The United States has resorted to fairly extreme state action in order to control undocumented immigrants. This is a long history, with ups and downs. The current phase of strong-state action began in the 1990s with Bill Clinton. But the US is not alone. Some of the most powerful states in the world – Britain, France, Italy – have increasingly reoriented large parts of their state bureaucracy to control, detect, stop, detain, and deport basically vulnerable and powerless migrants. These states have been willing to sacrifice major and minor laws, and more generally the spirit of the law – one of the most valued achievements of collective history in the west. They have sacrificed the civil liberties of their citizenry in order (supposedly) to control foreigners.
In the US, the Patriot Act (2001) authorises the immediate deportation of any alien (both documented and not), without hearings or evidence, if the attorney-general considers him/her possibly dangerous. Moreover, after 2001 the federal government authorised states to pass immigration legislation: by 2007 there were 240 laws and approximately 1,700 bills to this effect, numbers that have increased further since then. Twenty-three states in the US have signed agreements with the federal government to collaborate in arrests. The initiative by the authorities in Arizona to criminalise unauthorised residence (passed by the state’s house of representatives on 13 April 2010, and signed into law on 23 April) should be seen in this context.
What is happening in Arizona is, therefore, not anomalous. Rather, the decision to make it a crime under state law to be in the United States illegally and to oblige state police to question individuals over their immigration status on grounds of “reasonable suspicion” is part of a larger landscape that enables governments and police forces to engage in actions that used to be thought of as extreme and unacceptable.
In many ways, border control has not worked. No matter how big these states’ guns and border-control budgets, they have lost credibility – both with their citizens and with traffickers (who have, if anything, vastly increased their operations). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that criminal syndicates made $29 billion in 2006 on human trafficking for the sex industry, evidently a sharp increase over prior years.
In this process, powerful states have made visible the limits of their power, no matter how weaponised their borders. For instance, the US government has steadily been raising its annual budget for the Mexico-US border – it leapt from about $250 million a year in the early 1990s to $1.6 billion a year in the early 2000s; yet at the same time there was a doubling of the undocumented population, from an estimated 6 million to 12 million (see Border Battles: the US Immigration Debates, Social Science Research Council, 2010). By 2008, the budget of the former immigration and naturalisation service (INS, since 2003 part of the department of homeland security) stood at $35 billion. From 1986-2008, the number of border-patrol personnel increased from 3,700 to 18,000, and its budget from $151,000 million to $7.9 billion. And still, the gains, if any, were ambiguous.
All these resources are being spent in order to control extremely powerless and vulnerable people who mostly only want a chance to work (see Michele Wucker, “Don’t get immigration wrong – again”, 19 June 2006). Even with this enormous mismatch, the economic and ethical costs of this approach for “liberal democracies” are in the long run very high. In the United States, for instance, 320,000 immigrants were in the 2007-08 fiscal year incarcerated without trial only because officialdom considered it likely that they were illegal residents. In other words, it is more than probable that some among these 320,000 were in reality citizens. When a state extends arbitrary powers to governors and police forces, sooner or later the latter will reach – and target – citizens. It might take that to happen in order for those in charge to shift from the drive to control to the art of governing these flows.
Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, and at the London School of Economics. This article has been reproduced under a Creative Commons licence from OpenDemocracy.net.