The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?
Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.
EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?
AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.
EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?
AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.
EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?
AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.
Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?
AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.
EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.
Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt. The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.
EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?
AG: How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.
EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate? And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?
AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.
EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?
AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.
Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington Post, The Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.
In our three years as editors, we’ve tried and consistently failed to compile an end of the year list. Something always gets in the way. The busyness of the end of the semester, the family time during the holiday season, and of course, the global pandemic that continues to illuminate the inability of capitalism and governments to take care of their peoples’ basic needs. In the last week folks took to Twitter to express their frustration with the CDC’s new five day quarantine guidelines: “Sana sana colita de rana,” says the CDC, to borrow Natalia Molina’s tweet.
And then there is our general resistance to lists. Despite an author’s best intentions, these lists always feel definitive and carry a pretense of objectivity. However, they are subjective and incomplete and tend to feature books from big publishers.
So let’s not call it a list. Below you’ll find eleven books that shaped how we think about California, along with a few shout-outs to and updates from our tiny, but mighty Boom California editorial team.
“In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation. In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.” Elizabeth E. Sine
“Historical studies of American slavery have focused most intensely on events that took place in the southeastern part of the United States, and on the social, economic, and political developments that surrounded it there. In West of Slavery, Kevin Waite demonstrates that slavery was in the process of expanding in the southwestern part of the country before the Civil War began, and that efforts to establish what he calls the ‘Continental South’ grew in strength and intensity as the conflict continued. If those efforts had been successful, he argues, slavery would have extended across the southern part of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even into foreign lands.” Brian McGinty
“Lynell George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money.” Mike Sonksen
“Cassandra Lane’s narrative is fragmented; intentionally, so. We Are Bridges reads very much in the manner that generational stories are shared and received—in pieces, in tangents, in digressions. There are stories — or shards of them—that don’t come to you until they are intended, when you become of an age where it is appropriate to not just hear the story, but also fully apprehend it. You grow into it.” Lynell George
“Geraldo Cadava explains the origins of the GOP’s Hispanic constituency (Hispanic is the preferred identifier for most in this group). Hispanic support of the Republican Party has calcified over the last five decades and yielded considerable support for Donald J. Trump’s GOP despite its bombastic rhetoric and lethal policies. Since the early 1970s, Hispanic conservatives have influenced elections by siphoning off votes from Democrats and pointing a new direction in American racial politics. Even when the GOP loses, as in the 2020 presidential election where Trump lost to Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden by a considerable margin, Hispanic support for the GOP remains steady.” –Jerry González
“A notable addition in the research literature because much (albeit not all) of the academic publications on the experiences of undocumented students are authored by those who are not undocumented (this includes me). All the authors, not including the editors, are or were undocumented at some point. Their perspectives, theories, realities and approaches to liberation vary greatly from one another. Their only commonality is an aversion to having their complex lives reduced to an unrealistic ideal of meritocratic excellence. The resulting research findings, personal narratives, and theories in the flesh are astounding.” –Luis Fernando Macías
Scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador.
“The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history.” Boom interview
“In her timely new book, The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity, Jessica Ordaz deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities, El Centro, in the city of El Centro in the Imperial Valley of California.” Daniel Morales
Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr., We are the Land: A History of Native California
“ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as ‘a fictional history of an actual company,’ ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those ‘marginalized and disappeared’ by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy” Janet Sarbanes
Our Boom California team has also welcomed new books into the world. Anthony Cody, our poetry editor during our time at Fresno State, published Borderland Apocrypha, which won an American book award. Romeo Guzmán, Carribean Fragoza, and their homies published East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, which is being used in Ethnic Studies classes in El Monte Union High School District classes. (You can browse the book’s companion website and digital archive here.) Carribean’s book Eat the Mouth That Feeds You continues to receive rave reviews and is a finalist for a PEN Award. Romeo dropped a DIY chapbook titled Pocho Blues.
We have some exciting things coming up in 2022. We’ll be collaborating with La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote, the Magón archive and cultural space in Mexico City, to publish Daniel Olmos and Samuel Brown-Vazquez’s chapbook/photo essay titled, “Los Aguacateros: Avocado Heights and the Cultural Politics of Place.” Sneak peak.
Lastly, Romeo and Carribean’s art collective, the South El Monte Arts Posse, will have a space in 2022. Hopefully, this is the year we finally host a Boom event. Stay tuned!
On August 28, 1970, a group of constituents penned a letter to Chester Holifield, California’s 19th District Congress member. Comprised primarily of women, the authors asserted that welfare recipients in their suburban communities constitute a “burden on the taxpayer and the homeowner.” Decades of conservative angst over the New Deal state birthed nativism throughout suburban Los Angeles. “Aliens of any country should not be allowed in our country if they have no means of support,” they argued before asking rhetorically, “have you seen the cars these people drive?” And, in a move that became so emblematic of Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism, the authors pathologized women who depended on government assistance in arguing that “unwed mothers, divorcees, dope addicts…and aliens” deserved no public benefits. This was not George Wallace’s Alabama; it was Reagan’s California. Latinx population increases in those suburbs, and others like them across the state, fueled local populist anxieties that nested in state and national Republican Party platforms. Spanish surnames like Andrade, Ochoa, and Saldivar,to name just a few, scrawled across the final page revealed an unsettling truth about the suburbs east of East Los Angeles; an emerging Hispanic conservative base had found its voice.
