As immigrants marked by family separation and as scholars trying to honor the complexities of a people that have been pushed out across borders multiple times, we have been trying to grapple with the sacrifices people make when they are forced to leave everything behind. Scholars Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz conceptualize the coordination between immigration and criminal laws as a deportation regime—a system built to discipline and punish people and as a way for nation-states to enact their sovereign power. This is one of the ways that the State exercises and enforces its sovereign power and the rest of us whether citizens, immigrants, refugees, or deportees experience different political subjectivities in relationship to this process. De Genova and Peutz describe deportation as “profoundly disruptive and plainly debasing for all who are immediately affected.” The perniciousness of the deportation regime is such that it is weaponized toward individuals who are targeted for forced removal or “coerced return” even as the repercussions of such actions reverberate across families. Communities, here and there, become sites where “inequalities and excesses of state power and sovereignty” are produced in everyday spaces and through quotidian social relations.[1] In this way, deportation is never contained within one territory, it is never simply uni-directional, and the consequences are never confined to one family, one clan, one place, or one country. Creating the most widespread devastation is part of what the system is meant to do.[2]

It is important to note that the U.S. government differentiates between people it places into “removal” proceedings and those who are expelled via “voluntary departure” where a person decides to leave, often because they are in danger of being placed into removal proceedings.

There are different legal consequences to each category but often there is a ban on entering the United States for a number of years. In the personal lives of undocumented people, however, the result is the same: expulsion and family separation. In this piece, we use deportation and deportees to refer to people who underwent removal proceedings and those that engaged in voluntary departure. What we offer is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis of a multifaceted process that wrecks people’s lives. Instead we hope to illustrate people’s humanity and complexity through the profiles of Ana, Michelle, Diego, and David.  They are all parents who were deported and are now organizing for their rights on both sides of the border. Throughout summer 2019, we spent many hours with Ana Laura, Michelle, Diego, and David at various organizations and events. Convivimos, spending  a lot of time with them afterwards—frequently eating, enjoying Mexico City’s delectable foods, learning about their love for tattoos, craft beers, heavy metal, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Their experiences exemplify and deviate from much of what we know about deportation because they fit the profile of those targeted but are not defeated; instead, they are often advocating for social and policy changes in both countries. As immigrants and scholars, it has become increasingly urgent for us to trace and center the types of maternal and paternal subjectivities that emerge in the context of detention, deportation, or in transit. These four people are extraordinary and ordinary. And they come from a place where we belong…

As immigrants and scholars, it has become increasingly urgent for us to trace and center the types of maternal and paternal subjectivities that emerge in the context of detention, deportation, or in transit.


In the Field

There is a moment during our interview with David when he turned to Gretel and asked her: “¿Y a ti por qué te interesa esto? ¿Y tu experiencia cuando cruzaste, como fue? [And you, why are you interested in this? And when you crossed, how was your experience?] We are interviewing him at his mom’s apartment in la colonia Guerrero in Mexico City. The answers to these questions demarcate the connections and differences between our lives. Though David is only a few years older than us, certain aspects of his life as a Mexican and as an immigrant, resemble more the experiences of our parents: he migrated in his thirties, worked low-wage jobs, and speaks limited English. As Perla heard the exchange, she couldn’t help but wonder if their paths might have crossed in the United States, after all, David lived just a few minutes from where she teaches.

Writing about undocumented immigrants who were deported or forced to return to Mexico has been emotionally challenging in ways that are surprising. We belong to a generation of immigrants whose parents were able to legalize their status through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). We met in grad school and soon realized we had a lot in common: both of us were formerly undocumented youth whose families had been economically displaced from Mexico. We were teenagers living in the greater Los Angeles area when anti-immigrant governor Pete Wilson was in office, and when California voters approved Proposition 187. We were also first-generation college students with working-poor roots and with deep commitments to our communities. We helped and supported each other through our doctoral program and have been friends for nearly 15 years. And it has been  soul-sustaining that now we find ourselves doing field work on different projects about Mexican deportees and returnees.

