'Crimmigration' and its Consequences

July 6, 2018

Professor David Brotherton answers our questions about immigration and law enforcement.

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The Trump administration has made the drastic reduction of immigration, both legal and illegal, a priority. Yet, despite the administration’s “zero tolerance,” immigrants continue to come by the thousands. Although numbers are considerably lower than they were in the early 2000s, it has been reported that 50,000 people have been apprehended at the southern border each of the last few months.
The Graduate Center spoke to Professor David Brotherton (GC, Urban Education / John Jay, Sociology) to better understand the motivations, policies, and history driving today’s immigration.
GC: Help us understand, what are the immigrants fleeing or seeking? Why are they risking so much to come to this country?

Brotherton: The immigrants making the headlines at the border are mainly from the Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These are some of the poorest countries in Latin America, two of which are still recovering from civil wars during the 1980s during which close to 300,000 people were killed or disappeared. The third, Honduras, didn’t have a civil war, but was intrinsically connected to the fighting and was highly destabilized during this period, with the U.S. supporting the most conservative forces there against peasant and worker organizations.
In the 1990s, these countries finally had some peace with treaties signed between the warring parties and attempts were made to rebuild their economies and civil society institutions. But, soon after, the U.S. passed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which made legal residents deportable if they had committed “aggravated felonies” in the present or in the past.
A massive shift towards punitive policies in the U.S. regarding law enforcement led to what some scholars call the “great expulsion” regarding the deportation of 100,000s of primarily poor and working-class immigrants most of whom were persons from developing countries, especially countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As the criminal justice system has merged increasingly with the immigration system, the result has been described as “crimmigration.”
The admixture of a mass influx of deportees in these countries, combined with a weak state structure, extremely high levels of political and economic corruption, high levels of impunity, the adoption of U.S. “zero tolerance” measures, the lack of jobs, the massive increase of the drug trade from Colombia and Mexico, and lack of any effort to redistribute wealth led to the inevitable rise of inter-gang violence

Parents desperate to save their sons and daughters from this spiraling maelstrom have no other avenue except to head north. Sometimes the youth just come on their own to escape the inevitable violence, knowing that nothing and no one can protect them. They risk all this because there is simply nothing to lose.
GC: You’ve argued that anti-immigration sentiment is a global phenomenon and not tied just to wealthy nations. What is behind this sentiment? Why is it coming to the fore now?

Brotherton: Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise due to the massive levels of economic and social precariousness experienced by populations across the globe. Massive hoarding of wealth has created increasing levels of desperation among the world’s laboring classes. In addition, neo-liberalism has increased rates of climate change by the plunder of the world’s resources without any concern for long term consequences.

The world’s giant corporations, whether in banking, oil, manufacturing, services, or agriculture, continue to pursue short-term profit driven policies ignoring the extraordinary long-term damage to both the environment and the billions living under precarious conditions. Populations worldwide, therefore, are on the move all over, seeking refuge from wars and economic, social, and environmental devastations and paths to survival for their children. As anxiety and precariousness increase so elites manipulate these fears and blame the “outsider” for the internal problems and contradictions.

GC: What will it take to turn the tide away from widespread incarceration and deportation of immigrants in this country?

Brotherton: Short of a political revolution I’m not sure. However, it is encouraging to see so many people on the streets protesting against the abuses of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the plain inhumanity and racist intent of the recent rulings against immigrants from predominantly Muslim nations.

The U.S. has always been both an immigration nation and a deportation nation. The deportation laws draw on all kinds of anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-native American, anti-minority laws of the past. In order to take on this more recent extreme move to banish a subpopulation, we have to come to terms with our past. The same is true of the need to dismantle the systems of mass incarceration. One demand that is becoming popular is to abolish ICE. I totally support this demand, but it is just a start.

GC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Brotherton: The sooner we understand that as a society we are completely globally interdependent and the earth belongs to all of us. The physical boundaries that divide us were nearly all put in place as a result of colonial and imperialist aims of governing elites and had nothing to do with the interests of the people who inhabited these regions. It is increasingly urgent that we revise these boundaries and work towards a global system of peaceful cooperation and mutually beneficial development. It is striking to me how money can crisscross the world with ease, but the most vulnerable human beings cannot.