The racial injustices of mass deportation

—Tanya Maria Golash-Boza

[This article was originally published on CounterPunch.] 

Comprehensive immigration reform, it seems, is no longer on the political agenda. It is incumbent upon us (by us I mean people committed to immigrant rights and racial justice) to put it back on the agenda. And, the focus of that agenda should be the repeal of the 1996 laws: IIRIRA and AEDPA.

Between 2009 and 2013, I carried out a research project that involved interviewing 147 deportees in four countries. One of the deportees I met, who I will call Ryan, was living outside of Kingston, Jamaica in the house of a distant relative. I will share his story with you, as it is emblematic of many of the problems with immigration law enforcement in the United States and points to the need for reform of the 1996 laws.

Ryan moved to Brooklyn, New York, with his mother, when he was six years old. There, he finished high school and enrolled in college. Things were going well for Ryan until he made one mistake that would change his life.

When Ryan was about 20 years old, he received a phone call from a friend, who asked Ryan for a ride home. As they were driving home, they came across a police checkpoint. It turned out Ryan’s friend was carrying cocaine. Ryan and his friend were found guilty of drug possession and Ryan was sentenced to 18 months in boot camp. When Ryan was released, his fiancé, his daughter, and his mother came to pick him up from boot camp.

However, Ryan was not permitted to go home with his family. Ryan was a legal permanent resident of the United States. And, he had been convicted of possession of narcotics, and thus faced mandatory deportation to Jamaica. From one day to the next, Ryan’s life fell apart.

Ryan was deported due to changes in deportation law passed in 1996 that made deportation mandatory for certain crimes. Since the implementation of these laws in 1997, over five million people have been deported from the United States.

The current period is exceptional insofar as there has never previously been a time when so many people were deported from the United States.

Five million people since 1997. That’s a huge number. It’s over twice the sum total of all deportations prior to 1997. The details of these numbers are often the subject of debate. However, no matter how you slice it, we are in a moment of mass deportation and the effects of this policy are felt in communities across this country and throughout Latin America.

A recent Pew survey revealed that over a quarter of Latinos know someone who has been deported or detained in the past year. This means the effects of deportation are reverberating far beyond these five million individual deportations.

Last year, over 100,000 people who were living in the United States were apprehended by immigration law enforcement agents and deported to their countries of birth. That is three times as many interior removals as there were in 2003. An interior removal refers to someone like Ryan who was living in the United States prior to being deported.

Over the past decade, over 200,000 people who had lived in the United States for more than ten years have been removed from this country. That amounts to the city of Rochester, New York, being depleted of its population over the course of 10 years. Or perhaps more accurately, imagine every father in San Francisco being removed from the country.

Last year, about 100,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were removed from the United States. That’s ten times as many as the sum total of all parents of U.S. citizens removed between 1997 and 2006.

Not only is mass deportation on the rise, it also targets specific populations. About 90% of deportees have been men, and nearly all (97%) are from the Americas, even though about half of all non-citizens are women and only 60 percent of non-citizens are from the Americas.

Mass deportation happens often with minimal due process. In 2009, 231 immigration judges heard more than 300,000 cases – an average of over 1,200 per judge. Dana L. Marks, an immigration judge in San Francisco explained that asylum hearings often feel “like holding death penalty cases in traffic court.”

Immigration court is a bit like traffic court. It is an administrative court without the due process protections of criminal courts. In immigration proceedings, you have no right to legal representation. You can be detained without bond. You can be deported without a full hearing. Ryan, for example, never got to tell a judge that he had come to the United States when he was six, that he qualified for and had applied for citizenship, that he was a college student, that his daughter had just been born, or even that he had no family or friends in Jamaica.

The 1996 laws took away most of judge’s discretionary power in aggravated felony cases. Those convicted now face mandatory and automatic deportation, no matter the extenuating circumstances. Even legal permanent residents like Ryan who have lived in the United States for decades, and have extensive family ties in this country, are subject to deportation for relatively minor crimes they may have committed years ago.

How do we make sense of this? Why is the United States deporting more people than ever before? Why are black and Latino men targeted? And, why are deportation laws so draconian?

In my forthcoming book, Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism (NYU Press 2015), I argue that mass deportation is best understood as an instance of racialized state repression, a practice that has a long history in this country.

The racialized and gendered nature of immigration law enforcement – specifically the targeting of black and Latino men – should be unsurprising to anyone familiar with the history of state repression in the United States. The enslavement of African Americans, the internment of the Japanese, and the mass deportation of Mexicans in the 1930s were all official state practices that targeted specific ethnic or racial groups.

In today’s political climate of colorblind racism, it is unacceptable to have a policy that explicitly targets one group. However, it is legal and acceptable to have a policy that – in its implementation – produces disparate outcomes. Insofar as deportation laws are colorblind in their language, it is legally permissible that they are discriminatory in practice.

It is thus well beyond time to change the course of history. We can start by repealing the 1996 laws.

Tanya Maria Golash-Boza is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of several books, including Immigration Nation (2012) and Race and Racisms (2015). Her forthcoming book, Deported: Policing Immigrants, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism, will be published by NYU Press in 2015.