With time writing and research became the modalities through which we learned to speak about the beauty and pain of being part of an immigrant community. Writing and research also became locations for healing, empowerment and connection (hooks 1991). Being immigrants and the children of immigrants shaped the direction of our research. We have been indubitably beset by emotions, particularly as the nature of our returns to our place of origin has transformed from visiting family to now attending academic conferences and doing research. In the past two years, we have been moved and shaken by the individual and collective feelings that migration and deportation produce. We have become undone by the stories and the silences that have been shared in both collective and private conversations. We are fully aware that certain circumstances enabled the legalization process of our families. Yet, contrary to dominant anti-immigrant rhetoric, we know that nothing has been given to us and we have not taken anything from anybody.

As we sit across from people a few years older or younger than us, people whose voices crack when they speak of children they were forced to leave in the States, or who shed tears over being unable to be there during joyous occasions (like high school graduations and birthdays), we cry with them. We don’t try to contain nor distance ourselves in the name of objectivity. For us, research is personal and political. But it is precisely this vulnerability—part compassion, part empathy, part rage—that we offer folks because they are not simply interviewees or research subjects. We offer our vulnerability as part of our humanity, of bearing witness to their own struggles, tears, or voices breaking. This is not to say the lives of deportees and returnees only occur in pain or suffering—they are poets and writers, fighters and organizers, people working to create another world de este lado y del otro.

This is not to say the lives of deportees and returnees only occur in pain or suffering—they are poets and writers, fighters and organizers, people working to create another world de este lado y del otro.


Though we recognize our privilege, the stories of Mexican deportees and returnees nos recuerdan de qué materia estamos hechas. It matters little if we are good or bad. As a community, the truth is we have been branded. The truth is only very few in this world are privileged enough to abide by all laws, rules and regulations.  In the past two years, we have witnessed a community that cries, laughs, organizes and asserts itself against its expulsion and devaluation.  And we have been listening deeply and with intention…

Motherhood in the Context of Deportation

Ana Laura López is opinioned. She is also a good storyteller who likes the objects that decorate her desk to be perfectly aligned. She likes symmetry. Ana is also a Guadalupana who has studied Hindu scriptures.  And one of the times she crossed the border, she held a holy prayer card her mother gave her and repeated la oración al Justo Juez to ask for safety and protection. Ana Laura is a woman of faith.

Ana’s story of migration starts when she moved from Mexico City to Las Margaritas, Jalisco with her then husband. Historically, Jalisco has been one of the states with the highest migration to the US (Durand, Massey, and Zentero 2001).  Though migratory patterns started to change during the 1980s, it is there that Ana became familiar with the dynamic of circular migration, as she witnessed mostly men from different small towns leaving and coming back, particularly during religious festivities (such as La celebración de los hijos ausentes). In Ana’s case, after marrying very young, becoming a teen mother, and ending an abusive and toxic marriage, she found herself struggling economically to support her four children. It was then that Ana met a new partner, a man who facilitated her migration to Chicago in 2001. La maternidad a distancia, as Ana calls it, has marked her life. First, when she immigrated to the US and left four children with her mother. And later, when she was deported and forcibly separated from the two sons she had with her second partner. And it is at the core of her identity as a woman.

Like many undocumented immigrants, she was caught, fingerprinted, and sent back to Mexico the first time she attempted to cross the border. This is something that she never really understood as her “first deportation,” but more than a decade later it would drastically change her life as it made her vulnerable for removal.  Ana Laura firmly believes that her activism as a labor organizer with ARISE Chicago is the reason for her deportation. She was advised that in order to legalize her status, she had to do it from her country of origin.  So, she purchased a plane ticket to fly back to Mexico City from O’Hare International Airport on September 2016. However, Ana’s attempt to resolve her legal situation turned out very different. Two immigration officers blocked her way as she was about to board her plane.  She was taken to a small room, asked if she had ever been deported; they scanned her fingerprints; under-pressure and without any legal counsel, she was asked to sign some papers:  “They were waiting for me at the airport. Tell me, how many people have been deported during a flight they bought themselves?”

