Policing the West

On September, 22, 2009, hundreds of French riot police from the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) descended upon the Calais “Jungle,” a camp of makeshift tents near the French port sheltering more than 800 Afghan, Iraqi, and Iranian migrants seeking work and asylum in the United Kingdom. “The Jungle’s” inhabitants were using the camp as a port base from which to embark on the final 20-mile leg of their 3-6 month, 3,500-mile journey to England.

Most if not all of the English-speaking migrants were escaping violence in Afghanistan and Iraq and seeking low-skilled jobs in the homeland of their region’s former colonizer. Many of them had helped British and American forces in their campaigns against Saddam and the Taliban and were suffering the consequences of their collaboration with Western forces. The agency in charge of the Jungle mission, the notorious CRS, was first deployed in Algeria to re-establish French colonial dominion after World War II. Back in the French metropole, they’ve been empowered to suppress political dissent. In Calais, they used tear gas, dogs, and overwhelming force to subdue both the offending migrant population and its activist supporters. They demolished the tent city and arrested 278 people, including over 150 minors, in a mission designed, as one British official put it, “not only to strengthen [the] shared border, but that of Europe as a whole.”

A year earlier, on May 12, 2008, over 900 heavily armed officers drove a caravan of black trucks through the sleepy back roads of southern Iowa to Postville, site of Agriprocessors, the largest Kosher meatpacking plant in the United States. The officers were agents of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an organization established by the Bush administration to “protect America” by “eliminating vulnerabilities that pose a threat to our nation’s borders.” The Postville mission: to detain immigrant workers from Latin America en masse for “Aggravated Identity Theft,” the crime codified by the 2004 Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act. ICE sought to arrest nearly 700 workers that day, one fourth of the town’s population. Of the 390 workers they found and arrested on the shop floor, 383 were Hispanic.

Actively recruited by Agriprocessors, these workers had travelled 1800 miles from their native Guatemala to work under harsh factory conditions for minimum wage on the plant’s cut-and-kill assembly line. By the time of the raid, the workers and their families had made Postville one of the most prosperous small towns in the American Heartland. They had settled with their families. They had built relationships and alliances with local residents and workers and, with them, had transformed Postville’s cultural and political landscape. They offered the possibilities of new, local and transnational attachments and ways of life.

The raids destroyed these possibilities. To understand why, to understand the imperatives that animate the new regimes of border control, to understand Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, we must consider the social and historical contexts from which the new colonial police have emerged.

For instance, consider this:

Intensifying demands for low-wage workers and corresponding patterns of migration and settlement have posed intractable problems for Western regimes of border control. Guardians of the western nation-state articulate the central problem in terms of national security and prosperity: “how do we defend our Western populations from potentially dangerous, non-Western foreigners when the relative economic prosperity and global supremacy of the West depends upon the profitable employment of foreign workers?

The problem becomes embarrassing for the West in the cases of non-Western immigrants who are fleeing violence and poverty engendered by the foreign policies of Western governments and by neoliberal institutions of trade and “development.” It becomes humiliating when Western governments and corporations actively recruit foreign workers who then integrate themselves into local populations, learn local languages, form lasting bonds within local communities, outcompete local workers and entrepreneurs, and transform cultures and political terrains, creating intra- and transnational communities that, without state intervention, might endure and thrive.

The problem provokes a militant response from the state when immigrant workers emerge as political actors capable of articulating political demands and of challenging the exclusive sovereignty of Western populations.

These dilemmas unearth a deeper, more disturbing set of questions that, although hidden, nevertheless motivate the recent bordering practices of the Western state. These questions arise from anxieties not only about the changing demographics of Europe and “real America,” but also about the precarious privileges enjoyed by “native” European and Euro-American workforces.

Cleansed of legal pretense and hypocrisy, the question of the border is a question of the economic security of an ethno-racial identity.

