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The Border Security and Criminal Alien Consensus


Democracy in America works. One has only to observe the surge of bipartisan support for immigration policy reform following the November elections.

Election results revealed the new demographics of a multiracial, multiethnic America that is pushing aside the anti-immigrant backlash that dominated the immigration policy debate over the past two decades. Being anti-immigrant, anti-immigration no longer makes good politics in much of America.

The new bipartisanship for immigration reform may signal the advent of less divisive, more constructive politics in America. But underlying the apparent bipartisan support for some type of pro-immigrant, pro-immigration reform is another less welcome bipartisanship based around the traditional conservative politics around security, drug policy, and criminal justice issues.

The emerging post-election bipartisanship exists in the shadows of an almost enthusiastic bipartisanship in favor of increased “border security” and of ridding the nation of “criminal aliens.”

These two terms – border security and criminal aliens – have become central to the immigration policy debate over the past two decades. Both terms are also closely related to deeply bipartisan yet deeply dysfunctional convictions about drug wars and drug prohibition.

Border Security Consensus

Within Congress, there is no – absolutely none,  — opposition to border security policy and operations. This bipartisan consensus in support of the border security buildup is largely uncritical and unconditional, and also counts on support of nongovernmental immigration reformers who have come to accept the conventional wisdom increasing border security increases the political base for reform.

The enthusiastic support for almost any spending program described as a border security initiative persists year after year— despite persistent widespread waste, recurring corruption, immigrant abuse, and the Border Patrol’s inability to set forth a coherent border security strategy with associated performance measures.

In Congress, there are differences about border security but these are largely limited to questions about just how many more agents, drones, walls, and surveillance systems are needed.

Unfortunately, President Obama already set the bottom line of the debate, when speaking about the need for immigration reform. In late November, he told the media: “I think it [immigration reform] should include a continuation of the strong border security measures that we’ve taken because we have to secure our borders.”

Even as the immigration policy debate has dramatically opened following the election with substantially changed views about legalization, the “secure our borders” imperative remains unquestioned. Indeed, there will be many in Congress who will use the new immigration debate as an opportunity to lobby for even more border security spending than the Obama administration has authorized  – in part because border security has proved popular politically and in part because of the infusion of pork-barrel spending in border areas.

The broadening political consensus for immigration reform is hopeful. Bipartisan border security, however, is a sure sign that the traditional bipartisanship over all types of security spending issues – defense, intelligence, homeland, and border policy — continues to taint politics and fiscal responsibility.

Bipartisanship is the rule not the exception when security issues are involved. That’s a sorry tradition in U.S. politics – a tradition that since 9/11 has expanded beyond national security to include homeland security and border security.

Uncritical Acceptance of Border Security

At first, the post-9/11 fear of foreign terrorists drove the multi-billion dollar campaign to “secure our borders.” The buildup continued, however, even as that fear diminished, counterterrorism experts (and common sense) concluded that it was unlikely that foreign terrorists or weapons of mass destruction would enter the country across the southwestern border – the focus of the new border security operations.

Congress and the White House have kept increasing the border security budgets – not so much to obstruct terrorists but to “secure our borders” against immigrants, driven by the mounting anti-immigrant backlash during the second Bush administration. More recently, border hawks – and the Obama administration – explain border security operations mainly in terms of the drug war or what’s now called the “combat against transnational crime.”

Since 2005, when Congress began debating comprehensive immigration reform, a key factor in ensuring wide support for the border security buildup was, oddly, the assumption that the imperative to “secure our borders” was a necessary precondition for immigration reform.

The uncritical – and largely enthusiastic – backing for more border security has cost the nation more than $100 billion over the last ten years. It has left a legacy of national shame and monumental waste in the form of useless virtual fence projects, embarrassing walls between north and south, a mounting toll of dead and murdered immigrants, and an escalation drug war throughout the U.S. and Mexican borderlands even as political pressure is mounting throughout the hemisphere to end drug prohibition.

Aside from the near total absence of strategic focus, the border security buildup represents an insult to professions of good governance and accountability. Again, the uncritical acceptance of border security has resulted in systemic abuse of the standards of accountability, transparency, and performance evaluations.

Rather than once again giving a free rein to the border security hawks, the coming immigration debate represents an opportunity to assess the assumptions and achievements of the continuing border security buildup. Without such a critical examination of border security, the proponents of immigration reform / border security become accomplices of the waste, human rights abuses, and drug war escalation that have become emblematic of the Border Patrol.

As part of the new movement for immigration reform, advocates and activists need to stand up and reject the implicit political marriage of immigration reform and the border security buildup. That doesn’t mean open borders but rather a stance in favor of sensible border control and regulation, not virtual militarization.

It would be unfortunate if progress on immigration reform gives border security a free pass, leaving mounting questions about the waste, militarization, misdirection, and lack of accountability in U.S. border policy unaddressed and unresolved.