In The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump, Geraldo Cadava explains the origins of the GOP’s Hispanic constituency (Hispanic is the preferred identifier for most in this group). Hispanic support of the Republican Party has calcified over the last five decades and yielded considerable support for Donald J. Trump’s GOP despite its bombastic rhetoric and lethal policies. Since the early 1970s, Hispanic conservatives have influenced elections by siphoning off votes from Democrats and pointing a new direction in American racial politics. Even when the GOP loses, as in the 2020 presidential election where Trump lost to Democratic challenger Joseph R. Biden by a considerable margin, Hispanic support for the GOP remains steady. Polls show that Trump actually gained in Hispanic voter support from 2016 to 2020 — a concerning statistic for many. Indeed, Cadava argues that a principal objective of his book is to historicize and contextualize Hispanic support for Republicans, including Trump (336). Why there are Republican Hispanics is not so much the driving question, as that would presume a political authenticity that is not true of any group. As Cadava asserts, “Latinos aren’t naturally liberal or conservative. They aren’t naturally anything” (xvii). Rather, Cadava explores how Hispanic Republicans crafted collective identities within the conservative movement and to what extent they wielded real institutional power.
Argued over ten chapters and divided into four sections, “Awakening,” Influence,” “Doubt,” and “Loyalty,” Cadava’s book is a sweeping survey of the leaders, organizations, and shifts that make up the Hispanic Republican leadership and the opening to an increasingly urgent conversation about the intertwined futures of Latinx politics and the evolution of the GOP. As Cadava writes, partisan issues such as border-wall funding, taxes and business regulations are a result of an electorates’ set of concerns in a given place and time. However, a significant contribution that he makes here is to extend “issues” into the past in order to expose the ideological foundations upon which they rest. More than any single problem, Hispanics have become loyal Republicans over the last seven decades based on a web of dogmas about U.S.-Latin American relations; the United States’ role in spreading democracy around the globe; government-supported capitalism; and a “contrarian identity politics that is every bit as pronounced as the liberal identity politics they’ve spent decades criticizing.” (xvi).
The first wave of Hispanic Republicans formed their political identities through the crucible of the Cold War in Latin America and its manifestations within the territorial boundaries of the continental United States. Prior to the 1950s, Hispanic partisanship vacillated between both major parties, but Cadava argues that World War II and national political realignment following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency shaped Hispanic politics just as it did for other Americans. Cuban American exiles like Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, and Mexican American business leaders like Lionel Sosa, a graduate of Sidney Lanier High School in San Antonio’s West Side barrio, embraced the party’s tough stance against communism, its position on law and order on the domestic front, and its business-friendly policymaking laced with rhetoric of self-determination. For Cadava, Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential bid in 1952 proved a testing ground for the GOP’s appeal to Hispanic voters. The 1952 “Latinos con Eisenhower” campaign and its successor “Me Gusta Ike” in 1956 promoted Eisenhower’s Cold Warrior credentials and beckoned supporters who felt like the Democratic Party took Latinos for granted. Disaffected Latino Democrats proved a source of recruitment for Republicans during the Eisenhower years. John Flores and Manuel Mesa, both from California, created the institutional frameworks to recruit Hispanics to the Republican camp by tapping into the same disillusionment that spurred leftist community organizers both in the cities and in the fields. The Republican Party adopted a militant anti-communist platform and won Hispanic support, particularly from those with roots in regions touched by revolution, CIA-backed coup d’états, and draconian immigration enforcement policies.
In anti-communism Republicans readied the assault on domestic labor organizing and civil rights efforts. The 1950 deportation of renowned labor organizer and civil rights activist Luisa Moreno is testament to the emergence of Cold War maneuvers on the domestic front. However, rather than oppose such actions, Hispanic Republicans became more defiant in their racial politics. Democratic Party leadership, at least rhetorically, had taken up the mantle for civil rights. By contrast, conservatives such as Barry Goldwater innovated new modalities of anti-blackness by hanging their arguments for segregation on outcomes of the free market.
Barry Goldwater’s conservatism and anti-communism shifted the Republican Party further to the right. The racist ideologies underlying his platforms attracted like-minded blue-collar voters across the country, which included Hispanics who identified more with Anglo Americans than with non-whites. Perhaps because Hispanic Republican numbers were few in the early 1960s, they showed surprising unity despite regional and national-origin differences.
Cadava highlights the role that California Republican candidates played in pushing the party to recognize the Hispanic electorate. Richard Nixon grew the Hispanic Republican base because of his personal history in suburban southern California and because he recognized early on that Hispanics, particularly Mexican Americans, could potentially put Republicans over the top.
In the third chapter, “Nixon’s Hispanics,” Cadava recounts the stories of several influential Hispanic businesspeople. Romana Acosta Bañuelos, who immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, rose to success at the head of Ramona’s Mexican Food Products in Los Angeles, and became chairwoman of the Pan American National Bank located on First Street in East Los Angeles. Nixon selected Bañuelos to head the Treasury based on her hard scrabble background and the symbolism it offered for free market capitalism and rugged individualism. He also approved of the fact that she did not participate in the Chicano Movement, despite the décor of her bank adorned with imagery of Aztec civilization – a ubiquitous iconography of the movement (95-7). Even though many Chicanos considered Bañuelos a “tia taco,” or “vendida,” (Chicanx slang for sell-out) she would emerge as one of Nixon’s greatest ambassadors for courting Hispanics. Whether or not she truly represented a “token,” as her detractors argued, she wielded actual power and influence as the Treasurer of the United States appointed by a Republican president. Democrats had never come close to incorporating Latinos – let alone Latinas! – into serious positions of authority, despite the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson whose popularity with Latinos far surpassed that of any Republican politician then or since. This fact was not lost on the community-at-large, nor on the Nixon surrogates who helped to orchestrate the nomination. Influence and visibility counted for a lot and Democrats lost the race in that respect.
Bañuelos’s rise to prominence in the Nixon White House resulted from a strategy to attract Hispanics in greater numbers to the party’s orbit. However, an immigration raid on Bañuelos’s business in East Los Angeles in 1971 cast a pall around her nomination for Secretary of the Treasury because public opinion about undocumented immigrant workers circulated widely through the California press. Calls for employer sanctions on those businesses that knowingly employed undocumented labor culminated in the Dixon Arnett bill that Gov. Reagan signed into law a mere one month following the Bañuelos raid.
