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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