U.S. deportations of foreign nationals result in “disappearances” of different sorts, as people are unexpectedly apprehended by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; held in Border Patrol facilities or local county jails; placed in immigration detention centers; transferred from one location to another without notice; and physically expelled from the nation through release at the border or by chartered planes to a particular country of origin. Many of the Mexican citizens I interviewed while conducting fieldwork were deported in the dark of the night. Those who had been deported often described being taken from cells in detention facilities at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., transported to the U.S.- Mexico border, and directed to walk into Mexico, vanishing from a country that had been their home for years or even decades. Of course, most people who are deported do not actually disappear—although significantly some do—but the conditions under which many are deported underscore how, through state “removals,” individuals do indeed vanish as they are forcibly moved throughout the deportation process, jarringly taken from particular places and established lives and sent elsewhere.
Although my new book, Returned,focuses on specific individuals and families, the ethnography was not easily delineated by time, place, or community. Throughout my research, as I was writing, and even now after the book has been published, people are deported from the United States each day. As I outline in the book, parents and children are separated from one another, partners are divided, families make plans for reunification, deportees migrate again, and U.S. citizens migrate for the first time. Such chaos calls for a different kind of ethnographic fieldwork, research that, as the anthropologist João Biehl argues, can keep ‘interrelatedness, precariousness, curiosity, and unfinishedness in focus’. There are challenges in documenting deportations: these are processes that are fleeting, locations can change in an instant, and individuals and families cannot anticipate future scenarios and outcomes. When migrants’ daily lives are impacted by deportation, families are forced to respond to crisis, make arrangements in the moment, strategize ways to reunite loved ones, and move internationally with little notice.
Thus, the ethnographic study of deportation raises questions about appropriate—even possible—methods for researching the chaotic and difficult-to-follow patterns of deportation. Early on in my research, I realized that fieldwork to uncover deportation’s effects would need to include a combination of familiar methodological approaches but also new ways of conducting research, a kind of flexibility that could trace state expulsions and their impact on migrants’ everyday lives. For example, such methods meant rethinking research timelines. When I went to fieldsites in Mexico in 2008, I met several people who had been deported; this underscored the need for more extensive research on the topic. And when I returned in 2010 for a year of research as a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar, the project design again shifted to more effectively follow people as they were unexpectedly deported to and/or departed for the United States. Tracing these unanticipated migrations, I spoke with some people affected by deportation over a period of years; with others, our conversations spanned weeks or months. And in some cases, our exchanges were brief or sporadic, as people moved or were forced to move to and between different spaces. While ethnographic fieldwork is typically framed by in-depth research over time, how are researchers to capture the experiences of people who are going and coming, who are here and then gone?
One day in Mexico a friend relayed that her nephew was “back in town.”
“Back for a visit?” I asked.
“No, your government sent him back.”
Jaime had been “sent back” to Mexico shortly after his 18th birthday, deported and forced to go to a place he did not remember after first migrating north as a toddler. I had met Jaime in the United States in the 1990s when he was in elementary school, and had most recently seen him a year earlier at the wedding of a family member. Unexpectedly, Jaime and his family were among those now coping with deportation. When I saw Jaime at his grandmother’s home in rural Mexico, he described how he had been taken from the only life he had known, “disappearing” into immigration detention and, after months of waiting for a hearing, deported to his “home” nation despite the fact that Mexico was an unfamiliar place. Deportation meant that Jaime had vanished from daily life in the United States; he was attempting to reimagine his future, though now in Mexico. He helped his uncles with bean farming on the family’s land for a stretch, and spent time getting to know his grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins. He told me that he thought about again returning to the United States. His family was worried about the consequences should he be caught and some counseled against a return, but Jaime felt out of place, on the margins in his home community and country of birth.
Then, just a few months after Jaime’s deportation, his aunt told me he was “gone.”
“This time, he went ‘back’ to the United States.”
Within a brief period of time, Jaime had been “returned” by the U.S. government to Mexico, followed by his return to the only home he has ever really known. Now, while I was in Mexico and Jaime was again in the United States, our conversations were through other channels, including phone, text, and social media. Documenting the places and displacements of deportation—including deportation’s “disappearances,” unexpected relocations, and appearances elsewhere—calls for research that can follow unanticipated movement across borders and the unexpected timelines and outcomes that come directly from state action. Of course, the relocations connected to deportation, despite their fleeting character, have lasting effects. The experiences of those most impacted by deportation underscore the need for a kind of fieldwork that documents that which may be out of view and experiences that may not be easily traced. Research focused on such state-enacted chaos is one way to counter the disappearances of deportation and to ensure that migrants’ everyday lives and the effects of deportation on so many do not “vanish” or recede from view.
Note: Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation was published in May 2016 by the University of California Press as part of the California Series in Public Anthropology. The book 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 and children. 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.
Guest post by Deborah A. Boehm, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies/Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is the author of Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans (New York University Press, 2012) and co-editor of Everyday Ruptures: Children, Youth, and Migration in Global Perspective (Vanderbilt University Press, 2011). Her most recent book Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation, was published this year by University California Press.