Detain and Deport: The Chaotic US Immigration Enforcement Regime

Detain and Deport: The Chaotic US Immigration Enforcement Regime


Reviewed by Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman

First Published:

13 Dec 2022, 9:51 am


Detain and Deport: The Chaotic US Immigration Enforcement Regime

Nancy Hiemstra, Detain and Deport: The Chaotic US Immigration Enforcement Regime, Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2019; 200 pp.: ISBN 9780820354651, US$99.95 (hbk); ISBN 9780820354637, US$29.95 (pbk)

Since the founding of the United States, (im)migration of people has been steadfast. In other words, immigration to the United States is not a 21st-century occurrence. What has evolved over centuries of (im)migration to the United States is a complex system aimed at stopping (im)migrants before they attempt to reach the United States. As the author notes, the United States deports and detains more people when compared to other countries globally. Hiemstra’s Detain and Deport: The Chaotic US Immigration Enforcement Regime is a welcome addition to the literature on immigration policy, border regimes, US border enforcement, and more importantly, the complex labyrinth of the US immigration system. Hiemstra argues that for over 30 years US policy has been consistent on detention and deportation as a form of immigration enforcement, regardless of political administrations. This form of immigration enforcement has been extended globally to include the construction of detention centres outside US territory.

In Detain and Deport, Hiemstra asks how detention and deportation became central to US immigration policy. The author examines the factors that lead to detention and deportation and the consequences of this US global movement. She argues that, like many countries, the United States is collectively working to expand its ability to detain and deport immigrants. Hiemstra maintains that adding to the complexity of the US detain and deport policy is transit countries building detention centers to ‘ensnare migrants’ (p. 2) before they reach the United States. This leads to an examination of how US immigration policies filter through to other countries. To address the questions under examination, Hiemstra conducts a transnational ethnography of policy and chronicles the lived experiences of Ecuadorians detained and deported by the US immigration system. She argues that examining the country of origin is critical to uncovering the cloak and dagger impetus of US immigration policy.

In Detain and Deport, Hiemstra contends that family separation, including separation of blended families, is unwarranted, but political elites and some in the public mischaracterise immigrants and the immigrant experience. She counters these anti-immigrant assertions by presenting rational evidence-based work revealing the rationale behind US immigration policy. Hiemstra goes on to argue that the US immigration system is a calculated chaotic system meant to dissuade immigrants; and purposely constructed to conceal from the public, constituents and policy-makers how the inner workings of the immigration system function. By creating an atmosphere where immigration is viewed as chaotic, immigration policies easily gain political and public support. Instead, the author proposes a shift away from detain and deport by highlighting how policies evolve over time and the consequences of such policies as well as the implications of the reach of said polices to various global geographic areas. Hiemstra deconstructs the notion of chaos and reveals that fundamental beliefs about what detention and deportation actually do are flawed. Rather, the author maintains that ‘detention and deportation fail as deterrents’ (p. 4); the actual effect is displacement of immigrants for a moment in time, but eventually the migration will continue to the United States. Detain and Deport emphasises that detention and deportation policies are transnational in practice. While the intent of detain and deport is to reduce and/or eliminate factors that lead to migration, an unintended consequence is strengthened ties between the United States and countries of origin. Because of these ties, Hiemstra suggests that detain and deport policies inadvertently bind two countries for short and long periods.

Detain and Deport argues that immigrants are portrayed as a threat to national security, and a drain on economies, thus detention and deportation policies are implemented under the guise of national security and national identity. Omitted from this anti-immigrant dialogue is how private detention centres and local governments profit from detaining and deporting immigrants. Hiemstra goes on to argue that there is vested monetary interest in continuing detention and deportation policies. Profiting from detention and deportation has become normalised by those who profit from the US immigration system. Furthermore, the author suggests that by deconstructing the policies that lead to detention and deportation undertones of racist and xenophobic policies are exposed. Through ethnographic research, Hiemstra supports this assertion by highlighting the United States’ role in destabilising economies and political arenas resulting in ‘unwelcomed’ immigrant populations seeking refuge in other countries, such as the United States. This culminates in the creation of policies that criminalise and marginalise certain immigrant populations making them visible to the public and targets of ‘justified’ detain and deport policies.

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the reader to Hiemstra’s feminist approach to transnational ethnography. She brings awareness to the role human mobility plays in immigration/migration studies. The author contends that transnational ethnography is ‘both a theoretical and methodological approach useful for examining policy through everyday lived experiences, spaces, and places’ (p. 13). The author conducts her examination of the factors that lead to US detention and deportation and the consequences of these policies by interviewing and volunteering at a government migrant house in Cuenca, Ecuador. Hiemstra pays special attention to how policies are experienced by migrant families, detainees and deportees, regardless of globally defined boundaries. She focuses on how immigration policies are unterritorial and intersect space, affecting people regardless of geographic location. Through her transnational ethnographic work, the author traces how US policies ultimately materialise in a migrant’s country of origin. Essentially, Hiemstra’s volunteer work at the migrant house is the basis for her transnational ethnography approach to deconstructing US policies.

Chapter 2 provides a detailed discussion on migration theories that lead to the movement of people. From a feminist approach, Hiemstra highlights the importance of giving a voice to the experiences of migrant families, detainees and deportees. The author is influenced by the relationship between colonial and neoliberal capitalism and its role in creating global economic disparities in Ecuador. The chapter illustrates how the influence of foreign governments has been instrumental in exacerbating economic disparities leading to the movement of people. Chapter 2 also provides a brief, yet concise history of US migration and border policies.

The strength of Detain and Deport is found in Chapters 3 through 6. Through meticulous detail Hiemstra summarises the massive US immigration system and its policies grounded in national security and popularised by racial panic. From the immigration industrial complex to the various political administrations, the author illustrates how detention and deportation will continue unabated, not only domestically but also internationally. Using transnational ethnography Hiemstra illustrates that the chaos of the US immigration system is not experienced evenly by all immigrants. The chaos is closely linked to racialised policies against certain unwelcomed groups while, at the same time, advantages of creating a chaotic system are rooted in the ability to conceal abuses of rights and the profitability of industrialised detention complexes. The author concludes that detainees have little to no recourse when the immigration system is purposely set-up as a ‘seemingly disorganized maze’ meant to dissuade migration and heighten the ‘dominant narrative of national identity’ (p. 98).

In the final two chapters of the book, Hiemstra reiterates her argument that detention and deportation are not effective in deterring migration. Instead, detention and deportation strengthen the ties between sending and receiving countries. The author maintains that ‘deportation cannot be thought of as the termination of a migration journey. Rather, it is often experienced as an unwelcome detour…’ (p. 129). The author concludes that international migration has become the norm and a routine way of life for many people. The movement of people between place and space will continue regardless of the global immigration policies instituted.

In summation, Detain and Deport examines the factors that lead to US policies such as detention and deportation, and the consequences of such policies. Hiemstra uses a feminist transnational ethnographic approach to examine how policies are experienced by migrant families, detainees and deportees outside of the United States. Through her interviews of Ecuadorian immigrant family members, phone calls to detention centres, and her work on 85 migrant cases she is able to disentangle the chaotic US immigration system. Scholars in multiple social science disciplines will find this book applicable to their current streams of immigration research.


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Checkpoint urbanism: Violent infrastructures and border stigmas in the Juárez border region by Ricardo Martén and Camillo Boano

This special issue paper argues that official and criminal checkpoints designed for border-crossing have had a transformative spatial role when considered across the dimensions of infrastructures and urban stigma.