Rafael Rivas built his whole life in the United States. He went to school and worked as a computer network administrator in California, where he lived for twenty-nine years. But in 2013, Rafael was deported to El Salvador, the country his family had abandoned in the midst of a civil war when he was still a child.
“Sometimes, it’s lonely,” he admits. “Especially around the holidays.”
Rafael was one of more than 3 million people deported during the Obama administration, torn from his mother, his children, and his entire extended family. Joe Biden staked his presidential campaign on reversing Donald Trump’s notorious anti-migrant policies, emphasizing the horrors of family separation. But for all the talk of keeping families together, the administration’s immigration agenda has so far excluded the vast and growing population of people deported from the United States — millions of whom were torn from the arms of their loved ones under Barack Obama’s presidency and Biden’s vice presidency.
Exiled by Deportation
As the end of his ten-year reentry prohibition approaches, Rafael has been researching possibilities for returning to the United States. “I do want to go back,” he says, “not to live over there, but just to be able to see my mother before she dies. And my kids.”
But opportunities for people like Rafael to legally reenter the United States after deportation are scarce at best. Unlike “voluntary” departures, or what the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) calls “returns” (as in, a return to the person’s country of birth), deportation or removal proceedings have long-term legal implications. Historically, the number of such returns far exceeded removals, mostly targeting Mexican migrants detained near the southern border.
Under the Obama administration, however, returns became the exception and removals the rule. By 2011, formal deportations surpassed returns for the first time since 1941. From 2009 through the end of 2016, Obama and Biden oversaw record deportations from the United States, outpacing their Democratic and Republican predecessors alike.
Many deportees are banned from the United States for anywhere from three to twenty years. Others, including those convicted for unlawful reentry, can be banned from the country for life, facing up to twenty years in prison if they attempt to return. For people with criminal records in the United States, securing even a tourist visa after deportation can be next to impossible.
The number of people deported by Obama and Biden far outweighed those extended protections by stringent temporary programs like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) or TPS (Temporary Protected Status). The administration claimed to target enforcement on “felons, not families,” although more than 40 percent of those deported under Obama and Biden had no criminal convictions of any kind. But felons have families, too, and millions of migrants swept into the prison industrial complex by racist policing found themselves facing the double jeopardy of incarceration followed by expulsion from the country they called home.
The Reintegration Myth
Longtime US residents like Rafael face isolation, discrimination, and often violence in their countries of birth. One report from Human Rights Watch identified 138 deportees murdered after deportation to El Salvador since 2013, but the true figure is certainly much higher. On January 31 alone, the bodies of two men were found in San Salvador. Victims of homicide, both had been deported from the United States.
“I’ve seen so many die,” says Juan Martin, deported to El Salvador in 2008 after more than twenty years in the United States. Like so many of his peers, Juan attempted to return, only to be detained and charged with a felony for illegal reentry. “Common sense will tell you that if you live in the country for so long and you get removed, any human being in their right mind will go back.”
Far from their loved ones and isolated by social stigma, deportees enter local economies designed to export their labor, not integrate it.
“They’re sending so many people over here, and there’s no jobs,” says Willie López, deported in 2016 at the age of fifty after living in California for more than thirty years. “Among the deportees, there’s a lot of professionals, people who used to have certifications, licenses, and they’re not working in what they know.”
Biden has proposed a $4 billion plan to stem migration from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, modeled on his 2014 Plan Colombia–inspired “Alliance for Prosperity.” The plan would increase funding to strengthen “development programs” for the reintegration of deportees into the societies that they had abandoned, initiatives that usually center job training or seed capital for micro businesses. Deportee advocates are skeptical.
“It’s all the same,” says Juan Ramón Toledo, president of the Salvadoran Alliance of Returnees (ALSARE, in Spanish). He sees Biden’s proposal as yet another mechanism to control workers’ mobility and strengthen the repressive arms of local governments: “The better part of the funds will go to strengthen the three governments on the issue of security.”
Juan Ramón has good reasons to doubt US motives. Through free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA and security frameworks like the Mérida Initiative and CARSI, the United States has ensured that its neighbors remain locked into a vastly unequal relationship of exploitation, extraction, and militarization. The exodus of migrants and refugees from the region today is a direct result of this system.
Following US-led neoliberal restructuring in the 1990s, the northern Central American economies became dependent on migration: remittances from the United States comprise more than 20 percent of the GDP in both El Salvador and Honduras, and nearly 15 percent in Guatemala. This income has offset the devastation of structural adjustment, supplementing the miserable maquiladora salaries and vast informal sector that characterize deregulated Central American labor markets today.
