The boats were stiflingly hot in the day and freezing cold at night. Much of the upper deck was exposed to the elements, leaving passengers drenched by rain and high waves during storms. Some preferred this to belowdecks; here, passengers were squeezed in like sardines, well beyond standard capacity, in a dirty hold that was meant to store bananas for transport, not people. No beds or bunks were provided, so they used life jackets as pillows, if they were lucky enough to find any. Seasickness was a constant companion. Some jumped overboard, preferring to try their luck at swimming to shore or just wanting to end their misery more quickly.
In the 1950s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) partnered with private companies and the Mexican government to use these “hell ships,” as one newspaper called them, to deport 10s of thousands of Mexican immigrants, shuttling them across the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Veracruz. The practice ended only after a fateful journey, in 1956, in which deportees mutinied and several passengers lost their lives jumping overboard. This drew attention from the Mexican press and American lawmakers who pushed for investigations. In defending the “hell ships,” US government officials pointed to the “character and type of individual being transported.” Under this logic, they felt it acceptable to cram migrants into inhumane conditions because, as one official noted, “the wetback, by and large, has never been accustomed to the necessities of life, much less luxuries.” And officials were up-front about the intentional trauma inflicted: such a journey, they stated, “served to teach [the migrants] a lesson.” The INS commissioner was almost gleeful in his assessment: “They get out and they get seasick and the boat lift is the most salutary thing that we have hit on yet.”
Much of the outrage against the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and people of color (and its flouting of ethical norms generally) centered on a rallying cry: “It’s not normal.” But two recent books remind us that Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy was not an aberration; instead, it was the logical outgrowth of more than a century of racialized exclusion and casual brutality in the treatment of migrants. Adam Goodman’s The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants and A. Naomi Paik’s Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding US Immigration for the Twenty-First Century both demonstrate that the United States has a long history of state-sanctioned cruelty, all in the name of immigration control. The story of the INS boatlifts, as recounted in Goodman’s book, is just one such episode. There are many historical precursors to putting kids in cages. As Paik asserts, “The problem is not Donald Trump. The problem is the United States of America.”
Therefore, changing the culture of dehumanization in immigration policy and enforcement, these two books reveal, is not as simple as voting nativists out of office. It will be difficult work that goes to the very notion of our national identity and our future as a country. These books provide a diagnosis and suggest a way forward toward a better future. For both, squarely facing our history is a starting point for liberation.
The consequences for formal removal have become so severe that migrants often choose voluntary departure, rather than staying and challenging their deportation.
The Deportation Machine is the first book to measure accurately the magnitude of exclusion and removal in modern American history. With painstaking archival work, Goodman tracks the true, and truly devastating, extent of removal policies. He makes an essential contribution by looking beyond the most commonly cited statistic in the field—the number of formal deportations—to include mechanisms of removal such as voluntary departure and directed expulsion campaigns.
Goodman explains how, in the early days of immigration regulation, line officers who were starved for funding hit on a cheap alternative to a full deportation hearing: voluntary departure. To an immigrant facing removal, of course, a deportation hearing did not offer much protection, but it was better than nothing. At the very least, the law required officers to provide some evidence that the immigrant was, in fact, deportable. With voluntary departure, however, officers could avoid the expense of a hearing. Moreover, they even placed the financial burden of deportation on the immigrant, who more often than not had to pay for his or her own passage.
Later, the INS formalized this practice. And then, Congress hit on a way to incentivize it: make the consequences for formal removal so severe that migrants would choose voluntary departure, rather than staying and challenging their deportation.
It was—and is—a devil’s bargain. Migrants might be able to return again someday, should they “voluntarily” depart. But in so doing, they lose all opportunity to challenge their deportation or to seek a stay of removal, to which they might very well be entitled under the law.
Voluntary departure and expulsion campaigns, Goodman makes clear, have had outsized roles in deportation policy. If we look at formal deportations alone, the United States has expelled more than 8 million people since the late 19th century. Yet if you add voluntary departures, that number rises to more than 57 million. Goodman’s data shows that, for certain decades in the 20th century, voluntary departures outnumbered formal removals by a ratio of nine to one. This stunning new accounting of the number of expulsions in our past forces us to radically revise our concept of the extent and influence of removal policies in US history.
In the 19th century, the Supreme Court stacked the deck against immigrants, when it declared that Congress had nearly unfettered power to create laws to exclude and deport. But for more than a century, immigrants, lawyers, and activists have found myriad ways to challenge this regime, sometimes just by mucking up the works.
Goodman highlights several instances of effective resistance in the 20th century, like the efforts of activists and attorneys in 1978 to halt the deportation of more than 100 workers after a raid on the Sbicca shoe factory in Los Angeles. Lawyers filed temporary restraining orders, challenging the agency’s methods, and counseled immigrants not to cooperate with voluntary departure orders. A broad coalition of groups came together in defense of the workers, including civil-liberties groups, labor organizers, and community activists. The coalition eventually won a significant victory in a class-action lawsuit, which forced the INS to provide greater procedural protections. This legal victory, combined with the efforts of the coalition to mobilize and educate immigrants about their rights, made it much harder for the government to rely on coercion and fear to accomplish removal.
