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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History 

boisi center for religion and american public life

As the national debate on immigration reform continues into the presidential election year, the usual political arguments for widespread deportation of “illegal immigrants” lack a basic awareness of the American deportation policy, argued Boston College law professor Daniel Kanstroom at the Boisi Center’s October 17 lunch colloquium.  Kanstroom is the author of the recent book Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History (Harvard, 2007), which chronicles the large, unnecessarily complicated and comparatively harsh system of laws, courts and enforcement mechanisms related to deportation. American deportation policy, he argued, challenges some of our most strongly held social values, including our self-image as a “nation of immigrants” and our faith in the rule of law.

Kanstroom explained that deportation serves two functions in the United States: extended border control and post-entry social control. If border control is about choosing who can legally enter and stay in this country, extended border control enforces these decisions after people have already entered the country. This is the most obvious reason sovereign nation-states wield the power of deportation. The problem, however, is that this form of deportation is neither dominant in the current debates nor on the horizon of conversation.

The latter function—post-entry social control—is on the rise today as the government uses the threat (and reality) of deportation to punish or silence foreign-born dissidents inside the United States. This threat is intense in part because defendants in deportation cases lack basic civil liberties: they are not allowed lawyers or jury trials, and they can be punished retroactively (and deported) for laws that criminalized certain behavior well after the defendants undertook it. Kanstroom worried about what this deportation policy will do in the future—not only to immigration policy more broadly, but also to legal policy in general. A more sensible and honorable approach to deportation policy, he argued, would re-align it with immigration policy once again, rather than making deportation a form of social control.

Ultimately, Kanstroom argued, deportation should be placed under the rule of law.  It should be dealt with on a case by case basis, it should be more in tune with other forms of criminal law and it should not be retroactive.  It is the clear lack of balance between immigration and deportation policy, and more specifically between post-entry social control and extended border control, which Kanstroom addressed in his book and in his talk.