AnalysisThe business aspects of get-tough immigration policy

Published 21 July 2009

The post-9/11 get-tough policy toward immigration has meant booming business for private prison-management companies; the building of prisons and detention centers is now a much-needed source of income for cash-strapped rural communities

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 altered the traditional political economy of immigration. The millions of undocumented 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. Tom Barry* writes that in the public and policy debates, immigrants have been increasingly defined as threats to U.S. security.

Categorizing immigrants as national security threats gave the government’s immigration law enforcement and border control operations a new unifying logic that has propelled the immigrant crackdown forward. Responsibility for immigration law enforcement and border control passed from the Justice Department (DOJ) to the newly created DHS. In Congress, both Democrats and Republicans supported an expansion of the U.S.’s immigration control apparatus — doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and authorizing a tripling of immigrant prison beds.

Barry writes that after this shift in the immigration debate, the $15 billion-plus DHS budget for immigration affairs has fueled an immigrant-crackdown economy that has greatly boosted the already-bloated prison industry. Even now, with the economic slow-down, immigrants are currently behind one of the U.S. most profitable industries: they are the nation’s fastest growing sector of the U.S. prison population.

Across the United States new prisons are being constructed to house the hundreds of thousands of immigrants caught each year. State and local governments are competing with each other to attract new immigrant prisons as the foundation of their rural “economic development” plans.

DHS’s tougher enforcement policies have seen record number of immigrants being driven from their jobs and homes, and U.S. firms in the business of providing prison beds are bringing in record profits from the immigrant crackdown. Barry writes that this is only one piece of the broader story of immigration, but it is all a part of the new political economy of immigration.

Dangerous People
In the new national security context, undocumented immigrants are not just outlaws, but potentially “dangerous people” threatening the homeland. The two DHS agencies involved in immigration enforcement — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — have seen their funds increased disproportionately over the last several years, doubling in size while total DHS funding has increased by just a third. The funding for these two agencies rose 19.1 percent in 2009 while the overall DHS budget rose by only 6.8 percent. Hunting down immigrants has become a top DHS priority. DHS says its mission is