As the co-founder of Deportados Unidos en la Lucha (DUL), a collective that works with Mexican deportees in Mexico City since 2016, Ana Laura López has a highly visible profile; and the most basic details of her deportation case and her organizing work with DUL and against family separation can be found by googling her name. Certain comments made to some videos and social media posts also show that there are people who think that Ana must have done something wrong to “deserve” her deportation. Particularly telling are the comments that associate her tattooed body to a criminal activity or gang affiliation in the US. These comments can be contextualized as part of a global narrative about immigrants. That is, the ideological underpinnings that make possible the criminalization of deportees in Mexico are part of a broader discursive system that, as scholars have argued, constructs migrant bodies as social threats across borders. This criminalization or “basurización,” as Varela Huerta underscores, takes place whether migrants are in transit, in detention, or in a deportation process, or whether they are returnees or asylum seekers (2015). But patriarchal ideologies and gender norms also make Ana an easy target of condemnation. As a transnational mother and now a deportee mom, she deviates from everything that we have been taught makes a “good Mexican woman” and a “good mother.”

Ana understands that distance, time, and other factors did not help her to have a strong relationship with her older daughters and son. But hopes that the distance produced by her deportation does not have the same impact on her relationship with her two younger sons who still live in Chicago. As she explains:

Hay cosas que yo solamente me las guardo para mí. Pero, por ejemplo, ser mamá de [mis dos
hijos más pequeños] lo disfruto mucho y es muy liviano. Y ser mamá de [los cuatro más
grandes] es muy pesado. Muy frustrante y, muy pesado. Muy, muy muy pesado. Y me duele
porque a los seis los quiero mucho y quisiera que fuera la vida muy diferente. Pero pues
lamentablemente sé que haberme ido ocasionó esto porque mis hijos quedaron en manos de
otras personas. Yo me pongo a pensar que diferente hubiera sido si mis hijos hubieran
crecido conmigo. Tendrían otra vida y eso es un hecho. Sería una vida muy muy diferente. Y
yo creo que eso es lo que también ellos reprochan. [Me dicen] "nuestra vida sería muy
diferente si tú hubieras estado". Y yo sé que sí es cierto, pero también ellos tienen que
entender que eso ya no lo podemos cambiar. Y que sus vidas pueden ser diferentes el día que ellos quieran. Su niñez ya no se pudo cambiar. No lo podemos hacer, pero sí pueden ser
unos adultos conscientes de que su vida puede ser diferente ahorita en el momento en que
ellos decidan hacer las cosas diferentes.

There are things that I keep to myself.  But for instance, have really enjoyed being the mom of [my two younger sons]; it has been easy.  On the other hand, mothering [my four older children] is very heavy and, at times, very frustrating and very heavy.  Very, very heavy. And it hurts because I love all six of them very much. And I wish life were different; unfortunately, I know this happened because I left them and because my children were raised by others. I often wonder how different things would have been if all my children had grown up with me.  As a matter of fact, they would have a different life. It would be a very, very different life. And I think that is precisely what they reproach me:  [They tell me] “our life would be very different if you had been here.” And I know that is probably true; but they have to understand that we are not going to change the past.  And that their lives can be different the day that they choose to make their lives different.  I cannot change their childhood.  We cannot do that. But they can be conscious adults who understand that their lives can be different right now, at this very moment if they decide to do things differently.

And while leaving one’s children to look for better opportunities does enable some immigrant women to structure their narrative around family separation in somewhat positive ways, there are ruptures, as Ana Laura mentions, that are often irreparable and that have long lasting effects on both parents and children.

Ana Laura honors her name:  She takes life with grace (Ana) and embodies strength  (Laura). She survived domestic violence in Mexico, a country with one of the highest feminicide rates. In Chicago, she organized with her co-workers and fought for unionization in a country that thrives by hyper exploiting the labor of immigrants. On the one hand, Ana struggles to reconnect with the son and daughters she left in 2001. On the other, she uses social media to stay connected and mother her two teenage sons who live in Chicago. In spite of it all, she refuses to stay put, to be quiet. She has spent the past 4 years organizing along other deportees to make both the Mexican and US governments accountable for the economic, social, and immigration policies that produce the separation of families and make people expellable (and expendable)across nations.

Across Mexico City, Michelle is also working toward change. She likes to unwind by stopping at a local bar and trying out a new craft beer. She likes dancing and is willing to trek to her favorite taco spot on a whim. She also likes to travel throughout México and is known for taking a weekend trip on short notice. She is a mother who is thankful to her mother who is raising her son as Michelle lives out a lifetime ban from the United States.

