The Border Wars and Criminal vs Alien

Moratorium on Deportations (MDC) has been conducting workshops and teach-ins around the senate version of immigration reform. This post uses some of that analysis and also connects with Mariame Kaba’s post on criminalization. More educational materials on this bill  here.  See here for MDC statement on the war at the border.

A short summary of the Bill so far
As the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744, aka Immigration  Reform) moves through the Senate, it is now becoming harder and harder to deny that “immigration reform” is a pretext for the largest militarization program in US history. This shit has gone off the cliff.

From its inception, this was a militarization initiative. Let’s review how it is structured, what is it’s architecture:
1. Border security — describes the goals of border militarization as: 24×7 surveillance of the southern border; catching 90 percent of attempted crossings; implementing a national E-Verify system for all employers; implementing an exit system that tracks visas on all airplanes and sea vessels. How will this be accomplished? Adding 3,500 new troops; $6.6 billion new funds; deploying the National Guard at the border; drones and other military equipment; integration with Department of Defense Operations; incentivizing local police for detaining immigrants; construction of double layered border wall
2. Status – a new kind of status called Registered Provisional Immigrant (more on that specifically here) that renders people registered but not legalized, granting partial benefits and in no way curbing deportations or enforcement; guest worker programs; visas for hi-tech workers; agricultural worker programs; DREAM act tied to military service
3. Interior Enforcement – inventing new “immigration crimes”; increasing the prosecutions of immigrants. Also a detailed description of biometric features on drivers licenses and social security cards. This third section is hinged to the first, so that internal enforcement and border militarization are funded and evaluated together.
4. New paradigm for future immigration – a “merit -based system”

But before these four sections, there is a “header” portion of the bill, which outlines the fundamental principles of the reform. The central notion in this first header part is the notion of “security triggers” — this means that the provisions of the bill tied to status will be dependent on the provisions of the bill tied to militarization/enforcement. Specifically, once folks are corralled into a temporary provisional status called RPI, they must wait in this limbo until DHS can certify that the security goals in Part 1 and many in Part 3 have been met. In other words, no applications for green card will be accepted until DHS certifies that the border is secure and that internal enforcement goals have been met. This principle of enforcement as a necessary condition is what underscores the entire bill. What does this tell us about national policy in general? And what does this prefigure?

New developments — Border Militarization NOW
Between June 18-21, Senators have been hard at work hammering out a new deal, which they will vote on in a few days. Under the guise of attracting more Republican votes, the border militarization part of the bill is being amended and expanded. Here are some of the main highlights: the new budget is increased to $30 billion; additional troops increased to 20,000; more border walls and more drones. They are calling it a “border surge”.

From the beginning, reformists have embraced the “militarization compromise”, which states that militarization is necessary if we want to pass some kind of “reform”. This seems like an argument, but it is more accurate to read it as a statement of purpose, as a way of describing what reform is actually intended to produce. It is not that this statement is true, there is no way to argue this with reason. instead, pushing reform will make it true — or, we can read this statement in the other direction as well: framing it as immigration reform is necessary if we are to achieve domestic militarization.  Once we look at reform as a specific political project, in a specific context or moment defined by socio-political and economic factors, it becomes clear that reform is an ideological tool that has an almost magical function: under the spell of reform, domestic militarization is made to appear as strangely normal.

Thus, reform becomes a way to obfuscate a complex web of political transactions. For now, it seems important to mention at least this: as the US scales down on wars abroad, the war economy needs new fronts, new markets. Reagan’s amnesty normalized the idea of the border wall and of the spectacle of war at the border, and produced an illegalized and exploitable domestic class of 12 million people. Now, the border war and detention are ripe as growth markets. A recent New York Times article details some of this, without of course questioning the paradigm to “security”: “The nation’s largest military contractors, facing federal budget cuts and the withdrawals from two wars, are turning their sights to the Mexican border in the hopes of collecting some of the billions of dollars expected to be spent on tighter security if immigration legislation becomes law.”