As the guardians of European identity and supremacy, the Western state must ask: “how can the West incorporate foreigners into its national economies as apolitical, docile workers without jeopardizing the political privileges of its ‘native’ workforces”? In other words, how can the West continue to expand and prosper without jeopardizing the racial exclusions upon which Western citizenship is founded? Section 287 of The Immigration and Nationality Act and the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act were two of the nation-states cryptic responses to this question. In Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, the state’s objectives are more transparent. The bill warns that if you seem foreign, you are a suspect. You ought to be afraid, to remain silent, and to accept your alien status.

These kinds of repressive legal mechanisms can be traced back to the early years of European imperial expansion and colonial rule, when racial distinctions could still be employed in legal discourse to justify the inclusion-through-exploitation of supposedly inferior peoples. Today, however, ostensibly post-racial and postcolonial Western nation-states must disguise racial exclusions as colorblind matters of law and order. The language and official intentions may have changed, but the effects are the same.

As they did in the years leading up to the era of fascist and communist totalitarianism, Western governments have attempted to address the problems associated with the transgression of ethno-national identities by delegating sovereign authority to the police as a force of national defense. Laws and decrees encouraging agents of border control to arrest suspected border crossers function to insulate expert guardians of national borders from the political fray. By coordinating national and international policing initiatives, new regimes of border control have produced monstrous networks of relatively autonomous agencies responsible for the protection and purification of Western populations as such.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the new legal frameworks effectively deputize not only local police, but also entire populations. By encouraging local police and local businesses to collaborate with local residents as well as with national agencies of immigration management, the frameworks pit citizen-subjects against their improperly documented neighbors. In Tucson as in Calais, citizens are now encouraged to participate in state surveillance by informing on suspected “illegals.” Those who strive to protect immigrants from draconian practices risk legal ramifications designed to punish those who harbor, aid, and abet offending aliens. Racial surveillance is once again morphing into a civic duty, border control into an everyday practice.

In Calais, the CRS patrol city streets like vultures hunting brown-skinned bodies. European passport holders applaud or turn a blind eye when the police arrest children on their way to food distribution centers or men walking to warming houses and gutted, outdoor shelters. But even the most properly documented Europeans need to be wary. The CRS will stop you on your way to the supermarché should you possess what they regard as a migrant’s complexion. They will ask for your “papiers, papiers!” and you’d better have them on your person, no matter what, or else. They catch, hold, harass, document, detain, release, and catch again. On occasion, they will deport an offender to Italy or Greece, the migrant’s “country of first entry,” where their fingerprints are archived and entered into the European Union database. Once agents of French imperialism, the CRS are now agents of fortress Europe. Their jurisdiction is Europe-as-a-whole.

ICE haunts Postville, Tucson, Worthington, New York, LA, and Phoenix. It haunts small- and big-town America with equally chilling effects. It haunts like a dictator’s spectral force on the eve of a horrible purge. One never knows when and where it will strike next or whose lives, families, and communities it will destroy. And it doesn’t act alone. It recruits your municipal officers and politicians. It recruits major corporations and small businesses, all of which must now participate in its new programs of electronic surveillance. It recruits the Department of Agriculture and Attorneys General from every state. It recruits us all. Under the auspices of laws like 287g, “partnership” programs of “community policing,” executive decrees that demand compliance with these programs, and the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, ICE acts. It acts independent of “the people,” but always in our name, in the name of “we the people,” in the name of the Euro-American population, of the European race. It acts as the police state representing the West.

And if the readiness of politicians and citizens to follow Arizona’s lead is any indication, the chilling will continue.

We the Euro-American people? We the people-police?

The colonial police state has blossomed in France and it lurks behind Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070. Beware, Americans, of the emerging police state. Beware, lest we all reap what Calais and Arizona now sow.

MARK N. HOFFMAN is a Doctoral Dissertation Fellow at the University of Minnesota. He has written extensively on the colonial dimensions of immigration management and border control in Europe and the United States. Among other articles, he is the author of “Securing the Absent Nation: Colonial Governance in the New World Orders” in Europe and its Boundaries: Words and Worlds Within and Beyond. Davison, Andrew and Muppidi, Himadeep, eds. (New York: Lexington, 2009). He can be reached at hoffm402@umn.edu.