By Deborah Boehm, author of Returned: Going and Coming in an Age of Deportation

This guest post is published in advance of the American Anthropological Association conference in Denver. Check back every day for new posts through the end of the conference on Sunday, November 22nd.


Do you consider deportees/returnees and their loved ones to be “lost citizens” as you mention in your afterword? How do the many factors surrounding deportation and transnationalism complicate this classification? 

When I first heard a Mexican national use this term, “ciudadanos perdidos” or “lost citizens,” it was not entirely clear what he meant by it. The label seemed somewhat dismissive of his fellow Mexican citizens. But, as my research about deportation and its effects on communities developed, the notion of “lost citizens” became central and ultimately guided my fieldwork. Profound loss—of home, family, community, belonging, membership, nation, and so much more—defines the experience of deportation, for those who are formally expelled from the United States and for the many more who are connected to them through family and community ties. During previous research about migration and kinship, I repeatedly heard belonging, or not belonging, described as fluid or liminal: people situated themselves as “between here and there” or even “from neither here nor there.” The trope of “lost citizens” echoes this idea of geographic movement linked to ambiguous national membership, but in a way that signals how deportation also constitutes exclusion of a new magnitude.

Deportation creates an absence or void that cannot be denied and is unlikely to ever be entirely remedied. In this sense, the man’s term was an accurate one: deportees are indeed “lost citizens.” Deportation shuts people out of their homeland and also closes the possibility for future lives and imaginings in ways that are much more devastating than the migrations that preceded it. So, “lost citizens” are perhaps best understood as those who experience loss or those who lose precisely because of state action in the early 21st century. In other words, although the category of “lost citizens” emphasizes those who cross borders rather than the institutions that create and fortify them, concrete government policies and politics have directly produced the current global milieu of exclusion. The category of “lost citizens” implies an almost nomadic detachment from place, but for the millions of people affected by deportation, these are forced disconnections that prevent migrants from ever acquiring formal citizenship within countries to which they in fact belong.

In what ways has deportation, chaotic by nature, also become paradoxically ordered? Has this changed since you began your research?

Deportation is characterized by multiple contradictions: policies meant to expel migrants from the nation can strengthen one’s ties to it, a legal process explicitly focused on individuals reaches far beyond the person being deported, government action ostensibly designed to create “security” results in unprecedented insecurity in the lives of millions of people living in the United States. Similarly, despite chaos in every stage of deportation, there is an undeniable order to it, especially given that it is carried out through intentional and orchestrated government action. This kind of structured chaos has intensified since I first started fieldwork. When I began research focused on deportation in 2008, migrants and those of us working with them were hopeful that some form of immigration reform or federal legislation would come to fruition. However, with current legal challenges to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents), a pledge from the leadership of the U.S. Congress not to consider any form of immigration legislation, and xenophobic actions in communities throughout the country, such reform seems unlikely if not impossible in the foreseeable future. And, as the likelihood of reform has dwindled, the extensive apparatus that supports ongoing deportations continues to grow: the privatization of detention and prison facilities, coordinated efforts between different levels of government and law enforcement, and federal programs such as Operation Streamline and Expedited Removal combine to create mass deportations that are certainly ordered and likely to expand in the years to come.

Is there anything on the subject that you would be interested in studying further? 

I recently started a new project specifically about immigration detention. Although deportees I interviewed often spoke of their memories of detention, much of my research has focused on migrants’ lives before and after federal custody, on both the migrations that brought them to the United States and the effects of the deportations that forced them to leave. Now I intend to study detention itself, and the implications of heightened policing and incarceration of foreign nationals in the United States. A relatively small group of scholars has presented provocative research on this topic, but because of difficulties gaining access, ethnographic work in detention facilities can be very challenging to conduct. But—perhaps precisely because of these barriers to access—ethnographic study seems more urgent than ever. Anthropologists are well positioned to provide critical perspectives on detention and to bear witness to the growing prison industrial complex in our country that increasingly intersects with immigration control.

Deborah Boehm is Associate Professor, Anthropology and Women’s Studies/Gender, Race, and Identity at University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans.