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Excerpted From: Kevin R. Johnson, Immigration Law Lessons from Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico, 50 Southwestern Law Review 305 (2021) (78 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KevinJohnsonThe last few years saw deeply troubling developments in U.S. immigration law and enforcement. The Obama administration annually removed hundreds of thousands of noncitizens from the United States, which earned the President the unflattering nickname of “Deporter in Chief.” After making immigration enforcement the cornerstone of his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump, shortly after his inauguration, ushered in ever more aggressive and controversial immigration enforcement measures. He, for example, sought to separate parents from children at the border as part of a “zero tolerance” approach to undocumented immigration, cracked down on asylum seekers from Central America, and took steps--from restricting the admission of immigrants of modest means to a travel ban on the admission of noncitizens from several predominantly Muslim nations--in the name of dramatically reducing legal immigration to the United States.

With the nation having recently experienced a whirlwind of immigration changes unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is an especially fortuitous moment for publication of Beth Caldwell's book Deported Americans: Life After Deportation to Mexico. Telling the stories of deported immigrants unknown to most Americans, this succinct volume looks at immigration law from a fresh and different perspective than the dry analysis of the law typical of legal scholarship. Caldwell critically analyzes how the application of the immigration laws has changed the lives of many long-term residents of the United States, who against their will and with great personal cost, have been involuntarily removed from their homes, families, and communities. Focusing on deportees to Mexico, most of whom were removed as a result of criminal convictions, the book demonstrates for all to see the racism baked into modern immigration law and enforcement. Given that a national public outcry is demanding the end to systemic racial injustice in law enforcement, Deported Americans comes at a particularly opportune historical moment to focus the nation's attention on systemic racism in the enforcement of the immigration laws.

With first-hand accounts from deported immigrants, Deported Americans provides a much-needed education about the human impact of immigration enforcement, mass detention, and deportation of immigrants. As Beth Caldwell acknowledges, “[a]lthough the troubling consequences of the U.S. deportation regime are visible virtually everywhere on the Mexican side of the border, they remain largely invisible to most people on the U.S. side.” Hundreds of thousands of deportations threw equal numbers of loving families into turmoil, with many U.S. citizen spouses and children effectively removed from the country with the deportation of a parent/spouse. Other families are torn apart when a parent/spouse is forcibly returned to his or her country of birth--involuntarily exiled from this country and from family, jobs, and community--while the rest of the family remains in the United States. Despite the devastating impacts on people once members of the national community, both Republican (the so-called “family values” party) and Democratic (the party frequently maligned by critics for allegedly favoring “open borders”) political leaders have supported the large-scale removal of “criminal aliens” with impunity.

Deported Americans is nothing less than a primer for Americans on the impact on Mexican lives of the U.S. government's enforcement of the immigration laws. Through her incisive analysis, Beth Caldwell highlights several fundamental deficiencies in the U.S. immigration laws that warrant most serious attention. She does so in a sophisticated and even-handed fashion, without preaching or writing with the hyperbole all-too-common in the public discussion of immigration.

This essay highlights insights to be gleaned from Deported Americans about the realities of the contemporary immigration system in the United States. At a most fundamental level, Caldwell convincingly demonstrates the horrendous impacts of the criminal removal system on long-term Latinx members of the national community and the long overdue need for far-reaching reform.

[. . .]

In Deported Americans, Beth Caldwell's interviews and incisive analysis offer much insight into the impacts of U.S. immigration laws on the lives of long-term U.S. residents, Americans under any ordinary definition. Her analysis makes it clear that campaign slogans for increased immigration enforcement are not simply words but battle cries for violence against people of color. Real human lives are torn apart. Real people are affected. Real--and enduring--human damage is done. The law currently not only allows but itself imposes such injuries. Needless to say, reform of the immigration laws that recognize the impacts of removal on human lives does not appear to be on the immediate horizon. One can hope that Deported Americans will open minds, help to redirect the national debate over immigration, and lead to reform of the immigration laws in ways that better account for the basic humanity of immigrants.

Dean and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies, University of California at Davis, School of Law.

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