The Bits of a New Immigration Reality: A Bad Fit with Current Policy
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Second, the privatization and deregulation of public sector activities has brought with it a type of de-facto (rather than formally explicated) privatization of various governance functions that were once in the public bureaucracy.10 This privatization of governance is particularly evident in the internationalization of trade and investment.  Corporations, markets, and free trade agreements are now in fact "governing" an increasing share of cross-border flows, including the regimes for cross-border professionals described earlier.

Third, the numbers and kinds of political actors involved in immigration policy debates and policy making in Europe and the US are far greater than they were two decades ago: the European Union; anti-immigrant parties;  vast networks of organizations in both Europe and North America that often represent immigrants, or claim to do so, and fight for immigrant rights; immigrant associations and immigrant politicians, mostly in the second generation; and, especially in the US, so-called ethnic lobbies. The policy process for immigration is no longer confined to a narrow governmental arena of ministerial and administrative interaction. Public opinion and public political debate have become part of the space wherein immigration policy is shaped.  Whole parties position themselves politically in terms of their stand on immigration, especially in some of the European countries.

The emerging realities about immigration and the state described in these two first sections amount to a larger ecology within which border controls function. That larger ecology can unsettle, if not undermine, the foundations of border controls.

The Limits of Militarized Border Controls Given New Realities

Against this larger context, the increasingly militarized US/Mexico border is a sort of natural experiment to examine the interaction of these realities with militarized border controls.  US immigration policy, with its overwhelming focus on border control, rests precisely on not factoring in that emergent immigration reality and those particular state transformations described in the first two sections.11 Here I can only limit myself to the narrowest definition of these issues.

Many of the facts are by now familiar, but some are not. After 15 years of increased militarizing of the border, we have an all-time high in the estimated unauthorized immigrant population (ca. 12 million). The annual INS budget rose from $200 million in 1996 to $1.6 billion in 2005.  The number of Border Patrol officers increased from 2,500 in the early 1980s to around 12,000 today. Backfire at the Border finds (see fn. 2) a sharp increase in the costs per arrest and falling arrest rates. Before 1992, the cost of making one arrest along the US-Mexico border stood at $300; by 2002, that cost had grown by 467% to $1,700 and the probability of apprehension had fallen to a forty year low, despite massive increases in spending on border enforcement.  Finally, the escalation of border control has raised the risks and costs of illegal crossing, which in turn has changed a seasonal circulatory migration—with workers leaving their families behind—into a family migration and long-term stays. The Border study established that in the early 1980s, about half of all undocumented Mexicans returned home within 12 months of entry. By 2000 the rate of return migration stood at just 25 percent.

In brief, the results were the opposite of what the government aimed at: border militarization did not reduce the probability of illegal crossings on the US/Mexico border, forced unauthorized immigrants to stay longer than they wanted and to bring their families even when they would rather not.

There are three peculiar absences in the enforcement effort in the US which are also part of the larger ecology within which militarization has failed to achieve its aims. One is the absence of a parallel “escalation” in the visa application process—because of understaffing it can still take ten years for a lawful applicant to get processed. Secondly, the budget for inspections of workplaces suspected of violating the law remains minimal and employers sanctions are rare.12 Thirdly, the budget for tracking visa over-stayers remains minimal and apprehensions are few.

At least part of the reason for these absences is rather straightforward. There are four critical differences between these three options and investment in border control. They concern jobs, buying materiel, lobbies and propaganda.

On jobs, regardless of political party, the US government has repeatedly shown a strong reluctance to create more jobs for inspecting workplaces, for tracking visa-overstayers, and for processing green card applications.  Over the last 20 years especially, none of these efforts have seen the sharp budgetary increases allocated for controlling the border with Mexico. On buying materiel, the sharp increases in the INS budget have benefited the makers and sellers of armaments and surveillance technology. A third difference concerns lobbying efforts in Congress. Armament makers and large corporate employers in agri-business, meat-packing and other sectors known to employ significant numbers of unauthorized immigrants operate powerful lobbies. INS inspectors and green card processors, and large sectors of the workforce, do not. Finally, there is the electoral-and-public opinion machinery: weaponizing a border makes for better footage and a better media story than does hiring more INS inspectors and green card processors.

There are winners and losers in this policy framing. The winners include armament makers, some large corporate employers in particular sectors of the economy, various types of lobbies, employers of undocumented immigrants generally insofar as employers’ sanctions are not seriously enforced, and the growing numbers of smugglers whose fees and whose business have increased sharply as our policies have made border crossing more difficult and risky.

The losers include citizens whose taxes are paying for a far larger and costlier border control operation that is not even reducing illegal crossings—the intended policy outcome for supporting all those Congressional authorizations for budget increases. The losers also include the migrants themselves whose crossings have become far more difficult, dangerous, sometimes deadly as well as costly given the greater need for using a smuggler. They also include the INS inspectors who have not seen sharp increases in their numbers and resources to enforce employers’ sanctions, and the overworked and understaffed processing units at the INS.