Q and A: Border Conflict

History doctoral candidate Adam Goodman investigates the dynamics of deportation.
December 1, 2013

When working as a high school teacher on the U.S.-Mexico border, history doctoral candidate Adam Goodman became acutely aware of the role migration played in his students’ lives. As a visiting scholar in Mexico, Goodman is finalizing his dissertation on the “deportation regime,” all while actively participating in the regular discourse surrounding migration policy in academic journals and popular publications like Salon and The Huffington Post. We sat down with him to learn more.

Tell me about your dissertation, "Mexican Migrants and the Rise of the Deportation Regime.”

My project is a political and social history of deportation. I use Spanish- and English-language archival sources from Mexico and the U.S. to explore the long history of deportation and its quantitative growth and impact over the last 70 years. Deportation did not emerge during Obama’s presidency, or even in the last 25 years, as some journalists and scholars would lead you to believe. Its history is deeply intertwined with the history of Mexican migration: It’s no coincidence that 98 percent of all deportations in U.S. history have occurred since 1942, the same year the Bracero Program started, and Mexicans make up more than 90 percent of all deportees.  

What kinds of research methods did you employ?

Including the social history of deportees—that is, the experiences and perspectives of migrants—is key to my project. Many histories focus on either migration policy or the migrant experience. Ideally, I’d like to combine the two. To that end, I’ve conducted oral histories with deportees and their family members in both countries to explore what it was like to be deported, how the U.S. and Mexican governments—and in some cases private, for-profit contractors—collaborated to physically remove people, and how deportation affected individuals, families, and communities. In January I spent a week in a small town in the state of Jalisco, where I did a number of oral histories and also got to see up close how decades of migration have shaped the lives of the residents and the town itself. Nearly every adult male had migrated, or tried to, and the vast majority had been apprehended and deported at least once. I wrote about this trip in an essay for the Penn Gazette.

When did you first visit Mexico?

I first visited in 2005, and before starting graduate school, I worked as a high school teacher in a small town in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. There, on the U.S.-Mexico border, I learned about the important role migration played in most of my students’ lives. Some spent each year on the move: summers in Michoacán, Mexico; much of the year in south Texas; and the blueberry-picking season in Michigan. Others migrated across the border on a weekly—or daily—basis. Living a few miles from the border sparked an interest in how international migration and the laws that attempt to regulate it shape the lives of migrants, as well as the local communities and nations in which they live.

How did you settle on the issue of deportation?

Four years ago in a seminar with my advisor, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History Michael Katz, I realized that, unlike assimilation, exclusion, and other facets of migration history, relatively little is known about deportation. Yet, 53 million people have been removed or returned from the U.S. since 1892 (when the federal government started keeping statistics), and it is one of the strongest statements a state can make about who does and does not belong. It also raises interesting questions about the U.S.’s reputation as a nation that has welcomed immigrants throughout its history. The topic’s contemporary relevance didn’t hurt either, of course.

You are currently living in Mexico. How important has this kind of immersion been to the project?

Doing research in both the U.S. and Mexico has been essential to my project. The history of deportation cannot be told from only one side of the border. Deportation, by nature, is a process involving two nation-states, and people’s lives obviously continued after they arrived back in Mexico. 

I conducted preliminary research in Mexico thanks to a Faye Rattner Fellowship from the history department and a grant from the School of Arts and Sciences. Then, in 2012, a Fulbright-García Robles Fellowship allowed me to move here for an extended period of time, which has given me a deeper understanding of the “other side” of migration and deportation. 

Where do you hope to take the research in the future?

Eventually, I’d like to publish my research as a book, but first I need to finish the dissertation! As a historian I hope my project will contribute to our understanding of migration, free and forced, contemporary and historical. I also hope my work will find a broader audience. Too often informed voices and historical perspective are missing from debates about hot-button issues like migration, and that’s where historians really have something to offer. One way to contribute to these discussions is by writing articles for popular publications, which I hope to continue in the future.

Watch Goodman’s interview on Mexican national television here. Read his featured article in Dissent, "Young U.S. Citizens Call on Obama to Reunite Families," here, and find more articles and video on his home page.