San Diego Dentention Facility

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The New Juan Crow: Who Benefits from Immigration Detention?

“Who benefits?” That’s the a question critical sociologists such as Karl Marx, C. Wright Mills and more recently William Domhoff have explored. Instead of just observing the social world, critical sociologists evaluate society and work to create social change. Let’s take a look how critical sociologists apply the, who benefits question, to contemporary immigration detention in the US.

Immigration Detention

Immigration enforcement has become a top priority in the US. When non-citizens, including legal and undocumented immigrants (adults, families, and children) are picked up, they are placed in confinement until the US determines what will happen to them (i.e., deportation, asylum, etc.). Like the prison system, the US is also number one in immigration detention, detaining nearly half a million individuals each year. In the US alone, it costs around 2 billion per yer to detain immigrants and people seeking asylum.

Immigration Industrial Complex

The immigration industrial complex is the joining of the “public and private sector interests in the criminalization of undocumented migration, immigration law enforcement, and the promotion of ‘anti-illegal’ rhetoric” (Golash-Boza 2009: 295). The immigration industrial complex stems from the prison industrial complex (PIC) and the military industrial (MIC) complex. Tanya Golash-Boza (2009: 306), a sociologist who studies race and immigration explains that all three of these complexes perpetuate fear, bring together powerful interests of the public and private sector, and blame disadvantaged groups. She explains:

With the military build-up during the Cold War, the ‘others’ were communists. With the prison expansion of the 1990s, the ‘others’ were criminals (often racialized and gendered as black men). With the expansion of the immigration industrial complex, the ‘others’ are ‘illegals’ (racialized as Mexicans).

Sociologists, Martinez and Slack (2013: 15) also take note of the similarities of the “mass incarceration of African Americans and the criminalization of largely brown Mestizo and indigenous undocumented migrants from Latin America. “Juan Crow” appears to be riding in on the tail feathers of Jim Crow.”

Who Benefits from the Immigration Industrial Complex?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) manages the immigration detention system and hires private companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and country jails to maintain detainees. Beginning in 2009, Congress implemented a yearly detention bed quota, which is currently up to 34,000 beds per year. No other law enforcement agency in the US operates on a quota system.

Immigration detention has become a profitable business trend around the world. CCA, for example, has made record revenues in recent years and plays an active role in lobbying Congress for policies that maintain the for-profit detention industry.

Supporters of privatizing detention facilities suggest that this approach saves taxpayers money. However, opponents of privatization argue this is a way for private corporations and local governments to profit. The private industry has also been said to cut corners to maximize earnings. For example, numerous reports have documented poor care and human rights abuses to both adults and children in these facilities. California has recently proposed legislation that would create restrictions for private immigration detention centers.

Public safety is also cited as a reason to support the immigration industrial complex. However, the majority of detainees have not been convicted of a crime; their offenses are immigration infractions, which are civil violations. An Amnesty International report (2008: 6) explains:

The US criminal justice system provides individuals detained and charged with criminal offenses with the opportunity to challenge their detention before a court and provides legal counsel for individuals who cannot afford to pay themselves. However, individuals detained on the basis of civil immigration violations are not provided with such safeguards.

For more information, check out this report comparing the US criminal justice system and the US immigration justice system.

Perhaps the most important question is, who doesn’t benefit from the immigration industrial complex? I agree with Golash-Boza (2009: 306) who explains “Marginalized groups have paid the heaviest price for the enrichment of the powerful and well connected. This is the essence of an industrial complex.”

With that, I’ll leave you with some words from Catalina Nieto with the Detention Watch Network. She describes the human cost of the immigration industrial complex.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Scholars, including Nicole Trujillo-Pagan (2013), a sociologist who studies inequality, argues that the immigration industrial complex is not an accident or an “unintended consequence,” and instead is a way to maintain an expendable workforce of immigrants who are undocumented. After reading Dr. Trujillo-Pagan’s article and this essay, how would you characterize the immigration industrial complex? For example, is it an accident, orchestrated for profit, or somewhere in between? Explain your position.
  2. Read this story about Pedro Guzman, a man who was detained for 597 days at Stewart Detention Center, a CCA facility, in Georgia. How did larger policies and practices impact Pedro and his family?
  3. Go to the Global Detention Project and compare the United States’ policies and detention rates to at least two other countries. Describe the similarities and differences?
  4. In their book, Brokered Boundaries, Massey and Sánchez (2010: 78) argue, “In a very real way, then, the United States now increasingly looks like a police state to immigrants, whatever their documentation.” What did the authors mean by this?

Image: BBC World Service via Flickr