Taking notes 55: how mass deportation sustains global apartheid

dep_Julian Lucas

by Tanya Golash-Boza

Saturday, we went out to a picnic. Sunday, we were going to go to church. On Sunday morning around 8:30, they knocked on the door really hard. They called from outside: ‘Maria Acosta, this is immigration. We need to talk to you.’ Maria didn’t have nothing to fear, so she went down. They asked, ‘Does your husband live here?’ – Vern, Guatemalan deportee.[1]

Vern went downstairs and the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents at his door handcuffed him and put him in their car. His wife and two children were devastated as they watched Vern being taken away. Eight days later, Vern was deported to Guatemala. Maria had to figure out how to get by with her minimum-wage job. Vern had to learn to readjust to Guatemala City–which he had left eighteen years earlier.

There have been five million deportations from the United States since 1997–two and a half times the total of all deportations prior to 1997. Mass deportation has not affected all immigrants equally: the vast majority of deportees are Latin American and Caribbean men. Today, nearly 90 percent of deportees are men, and over 97 percent of deportees are Latin American or Caribbean, even though about half of all non-citizens are women and only 60 percent of non-citizens are from the Americas.

Pedro Pimentel Rios

[Credit: AP.]

Mass deportation from the United States maintains a system of what Nandita Sharma calls “global apartheid,” where the rich (and mostly white) people of the world can travel wherever they desire while the poor (and mostly nonwhite) are forced to subsist in their countries of birth and are criminalized if they attempt to change their lot in life.

Mass deportation helps maintain this system of global apartheid by removing mostly nonwhite people from the United States—a land of plenty—to much poorer nations where most people are not white. Without the possibility of deportation, many more people would be able to move freely around the world. Without the reality of deportation, Vern would be living with his wife and children.

In the context of extreme global inequality, for many people in the world, emigration is the best (or only) option they have to achieve a decent standard of living. Most poor people have no option for legal emigration to a wealthier country. Thus, they choose to migrate illegally, at great personal and financial cost. Brazilians, for instance, often pay over $10,000 to travel dangerous routes across the desert after being denied entry visas to the United States. Guatemalans often pay around $8,000 to human smugglers in order to enter the United States illegally when they face limited economic options in their home country and have no option of entering the United States legally.

An illegal immigrant boards a plane at a flight operation unit at Mesa airport during his deportation process in Phoenix

[Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria.]

Vern, for example, was born in 1971 in Guatemala City to a single mother who struggled to get by. When Vern was 16, he got a job as a bus inspector. When he and his co-workers began to organize a union, they received death threats. Vern saw emigration as his best option for survival. With no option to enter the United States legally, Vern decided to enter surreptitiously into the United States.

This choice to enter another country illegally often involves a perilous journey. Senegalese migrants take rickety boats across the Gibraltar Strait to enter Europe through Spain; Chinese migrants take long voyages across the Pacific Ocean; and Central American men, women, and children cross Mexico to the United States on the “Train of Death,” as the cargo train on which they cling to hitch a ride is aptly named. Those that travel by sea risk death due to overcrowding on unseaworthy vessels. Those that travel by land are often tortured, violated, and extorted by criminal bands as well as law enforcement agents.

In August 2010, Mexican authorities discovered the bodies of 58 men and 14 women stacked in a small room on a ranch near the Mexican border city ominously named Matamoros, which means “killing Moors.” The bodies belonged to migrants from Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, and other countries. There are still no criminal convictions for this case. However, many people believe that the Zetas, a paramilitary criminal organization in Mexico, are responsible and that these migrants had either refused to become hit men or drug couriers or were unable to pay enormous ransom fees to the Zetas. In the first six months of 2011, human rights organizations estimated there were 10,000 kidnappings of migrants attempting to cross Mexico. Getting across Mexico was the most dangerous part of the journey for many of the Brazilian and Guatemalan deportees I interviewed. This journey is particularly dangerous for women and girls. According to Amnesty International, six out of ten Central American women and girls are victims of sexual violence during their journey through Mexico. This journey and the risks it entails are a direct consequence of restrictive migration policies.

Bernardo Ortega Guerrero

[Credit: AP/LM Otero.]

Within the system of global apartheid, citizens of wealthy countries and highly skilled professionals often have the option of emigrating if they so choose. This, however, is not the case for the vast majority of people in the world, due to visa restrictions, which provide citizens of wealthier and more democratic countries with more freedom of movement across international borders. For example, citizens of Belgium, Germany, Sweden, and the United States enjoy the right to travel to 155 countries without a visa; Sudanese, in contrast, can only enter 26 countries without a visa; Pakistanis can go to 25 destinations, and Afghans, 22. Individuals are positioned differentially with regard to their options for international migration, according to their countries of birth–constituting what Ayelet Shachar calls the “birthright lottery.”

Despite the tremendous risks and obstacles, thousands of migrants venture out from their countries of birth every day in attempts to improve their lives. Others flee their home countries due to death threats or in the aftermath of personal violence. Many of these clandestine migrants are able to cross borders and change their lives.

When Vern arrived in the United States in 1991, he applied for asylum. The Immigration and Naturalization Service gave Vern a work permit as his case was being processed. Vern thus began to work in a frozen food processing plant in Ohio. He met a Honduran woman, Maria, who had also applied for political asylum, and they began to date. Each year, they received work permits that allowed them to continue working. Hopeful their cases would eventually be resolved, Vern and Maria married, and had their first child in 1996.


[Credit: aljazeera.com.]

