After much publicity, the Trump administration did not carry through its plans to detain 2,000 immigrant families and children last weekend. Nevertheless, the planned raids caused fear among immigrant communities, and the threat of more raids remains. These enforcement tactics are just one way in which the Trump administration’s immigration policy has created controversy, leading many critics to call it overly punitive and even immoral.
But Trump’s policies are not a sharp break with the past. They are the continuation of a longer trend. As my research shows, U.S. policy toward immigrants has become increasingly criminalized, and this has important consequences not only for the immigrants crossing the border now, but arguably for policy even after Trump leaves the White House.
The long history of criminalizing immigration
The increasing overlap in criminal justice and immigration systems, or “crimmigration,” has its roots nearly 40 years ago. It began in the 1980s when War on Drugs rhetoric clashed with Cold War politics off the Florida coast.
In 1980, the Mariel Boatlift brought 100,000 Cubans along with 15,000 Haitians to U.S. shores. The arrival of the refugees compounded already tense racial, class, and political tensions among established Cubans, whites, and African Americans in Miami.
That same year, as a means to quell the growing conflict, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) opened the Krome Detention Center less than 20 miles from downtown Miami to hold asylum seekers during their asylum claims process. Krome became a prototype for immigrant detention centers we see today. And just as today, immigrant detainment was based on associations between criminality, drug use and race. Haitians in particular have faced negative stereotypes that were compounded by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s — long before Trump gave voice to those stereotypes by calling Haiti a “shithole” country.
This association between crime and immigration strengthened in the 1990s during the Clinton administration. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act increased the number of crimes requiring mandatory detention. The latter also established the 287(g) program, whereby local law enforcement can be deputized to enforce federal immigration policies.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only accelerated the criminalization of immigration. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2003, were followed by the expansion of the 287(g) program and massive investment in border militarization and detention and deportation capabilities.
Thus, although the Trump administration has made concrete changes in U.S. immigration policy, its policies also reflect earlier changes, too — ones that have increasingly linked immigration to the criminal justice system.
Where does this trend come from?
This trend toward criminalization of immigration stems from multiple factors.
One is U.S. foreign policy itself, which has helped propel migrants to the United States. For example, U.S. interventions in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean — including support of authoritarian governments and paramilitaries — helped displace thousands of people.
Free trade agreements are also partly responsible for the mass exodus north. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was linked to the crash of the Mexican peso. It also sharply reduced Mexican wages and collapsed the market for corn, a primary staple crop for Mexican farmers. NAFTA’s more recent counterpart, the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, has produced similar results in that region.
This stream of immigrants and asylum seekers helped create a second factor: a more intense nativist discourse. Nativism has long been part of American identity, but the 1980s and 1990s saw its renewal — visible, for example, in the “English only” campaigns that curbed bilingual education programs in states such as California.
Finally, interest groups benefit from criminalized immigration. For example, private corporations that run immigrant detention facilities, such as CoreCivic and GEO Group, have lobbied for criminalizing policies, even during periods when apprehensions of immigrants entering the country declined. Despite decreasing numbers of undocumented immigrants during the 2008 Great Recession, private detention corporations successfully lobbied Congress to institute a bed quota in 2009 that instructed ICE to hold a minimum of 33,400 immigrants per night in detention. While the bed mandate was repealed in 2017, other interior enforcement programs such as 287(g), coupled with a growing DHS budget, continue to fuel detention numbers now averaging 45,000 detainees per day by the end of 2018.
Moreover, White House administrations can use the location of detention facilities as a possible reward for areas that support them, much as they do with other kinds of federal spending. Like prisoners, immigrant detainees are counted where they are held. And so, as with the phenomenon of prison gerrymandering, these detention centers can increase the population counts of the districts where they sit. For example, just last week the federal government contracted with three private companies to run additional immigrant detention centers in Republican-dominated rural communities in Mississippi and Louisiana.
As controversies about the Trump administration’s immigration policies continue to rage, it’s important to put those policies in context. Although many Democratic presidential candidates have promised to undo four years of Trump policies, the bigger question is whether they will seek to unwind 40 years of the trend toward “crimmigration.” Doing so would mean deep changes not only to how immigrants are discussed in American politics and culture but to many facets of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
Melina Juárez Pérez is an instructor of political science and women, gender and sexuality studies at Western Washington University, specializing in immigration and intersectional Latinx politics.