“Crimmigration” has become a shorthand term for the increasing overlap of the nation’s criminal justice and immigration control systems in the Trump era. It’s time to reexamine our assumptions about what motivates the current zeal to punish immigrants, writes a criminologist at John Jay College.
The term crimmigration was coined by law professor Juliet Stumpf in 2006, as a shorthand for the increasing overlap of the nation’s criminal justice and immigration control systems.
Other academics quickly took up the term, using it to describe the policies of the Obama administration as it brought immigration enforcement to unprecedented heights, earning President Obama the title “deporter-in-chief”.
The actions of the Trump administration have brought crimmigration into widespread use. It’s a useful term for the media and advocates struggling to describe one of the administration’s few first-year successes in fulfilling candidate Trump’s campaign promises: true to his word, Trump has established a system of punishment for immigrants, built upon the worst excesses of the criminal justice system.
To be sure, his predecessors laid the groundwork for this explicitly punitive approach, but Trump has quickly pushed immigration enforcement past its previous limits in any number of ways. It is more vicious than ever before, more vindictive, more arbitrary—but most importantly, it has comprehensively aligned enforcement policy and practice with the priorities of the president’s voter base and the institutional culture of the agencies involved: ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection).
The how of Trump’s punitive immigration control system—its culture, its methods and practices, its constituencies—become clearer with each news item and investigative report. The why, on the other hand, remains largely opaque.
We know that greed and racism motivate this activity, at least in part: that in the background behind this unified front of nativist voters, anti-immigrant policy-makers, and overzealous field agents lie the interests of private prison corporations and local elected officials, particularly sheriffs. But wouldn’t it be naïve—or at least overreach the available evidence—to suggest that immigration enforcement as a whole is motivated by economic considerations?
If we want to investigate the reasons why American immigration policy is increasingly focused on punishing immigrants as criminals, we need to reexamine our assumptions about what constitutes “economic motivation.”
In a recent piece for the academic journal Theoretical Criminology, I proposed that we shift our thinking about the reasons why institutions and individuals involve themselves in immigration enforcement, to consider them as potential entrepreneurs in a punishment marketplace.
We generally think of entrepreneurs as economically motivated innovators: individuals with new ideas about products or services that could revolutionize a particular field—and ideally make the entrepreneur a profit.
A marketplace is where these innovations compete; where the products and services associated with them are bought and sold. It’s challenging to fit immigration enforcement into this formula, because **immigration control is supposed to be a public service: not the kind of service that is bought and sold, but the kind provided by government for the collective benefit of the governed.
Public services, however, can be privatized, and under the neoliberal philosophy of governance that dominates contemporary American policy-making, they increasingly are.
Neoliberalism is a tricky term, in part because it resists the reductive left/right logic of America’s polarized political discourse. A neoliberal approach to governance has much in common with the conservative worldview: both hold up the idea of the “free market” as the natural and best approach to organizing human society.
On the surface, the purpose of immigration control seems antithetical to these “free market” ideals. Doesn’t the American economy benefit from the labor competition and increased productivity that immigrant workers contribute?
Nearly all available evidence suggests that it does; but this question gets to the heart of immigration enforcement’s role as a “public service.”
Contrary to the anti-government sentiment that goes hand-in-hand with the valorization of “free markets” in conservative ideology, markets have always required government regulation to keep them “free.” Paradoxically, the most basic market intervention at government’s disposal is punishment: the consequences meted out to those who fail to respect the private property rights that make markets possible—criminals, in other words.
The Property-Based Rationale for Immigration Enforcement
Immigration enforcement fits neatly into this framework if we view citizenship as property rather than a fulfillment of the social contract—that is, something we own by virtue of who we are, as opposed to something we earn through our contributions to the community or society in which we live. If citizenship—and the rights of residence and membership that go with it—is property, then undocumented immigrants are criminal by definition: “illegal aliens” who have stolen the residency rights of citizenship from their rightful owners.
