writing on a paper that reads "la frontera cruzó mi vida"

Nothing Has Been Given: Reflections on Parenthood and Deportation, Part Two

Part of our May-June 2024 Series on Deportation and Coerced Return in the Américas.

Other fatherhoods, alternative masculinities, and deportation

Though there is a substantial amount of literature about the emotional and economic aspects of transnational motherhood, much less has been written about the experiences of migrant fathers and family separation. There seems to be a lack of work that addresses the emotional toll that migration or deportation has had on immigrant men (for an exception, see Montes 2013). Previous studies on transnational families have centered on spousal separation and the consequences it has had on the women who stayed behind, on the one hand, and transnational motherhood as an alternative maternity that disrupts traditional notions of mothering, on the other (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 1997; Debry 2010; Montes 2013). Transnational migration and family separation do enable alternative masculinities. Yet, immigrant fathers have not received the same type of attention.

Instead, migrating men are often reduced to responsible breadwinners who undertake a treacherous journey in the service of the family or men who forget about their loved ones once they are in the United States. In this sense, they are not given the benefit of a more complex personhood. These constructions of migrant fathers coincide with the ways in which hard work ethics and the figure of the provider are central to hegemonic or dominant masculine identity. But what happens after deportation when men are not able to perform such an ascribed gender norm? They might face feelings of failing, as both men and fathers, since they no longer meet societal expectations to be financial providers. Yet, even such a discussion erases migrant men’s emotions or their emotionally complex inner-worlds. In the context of deportation, the men we talked to were torn-up, aching for the kids they had to leave behind. In our conversations with Diego and David, we talked about some of these difficult subjects but they were most quiet and pensive when talking about being apart from their kids and how they miss out on everyday activities like greeting their kids when they return from school every day.

Interviewee Diego sitting on stone step near antique wooden door
Image 9: Diego during a walk at El Zócalo. Photo by Gretel Vera Rosas. CC BY-NC-ND

In 2016, Diego, who identifies as an indigenous Totonaco from the state of Hidalgo, was taking his five- year-old son to breakfast near his home in Dalton, Georgia when he passed a driver’s license check point. Diego didn’t have a driver’s license, which was the reason they detained him. When they ran his prints, his case was flagged because of a conviction from 2003—something for which he had served probation without any problem; but now it was grounds for removal. His life changed in that instance; he went from enjoying father/son time to being deported swiftly with a twenty-year ban.

Diego’s deportation exemplifies one tentacle of the immigration detention system that is yoked to policing— that local law enforcement agencies actively collaborate with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through pernicious programs like Secure Communities and the 287g Program. Secure Communities was signed into law in September 2008 and made it so that local law enforcement agencies could check biometrics against the FBI database (already a standard procedure) and DHS’s immigration database simultaneously; then ICE issued instructions to the local law enforcement agency if the subject “needed to be detained.” As of February 2024, there are 136 law enforcement agencies across the nation that participate in 287g agreements. However, the vast majority of them are in the U.S. South. As part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, this program allows state employees to act as ICE officers and arrest people for being undocumented to then send them to a detention center.

Diego at his printing shop preparing a screen print and wearing t-shirt that reads "worldwide citizen"
Image 10: Diego at his printing shop. Photo by Perla M. Guerrero. CC BY-NC-ND

His deportation meant that he had to leave his son and his stepdaughter. In fact, it had just been over a year that the court awarded him temporary custody of his son and all the signs pointed to the fact that he was about to obtain full custody. And though he could not be his stepdaughter’s legal guardian, he took care of her as well, especially during the weekend. So, in fact, he had to leave two kids behind; she is three years older than her brother and though she wasn’t in the car the day Diego was picked up, as an older child she also remembers his immigration detention and would cry in desperation as she tried to talk to him on the phone. Diego has been providing as best he can while being in Mexico. He has a screen- printing business called “F*ck La Migra” where he sells T- shirts, baseball hats, and canvas bags with that sentiment as well as others like “No Kids in Cages” and, his more idealistic, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

His deportation poses a lot of challenges and a lot of worries but, perhaps, none weighs on him more heavily than generational trauma and strained relationships. A twenty-year ban means Diego will have to wait until his son is twenty-eight before they can ever live in the same town or state. As he explained:

The only thing I can get now is that he can come see me every once in a while, but I’m no longer in the child’s life, like, close. Years that we could have shared with “childhood” memories, no more, they won’t exist anymore. That’s the memory that he’s going to have of me, that they grabbed me the day he was with me because he does remember, he reminds me of it.  My son asks: “Why don’t you ask them for one more chance? When you comin’ back home? Why don’t you tell them to let you in?