Nixon’s efforts to install Hispanics in government positions, regardless of their efficacy as politicos or of their community acceptance, helped to solidify a Hispanic base for the party well into the future. Even the dirty tricks embodied by the Watergate affair strangely shored up Cuban American support, particularly in Miami as 4 of the 5 men held close association with Cuba either through ancestry, anticommunism, or both. The effort to bug the Democratic Party offices in the complex was prompted by Nixon surrogates’ assertions that the Castro regime secretly funneled large sums of money to the George McGovern campaign. Thus, spying on Democrats was justified in the eyes of many everyday Cuban Americans whose disdain for Castro and communism ran deep. Many, in fact, wondered why the arrested “plumbers” were considered criminal at all given the Cold War context of the narrative. Under the Trump Administration, they might have been elevated to the level of national heroes and fully pardoned by the president. It was an ignominious contribution, but Cuban American participation in the Watergate break signified one of the most consequential events in modern Republican Party politics. Cadava shows that despite Nixon’s culpability, perhaps even because of it, Hispanic support of the GOP did not waiver. Rather than repel Cubanos, the event did the opposite by burnishing the Cold Warrior credentials of the GOP standard bearer. Also, by that time, an infrastructure had been built to expand Hispanic influence in the party. The Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA) had emerged as force within the party and thus launched the efforts by members to reach further into the apparatus.
Cadava writes about the latter half of the 1970s as a period of doubt marked by a decline in Hispanic support that was triggered by uninspired leadership, the loss of the Vietnam War, a global recession, and increased undocumented immigration. Nixon’s downfall caused ripples across the rest of the Hispanic Republican world. Where Cuban Americans found a bedrock of anti-communist support in the party, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans in different parts of the United States waivered in their enthusiasm for the party’s direction.
Into this void stepped Benjamin Fernandez, a Mid-Western born Mexican American with dreams of uniting all Hispanics under the GOP banner. As quixotic as any Hispanic Republican leader before or since, “Boxcar Ben” – as he was known because of his self-styled narrative about his birth in a railroad boxcar in Kansas City, Missouri – mattered because he was able to situate himself against the measures of his time: the Chicano Movement, immigration liberalization, and the government social safety net. The son of migrant workers from Michoacán who traversed the Midwestern states before settling in East Chicago, Indiana, Fernandez pulled hard on the bootstraps mythology that he believed colored his story. A lifelong Republican, he set out to become the first Hispanic president of the United States running in the 1980 primaries against the likes of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and John Connally. Although he did not win even 1 percent of the national electoral vote, Cadava rescues this character from the historical shadows to demonstrate that the new militancy birthed by the Chicano Movement coincided with a smaller, but equally persistent, movement within conservative circles to tap into the working-class and family-oriented sensibilities of many Hispanics just as blue-collar whites began to leave the Democratic Party en masse.
Reagan reenergized the Hispanic constituency by reviving the Cold War, particularly in the face of retrenchment with Cuba. Additionally, he played his popularity as governor of California and the battles he waged against civil rights, to the Hispanics who supported him in his home state. Reagan’s landslide victory in November 1980 not only burst Ben Fernandez’s bubble, but also consolidated conservative politics at the national level. Reagan’s tough stance against Fidel Castro inspired Cuban Americans to support the newly elected president. Jorge Mas Canosa, a Miami-based Cuban American politico, helped to form the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) modeled on American Israel Political Affairs Committee and laid the foundation for a reliable GOP constituency in South Florida that persists today. Reagan further garnered Hispanic support by usurping the immigration bill that existed in many draft forms since the early 70s (it lived for a time as the Carter Bill) to sign the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. IRCA endeared Reagan to Hispanics because it opened a path for amnesty at the same time that it codified employer sanctions and drew limits around further legal immigration. It proved a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP as it would also throw fuel onto the kindling of nativism that had begun to emerge within party ranks as early as the 1970s.
The populist uprising within the party around Puerto Rican statehood and undocumented Latino immigration tested the loyalty of many Hispanic Republicans. Despite Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s victory in a Florida special congressional election in 1988 which signaled a significant victory for Cuban American Republicans, the national appeal of the party faced jeopardy because of the swell in thinly veiled white nationalist rhetoric and policy priorities.
Cadava shines a spotlight on George H.W. Bush’s influence on Hispanic Republicans. With a naturalized Mexican American daughter-in-law and mixed-race grandchildren whom, H.W. notoriously referred to as Jebby’s “little brown ones” on the campaign trail in 1988, H.W. inspired hope as a moderating force within the GOP to continue to rally Hispanic voters. His victory in 1988 yielded strong support initially. He oversaw the confirmations of three prominent Hispanics to his administration, Lauro Cavazos as Education Secretary, Manuel Luján, Jr. as Secretary of the Interior, and Catalina Vásquez Villalpondo as Treasurer. He also flexed support for Puerto Rican Statehood and appeared to Cuban Americans as a battle-tested Cold Warrior by virtue of his eight-year tenure as Vice President under Reagan. However, not long into his term, he began to lose support as statehood died in Congress at the hands of fiscal conservatives in both parties. Also, the end of the Soviet Union and normalization of U.S.-Russia relations essentially removed Cuba from the foreign affairs priority list as national security concerns shifted from communism to terrorism and flipped the map from Latin America to the Middle East. Notably, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Villalpondo’s activities in the Treasury Department where she faced accusations of improperly influencing the delegation of non-competitive contracts to her former employer. She was eventually convicted of tax evasion and destruction of evidence.