Protecting the Homeland Against Criminal Aliens

In addition to border security, another source of broad agreement in the immigration reform is the widely shared conviction that noncitizen immigrants (whether here legally or not) should be “removed” from this country if they have criminal records. Even nongovernmental advocates of immigration reform accept the criminal exclusion provisions, or at least haven’t opposed these restrictions.

At first glance, this determination to deny legal residency and to deport criminal immigrants makes good sense. Why, after all, should America open its borders to foreigners who not only threaten public safety but who also burden every level of government with law enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration costs?

One should expect that in the coming immigration debate all the main actors – whether they be progressives, liberals, centrists, conservatives, and hawks — will accept the notion that the so-called “criminal aliens” have no place in U.S. society.

Yet if immigration reform is largely about social justice, can this automatic exclusion be defended morally? There are also unaddressed questions about the impact of this exclusion and deportation of criminals on the stability of neighboring nations and the spread of international criminal networks.

For reform advocates, opposition (whether tacit or explicit) against including criminals from immigration-reform benefits may stem less from an ethical conviction than from a political calculation – much as support for border security operations is seen as a precondition for any reform.

Immigrants are America

That’s a phrase often used by proponents of liberal immigration reform.

As the prospects for reform increase, it will be tempting for advocates to maintain a sharp focus on the strategy and tactics of the reform campaign, yet give short shrift to their own rhetorical and social-justice arguments for legalization of those immigrants who are already part of our communities and economy.

If “Immigrants are America” and if immigrants are “America’s voice,” as the pro-reform slogans have it, then perhaps the immigration reform campaign shouldn’t be so narrowly fought – on strictly immigration issues.

In the past, immigration reform activists have been so focused on their own campaigns and strategies that they have not sought out allies in the prison-reform, criminal-justice reform, and drug-law reform movements.

There are strong and increasingly powerful movements and lobbies to reform drug laws, mass imprisonment practices, and the dysfunctional criminal justice system. Immigration reformers would do well ally themselves with such citizen movements.

For fear of reinforcing the anti-immigrant stereotypes of immigrants as criminals and drug addicts, the immigration reform campaign over the past two decades has largely distanced itself from the movements against mass incarceration, drug prohibition, and the expansion of the federal government’s domination of our criminal justice system.

There are few other sectors of U.S. society that have been so victimized by our nation’s drug laws, imprisonment habit, and harsh criminal justice system.

Since the early 1990s there has been a steadily increasing merger of the criminal justice, drug prohibition, and immigration enforcement systems. Scholars call this conflation of the immigration and criminal-justice system the crimmigration of America.

Once caught in the grips of crimmigration, immigrants are doubly punished – first by jail, fines, and prison sentences; and second by automatic removal from the country.

Many otherwise law-abiding immigrants, as do many U.S. citizens, have drug violations on their record. Many immigrants have spent some time in jail or been on probation, the same as millions of U.S. citizens. If we are to accept that America has been a nation of immigrants and that immigrants continue to be an integral part of this nation, then our lawmakers shouldn’t exclude immigrants from the benefits of any immigration reform.

Such a course of action would preempt hundreds of thousands of future deportations that separate families and weaken communities.  Dealing directly with the criminal alien shibboleth in the reform debate, rather than assuming that all immigrants with records will be ineligible for reform benefits, would created a more expansive community of immigration reform proponents, including members of the growing anti-drug prohibition movement.

In a powerful way, such a willingness to link immigration reform to criminal justice issues would also demonstrate that immigrants are not a population apart – that immigrants are America, and like many Americans have criminal records, mainly for drug control violations but are not dangerous criminals who represent a threat to community public safety or to homeland security. In the process, the coming immigration reform debate could push aside the restrictive framework that has stifled criticism of the border security buildup and the process of crimmigration.

Time to Reassess Border Security and Criminal Alien Bipartisanship

Fortunately the November election has opened up political space for immigration reform.  Few observers of the immigration debate expected this increased support for a less restrictive immigration policy.

In the early 1990s, political pressure generated by the leading immigration restrictionist organizations and by the immigration backlash movement led to an expanding array of measures to target and then deport legal and illegal immigrants with criminal records. This same lobby has also been largely responsible for the monstrous buildup in border security.

For the most part, immigration reformers have largely accepted increased border security operations and the crackdown on “criminal aliens” as necessary preconditions for liberal immigration reform. Yet in may now be possible, as part of this new democratic opening for immigration reform, that the critique of the nation’s flawed and counterproductive immigration policy may also now extend to federal government’s border security buildup and criminal alien crackdown.

If democracy is to really work in America, more than to simply pass new policies to better regulate immigration, our body politic will also need to confront the political culture of heedless popular assent to laws, policies, and spending initiatives promoted as anti-crime and pro-security.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/


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