Two books side by side. The first, on the left, is Elliot Young's Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World's Largest Immigrant Detention System. The title and the author's name read around the cover image, which is a vertical American flag, stars on the top right. Without white between them, the red stripes symbolize cage bars, imprisoning a silhouette drawing of a human. On the right, Shull's book reads Detention Empire: Reagan's War on Immigrants and the Seeds of Resistance. The title and author's name surround an image of a hand holding a green sprout, with barbed wire in the background.Figure 1: Covers of Elliott Young and Kristina Shull's books: Forever Prisoners and Detention Empire, respectively.

By Tina Shull and Elliott Young

Elliott Young’s book Forever Prisoners tells the stories of migrants caught in the jaws of the US immigration bureaucracy who were subject to indefinite detention. These men, women, and children remain almost completely without rights, unprotected by law and the Constitution, and their status as outsiders has left them vulnerable to the most extreme forms of state power. The US government has been locking up immigrants since the late nineteenth century, often for indefinite periods and with limited ability to challenge their confinement. The stories of Chinese locked up at McNeil Island Prison in the late 1880s, a Russian Jew, declared insane and condemned to wander the seas between New York and South America in the 1910s, a Japanese family kidnapped from Peru and put in a camp in South Texas during World War II, Mariel Cuban refugees staging prison takeovers in Atlanta, Georgia and Oakdale, Louisiana, in 1987, and a Salvadoran mom of three US citizen kids who was deported based on a hot check charge from when she was a teenager remind us of the extensive carceral machine that chews up immigrants and spits them out. From a nation of immigrants, the US has become a nation of immigrant prisons.

In her book Detention Empire,  Tina Shull zeroes in on the early 1980s as a critical turning point in the rise of mass incarceration. An event known as the Mariel Cuban boatlift, a large-scale migration of 125,000 Cubans to south Florida during the summer of 1980, alongside increasing arrivals of Haitian and Central American asylum-seekers, galvanized new modes of covert warfare in the Reagan administration’s globalized war on drugs. Demonstrating how detention operates as a form of counterinsurgency, Detention Empire traces the Reagan administration’s development of retaliatory enforcement measures to target a racialized specter of mass migration. Laying the foundations of new forms of carceral and imperial expansion, these measures included the systematic detention of asylum-seekers, drug and immigrant interdiction programs, the militarization of a more broadly imagined U.S. border, and prison privatization. Yet Reagan’s war on immigrants also sowed seeds of mass resistance. Detention Empire shows how migrants resisted state repression through hunger strikes, prison uprisings, caravans, and the Sanctuary movement. As the United States remains committed to shoring up its borders in an era of unprecedented migration and climate crisis, these histories take on new urgency.

In this conversation, Shull and Young discuss how their books approach resistance to US empire and inhumane migration policies, storytelling, and the ongoing tragedies of mass incarceration and deportation.

Elliott to Tina: I really loved that your book focused on immigrant resistance to US restrictionist policies and deportation. Given the state of immigration policy today, how would you evaluate the success of the 2006 movement and countless other efforts including the sanctuary movement?

Tina: What a great and difficult question! The current far-right state of the immigration debate in media and political discourse gives me cause for despair. It reveals how entrenched “detention empire”—a supercharged, globalized system of criminalized migration, detention, and deportation—has become. There are many places to look to conclude that overall, resistance efforts seem to have collectively failed to dismantle the underlying logics driving border enforcement and incarceration: current rates of detention that have nearly returned to pre-COVID levels coupled with an explosion in e-carceral surveillance; the Biden administration’s continuation of Title 42, continued construction of Trump’s (Clinton’s) border wall, and recurrent border closures; alleged-Sanctuary city Chicago’s rejection of mutual aid models for providing shelter to asylum-seekers like Todo Para Todos to instead contract with GardaWorld to build ‘winterized’ migrant tent encampments; and lose-lose congressional gridlock demanding extreme new immigration restrictions in exchange for US military foreign aid for Ukraine and Israel.

