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Crime and Profit: US Anti-Immigration Policy

This article, by synthesizing personal observation and statistical information, attempts to understand how U.S. anti-immigrant policies have emerged to produce profit for American corporations by criminalizing undocumented U.S. residents.  Though the data used in this article is primarily focused on U.S. immigrants from Latin America, the author recognizes that undocumented people from all over the world reside in the U.S. and that no person should be understood to be “illegal.” 
       Monday through Friday, from 9am to 4pm, the hallways of Webster Elementary School in southwest Detroit are a site for busy teachers, dutiful hall monitors, kindergarteners lined up for recess, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.  The ICE officers do their best not to trip over Tinker Bell backpacks as they peer into art classrooms, dodgeball gym sessions, and the cafeteria.  What are they looking for?  Community members speculate that the ICE surveys schools in order to monitor new students who may “appear to be illegal,” as a way of tracking undocumented populations in the United States.  In a neighborhood where a person can be pulled over for looking “too brown,” this is not difficult to believe. 
       Why is ICE spying on kindergartners?
       In 2008, the Bush administration introduced an aggressive immigration enforcement program that has been expanded under President Obama’s term.  The program, known as “Secure Communities,” requires local law enforcement agencies to act in a coordinated effort with federal law enforcement agencies (i.e. Homeland Security and ICE) to enforce civil immigration laws.  Secure Communities empowers local police to act as immigration police without any training.  Police are now not only sanctioned in but required by law to share all relevant data of people who they perceive as potentially deportable with ICE and Homeland Security (DHS).  This means that the fingerprints of a young man who is pulled over for a speeding ticket can be sent to DHS headquarters where they will be matched in a fingerprint repository of over 91 million individuals, and DHS employees will determine whether or not the man should be detained.  The requisites for an individual or group to be detained are minimal, resulting in the mis-apprehension of over 3,500 U.S. citizens over the past four years.  Over-policing is not only an assault on innocent people but also a financial strain on taxpayers who subsidize wrongful imprisonment.
       Secure Communities was promoted as a program that would decrease the criminality associated with non-citizens- that by pairing crime-fighting police with immigrant-deporting federal agents, undocumented “criminals” would be purged from U.S. borders.  Instead, it has criminalized an entire phenotype.  A study by Berkeley Law School indicates that 93% of all those deported through Secure Communities are Latino immigrants; a figure that demonstrates how disproportionately Latino-Americans are targeted by anti-immigration policy.  In fact, non-citizen immigrants from Latin America are the fastest rising population in American prisons.  Well over half of the deportations that Secure Communities are responsible for have been of individuals and families with no criminal record - which gives rise to the question of how the police managed to secure and send their fingerprints to DHS.  The idea of ICE officials strutting through the hallways of Webster Elementary School begins to make a little more sense. 
       With the reality of unemployment and bleak economic opportunity, nativist politics (policies that favor the interests of “native-born” inhabitants over those of immigrants) reign over the United States.  It is easy for politicians to capitalize on the xenophobia that arises in such times of financial strain on both the American working and middle classes.  Politicians assign culpability in economic crisis to immigrants.  Anti-immigrant rhetoric, used by Republicans and Democrats alike, tells the American tax payer that the surge of illegal immigrants from Mexico are not only hoarding American jobs, but that for every non-citizen who receives health care, who attends public school, who drives on the interstate, etc. - an American citizen’s pocket shrinks in size.  In 2010, undocumented U.S. residents contributed over 11.2 billion dollars in state and local taxes; undocumented U.S. residents are American taxpayers.  Republican and Democrat xenophobes emphasize the escalation of immigrants to elicit support for anti-immigration policy.  Today, only 12.9% of Americans are considered immigrants.  This number includes documented, undocumented, and naturalized immigrants.  For comparison, in 1890, 14.8% of the American population was immigrants.  Anti-immigrant policy is a reflection of fear in the face of a changing America, rather than a rational response to any real problem posed by the American immigrant population.  Furthermore, the mythical economic threat that has justified immigration policy fails to mention the role that the U.S. federal government and its neoliberal tendencies have played in displacing Mexican workers.
       Who benefits from anti-immigrant policies?
       Anti-immigrant policy has been designed to yield profits for American corporations by rejecting diversity.  Whether or not they are deported, all individuals apprehended by ICE/DHS/police officials are detained.  American taxpayers subsidize every individual who is imprisoned whether at privately or state funded institutions.  Private prisons, by wrongfully detaining hundreds of thousands of immigrants in their jail cells yield a sizable profit.  Take for example the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).  The CCA operates as the most profitable private prison corporation in the country.  In 2008 (birth of Secure Communities), the CCA’s revenues increased by  11%, resulting in a profit of over 35 million dollars for their shareholders.  Private prisons can only function on a for-profit model if they can maintain an adequate supply of prisoners, which provides incentive for criminalizing large groups of people.  Additionally, private prisons rely on low management costs in order to increase revenue. Immigrant families are seen as a more profitable option for imprisonment than, say, people who are HIV-positive, people convicted of violent crimes, or those who require medical care. 
       Upon walking into a CCA prison, one is greeted with a screen advertising the current value of shares.  Stock value rises with every person that the system claims.  Immigration policy has made the criminalization of immigrants into a business for American corporations.  In 2010, the U.S. deported over 400 thousand individuals, all of whom were detained at a prison prior to being repatriated.  Law enforcement’s role thus appears to be less about “securing communities,” and more about securing profits.
       No one benefits from anti-immigrant policies.  No one benefits when a family is ripped apart.  No one benefits when armed adults patrol the schools in which children are supposed to feel safe.  No one benefits when a family, because they fear being deported, cannot flee a community that considers them criminals.  No one benefits when a high school student cannot attend the university of their choice because they do not have a social security number.  No one benefits when we believe a person can be illegal.  Even the CEOs of private prisons do not benefit from the anti-immigrant industry.  Profit, when it is produced by holding people captive, is no benefit – it is a crime.

By Riley Linebaugh

Filed under Immigration Riley Linebaugh For profit prisons Capitalism United States Politics ICE

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