Michelle (like Ana) was deported after living in los Estados Unidos for more than a decade. But the first part of her story of migration resonates more with our stories, as she immigrated at the age of 5 with her mother in 1992 to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She finished high school in 2005 and started going to community college. But then she thought, “what’s the use?” As an undocumented student, she knew she couldn’t apply to many scholarships. This meant that a future post-community college was quite uncertain. Thus, she left for Mexico.  In hindsight, she says, “era muy naïve, like, I was just tired.” Before leaving Tulsa, she didn’t research what she would need to enroll; and when she tried to enroll in a Mexican university, they asked her for documents that were notarized and apostilled. This was quite a common occurrence in Mexico when Michelle returned. The Mexican government believed that as returning citizens they did not encounter obstacles to getting identification cards or copies of birth certificates, something that became a Sisyphean task if anything was incorrect or incomplete or if a person had to travel to the specific location where they were registered as infants. And without the proper papers—and here there are resonances to the importance of papers for undocumented people in the United States—they cannot rent housing, get a job, get healthcare, or get an education. People like Michelle, who sought to enroll in university, faced uphill battles in terms of getting transcripts validated and courses recognized since Mexico high school curriculum does not have anything comparable to  U.S. courses like “social studies.” Although the Mexican government has passed federal legislation meant to remedy these issues, there are massive disparities from state to state (Garrido de la Calleja and Anderson, 2018).

After nine months of trying to enroll in college, Michelle decided to return to Tulsa. She had one failed attempt to enter the country but she was successful on her second try and continued her life. Upon her return she got involved with a Honduran man who was deported when she was six months pregnant. She had the baby and in 2010-2011 went back to community college. There she heard about DREAM Act Tulsa, an affiliate of United We Dream, and got involved in organizing; she became so involved she put college on-hold again in order to dedicate herself to the movement. After a couple of years of full-time advocacy, she returned to community college.

In 2013, she was a student-mom and living with a Mexican American boyfriend who was physically abusive. During one of the many violent attacks, he hit her so hard he split her ear. Michelle filed a restraining order against him but her peers in DREAM Act Tulsa  encouraged her to drop the case. A few days later, when Michelle went to get some belongings from his apartment, they got into an argument about the restraining order. He said it could negatively affect his future and in anger she said, “fuck you!” In response, he drop-kicked her. Then, he dragged her through the apartment, eventually he was choking her. As everything was going black, Michelle remembered she had his knife in her pocket and she took a swing. A neighbor called the cops and, panicked, Michelle left the apartment. A few hours later, she went to a women’s shelter but to her surprise the cops were searching there for her so they could arrest her: “They [the cops] asked if I wanted to tell my story and I was afraid I was gonna get tripped up so I said no, I need to talk to a lawyer. He [the ex-boyfriend] gave his side of the story and that’s when I knew I was gonna be screwed—that it was going to be my word against his.”

Michelle was charged with a felony and she took a plea. The criminal case was closed within a month; but the felony conviction meant that Michelle was deported with a lifetime ban. Five years passed before Michelle could hold her son again.  In 2018,  he was finally able to spend a few weeks in Mexico City.  Though they chatted regularly via FaceTime, he didn’t recognize her when she went to pick him up at the airport. During that visit,  Michelle had to tell her son that she had been deported because he thought she had abandoned him. Today, she is attending college, proudly getting good grades, planning her son’s next visit, and organizing for migrant rights again. Both school and activism give her purpose. As she explains,  “I have a purpose again, that’s how I feel. I had the same feeling over there, that I was helping the migrant community…. Like, the only thing I wish that didn’t exist was family separation. Maybe for other people who didn’t have a criminal case, public policy needs to change because it causes a lot of trauma for kids and for adults. Some form of visas that would allow people to visit their families.…Even with a lot of restrictions, paying fees, whatever. Or go to funerals. It really sucks to not be there for special moments.”

