Guest post by Lorena Gazzotti. Lorena is a Lucy Cavendish Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College and CRASSH, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on the containment of marginalized and racialized populations at the Spanish-Moroccan border. She is on Twitter @lorenagazzotti.

Review of Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Changing Migration on the US-Mexico Border  by Jeremy Slack (University of California Press, 2019).  

Deported to Death is a much-needed ethnographic account of the other side of deportation: life after forced return in a deportee’s “country of origin”. The book examines the experience of people forcibly returned from the US to Mexico and the impact that forced removal has on host communities, focusing on the extreme violence that targets returnees once they are dropped off on the other side of the border. The book is part of an emerging body of migration literature focusing on the deportation continuum, including Clara Lecadet’s work on Mali, Liza Schuster’s and Nassim Majidi’s research on Afghanistan, Beth Caldwell’s book on Mexico, and Luke De Noronha’s forthcoming monograph on deportation to Jamaica.

Deported to Death is composed of an introduction, seven substantive chapters, and a conclusion. Chapters 2 through 6 examine how violence emanating from organized crime and drug cartels affects the lives and journeys of migrants on their way to the United States and after they have been deported back to Mexico. In particular, Slack shows how being a deportee makes returnees easy targets for violence. Deportees have no strong networks because they are “in transit”; they are disoriented and are therefore incapable of navigating the social codes of border areas; and they carry visible ties to the US, which show in their uncertain Spanish language skills or as marks upon their bodies. The kind of violence deportees are at risk of is multidimensional: it can come in the form of kidnapping (Chapter 3) or torture (Chapter 4), often for the purpose of extracting a ransom from families, or to transform deportees into docile forms of labour for organized crime (Chapter 4 and 5). Chapter 5, however, highlights that the relation between deportation and recruitment into organized crime is complex. Migrants are not simply coerced into joining cartels, but sometimes choose to do so because organized crime is one of the only forms of revenues accessible to deportees with no other support available. These multidimensional forms of violence against deportees create an environment where physical and social deaths are somehow omnipresent but out of sight, taken for granted, and seemingly not worth investigating (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 examines the personal relationships emerging amongst deportees in the face of the violence targeting them. The chapter looks both at how these relationships provide returnees with a source of protection and resistance in the face of pervasive violence, and also at how that same violence erodes those fragile bonds. Chapter 8 explores the production of deportation in the US asylum system, focusing particularly on the bureaucratic factors that determine how the decisions over someone’s safety are made, often in counterintuitive and deeply flawed ways.

The book engages with four particular thought-provoking themes. Firstly, Deported to Death convincingly shows that deportation is not a one-off administrative procedure, but an enduring form of punishment that permeates returnees’ lives along a temporal and spatial continuum. The book advances important reflections about the slow workings of border control, highlighting how violence and poverty in the country where people are deported to – their “country of origin” - function as infrastructures of containment, which work in tandem with the geographical exclusion from the territory of the host country to keep migrants in a perpetual state of limbo (Picozza, 2017).

Secondly, the book engages an important discussion about “home” and “belonging”. This ethnographic account of deportation highlights a concerning discrepancy between the embodied meaning of belonging, where deportees have lived so long in their host country that they no longer master the social and political codes of the country where they supposedly “come from”, and the highly-scripted definitions of origin and belonging codified in US migration law. The higher the distance between the two, the more vulnerable the position of returnees upon forced removal, especially since the US drops returnees off in Mexico’s borderlands without connecting them to any form of support. This constitutes a starting point to allow scholars, advocates and policy-makers to question the label “country of origin”, its appropriateness in the regulation of human mobility, and its politicization in migration control.

A third point of interest of the book is that it recasts attention on a central topic in studies of migration control: the legal production of exclusion. While Nicholas De Genova’s pioneering work on the legal production of illegality showed how restrictive migration laws actively produce undocumented migration, Slack’s work highlights how the outcome of an asylum seeker’s claim to protection, a deportation order or the signature of a “voluntary” return form, are not the straightforward consequence of a single piece of legislation. Rather they are the tortuous coming together of different instruments of border control which prevent people on the move from lawfully applying for asylum while physically and financially removing them from sources of legal counselling and exposing them to the racist workings of the everyday bureaucracy of immigration courts.

Lastly, the book raises two important points about the epistemology and ethics of deportation research. Slack invites academics to offer their expertise (and more nuanced understandings of categories of “danger” and “safety” in countries of origin) to legal actions determining the fate of people on the move, a recommendation that very rarely emerges in debates about the social impact of academic research. Furthermore, the appendix of the book reminds us that research on violence is itself a violent process for the researcher. The book highlights how a sound experiential knowledge of field sites and the possibility to work in teams remain critical resources that researchers need to be equipped with, yet ones that cannot be taken for granted in the age of casualised and precarious academic labour. Importantly, the book recognizes that academia urgently needs to address the shortfall of resources to support students and staff conducting research that is likely to produce secondary trauma on academics.

If we must find a flaw in the book, it is that it leaves migration control theorists a little hungry. The public anthropology style and the broad outreach vocation of the monograph, which are its strengths, come at the expense of the author not fully exploiting the theory-building potential of the empirical findings — a  task for the next generation of migration scholars to fulfill, following avenues that Slack has already clearly indicated. Nonetheless, Deported to Death is an excellent ethnography of deportation, accessible to general audiences, highly informative for more specialized readers, and appropriate for students of Anthropology, Sociology, Geography and Public Policy.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Gazzotti, L. (2020). Book Review: Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Changing Migration on the US-Mexico Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/09/book-review-0 [date]