By Ethan Blue, author of The Deportation Express: A History of America through Forced Removal

The possibility of expedited resettlement in the US for some of the millions of Ukrainians displaced by the ongoing Russian invasion offers an example of how the United States and other wealthy nations might offer refuge for people set adrift by the horrors of war, political violence, poverty, or ecological disaster. Yet these discussions stand in sharp contrast to how mounted Customs and Border Patrol agents at the US-Mexico border treated Haitian refugees just a few months ago, exposing the fraught politics of deciding who is and is not welcome within the United States.

Haitian refugees sought safety from both political violence and dire poverty — the result of centuries of colonialism and racial capitalism, in which the US has played no small role. Thousands were arrested, imprisoned, and forced aboard special deportation flights from Texas to Port-Au-Prince. These Haitian travelers, migrants-turned-deportees, followed paths set much earlier in the nation’s history of selective immigrant regulation. Their experiences exposed the racialized processes of how people seeking belonging in the US can be denied, captured by an expansive American carceral-welfare state and expelled via its complex infrastructures of coerced mobility.

In my recent book, The Deportation Express: A History of America through Forced Removal, I trace the historical roots and spatial routes of systemic denial, arrest, and removal from the United States. A century ago, the US laid the foundations of the largest deportation system that the world has ever known. Between 1890 and the present, it has forcibly removed more than 56 million people.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States developed new means for sifting through migrant populations who—similar to today—left homelands wracked by the conditions of capitalism or torn by the geopolitics of imperial war. The US was a driving force in expanding imperial markets and war, and was one of the largest beneficiaries of both. Indeed, as a settler-nation at the nexus of the Atlantic and Pacific Worlds, the United States was culminating its shift from the relative periphery of the global economy to its core. And yet when people from across the planet sought to live and work in the United States—the profits extracted from their low wage labor filled American coffers—American nativists fretted about the migrants’ eugenic and political qualities, developing new laws, institutions, and networks to contain and expel people they considered undesirable.

Between 1914 and the Second World War, the US Immigration Bureau and the Department of Labor sent reconfigured prison railroad cars on constant circuits around the nation. These Deportation Specials gathered so-called “undesirable aliens”—disdained and arrested for their poverty, political radicalism, criminal conviction, physical disability, or insanity, perceptions compounded by maligned national and ethnoracial difference. They then conveyed them to ports and borders for exile overseas. Previous deportation procedures had been locally-driven, violent, expensive, and relatively ad hoc. But the use of the railroad—perhaps the exemplary technology of industrial modernity—sublimated racial violence into spatial control and facilitated the mass expulsion of the undesirable.

American deportation trains were the culmination of a century’s worth of immigration law.

Ethan Blue

American deportation trains were the culmination of a century’s worth of immigration law, materialized in the steel of their rail networks and force of their engines, expanded in complex links of public administrative bureaucracies and private corporate power. They created a complex network that conjoined a host of security-oriented laws, agencies, and techniques, and enabled the will and desire for an expansive understanding of national protection. Aided by the telegraph, the emerging, nationally coordinated rail-based deportation network connected the nation’s prisons, hospitals, workhouses, mental institutions, and welfare offices.  In so doing, it wove these previously-disconnected sites in the US carceral-welfare archipelago into an integrated infrastructure to cast out the unwanted.

The Deportation Express tells the story of those trains, the people who ran them, and of some of the people who were forced aboard. The trains were mobile, carceral spaces, and their history reveals the deportation journey as a process through which national territory, political sovereignty, and biological community were created and contested.  Each chapter is a stop on a deportation train’s itinerary, and reconstructs the stories of the people forced aboard, their journeys around the planet through global racial capitalism, their capture by the carceral-welfare state, and the process of their expulsion.

The deportation train made for a complicated social space. It was a hybrid of the poorhouse, the prison, the hospital, and the asylum, and moreover, it was on wheels. While many immigration histories are siloed into discrete ethno-racial categories, those distinctions scarcely held aboard the train.  The carriages, with bars across their windows, were as racially diverse as any city in the country and more diverse than many. The deportation train confined many of those deemed contemptible or pathetic—the procurer and the prostitute, the pauper and the lunatic, the anarchist and the disabled worker, and the Chinese laborer, racially ineligible for citizenship. The trains gathered together people marked by multiple and intersecting forms of difference, as objects of pity, danger, or disgust; dozens of features rendered them “undesirable” and the conceptual opposite to the virtuous citizen. When the state worked with private transportation firms to run deportation trains and the globe-spanning networks of which they were a part, they helped to define the inside and the outside of the nation. Deportation trains limned the qualities of belonging, and institutionalized the strategies and technologies of otherness, of literal alienation. By materially and administratively linking institutions across the United States continental welfare-carceral archipelago, and serving as a closed conduit for moving abjected peoples from interior disciplinary spaces to beyond its increasingly fortified borders, the deportation train was an engine in the production of American being and American citizenship.

The deportation train made for a complicated social space. It was a hybrid of the poorhouse, the prison, the hospital, and the asylum, and moreover, it was on wheels.

Ethan Blue

As the age of rail drew to a close and the eras of automobility and air travel beckoned, the deportations trains stopped their relentless circuits. Still, new groups of migrants who were displaced by evolving geopolitical and economic forces continued to seek better lives across the United States’ fortified borders. The bureaucratic and material infrastructures of capture and expulsion that officials developed aboard the deportation trains was far from perfect, but as its managers saw it, it was perfectible. Ukrainians and Haitians, and those already within the US with tenuous legal status, are among the most recent migrants forced to navigate the complicated paths, opportunities, cages, and dead ends in the United States, as they seek dignified lives in and across the American century, and whatever may follow in its wake.

This post is part of our #OAH2022 series. Conference attendees can get 40% off the book with code 21E6464.