However, peering under the surface, I see many victories and areas of progress that give cause for maintaining hope for sea change. Immigration scholars have noted that the 2006 movement marked a monumental shift or even a coalescence of a more cohesive immigrant rights movement. Scholarly and self-reflection has also rightly identified weaknesses in the mainstream movement focusing more narrowly on narratives of immigrant deservingness, rights claims, or electoral politics, versus more effectively adopting inside-outside organizing strategies and framing migrant rights in anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and/or abolitionist terms to target the root causes of global displacement and forced migration. Over the past decade, a groundswell of migrant, youth, and Queer and Trans-led activism has made important headway in disrupting ‘business as usual’ beltway politics and non-profit industrial complex harms.

Successful recent campaigns to shut down detention sites and win Temporary Protected Status for impacted groups provide replicable, coalitional and creative models, from Berks in Pennsylvania to Etowah in Alabama, #ICEoutofSantaAna in California, Shut Down Glades in Florida, and others. But as Ruth Wilson Gilmore cautions, such campaigns will only be enduringly successful if linked to broader abolitionist visions—i.e., conducted in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, Indigenous, gender and reproductive rights, and climate justice efforts.  

As I discuss in Detention Empire, the 1980s Sanctuary movement was the largest mass civil disobedience organized against detention in US history, effectively shielding thousands of Central American asylum-seekers from deportation throughout the decade. Sanctuary endures to this day and provides a powerful theory and model for resisting state-sanctioned violence on local-global levels. However, then and now, sanctuary coalitions and activists have confronted the same challenges mentioned above in confronting divisiveness, political disagreements, patriarchy, and white saviorism within organizing spaces, and missed opportunities in expressing solidarity across efforts and across borders. In my continuing research on Sanctuary, I ask how Sanctuary has shifted or retained knowledge and organizing tactics intergenerationally and geographically, or built and maintained relationships to anti-war, environmental, racial justice, and other movements in the face of growing fascism world-wide.   

Tina to Elliott: I think an important contribution of both of our books is that they not only recount detention policy formation, but that they emphasize the primary importance of personal stories. How did you arrive at this approach to Forever Prisoners? What has it allowed you to do or contribute as a historian in the book, and beyond, and what do you think it does for readers?   

Elliott: So much of immigration studies is dominated by statistics created by governments. It’s hard to avoid looking at the data on deportations, detentions, and apprehensions, and those data are important to give an aggregate sense of how migration restriction has shifted over time. However, human stories get lost in the numbers. Unfortunately, nobody seems to ever get convinced of anything based on data. What does have the possibility of changing views on immigration is a very intimate story that shows just how cruel past and current migration restrictions have been. So, with that in mind, I centered each chapter around a story of an individual, a family or a small group of migrants.

For the chapter on Chinese locked up at McNeil Island Prison in the late nineteenth century the available sources did not allow me to tell in-depth stories about any individual, but I did what I could with the fragments that remained in the archive and I included the mugshots to try to bring to life the people behind the numbers. For other chapters, like the one about Mayra Machado, who is still around to tell her own story, I had the benefit of providing much more detail about her family life and the emotional toll that her multiple deportations have taken on her and her children. For the chapter on Japanese Peruvian detainees during World War II, I had the good fortune to be able to interview one of the young Higashide children who was in the camp.

I take it as a success when people who read Forever Prisoners refer to the book by talking about the stories in it with the names of the central characters. I want their names and stories to be remembered, and if they discern the larger points about detention and deportation, great, but the central goal of the book is really to highlight their stories. I was also very cognizant that as a historian I wanted to be faithful to the accounts of the people I was writing about, which is a lot easier when you can have them read a draft chapter and ask them about details. As historians, even when writing about people who are long dead, we still have an ethical obligation to strive to be true to their stories as best we can.

Elliott to Tina: One of the most moving parts of your book for me was the way in which your personal story with your former husband helped to frame and inspire your research. Did you always know you were going to include yourself in the narrative, or was that a decision that came later? Also, how did your personal involvement with migration and detention influence the book you ultimately wrote?

Tina: I don’t think it ever felt like an option to separate my personal connection to immigration detention from the narrative of Detention Empire. My former husband’s detention and deportation in 2007 not only inspired the book’s topic, but also my approach to it as our experience confronting the immigration system coincided with my time in graduate school. As I visited my husband in detention, I built community with other friends and family members visiting their loved ones. We sat in the waiting room, sharing information and supporting each other. We even promised to write a book together about the injustices we were experiencing. But trauma seemed to silence us and we all ended up losing touch with each other. I guess in a way, writing this book was my attempt to keep that promise. The first few pages of the book where I share this story were the hardest and took the longest for me to write. That led me to become interested in connections between trauma and storytelling on a personal level, and state violence and the reproduction of historical silences on a systemic level.

