Race and Border Control: Is There a Relationship?



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Yolanda Vázquez, Assistant Professor, College of Law, University of Cincinnati. This post is the first instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Race and Border Control organised by Yolanda.

In 2015, the question of whether race continues to play a role in the formation and structuring of American society, as well as in the rest of the world, is a hotly debated topic. Many contend that, at least in the United States, there has been a transformation into a ‘post-racial’ society. Since the 1960s, gone are the days when race could be an element of a crime or a basis for legal discrimination. Laws are now facially race-neutral. As a result, many contend that the importance of race continually declined until its complete demise, marked by the election of Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American President. Some even assert that those who speak of American society as still impacted by race are specifically to blame for its continued existence. On the other side of the argument, however, lie those who firmly believe the racial disparities that continue to exist in American society are a direct result of the role that race played in its history and continues to play in contemporary society. To them, it’s not a result of cultural inequality, but structural inequality and institutional racism that continues to pervade through American institutions and society. Vast amounts of scholarship, research, advocacy, and political rhetoric enter into this debate on various topics due to the stark racial disparities seen in incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and education, to name a few. Are these a result of behavioral choice or does race continue to create the disparities?

Despite the volumes of words that exist on this issue in other disciplines, in comparison, the role that race has played or continues to play in the transformation of immigration law and border enforcement in the United States during the last fifty years hasn’t received as much attention. One reason may be the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which marked the end to overt discriminatory quotas on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin, replacing these requirements with laws that focused on attracting skilled workers and family unification. Through the last few decades, immigration laws have been enacted, border enforcement has increased, and the criminal justice system has been brought in to assist an immigration enforcement apparatus that targets those who pose the ‘greatest threat’ to national security and public safety, individuals defined as the ‘illegal’ and the ‘criminal alien.’

In the last thirty years, American government and society have systematically denied these individuals immigration relief and social benefits, targeted them for enforcement, and prioritized their deportation. The pursuit of these two groups, often overlapping, has transformed the immigration and criminal justice systems, forming ‘crimmigration,’ a distinct system that has its own structure of laws, policies, and practices, formed through the various ways that the immigration and criminal justice system have come together. It has been this system of ‘crimmigration’ that’s framed the political and societal debates on immigration reform as well as state and local laws and legislation over the past three decades.

All of the above have accumulated into historical numbers that are unprecedented in all categories associated with immigration and noncitizens in the criminal justice system. The Obama Administration removed more individuals in the first five years of its term than any other Administration in history. Federal immigration crimes are the single largest group of all federal prosecutions, totaling 54 percent. As a result, over 400,000 immigrants are detained and removed each year―twice as many individuals as can be housed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The United States now has the largest immigration detention system in the world.

While the numbers themselves are striking, the racial disparities are even more extraordinary. Despite the abolishment of racial restrictions in US immigration law and the creation and enforcement of facially race-neutral statutes, stark racial disparities exist. Approximately 94 percent of those removed, 90 percent of those in immigration detention, and 94 percent of those removed for criminal violations are Latinos, predominately poor, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The enforcement of current immigration laws has created racialized mass removal.

At this point, one may wonder what the underlying problem could be with these facts. Why shouldn’t those who pose the greatest risk to public safety and national security be removed from the United States? How can race currently play any role in border control and enforcement when the laws are facially race neutral? If Latinos are deported at higher rates, doesn’t it logically flow that it’s their behavioral choice or their cultural inequality that is the cause and not racial animus?

The posts comprising the following two weeks’ theme of race and border control attempt to answer these and other questions, discussing ways in which history can continue to shape our societies; how laws, procedures, and policies can appear facially neutral but used in ways that disproportionately impact certain groups; how moral judgments can determine values of worth directed at human beings, legitimating how we treat them and what laws we create to reinforce these beliefs; and how all of these factors can create a condition of structural inequality that’s detrimental to society as a whole because it fails to acknowledge the motives and outcomes, thereby preventing successful mechanisms for reform.

Themed Week on Race and Border Control:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Vázquez, Y. (2015) Race and Border Control: Is There a Relationship?. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/race-and-border-control/ (Accessed [date]).

Found within

Border control
Border Politics
Criminal Justice
Immigration debate
Racial profiling
Themed Week


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