Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

‘A Recession-Proof Industry’: Reagan’s Immigration Crisis and the Birth of the Neoliberal Security State



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Kristina Shull, Lecturer at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Irvine. Her work explores the origins of prison privatization and current immigration detention trends in the United States in the Reagan Administration’s response to Latin American and Caribbean migration in the early 1980s. She also explores how the circulation of nativist rhetoric informs immigration and foreign policy-making, legitimizing the detention center as a site of punishment and deterrence. This post is the fourth installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Deportation Threat, Realities, and Practices in the United States organised by Tanya Golash-Boza.

On 20 June 2014, World Refugee Day, President Barack Obama announced his administration’s plan to resurrect the practice of family detention in response to the United States’ most recent immigration ‘crisis’: an increase in unaccompanied minors and women with children crossing the US-Mexico border fleeing violence in Central America. Obama also requested emergency funding from Congress and broader powers for immigration officials to speed up deportations. A week later, he appeared on ABC’s TV program Good Morning America to deliver ‘our direct message to families in Central America. Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back.’ Despite arrivals’ asylum claims and a recent court injunction against family detention, the practice continues.

U.S. Immigration Detention Centers
Obama’s message of deterrence to Central American families and request for emergency powers reflect an immigration enforcement logic established by the Reagan Administration that undergirds our current detention system. The widespread use of detention as an immigration enforcement measure became practically obsolete by policy reforms in the 1950s. However, the Reagan Administration resumed the practice in the early 1980s, legitimated by anti-immigrant public sentiment in a time of economic recession.
A perceived Latin American immigration crisis loomed large as Reagan entered office in the wake of media and public panic surrounding the Mariel Cuban migration of 1980, and as his administration anticipated new waves of Caribbean and Central American migrants displaced by Cold War foreign policies. Policymaking on the immigration crises of the early 1980s became a top priority at the highest levels of government and helped drive many of the themes with which Reagan has been identified: the resurgence of Cold War nationalism; politics of fear surrounding crime, drugs, and people of color; and ‘Reaganomics,’ a neoliberal economic vision favoring privatization.
In his first term, Reagan instituted a new set of immigration enforcement measures that remain firmly in place today: the systematic detention of all undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, interdiction on the high seas, the militarization of border enforcement, and the first uses of private prison contracting. Together, these policies comprise the birth of a neoliberal security state—a new system of enforcement founded in a dual commitment to scaling back ‘big government’ while simultaneously remaining ‘tough on crime.’
In the summer of 1981, Attorney General William French Smith announced that the administration’s new detention policy was ‘necessary to discourage people… from setting sail in the first place,’ and marked ‘a new and important beginning’ for regaining control of America’s borders.
As the implementation of these policies called for more detention space, temporary facilities established on an emergency basis became permanent and detention itself became increasingly punitive. Mariel Cubans held in ‘refugee camps’ and given English lessons under the Carter Administration, for example, were later sent to Bureau of Prisons ‘detention centers’ and denied such lessons under the Reagan Administration. The Reagan Administration also noted that prison-building was a ‘recession-proof industry’ and that private contracting in particular would be a ‘good way to dump money on the local economy,’ alleviating high unemployment rates while reducing bloated bureaucracy.
The first federal private prison contract in the US was granted to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in 1983 to house immigration detainees in Houston, Texas. CCA’s founders recalled: ‘We knew the era of big government was over. We could sell privatization as a solution.’ They likened the business of warehousing immigrants to ‘selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.’ CCA’s second immigration detention facility opened in Laredo, Texas, in 1985. It was the first immigration prison to detain infants and children, with ‘the cribs right in the cells,’ according to Immigration and Naturalization Service district director Ricardo Casillas. In 1985, co-founder Tom Beasley presciently noted that CCA was ‘on the ground floor of a multibillion-dollar industry.’
This is Reagan’s legacy: the creation of what Deepa Fernandez and Tanya Golash-Boza call the immigration-industrial complex. Today, the US holds an average of 430,000 migrants a year (and 32,000 on any given day) in a network of 250 local, federal, and private detention facilities across all fifty states, at an annual taxpayer cost of $2 billion (or $5 million a day and $159 per person). CCA is now the largest prison corporation in the United States.


While highly lucrative for investors, the private prison industry has been plagued by scandal and controversy since its inception. Charges against private prisons have remained the same to this day: privatization interferes with detainee access to counsel and the courts, it encourages physical and verbal abuse by guards, and the profit-motive results in a lack of recreational and educational activities, inadequate medical care, overcrowding, and unsanitary living conditions. But the narratives that gave rise to Reagan’s new security state also persist: migrants pose an ongoing threat to the national well-being and undocumented migration must be deterred. Mediating the visibility of ‘unwanted’ migrant populations was an integral part of Reagan’s rightward shift from a ‘welfare’ to a ‘warfare’ state as many of the enforcement structures established to address the perceived Latin American immigration crisis laid foundations for and further accelerated the rise of mass incarceration.


Policymakers should remember that today’s immigration detention system arose out of a specific confluence of circumstances in which a xenophobic American public embraced the tenets of ‘Reaganism.’ Prison privatization, as a result, was adopted hastily and with little scrutiny. What have been the consequences? The separation of families, the entanglement of immigrants and asylum seekers in the criminal justice system, wasteful spending, and even death.

Themed Week on Deportation Threat, Realities, and Practices in the United States:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Shull, K. (2015) ‘A Recession-Proof Industry’: Reagan’s Immigration Crisis and the Birth of the Neoliberal Security State. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/a-recession-proof-industry/ (Accessed [date]).

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