Beth C. Caldwell is Professor of Legal Analysis, Writing, and Skills at Southwestern Law School and was formerly an attorney in the Los Angeles County Office of the Public Defender. Caldwell’s experiences as a public defender led her to her new book, Deported Americans, in which she tells the story of dozens of immigrants who were deported from the United States—the only country they have ever known—to Mexico, tracking the harmful consequences of deportation for those on both sides of the border.
Who are the deported Americans about whom you write? What are the most common problems they face that result in their deportation?
I use the term deported Americans primarily to refer to people who migrated to the United States when they were children (often at a very young age), who have now been deported. These are people who were primarily socialized in the United States, who grew up attending American schools, and who are more comfortable speaking English than Spanish. They’re not U.S. citizens, but they identify as Americans culturally, and others perceive them as Americans too.
The term is also broad enough to encompass U.S. citizen family members of people who have been deported—particularly the children and spouses of deportees. Although not technically deported under the law, they often feel like they too have been deported because the only option to keep their families together is to leave the United States.
Both groups refer to their experiences as “banishment” or “exile” from their homes, and they experience a range of problems that are not surprising if you imagine how it would feel to be uprooted from all that is familiar to you—from your home, your career, your family and friends. This can trigger a sense of hopelessness that can fuel mental health issues, most often depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and thoughts of suicide. It can also push some to turn to drugs to numb their pain. Family relationships often erode in the years following deportation, which contributes to these problems.
In Mexico, deported Americans are stigmatized and are not accepted by the dominant culture. They report feeling marginalized by their American accents and ties to the United States. This can trigger profound questions about one’s identity because people feel a sense of double rejection, by both the United States and Mexico.
You mention in your introduction that you did not set out deliberately to write this book, but rather stumbled upon it through your work and informal conversations with deported people living in Mexico. Can you speak more to how these experiences and relationships shaped your approach?
Since I didn’t deliberately set out to research this issue, I didn’t set out with any preconceived notions or expectations as a researcher who is testing a hypothesis might do. Instead, the project was shaped by listening to people and, in some cases, by observing people’s day-to-day interactions as they adjusted to the reality of being deported. Common themes emerged in people’s narratives. When I would speak with people in the U.S. about what I was hearing, people were often surprised. And I realized that it was important to document and share the other side of deportation, so that people in the U.S. would have to confront, or at least be more aware of, the very real harms that flow from the country’s deportation policies.
How does activism—yours and others’—shape the narrative in Deported Americans?
I consider the negative rhetoric that depicts immigrants as others—as invaders or as dangerous—to be the biggest obstacle to creating more humane immigration policies in the U.S. No amount of activism can bring about just immigration reforms as long as some immigrants are characterized as “good” and “deserving” while others are cast aside as “bad” or “criminal,” and therefore disposable.
One of the primary goals of the narrative in Deported Americans is to highlight the nuances and complexities in people’s lives in order to help readers to see that even people who would commonly be depicted as “bad” or “undeserving” have compelling stories and are deserving of humane treatment under the law. By telling people’s stories, I try to strip away the dehumanizing labels that are often applied to immigrants with criminal convictions in order to help readers to see people more holistically.
What do you think is the most surprising aspect of immigration law as it affects deported Americans?
Often, stories about immigrants focus on recent arrivals to the U.S., but many deportees are members of American families. The U.S. deported over 250,000 parents of U.S. citizen children between 2011 and 2017, in addition to many spouses of U.S. citizens. People are always surprised when I talk about U.S. citizens whose spouses have been deported. There seems to be a pervasive belief that marriage to a U.S. citizen protects people from deportation, but this is not the case. I’ve interviewed many U.S. citizens who now live in Mexico because their spouses have been deported, and others who are struggling with family separation because they have stayed in the U.S. after a spouse’s deportation.
People are also surprised by the lack of proportionality in these cases. There is a major disconnect between sentences in criminal court and the sanctions people experience in the immigration system, even though both systems are often imposing penalties on the basis of the same conduct. For example, a lawful permanent resident (otherwise known as a green card holder) could be convicted of a crime for which they are sentenced with minimal jail time and probation in the criminal justice system. But in immigration court, they could face virtually automatic, permanent deportation—with no realistic hope of ever lawfully returning to the U.S.—because of the same conviction.
Many news stories paint pictures of immigrants and deportees. What is the most important way that you think Deported Americans changes or contradicts these narratives?
I deliberately focus on sharing the stories of immigrants with criminal convictions to disrupt the pervasive representation of some immigrants as “good” and others as “bad.” A lot of people are framed as “dangerous” due to criminal convictions that really have nothing to do with whether they are in fact dangerous. And in many cases, it seems more dangerous to deport them—to separate them from their families, or to force their U.S. citizen family members to leave the United States if they want to stay together.
Harsh immigration policies that apply to immigrants with criminal convictions emerged alongside the tough-on-crime movement of the 1980s and 1990s. In many cases, the same laws that created drug sentencing policies that are now widely criticized also created draconian immigration policies. Although there is an emerging consensus that the War on Drugs was problematic, and there has been some progress to roll back some of its policies, very little attention has focused on the parallel problems in the immigration system. I hope to draw people’s attention to this issue.
In the context of arguments over the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the news about the child detention centers, how do you see conversations about deportation changing? Staying the same?
People are certainly more interested in the topic of deportation now than in the recent past. This is an interesting shift because numerically, more people were actually being deported a few years ago. I think that the more that the consequences of U.S. immigration policy come to light, the more the average American is concerned about the issues, especially when it comes to family separation. Although more attention has focused on family separation affecting people upon their entry to the United States, family separation brought about by deportation fits into the overall problem that the U.S. immigration system regularly separates children from their parents.
The issue of family separation is also directly tied to the wall. When I was first starting out my research in Tijuana, I interviewed a social worker who runs a shelter for women and children. Her shelter houses a lot of recent deportees. She was convinced that no barrier—no fence, no wall, no punishments—would stop mothers from trying to return to the United States because the instinct to reunite with their children was stronger than anything. It’s a primal instinct. Due to a long history of migration from Mexico to the U.S., which the U.S. has welcomed at many times because of a desire for Mexican labor, families are deeply interconnected across the border, and across immigration statuses. The rhetoric framing migration as an “invasion” by foreigners misses this important reality.
What do you hope readers will take away from Deported Americans?
Deportation causes a lot of harm—to both the deportees and their families, who are often U.S. citizens. It has become a normalized aspect of our society, but we should really think about whether it should be. Deportation has always been used as a tool for excluding and removing marginalized people from societies, so its roots are suspect. I hope readers will walk away from the book with lingering questions about how we might better approach the social problems deportation is currently used to address, but in a more humane way.