Sex Work and Immigration: When Criminalization Is Disguised as Protection

Sex Work and Immigration: When Criminalization Is Disguised as Protection

This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.

Gilda Merlot

I am an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. I crossed the Guatemalan, Mexican, and U.S. borders when I was 5 years old. I’m currently a sex worker and a 25-year-old DACA recipient. Like most sex workers, I want decriminalization, or the elimination of all criminal penalties for sex work. The criminal legal system – and the vice divisions of police that carry out prostitution stings – will not solve the issues of poverty, housing, medical care, educational accessibility, and drug use, which are the actual issues affecting sex workers. The reasoning behind any kind of criminalization is to eliminate, destroy, or “end demand” for something through the deterrence/threat of state violence, prison, and death.

Sex workers are criminalized under various models – even if the state criminalizes just the acts of buying sex or managing or employing sex workers, a framework which is often called “the Nordic Model.” The Nordic Model is criminalization of sex workers by another name. To see how this works, we can look to another law that criminalized hiring a certain group of people under the guise of “protection” against exploitation: the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). The Nordic Model criminalizes sex workers in the same way that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) criminalized undocumented workers.

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Movement Visions for a Renewed Left Politics

Amna Akbar, Sameer Ashar, and Jocelyn Simonson – 

sunriseWhen members of the Sunrise Movement confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein ten days ago, they demonstrated the renewed vitality of an old force in democratic politics: organized young people bringing bold new visions to complex social problems. In the video, we see the power of movement participants to transform how we think and dream. In times of peril and possibility, radical visions—where the scale of the vision matches the scale of the problems we face—can capture our imagination and change what we think is possible.  In this way, social movements galvanize a different kind of force in politics, one of hope and collective action rather than cynicism and alienation.  

Left social movements are both a fount of creative law-making and a means by which to hold politicians to account. From the lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Panther Party’s and Young Lord Party’s Ten and Thirteen Point Programs, activists have a long history of altering our sense of what is possible, as Aziz Rana recently laid out on this blog. When we pay attention to collective forms of struggle, as Kate Andrias argues, we see how power-shifting and law-making happen from the ground up.

As Bob Hockett recently explained, the Green New Deal is the product of the Sunrise Movement’s recognition that economic injustice and environmental disaster are existential threats to our well-being. By linking issues that are typically seen in policy-making spaces as distinct, the Green New Deal reckons with the clash between human needs and capitalism’s rapacious hunger for land, labor, and resources. Rather than shrink in the face of an immense set of challenges, the Green New Deal rises. It places the transformation of our social, economic, and political order into the realm of possibility.

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The Political Economy of Immigration Enforcement: Part II

Sameer Ashar and Amna Akbar— 

In our first post, we made the case for studying immigration enforcement through a political economy lens. Without political economy, we are left with an ahistorical and inadequate understanding of the challenges and realities of immigration enforcement, which implicate both state and market, and not just Donald Trump and Barack Obama, but our colonial past as well. In this second post, we elaborate on three central insights of a political economy and racial capitalism lens: the rise of “guard labor” in the neoliberal, austerity state; lopsided bargaining power between workers and their bosses; and the persistently colonial dynamics of labor extraction.

First, immigration enforcement is a key part of the expansion of guard labor in the United States: the sector of the modern U.S. economy devoted to ensuring conformity to public and private institutional imperatives. This includes everything from police and private security to detention facilities, jails, and prisons to parole, probation, and surveillance. Consider how immigrant detention facilities are marketed as economic development projects, especially in areas without other sources of jobs and income. Private prison companies, especially, have used underdevelopment and deindustrialization in parts of the United States to make the case for new facilities. Those companies have also marketed detention facilities as providing much-needed jobs for veterans returning from years of extended American military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Municipal and county governments have provided carceral capacity for immigrant detention, at a cost. Immigrant detention brought federal dollars to localities starved for funds during the extended austerity regime of the Bush and Obama administrations.

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The Political Economy of Immigration Enforcement: Part I

Sameer Ashar and Amna Akbar— 

Liberals and progressives bemoan the problems of immigration enforcement and deportation along the vectors of racialization and criminalization. Their critique goes something like this: the immigration enforcement system is unfair in how it targets Black and Latinx and other immigrants of color, and this targeting has worsened as immigration enforcement has become increasingly entangled with criminal law enforcement. (A related concern has been that “immigrants are not criminals”: but both immigrant rights and racial justice movements have deconstructed and debunked this idea, since the meaning of what it is to be a criminal is just as raced and historically contingent as being an immigrant.) These concerns are played out in a field of celebratory narratives about the United States as a nation of immigrants, erasing the settler colonial routes of the country’s political and economic power.  By failing to consider questions of political economy—specifically how racial capitalism has shaped our present—these critiques lack explanatory power and historical grounding.

In this two-part series, joining colleagues such as Tendayi Achiume, Angélica Cházaro, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, and Sherally Munshi, we make the case that political economy and racial capitalism are central to any thoroughgoing understanding of immigration enforcement. We write in opposition to race-neutral law-and-economics descriptions of interior enforcement, such as that of Adam Cox and Eric Posner. Immigration enforcement provides a lens for understanding the global and historical relationships between the state, the market, and workers. Immigration enforcement, after all, emerged as a post-colonial tool in white settler nations like the United States and Canada as a way to limit and exclude the arrival of former colonial subjects. Here, we introduce questions and concerns that come into play when viewing immigration enforcement through a political economy lens.

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