Domestic violence has played a big role in both Michelle’s and Ana’s lives.  And in both cases, put them in situations that culminated in forms of displacement and precarity. Ana’s decision to divorce her physically abusive husband made her economically vulnerable, a situation that eventually set the stage for her migration to the US. In Michelle’s case, her actions, which were not recognized by the court as self-defense, led to her deportation. While Ana’s transnational motherhood has been structured first by migration and then deportation, Michelle experienced displacement as a young child. And like many undocumented Mexican children, transitioned into an adulthood constricted by her legal status. When Michelle refused to be a victim of domestic violence, the patriarchal (and deporting) state failed to “protect” her. The experiences of undocumented and deported mothers render visible the ways in which the patriarchal state produces conditions of possibility for variegated forms of gender violence, witnessed through labor, economic and migratory polices, as well as domestic and sexual assault laws and penalties that frequently affect women negatively across borders (Fregoso 2003). But Michelle’s and Ana’s stories also reflect the ways in which activism has played a monumental role in their lives, helping them to recraft themselves and challenge the very forms of violence that they have experienced in both the United States and Mexico.

The experiences of undocumented and deported mothers render visible the ways in which the patriarchal state produces conditions of possibility for variegated forms of gender violence, witnessed through labor, economic and migratory polices, as well as domestic and sexual assault laws and penalties that frequently affect women negatively across borders.


Other fatherhoods and deportation

Though there is a substantial amount of literature about the emotional and economic aspects of transnational motherhood, much less has been written about the experiences of migrant fathers and family separation.  There seems to be a lack of work that addresses the emotional toll that migration or deportation has had on immigrant men. Previous studies on transnational families  have centered spousal separation and the consequences it has had on the women who stayed behind, on the one hand,  and transnational motherhood as an alternative maternity that disrupts traditional notions of mothering, on the other (Montes 2013).  Transnational migration and family separation do enable alternative masculinities. Yet, immigrant fathers have not received the same type of attention. Instead, migrating men are often reduced to responsible breadwinners who undertake a treacherous journey in the service of the family or men who forget about their loved ones once they are in the United States. In this sense, they are not given the benefit of a more complex personhood. These constructions of migrant fathers coincide with the ways in which hard working ethics and the figure of the provider are central to hegemonic or dominant masculine identity.  But what happens after deportation when men are not able to perform such an ascribed gender norm?  They might face feelings of failing, as both men and fathers, since they no longer meet societal expectations to be financial providers. And, yet, even such a discussion erases migrant men’s emotions or their emotionally complex inner-worlds.  In the context of deportation, the men we talked to were torn-up, aching for the kids they had to leave behind. In our conversations with Diego and David, we talked about some difficult subjects but they were most quiet and pensive when talking about being apart from their kids and how they are missing out on everyday activities like being home when they return from school.

Diego identifies as an indegenous Totonaco from the state of Hidalgo who loves the store Hot Topics.  We spent a lot of meals with him —eating tacos and comida corrida. We also frequently visited his printing studio which was also his home—a modest one-bedroom en la colonia obrera. Though sparsely decorated, he has a teapot he had in the United States along with pictures of his kids. The rest of the space is taken up by the machinery he needs for his screen-printing business. While he works on orders, he blasts a range of music from country to heavy metal depending on his mood.

One morning in 2016, he passed a driver’s license check point when he was taking his five-year-old son to breakfast near his home in Dalton, Georgia. Diego didn’t have a driver’s license which was the reason they detained him in the first place and when they ran his prints, his case was flagged because of a conviction from 2003—something for which he had served probation that had not been cause for concern then but was now grounds for removal. His life changed in that instance; he went from enjoying father/son time to being deported swiftly with a twenty-year ban:

Lo único que puedo obtener ahora es que él me pueda visitar de vez en cuando pero yo ya no estoy en la vida del niño, ósea, cercas. Años que pudimos haber compartido juntos con memorias de childhood, ya no, ya no van a existir. Esa es la memoria que va a tener de mí, de que me agarraron el día que iba conmigo porque si se acuerda, me lo recuerda…. Mi hijo pregunta: “¿Por qué no les pides one more chance? When you comin’ back home? Y, ¿por qué no les dices que te dejen venir?

The only thing I can get now is that he can come see me every once in a while, but I’m no longer in the child’s life, like, close. Years that we could have shared with “childhood” memories, no more, they won’t exist anymore. That’s the memory that he’s going to have of me, that they grabbed me the day he was with me because he does remember, he reminds me of it. …My son asks: “Why don’t you ask them for one more chance? When you comin’ back home? Why don’t you tell them to let you in?”

