The Shadow of El Centro

A History of Migrant Incarceration and Solidarity

By Jessica Ordaz

196 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6247-3
    Published: March 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6246-6
    Published: March 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6248-0
    Published: January 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5991-4
    Published: January 2021

Justice, Power, and Politics

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Awards & distinctions

2022 First Book Award, Immigration and Ethnic History Society

Bounded by desert and mountains, El Centro, California, is isolated and difficult to reach. However, its location close to the border between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona, has made it an important place for Mexican migrants attracted to the valley’s agricultural economy. In 1945, it also became home to the El Centro Immigration Detention Camp. The Shadow of El Centro tells the story of how that camp evolved into the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service Processing Center of the 2000s and became a national model for detaining migrants—a place where the policing of migration, the racialization of labor, and detainee resistance coalesced.

Using government correspondence, photographs, oral histories, and private documents, Jessica Ordaz reveals the rise and transformation of migrant detention through this groundbreaking history of one detention camp. The story shows how the U.S. detention system was built to extract labor, to discipline, and to control migration, and it helps us understand the long and shadowy history of how immigration officials went from detaining a few thousand unauthorized migrants during the 1940s to confining hundreds of thousands of people by the end of the twentieth century. Ordaz also uncovers how these detained migrants have worked together to create transnational solidarities and innovative forms of resistance.

About the Author

Jessica Ordaz is assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.
For more information about Jessica Ordaz, visit the Author Page.


"One of few works that fulfills its promise to tell a desire-based narrative of 'transnational migrant solidarity' without losing the analytical power necessary to confront immigrant incarceration in the US. . . . This short book packs a powerful punch . . . [and] explains the rise of the immigrant punishment system without attributing a complex issue solely to race, capitalism, or xenophobia."—"Antipode

"Ordaz deftly shows the extent to which detention, control, and violence have come to dominate America’s response to undocumented immigration through a history of one of America’s oldest detention facilities."—Boom California

"Illuminating."—NACLA Report

"A compelling work that exposes the hidden histories of El Centro and detention centers more generally . . . a nuanced approach to current scholarship by analyzing the long and continuous histories of violence that have been prevalent in these detention centers from their inception, and not necessarily as a more recent product of neoliberal practices and policies."—Society for U.S. Intellectual History

"Jessica Ordaz excavates unknown and forgotten histories, documenting the violence embedded within the immigration enforcement and detention system as well as the remarkable way migrants resisted their confinement through escape, hunger strikes, and solidarity movements."--Amada Armenta, University of California, Los Angeles

"This compelling book interrogates the intimate and transnational configuration and implications of U.S. domestic detention centers and practices as an economy of underestimated emotional hauntings, protest, and trauma."--Ana Elizabeth Rosas, University of California, Irvine