I believe it is important to be self-reflective about our positionality and privilege in relation to our research, but over time I have also learned the importance of de-centering myself and especially the individualism that often characterizes academic research and life. In the process of revising my dissertation to book, I visited and corresponded with people in detention and accompanied communities impacted by enforcement as a Soros Justice Fellow with the organization Freedom for Immigrants. I began to pursue ways for my work as a historian to contribute to more collective efforts to witness, document, and testify against the injustices of the system. This included developing an abolitionist praxis by adopting Critical Refugee Studies and participatory approaches that center migrants as knowledge-producers, and working collaboratively on public and digital history projects.

Witnessing recurring patterns of ICE retaliation against those who speak out and harms that even well-intentioned journalists and scholars can inflict on community members by soliciting stories in ways that can be extractive, I created IMM Print (, a digital archive and storytelling platform for people in and affected by detention to share their stories in their own right. Similar to how Kelly Lytle Hernández conceives of a “rebel archive” in City of Inmates, IMM Print collaborator Jamila Hammami and I reflect on this commitment in a chapter titled “Resistance Archiving” in Resistance and Abolition in the Borderlands (Arturo Aldama and Jessica Ordaz, eds., University of Arizona Press, 2024).

Tina to Elliott: Another overlap between our books is their storytelling surrounding the unique and heartbreaking experience of Mariel Cubans in the immigration system, and how crucial that is for understanding Reagan’s War on Drugs and its impact on the growth of detention since the 1980s. How did you arrive at this case study for a chapter in Forever Prisoners? I hear you are also working on a next book about Mariel?

Elliott: I knew I wanted to write about the Mariel Cuban refugees because they seemed to come at such a pivotal moment, and Carl Lindskoog’s book Detain and Punish, which I loved, really provided the context for that period in the 1980s.  I became fascinated in the story of the prison uprising in 1987 which really illustrated in dramatic ways the kinds of resistance that migrant detainees mounted against their unjust incarceration. I went to Atlanta and through the Legal Aid lawyer, Gary Leshaw, who was central in the legal efforts on behalf of the detainees, he connected me to Sally Sandige, one of the main leaders of the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees.  Sandige allowed me to look through a house full of boxes filled with documents from this activist group. 

Unfortunately, in Forever Prisoners I was only able to tell part of the story of that prison rebellion, and so I am continuing with that project to more fully explore the story of this group of largely Black anti-communist refugees who got caught between the Drug War and the Cold War and ended up in indefinite detention in Atlanta and Louisiana. I hope to be able to fill in the gaps by hearing from the Mariel refugees themselves through interviews in Cuba and outside of Cuba.  Due to the still tenuous immigration status of many of the people who took part in the rebellion, they are understandably not eager to share their stories on the record. I have been able to interview at least one of them who was willing to share his story, which  is partly told in an NPR podcast by Chip Brantly and Andrew Beck Grace in White Lies, Season 2

Elliott to Tina: Both of our books are about the building of this inhumane immigrant detention infrastructure.  We are at a moment now when candidate Donald Trump promises to round up and deport all undocumented immigrants if he is elected, just as he promised in 2016. What we saw in his first term is that even as he ramped up detentions, he was unable to come close to his fantasies of deporting 11 million people or to build his Border Wall. I am skeptical that he will be able to do so if he has a second term because it would require a massive buildup in the bureaucracy, it would inspire mass protests across the country, and because Trump ultimately is not really serious about anything besides his own power. What do you think are the prospects of mass incarceration and deportation of immigrants under a Trump or Biden presidency?

Tina: Despite all the calls to “shut down the border,” given the actual lack of Republican support for the bipartisan border security bill proposed this year that is draconian and would increase detention rates to 50,000 people/day, it appears that MAGA politicians find it more politically advantageous to run on the issue rather than actually do anything about it. Yet their bluster is still incredibly damaging and has effectively pulled the debate so much farther to the right in recent years. We cannot downplay the violence of these xenophobic and dehumanizing narratives in the current moment—for example, as seen in the tactics of Trump supporters’ fabrication of lies depicting a border crisis and specter of “illegal” immigrant voter fraud. I fear these tactics are becoming more effective as legacy media outlets and freedom of the press are under attack worldwide.