His deportation meant that he had to leave his son and his step-daughter whom he was taking care of. In fact, it had just been over a year that the court awarded him temporary custody of his son and all the signs pointed to the fact that he was about to obtain full custody. And though he could not be his step-daughter’s legal guardian, he took care of her as well, especially during the weekend. So, in fact, he had to leave two kids behind; she is three years older than her brother and though she wasn’t in the car the day Diego was picked up, as an older child she also remembers his immigration detention and would cry in desperation as she tried to talk to him on the phone. Diego has been providing as best he can while being in Mexico. He has a screen-printing business called “F*ck La Migra” where he sells T-shirts, baseball hats, and canvas bags with that sentiment as well as others like “No Kids in Cages” and, his more idealistic, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Diego’s deportation exemplifies one tentacle of the immigration detention system that is yoked to policing—that local law enforcement agencies actively collaborate with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through pernicious programs like Secure Communities and the 287g Program. Secure Communities was signed into law in September 2008 and made it so that local law enforcement agencies could check biometrics against the FBI database (already a standard procedure) and DHS’s immigration database simultaneously; then ICE issued instructions to the local law enforcement agency if the subject “needed to be detained.” Many southern law enforcement agencies have enrolled in the 287g Program, part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, it allows state employees to act as ICE officers and arrest people for being undocumented to then send them to a detention center.

His deportation poses a lot of challenges and a lot of worries but, perhaps, none weights on him more heavily than generational trauma and strained relationships. A twenty-year ban means Diego will have to wait until his son is twenty-eight before they can ever live in the same town or state.

Mi vida está arruinada porque sí lo está. Las cosas que han pasado si me han afectado muchísimo y aunque yo vuelva a ver a mi hijo yo sé que todo esto que me paso me va a afectar en mi vida y siempre va a haber un resultado. Tal vez con mi pareja, tal vez conmigo mismo, o con los niños en algún momento. Y yo creo que está pasando lo mismo, igual porque a su corta edad él ya pasó por muchas cosas. Y creo que tenemos la misma experiencia más o menos porque a mí también de los 4 años o 5 años me arrancaron de mis papás y me llevaron hasta otro lugar lejos donde no los volví a ver hasta qué tenía 9 años.…Entonces yo estoy muy consciente de lo que los niños están pasando.

My life is ruined because it is. The things that have happened have affected me a lot and even if I am able to see my son again, I know that all of these things that have happened to me will affect me in my life and there will always be a consequence. Maybe with my partner, maybe with myself, and with the kids at some moment. And I think we have the same experience, more or less, because I too was ripped from my parents at the age of 4 or 5 and was taken to another place, far away, where I didn’t see them until I was 9 years old. … So I’m very conscious of what the kids are going through.

Diego was taken by an older brother to another state to “live” with him and his wife and endured years of abuse. That is the “shared experience” of family separation. At nine years old, Diego was able to live with his parents again and he remained there until he was thirteen when he migrated to Mexico City where he preferred to live in the streets for five years rather than return to his parent’s house. Diego knows too well the long-lasting repercussions of family separation. This foreknowledge haunts him; but he speaks to his children on a regular basis. Now in the custody of their maternal grandmother who knows that Diego is a good father, he hopes he will be able to see his children soon when they visit Mexico during a summer. In order to make that a reality, however, he needs to save a lot of money to be able to buy the airplane tickets and discretionary funds to take his kids to a handful of places in Mexico. While for Diego leaving behind young children weighs on him,  la paternidad a distancia  weighs as much on David whose son is older.

David immigrated to the United States with his youngest child and made a life for them in Maryland; it was destroyed when his son turned 21 and David was deported.  He says he can’t “find himself” in Mexico; he just goes from home to work and vice versa. “Over there, however, I would get [home]; I would eat with my son.  There were times in which we would go to the movies or to eat out, or order a pizza, watch a movie. Here, they all have their life.  It is almost as if one gets here to interrupt their life.  They are not going to stop their life to be with you.”  [“A pero pues allá tan siquiera llegaba, yo comía con mi hijo. Había veces que nos íbamos al cine, o a comer a la calle, o pedíamos una pizza, veíamos una película.  Aquí cada quien tiene su vida ya. Osea tu llegas como a interrumpir su vida. Ellos no van a dejar su vida para estar contigo.”] In David’s voice, in the pauses he takes when he is retelling his story, one can hear his nostalgia for the life he created with his son in the United States. It is the quotidian events of the life he shared with his son that he misses. When we asked him about his daughter in Mexico, he said he sees her every once in a while; but they do not have a close relationship because he left. In this way, his experiences of transnational fatherhood mirror those of Ana Laura’s experience, as their kids in Mexico have vexed feelings about them.

