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The Political Economy of Immigration Enforcement: Part I


Sameer Ashar (@sameer_ashar) is Clinical Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine. 

Amna Akbar (@orangebegum) is the Charles W. Ebersold and Florence Whitcomb Ebersold Professor of Constitutional Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

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.

As a preliminary matter, it’s important to denaturalize immigration enforcement, particularly in the interior of the United States. The Border Patrol was created less than one hundred years ago, after the formal end of enslavement and colonialism, and the continued expansion of the United States into new territories. Even after CBP’s creation and the subsequent hardening of the southern border, there was no internal police force focused on migrants without legal papers. It was not until IRCA’s passage in 1986 that those in the interior—in particular, those without authorization to work—were made the focus of any legal regime. Immigration enforcement has subsequently merged with other projects of racial subordination, such as the Wars on Drugs and Terror.

“Illegality” is a construction, deployed against immigrants to maintain a hierarchical system defined by race and class, by white supremacy and capitalism. It reinforces stereotypes about race and criminality and facilitates racist law enforcement. At the same time, it keeps immigrant labor vulnerable to incarceration and deportation. A political consensus focused on racialization and criminalization, to the exclusion of political economy, allows liberals and progressives to ignore a larger picture.  Organizers from across the fields of immigrant rights, criminal justice, and labor have understood the political economic implications of legal regimes and how they affect the communities in which they work. It is time for law scholars to pay attention.

The unprecedented expansion of immigration enforcement has at least three political economy implications. First, the growth of immigration enforcement is a constitutive part of the expansion of guard labor in the post-industrial, late capitalist phase of the United States, defined by austerity, mass criminalization, and mass incarceration. Second, immigration enforcement (both interior policing and the hardening of the southern border so as to trap migrants in the U.S.) creates an underclass of workers and reinforces the exorbitant power of employers. Third, immigration enforcement echoes and entrenches colonial logics by facilitating the extraction of human labor from poorer countries, borne by black and brown people, at the lowest possible cost. In the next post, we will elaborate on these three implications.