Pat Buchanan’s insertion into the debates around Puerto Rican statehood inflamed tensions between Hispanics in the Republican Party and their non-Hispanic fellows. Buchanan launched a tirade in the Washington Times early in 1990 that played overtly to strains of white ethnonationalism already strong in the GOP. He claimed that 50 percent of Puerto Ricans qualified for welfare and therefore posed a significant financial burden to the United States. Buchanan further asserted that including 6 million Spanish speakers would mark the end of the English-only United States and argued that the new proposed state would send six new Democratic house members and two new liberal senators to Washington (284-5). Prominent Hispanic Republican Luis A. Ferré responded vigorously, speaking for the collective outraged Puerto Rican community that Buchanan’s racist arguments were unfounded, and that the 51st state would contribute to the nation in taxes and military sacrifice, and that the language argument held no merit because 15 million Spanish speakers already called the U.S. home. He also wrote that although nobody on the island in 1898 asked to become a colony of the U.S., Puerto Ricans remained “loyal Americans” (286). Buchanan’s position ultimately won the day and marked a significant pivot from a longstanding GOP policy priority. On a more expanded level, it signaled the growing power of xenophobic discourse and white grievance politics as weapons against people of color and center-left and progressive advocates.
The would-be rupture between Hispanic Republicans and the party, although strained, failed to materialize even as Pat Buchanan blustered on a national stage. In California, former San Diego mayor and U.S. Senator Pete Wilson pushed the GOP immigration agenda further to the right as governor of the Golden State from 1991 to 1999. This creep in party discourse began during the Reagan years as the agendas in 1984 and 1988 insisted that the U.S. retained an “absolute right” to secure its borders by legislation, police enforcement, and even physical barriers. Cadava writes that Hispanic Republicans found themselves betwixt and between a party that grew in hostility towards people who looked like them and their compatriots who would be potential Republicans if the party toned down its rhetoric. One example Cadava offers that exposes the choppy waters Hispanic Republicans navigated came in 1992 during the GOP national convention agenda which called for the erection of “structures” along the southern border. Rather than recognize the most common definition of that term, i.e. physical barriers, many surrogates, including Hispanics, described the phrasing as metaphorical (295-296).
Debates over fencing in the 1990s became a proxy for white nationalist, nativist, and anti-Latino sentiment. Far from an easily cordoned off set of camps, many Hispanics supported fencing and immigration restriction, and many non-Latinos opposed the same measures. Bill Clinton’s immigration agenda included some of the most militaristic efforts in decades, beginning with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso and followed by Operation Gatekeeper in California and Operation Safeguard in Arizona. So as the GOP drifted further into the nativist cesspool, Democrats followed as the Clinton White House established policy prescriptions that would prove even deadlier for migrants seeking to cross into the U.S.
This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book in that it demonstrates that an agenda built on fiscal austerity and small government was not the overriding raison d’etre for Republicans despite their claims to the contrary. Rather, demographic change, nativism, and racism were equally powerful drivers, if not more so, in shaping the modern Republican agenda. As one of the founders of the Save Our State initiative in California, better remembered as Proposition 187, recalled as she walked into a social services center in 1991 “with babies and little children all over the place,” speaking Spanish, she learned that they qualified for the same benefits as U.S. citizens and then and there transformed from a “political neophyte to a fiery crusader” (301-2). Such populist energy against demographic change fueled Governor Pete Wilson’s re-election platform in 1994. Running on anti-immigrant sentiment and championing Prop. 187 made Wilson a GOP darling for those on the far right such as Rush Limbaugh, at the time a burgeoning radio personality.
Cadava highlights the 1990s as a watershed for immigration legislative debate. The far-right agenda focusing on restriction and removal became the center of the GOP, and likewise influenced Democratic positions (310). Support of anti-immigrant measures at the state and federal levels hurt the GOP and shook the faith of its longtime Hispanic supporters. As a presidential candidate, Bob Dole did not commit to cultivating Hispanic support for his candidacy, not out of any special enmity, but more likely because he was a rather terrible candidate. His poor showings in California and in Florida,where he was the first Republican candidate to lose the state since 1968, signaled to the national party that Hispanic support was slipping. Combining a bad candidate with bad politics sunk the national party in that decade. Additionally, the renewed nativism on the right prompted a groundswell of naturalization and permanent residency applications by Latinos in direct response. As Cadava notes, this was likely not a result of newfound patriotism for the U.S., but a pragmatic decision to protect themselves and their families from deportation or loss of benefits (311).
For Cuban Americans in Miami, the Elián González case confirmed their conservative partisanship. The Democratic Party’s adherence to Bill Clinton’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cubans crossing into the United States sunk Al Gore’s chances in the state as Hispanics in Florida rallying around González punished him at the polls in favor of his Republican challenger, George W. Bush (321-2). Détente between nativist forces and compassionate conservatives was made possible by the Bush family’s influence and popularity with Hispanics. But the floodgates were blitzed and the peace lasted only as long as the PATRIOT Act and the unsupported popular perception that the southern border offered viable passage for would be terrorists.
Fifty years following the Holifield letter that opened this review, the city council in Whittier, California added a new member, Jessica Martinez, whose political identity aligns with the insurgency championed by Donald Trump. Social media posts that predated her election caused an outrage for what some viewed as their bald racism and bigotry. However, the mark of her trumpista GOP identity was confirmed on January 6, 2021 as she attended the “Stop the Steal” rally promoted by Trump and his boot lickers in an effort to overturn the 2020 Presidential Election results which Joe Biden won by more than 7 million popular votes. Although Martinez contends that she would not have gone to Washington, D.C. if she had known violence would rock the Capitol, she remains unrepentant in her political beliefs, despite narrowly escaping formal censure. More well-known is Miami-born Enrique Tarrio, the Afro-Cuban leader of the fascist organization Proud Boys who have become an informal political army for Trump. Tarrio spent the day prior to the insurrection in a jail cell as law enforcement personnel arrested him upon arrival to D.C. for his role in burning a Black Lives Matter flag during a protest the previous month. So what are we to make of these Hispanics, past and present, who continue their allegiance to a party that has long since proven to harbor anti-Latino agendas?