A growing swath of US youth and those on the left are becoming increasingly frustrated, calling out the Democratic party’s continual concessions to the right, including military aid to Israel exacerbating humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This may result in low voter turnout for Biden. You mention mass protests that would arise if a program of mass deportation is embraced by Trump (or Biden). Forms of counterinsurgent repression and retaliation against protest, as I detail in Detention Empire targeting the 1980s Sanctuary movement during which college campuses served as organizing hubs, have become entrenched in the neoliberal era and are playing out again.

US college student encampments protesting genocide in Gaza give me heart. Campus divestment movements are rightly targeting and exposing military, prison, fossil fuel, and climate border industrial complex entanglements in research, industry, and endowments that fuel US imperialism and endless war. The real crisis at the border—all borders—is globalizing US militarism. Student movements are making these connections, for example, in the ways that US and Israeli border security firms work in close collaboration, from Rafah to Cop City in Atlanta.

Elliott: Although I am dubious about Trump’s ability to actually deport all undocumented people in the country, he has indicated in a Time magazine interview in April that he has plans to do so. Trump promised to use the National Guard and even the military to accomplish his mass deportations. He would also lean on local law enforcement to help with the deportations and said any locality that refused to help would be denied federal funding.  There are a number of legal barriers to stop him doing all of this, including the Posse Comitatus Act, an 1878 law that prevents the use of military on civilians and constitutional limits of federal power. Whether or not Trump is able to set up his mass detention camps and deport millions, he can cause chaos and terror in the immigrant community, which seems to be the main goal anyway. Trump also says he’s going to finish the Border Wall he started by allocating money from the military budget and doing an end-run around Congress.

The Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, although far from the United States, raises questions with which scholars researching the US-Mexico border and migration policy are familiar. Trump’s heavily militarized Border Wall and frequent checkpoints echo the walls and fences that divide Gaza and Israel. And although there have been no incursions or organized violence by migrants in the United States such as Hamas did on October 7th, the rhetoric by Republicans misleadingly suggests there is an invasion of the United States by immigrants and drug traffickers. Trump has even said that he would deploy US assassination squads into Mexico to wage war on drug cartels. Given this rhetoric, it is not hard to imagine the US engaging in a brutal war against immigrants from Latin America in the US, and even military incursions into Latin America. The war in Gaza may come home. While all of this is a depressing scenario, the outpouring of peaceful protest against the war in Gaza by students across the United States and the world suggests that a different future is possible. Whoever gets elected in November, it will be the organizing that is happening now that will save us from a descent into authoritarianism and militarism.


Elliott Young is a Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World’s Largest Immigrant Detention System (Oxford, 2021), Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWII (UNC, 2014), and Catarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border (Duke 2004), as well as co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History (Duke, 2004). He is a co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas, the Migration Scholar Collaborative (MiSC), and the Migration and Asylum Lab (MAL) at Stanford University. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 600 asylum cases. In addition to his scholarship, Professor Young’s opinion essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, the Houston Chronicle, and the Oregonian.

Dr. Tina Shull (she/her) is an Associate Professor and Director of Public History at UNC Charlotte. Her first book, Detention Empire: Reagan’s War on Immigrants and the Seeds of Resistanc(UNC Press, 2022), explores the rise of migrant detention in the early 1980s as a form of counterinsurgency and received an honorable mention for the Immigration and Ethnic History Society’s First Book Award. Shull is the creator of the digital history projects IMM Print, Climate Refugee Stories, and Climate Inequality CLT, and the lead curator of the “Climates of Inequality – Charlotte” museum exhibit. In 2016, she was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship for her work in immigration detention storytelling. She serves on the advisory board of the Campus Climate Network (CCN), the executive board of the Western Association of Women Historians, and co-edited a recent Roundtable on Environmental Injustice and Border Abolition for Radical History Review issue 145: Alternatives to the Anthropocene. She can be found on social media on X @kristinashull and on Instagram & Threads @tinashull.