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Deportation and the Dispossession of Time

by Lauren Martin
5 Oct 2015 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Border Struggles [12] | Commons

Photography and captions by Evelin Kask

Nogales, Mexico. Raphael, 30, is originally from Mexico. He’s waiting in front of the El Comedor aid center for deported migrants in a border town in Nogales, Sonora. He lived in the U.S. for fifteen years before being deported. His brother is a U.S. citizen but Raphael did not complete his citizenship process when he first came to United States. He has no formal education, but he has been working in different jobs throughout his life. “I got into trouble” is all Raphael says about how he ended up in immigration custody. He was detained for 1.5 months before being deported. He has a 4-year-old son and a girlfriend living in Phoenix, Arizona. According to Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 17 million people in the U.S. have at least one family member who is in the country illegally. Immigrants, once deported, have almost no way to return legally, whatever their family ties to the United States.

Raphael has lived in the US for 15 years.[1] Raphael lived in the US for 15 years. Raphael had lived in the US for 15 years. What is the correct tense to describe a deported life? He may have returned to the US, in which case his US life proceeds to be lived. This present life punctuated by a pause, a subtraction of some months and the forcible movement of thousands of miles from New York to Arizona to Nogales, Mexico. He may be in Mexico, still or again.

Raphael lived in the US for fifteen years before being deported to Nogales, Mexico. Fifteen years of working, loving, fathering is closed and made past. The closure of past tense places Raphael’s US life beyond return; he has been dispossessed of this time and that life.

Raphael had lived in the US for 15 years—this tense demands events to follow. Raphael had lived in the US for 15 years before detention, deportation, and return to his hometown. In this tense, Raphael’s past is an active antecedent for events following, for the present and a future he seeks to reclaim.

Nogales, Arizona. A landscape view of the border wall from the Nogales, Arizona side.

Elizabeth Povinelli[2] argues that tense, the grammar of time, organizes the relationship between the time of narration and the act of narrating. It establishes a break, or a continuity. Tense pushes some pasts into nonmaterial memory and maintains other pasts as infrastructure for the present and future.  For Povinelli, tense is socially divided, and the ability to experience and enunciate time in particular ways is unevenly distributed. In particular, the grammatical marking of tense relegates some ways of being to a permanent past or defers them to an unreachable future. This uneven distribution of social time influences, in turn, the distribution of social belonging, abandonment, and durability. Depending on how one does it, narrating migrant time articulates im/possibilities for mobile humans to be and not be. That is, the potentiality of living life is, in part, arranged in the grammar of time.

And right now, migrant time is at a premium. In a highly privatized US immigration detention system, migrant time is commodified in “bed days,” which Immigration and Customs Enforcement is obligated to fill.[3] Here indefinite detention,[4] combined with the Congressional mandate to fill 34,000 beds per day, transforms migrant time into an infinitely renewable resource. In this case, outsourcing detention to private corrections companies and county governments translates the deprivation of autonomous mobility into a priced, exchangeable good. Indefinite detention guarantees its infinite availability.

Nogales, Mexico. The El Comedor aid center for deported migrants serves meals and distributes clothing and personal care items, and refers people to Mexican government services. In 2011, it served over 45,000 meals. The Mexican government agency Grupo Beta operates nearby to give first aid for deported migrants. Many people arrive in Nogales, Sonora, from the U.S. with severely blistered feet, flu symptoms and dehydration.

Making people wait is an exercise of power. Writing on Ceuta, Spain’s retained migrants, Andersson[5] argues “their immediate future had rather been vacated for them while their past had been temporarily disowned.”[6] In addition, the political economy of migration control interlinks the “time of control” and the “time of migration:” “possibilities of anticipation, interception, and deferral opened up by compression and speed have led to precisely the opposite reality for those who are targeted: a world of slowness and stasis. One mobile assemblage—that of control—feeds off and perpetuates the increasing immobility of its necessary Other.”[7] Waiting can also be an act of defiance, a refusal, an occupation. In the US and elsewhere, some refuse to sign their own deportation papers, refusing their negative asylum decision and the inevitability of return. Those who are deported sometimes return to the very places from which they were expelled, sometimes within days.

Nogales, Mexico. The San Juan Bosco shelter for deported migrants gives people a place to stay for a maximum of three nights. In the women's dormitory, women previously unknown to each other are coming together to share crossing and detention experiences and to support each other in their difficult situation. Over the past 30 years approximately 1 million people have passed through the San Juan Bosco immigrant shelter. The shelter is mostly funded through private donations.

The families and children fleeing violence in Central America leave for a number of reasons, but most of all they flee insecurity of gang violence or domestic abuse. In the words of one US-based advocate, “they figure the risk is worth it if you could die in your home the next day anyway.” In a diffuse, individualized and disaggregated way, people who seek family, refuge, or work in the United States perform their own risk analysis by weighing the visceral value of being with family and the price of coyotes against the opportunities to work off their debt as well as the risk of reprisal against family members who remain. These kinds of risks change the ways in which people relate to present and the future. It changes the monetary price people are willing to pay someone to help cross a militarized border, and it elevates people’s tolerance of uncertainty during these journeys.

