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Biden wants to halt deportations. Here’s what happens when migrants are sent back.

No wonder so many deportees try to return.

Mexican deportees walk across the Gateway International Bridge into Mexico after being deported by U.S. immigration authorities on Feb. 24 in Matamoros, Mexico. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Recently, the Biden administration announced a 100-day pause on deportations, while congressional Democrats introduced a new, comprehensive immigration bill that Republicans are expected to oppose. These changes follow a decade in which the Obama and Trump administrations deported hundreds of thousands of people to Central America.

Scholars know surprisingly little about what happens to people once they’re deported — including whether they plan to return to the United States.

To find out, our group of political scientists has been researching what happens to immigrants deported to Guatemala, a country we selected because it has received the most U.S. deportees after Mexico. In October 2019, we partnered with RTI International and Te Conecta, a Guatemalan organization, to interview 1,357 deportees as they entered Guatemala. We randomly invited them to participate in our study as they entered a chaotic scene outside the airport. We followed up with 340 of them who agreed to participate again over subsequent months to learn about their experiences. Our data provide a rare, systematic view of the human impact of U.S. deportation.

Here’s what we learned. Deportees arrive in a city where few of them have ever been, with very little to their names. Many have left their families and assets in the United States. Their lives in Guatemala are hard. Three to six months later, most are unable to find work; many are preyed upon by gangs and the police. Not surprisingly, 78 percent of our respondents say they might or definitely intend to return to the United States in the coming year.

Life before deportation

Our data show that the median deportee has spent roughly 1.5 years in the United States. For some, that’s happened across several, distinct stints. Others have been here far longer: About 28 percent of our original sample reported spending more than five years in the United States. Some had spent most of their lives outside Guatemala.

Many Guatemalans are in the United States with their families, which deportation can suddenly separate. More than 80 percent of the deportees we interviewed left at least one family member in the United States; 22 percent left behind either a spouse or a child. These ties create powerful incentives for deportees to attempt return.

Many migrants also leave behind significant savings, property, and other assets resulting from years of work. About 13 percent of our sample’s deportees left some savings behind; another 10 percent left a vehicle behind. Of those, on average they left behind $7,000 in savings and a vehicle worth roughly $15,000. Some leave much more behind, as you can see in the figure below. These amounts suggest that a significant portion of deportees contributed to local U.S. economies. In follow-up interviews, we find that 74 percent of those who responded are unable to access any of the assets left behind in the six months after deportation. Gaining access to these assets can provide an important motivation for subsequent re-migration.

Once they arrive in Guatemala City, where do they go next?

Deportees arrive with almost no Guatemalan government support. Once the plane lands, deportees pass through immigration and are received by a confusing mix of civil society organizations, taxi drivers and gang recruiters outside the airport before simply walking out into Guatemala City, a place that only 5 percent of our sample call home. A few have family or friends waiting for them, but the vast majority are far from home, lonely, without resources and facing difficult choices about where to go next.

We spent time exploring how deportees made that decision, by looking at how they evaluated a wide variety of destination options in a survey experiment. They were shown two profiles of plausible destinations. Each destination was randomly assigned different levels of gang activity, police harassment, job availability, and number of family and friends. We asked respondents to choose which destination they preferred most. This design allows us to identify which factors most affect deportee choices on where to go. We find that security concerns — in the form of gangs or abusive police — and reconnecting with family were the most significant factors in their decision-making.

Biden wants to offer citizenship to migrants already here. He'll face these two challenges.

Will they try to return to the United States?

In our follow-up interviews a month after deportation, about two-thirds of those who responded the second time had returned to their hometowns. Through these interviews we also learned that most deportees are living in bleak circumstances. Most reported living in communities plagued by criminal gangs, where police harass deportees and where employment opportunities are scarce, as you can see in the figures below. Indeed, more than 60 percent of deportees have no source of income in the three to six months after arrival, and among those who do, the work is mostly informal and piecemeal.

Given all this, deportees almost all seriously consider whether they should attempt to return to the United States. About 37 percent of deportees from our original sample indicate they intend to re-migrate in the coming year, while 41 percent of this same group said they were unsure. Thus, deportees are much more likely to intend to come to the United States than a typical Guatemalan. In a separate study drawing on a national sample of over 18,000 Guatemalans, we find only about 13 percent of respondents intend to migrate to the United States.

How deporting immigrants from the U.S. increases immigration to the U.S.

What this might mean for U.S. deportation policy

Our study makes clear that deportation is deeply traumatic and destabilizing. While some NGOs and other philanthropic organizations have tried to ease the plight of undocumented migrants in the United States, very little is being done for deportees in their countries of origin. Meanwhile, any immigration policy that thinks only about expelling people and not what comes after is likely to backfire. As long as deportees cannot find work and are separated from their U.S.-based families, they are very likely to try to return.

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David Dow is a postdoctoral research associate in DevLab@Duke and department of political science at Duke University.

Juan Tellez (@juanftellez14) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

Mateo Villamizar Chaparro (@sanmavicha) is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University.

Erik Wibbels is Robert O. Keohane professor of political science and co-director of DevLab@Duke at Duke University.