Guest post by Agnieszka Radziwinowiczówna, William Lopez and Alexander Stephens. Agnieszka is a former Kościuszko Foundation Fellow at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. William is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the School of Public Health and National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan. Alexander is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Michigan.

The language of the U.S. deportation regime obscures the violence it produces. ‘Voluntary departure’ is a deportation procedure that allows individuals, whom the government has marked for ‘removal,’ to leave U.S. territory on their own after purchasing a ticket. While seen as a less punitive form of deportation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and some attorneys and migrants, the term ‘voluntary’ is deceptive. Instead, it is an intensely coercive enforcement mechanism that preys on the belief that compliance might lead to clemency. Drawing upon our advocacy experience with a family in U.S. Midwest during the spring of 2018, we consider why migrants with orders of deportation agree to depart ‘voluntarily.’ We argue that, far from a choice, this form of deportation compels compliance via two intersecting forces: the threat of violence against self and family and the hope that current compliance will allow a future return. We suggest that five sets of actors shape this decision: the migrant, immigration authorities, family and friends, immigration attorneys, and advocates.

11.30pm: We prepare to go to the airport to support Verónica and her family, who plan to meet Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at 3.30am for her 6.50am flight back to Honduras, where she had not been in 15 years.

In 2013, DHS discovered that Verónica was in the country unlawfully and ordered her to check in every year, a request with which she complied. But when she checked in at the beginning of 2018, she was told to depart voluntarily or face detention and forced removal. She was instructed to return to ICE in a month with an airplane ticket in hand.  After five years of compliance at immigration check-ins, working with a permit, and paying income taxes, Verónica expected DHS to accept her petition to postpone her deportation and permit her to follow through with a pending request for an interview to determine whether she qualified for asylum, especially because she was to return to a Honduran town in which two of her family members had been murdered. 

But when Verónica returned to the ICE office with her ticket in hand, an agent told her that if she pursued the interview, he would immediately detain her. Immigrant detention experiences are frequently traumatic. Moreover, if Verónica were detained, she would spend her last few days in the country away from her family. Arguably, then, ICE used the threat of detention to coerce Veronica into abandoning her legal effort to stop her deportation. They told her she would not receive a decision on her sole remaining legal option—a motion for a ‘stay of removal’—until she arrived at the airport the morning she was slated for deportation.

11:45pm As we prepare to go to the airport, we get a phone call: Verónica found out that her request for a stay of removal was denied. Hearing the news, she collapsed. Instead of the airport, we are going to meet her in the ER, where she lies unconscious. 

Clearly, hope shapes the decision to comply with a ‘voluntary departure.’ Verónica was planning to go to the airport, in part, because she was hopeful for a stay of removal. When she learned about the government’s decision to deny her request, her despair was embodied in the loss of consciousness.

1.00am: Verónica is lying in a hospital bed, unaware of the family that surrounds her. Because only two people are allowed in the room at a time, we and family members take turns going in to sit with her. When not with Verónica, we congregate in the waiting room. The family is nervous about whether Veronica can report to the ICE agents at the airport. If she does not report, we fear that ICE will come to the hospital and question everyone in the waiting room, some of whom also may be at risk of deportation. Should we go to the airport and tell ICE that Verónica is unconscious in a hospital bed? If we don’t, will they raid her home? Who might they find and arrest there?

In this sense we saw how the threat of violence extends from the individual to the community. We all feared that Verónica’s failure to appear for a ‘voluntary departure’ at the airport would result in the arrest and deportation of others in her family and circle of friends.

2.00am: Verónica’s husband is nervous: “They will take her by force out of the hospital, I don’t want my wife to have a stroke, me entiende?” “Should she seek sanctuary in a church?,” asks another family member.

But was a church a realistic option? Had the family chosen to seek sanctuary in a church, they would have had to trust that a congregation was equipped to offer it. Such community advocates represent another set of actors with the potential to shape decisions about whether to comply with deportation orders. In some cases, advocates have created alternatives that shift the balance between coercion and hope.

2.30am: Verónica has not recovered yet. Her cousin and boss, Patricia, arrives. Patricia came from Honduras as an asylum seeker in the 1980s and now is a US citizen. “You have to do everything according to the law”, she explains to Verónica’s family in Spanish.

Friends and family play a vital role. Often their advice is rooted in experiences under a range of U.S. administrations with distinct enforcement policies. Patricia’s U.S. citizenship, knowledge of English, long history in the U.S., and the fact she employs Verónica imbue Patricia with a degree of authority that influences the decisions made by Verónica and her family.

3.00am: The family has not yet decided on a course of action, so two of us agree to drive to the airport and wait in the parking lot for their decision. If the family decides that we should tell the agents that Verónica is in the hospital, we will do so. Jorge shares his opinion: “I don’t want them to know, because they will come here, or they’ll put a grillete on her!” Several years before, Verónica had to wear an ankle monitor—the grillete—because she had missed a check-in with ICE. “El grillete,” Jorge explained, “it was hurting her!”

‘Voluntary departure,’ as government strategy, feeds on threats of detention and deportation and the related dangers that face the various members of a mixed-status household. It is not an abstract fear. Jorge’s warning about ‘the grillete’ reflected the materiality of coercion and its disciplining impact on his wife’s body, as it restricted her freedom of movement and caused her pain.

3.15am: Patricia and others in the family convince Jorge to comply: “You need to follow the law! How do you think the kids will be able to apply for her to come back if she goes to a church now?”

The postponement of hope—to some imagined future in which legal permanent resident status might be possible—is yet another factor influencing compliance with ‘voluntary departure.’ One of Verónica’s U.S.-citizen children will be 21 in seven years, at which point she will be eligible to petition for her mother to return as a legal resident. The family based its decision, in part, on this ‘postponed hope.’

3:35am Verónica regains consciousness. She tells her family members that she still wants to comply. Patricia calls us to direct us to tell the agents what happened and where they are.

3.45am: We get a call that ICE had phoned Jorge, and he told them that we were on our way to the airport to meet them. ICE instructs Jorge to get proof that Verónica is in the hospital and report to ICE the next morning.

5:00am Verónica is discharged from the hospital. The following day, ICE officials postpone her ‘voluntary departure’ for two weeks. When she returns to the hospital, the doctors determine that she needs treatment and further diagnosis, but there’s no time for the latter.

Eleven days later: Verónica ‘voluntarily’ departs the United States after her final medical treatment, having spent the last two weeks taking her chronically ill daughter to hospital appointments and celebrating Easter with her family. She receives a 10-year re-entry bar, a standard punishment for extended ‘unlawful presence’ in the country.

As scholars and advocates consider what ‘resistance’ means under the U.S. deportation regime, it is essential to understand the forces that structure ‘compliance.’ Our strategies must be rooted in an awareness of how threats of violence and promises of hope intersect to shape decisions of migrants. We do not claim to have answers, but after our experience with Verónica and her family, we find ourselves asking, how can we resist in ways that reflect the reality of the coercive restraints on migrants, while honoring the urgent need to consider alternative futures?

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Radziwinowiczówna, A., Lopez, W. and Stephens, A.(2018) ‘You Have to Follow the Law!’: Actors and Factors Shaping Compliance with 'Voluntary Departure' from the United States. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/06/you-have-follow (Accessed [date]).