After his divorce, David emigrated from Mexico City to Maryland with his nearly eight-year-old son in 2003. That was the year the Iraq War began and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was founded to “protect” Americans from cross-border crime and illegal immigration. David was 32. David’s immigration history mirrors that of so many other people since he left a daughter with her mother. But David’s case also differs from the normative story of male migration since he took his youngest child with him because the boy did not want to be separated from him. In this way, David’s story mirrors that of Ana Laura since both left children in Mexico, raised kids in the United States, and are now engaging in transnational parenting post-deportation. Both parents also have one child who qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), implemented through an executive order signed by president Barack Obama. DACA offers young people who have walked a very narrow path—one that is above reproach—temporary legal status.[3]

As a single father, David had to move with his son to Greenbelt, part of the DC-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area, and moved a few times in order to accommodate commutes to work or school. For thirteen  years, labored in the service industry as a restaurant and fast-food worker. He says being in the states changed him, made him a better person; he stopped drinking altogether since he was his son’s sole caretaker. He worked at various sites and impressed his supervisors with his dedication until one day a boss offered him the job as assistant manager. David was honored, thrilled to be given such an opportunity.  So, he went out to celebrate. He had several drinks, got behind the wheel, was pulled over, and issued a ticket for driving under the influence (DUI). He went to court; they found him guilty and had him wear an ankle monitor for a year, as well as having a breathalyzer in his car. He followed all the instructions and to the letter. That was 2012.

Shortly afterwards, he pulled out of his driveway, made a stop, and a cop pulled him over. The officer asked David where he worked, if he was married or had kids, and whether he had ever been in trouble with the law. David was honest and showed him the ankle monitor. The cop let him go. David went to work, came home and thought it was a minor incident. The next day, as David followed the same routine, the cop stopped him again but this time he was accompanied by ICE officials who told him he was detained and needed to sign some papers. David resisted by saying he did not understand what those papers said, to let him call his son so that he could translate but the officers became pushier. Finally, a white woman exited her vehicle and aggressively told David he just needed to sign the documents and not make things more difficult for himself. He acquiesced. “¿Qué puedo hacer yo en ese momento? No eres nadie en ese país y para que te llegue inmigración, ¿para qué voy a discutir o algo?” [“What can I do at that moment? You’re nobody in that country and for immigration to come for you, why am I going to argue or something?”]

In our conversations with deportees, several of them said they were pressured by ICE and DHS personnel to sign a document agreeing to certain proceedings. Even Ana Laura, who had learned in her work in Chicago about immigrant rights, could not withstand the pressure when she was detained at the airport. Although at first she resisted signing the document they placed in front of her, after more badgering from the officials, she acquiesced. Like Diego, it’s likely that David was also caught up in the law enforcement and immigration dragnet since the police ran his prints the first day only for ICE to show up the next day to detain him. When ICE detained David, he recognized one of the officers from a prior incident with a neighbor. In that instance, ICE targeted the Guatemalan woman because they claimed she sold drugs. David approached the ICE official and said, “hey, you went to this house to detain a woman but I’m not a bad person.” David was detained   immediately.

Legally, David’s lawyer attempted to fight his case by arguing that his son was underage and needed a guardian. During this process, David was able to obtain a work permit for two years while they fought for his son’s custody.  He was required to check-in periodically and for almost five years, this became routine. Until June 2016, when he received a letter in the mail telling him that he needed to return for an interview.  By then his son was DACAmented and was about to turn 21.  They no longer had a case.  He was detained on October 30th 2016. And after two months and two days, David was deported on January 4th 2017; he was 46 years old.

As we talked about his experiences and those of other immigrants, we also talked about a shifting policy, or, perhaps more accurately, a strengthening of policy, from the Obama years to the Trump administration. David believes that the Obama administration gave him a chance—he got his DUI, followed the instructions, and never drove drunk again. But he has a hard time understanding what made him such a threat just a few years later.