The migrant risk calculus is about claiming a liveable life, attempting to claim time that may or may not become a future. Detention-as-deterrence policies attempt to alter this calculus, to interrupt intimate relationships and life-making, to create a sense of inevitability of forced return.[8] Deterrence policies appropriate migrant time as both collective spectacle and individual suffering, communicated through apprehension statistics and cautionary tales shared along informal networks of transnational migrant care.

Nogales, Mexico. The San Juan Bosco shelter

People deported to Nogales can make use of day and night shelters, but time in each of them is limited. Shuttle buses drive people to day shelters in the morning, where they received two meals per day. The day shelter photographed here has an eight day limit. Post-deportation and nominally free after weeks in detention, people stated that they felt like “living dead,” as if they lived in “no time” and “out of place.” Even though they were freed from the confinement of detention, they were bereft of belongings, money, and energy. Many had been deported after tired journeys northward. They complained of swollen feet, and suffered after-effects of traveling in the desert. Their faces showed deep exhaustion. Most spoke of plans to cross again, and some planned to return to their home villages. For people like Raphael, returning home meant crossing again.

Nogales, Mexico. First morning after the deportation. After small breakfast (cinnamon milk with cookies) women are waiting for transportation to El Comedor. During the day they receive money from their families and loved ones and do little shopping for things like underwear and personal care items. Not all women stay over the second night. (From right to left) Amelia, Luisa, Susana, and Marta say that they will cross again the next night. Blisters on the feet, the skin on upper thighs rubbed to raw flesh, the wounds caused by desert plants are still fresh and make the re-crossing of the desert painful and uncomfortable. It is impossible to say for sure whether they crossed again or not. However, I never saw them again in San Juan Bosco shelter nor El Comedor.

These feelings of timelessness and displacement emerged, perhaps ironically, in places where their time was extremely limited. The three and eight day limits of subsistence-level humanitarian aid contrast sharply with the indefinite detention in privatized detention centers. The shelters provide enough food for biological reproduction: a few nights rest, enough to collect oneself, to pick up, make a plan, and move on. There is a gap between the biological life of humanitarian aid and lived lives, daily routines, homes spaces, and work. For deported people, this gap is the non-place, no-time of post-deportation. Despite describing it as a negative space surrounding their memories and plans, people do inhabit this gap. Its spatiotemporality is dramatically different, however, from the trajectories of movement and the tempos of normal life.

The U.S. surveillance cameras near the border wall, gazing over the fence in Nogales, Arizona. The U.S. has installed new surveillance technology, and by hired more border patrol agents. The number of border patrol agents has quadrupled since mid-1990’s. In fiscal year 2014, US Border Patrol apprehended 486,651 people. With over 22,700 agents, Customs and Border Patrol is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.

While much is made of migration control’s spaces—walls, detention centers, flows, containments—it is the duration of immobility, and the enforcement of particular arrangements of potentiality and futurity that produce migration’s different temporal modes.[9] There is the time of detention, the time of deportation, the time of traveling, the time of hiding, the time of arrival, the time of daily life. As migrants ride the crest of potentiality and risk, time acquires a different sensibility, and perhaps we do not have an appropriate grammar for it. For Povinelli, however, it is precisely in these new senses of time and place that new ways of being emerge, that the unspeakable and the unknowable might become recognizable. And in doing so, new politics emerge. Or not.

Artist Bio
Evelin Kask (b. 1989) is an Estonian-born, Finland based photographer. She has graduated in Photojournalism, and she’s been working with her personal projects concerning human rights and social issues along the U.S.—Mexico border, Egypt, Hungary and Finland. Currently she’s studying her Master’s degree in Photography in Aalto University of Arts and Design. She’s a member of award-winning 11 Collective, a group of Finnish documentary photographers.


1. All names have been changed to protect the identities of those who shared their stories with Evelin Kask. Kask travelled to Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, in September 2014. [↑]

2. Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). [↑]

3. Nick Miroff, “Controversial quota drives immigration detention boom,” Washington Post, October 31, 2013. Available at: [↑]

4. US immigration detention does not have internationally recognized time limits on administrative detention. [↑]

5. Ruben Andersson, “Time and the Migrant Other: European Border Controls and the Temporal Economies of Illegality,” American Anthropologist 116.4 (2014): 795-809. [↑]

6. Anderson, 805. [↑]

7. Anderson, 806-7. [↑]

8. Lauren Martin, “‘Catch and Remove’: Detention, Deterrence, and Discipline in US Noncitizen Family Detention Practice.” Geopolitics 17.2 (2012): 312-334. Alison Mountz and Jenna Loyd, “Transnational productions of remoteness: building onshore and offshore carceral regimes across borders” Geographica Helvetica 69.5 (2014): 389-398. [↑]

9. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP Border Security Report (pdf), (Washington, D.C.: Department of Homeland Security, 2014). [↑]

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Lauren Martin is an Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oulu, Finland. She holds a PhD and MA in Geography and a Certificate in Gender and Women's Studies from the University of Kentucky. Her doctoral thesis analysed US noncitizen family detention policy from 2001 to 2010, and she is currently researching the commercialization of border enforcement in the US and EU.
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