Diego knows too well the long-lasting repercussions of family separation. This foreknowledge haunts him; but he speaks to his children on a regular basis. Now in the custody of their maternal grandmother who knows that Diego is a good father, he hopes he will be able to see his children soon when they visit Mexico during a summer. In order to make that a reality, however, he needs to save a lot of money to be able to buy airplane tickets and discretionary funds to take his kids to a handful of places in Mexico. While leaving behind his young children weighs on Diego, la paternidad a distancia weighs as much on David (regardless if his son is older).

David immigrated to the United States with his youngest child and made a life for them in Maryland; it was destroyed when his son turned 21 and David was deported:

I [miss] my life because I do not have a life here [in Mexico]. I have my family and other things. But I feel like my family is over there. I had always been with my son since he was born. Even when I separated from his mom, I would go see them every weekend to go to the movies. And then we left [to the United States] and ever since I was always with him, always together.

Interviewee David stands in front of an exhibit of sacks given to those who are deported in which to carry their things and copies of deportation papers.
Image 11: “David y los costales.” Photo by Perla M. Guerrero. CC BY-NC-ND. David, a deportee from Maryland, at an event co-organized by Deportados Unidos en la Lucha in Mexico City in 2019. He stands in front of an exhibit curated by deportees that shows the costales (sacks) they have to put their stuff in and the papeles de deportación (deportation paperwork) they carry when they are removed from the United States.

After his divorce, David emigrated from Mexico City to Maryland with his nearly eight-year-old son in 2003. That was the year the Iraq War began, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was founded to “protect” Americans from cross-border crime and illegal immigration. David was 32. David’s immigration history mirrors that of so many other people since he left a daughter with her mother. But David’s case also differs from the normative story of male migration since he took his youngest child with him because the boy did not want to be separated from him. In this way, David’s story mirrors that of Ana Laura since both left children in Mexico, raised kids in the United States, and are now engaging in transnational parenting post-deportation. Both parents also have one child who qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), implemented through an executive order signed by President Barack Obama. DACA offers young people who have walked a very narrow path—one that is above reproach—temporary legal status.

David and his son moved to Greenbelt, part of the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area and moved a few times to accommodate commutes to work or school. For thirteen years, David took care of his son and labored in the service industry as a restaurant and fast-food worker. He says being in the states changed him, made him a better person; he stopped drinking altogether since he was his son’s sole caretaker. He worked at various sites and impressed his supervisors with his dedication until one day a boss offered him the job as assistant manager. David was honored, thrilled to be given such an opportunity. So, he went out to celebrate. He had several drinks, got behind the wheel, was pulled over, and issued a ticket for driving under the influence. He went to court; they found him guilty and had him wear an ankle monitor for a year, as well as having a breathalyzer in his car. He followed all the instructions and to the letter. That was 2012.

Shortly afterwards, he pulled out of his driveway, made a stop, and a cop pulled him over. The officer asked David where he worked, if he was married or had kids, and whether he had ever been in trouble with the law. David was honest and showed him the ankle monitor. The cop let him go. David went to work, came home, and thought it was a minor incident. The next day, as David followed the same routine, the cop stopped him again but this time he was accompanied by ICE officials who told him he was detained and needed to sign some papers. David resisted by saying he did not understand what those papers said, to let him call his son so that he could translate but the officers became pushier. Finally, a white woman exited her vehicle and aggressively told David he just needed to sign the documents and not make things more difficult for himself. He acquiesced. “What can I do at that moment? You’re nobody in that country and for immigration to come for you, why am I going to argue or something?” In our conversations with deportees, several of them said they were pressured by ICE and DHS personnel to sign a document agreeing to certain proceedings. Even Ana Laura, who had learned in her work in Chicago about immigrant rights, could not withstand the pressure when she was detained at the airport. Although, at first, she resisted signing the document they placed in front of her, after more badgering from the officials, she acquiesced.