Criminal alien
The bill of course not only defines a Registered Provisional (RPI) status that keeps people vulnerable while registering them in a limbo underclass, but it also sets up a system of increasingly tough criteria for who can qualify for and maintain the status. Contact with police, changes in employment and many other factors means that RPI status can be lost at any time — so that provisional also means probationary. Status is a minefield — and losing RPI means becoming subject to deportation.

One of the main pretexts for exclusion is as until now the notion of crime.  Criminal, as Mariame Kaba mentioned, is code for disposable — the figure of the criminal is a political tool used to render entire categories of populations as a “problem” that needs to be corrected, disposed of. The figure of the criminal is a political pretext that allows for a way of articulating what, and who, is the problem — a sleight of hand by which dispossession, impoverishment and exploitation can be rendered as natural and inevitable conditions, while deviance and strangeness are attached to the actions of those dispossessed, displaced and marginalized. In other words, systemic processes obfuscated and we become transfixed by individuals on their actions according to a set of rules that predetermine what and who is deviant.

Crime and criminal are of course not natural categories, they are artifacts, and they are always under construction. “Alien” and citizen are not natural or inevitable categories, they are artifacts and are always under construction. How do these two notions come together in the concrete myth of the “criminal alien”?

At first it would seem that “criminal alien” merely overlaps the two categories, designating immigrants who are accused of committing crimes. But “criminal alien” serves at least two functions. First, it is a way of inventing new crimes, of tinkering with the category of criminal. In the US the deportation and detention system are seen as being outside of the criminal justice system (for example, immigrant detention is seen as a form of incarceration that is not imprisonment in a legal sense), so that immigrant or alien becomes a fertile experimental ground for diminished forms of personhood and humanity, for new forms of imprisonment and captivity. Using the “alien” to expand and tinker with the possibilities for “criminal” has a long history, one that is not sufficiently addressed in migrant justice movements. In this bill for instance, new crimes include gang affiliation, even if one has not committed any acts; attempted use of fraudulent social security numbers, attempted crossing without authorization and so on. This a way to criminalize presentation, identity, intention. Even though the immigration system is technically outside of the criminal justice system, of course the forms of diminished personhood introduced by the criminal alien and the extralegal forms of captivity developed as immigrant detention will in turn alter the logic of the domestic penal system and expand the possibilities for criminalization as a process.

But in this bill criminal alien serves a second function as well, in which there is not an equivalence between criminal and alien — but a competition. This is more like criminal vs alien.  What does this mean?

Undocumented designates unlawful presence, and this has been increasingly criminalized as we have seen — so that undocumented has tended to mean criminal or presumed criminal. In this bill, a portion of the undocumented population are being drawn into the system by the promise of a new status, RPI,  which render them not undocumented but also not legalized. RPI can be understood as something like registered potential criminal or a criminal on probation. This new form of immigrant is not a citizen, but they are also not an alien in the same sense.

The absolute alien is the one who remains illegalized and undocumented: the border crosser, the unregistered, or the one who loses their RPI status. Given the military triggers, the bill makes the fate of RPI holders dependent on the success of border militarization, on the capacity of the system to track and capture illegalized workers through E-Verify, on deportability and increased incarceration, on an intensification of the alien-ness of the alien. Any consideration for the humanity of the alien is a threat to the probational criminal, whose “security” and survival depend on manufacturing and reproducing the possibility of a distinction/opposition between criminal and alien. RPI holders must actively participate in a war waged against their sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. RPI is not only a status, it is a form of symbolic identification that pits criminal against alien, that mobilizes the criminal as an agent of war against the alien.

A few questions to consider from here. How did we get here?  How have DREAM campaigns promoted a charming and seemingly harmless way of throwing others under the bus — what is being prefigured in the rise of DREAM exceptionalism? How do racism and anti-blackness operate in this kind of reform politics ? How has the NGO-ization of the migrant justice movement greased the wheels for this border war? How do these shifts in identification manage and neutralize the threat of social movements? How does this enable us to think about critically about the myth of “rehabilitation” in the terms of perpetuating the normality of immigrant detention and the Prison Industrial Complex?