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The Political Economy of Immigration Enforcement: Part II


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.

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

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.

In many parts of the country, the only respite from the hollowing out of government in the twenty-first century is funds provided for police, prisons, and detention centers. This dynamic, in turn, mobilizes new interests to work for the expansion of immigration enforcement. For example, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America) and the Geo Group (formerly the Wackenhut Corporation) lobbied Congress to expand the number of detention beds that it required ICE to fill on any given day. In the public sphere, local sheriffs who control county jail facilities are some of the biggest supporters of Trump’s immigration crackdown. Further, as criminal justice reform and prison overcrowding has led some localities to release criminal detainees, immigration detention has filled the gap for both private prison companies and local governments.

The development of micro-economies within detention centers mobilizes an additional array of private interests, such as telecommunications companies, bond companies, and employers of detainee labor at wages below minimum standards. There is a powerful convergence of interests focused on expanding the guard labor sector in the context of immigration enforcement, rooted in the hollowed-out economies of places like Bakersfield and Youngstown. Some local economic benefits result, with much else extracted for the burgeoning profit margins of large corporations.

Second, aggressive immigration enforcement weakens the power of immigrant workers to bargain with their employers, while simultaneously stimulating labor turnover in low-wage sectors. Commentators explain wage stagnation to be a product of de-unionization, automation, the breakdown of state enforcement of labor standards, the fissuring of workplaces, and concerted campaigns of worker misclassification, particularly by “disruptive” platform companies. But immigration enforcement, and its entanglement with the criminal justice system, have a role to play as well. The “crimmigration” system takes workers out of the labor market for periods of incarceration and it stands as an ever-present deterrent to the exercise of worker voice and autonomy in the workplace. As portrayed in the work of Shannon Gleeson, employers screen for precaritypartly borne of legal liminality—in hiring, and possess the tools to put down workers who complain or organize. The lack of workers’ complaints or demands, in turn, keeps under-resourced labor protection authorities out of low-wage workplaces. This results in the immiseration of immigrant and low-wage workers, bedeviled by grueling schedules and unsafe work conditions, multiple jobs, and constant economic pressure to make ends meet.

Third, immigration enforcement fuels persistent colonial logics in the Global North. Scholarship has sometimes reduced the dynamics of migration to push and pull factors, occurring in isolation and caused by independent conditions in the sending and receiving countries. A critical political economic understanding of migration dynamics suggests something different. The countries of the Global North continue to extract natural resources from poorer countries and foster the conditions for migration through wars, trade policies, and support for authoritarian regimes in the Global South. However, the United States also extracts human labor, used to feed an expansion in the service sector in the wake of deindustrialization. Service work, particularly work with geographically sticky characteristics—such as in hospitality and food services, agriculture, domestic work and home care, and logistics—is fueled by immigrant labor.

Only when such extraction leads to human growth and development, by investing public resources in public schooling, health care, and political inclusion for laboring immigrant families, can migration decolonize. But when extracted laborers are targeted by the state, deprived of basic public resources, and threatened with criminalization, detention, and banishment, migration colonizes. There is concerted and ratcheted downward pressure on labor standards in both sending and receiving countries, along with record profits for global companies. Labor is extracted from brown and black people on both sides of hardened borders, under the threat of direct state violence and private violence permitted and fomented by the state. Forced removal and migration, enclosure by walls and guards, and deprivation of voice and autonomy are dynamics enacted across borders in sending and receiving countries alike.

W.E.B. Du Bois places the “Black Worker” “bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry.” Walter Johnson, channeling Cedric Robinson, argues that this scuttling of the separation of slavery and capitalism was a key pivot point in historiography. We suggest that the presumed differentiation between laborers in their countries of origin and immigrant workers in the United States is exaggerated. Immigration enforcement is a modern phenomenon of the twentieth century. Its continued force illustrates how violence in the Global North extends the dominance of white capitalism over brown and black bodies—wherever they are—and how neo-colonial logics in the Global South can be replicated and reinvigorated everywhere. Human migration—who has the right to move freely, and whose movement is curtailed—continues to be defined by histories of colonialism and enslavement. The fight to abolish ICE in the United States, then, is part of an abolitionist struggle against colonization and racial capitalism–pushing us toward different futures.