Published by EH.Net (December 2023).

Adam Goodman. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. 322 pp.  $42 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0691182155.

Reviewed by Raymond L. Cohn, Illinois State University.


During the colonial period and the first century of U.S. history, no constraints existed on who could enter the country. Though some immigrants left the United States on their own, government was not involved in entry/exit considerations until 1882. Responding to complaints in the west, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, and from that time forward, government has possessed the power to prevent certain people from entering and to deport some who were already resident. The author of this book, Adam Goodman, teaches in the Department of History and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois Chicago. Although his antipathy to deportations is apparent throughout, the book presents a fine and timely study of the history of deportations from the United States.

An important contribution advanced by Goodman is to distinguish among three different types of deportations. The first is self deportation, where conditions were made so awful for certain immigrants that they were “convinced” to return to their home country. Such occurred particularly with the Chinese in the late nineteenth century. The second is formal deportation, where either new arrivals or existing residents did not meet government-set requirements for entry or stay in the United States. Over time, the U.S. government passed various laws, such as excluding anyone who might become a public charge. In these cases, the individual in question went through a formal hearing before being deported. The third type is what Goodman calls informal deportation, and this represents a key aspect of the book. This mechanism – to be discussed in more detail below – has generally been ignored in other work.

Goodman estimates that the United States has expelled 57 million people since 1882, with 85% of them being informal departures, though the total likely counts some individuals more than once. Self deportations were minor; most departures were informal until recent decades when formal deportations became more important. While Goodman provides his estimate of informal deportations, he never presents in detail where this number came from. He does describe in general how he came up with his estimate but an appendix detailing his procedure would have allowed other researchers to follow and perhaps critique what he did. This quibble is minor, as the book makes it obvious that informal deportations were the large majority until recently.

The book consists of an introduction and six chapters. The introduction briefly discusses the three different types of deportations and uses Goodman’s estimates to emphasize that informal departures comprised the large majority. Chapter 1 initially discusses the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first use of federal government power to exclude a group of immigrants. Then, in 1891, Congress passed a law that set up a Superintendent of Immigration who had the power to deport, and the Supreme Court upheld this law in 1892. In all, the chapter covers the period up to the imposition of more general numerical restrictions on entry in the 1920s and introduces the basic problem faced by authorities. It was very costly and time consuming to go through formal deportations using existing law, and the budget to do so was always very insufficient. Thus, immigration officers quickly began to try to get those it wanted to exclude to agree to a voluntary, that is, informal, deportation. Essentially, the officers would convince the individual to sign a document where they agreed to be deported. An individual in this situation could then try to reenter the United States at a future time, whereas a formal deportation usually resulted in permanent exclusion.

Chapter 2 explains the efforts to expel immigrants during the Great Depression, examines Operation Wetback in the early 1950s, and discusses the bracero program. Goodman argues that expulsions grew over time and became numerically centered on Mexicans, not surprisingly since European immigration was now restricted but not that from the Western Hemisphere. The 1950s saw the government use fear campaigns to try to get immigrants to leave on their own and these were reinforced by immigration raids on factories designed to capture and expel those in the country illegally. In the latter case, generally voluntary deportations were used because of the budget constraint. In Chapter 3, Goodman discusses some of the human costs of the expulsions. To discourage attempts to return to the United States in 1954-1956, illegal immigrants were flown or put on a train to south Texas, then put on a boat leaving for Veracruz, a 48-hour trip. Goodman claims there was a willful neglect of physical welfare but also points out that a doctor vaccinated all passengers against smallpox and cared for the sick and injured and that men were separated from women and children. Only two deaths, both from heart attacks, were reported on the boat trips. From Veracruz, the Mexican government transported the people to Mexico City, at which point they were left on their own. The boatlift ended in 1956 with a mutinous uprising on one trip and growing outrage over the practice though some of the latter was likely political. The U.S. government then turned to buses and airplanes to deport.

Chapter 4 takes the story into the 1970s. In Goodman’s view, the topic of immigration became a “crisis” manufactured by politicians, news media, and many labor unions. These years saw the normalization of mass expulsions, with 13 million people deported between 1965 and 1985. The increase came after the 1965 immigration law set limits for the first time on the number of migrants allowed from Western Hemisphere countries. The larger number of expulsions put severe pressure on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Border Patrol due to their limited budgets, so most were “voluntary.” Goodman points out that although migrant labor was needed in the United States, the growing criminalization of immigration, especially from Mexico, won out.

From the migrants’ point of view, the growing fear of discovery and deportation among those in the United States illegally made life difficult. As a consequence, the migrants and those sympathetic to their plight led to a growing resistance to voluntary deportation, which is the subject of Chapter 5. The 1970s and 1980s saw the founding of various Latino organizations to fight deportations, and support was given by some labor unions and the Catholic Church. The fight moved into the legal realm, with the key case being the Sbicca Shoe Factory case that began in 1978 and was not finally settled until 14 years later. Essentially, immigration advocates advised those arrested not to agree to a voluntary deportation and to insist on talking to a lawyer, who advised each person of their right to remain silent, meaning to deport them the INS had to prove they weren’t a U.S. citizen. Such an undertaking was quite difficult given the limited INS budget. These tactics eventually led the INS to reduce their raids on factories.

Chapter 6 takes the story almost to the current day. Goodman discusses the current view among many that immigrants are a threat, a view that became more popular after 9/11 when the risk of terrorism took center stage. This situation has also resulted in the growing militarization of the border and sizeable increases in the budgets of the Border Patrol and INS. With the resistance to voluntary deportations, formal deportations have become the majority, though there has been a decrease in total deportations. The chapter begins with the Immigration Act in 1986 that legalized some 3 million immigrants but also increased enforcement at the border. Further laws technically increased enforcement even more. Other trends have been an increase in the movement from Central America relative to Mexico, increased detentions in the United States, and the growth of sanctuary cities. A brief epilogue summarizes Goodman’s findings and, for a book published in 2020, includes a discussion of the Trump administration’s desire to increase deportations. Anyone familiar with current events will realize that not much has changed concerning immigration since publication.

Goodman’s book represents a fine and comprehensive history of deportations from the United States. But (perhaps intentionally) he never comes to grip with the basic issue. Does a country have the right to exclude certain people and/or limit the numbers entering from certain countries? If so, then deportations become a fact of life. Goodman seems very sympathetic to illegal immigrants and their plight – which in truth is often horrendous – but offers no solutions. Even a much needed reworking of U.S. immigration law would not solve the problem.


Raymond L. Cohn is Professor Emeritus at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Migration under Sail: European Immigration to the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

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