For all the answers that Cadava provides in this text, we are left to speculate how self-identified Hispanics like Martinez and Tarrio became contributors to the latest white supremacist surge. Here it is important to remember what George Lipsitz taught us about the power of whiteness as an identity that structures opportunities, benefits, and, as we consistently see, protection from accountability: “even nonwhite people can become active agents of white supremacy as well as passive participants in its hierarchies and rewards.” As a condition predicated more on power than prejudice or pigment, whiteness “manifests itself through practices that create differential access to wealth, health, housing, education, jobs, and justice.” Historically, people of color who have touted conservative populist causes have done so by aligning with taxpayers or homeowners groups concerned about declining property values. In our present day, the fascist rearticulation of the term “patriot” enables people like Martinez and Tarrio to nuzzle up to whiteness so long as they express outrage at undocumented immigration, or any immigration for that matter, denounce Black Lives Matter, and support a whole host of lies.
Similar to the internal struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, brown participants in the GOP do not go unchallenged. As the Latinos Por Trump group ramped up efforts, Latinx opponents refashioned the epithets from an earlier generation that charged these actors as sell outs to their people. A popular insult – “tiene el nopal en la frente” – highlights the hypocrisy of being Latina/o/x and supporting white American conservative causes, particularly those that target Latino immigrants. Literally translated as “you have the cactus on your forehead”, the point it makes is that brown/indigenous/mestizo physical features belie the support of white supremacy.
It is in these grittier social contexts that readers will ask more from this text than it delivers. It is not a social history of Hispanic Republicans, nor does Cadava frame it in such terms. Rather than a focus on everyday Hispanic conservatives, the focus is fixed primarily on the institutions that created access for Hispanics into the party, and the principal actors in this historical drama. Many will want an explanation for folks like Tarrio, Martinez from the Whittier City Council, and the signatories of the Holifield letter, but, for now, will have to analyze them and other grassroots conservatives through the prism of this institutional history.
Perhaps a more peculiar absence in this book is an analysis of the Ayn Rand-style libertarian influence on the current GOP. The “greed is good” strain of conservative thought has arguably been as influential in the evolution of the post-Reagan machine as blue-collar conservatism and racism. How do Hispanic Republicans figure into the libertarian wing of the party? Certainly Ted Cruz, a renowned Rand acolyte and self-styled libertarian, enjoys a significant following of Hispanic voters (35% support in the 2018 Texas senate race versus Beto O’Rourke). The extent to which Hispanics subscribe to GOP-informed libertarianism is an open question and one that merits further research to understand how future pathways to whiteness channel through such conservative ideals.
Another condition of the modern GOP that is curiously absent in Cadava’s book is a focused analysis on space and how it contoured conservative politics at the metropolitan level. As Juan De Lara points out in Inland Shift (2018) places like Inland Southern California from 1978 to the 2000s supplanted the coastal regions as conservative bastions with large numbers of Republican Party voters and representatives. Indeed, as demonstrated in Adam Goodman’s essay in East of East (2020) and in his monograph, The Deportation Machine (2020), suburban municipalities like South El Monte, California became new nativist fronts marked by Immigration and Naturalization Service raids and support for anti-immigrant legislation like Proposition 187 in 1994. Such efforts have steadily come to dominate the national Republican Party immigration agenda, but all began at local levels. Trump’s immigration czar, Stephen Miller, grew up in Santa Monica and came up through the ranks of southern California’s nativist machine, first by consuming conservative radio that in the 1980s included characters like Wally George and in the 1990s were dominated by figures like Rush Limbaugh, and Larry Elder, and then by making a name as an undergraduate provocateur at Duke University. The political positions he developed in Southern California eventually came to define the Trump Administration’s immigration agenda.
I highlight the absences because, as a study with ambitions to forge new lines of inquiry within Latinx Studies, it is highly successful and will undoubtedly launch new and sorely needed research projects that deepen our understanding of the diverse political identities of this growing population. Traditional studies of Latinx politics focused on organizations and institutions to broaden access to the grassroots-level research on organizers and activists. Cadava has paved the way for such future studies by contextualizing the key organs of Hispanic power within the GOP. For one, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly receives considerable attention throughout the text for its role in shaping a constituency within the GOP. Founded in the late 1960s as the Republican National Hispanic Council by a group of war veterans and professionals, the organization would grow to wield significant influence. This vehicle for Hispanic participation embedded in the GOP network symbolized the party’s official recognition of “the little brown ones” in their midst – to borrow from George H.W. Bush’s lexicon – and opened pathways for future recruitment.
Additionally, Cadava highlights the gendered experiences of Hispanic women leaders who played fundamental roles both in the GOP apparatus and national politics. For example, Romana Acosta Bañuelos, Katherine Ortega, and Catalina Vasquez Villalpando, all Hispanic women, all Treasurers of the United States under Republican presidents, represent more than “tokens” but actual power brokers. The fact that Richard Nixon appointed a fellow Californian, Bañuelos, a Mexican American banker from East Los Angeles, meant that a Hispanic Republican and woman of color exercised actual authority over federal decisions. Cadava demonstrates that the GOP has implemented strategic efforts to challenge the idea that their political agenda is racist and sexist by promoting women and people of color for national and state leadership.
The Hispanic Republican is a wake-up call for progressives, particularly white liberals, who uncritically believe that rising Latinx population numbers will naturally shift the political winds. We learn a lot about the machinations of Hispanic Republican power, how it is cultivated and seated, and why any liberal dreams of it evaporating are pure fantasy, given how embedded it is in the GOP apparatus. There is nothing irrational in many Hispanics’ embrace of conservative causes and policies. Rather, the historical resonances with one-third of the messy conglomeration of peoples lumped into the category challenges us to think critically about the value they find in Republican Party platforms and promises.
