Illustration with photos of various immigrants to the U.S. in the 1940s with words printed in background

Tracing the Roots of U.S. Deportation Practices

Historian Emily Pope-Obeda explores U.S. deportation practices and their impacts, focusing on the 1920s when deportation “came of age.”

Story by

Lori Friedman

Photography by

Illustration by Valerie Chiang

A statue called “Future” sits outside the entrance to the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C., where government records are preserved and housed. Carved in limestone and completed by sculptor Robert Ingersoll Aitken in 1935, it depicts a woman sitting with an open book on her lap. The pages are blank, to be filled with the history that has yet to be written. A line from William Shakespeare, “What is past is prologue,” is inscribed in the pedestal to announce the reason for the archive’s existence: The past set the stage for this present moment. This present moment will set the stage for the future.

Inside the building, historian Emily Pope-Obeda sits, on occasion, combing through the paper records of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). Pope-Obeda goes digging through this “terribly organized record set” in search of a better understanding of deportation practices of the past which set the stage for today and tomorrow.

She is looking specifically at practices of the 1920s for her current book project, based on extensive research, including “...hundreds and hundreds of individual case files,” she says. “A lot of the work of this is trying to take those hundreds of case files and map out patterns across them and see some of the ways those practices played out by group, by location, regional offices, all those things. I supplement that by looking at organizational records, often from immigrant rights organizations or legal aid organizations that represented immigrants in deportation proceedings.”

Pope-Obeda also searches through historical newspaper databases to gain a sense of how deportation was depicted and imagined.

According to Pope-Obeda, the 1920s was a turning point in the U.S. deportation apparatus, a time when the U.S. government undertook a focused effort to streamline and centralize operations to address populations it perceived as threats. It is when, according to Mae Ngai, a scholar who has studied U.S. immigration policies of the 20th century, deportation “came of age.”

The ’20s saw a significant rise in the number of people being deported, preceded by “... an intense persecution of suspected communists or other radicals in 1919,” says Pope-Obeda. In the 1930s, the discussion around deportation became more euphemistic. Removal of migrant populations was often referred to as a “voluntary departure,” or as “repatriation,” which is what the mass deportations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during that period were called.

The records reveal stories of conflict, says Pope-Obeda. Much of the friction was born out of a collision between federal policies and the realities of local practices. This was true on the mainland and in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as Hawaii and Alaska, which were not yet states.

“You often see a very different set of local agendas,” says Pope-Obeda. “In some of these places the territorial officials push back against the U.S. government and say: ‘Sure, you have certain ideas about who is and who isn’t welcome. But this is Alaska in the 1920s. We need labor. We’re not really as concerned over their legal crossing status.’”

Sometimes local agendas also included efforts that were less official and more “vigilante” in nature.

“In a lot of places you see―and this may seem familiar from moments in a more contemporary era―a really overzealous effort to police immigrants by local populations,” she says.

Image of U.S. immigrant holding bucket with printed words in background

Pope-Obeda examines deportations in the 1920s, a time she calls “a turning point in the U.S. deportation apparatus.”

Pope-Obeda cites a number of examples in which not only did local labor interests collide with federal policies, but they also intersected with racist attitudes, such as in Arizona in the 1920s.

“One of the main scenarios I look at in the chapter on local agendas is a group that expressed a major fear that European communists were going to come to Arizona and upset the supposedly ‘docile’ Mexican labor force,” she says. “You see all of these different layers of racism coming out.”

Deportation As a Tool of Social Control

Not only was the U.S. government enhancing the deportation apparatus during the 1920s, but the period also marked a moment of growth in state power and control over populations more generally, says Pope-Obeda. Deportation was one aspect of that growth. At times it was used by those in power as a form of labor control.

“The U.S. is often willing to encourage or turn a blind eye to laborers coming into the country, often without authorization, but then is able to―and still does in current eras―wield deportation as a mechanism to shut down labor organizing or protest against abusive workplaces,” says Pope-Obeda. “Some of the early deportations were targeted at people who were kind of upsetting the workplace.”

Attempts to control poverty were also part of the discussions among local officials, she explains, revolving around fears of immigrants becoming dependents.

“And, obviously, we still see so much of this in the rhetoric: ‘Oh, these are people who are just, you know, going to drop babies and use our public benefits,’ and all this―despite the fact that, of course, they aren’t eligible for most public benefits,” says Pope-Obeda. “You see this push and pull between wanting cheap immigrant labor and never wanting the consequences of people who may at times need to demand something of the state.”

In addition to looking at deportation’s role in international relations, nation-building and local control, Pope-Obeda also explores the role of institutions in deportation practices. These include jails and prisons, but also “... ostensibly benevolent institutions like hospitals and asylums that played a huge role in apprehending and referring deportees during the era, ushering in a new level of the surveillance state being used against people.”

The Rise of the Carceral State

Many of the individual case files that Pope-Obeda came across in her research were of Black immigrants or, as the INS defined it at that point, “African, Black.”

“There was just so much that stood out about those case files in the ways Black immigrants were clearly treated in their hearings, the types of criteria that were used against them,” she says. “One of the things I’m focusing on is not only the really, really high rates of the use of the categories of ‘likely to become a public charge’ and ‘a public charge’―which were both very much about policing immigrant poverty and this fear that these non-White immigrants would be a burden on the state financially―but also this really explicit and racialized sexual policing, anxieties about supposed over-reproduction, things like that, sexual promiscuity, that were very much overtly racially colored in those hearings.”

Illustration with image of Jamaican-born political activist Marcus Garvey

Jamaican-born political activist Marcus Garvey was deported in 1927.

For her next book project, Pope-Obeda will trace the arc of deportation of Black immigrants specifically, from the early 20th century into the 21st century, with the 1920s as a period that played a pivotal role in the history of the carceral state and carceral institutions in the U.S.

Pope-Obeda points to instances involving Black leaders like Jamaican-born political activist Marcus Garvey, who was deported in 1927. She also cites examples from the 1950s and 1960s, such as the deportation of journalist and feminist Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian communist labor leader, and a number of other Black activists, some of whom were radicals involved in labor organizing.

“There were deportations of a lot of very well-known Black immigrant radical leaders or major public figures who were essentially silenced by being removed through bureaucratic immigration technicalities,” says Pope-Obeda.

While access to the National Archives has been limited due to COVID-19, Pope-Obeda hopes she will find herself back in the building on Pennsylvania Avenue soon. Because the records she has been looking through are more than 75 years old, access to them has been comparatively easy. INS reorganized and centralized the materials in the 1950s, she says, so while the records from the later periods might be better organized, they may also be more challenging to access.

“One of the good things about a really disorganized records set is it means more happy accidents,” says Pope-Obeda, “more pulling a box because you think it has one thing, but finding something unexpected but productive.”

Whatever Pope-Obeda finds, the records will tell stories about the nation’s past and, therefore, its present, stories that may even inform the way forward.

Story by

Lori Friedman

Photography by

Illustration by Valerie Chiang

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