Author with uncle and partner grilling meet outdoors in Tijuana yard.

“Some people ain’t got no choice”: Transborder Family Survival Against the Deportation Machine

May-June 2024 Series on Deportation and Coerced Return.

Cause man, like I said, any place is a lot better than where I was. If you are here [Tijuana], you are out here in the free world. And as a person, as a man, whatever, you got to adapt. You got to adapt. You got to do what you got to do. Yeah, thankfully I had a family. My dad’s got a house right here. I didn’t have a hard time. People that get deported ain’t got no family. They ain’t got nowhere to go or whatever. Even people from Central America, they deport ‘em here [Tijuana]. And man, where they going to go? Well, what are they going to do? No? Yeah. If it means stealing, if it means robbing, getting into a cartel, if it means whatever, people are going to do it. Some people ain’t got no choice. (August 10, 2022)

My tío was deported to Mexico after being incarcerated within California’s state’s prison system. For most of my childhood years, we showed up for him by making frequent trips from our home in the San Fernando Valley to our home in Tijuana. We’d wake up early at five in the morning on Saturdays to catch the freeway and avoid getting stuck in Southern California traffic. We’d often load the trunk with cases of water, soda, platos desechables, and some of his favorite snacks. When my grandma’s health started to decline, we visited less because it was difficult for her to sit in the car for extended times and to physically move up and down the stairs in our Tijuana home built on the slope of a mountain. Now as an adult, I visit my tío either by myself, with my partner, or with my tías. These weekend drives that served to aid my tío’s “re-entry” to Tijuana instilled in me a transborder consciousness in which the “re-entry” networks that my family planned and organized not only entailed crossing the US-Mexico border, but continue to transcend it. A series of back-to-back criminalizing laws and policies beginning in the 1970s targeted barrio communities throughout the country by drastically apprehending, incarcerating, and deporting Latinos, particularly dissident youth of Mexican origin. While we hear about families and organizations engaging in what is commonly known as “re-entry” work, or assisting folks released from prison in attaining resources to best transition from incarceration to life outside of prison, the specifics of what life might look like post-deportation from prison vary since “re-entry” means being released into another country.

As the above quote shows, my tío credits his transborder family for helping him feel like (re)making his life in Tijuana, Mexico post-deportation was possible. His experience though, as he notes, is different from many deportees who encounter inaccessibility to basic survival needs like food and shelter. These are direct effects of a prison-to-deportation pipeline, or a systemic collaboration between prison incarceration and deportation institutions, that continue to punish criminalized migrants through “re-entry” neglect. This often pushes deportees to join cartels, steal, or conduct other criminalized acts that include varying forms of violences as ways to survive post-deportation. Given these conditions, my tío reflects on how crucial it was for his family to mobilize their resources and organize a transborder “re-entry” plan and network. Yet, familial support is rarely advanced as a legitimate form of organizing in “re-entry” conversations about deportation from incarceration. Throughout this short essay, I deliberately amplify familial organizing as an insightful praxis that illuminates the (im)possibilities of what abolitionist scholars have contemplated as decarceration (Davis, 2003; Kushner, 2019) and relationship building practices that reduce our reliance on the state (Tellez, 2021). I share how incarceration and deportation affected my family, tune into the significance of amplifying transborder familial organizing as “re-entry” work, and complicate the idea that a prison-to-deportation pipeline is an avenue towards freedom from captivity.

Transborder Familial Organizing

My tío is one of the smartest, critically aware, and funny people I know. He has taught me that storytelling, especially invoking the personal experiences of historically silenced voices, can transform the ways we ascribe value to different forms of knowledge production by challenging us to be in solidarity with others, listen with empathy, and always name the systems of power at play in these stories. I was eight years old when my tío was deported in 2004. However, the terms “deported”/“deportado” or “incarcerated”/“encarcelado” were never attached to conversations about him; so I grew up not really knowing he was formerly incarcerated and deported until he told me himself when I was in college.

He always made it a point to ask me how I was doing with school. Sometimes my responses were short; and I would switch the topic. Other times, I excitedly shared what I was reading and learning in my Chican@/x Studies courses. He would get deep into conversations about Mesoamerican societies and Mexican revolutionaries. The way he maintained conversations on the historical criminalization of Mexicans stemmed from his embodied understandings of anti-Mexican rhetoric in the U.S. Years of critical conversations with my uncle led him to openly tell me that he is a formerly incarcerated deportee. “One mistake,” he said; “and I am still paying for it.”

We discussed the felt complexities of this conundrum—how being deported from the California State Prison system simultaneously granted my tío freedom from incarceration yet this freedom was limited within Mexico’s border boundaries. This reinforced my tío’s understanding of what it means to “adapt” to deported life as a formerly incarcerated person. It also challenged me to think about deportation beyond a pathway to making your own choices as opposed to being told what you can and cannot do while incarcerated. My tío’s experience and this conversation revealed the layered “re-entry” struggles for formerly incarcerated deportees and how this expands their vulnerability to criminality post-deportation.

