Immigration Industrial Complex

The Pretense of Protectorship

The greatest threat to the American public is not terrorism, drugs, or “illegal” immigration, but rather their own dubious government’s disguised attacks on democracy under the pretense of protectorship. Politicians use rhetoric of fear and a discourse of other-ization to create a ‘moral panic’ among the populace, who are then coaxed into supporting punitive measures that—in addition to being costly—frequently lead to an increase in and a perpetuation of the initial problem.[i] Motivated by desires for increased financial and political capital, conniving bureaucrats create and sustain structural inequalities that lead to the marginalization of the poor, the non-white, and the non-citizen.[ii] The projected illusions of orderliness and control mask both the bureaucrats’ devious intentions as well as the hidden consequences of the defective policies.[iii] The combined efforts of the government’s war on drugs, war on terrorism, and war on immigration lead to a strengthened international Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), where private contractors benefit from increased incarceration rates, and the detainees endure unwarranted consequences long after their release. Under U.S. directed neoliberal policy, the PIC has transcended national borders, as peripheral and semi-peripheral countries have been pressured by the U.S.—with the threat of economic sanctions—to adopt the U.S.’s penal system.[iv] As it stands, the modern political economy threatens to destroy the welfare of American democracy and global peace.

The impetus for the government’s scheme derives from a discourse of fear. In addition to informing the public on local and national events, discourse reflects and reproduces viewpoints, and, as such, can serve as a powerful tool to construct socio-geographical boundaries and their associated identities.[v] In order to convince the pubic of the necessity for fast punitive action, a threat narrative must first be established. Nativists and restrictionists advocate that a ‘foreign other’ threatens to disrupt the fabric of America’s culture, economy, and public safety.[vi] This creates what scholars refer to as a ‘moral panic’—a conceived crisis of national vulnerability that allows politicians to play on public fears in order to garner support for policies that restrict civil liberties and would otherwise seem draconian.[vii]

The threat does not usually exist. Michalowski (2007) deduces that a crime-intensive mass media contributes to the creation of a fear of criminal enemies (frequently racialized) disproportional to the actual potential for harm.[viii] The threat of danger, though rarely actualized, traps communities in a state of fear, enshrouds the public with arrogance, and forges a wall of misunderstanding between the public and the victimized ‘enemy.’ A moral panic leads to serious consequences for those who are frightened, but results in even greater consequences for those targeted as the enemy. Scapegoating a large segment of the population does not solve issues, but masks the real problems and diverts attention away from the actual perpetrator.

Most recently, Mexican immigrants have been criminalized in the public imagination by being titled “illegal” or “alien,” and casted as predatory villains, drug dealers, and terrorists.[ix] At the same time, increased funding for border militarization efforts has been intended to maintain and assert national territorial sovereignty.[x] Although U.S. immigration policy leads to thousands of migrant deaths each year by channeling their routes through the most difficult parts of the desert, the current boundary-enforcement regime is strikingly uncontroversial.[xi] Payan (2006) accounts for the public’s trepidation, and explains how the 2002 reorganization of the Homeland Security Department conflated three very different wars—the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, and the war on illegal immigration—into one, and placed them all at the U.S. Mexico border: “These three issues are in fact quite separate from each other. They have different origins, they have different processes, and they require different strategies, etc.… Yet since September 11, the United States government has bundled them into a single ‘mother of all battles’ that has turned the border into a front line of national security.”[xii] The threat narrative powerfully blinds potential critiques.

The public remains engulfed in a moral panic, unable to discern the various forms of state violence that threaten the immigrant.[xiii] Michalowski (2007) outlines the social injuries inflicted on immigrants by the state in three broad categories: “(1) bodily harms such as death, injury, and illness, (2) exploitation by human smugglers, drug organizations, and sometimes law enforcement personnel, and (3) dehumanization in the form of hyper-criminalization, vigilantism, and abuses to human dignity.”[xiv] He and Andreas (1998) agree that U.S. immigration policy is largely due to a legitimacy crisis created by neoliberal capitalism, and that it allows the government to pin the problem on someone else while still garnering support through threat narratives and promises to restore state sovereignty.[xv]  While the motivation to hide the effects of neoliberalism may certainly exist, other forces also contribute to harsh immigration policies.

