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In defense of weak immigration enforcement


I was thinking about putting up a post in response to Kevin Drum’s unfortunate defense of aggressive border controls. But I moved slowly, and Matthew Yglesias and Chris Bertram came along and made many of the points I wanted to make.

I want to elevate, though, a wonderfully succinct and important point made by lizardbreath in the comments to the crooked timber post, in response to the question of what a ‘principled defense of weak enforcement’ would look like:

Any level of enforcement that would actually keep large numbers of undocumented workers out of the country is either practically or at least politically impossible—there’s too much support for having a desperate class of workers with no legal rights in the country.

So if effective enforcement isn’t an option, the choice between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ enforcement is a choice between harassing and immiserating undocumented immigrants more or less. At which point ‘less’ looks like a principled position to me.

The thread continues with a lot of people talking past each other; many articulating some version of the claim that ‘we need strong immigration enforcement in the service of certain progressive policy imperatives,’ and others responding that strong, but also humane and non-civil liberties damaging immigration enforcement is not possible.

This general point seems to be simultaneously acknowledged and ignored in much of the debate about immigration. There is, of course, a straightforward and simple way of thinking about state capacity that would suggest that a determined and unified version of the US state could enact and enforce a set of policies that would go a long way toward meaningful enforcement of immigration laws (whether this could be done without significant damage to civil liberties is another matter). But thinking about state capacity in a way that assumes state unity wishes away an important impediment to the achievement of state capacity. Obviously, business interests in immigrant labor, including (and in many cases especially) undocumented immigrant labor, is a significant part of the story. But it is hardly the only one. Other reason become clearer when we avoid overly simple conceptions of state capacity.

Another possible reason: Seeing borders like a state (reference to this and see also this). According to states, Borders are mere lines. But borders engender borderlands. There’s a fairly extensive literature on borderlands, and one of the central findings in the historical study of borderlands is that the collective identities and interests of borderland populations are often at odds with the agenda of the larger state, but the larger state must rely on borderland populations to a considerable degree. Unequal borders produce particular stresses on borderlands but also multiply opportunities–there’s a strong tendency for unequal borders to be among the most unstable and least amenable to strong enforcement.

Relatedly, the narrative of a possible strong/effective/humane border regime necessarily ignores the ways in which different parts of the state are likely to get in each other’s way. In States Against Migrants, Antje Ellerman (using the US and Germany as her case studies) details the says in which the politics of migration policy change dramatically at the legislative, executive, and bureaucratic levels. As you move from legislative to executive to bureaucratic, the incentive structure and pressures shift away from enforcing immigration controls uniformly and forcefully. This isn’t a dynamic that can be easily fixed by passing a better law.

Kevin Drum’s position–make policies more just and enforce them vigorously but humanely–doesn’t sound anywhere near as appalling or insane as the “build a giant wall!” crowd. But they share an important similarity. Knowingly or not, both are calling for the state to ‘perform’ a version of sovereignty that is essentially fictional. Unfortunately, this performance is not benign. While it won’t accomplish it’s stated goals, it will have a variety of other effects, many of which are predictable. Some of the entirely predictable consequences of the increase in border enforcement on the US/Mexico border since the early 90’s have been: significant enrichment of a human traffickers and coyotes in the borderlands, the inflammation of local anti-immigration vigilantes in the US, increasingly long stays in the US for Mexican migrants (as border crossing became more expensive and dangerous), and increased rate of death for border-crossers. We know we can do this. We have significant reasons to doubt we can do what Drum wants us to try to do. You can’t evaluate  and defend a policy based on the latter, while ignoring the former.

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