Two weeks before a referendum on the extraordinary presidency of Donald J. Trump, it’s easy to imagine that everything that the U.S. government has done under his watch has been new and innovative in its destructiveness. But “in Migrating to Prison César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández shows that the machinery of separation has long stretched deep into the interior, consisting of a vast network of immigrant detention centers that now reach almost every state in the nation,” Francisco Cantú writes in the New York Review of Books. Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River, reveals how present-day failures of U.S. immigration policy turn on longstanding contradictions.
Alongside books by John Washington and Rosayra Pablo Cruz, Cantú’s essay in the November 5, 2020 issue of the magazine, The Lie of American Asylum, nicely captures my own attempt to weave historical patterns of lawmaking and law-enforcement into the stories reported with earnest since early 2017 when President Trump first entered the White House. As Cantú writes, “in tracing the history behind today’s record levels of imprisonment, García Hernández reveals the haphazard ways immigration enforcement has been devised and administered, how supremacist notions of nationalism and race have long guided our policymaking, and how adherence to procedural guidelines was gradually reframed as a question of criminality.”
There was nothing inevitable about turning to the tools of criminal policing to enforce immigration law, but that’s what the United States did. I wrote Migrating to Prison to help uncover why and how that happened.
By pointing at the underlying thread of my book, the criminalization of migrants, Cantú unknowingly points toward a project I’m now turning to that squarely confronts the legitimacy of using criminal justice tools to regulate migration. Where Migrating to Prison focuses only on imprisonment’s role in enforcing immigration law, I’m curious whether crime itself can rightfully set off immigration consequences.
Like with immigration imprisonment, we tend to think that the answer is obvious–of course crime can and should be used to identify who is a desirable resident of the United States. But that hasn’t always been true nor is it today. In the past, criminal activity didn’t carry the same harsh consequences for migrants that it does today. On the flip side, today lots of people commit crime without ever suffering any consequences under criminal law nonetheless under immigration law.
This project is very much under development, but it’s nice to know that the foundation I set in Migrating to Prison is being received well.