Vol. 33 No. 05 (June 2023) pp. 69-72

AMERICAN PRESIDENTS, DEPORTATIONS, AND HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS: FROM CARTER TO TRUMP, by Bill Ong Hing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. pp364. Paper $34.99. ISBN 9781108459211.

Reviewed by Ming H. Chen and Miquela Kallenberger. College of the Law. University of California, San Francisco. Emails: and

AMERICAN PRESIDENTS, DEPORTATIONS, AND HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS: FROM CARTER TO TRUMP demonstrates Bill Ong Hing’s sagacious experience as an immigration lawyer and professor. The book offers a moral urgency about the human rights violations embedded in U.S. immigration policies over the last 50 years. It will resonate within and beyond the academy: for lawyers, law students, political scientists, and policymakers. The book is accessible to college students and advocates.

Professor Hing provides an overview of detention and deportation practices enacted by modern presidents to illustrate the arc of immigration enforcement. Drawing on real cases from the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco (USF) Law School where he teaches, Hing provides readers with first-hand accounts of the difficult experiences of immigrants at the U.S. southern border. Hing has been there and witnessed a lot of these encounters. The stories he relays, detail the mistreatment of people -- families and individuals -- at detention centers, the traumatizing deportation process, and the inadequacy of the immigration courts to hear their claims and to provide humanitarian relief.

The book moves chronologically across six presidential administrations, including Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush; Democrats Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama; and then culminating with Donald J. Trump’s administration. Although it was published in 2019 before President Joseph Biden took office, the recounting of the Obama administration contains the seeds for the outgrowth that is still unfolding as of this writing.

The book opens, fittingly, at the U.S.-Mexico border. Operation Gatekeeper, a controversial border enforcement policy initiated by Bill Clinton’s administration, deployed a strategy of “control through deterrence” that prompted intensified enforcement and militarization of the portions of the southern border frequented by border crossers. Instead of deterring migrants, Operation Gatekeeper forced them to take more dangerous points of entry and use more treacherous modes of transport, resulting in “one avoidable death each day” due to dehydration and sunstroke (p. 3). The vignette shows that when presidential administrations enforce borders in aggressive ways, human lives are harmed in the process. The message is particularly sobering when realizing that the economic migrants entering without inspection in the 1990s would become political asylum-seekers fleeing violence as control of the border hardened. As migration flows shifted from Mexico to Central America, the dominant stream of migration today, the trauma erupting from the border shows that deterrence doesn’t work when people are desperate and seeking protection of their human rights.

Lest the reader believe the border is the worst of it, Hing moves inside the U.S. for his piece de resistance: detention. He mostly discusses the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies, raids, and deportations in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He describes their ill-advised tactics, including the targeting of community organizers and immigrants who advocated for more humane treatment. But it is the detention centers that become the nightmare in the story. Family detention and family separation shamed President Obama and Trump respectively. These themes are the focal point of the book.

“Obama’s Shame” is the centerpiece of Hing’s critique of the deportation apparatus, especially the rocket dockets that led to the rapid hearings with scant due process for the most vulnerable asylum seekers. Hing vividly depicts the harsh realities of family detention centers filled with children and women and cells for unaccompanied children. (Many of these conditions would eventually be found in violation of human rights in the FLORES settlement agreement). Hing says this is “a story that needs to be told about a tragic mistake in immigration enforcement… that began with Obama” (p. 17) and demonstrates a broader “unsympathetic nature of enforcement policies” that would prompt the moniker “Deporter-In-Chief” (p. 1, 90). With the Congressional hearings and media coverage that ensued about the deplorable conditions and rights abuses in family detention, some of the anecdotes told here are more familiar today than they would have been then. Yet in telling the story, Hing gives context to why migrants are crossing the southern border by explaining the conditions in Central America that prompt women and children to take risky journeys, only to later tolerate the routine exploitation by U.S. government officials at CBP and ICE. These detention centers threaten the health and safety of their inhabitants – in other words, their basic human rights – and these negative effects on the women and children are exhibited through interviews. Hing very frankly concludes, “the use of family detention centers needs to end” (p. 142).