Prison-to-Deportation Pipeline

Scholars that study life after deportation suggest that deportees generally struggle to find housing, connect with family in their home countries, and feel an initial sense of isolation from society (Golash-Boza, 2015; Escobar, 2016). Highlighting deportee’s precarious access to basic needs and increased feelings of isolation is important because our society is consistently relying on the good/bad immigrant dichotomy to rationalize whether someone deserves resources. This makes it easy to point the finger at criminalized deported individuals and think, “you did this to yourself” or “this is a waste of resources.” Rather than debating if a criminalized deportee is “deserving” of “re-entry” support, historian Adam Goodman prompts us to question how nation-states, in this case both the United States and Mexico, do not respond to the immediate needs of deportees and consequently deter their access to social belonging by legally and extra-legally disavowing deportee life (2020). He calls this binational systemic effort the “deportation machine” where migrants are channeled through different modalities of deportations and removals. Yet, there is a specific experience that my tío has with deportation that particularly follows a prison-to-deportation pipeline, a pipeline that is part of this larger deportation machine.

Studies that examine a prison-to-deportation phenomenon are scarce and typically focus on immigrant detention centers/prisons as primary types of incarceration that lead to deportation (Macias-Rojas, 2016, Speed, 2019, Ordaz, 2021). This type of work is important and when we consider what a prison-to-deportation pipeline entails, it reminds us that there are different types of institutions that serve to criminalize, punish, and incarcerate migrants. My tío was incarcerated in a California state prison and much of the work on re-entry post-deportation from this institution references how non-profit organizations and state-funded projects provide formerly incarcerated deportees legal services to attempt to gain re-entry into the United States, suggesting gaps in the narrative that people choose to remain in Mexico.

My transborder family has contributed, within their own capacities and often in gendered ways, to help my tío transition from living within a state prison to living in Tijuana. As my tío learned of his transfer from prison to an immigration detention center, he informed my family of his approximate release date (meaning deportation date). My grandpa began to clean and make small fixes to our family home in Tijuana. Ironically, my tío was returning to the home that my grandpa built for his wife and children prior to migrating to the United States. My tías and grandpa drove to Mexicali, a border town approximately two to three hours east of Tijuana to wait for my tío’s arrival at the border and drive him back to Tijuana. My grandma stayed with my tío for a full week and mostly provided home-cooked meals and emotional care. Over time, my tías and grandparents spent their weekends commuting back and forth to Tijuana to show care through food, birthday and holiday celebrations, engaging conversations, and getting together with surrounding family and neighbors. These visits cultivated meaningful relationships steeped in a transborder consciousness, tending to the struggles of being a family separated by the US-Mexico border. Yet, we made use of our available resources to build connections that transcend the confines of the border. My tío received additional family and neighborhood support in getting government identification and being connected to job opportunities. As a result, his re-entry networks extended beyond our transborder family and helped create sustainable re-entry relationships. It is now less possible for my tías and grandparents to visit every weekend due to my grandma’s limited mobility and her care-taking needs. We visit as often as possible and maintain consistent communication through social media platforms. These networks succeed in necessary ways that the US and Mexican nation-states do not.

Complicating “Freedom” Post-Deportation

It may be easy to think that formerly incarcerated deportees have their freedom back due to no longer being detained by state agents. My tío himself states, “Any place is a lot better than where I was. If you are here [Tijuana], you are out here in the free world,” highlighting that he is no longer physically confined within a prison and is able to physically move within the city and the rest of Mexico. But when we leave Tijuana Sunday mornings to beat the long border crossing wait times, we all share a sense of sadness knowing that my tío cannot cross the border with us. My dad compared visits to see my tío at Tehachapi prison to visits in Tijuana—the drives are similarly long; he enjoys a short and limited time with his brother, and the hurt feels alike knowing that his brother must stay in Mexico. The border functions as prison walls, ideologically and physically regulating who is deserving of mobility across the given landscape.

Growing up in greater Los Angeles and talking with other working-class Latinos with immigrant backgrounds about my ties to Tijuana via my transborder family and my tío, I’ve received assuring recognitions that they too have family or know someone who experienced California’s prison-to-deportation pipeline. Some share that these loved ones remake their life in Baja California to be close to family in California and that their transborder visits, connections, and networks also prevail in this forced separation. As I conduct fieldwork for my research on organically built transborder support networks, people I interview often reflect on the interview being the first time they have been asked about how they were affected by the deportation of an incarcerated loved one. A prison-to-deportation pipeline extends to affect entire communities. Familial organizing, though it may seem a small endeavor, illuminates the radical possibilities of social life that transcends borders for impacted families.

Featured Image: My tío, myself, and my partner posing for a photo while we grill meat outdoors for a meal in Tijuana. August 12, 2023. Photo by Kiara Padilla. CC BY-NC-ND


Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Escobar, Martha D. Captivity beyond Prisons: Criminalization Experiences of Latina (Im)Migrants. First edition., University of Texas Press, 2016.

Golash-Boza, Tanya Maria. Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism. New York University Press, 2015.

Goodman, Adam. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants. Princeton University Press, 2020.

Kushner, Rachel. “Is prison necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore might change your mind.” The New York Times,  April 17, 2019.

Macias-Rojas, Patrisia. From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post-Civil Rights America. New York University Press, 2016.

Ordaz, Jessica. The Shadow of El Centro: A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity. The University of North Carolina Press, 2021.

Speed, Shannon. Incarcerated Stories: Indigenous Women Migrants and Violence in the Settler-Capitalist State. University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Téllez, Michelle. Border Women and the Community of Maclovio Rojas: Autonomy in the Spaces of Neoliberal Neglect. University of Arizona Press, 2021.

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