Leave No One Behind: Organizing after Deportation and Forced Return

From the Series: The Damage Wrought: Immigration Before, Under, and After Trump

A map of dangers as resources made by a young Mexican border crosser.

Between 2010 and 2019, more than five million Mexican nationals were deported from the United States, while untold others were displaced through “self-deportation,” “de facto deportation,” and forced return. With the 2020 election of Joe Biden, U.S.-based immigrant rights activists see an opportunity to redress mass deportation programs of the Trump and Obama presidencies. At best, proposed measures would offer some protections for undocumented and mixed-status families currently in the United States. But what about the families already separated by deportation? How can immigration reform address the harms wrought by millions of deportations that have already occurred? The Leave No One Behind Mural Project—a coalition of veterans, youth, and others who were deported or returned from the United States to Mexico—seeks to expand U.S.-based efforts by calling attention to ongoing consequences of mass deportation on families and communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here, we draw on experiences among Mexico City’s deported and returned community to offer three insights about immigration reform and immigrant rights organizing in the current period. The first is that a narrow focus on the Trump administration obscures a longer history of racialized exclusion that implicates both the major political parties and has been fundamental to the consolidation of the settler colonial state. The second is that deportation is not a single event but a long-term process that leaves families separated and/or displaced for years and even lifetimes. These ongoing traumas can and should be addressed by immigration reform measures that allow deportees to reunite with their families and communities. Finally, campaigns for immigration reform that fail to include deported and returned people, among others, reify national boundaries and ultimately legitimize the distinctions that undergird immigration enforcement measures.

One of the people featured in the Leave No One Behind campaign is our friend and colleague, Ana Laura. Ana Laura lived undocumented in Chicago for nearly twenty years with her long-term U.S.-citizen partner and two U.S.-citizen children. Ineligible to adjust her immigration status from within the United States, Ana Laura decided to try her only chance at legalization: pursuing an application for legal permanent residency from a U.S. consulate in Mexico. As she stood on the jet bridge waiting to board her plane to Mexico City in 2016, two U.S. Border Patrol officers detained Ana Laura. From an office in the airport, the officers told her she faced indefinite detention unless she signed a “voluntary departure” agreeing to leave the United States. Afraid she would not be able to return to her children, Ana Laura signed. The Border Patrol officers then escorted Ana Laura back onto the plane bound for Mexico City—the same one she had attempted to board in the first place. Dazed, Ana Laura began to read through the stack of immigration documents the officers handed her, and she realized the agents had barred her from returning to the United States for twenty years.

While the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-immigrant platform caused substantial harm to mixed-status families in the United States and around the world, a narrow focus on the Trump era obscures the legal mechanisms that have facilitated millions of deportations like Ana Laura’s. Most punitive U.S. immigration policies—including those that force people to leave the United States to apply for legal status, facilitate collaboration between local police and federal officials, criminalize undocumented migration, and prevent deported people from returning to their U.S. families—were all established during earlier administrations. And while laws such as 1996’s IIRAIRA are widely credited with establishing the legal frameworks for mass deportation, the legal exclusion of racialized people from U.S. citizenship has long legitimized the consolidation of state power in the hands of a white elite. Reckoning with this longer history helps deported organizers forge common cause with activists working from multiple locales and across a host of issues, including Indigenous sovereignty, the Movement for Black Lives, prison abolition, and Palestinian liberation.

While Ana Laura’s deportation was cruel and humiliating, the trauma of her removal is now prolonged by laws that prevent her from coming back to her family—even for a visit. In addition, Ana Laura currently finds herself excluded from immigration reform proposals currently being bandied about in Congress that, at best, would extend benefits to some undocumented people within U.S. boundaries. The Leave No One Behind campaign, in contrast, challenges the logics of an immigrant rights movement that excludes deportees and their family members. Campaign organizers demand immigration reform that provides both accountability and reparations for families that have been separated by detention and deportation (see Elamin, this series). Practically speaking, this involves measures such as including people who have been deported since 2009 in any legalization program, favorably considering the presence of U.S. family members in applications for nonimmigrant visas, and eliminating prolonged bars on reentry following deportation or departure.

More broadly, deported and returned Mexico City–based organizers protest the legitimacy of borders as obstacles to human mobility, as well as the authority of nation-states to determine community belonging. Thus, the Leave No One Behind campaign also urges U.S.-based activists and legislators to take action to end the suffering of migrants and their loved ones, including closing immigrant detention centers, abolishing ICE, defunding the police, ending deportations, and terminating Mexico’s own border militarization program, Plan Frontera Sur. This bolder platform is informed by a “translocal” politics that moves through and beyond nationalist distinctions of here/there, citizen/alien, and legal/illegal to claim belonging on both sides of the border.