The pattern is astonishingly clear. Every year, the U.S. Marshals Service books into its custody almost 100,000 people suspected of entering the United States without the federal government’s permission. Every year, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency confines over 400,000 people waiting to learn whether they will be allowed to remain in the United States. Every year, private prison corporations and local governments reap hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for locking up people suspected to have violated some tenant of migration control. Every year, thousands of people die en route to the United States. Every year, as many as 500,000 people are placed on buses and airplanes and dropped off in Latin American capitals as the United States’ deportees.
By now, this story has become rote. Friends struggle to help people whose spouse has suddenly disappeared into the immigration prison archipelago. Newspapers feature the children left behind when ICE deports a parent. Politicians rant about insecurity on the border or about a need to focus enforcement on, as President Obama famously put it, “felons, not families.”
Why this juxtaposition? On the one hand, governmental actions that are strong-armed and, at times, deadly. On the other hand, a palatable despair that immigration policing has gone awry in one way or another—too harsh, too lax, or too misdirected. The driving narrative is one of a legal regime in disarray. If adherents of the two major political parties in the United States can agree on one feature of current immigration practices it is that we have a system that is “broken.” This characterization has been repeated to the point of irrelevance. It is everyone’s starting point. Law and law enforcement become the center of attention. In one way or another, things are not what they should be.
Tanya Golash-Boza agrees that things are not what they should be, but takes a fundamentally different perspective on what it is that is so problematic about the state of migration controls in the United States. To her, there is nothing surprising about immigration policing. As she details in Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism, immigration policing, especially its sharp-edged deportation apparatus, is a logical and critical feature of global capitalism in the twenty-first century.
By positioning large-scale deportation—what she calls “mass deportation”—within global economic practices, Golash-Boza departs from the conventional view of migrants as atomized beings. It has become almost an article of faith among politicians (and, to a lesser degree, academics) that the regulatory regime that affects migration consists of all that we classify as “immigration law” and nothing else. Golash-Boza challenges that dominant intellectual mode head-on.
Economic policies and practices are at the heart of migratory patterns in the hyperconnected era in which we live. People get up and move for a variety of reasons, but almost all can be tied to facets of what Golash-Boza refers to as “global capitalism.” Some folks leave in search of better economic opportunities. Others in search of safety. Still others to reunite with family members. Economic decisions made by elite state and non-state actors appear in all of these decisions in one form or another. From the 1940s to the 1960s, for example, Mexicans came to the United States with the federal government’s blessing under the auspices of the Bracero Program. Today, migrants continue to come in part to serve the need for low-wage labor.
Caught up in global economic networks, migrant labor isn’t valuable only in the United States. On the contrary, migrants frequently meet the low-wage labor needs of wealthy nations from inside offices in Latin America. But instead of doing so in a country in which they are not citizens, they increasingly do so in the very country they left years or decades earlier only to return forcibly as United States deportees. Call centers, Bolash-Goza tells us, have sprouted up in places like San Salvador where people raised in the United States but deported to El Salvador can use their native English to respond to customer service requests for major corporations.
Tapping deportees in the service of global capitalism completes a cycle of exploitation. The cycle begins when conditions in their country of origin deteriorate, typically through the involvement of United States economic or military affairs, such that migration becomes the choice of survival. Governments then depend on migration as a safety against the rebelliousness of youth who see little future without leaving. But because the United States has largely cut off legal routes to migration by poor people, they are left with little choice but to live here without authorization. In turn, that legal position pushes migrants into a precarious status. They are vulnerable to exploitation and always subject to the piercing threat of the state’s policing power. For hundreds of thousands of migrants every year, that threat becomes reality leading them into the immigration detention and deportation pipeline. Once removed to whatever country they hold citizenship in (no matter how estranged they are from its language, norms, or people), they are once more stigmatized and displaced. That treatment pushes them yet again into the vulnerable position that makes migrants so easily exploited.
This is a powerful retelling of migration and economic policies. Narrowly focusing on immigration law and policy, this analysis suggests, avoids grappling with the root causes of migration. No matter where people sit on the political spectrum, this is a message worth heeding. Reforms can alter existing practices to make them more or less friendly to migrants. Budget allocations can alter the severity of policing practices. Reprioritizing certain types of migrants over others can shift the source of migratory labor. But without addressing the way in which today’s global economic conditions create exploitable labor and depend on those people for the wealthy nations of the world (and the wealthy people in poor nations) to continue to prosper, then conversations about immigration law reform can, at most, soften immigration law policing’s roughest edges without altering its exploitative core.