Is This the Way to Handle Immigration?

Some of the most powerful states in the world -- the US, the UK, France, Italy -- have increasingly reoriented large parts of their state bureaucracy to control vulnerable and powerless migrants.
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The US has resorted to fairly extreme state action in order to control undocumented immigrants. This is a long history, with ups and downs. The current phase of strong-state action began in the 1990s with Clinton. The US is not alone. Some of the most powerful states in the world -- the US, the UK, France, Italy -- have increasingly reoriented large parts of their state bureaucracy to control, detect, stop, detain, and deport basically vulnerable and powerless migrants. These states have been willing to sacrifice major and minor laws, and more generally the spirit of the law -- one of the most valued achievements of our collective history in the west. They have sacrificed the civil liberties of their citizenry in order (supposedly) to control foreigners.

In the US, the Patriot Act authorizes the immediate deportation of any alien (both documented and not), without hearings or evidence, if the Attorney General considers him/her possibly dangerous. Further, and decisive in terms of what is happening in Arizona as I write, after 2001 the Federal government authorized states to pass immigration legislation: by 2007 there were 240 laws and around 1,700 bills, and the numbers have increased since then. Twenty-three states in the US have signed agreements with the federal government to collaborate in arrests.

This means that what is happening in Arizona's over the last few months, and culminating with today's initiative to criminalize unauthorized residence, is not anomalous. It is part of a larger landscape that enables governments and police forces to engage in actions that we used to think of as extreme and unacceptable.

In many ways, border control has not worked. No matter how big their guns and border-control budgets, these states have lost credibility -- not only with their citizens, but also with traffickers, who have, if anything, vastly increased their operations. According to the International Labor Office, criminal syndicates made US$29 billion dollars in 2006 on human trafficking for the sex industry, evidently a sharp increase over prior years.

In this process, powerful states have also made visible the limits of their power, no matter how weaponized their borders. For instance, the US government has been raising its Mexico-US border budget every year, going from about $250 million dollars a year in the early 1990s to $1.6 billion a year in the early 2000s, and at the same time there was a doubling of the undocumented population, from an estimated 6 to 12 million (for more information see By 2008, the INS budget stood at $35 billion -- the INS is now part of Homeland Security. From 1986 to 2008, the border patrol increased from 3,700 to 18,000, and its budget went from $151,000 million to 7.9 billion. And still, the gains, if any, were ambiguous.

In the long run the economic and ethical costs are a high price for "liberal democracies" to pay -- and all in order to control extremely powerless and vulnerable people who mostly only want a chance to work. For instance, in the US, as of 2007-08 fiscal year, 320,000 immigrants not suspected of felonies, are incarcerated without having had their trials, because they are considered as probably illegal residents. In other words, among these 320,000 there are likely to be citizens -- in fact, we know there are. When a state extends arbitrary powers to governors and police forces, sooner or later they will reach citizens. Will it take this in order for those in charge to shift from the drive to control to the art of governing these flows.

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