In 1998, Vern received a notice that he should leave the United States–his asylum application had been denied, even though he faced death threats after trying to organize a union. If Vern had an immigration lawyer, his asylum plea may well have been granted: 88 percent of asylum seekers without lawyers are denied. Vern’s plea may also have been granted if he had a different judge. Some judges have a record of denying 100 percent of asylum cases whereas other judges deny as little as 4 percent of asylum cases. In Cleveland, where Vern’s case was heard, the approval rate by judges varies from 50 to 87 percent.

Once Vern heard his plea was denied, he was distressed – he had established a life in Ohio and had few ties to Guatemala. He decided to stay, and hope that his wife’s application would be approved, and that she could apply for him to legalize his status. They had another child, and continued to make their lives in Ohio. Vern became a supervisor in the food processing plant. Maria also worked there, but she worked on the line, earning less money than Vern.

Vern and his wife had a comfortable life in Ohio, but Vern lived in fear that immigration agents would come for him. To avoid this, he stayed out of trouble. He did everything he could to avoid problems with the police–he never drank, avoided committing traffic violations, and abided by the laws at all times. He learned English, took his kids on outings every weekend, and tried to blend in as much as possible. Vern told me, “I was a model citizen.” Then, he followed it up with “or illegal,” clarifying that his good citizenship behavior did not actually endow him with any legal status.

San Diego, Calif. Family members reunite through bars and mesh o

[Credit John Moore/Getty Images.]

Once unauthorized migrants are in the United States, they have a less than 3 percent chance of being apprehended and deported. The threat of deportation, however, keeps migrants compliant as they try to stay under the radar. Vern lived in constant fear of deportation. One Sunday morning, his worst nightmare became a reality.

Two ICE agents came to Vern’s house and arrested him in front of his wife and his children–aged 12 and 9. The immigration agents were part of a Fugitive Operation Team–designed to find “fugitive aliens”–people like Vern who had ignored their deportation orders. Vern was put into detention, and, eight days later, he was in Guatemala, the country he had left eighteen years before.

Vern was never given the opportunity to explain to a judge that he had ignored his deportation order because he had already formed a family in the US, that his family depended on him to meet their daily needs, that he had worked at the same job for sixteen years, that he had never had any trouble with the law, that his two children are U.S. citizens, or that his wife was very close to attaining legal status, and thus to ensuring his own legal status. Instead, he was summarily detained and deported to Guatemala.


[Credit: johnfanestil.blogspot.]

Vern thus soon found himself not too far from where he started. He arrived back in Guatemala City where he stayed with his sister in a shack made of cement block and cardboard.

In 2014, 51,157 Guatemalans, like Vern, were deported from the United States. This mass deportation helps to maintain the system of global apartheid. Migration restrictions are designed to keep poor people in poor countries. Insofar as these restrictions are ineffective and unauthorized migrants find their way into wealthier countries, mass deportation has become a critical tool in the maintenance of global apartheid.

Global apartheid shares some similarities with its namesake, South African Apartheid. In the aftermath of the British victory in the Boer War in South Africa, the Afrikaaner National Party regained power and implemented a system of Apartheid that excluded native Africans from voting, prohibited inter-racial sex and marriage, and mandated residential segregation. Native Africans were relegated to economically deprived homelands whereas whites and coloureds lived in more prosperous provinces. Native Africans were allowed into these provinces to live and work, but on a highly restricted basis. Their movement was restricted through a system of pass laws, which made it illegal for Native Africans to travel without a pass and forced them to request authorization so spend more than 72 hours in urban areas. These regulations were designed such that Native African men could enter the provinces to work but could not raise their families there.


[Credit: laopinion.com.]

The quality of life in the provinces far exceeds that of the homelands. For example, provinces have mortality profiles and rates of infectious diseases similar to middle-income countries such as Brazil or Mexico whereas the homelands look more like much poorer neighboring countries in southern Africa such as Zimbabwe. Within the provinces, whites have, on average, a better standard of living than coloureds.

Apartheid in South Africa was dismantled in 1994, in response to mass mobilizations at the national level as well as international pressure. However, global apartheid persists. South African Apartheid relied on racial categorizations as justifications for exclusionary tactics. Global apartheid, in contrast, relies on place of birth, which is often mapped along racial lines.

US Customs and Border Protection Process

[Credit: Robert Nickelsburg/Getty Images.]

By raising the cost of illegal border crossing, the United States minimizes the number of (mostly nonwhite) people who are able to seek out better opportunities in this country. It also contributes to the creation of a vulnerable labor force in the United States.

The global economy depends on a compliant labor force, in both the Global North and the Global South. When workers live in fear of forming unions, companies can easily fire workers or cut wages and benefits without having to worry about strikes, sit-ins, or labor regulations. Many Latin American workers, like Vern, seek out work in the United States after trying to organize unions or strikes in their home country. When they arrive in the United States, these workers, who are often undocumented, find themselves at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy. They also work at the whims of their employer; undocumented workers are even less likely to organize and fight for their rights than other low-wage workers.

Mass deportation helps to maintain this system of global apartheid by removing mostly nonwhite people from the United States—a land of plenty—to much poorer nations where most people are not white. Today’s deportation practices and policies thus ensure that the riches of the world are kept in the hands of a few.


[Thank you indeed Tanya for this contribution. Lead graphic credit: Julian Lucas.]

The writer is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of five books, including Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism, released in December 2015. She tweets as @tanyaboza

End note:

[1] Vern’s name, as well as Maria’s, are pseudonyms.

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