Like Diego, it’s likely that David was also caught up in the law enforcement and immigration dragnet since the police ran his prints the first day only for ICE to show up the next day to detain him. When ICE detained David, he recognized one of the officers from a prior incident with a neighbor. In that instance, ICE targeted the Guatemalan woman because they claimed she sold drugs. David approached the ICE official and said, “hey, you went to this house to detain a woman but I’m not a bad person.” In response, the ICE officer asked David if he knew of anyone who sold drugs or firearms. When David said he did not, the officer said, “I can’t help you. If you don’t give me anything, I can’t help you.” Since David didn’t know anything, ICE detained him immediately.

Legally, David’s lawyer attempted to fight his case by arguing that his son was underage and needed a guardian. During this process, David was able to obtain a work permit for two years while they fought for his son’s custody. He was required to check-in periodically and for almost five years, this became routine. Until June 2016, when he received a letter in the mail telling him that he needed to return for an interview. By then his son was DACAmented and was about to turn 21. They no longer had a case. He was detained on October 30th, 2016. And after two months and two days, David was deported on January 4, 2017; he was 46 years old.

As we talked about his experiences and those of other immigrants, we also talked about a shifting policy, or, perhaps more accurately, a strengthening of policy, from the Obama years to the Trump administration. David believes that the Obama administration gave him a chance—he got his DUI, followed the instructions, and never drove drunk again. But he has a hard time understanding what made him such a threat just a few years later.

You know, if I had been a bad person, I would agree and understand. Why would I make such a big deal if I had done something wrong? When the officer put the ankle monitor on me, he told my son that it was because [I] had driven under the influence and [I] could have killed someone. My son responded to him by saying: “you just said it, he could’ve but he did not kill anyone. He already did what you asked him to do. Why does he have to wear that?” The officer told my son that they [were] the rules of [the U.S.]. “But he did not kill anyone,” my son kept repeating. My feeling is that I am not a bad person. What I mean is that I am not a bad person like the one [Trump] describes. He says that those who are being deported are the worst [immigrants] in the United States. And that is not true. He has been deporting people who have a family, people who maybe made mistakes. But many of us learn from our mistakes. Maybe some don’t and they continue making mistakes again and again. But they’re deporting those who really have committed nothing…

This is part of the contradiction—that he doesn’t see how lucky he was not to have harmed someone. Instead, his redemption rests on having learned from his mistakes, as well as being someone who was not a “bad person” or had committed multiple crimes. In this way, like Michelle, they both believe that certain people should be punished, pushed out, and deported; in Michelle’s case, she accepts that she might fit into that category.

David says he can’t “find himself” in Mexico; he just goes from home to work and vice versa:

Over there, however, I would get [home]; I would eat with my son. There were times in which we would go to the movies or to eat out, or order a pizza, or watch a movie. Here, they all have their life. It is almost as if one gets here to interrupt their life. They are not going to stop their life to be with you.

In David’s voice, in the pauses he takes when he is retelling his story, one can hear his nostalgia for the life he created with his son in the United States. It is the quotidian events of the life he shared with his son that he misses. When we asked him about his daughter in Mexico, he said he sees her occasionally; but they do not have a close relationship because he left. In this way, his experiences of transnational fatherhood mirror those of Ana Laura’s maternidad a distancia as their kids in Mexico have vexed feelings about them.


We conclude with Michelle’s reflection about family separation and what she wants people to consider when they talk about immigration. Although we do not believe that deportation should be used as a punitive tactic against people with criminal records, we end with Michelle’s thoughts because of the way she frames her struggle in relationship to other people, especially her mother:

Like, the only thing I wish that didn’t exist was family separation. Maybe for other people who didn’t have a criminal case, public policy needs to change because it causes a lot of trauma for kids and for adults. Some form of visas that would allow people to visit their families.…Even with a lot of restrictions, paying fees, whatever. Or go to funerals. It really sucks to not be there for special moments. Sometimes I think of the parents that went over there, you know, your parents, my mom, that went over there, my mom was 34 years old, she didn’t speak English, she didn’t have any papers….and I think back to the struggles that our parents went through and that is nothing, mine is nothing compared to my mom’s. I can’t imagine going to a country and not speaking the language. I always have that very present because, like, sometimes we tend to magnify our problems and [it helps to] put them into perspective.