One of the real gems of this book is how Cadava rescues monumental figures from the throwaway lines and endnote catacombs of so many Latino political histories prior. Bañuelos, for example, receives a full treatment, as does “Boxcar” Ben. Regardless of their brand of politics, they are significant figures in the grand tapestry of Latinx history and deserve to be adequately critiqued in the context of their counterparts. For example, Bañuelos faced protests by the United Farm Workers and Chicana/o activists as a result of her hiring practices and for her loyalty to Nixon. These kinds of internal politics warrant closer examination and introspection for Chicanx scholars who seek to understand the ripple effect of the 1970s on our current politics. In the end, we learn that Hispanic Republicans are dogmatic about the principles that govern the GOP. Anti-communism paved the way for hostility towards any political philosophy left of center. Goldwater’s color-blind racism became the seed bed for a refashioned white supremacy, and the hero-worship that Nixon once enjoyed, and that Reagan still holds, created a condition that allows for a single person to shape the party agenda. In other words, Hispanic Republicans are just like the majority of Republicans, and they will not be so easily dislodged from the party apparatus.
 This letter is dated one day prior to the Chicano Moratorium that overtook Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles and infamously culminated in widespread abuse by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies and the murder of Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar.
 Betty Lounsberry, et. al. to Holifield, 28 August 1970, Chester Holifield Papers, box 22, folder “Welfare Programs 1970,” Department of Special Collections, University of Southern California.
 For more about the political climate surrounding undocumented immigration in California see Jimmy Patiño, ¡Raza Si! ¡Migra No!: Chicano Movement Struggles for Immigrant Rights in San Diego (Chapel Hill: University of North Carlina Press, 2017, 104. The California Supreme Court eventually ruled the Dixon Arnett legislation unconstitutional.
Jerry González is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Director of the UTSA Mexico Center, and Principal Investigator on the UTSA Mellon Humanities Pathways Grant. His research interests in Latinx metropolitan history and identity, transnational and transregional migrations, and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands inform the courses he teaches in history and American Studies. Prior to arriving at UTSA he spent 2009-2010 as a Chancellor’s Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the Latina/Latino Studies Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he began work on his book, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles published in 2018 by Rutgers University Press in the Series “Latinidad: Transnational Cultures in the United States.” His current research on San Antonio as a site of continuous Latin American migrations explores the intersection of Sunbelt and Borderlands political economies, cultural confluence, and grassroots organizing.
Adam Goodman sat down with professor, author, and human rights advocate Elliott Young to discuss his new book which shines a light on the often cruel and senseless policies that make up the intersection of immigration and criminal justice in the United States.
Adam Goodman: The book’s title, Forever Prisoners, is provocative. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?
Elliott Young: A friend who does prison abolition activism work and criminal justice said that the stories I tell sound a lot like the Guantanamo prisoners who have been there for twenty years, many of them not charged with any crimes. And so, this moniker: forever prisoners. The more I thought about it, I said, “Yes, forever prisoners is exactly the state in which many of these immigrants found themselves.” Of course, most of them didn’t spend their entire lives in prison. Some died after being detained, but many got out; but even when people get out, immigrants found themselves in positions of rightlessness or diminished rights. For people deported to places in Central America where there is lots of gang violence or political violence, they find themselves also like prisoners, in the sense of being trapped in their houses. So, the long reach of the tentacles of the prison seemed like an apt metaphor to think about the condition in which immigrants have been living for the last 140 years.
AG: Many scholars of immigration detention focus on the 1980s to the present. You start a century earlier. Why? What do we learn by tracing that longer history?
EY: My previous book was about Chinese immigration and starts off in the mid-nineteenth, so I knew that the Chinese were being detained and deported (obviously not in the numbers that we have today) right from the beginning of when the federal immigration system was set up. It seemed that the origins of that system were important to understand and to try to understand the trajectory from the late nineteenth century all the way through to the present. Not to say that there were no changes, but to track those changes so we don’t make the mistake of thinking we could return to an idealized earlier era. Sometimes people say 1954, “Oh, that was the moment like immigrant detention ended.” Well, 1954 to the 1980s was not a good time for Mexicans who were coming across the border without authorization.
AG: One of the things I found most compelling about your book is that you tell the history of immigration detention through a series of incredible, incredibly revealing, and often disturbing stories. The book’s first story takes place not on Ellis Island or on Angel Island, but on McNeil Island, off the coast of Washington. Why there?
EY: McNeil Island was a remote prison island off the coast of Tacoma, one of the three penitentiaries in the United States in this period. I started to do research on Chinese imprisoned there and discovered that they were put there for unauthorized entry—but they were sentenced to hard labor, which was a prison sentence. They were not simply put in this prison pending deportation, which is now the justification for imprisoning immigrants. In this case, they were actually given sentences, but they didn’t go through a judicial trial, so this is completely illegal based on the Constitution. Eventually the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1896 case, decided that you couldn’t do that. You could imprison or detain immigrants pending deportation, but you couldn’t impose criminal sentence on them without a judicial trial.
In this early period, they are experimenting with what to do with immigrants, so they put them in McNeil Island. It was clear that Chinese at that point were crossing the border from Canada to come across into the Pacific Northwest without authorization. The easiest thing for the immigration authorities was to just take them to the border of Canada and push them across. But at that point, Canada had established a head tax requirement for the Chinese and the migrants didn’t have the money to pay. So, Canada refused them entry and they ended up in McNeil Island prison for years, while there were diplomatic negotiations with the Canadian government. Eventually, in the early 1890s, U.S. officials deported them back to China. It’s in this early period that you see the U.S. government trying to work out both the legal grounds for holding immigrants as well as developing the whole bureaucracy and mechanisms for deporting people across the globe.
AG: That raises the question: What do U.S. officials do when there’s nowhere to deport someone? What happens when there’s a country that’s not willing to accept them? This comes up in the case of Nathan Cohen, who found himself in extended—perhaps even indefinite—detention.