If Obama was a Deportation Champion, Trump became the Deportation King, who expanded on Obama’s tools of immigration enforcement. Family detention occasioned family separation as immigrant adults were prosecuted in the criminal system and held in cells separate from their children. Problematic enforcement priorities became a zero tolerance strategy that terrorized all immigrants, including those who were part of the fabric of daily life in America. This ongoing maltreatment eventually led to the rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the callous treatment of Salvadorean, Haitian, and African asylum seekers, who might otherwise be protected under human rights laws incorporated within DACA. The brashness of the Border Patrol and multiple presidents’ unwillingness to curb their abuses became Remain in Mexico and Title 42. In detailing Trump’s enforcement excesses, Hing suggests that the prospect of abuse was already ripe for picking. The prospect can be seen in the immediately preceding administrations. But it can also be seen going back to the Carter administration’s mishandling of Iranian students in the United States, whose trivial infractions put them at risk in the lead up to the Iranian hostage crisis, and many other episodes that show presidents targeting immigrants for exclusion – often from communities of color – without reproach. One year after Hing, Cristina Rodriguez and Adam Cox’s 2021 book on executive discretion and abuses of presidential power (THE PRESIDENT AND IMMIGRATION) makes similar connections from Carter to Trump. Rodriguez and Cox say that presidential policymaking in immigration is not a bug, but instead a “signal feature of the structure of immigration law” (p. 12). Assessing the uses and abuses of executive power in immigration law calls for recognition that as a result of this structure, leaves much to presidents, they are “inevitable.”

Although looking to the past helpfully informs present deportation and detention policy, the back and forth in the “contextualization” of the Trump administration sometimes gets messy. However, the many stories and multiple moments in history (especially when paired with Hing’s earlier reflections on immigration practice that began in the 1970s, see DEPORTING OUR SOULS: VALUES, MORALITY, AND IMMIGRATION POLICY) effectively show that the problems in immigration enforcement policies enacted by modern presidents are unrelenting. This long view gives them an inexorable quality: the problems change form, but not type.

The painful tale of American deportation sets up the inevitable questions: What now? How to “disrupt the deportation royalty” (p. 313)? The book’s epilogue and afterword considers how, in the future, presidents and their administrations should be hindered from making enforcement choices that cause unnecessary havoc to immigrant communities. Hing notes that immigrants and their supporters helped to push the Obama administration into engaging in disruptive immigration innovation in the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. He encourages them to push for a disruption of deportation policy as well (p. 313).

In the years since Hing’s book was published, some things have gotten better. Enforcement priorities have been reinstituted and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court (TEXAS v. U.S. (2023)). For those who nevertheless get caught in the immigration trap, categorical relief in the form of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and individual relief in the form of asylum are more viable than it was before. Yet, President Biden has disappointed on detention and deportation of refugees that are the heart of this book. To be sure, the Central American refugee crisis made a long-standing humanitarian crisis worse. But despite Vice President Biden’s calls for regional development to reverse the root causes of this crisis in 2014, President Biden’s immigration officials have doubled down on deterrence by telling migrants “do not come” in 2021 and by requesting more time to lift a public health order that crippled the asylum process for those who came anyway in 2022. Detention centers, for those who manage to access the asylum process, remain hubs of trauma and exploitation, operated by for-profit private prison companies that make close to $500 million each year for holding 30,000 immigrants. This is not solely the U.S. government’s doing. But the government cares too little about who is entering or exiting the country and is committing too few resources to meaningful relief. Public protests of family separation were decisive in ending the reprehensible practice, but institutional politics and courts can be maddeningly unresponsive and unreliable safeguards for human rights.

Ultimately, Hing’s suggestions go beyond institutional politics. He suggests, for example, a citizen oversight panel that focuses on the anti-humanitarian effects of immigration enforcement (p. 313). With some of the most inhumane policies taken off the books, critical immigration scholars have started calling for bolder reforms and even the abolition of detention (see references). Hing would welcome these new voices because “constant disruption is needed in all forms…if we are to convince public policy leaders to review immigration enforcement policies with a moral foundation” (p. 337).


UNITED STATES v. TEXAS, No. 22-58 (2023).



Cházaro, Angélica. 2021. “The End of Deportation.” U.C.L.A. LAW REVIEW 68: 1040.

Cox, Adam B. and Cristina M. Rodriguez. 2020. THE PRESIDENT AND IMMIGRATION LAW. Oxford University Press.


Hernández, César Cuauhtémoc García. 2021. “Criminalizing Migration.” DAEDALUS 150, No. 2: 106-119.


Hing, Bill On. 2006. DEPORTING OUR SOULS: VALUES, MORALITY, AND IMMIGRATION POLICY. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


© Copyright 2023 by authors, Chen H. Ming and Miquela Kallenberger.