The U.S. has a history of inciting fear among the nation in order to militarize against a created enemy and justify massive government expenditures on failed policies.[xvi] The rise of the Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex, and, most recently, the Immigration Industrial Complex fervently motivates statesmen to criminalize certain groups in order to profit off their incarceration. Golash-Boza (2009) explains,

With the military-build-up during the Cold War, the ‘others’ were communists. With the prison expansion of the 1990s, the ‘others’ were criminals (often racialized and gendered as black men). With the expansion of the immigration industrial complex, the ‘others’ are ‘illegals’ (racialized as Mexicans). In each case, the creation of an undesirable other creates popular support for government spending to safeguard the nation.[xvii]

Though who exactly the ‘other’ is changes over time, the state’s motivation for producing a threat narrative remains consistent; a host of actors benefit from moral panics and the subsequent increase in incarceration rates. The lucrative market for prison building promises private investors a positive return, so long as they can fill bed space and maximize the time that their prisoners remain detained.[xviii] Others with a vested interest in prison expansion include: “architects, builders, representatives of prison unions, politicians who use citizens’ fear of crime to garner voters, job-starved communities whose leaders lobby to have prisons built in their communities, and all the industries that provide food, clothing, toiletries, health care, electronics, and telephones to inmates.”[xix]  Profitable prisons pose a serious threat to democracy, as they increase the likelihood for harsh laws that unjustly imprison victimized members of society.

Profit making off prisons entices policymakers to pass harsher-sentencing laws (such as mandatory minimum sentencing) in the interests of their lobbyists, and to the detriment of their local communities.[xx] Aside from profit-making motives, politicians benefit by using fear to gain votes through promises that they will beat the enemy and will be ‘tough on crime’ or ‘tough on immigration’.[xxi] Similarly, external threats to the nation cause citizens to feel a sense of unity and increase a president’s public support.[xxii] Thus, by increasing the perception of threat, politicians scare the public into supporting them and their failed ‘prevention through deterrence’ strategies.

In addition to being rooted in a threat narrative directed at racialized ‘others,’ ‘prevention through deterrence’ policies exemplify what Michalowski (2007) calls, “a deeply rooted cultural attachment to ideas of regenerative violence.”[xxiii] ‘Prevention through deterrence’ strategies assume that if the risks of an action exceed the benefits, a person will be deterred from completing that action.[xxiv] To increase the risk behind certain behaviors, policymakers first criminalize the action by labeling it “illegal,” and then exert some amount of militarized effort at enforcing any infractions.[xxv] Such strategies show a “conviction that proactive force not only solves problems, but also brings into being a new a better world.”[xxvi] Regenerative violence manifests in the rhetoric that surrounds policymakers’ approaches to social problems, such as using the language of war to signify the state’s stance on social issues (i.e. the ‘war on crime’ or the ‘war on drugs’).[xxvii]  More stringent laws and larger expenditures typically accompany such ‘wars,’ leading to what appears to be a proactive effort at improvement.[xxviii]

Yet the efficacy of a stratagem based off ‘prevention through deterrence’ appears to be minimal at best. Welch (2003) points out that aggressive attempts at social control tend to escalate the very behaviors it aims to deter.[xxix] He provides the war on drugs as an example, and asserts that law enforcement efforts frequently perpetuate rather than resolve the problem. Winslow (2000) reaches the same conclusion about the state’s war on crime; he explains how billions of dollars are wasted in supporting a Prison Industrial Complex that not only causes more ills in the community than it solves, but also masks the larger corporate crimes and police-brutality crimes.[xxx]