EY: Nathan Cohen came from a part of Russia that’s kind of a borderlands region. He was Jewish, he had migrated to Brazil and spent a few years there, then went to New York in 1912. He ends up going to the Deep South, because he has relatives there, and opens a business with his uncle in Jacksonville, Florida. Within a short period of time, he gets married and then he’s swindled by his family. He loses his busines and his wife runs off with his best friend, and this sends him into a funk where he essentially becomes mute. He goes to Baltimore, where his sister was living, and gets put into a mental hospital run by the state, a public mental hospital, and gets declared insane. And because he had immigrated within three years, that declaration of insanity was grounds for deportation. So, he gets sent to Ellis Island and they put him on a ship to go back to Brazil. But Brazil refuses to take him. The ship goes on to Argentina, who also says they don’t want him. The U.S. government is trying to contact the Russians. This is during World War I, Cohen is a Jew, and there’s anti-Jewish programs going on in this region, so Russia isn’t interested in taking him. So, he’s essentially stateless. The press describes him as the wandering Jew, the man without a country. And so, he gets sent back to New York. After spending several months in detention on Ellis Island, they try to deport him again. The same thing happens.
AG: It’s a nightmare.
EY: It’s a nightmare; a Kafkaesque nightmare. The last time when he comes back to New York Harbor. The authorities don’t even let him off the boat because they realize that once he’s on U.S. soil he could have legal claims. What happens with Nathan Cohen, eventually the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Knights of Pythias, which was a fraternal organization of which he was a member, intervene and agree to pay for his upkeep in a private sanatorium in Connecticut. He’s taken off the ship and lives in that sanatorium for about a year. Then he just dies, kind of mysteriously, since he’s still a young man at this point (mid-30s), and is buried on Staten Island.
Nathan Cohen’s story is fascinating on its own, but it also led me to discover that there was this whole other system of incarceration in the early twentieth century. Mental hospitals held many more citizens and noncitizens than detention centers or even in jails and prisons. By the 1960s, they started phasing out mental institutions in part because of the critiques of the way mental institutions were handled, and then we see the rise of mass incarceration. What we have now is lots of people who have mental illness, but instead of being in mental institutions they are in prisons and jails.
AG: Something else that stands out is the history of the U.S. government deporting people from Latin America to the United States, rather than vice versa, and detaining them during World War II.
EY: During World War II, there was this semi-secretive FBI program to identify and roundup Axis nationals in Latin America through the U.S. embassies in various countries. Thirteen countries participated in this program. I focus on the case of Seiichi Higashide, who is of Japanese origin, went to Peru as a young man, developed a business there selling goods, and married a Japanese Peruvian woman. He’s put on this list but manages to evade detection for a few years with the help of a local police chief. When he’s finally picked up, Peruvian officials force him onto a U.S. military transport ship and he’s taken to Panama. He’s briefly held at a U.S. military camp there, then put on another ship and taken to New Orleans. From New Orleans they put him on a train and he ends up in Texas. His wife and two children eventually decide to follow him to the United States to keep the family United. The story raises all these questions that we’re facing today about family separation. According to the government, all these people voluntarily went into detention, but it wasn’t so voluntary when the father was forcibly picked up and taken away and the family ends up joining him. U.S. officials detained them in a camp in Crystal City, Texas, which is actually 40 miles from the current family detention center in Dilley. There’s a long history of family detention in the heart of South Texas that continues to this very day.
AG: Another connection to the present is the history you trace of people resisting and organizing against detention. Tell us about the detention of Haitians and Cubans in the 1970s and 1980s, the uprisings in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, which you describe as “the longest prison takeover in U.S. history.”
EY: In the 1970s, you have Haitians escaping from political unrest and political violence thrown into detention. And almost universally, their asylum claims are rejected. Then, in 1980, there’s this massive boatlift of people from Cuba, the Mariel boatlift, and these are people escaping from a communist country. Initially, Carter sort of welcomes them with open arms into the United States. But this group of 125,000 Cubans was unlike the Cubans who had fled Castro in the early 1960s. Many of them are Black, and they come from lower socioeconomic groups. Their reception in Miami was not as welcoming as the reception in the 1960s had been. They were seen and stigmatized as criminals and as being mentally ill, because there was this idea that Castro just sort of emptied his jails and mental institutions.
The U.S. government responds by establishing mass immigrant detention spaces on military bases around the country. And the idea is they need to be processed to figure out who are the criminals, who are the mentally ill people, and figure out who has family sponsors. After a couple of years, it’s almost entirely Black Cubans who are still in detention. After about a year, almost all of them are paroled into the United States, but they still haven’t regularized their status. Some of those people commit low level offenses, many of them are picked up on marijuana possession charges. Some of them have assault charges and a handful of them do have more serious violent crimes like homicide. So those people are then criminally sentenced and do their time. But after they do their time, because of the immigration regulations, they are now ineligible for their status to be regularized. They face indefinite detention pending deportation.
Eventually, they are sent to Atlanta Penitentiary and to Oakdale, Louisiana, where there was another detention center. Many of them languish there for years. They arrived in 1980 and a few hundred of them were held until the late 1980s. The Castro regime was not interested in having these people return, so they were essentially in prison indefinitely. Then, in November 1987, the Cuban government agrees to take back 2,000 people. Word spreads to these two prisons that they’re going to be deported to Cuba, and that sets off an uprising, first in Oakdale and then a couple of days later in Atlanta.
AG: It’s incredible that these uprisings were more or less coordinated.
EY: They had word through the grapevine and through the media that this was going to happen, that these deportations were imminent. So, the uprising happens in Oakdale, they take over the prison, they seize hostages, and they start torching the buildings. Then the same thing in Atlanta. This is not too long, around 16 years, after Attica, and in that case the National Guard was called in and more than 40 people were massacred. So, the question was, “How is this standoff going to end?” Somewhat miraculously, only one Cuban was shot and killed in Atlanta. No one else died in this episode and after two weeks they finally come to an agreement thanks to the intervention of a Cuban American Bishop from Miami who encouraged the people to give up the hostages and to end the siege. They also received a commitment from the U.S. government to conduct individual asylum reviews. Finally, after Thanksgiving, they leave the prison with salsa music blaring and they give themselves up and turn over the hostages. The larger point of this story is that these uprisings offer insights into the beginnings of “crimmigration,” or the overlapping of criminal justice and immigration.
