Thursday, January 22, 2009

The New Political Economy of Immigration

(Here's an excerpt from my article published in the current issue of Dollars & Sense.)
Since Sept. 11, 2001 immigrants have become America’s most wanted. The terrorist attacks altered the traditional political economy of immigration. The economic forces that historically drive the demand for unskilled and skilled immigrants – and shape immigration policy -- suddenly lost their dominance. In the wake of Sept. 11, the rightist political forces that had long called for nationwide immigration enforcement, heavily restricted immigration, and fortified borders moved from the margins into the center of the immigration debate. In the public and policy debate, immigrants were increasingly defined as threats to the nation’s security and its cultural identity. The millions of illegal immigrants – those who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas – who were living and working in the United States were no longer simply regarded as a shadow population or as surplus cheap labor. Categorizing immigrants as national security threats gave the government’s flailing immigration law-enforcement and border-control operations a new unifying logic that has propelled the immigrant crackdown forward. In the name of national security, responsibility for immigration law-enforcement and border control passed from the Justice Department to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In Congress Democrats and Republicans alike readily supported a vast expansion of the country’s immigration control apparatus – doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and authorizing a tripling of immigrant prison beds. The $15 billion-plus DHS budget for immigration affairs has fueled an immigrant-crackdown economy that has greatly boosted the prison industry. Immigrants are now the nation’s fastest growing sector of the U.S. prison population. Across the country, but particularly in the Southwest, new prisons are hurriedly being constructed to house the hundreds of thousands of immigrants caught each year in the intensifying crackdown. Local governments are vying with each other to attract new immigrant prisons as the foundation of their rural “economic development” plans. Also part of the immigrant crackdown are many states and local governments that -- pressured by anti-immigrant activists and prodded by the federal government -- are eagerly collaborating with federal agencies in enforcing immigration law. Dozens of county and city governments -- often in partnership with private prison firms -- are also expanding their jails to accommodate detained immigrants. High per-diem payments offered by the federal government for each immigrant incarcerated drive this new market. Immigrants are behind one of America’s fastest growing, most profitable industries. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Immigrants have always been a core factor in U.S. economic development. Mining, railroads, agribusiness, and recently construction have been among the many U.S. industries that historically been driven by an abundant supply of immigrants. But now, when the economy is imploding, most industries are shedding immigrants. The demand part of the supply-and-demand equation is faltering, leaving a large supply of unwanted and vulnerable illegal immigrants. The private prison industry, however, is booming, largely because of the ever-increasing supply of immigrants supplied by the federal government. While the Department of Homeland Security is driving immigrants from their jobs and homes, U.S. firms in the business of providing prison beds are raking in record profits from the immigrant crackdown. It’s all part of a new political economy of immigration that will continue to shape immigration policy under the Obama administration.

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