The “public service” of immigration enforcement is, in this interpretation, the protection of the property rights surrounding citizenship—the policing, in other words, of the boundaries of acceptable behavior in the citizenship marketplace.
The concept of “marketplace” used above requires us to accept that the buying, selling, and investing that go on in these spaces is not an exclusively economic activity, but an application of accumulative, “free market” principles to many kinds of potential benefits: power, security, “freedom”, rights, even physical and mental health.
To view this range of benefits as subject to “free market” competition, as in the contemporary conservative/neoliberal worldview, is to view their gain and loss as a zero-sum game. The rights associated with citizenship can’t be given to immigrants without loss to citizens; conversely, keeping those rights exclusive makes them all the more valuable to those who hold them.
What’s more, “regulatory structures” like federal immigration enforcement allow powerful groups and individuals—or punishment entrepreneurs—to “invest” in these benefits and reap a wide variety of returns.
Who are these entrepreneurs? The handful I put forward in my paper include New Jersey’s Kim Guadagno, a former federal prosecutor-turned Monmouth County Sheriff, whose investment in anti-immigrant rhetoric and a 287g immigration enforcement agreement led her to the state’s Lieutenant Governship, and an (ultimately unsuccessful) bid for the Governor’s mansion.
They include the principals of the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, whose investment in immigrant detention paid off handsomely, helped along by their insider knowledge of the correctional industry and their political connections.
The Punishment ‘Entrepreneurs’
But for every well-known punishment entrepreneur like Arizona’s former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, there are hundreds of sheriffs, correctional administrators, private prison investors, and exploitative employers of immigrant labor whose investments in the punitive treatment of immigrants have borne significant returns, particularly with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
Equally important to recognizing this accumulation of benefits to the few that is the hallmark of “free market” logic, is recognizing that a great many of the voters who chose Trump for his anti-immigrant stance benefit from the harsh enforcement policies his administration has put into action.
These benefits may be largely psychological, and rooted in their exclusionary perspective on citizenship and membership rights. Supporters of Trump’s harsh immigration policies benefit from their relative security—their “freedom” from the fear of detention or deportation—and they benefit from the increasing invisibility of people they think of as “others,” and their relatively more exclusive use of public space.
They also benefit from the relative absence of these “others” from constitutionally protected public services like education and healthcare. And perhaps most of all, they benefit as consumers, as frightened immigrant laborers are more easily exploited, keeping the costs of many goods and services artificially low.
Those who would advocate for immigrant rights must reckon with the reality of these widely perceived benefits, and the worldview that makes them acceptable.
The radically neoliberal “free market” philosophy of contemporary American conservatism excuses the equally radical curtailment of empathy necessary for the dehumanizing immigration policies enacted by the Trump administration. What appears to many observers as deeply inhumane is for others the straightforwardly necessary protection of their real interests, and those of their families and children.
The work of advocating for humane and rational immigration policy in the contemporary context is nothing less than the steep challenge of culture change. The neoliberal/conservative worldview that sees the distribution of rights and benefits as a zero-sum game holds clear advantages for the entrepreneurs who are able to manipulate it to their advantage, and these privileged few will continue to promote this perspective as long as it serves their interests to do so.
Empathy must be taught and modeled across the cultural landscape in order for more humanist perspectives to take root. Culture change on this scale is a generational fight.
Immigrant advocates working today need the courage today to work for victories tomorrow.
Editor’s Note: See also other TCR articles by Daniel Stageman examining local immigration enforcement. In Etowah County, AL; Frederick County, Md.; and Orange County, Ca.; Read Stageman’s introduction to the series, “Where Will Trump’s Deportation Force Strike Hardest?” here.
Daniel L. Stageman, Ph.D., is Director of Research Operations at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also a criminologist whose scholarship focuses on making sense of America’s punitive approach to immigrants. He can be contacted at dstageman@)jjay.cuny.edu. Readers’ comments are welcome.