Since 1996, immigration and deportation policies in the United States have grown increasingly restrictive. As a result, deportations have increased more than sevenfold between 1995 (50,924) and 2009 (387,790). In response to this drastic increase in deportations, human rights organizations have begun to document the consequences for transnational families experiencing separation due to deportation. The unintended consequences of family disruption on family members, especially U.S. citizen children left behind in the U.S., turn out to parallel those experienced by children with incarcerated parents.

This dissertation examines how families affected by deportation cope with such separations and try to mitigate the negative impact of family separation. In the process, the research examines the effects of deportation on family dissolution (divorce, abandonment), emigration, and other reconfigurations in transnational space. In that sense, the project examines the degree to which transnational families can play a proactive rather than merely reactive role in a fluid immigration and law enforcement context. Data collection strategies draw on semi-structured life history interviews conducted in the U.S. and El Salvador.

Broader Impacts Understanding the factors that help make families stable -- and, inversely, factors that lead to family dissolution -- remains an important social issue of significant interest to policy makers and the general public. Findings from this project may also be of interest to social workers and law enforcement professionals in both the U.S. and El Salvador and will be disseminated accordingly. Because of its explicit cross-national component, the project will help build bridges between the University of California and non-profit migrant rights organizations in Southern California and El Salvador. Dissemination of research findings will include presentations at sociological conferences, publication in social science and general print media.

Project Report

Summary of Outcomes The primary objective of this dissertation is to contribute to literature on return migration by uncovering the ways the process of "coming home" is experienced by a little understood, but increasingly relevant, population: migrants formally removed – or deported – from their host countries. It draws upon survey questionnaires and semi-structured life-history interviews conducted with 100 deportees living in El Salvador and clandestinely in the United States between 2008 and 2012 and it is supplemented by 20 unstructured interviews with "experts" on Salvadoran migration and deportation and participant observation in nonprofit organizations. The data was transcribed verbatim and analyzed utilizing analytic induction and crisp set analysis techniques. Analysis is focused on understanding the conditions under which deportees experience feelings of warm acceptance, estrangement, or some combination of both upon their return. It employs the concept of "home-making" to uncover how deportees both navigate the contexts in which they suddenly find themselves and work creatively toward the construction of more satisfying futures. By focusing on how return is experienced and navigated it avoids the reification of the myth of the completely possible -- or natural -- return "home" while also affording deportees a certain degree of control over their decisions and destinies. Findings demonstrate that the common Salvadoran narrative of the "violent gang-member deportee" plays a powerful role in shaping the ways in which individuals experience, respond to, and talk about their return and reintegration. For some, it penetrates their lives so intensely that being a deportee becomes a master status that shapes practically all other interactions they have in the country. However, this is not the only way in which deportation is experienced. The Salvadoran social, economic, and political context of return – and all of its local variations – interplays with deportees’ migratory cohort status to produce a range of outcomes and corresponding "home-making" strategies that vary from complete acceptance to life-threatening marginalization. More accepting national and local contexts of return are more likely to allow deportees to experience the process as an authentic homecoming that does not require much maneuvering to successfully navigate. Conversely, as contexts of return grow exceedingly hostile, deportees are more likely to experience reintegration as a confrontation with the absurd. Home-making strategies become increasingly limited and deportees are forced to cope with the possibility of their impending death. Members of the 1.0 generational cohort of Salvadoran migrants (adult migrants) are more likely than members of the 1.5 generation (child migrants) to experience accepting contexts of return post-deportation. They spent on average less time in the US, maintained more transnational connections to El Salvador while abroad, and always had intentions to return "home" to El Salvador after completing their migratory objectives abroad. Upon return, they often returned to communities with whom they remained connected. They may have to prove to these individuals that they were not involved in criminal activities while abroad, but after they perform this narrative task, they generally feel socially accepted. Conversely, when child migrants return, they tend to be labeled as criminal gang members and experience a sort of "double consciousness" which requires them to constantly monitor their social presence and behavior. They are more likely to experience deportation as a banishment from the "homes" they built in the US are feel marginalized and criminalized in El Salvador. They still can, however, rebuild their lives in El Salvador. Their outcomes are limited by the hostile social context to which they return, but positive labor market experiences and social solidarity with other deportees help mitigate these harmful effects. Broader Impacts The research makes impacts on several levels. First, dissemination of research findings has included conferences and panel discussions at the La Verne Law School, the University of California-Irvine, the Pacific Sociological Association, the Latin American Studies Association, and the International Conference of Global Studies. Findings have been disseminated by the La Verne Law Review, an edited volume published by New York University Press, and are under review at Sociological Perspectives. Second, five undergraduate research assistants (who all happened to be of Hispanic origin) were hired to assist with data transcription and qualitative data analysis. These students gained valuable research experience and mentorship. Third, research was utilized to inform four expert witness statements advocating for the cancellation of removal for four migrants detained by federal immigration enforcement. Finally, connections between the University of California-Irvine and the community were built through participant observation and volunteering at nonprofit organizations in Southern California and San Salvador.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Saylor Breckenridge
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University of California Irvine
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