Scholars Nicholas De Genova and Nathalie Peutz (2010) conceptualize the coordination between immigration and criminal laws as a deportation regime—a system built to discipline and punish people and as a way for nation-states to enact their sovereign power and the rest of us whether citizens, immigrants, refugees, or deportees experience different political subjectivities in relationship to this process. De Genova and Peutz describe deportation as “profoundly disruptive and plainly debasing for all who are immediately affected” (2, 2010).  The perniciousness of the deportation regime is such that it is weaponized toward individuals who are targeted for forced removal or “coerced return” even as the repercussions of such actions reverberate across families. Communities, here and there, become sites where “inequalities and excesses of state power and sovereignty” are produced in everyday spaces and through quotidian social relations. In this way, deportation is never contained within one territory, it is never simply uni-directional, and the consequences are never confined to one family, one clan, one place, or one country. Creating the most widespread devastation is part of what the system is meant to do (De Genova and Peutz, 2, 2010). The deportation regime is part of the increased criminalization of immigrants that includes making unauthorized crossing a criminal offense and one that constructs immigrants through racialized tropes (Hester, 2017; Goodman, 2021; Molina 2018). Despite all the obstacles and difficulties that deportees face in remaking their lives, they often have an awareness about the situations other people face in transit or upon arrival to a new place. This ability to see their struggles linked with those of others oftentimes makes them great agents of social change. Like abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis have been advocating for decades, we believe that better futures are possible without the use of carceral systems like imprisonment, detention, or deportation.

Three people laying down and holding up signs for the "Florecer Aqua Y Allá" event.
Image 12: Three people at Florecer Aquí y Allá (2019), an event organized by deportees and returnees in El Zócalo, Mexico City. Photo by Gretel Vera Rosas. CC BY-NC-ND

Photo at the top: Image 8: “La frontera cruzó mi vida.” Photo by Gretel Vera Rosas. CC BY-NC-ND

Works Cited

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Aparicio, Ana and et al. 2022. “Introduction.” In Ethnographic Refusals, Unruly Latinidades, xiii–xxxv. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

De Genova, Nicholas, and Nathalie Peutz, eds. 2010. The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement. Durham: Duke University Press.

Dreby, J. 2010. “Divided by Borders: Mexican Migrants and Their Children.” Berkeley: University of California Press.

Durand, Jorge, Douglas S. Massey, and Rene M. Zenteno. 2001. “Mexican immigration to the United States: Continuities and changes.” Latin American Research Review 36, 1:107-127.

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Garrido de la Calleja, Carlos Alberto, and Jill Anderson. 2018. ¿Santuarios Educativos En Méxio? Proyectos y Propuestas Ante La Criminalización de Jóvenes Dreamers Retornados y Deportados. Xalapa, Veracruz, México: Universidad Veracruzana.

Goodman, Adam. 2021. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants. Princeton, NJ: ‎Princeton University Press.

Hester, Torrie. 2017. Deportation: The Origins of U.S. Policy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette, and Ernestine Avila. 1997. “‘I’m Here, but I’m There’: The Meanings of Latina Transnational Motherhood.” Gender and Society 11 (5): 548–71.

Huerta, Amarela Varela. 2018.  “Migrants trapped in the Mexican vertical border.” Border Criminologies Blog.

Molina, Natalia. 2018. “Deportable Citizens: The Decoupling of Race and Citizenship in the Construction of the ‘Anchor Baby.’” In Deportation in the Americas : Histories of Exclusion and Resistance. Texas A&M University Press.

Montes, Veronica. 2013. “The Role of Emotions in the Construction of Masculinity: Guatemalan Migrant Men, Transnational Migration, and Family Relations.” Gender & Society 27 (4): 469–90.

Peláez Rodríguez, DC. 2016. “Stuck on This Side: Symbolic Dislocation of Motherhood due to Forced Family Separation in Mexican Women Deported to Tijuana.” Philosophy in the Contemporary World 23 (5): 5-21.

Reynolds, Tracey, Umut Erel, and Erene Kaptani. 2018. “Migrant Mothers: Performing Kin Work and Belonging across Private and Public Boundaries.” Families, Relationships and Societies 7 (3): 365–82.

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