To help make sense of how and why policymakers could and would enact policies that they knew would fail, Welch (2003) applies Marx’s three basic components for the ironies of social control—escalation, nonenforcement, and covert facilitation—in regards to the government’s campaign against illegal immigrants: firstly, the government escalates the problem by creating new definitions of rule breaking and expanding the pool of potential violators (for example, expanding the list of deportable crimes to include minor offenses); secondly, the government strategically decides to make no real efforts at enforcing immigration policy during economically prosperous times, thus encouraging both the immigrants and the employers to break the law; and thirdly, in covert facilitation, the government loses the trust of illegal immigrants by using deceptive enforcement actions in apprehending them as part of sting operations, which harshly punish the immigrant workers while leaving the businesses unscathed.[xxxi] These three elements of the ironies of social control reveal the contradictions purposefully imbedded within the policies, and reflect “how self-defeating laws and policies perpetuate injustices against unpopular people who have few resources to defend themselves against ambitious enforcement campaigns, particularly those fueled by moral panic, bigotry, and racism.”[xxxii] Furthermore, this framework also reveals the close relationship between immigration policy and the economy.

Just as changes in the economy can affect immigration policy, changes in economic policy can affect immigration. In 1994, the U.S. and Mexico entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in order to integrate the two markets and allow for easier trade. Golash-Boza (2009) explains how NAFTA intensified the scale of illegal immigration into the U.S. for three major reasons: firstly, heavily subsidized U.S. corn and other agricultural products forced around two million peasants out of the agricultural trade and into the city, where from they may migrate to the U.S.; secondly, NAFTA encouraged large transnational retail corporations like Wal-Mart to open shop in Mexico, which forced many smaller businesses to close and added their former owners and workers to the list of potential migrants; thirdly, NAFTA resulted in the reduction of wages along the Mexican border, leading to the increased need for families to send workers to the U.S. in order to survive.[xxxiii]  According to Gomberg-Muñoz (2011), NAFTA also “generated an expanding service economy in the United States that has a seemingly insatiable demand for immigrant labor.”[xxxiv] Yet the fact that the border is open for trade and finance but closed for labor creates an out-of-balance system that, because of U.S. policy, leads to structured inequality by assigning illegal status to a segment of the global labor force.[xxxv] In this way, NAFTA lead to an increase in the problem of illegal immigration. Ironically, NAFTA also lead to a strengthened drug trade between Mexico and the U.S..[xxxvi] However, it does not seem ironic that these increases in ‘illegal’ activity were met with an increase in the Prison Industrial and Immigration Industrial Complexes.

The U.S.’s embrace of neoliberal policies like NAFTA should be examined in contexts other than financial, specifically in the context of political and penal policies. Reynolds (2008) presents an evaluation of U.S. directed globalization, and tracks the effects of U.S. involvement. She concludes that the U.S. uses its financial power to promote its own failed policies—especially the war on drugs and mass incarceration practices—on the rest of the world, largely to the benefit of the U.S. capitalists of the Prison Industrial Complex. Her appraisal of U.S. neoliberal policy reflects quite poorly on the intentions of the U.S.:

The result [of U.S. neoliberal policy] has been the downsizing of governments, unequal partnerships in trade and finance, economic marginalization, cost-cutting by transnational corporations, curtailment of social and legal entitlements, the withering of social service programs, antiunion practices, diminished national sovereignty, increased inequality within and between countries, and the dependency of the south on the North.[xxxvii]

Reynolds claims that U.S. policies benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Accordingly, Mexico’s involvement in NAFTA—though it was supposed to allow the economy to modernize and prosper—sent the economy spiraling downward and led to its dependence on U.S. aid and to the access of U.S. markets.[xxxviii] Though the initial gains of neoliberalism may benefit the U.S., the later vengeance of embittered compliers threatens the U.S.’s future stability.

