Migration, Debt, and Slow Death in the Era of Mass Deportation

Authors: Richard Johnson*, University of Arizona - Geography & Development
Topics: Migration, Agricultural Geography, Economic Geography
Keywords: Deportation, Debt, Dispossession, Livelihoods, Guatemala
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Congressional A, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Undocumented labor-out migration to the United States remains a core livelihood strategy and avenue of generational reproduction among families in rural Central America. Yet, US border militarization, mass deportation, and violence have made undocumented migration from Central America to the US increasingly risky, costly, and prone to failure. Rising costs coupled with limited opportunities to fund migration attempts through labor and savings have pushed many to fund migration through informal, high-interest mortgages. With a US wage as the most viable means to pay off debts of these proportions, deportation or other forms of failure often lead to extreme economic and social hardships that migrants, families, and communities struggle to manage along varied temporal scales. Offering preliminary findings from ongoing doctoral dissertation fieldwork in Guatemala, this paper examines the roles of debt as an enabler, driver, and outcome of unauthorized migration to the US. With theoretical grounding in Lauren Berlant’s concept of “slow death”, it explores how the hardships and meanings of outstanding, post-deportation migrant debt reverberate along socioeconomic networks in migrant-sending communities to produce new material and emotive “debt landscapes” in the current era of mass deportation.

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