US capital, in turn, benefited for decades from a steady supply of criminalized, racialized, cheap migrant labor to support expanding sectors like services and construction. These workers comprised what Karl Marx would call a relative surplus population, or industrial reserve army: disposable labor for imperialist capital.
In the wake of the 2007 financial collapse, deportations skyrocketed, and the United States doubled down on the externalization of migration controls to Mexico, which, since 2015, has deported more Central Americans than its neighbor to the north. But migration from those countries continued to grow throughout the recession, increasingly comprised of women, children, and entire families fleeing a crisis-plagued region.
In this context, the promise of deportee reintegration in their countries of origin rings hollow. All the more so for those with deep roots in the United States, many of whom migrated as children and were never integrated in their countries of birth to begin with. Reintegrating these exiles into their communities would mean bringing them home — to the United States.
“I’m a grandpa now, and I don’t know my grandkids,” says Willie. “They damaged lives. Not just mine. Everything that I worked for, for like thirty years, they took it away from me.”
“We don’t want to push just for people deported under Trump,” says Maggie Loredo of Otros Dreams en Acción (ODA), which organizes with deportees and returnees in Mexico whose criminal records or unfinished schooling excluded them from programs like DACA. “Most of the people in our community were deported under Obama.”
ODA is working with a coalition of migrant justice and advocacy groups to push for legislation that would reunite families by restoring mobility to deportees. They hope to overcome the dominant framework that privileges an exceptional, deserving few for relief while relegating most deportees out of sight and out of mind.
“The narrative everywhere is that it’s okay to deport criminals, it’s justified,” says Maggie. “A criminal background, at the end of the day, could be no [driver’s] license, but there’s this good-or-bad [immigrant] narrative that’s really hard to challenge.”
In recent years, ODA has pushed for the passage of the New Way Forward Act, designed to decriminalize migration and limit the “criminal-system-to-removal pipeline.” That bill, introduced by Illinois representative Jesús “Chuy” García and cosponsored by forty-four congressional representatives, includes a “Right to Come Home” title that would allow for the review and reopening of previously deported, returned, or excluded migrants. The American Right to Family Act, introduced by Illinois congressman Bobby Rush, also includes a measure for deported or returned migrants to apply for relief.
Biden’s return to the White House has given new fuel to these efforts. “We’ve been out of the picture forever,” says Maggie, “so it’s an opportunity to organize and create momentum.”
Over seventy-five migrant justice and advocacy organizations endorsed Washington state representative Pramila Jayapal’s Roadmap to Freedom resolution. The resolution, introduced in December by Jayapal, together with representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “Chuy” García, Yvette Clarke, Judy Chu, and Veronica Escobar, affirms the duty of the federal government to create “a just and accessible process for eligible individuals who are deported, detained, or in sanctuary to reunite with their families and communities, and return home in the United States.” Citing the resolution, a New York Times op-ed by Jean Guerrero called on Biden to offer redress to the millions deported when he was vice president.
These proposals go beyond the reforms outlined in the Biden administration’s immigration bill, which contains few measures for deported and returned communities. In a binational open letter, Mexican and US organizations called on the president “to address the reunification of mixed-status families already separated by deportation and to acknowledge their circumstances as a key element of the administration’s greater goal of unifying families.”
Bring Them Home
Rafael may have been deported under the Obama administration, but Biden’s campaign rhetoric gave him hope. “This new president, he thinks differently, and he might allow some of us to go back, based on what he’s been saying, you know, ‘don’t separate families,’” he says. “I’m thinking of writing a letter to him. ‘Cause otherwise I’ll never see my kids again.”
Holding Biden to his word has proven challenging. Already, the administration has balked at its previous commitments, most recently issuing new deportation guidelines that actually broaden ICE’s broad mandate to incarcerate and expel migrants while reopening Trump’s child migrant jails.
The Left’s task is not to plead at the doorstep of liberal imagination, but to expand the boundaries of political possibility. That means rejecting the division between good and bad migrants — and demanding for the working class the same international mobility freely afforded to capital.
US responsibility for mass migration from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean is not limited to creating the conditions that force people to flee their homes through decades of military, economic, and political interventions. US companies have reaped extraordinary benefits by exploiting migrant workers, only to cast them out en masse when the conditions of accumulation shift.
For too long, debates around US immigration reform have been confined within US borders and narrowed by discourses of deservingness and respectability. Millions of people have been exiled from their families and their communities through the lethal nexus of immigration enforcement and policing in the service of US capital. It’s time to bring them home.