beyond any one individual — a primary objective of the book is to examine its effects in multiple contexts and in the lives of the many people touched by deportation.


Excerpted from Returned by Deborah A. Boehm. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Chaos  1. Destinations
 2. Alienation
 3. Violation
 4. Fragmentation
 5. Disorientation
 6. Reinventions
 Epilogue: Lost

Acknowledgments 153 Notes

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