AG: Throughout the book you show how the criminalization of noncitizens has resulted in the detention and deportation of long-term residents, many of whom have U.S. citizen children. One of the book’s most moving stories is that of Mayra Machado.
EY: I knew for the last chapter I wanted to focus on crimmigration today, and probably a Central American case, since increasingly those are the people detained. As I was looking for media stories, one day I get a call from a detention center in Louisiana. I accepted the call and it was Mayra Machado, who I had done an expert witness asylum declaration for a couple of years earlier. That case was unsuccessful; she was deported.
Mayra was brought to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old and grew up in Southern California. Then her family moved to Arkansas. When she was eighteen years-old she wrote a hot check; clearly a crime, a mistake. She was picked up, charged, and sentenced to six months in some camp for rehabilitation. She did her time, got out, and ended up having children. Then, in 2015, around Christmas time, she went to Hobby Lobby to buy decorations. Her son left his glasses at the store, and when they returned to get them, she was pulled over on failure to yield traffic violation. Because of the expansion of these Secure Communities agreements and 287(g) agreements, where local law enforcement was basically authorized as immigration agents, they ran her information through the system and discovered that she didn’t have authorization to be in the country. In reality, this is a woman who grew up in the United States, was a working mom—wasn’t some kind of violent criminal—and she’s all of a sudden faced with permanent banishment from the country and separation from her three U.S. citizen children.
I hadn’t actually even been in contact with her personally, but she had my number and she called me up and she said, “I came back into the United States.” Police had picked her up on a traffic violation and put her back in detention while awaiting deportation. At this point she was representing herself. Immigration law is extremely, extremely complicated. When immigrants, as smart as they are, try to represent themselves, the chance of them succeeding is almost nil. I was able to get her a pro bono lawyer from Loyola Law School (New Orleans). And I agreed to work on her case as an expert witness.
AG: How did you start providing expert witness testimony in immigration and asylum cases? What is immigration court like?
EY: This book is really about the present and from my perspective it’s sort of ethically obligatory to not only write about this from the ivory tower, but to actually use what you know to try to have an impact. And one of the ways to do this as an academic is by working on asylum cases.
In 2014, Steven Manning, a great immigration lawyer who runs the Innovation Law lab here in Portland, Oregon, contacted me and asked if I would do an expert witness country conditions declaration to inform the court about the political context related to claims being made. At this point I’ve done more than 400 of these.
Immigration courts are kind of like the Wild West. Immigration judges could decide what they will and won’t accept, so whether your claim has any grounds entirely depends on which immigration judge you get. In Louisiana, the rate of denial is over 90 percent, and some of the judges have 100 percent denial rates. Essentially, no matter what your claim, they’re going to deny it.
AG: It’s farcical.
EY: Yeah. In New York or San Francisco, you’ve got a much better shot. That being said, in almost all of the cases that I’ve worked on, the people actually do gain status or are able to avoid deportation. So, if you have a good lawyer and an expert witness—and if you’re also not in Louisiana or in one of these terrible jurisdictions—you can actually gain asylum. But the problem is, most immigrants are not represented by lawyers and most don’t have expert witnesses.
The hero of this story is Mayra, because if she hadn’t advocated for herself none of us would have gotten involved. Isabel Medina, Mayra’s lawyer, advocate Pablo Alvarado, the head of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and I went down to an ICE facility run by GEO, the private prison company, in a remote part of Louisiana. We presented all the evidence that when she had been deported back to El Salvador, she had been threatened by gangs with sexual assault and had also received serious threats against her life. But the immigration judge decided against her. Her lawyer appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, and while the appeal was pending (this was in January of 2020, a year ago), one night at 7:00 p.m. officials told Mayra that they were going to deport her and at 3:00 a.m. that same night they took her to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. She argued with them, saying, “No, I’ve got an appeal pending.” But they shackled her and put her on a plane back to El Salvador.
AG: That’s harrowing, and also speaks to how detention and deportation affect U.S. citizens, like Mayra’s children. Something else that we’ve been circling around is the larger story you tell of how immigration detention became intertwined with the rise of mass incarceration writ large.
EY: I’m glad you brought up the mass incarceration question because it’s really what brought me to this project. I was concerned about the mass incarceration of citizens, and also noticed that the literature tended not to focus on immigrants. I wanted to show how immigrant detention is inextricably linked to the mass incarceration of citizens since the 1980s. It’s not a coincidence that the immigrants you find in detention are almost entirely Black and Brown people. This is a racially biased system, enforcement is targeted against particular people, and so in that sense it’s very much linked to the mass incarceration of citizens and the rhetoric that we had from Trump about the “criminals” who are supposedly crossing the border. This is an especially exciting moment when the people arguing against mass incarceration and the folks arguing against immigrant detention can really see how these two systems work together, and then fight to end detention, to end prisons.
AG: How can we accomplish that? Through abolition? Are there other solutions?
EY: I’ll come out and tell you that I’m someone who has an abolitionist horizon. I believe that we should construct a world where there are no prisons, where there are no immigrant detention systems. People should not be in prison because they have come to this country without authorization or they’ve come to this country seeking refuge. It is an abomination, it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t need to be this way. We had 50,000 people a day in ICE detention a year ago. Now, because of Covid, that’s down to 16,000 a day, which is still way too high, but it shows that this system could be dramatically reduced and the sky won’t fall. So, I’m hoping, against my better judgment, that the new Biden administration will not return to the policies of Obama—which were terrible for immigrants and which led to the greatest number of immigrants detained and formally deported in U.S. history—and will instead push for radical transformation of the massive bureaucracy that criminalizes and prevents immigrants from coming to this country in the first place.