LPE Approaches to Migration and the Labor Market

This post comes out of the early career workshop ‘Law and Political Economy in Europe’which took place at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, at the University of Oxford, on the 7th of October 2019. For all the posts this series, click here.

Manoj Dias-Abey –

PoliticsineuropePlenty of leftists continue to make the case for limiting migration and enforcing border restrictions. For example, in the UK, union leader and close Jeremy Corbyn ally Len McCluskey maintains that the “influx of people willing to work for less money and put up with a lower standard of living” drives down wages. Even Bernie Sanders has come perilously close to sanctioning a nationalist and protectionist stance when it comes to migration by arguing that “open borders” is a Koch brothers’ conspiracy.

Whether we give credence to these claims will depend on how we conceptualize labor markets. If we accept the fiction of national labor markets, and further assume that these markets are governed by the forces of demand and supply, then perhaps these claims might ring true. However, if we understand that labor markets are created by institutions and social forces, then we might look to factors other than supply to explain the phenomenon of declining wages and deteriorating working conditions. In this short post, my aim is to provide two alternative ways of seeing labor markets, and to trace how the impact of migration might be conceived within each. In setting out the neoclassical economists’ vision of labor markets and contrasting it with conceptualizations by more heterodox economists, I pay particular attention to the role attributed to law in each of the models.

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The Borders of Empire

E. Tendayi Achiume –

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The designations “illegal” or “economic” immigrant swiftly mark those to whom they are applied as legitimate targets of national exclusion. Public and academic discourse often treats such immigrants as the consummate political strangers, standing outside the political borders of “we the people” or “we the citizens,” whose status as citizens confers a collectively-held, unilateral right to decide who may cross the political and territorial boundaries of the nation-state. In the conventional account, the right to exclude is understood as an incident of nation-state sovereignty, vital for the independent self-determination of all. Within the liberal paradigm, the law of immigration is an exception to this sovereign right to exclude. Political strangers must fit into one or other exceptional category to be granted admission: high-skilled worker, student, tourist. Even refugees are admitted by way of exception, and those who meet the legal definition of a refugee enjoy the strongest, internationally-recognized legal protections against national exclusion. For so-called economic migrants—those understood to move in search of better jobs, better education or just better lives—legal and ethical entitlements to admission and inclusion remain largely at the discretion of the citizens of the receiving state. And so, if Europe wants to exclude African migrants crossing the Mediterranean, it has the right to do so.

In a recent article, Migration as Decolonization, I challenge the dominant accounts of sovereignty and the right to exclude outlined above, arguing that they ignore the theoretical and ethical salience of the political economy of empire. Very loosely, empire can be understood as the extra-territorial projection of political and economic power by one political community over another, on terms that structurally favor the former. Dominant legal and political theory focus on the borders of discrete, autonomous nation-states, but largely ignore the borders of empire. Migration as Decolonization breaks from this conventional mode to recall the colonial history of contemporary border regimes, and to spotlight the manner in which the logics of empire have long shaped the governance of borders, as the articulation of an absolutist conception of sovereignty in the Chinese Exclusion Cases illustrates. My focus is the legal and ethical implications of persisting neocolonial interconnection and subordination, which I argue mean that former European colonial or First World nations have no right to exclude the citizens of formerly colonized or Third World nations. On this account, Western European nations have no right to exclude Africans.

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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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