Dijéramos era mala persona, pues estoy de acuerdo no, para qué voy hacer tanto alboroto… como se lo dijo mi hijo al señor cuando me llevaron a poner el grillete “pero es que tu papá manejó borracho y hubiera matado a alguien.” Y le dice él, “usted lo acaba de decir ‘hubiera’ no mato a nadie”. “Ahora ya el hizo lo que le pidieron porque le van a poner eso…?” [Él] dice “pues son las reglas de este país,” “pero pues no mato a nadie” [dijo mi hijo]. Pero pues yo siento que no soy una mala persona, osea como lo que [Trump] dibuja de que todos los que está sacando somos lo peor que hay en Estados Unidos y eso no es verdad. Él está deportando gente que tiene familia, que a lo mejor cometimos un error. Muchos aprendemos y muchos no aprenden y lo siguen haciendo y lo siguen haciendo; pero pues siempre sacan a los que menos hacen…

You know, if I had been a bad person, I would agree and understand.  Why would I make such a big deal if I had done something wrong?  When the officer put the ankle monitor on me, he told my son that it was because [I]  had driven under the influence and [I] could have killed someone. My son responded to him by saying: “you just said it, he could’ve but he did not kill anyone.  He already did what you asked him to do.  Why does he have to wear that?” The officer told my son that they [were] the rules of [the US]. “But he did not kill anyone,” my son kept repeating.  My feeling is that I am not a bad person. What I mean is that I am not a bad person like the one [Trump] describes. He says that those who are being deported are the worst [immigrants] in the United States. And that is not true. He has been deporting people who have a family, people who maybe made mistakes.  But many of us learn from our mistakes.  Maybe some don’t and they continue making mistakes again and again. But they’re deporting those who really have committed nothing…

This is part of the contradiction—that he doesn’t see how lucky he was not to have harmed someone. Instead, his redemption rests on having learned from his mistakes, as well as being someone who was not a bad person or had committed multiple crimes. In this way, like Michelle, they both believe that certain people should be punished, pushed out, and deported; in Michelle’s case she accepts that she might fit into that category.


One of the issues at stake when it comes to the legalization process is time. In David’s situation, his case could be overturned or not granted if his dependent turned 21 years old.  If one even qualifies, immigration processes are long and often people live for periods of time in a state of indefinite waiting.  Javier Auyero’s study of the politics of waiting in the context of welfare recipients in Argentina is illustrative here because he argues that the lengthy waits poor people have to endure at the social security offices in Buenos Aires reproduce domination and state control. In this sense, waiting becomes a condition of deferral. These lengthy waits not only take place at the welfare waiting room (the location of Auyero’s ethnographic study), but as some scholars have argued, immobility and displacement are experienced differently by individuals and within a range of longer or shorter periods of waiting (Vidal and Musset 2016).  Detention centers and borders have become sites of waiting, exemplified for instance by Trump’s Remain in Mexico Policy, which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were being reviewed by US courts. And while waiting does function as a mechanism of institutional management and state control, hopes for better futures aquí y allá propel immigrants, asylum seekers, and deportees forward while they wait.

We do not believe that deportation should be used as a punitive tactic against people with criminal records. Like abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis have been advocating for decades, we believe that better futures are possible without the use of carceral systems like imprisonment, detention or deportation. We end with Michelle’s thoughts because of the way she frames her struggle in relationship to other people, especially her mother:

Sometimes I think of the parents that went over there, you know, your parents, my mom, that went over there, my mom was 34 years old, she didn’t speak English, she didn’t have any papers….and I think back to the struggles that our parents went through and that is nothing, mine is nothing compared to my mom’s. I can’t imagine going to a country and not speaking the language. I always have that very present because, like, sometimes we tend to magnify our problems and [it helps to] put them into perspective.

Despite all the obstacles and difficulties that deportees face in remaking their lives, they often have an awareness about the situations other people face in transit or upon arrival to a new place. This ability to see their struggles linked with those of others is part of what makes them ordinary and extraordinary, and oftentimes great agents of social change.

[1] Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz, eds., The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 2.

[2] Nicholas De Genova, “Part I: Theoretical Overview – The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and Freedom of Movement,” in The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement, ed. Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 55.

[3] In line with the increasing policing in the country, DACA beneficiaries can lose their protections if they are convicted of a “felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors.”