I could tell Eric had lived in the United States since he was a child: The swing in his step and his calm but guarded demeanor gave him away as a U.S. Latino. I was standing on the tarmac watching when he descended from the plane.
We chatted for a few minutes as Guatemalan immigration agents processed his arrival as a deportee. He gave me his number, and I promised to call and check on him in about a month.
Thousands of Guatemalan deportees like Eric have returned to their country of birth over the last few years. More than 50,000 people are deported from the U.S. each year, with four to six planeloads arriving at the Guatemalan air force base each week in 2014.
As promised, I met up with Eric a little over a month after his return to Guatemala, at Metro Norte, an upscale shopping center in Zona 18, one of the rougher neighborhoods of Guatemala City. He told me he traveled to the United States alone at the age of 11 on a tourist visa to join his mother, who was already living in the U.S. As an undocumented immigrant, Eric’s mother could not secure an immigrant visa for him.
Eric attended school in Inglewood in Los Angeles, where his mother worked at a garment factory. In his last year of high school, Eric’s mother injured her back and was unable to continue working. Eric had to drop out of school and get a job to keep the family afloat. He soon married a Salvadoran woman, who is a legal permanent resident of the United States.
One Saturday afternoon, Eric drove his friend to the other side of town. He was pulled over and arrested shortly after dropping off his friend, whom the police suspected of a car theft.
Once at the Los Angeles County Jail, which participated in the Secure Communities program, a police officer ran Eric’s fingerprints through an immigration database. The program — designed to find and deport dangerous noncitizens — enables officers to determine if an arrestee is in the country legally. The police held Eric and called in immigration agents once they discovered he had overstayed his visa.
Eric was then sent to a privately owned Corrections Corp. of America detention center until he was removed from the United States. Eric’s innocence of car theft and his pending application for legalization on the basis of marriage to a legal resident could not prevent his deportation.
In Guatemala City, Eric moved into his aunt’s house. He soon secured a job at a call center run by an American company. As a bilingual deportee familiar with the United States’ social and cultural norms, he is an ideal worker for the corporation. His labor is also significantly cheaper: His job pays $400 a month — enough to support himself in Guatemala but not sufficient to raise a family. Eric finds himself in the same conditions that led his mother to emigrate — working for a transnational corporation and earning just enough to get by.
Globalization, enhanced by neoliberal reforms, facilitates the movement of capital across borders while restricting the mobility of workers.
The interrelated nature of each of the events in Eric’s life and their connection to neoliberal reforms lays bare what I call a neoliberal cycle, the interconnected aspects of neoliberal reforms implemented in the United States and abroad. Some of its elements include outsourcing, economic restructuring, cutbacks in social services, the enhancement of criminal and immigration law enforcement and the privatization of public services.
Neoliberal reforms are aimed at opening up local economies to global markets and reducing state spending on social welfare. It involves cuts to government funding, with the notable exception of the military and law enforcement. The reforms constitute a cycle insofar as they lead to and reproduce one another.
Eric’s story fits neatly into this cycle. His mother felt compelled to leave Guatemala because of the economic havoc neoliberalism wreaked in their home country.
During the 1960s and ’70s, poor countries such as Guatemala borrowed money from the World Bank to build dams for electricity, construct ports and modernize their agriculture to produce cash crops. The intent was to enable these countries to import items and export their cash crops and natural resources. Globalization was happening, and developing countries wanted to reap the benefits.
In the 1980s, however, interest rates and oil prices skyrocketed, which made it impossible for developing countries to make loan payments to the bank. They turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to request assistance in stabilizing their economies and paying debts. The IMF agreed to lend money, but under the condition that the countries implement a standard set of neoliberal reforms.
The recommended reform package included privatization, trade liberalization, tax reductions, deregulation and cutbacks in social services. The reforms exacerbated inequality and created severe economic and social disruptions, leading to mass emigration. Eric’s mother was part of that initial exodus that arrived in the United States looking for better opportunities.
But the immigrants confronted a U.S. economy ravaged in its own way by neoliberal reforms. Manufacturers have moved most garment industry jobs abroad, and those jobs that remain are low paid and offer few to no benefits. As an undocumented worker in a garment factory, Eric’s mother could not challenge her low pay and lack of benefits. When she became ill, there was no safety net — another factor related to cutbacks in social services under neoliberalism. Eric had to leave school and secure employment to support his family.
The state did not provide resources to help his family in troubled times. But it maintained robust law enforcement. From 1984 to 2005, California built 23 major prisons, at a cost of about $300 million each, amid growing poverty and inequality. The escalation in spending and heavy policing of poor and minority neighborhoods facilitated Eric’s arrest and deportation. Once in custody, Eric was placed in a private prison. (The privatization of public services and profitability of prisons are among the key elements of neoliberalism.)
Globalization, enhanced by neoliberal reforms, facilitates the movement of capital across borders while restricting the mobility of workers. This makes it possible for Eric, a deportee, to work for a U.S. corporation in his native Guatemala. The arrival of 50,000 deportees a year in Guatemala ensures a steady supply of bilingual workers for this transnational corporation. Nearly half the workers at the call center where Eric works are deportees. In other words, mass deportation from the United States is critical to the sustainability of neoliberal economies at home and abroad.
Creating disposable workers
The United States is deporting more people than ever before. President Barack Obama hit an all-time high of more than 400,000 deportees in 2012. These numbers are unprecedented: In the first five and a half years of his presidency, Obama, a liberal Democrat, deported more than 2 million people — more than the total of people deported before 1997. Why are deportations at a record high? As with Eric, many deportees today have close ties to the United States. The vast majority of deportees are men of color. Why are they the primary targets?
The answer I offer in “Deported” comes primarily from talking to deportees. Their stories are the best way to capture the nuance and complexity of mass deportation and the effects of neoliberal reforms on their family histories and migration trajectories. When we listen to deportees, it becomes evident that they are immigrants, low-wage workers, men of color and fathers. Their stories make clear how their migration and their subsequent deportation are linked to neoliberal reforms in the United States and abroad.
The mass deportation of men of color is part of a U.S. policy response designed to relocate surplus labor to the periphery and to keep labor in the United States compliant. The U.S. public accepts this policy response because it targets immigrant men of color — people perceived to be expendable in the current economy and unwanted in the broader society. Toward that end, neoliberal economic changes abroad create migration flows that send migrants to the United States, which creates a disposable labor force and, when that force is deported, produces a further cheap labor pool for multinational corporations that operate in their home countries.
This is why mass deportation must be understood as the latest permutation of the global neoliberal cycle that began in the 1980s. A thorough analysis requires stepping back and taking a critical look at the long-term social and economic processes that produced global migration from the south to the north, the current state of the neoliberal economy, the rise of a coercive state and the uneven integration of developing countries into the global economy. A consideration of mass deportation from this standpoint provides a comprehensive explanation for why mass deportation is happening now.
Adapted from “Deported: Policing Immigrants, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism,” published by New York University Press (Dec. 11, 2015). © 2015 by Tanya Golash-Boza. All rights reserved.