Under the control of neoliberal policy, dominant and subordinate patriarchies, and neocolonial racialized ideologies, the current global environment longs for relief. A perverse policy framework rooted in the belief of ‘prevention-through-deterrence’ strategies threatens to exploit America’s most vulnerable part of the population, as it feeds the poor, the non-white, and the non-citizen into the ravenous Prison Industrial Complex. The greatest danger to the American public is not any of the threat narratives projected into discourse—such as the threat of invading druggie terrorists—but rather their own culpable government’s disguised attacks on democracy under the pretense of protectorship.


[i] Michael Welch, “Ironies of Social Control and the Criminalization of Immigrants,” Crime, Law & Social Change 39 (2003), pp. 319-337.

[ii] Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, “Why Is There Undocumented Migration?” Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigration Network, New York: Oxford University Press (2011), pp. 22-40.

[iii] Joseph Nevins, “A Beating Worse than Death: Imagining and Contesting Violence in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” AmeriQuests 2.1 (2006), pp. 1-25.

[iv] Marylee Reynolds, “The War on Drugs, Prison Building, and Globalization: Catalysts for the Global Incarceration of Women,” NWSA Journal 20.2 (2008), pp. 72-95.

[v] Hugh Mehan, “The Discourse of the Illegal Immigration Debate: A Case Study in the Politics of Representation,” Discourse and Society 8.2 (1997), p. 250; and Nevins, op. cit.

[vi] Michael Welch, “Immigration Lockdown before and after 9/11,” Race, Gender, and Punishment: from Colonialism to the War on Terror, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press (2007).

[vii] Tanya Golash-Boza, “The Immigration Industrial Complex; Why We Enforce Immigration Policies Destined to Fail,” Sociology Compass 3.2 (2009), pp. 295-309.

[viii] Raymond Michalowski, “Border Militarization and Migrant Suffering: A Case of Transnational Social Injury,” Social Justice 34.2 (2007).

[ix] Welch (2007), op. cit.; and Leo Ralph Chavez, “The Minuteman Project’s Spectacle of Surveillance on the Arizona-Mexico Border,” The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, Stanford University Press (2008), pp. 132-151.

[x] Nevins, op. cit.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Tony Payan, The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security, Westport, CT: Praeger Security International (2006), p. xiv.

[xiii] Nevins, op. cit.

[xiv] Michalowski, op. cit.

[xv] Michalowski, op. cit.; and Peter Andreas, “The U.S. Immigration Control Offensive: Constructing an Image of Order on the Southwest Border,” Crossings: Mexican Immigration in Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Edited by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1998), pp. 343-356.

[xvi] Audrey Singer and Douglas S. Massy, “The Social Process of Undocumented Border Crossing among Mexican Migrants,” International Migration Review 32.3 (1998), pp. 561-592.

[xvii] Golash-Boza, op. cit., p. 306.

[xviii] Reynolds, op. cit.

[xix] Ibid., p. 84.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Earl Smith and Angela J. Hattery, “African American Men and the Prison Industrial Complex,” The Western Journal of Black Studies 34.4 (2010), pp. 387-398.

[xxii] Ryan Jerome Lecount and Philo C. Wasburn, “Fear Factor(s): Terrorist Threat Warnings and Television Network News Coverage of the President,” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 37.1 (2009), pp. 27-46.

[xxiii] Michalowski, op. cit., p. 72.

[xxiv] Wayne A. Cornelius, “Death at the Border: Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Control Policy,” Population and Development Review 27.4 (2001), pp. 661-685.

[xxv] Welch (2007), op. cit.

[xxvi] Michalowski, op. cit., p. 72.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] George Winslow, “Capital Crimes: The Political Economy of Crime in America,” Monthly Review (2000), pp. 38-53.

[xxix] Welch (2003), op. cit.

[xxx] G. T. Marx, “Ironies of Social Control: Authorities as Contributors to Deviance through Escalation, Nonenforcement, and Covert Facilitation,” Social Problems 28 (1981), pp. 221-246.; and Winslow, op. cit.

[xxxi] Welch (2003), op. cit.

[xxxii] Welch (2003), op. cit., p. 331.

[xxxiii] Golash-Boza, op. cit.

[xxxiv] Gomberg-Muñoz, op. cit., p. 34.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Lynn Stephen, “Expanding the Borderlands: Recent Studies on the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Latin American Research Review 44.1 (2009).

[xxxvii] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 90.

[xxxviii] Gomberg-Muñoz, op. cit.

Works Cited

Andreas, Peter. (1998). “The U.S. Immigration Control Offensive: Constructing an Image of Order on the Southwest Border,” Crossings: Mexican Immigration in Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Edited by Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Chapter 11 (pp. 346-356).

Chavez, Leo Ralph. (2008). “The Minuteman Project’s Spectacle of Surveillance on the Arizona-Mexico Border,” The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press., pp. 132-151.

Cornelius, Wayne A. (2001). “Death at the Border: Efficacy and Unintended Consequences of U.S. Immigration Control Policy,” Population and Development Review 27.4., pp. 661-685.

Durand, Jorge, and Douglas Massey. (2003). “The Costs of Contradiction: U.S. Border Policy 1986-2000,” Latino Studies 1., pp. 233-252.

Golash-Boza, Tanya. (2009). “The Immigration Industrial Complex: Why We Enforce Immigration Policies Destined to Fail,” Sociological Compass. 3.2., pp. 295-309.

Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. (2011). Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kohli, Aarti and Peter L. Markowitz and Lisa Chavez. (2011). “Secure Communities by the Numbers: An Analysis of Demographics and Due Process,” The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. Berkely, CA: University of California, Berkely Law School.

Lecount, Ryan Jerome and Philo C. Wasburn. (2009). “Fear Facror(s): Terrorist Threat Warnings and Television Network News Coverage of the President,” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 37.1., pp. 27-46.

Marx, G.T. (1981). “Ironies of Social Control: Authorities as Contributors to Deviance through Escalation, Nonenforcement, and Covert Facilitation,” Social Problems 28., pp. 221-246.

Mehan, Hugh. (1997). “The Discourse of the Illegal Immigration Debate: A Case Study in the Politics of Representation,” Discourse and Society 8.2.

Michalowski, Raymond. (2007). “Border Militarization and Migrant Suffering: A Case of Transnational Social Injury,” Social Justice 34.2., pp. 62-76.

Nevins, Joseph. (2005). “A Beating Worse Than Death: Imagining and Contesting Violence in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” AmeriQuests 2.1., pp. 1-25.

Payan, Tony. (2006). The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security, Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.

Reynolds, Marylee. (2008). “The War on Drugs, Prison Building, and Globalization: Catalysts for the Global Incarceration of Women,” NWSA Journal 20.2. Indiana University Press.

Romero, Mary. (2006). “Racial Profiling and Immigration Law Enforcement: Rounding Up of Usual Suspects in the Latino Community,” Critical Sociology 32: 2-3., pp. 447-473.

Singer, Audrey, and Douglas S. Massey. (1998). “The Social Process of Undocumented Border Crossing among Mexican Migrants,” International Migration Review. 32.3., pp. 561-592.

Smith, Earl and Angela J. Hattery. (2010). “African American Men and the Prison Industrial Complex,” The Western Journal of Black Studies 34.3., pp. 387-398.

Stephen, Lynn. (2009). “Expanding the Borderlands: Recent Studies on the U.S.-Mexico Border,” Latin American Research Review 44.1., pp. 266-308.

Welch, Michael. (2003). “Ironies of Social Control and the Criminalization of Immigrants,” Crime, Law & Social Change 39., pp. 319-337.

Welch, Michael. (2007). “Immigration Lockdown Before and After 9/11: Ethnic Constructions and Their Consequences.” Race, Gender, and Punishment: From Colonialism to the War on Terror. Edited by Mary Bosworth and Jeanne Flavin. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Winslow, George. (2000). “Capital Crimes: The Political Economy of Crime in America,” Monthly Review Press., pp. 38-53.

 

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