Book Review: The Deportation Machine. America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants

Adam Goodman

The Deportation Machine. America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020, ISBN: 9780691182155, 323 pp., $29.95 / £25.00)

The Deportation Machine is an analysis and discussion of the deportation regime developed in the United States of America (USA) in the nineteenth century. As Goodman explains, the book “reveals how public officials have assembled well-oiled deportation machines, propelled by bureaucratic self-interest as well as the concerns of local communities and private firms. It is a book about how authorities have used the machine’s three expulsion mechanisms – formal deportation, voluntary departure, and self-deportation to exert tremendous control over people’s lives by determining who can enter the country and regulating who the state allows to remain” (p.2). The book also discusses “how undocumented immigrants and their allies have endured, adapted, and resisted, taking to the streets and the courts to demand their constitutional rights and challenge what they have considered being unjust laws and inhumane treatment” (p.2). For Goodman, expulsion is a strategy adopted by the communities and states to affirm “control over populations that fall within their borders” (p.2).

The book comprises six chapters and an epilogue that mainly focuses on Trump’s presidency, and there is a note on sources and language and acknowledgement. The book is based on the research conducted by Goodman over a decade in twenty archives in the USA and Mexico, interviews with deportees, activists, lawyers, union organisers and immigrant officials. These sources, along with US and Mexican newspapers and periodicals, have been used to depict and provide a deep and detailed historical analysis of the deportation regime in the USA.

In chapter one, Goodman traces the origins of the deportation machine in the anti-Chinese sentiments developed in the nineteenth century, especially on the West Coast and related to the growing presence of cheap Chinese labour between 1850 and 1870. Chinese migrants were considered a threat to the nation. This anti-Chinese sentiment was then ruled in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act “barring the immigration of Chinese labourers for ten years and establishing grounds to deport” (p.13) those Chinese migrants residing unlawfully in the USA.

In chapter two, Goodman focuses on voluntary departure and anti-immigrant campaigns in the twentieth century. This chapter is a detailed discussion of the deportation during the Great Depression in the 1930s and Operation Wetback in the 1950s. Goodman focuses on Mexican migrants, who, after the Chinese migrants, were those who had been the target of the laws and further restrictions on migrant communities. As the author pointed out, it is unclear how many Mexican migrants were deported during the Great Depression. Still, it marked a strong collaboration between the different stakeholders, such as the local, state, and federal officials who “contributed to the repatriation of as many as half a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans between 1929 and 1939” (p. 46). Operation Wetback, which started in 1954, aimed at regulating “the flow of Mexican agricultural labourers by reducing the number of unauthorised migrants and increasing the number of braceros” (pp. 52-53). This operation started after the Bracero Program in 1942, which led many Mexican migrants to work temporarily in the agricultural sector in the USA. The Operation Wetback represented an opportunity for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) “to boost its reputation, build morale among its officers, and solidify its place within the federal bureaucracy” (p. 71).

Chapter three offers an insight of the public-private relationships in managing the deportation of migrants. As Goodman states, “examining the physical process of deportation offers important insights into both the history of the immigrant experience and immigration policy” (p. 73). The rationale behind this chapter is to clearly illustrate that deportation was a business for the public as well as for the private operators and that their relationships “have also decisively shaped enforcement practices, with devastating consequences for migrants” (p. 74). In the chapter, Goodman provides a very meaningful discussion of how migrants’ deportation and the process itself were mainly based on the idea that punishment and profits were much more important than the migrants’ well-being.

In chapter four, Goodman highlights the contours of what he calls the age of mass expulsion. Between 1965 and 1985, thirteen million deportations were carried out by the INS and mostly targeted Mexican migrants. The author emphasises the crisis, the pressures, and contradictions of the migration system, and he “argues that the nation’s ongoing demand for cheap migrant labour and the INS’s increasing dependence on voluntary departures and immigration raids between 1965 and 1985 normalised the deportation machine both at the border and in the interior making the possibility of deportation an everyday reality for many, if not most, undocumented immigrants” (p. 109). Because of these constant raids especially against Mexican migrants, they decided to take “to the streets and the courts in increasing numbers, where they demanded civil and human rights for all and insisted on ethnic Mexican’s belonging” (p. 133).

Chapter five is a detailed discussion of activism and resistance in the streets and in courts against deportation. By focusing on the resistance to deportation during the age of mass expulsion, Goodman “argues that the tireless efforts of immigrants and activists helped to build solidarity and empower the undocumented community, in turn limiting the effectiveness of voluntary departures, INS raids, and fear campaigns meant to scare people into the shadows or out of the country altogether. They challenged the basic idea that being undocumented automatically implied deportability. And through their resistance, they helped determine the civil rights of noncitizens, while also defending immigrants’ dignity and redefining belonging in ways that transcended legal status and citizenship” (p. 135).

Chapter six is a detailed discussion of deportation and incarceration in the era of militarised borders. Goodman argues that the “criminalisation of migrants. The growth of immigration detention and concurrent militarisation of the border meant that deportation represented a more permanent separation than ever before. Immigrant activists, advocates and allies employed an array of protest strategies in response” (p. 168). This chapter focuses on how deportation has become one of the main features of migration policy in the USA, both under the Republican and Democratic presidencies. 

Goodman’s book is outstanding research on how the deportation regime developed in the USA. His book sheds light on how migrants’ deportation originated from prejudices of a few and propagated quickly to the entire society. Migrants represented a threat to a socio-economic system that was consolidating, and, for this reason, they were perceived as an obstacle to the full economic and social development of American society.

In conclusion, the book represents an important source of information on the deportation that occurred in the USA since the nineteenth century. It is not only a very informative, useful, and relevant book for those scholars interested in understanding migration in its historical, political, economic, and social implications but also a book for those who are interested in understanding the deportation process and how it works. The book is a discussion that offers an insight into the evolution of American society.

Dr Gennaro Errichiello

Senior Teaching Fellow
Department of Politics and International Studies
SOAS University of London (UK)

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