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The New Political Economy of Immigration

The "enforcement only" policy has fostered a national immigrant prison complex that feeds on ever-increasing numbers of arrested immigrants.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 drastically altered the traditional political economy of immigration. The millions of undocumented immigrants -- those who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas -- who were living and working in the United States were no longer simply regarded as a shadow population or as surplus cheap labor. In the public and policy debate, immigrants were increasingly defined as threats to the nation's security. Categorizing immigrants as national security threats gave the government's flailing immigration law-enforcement and border- control operations a new unifying logic that has propelled the immigrant crackdown forward.

Responsibility for immigration law-enforcement and border control passed from the Justice Department to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In Congress Democrats and Republicans alike readily supported a vast expansion of the country's immigration control apparatus -- doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and authorizing a tripling of immigrant prison beds.

Today, after the shift in the immigration debate, the $15 billion-plus DHS budget for immigration affairs has fueled an immigrant-crackdown economy that has greatly boosted the already-bloated prison industry. Even now, with the economy imploding, immigrants are currently behind one of the country's most profitable industries: they are the nation's fastest growing sector of the U.S. prison population.

Across the country new prisons are hurriedly being constructed to house the hundreds of thousands of immigrants caught each year. State and local governments are vying with each other to attract new immigrant prisons as the foundation of their rural "economic development" plans.

While DHS is driving immigrants from their jobs and homes, U.S. firms in the business of providing prison beds are raking in record profits from the immigrant crackdown. Although only one piece of the broader story of immigration, it's all a part of the new political economy of immigration.

Dangerous People

In the new national security context, undocumented immigrants are not just outlaws: They are "dangerous people" who threaten the homeland.

The two DHS agencies involved in immigration enforcement -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP) -- have seen their funds increased disproportionately over the last several years, doubling in size while total DHS funding has increased by just a third. The funding for these two agencies is set to rise 19.1% in 2009 while the overall DHS budget will increase by only 6.8%. Hunting down immigrants has become a top DHS priority. As, DHS says its mission is "to prevent terrorist attacks against the nation and to protect our nation from dangerous people."

Immigrants caught up in DHS dragnets, worksite enforcement raids, and border patrols were the "metrics of success" that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff pointed to in his July 18, 2008 congressional testimony. He used the dramatically increased number of immigrant apprehensions and "removals" as metrics to show that DHS is succeeding in its goal to "secure the homeland and protect the American people."

While the increased numbers of immigrants being arrested, imprisoned, and deported certainly demonstrate that DHS is busy, they don't demonstrate that DHS is stopping terrorism. Never in its congressional testimonies or media releases does DHS present evidence that show how the number of immigrants captured improves national security.

A 2007 study by the Transnational Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that there has been no increase in terrorism or national security charges against immigrants since 2001. In fact, despite the increased enforcement operations by Homeland Security, more immigrants were charged annually in immigration courts with national security or terrorism-related offenses in a three-year period in the mid-1990s (1994–96) than in a comparable period (2004–2006) since Sept. 11. According to the TRAC study, "A decade later, national security charges were brought against 114 individuals, down about a third. Meanwhile for the same period, terrorism charges are down more than three-fourths, to just 12."