But the “deportation machine” adapts. Goodman recounts how, not long after the victory in the Sbicca case, the INS altered the regulations to provide fewer protections. Congress then changed the rules of the game even further, passing new laws in the 1980s and 1990s that removed many of the remaining legal protections for immigrants and significantly expanded the number of deportable offenses.
It is these laws that have given rise to our modern era of mass expulsion. They enabled Donald Trump and xenophobes like Stephen Miller to make every immigrant a target and to accomplish this without any changes to the immigration statute itself. As Goodman shows, they are aided and abetted by the “diverse stakeholders that benefit from expulsion,” including employers, consumers, private prison companies and their investors, bureaucrats, and politicians. All these stakeholders stand to gain from a cheap and exploitable undocumented workforce, made up of individuals who are easily expelled and have almost no paths to citizenship.
There is a vicious cycle: national economic policy creates the problems that lead to the “need” for state-sanctioned cruelty against migrants.
While Goodman provides a deep dive into many aspects of the history of removal, A. Naomi Paik takes a different approach. Paik provides a bird’s-eye view of the key tropes of Trumpism: the aptly named bans, walls, and raids. And she does so while demonstrating how these tropes were not created in a vacuum but, instead, have deep roots in US history.
This synthetic, concise work is an essential primer on our current politics of immigration. Paik argues that we have failed to appreciate how immigration policy is embedded in larger structures of inequality, which themselves stem from neoliberal economic policy.
Neoliberalism, as she argues, creates the conditions for a host of social problems, since it relies on the preservation of economic inequality, both within and outside of nation-states. These inequalities spur migration, and migration spurs nation-state closure and anti-immigrant action, all in the name of sovereignty. It is a vicious cycle, wherein national economic policy creates the problems that lead to the “need” for state-sanctioned cruelty against migrants. All along, it has been a problem the state has created: the mandate to control “the illegal” comes from the state’s own definition of the term.
We create categories of difference by law, and then those categories take on a cast of inevitability and necessity. “It is the ban,” Paik warns, “that in turn establishes the need for walls, raids, and other tools deployed against the banned.” Changing enforcement policies will require rethinking those categories altogether.
While Trump’s approach to immigration may not have been totally new, his administration differed from those before him in the sheer extent of the spread of anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the system. Over the past four years, the administration not only built walls, created bans, and conducted raids. It also used focused precision to alter even the most minute and bureaucratic parts of the legal immigration system, spreading “extreme vetting” at every level. A system of legal immigrant admissions that was already exceptionally restrictive became even more so, with new procedures designed to discourage applicants and essentially bring the process to a halt. The pace of these efforts was relentless. It took a 126-page report from the Migration Policy Institute to make a basic accounting of the changes. Unlike prior regimes, which both Goodman and Paik note pitted “good” immigrants against “bad” immigrants, under Trump all immigrants were bad.
So what comes next? Voting Trump out of office was only the first step; the Biden-Harris administration will need to figure out how to roll back these changes while also establishing a new ethic.
Paik’s work here poses a key question. If we accept the same old logic—that border security requires the continued terrorizing of immigrant communities—what will really change about our immigration policy? If we do not “address the roots of anti-immigrant hatred and action,” then we will “trim the branches only to watch them grow back stronger.” We need to avoid another sort of devil’s bargain, one that assumes that humane immigration policies can come only once we have “secured our border” and locked up or forcibly removed 11 million of our fellow residents, most of whom have established roots in and contributed to their communities in countless ways.
Paik proposes a way forward—a way to disrupt this cycle—that depends on collaboration, coalition building, and what she calls “abolitionist sanctuary.” Most of us are familiar with the idea of sanctuary, used effectively by activists to challenge harsh enforcement policies by providing safe spaces for migrants. Sanctuary is powerful and evocative, but Paik argues that sanctuary alone is not enough: we also must reenvision the landscape completely to have any real, lasting change.
During the 19th century, abolitionists had to be able to imagine a world without slavery, which was hard to do when an entire global economy depended on it. Can we similarly envision a world where migrants are treated with compassion and offered justice, rather than stuffed into cargo ships and cages?
Abolitionist sanctuary combines the radical welcome of sanctuary with the transformative vision of abolition. It sees migration as linked to many other struggles for justice. It is only through collaboration and reimagination, Paik argues, that we will be able to achieve lasting change.
In a nation that is moving toward a majority-minority population, we may finally see immigration histories such as these centered at the core of our American story, where they belong, and hear a new call to transform how we treat migrants. It will put our commitment to equality and inclusion to its hardest test yet. Our most powerful civil-rights victories have been based on a sense of belonging; women and people of color have made considerable gains by appealing to their rightful place as full members of society, as part of “us” rather than “them.” How radical is it to extend this humanity to foreigners, even those who might never become “us”?
This is part of the challenge before us, as Goodman and Paik so ably demonstrate. It is all the more important to do that work now, as the world becomes more unequal and many more migrants have to flee their homes due to the climate crisis. It will require both coming to terms with the past and rethinking what we owe to others in our midst.
This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava.