Bordering as Political Strategy



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3 Minutes

Guest post by Doris Marie Provine (JD and PhD, Cornell University). Marie is Professor emerita on the Justice Studies faculty in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.  Marie came to ASU from Syracuse University in 2001 to direct the School of Justice Studies. Her recent scholarship focuses on race and inequality in the context of criminal justice and immigration. She is the author of Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs, and most recently, co-author of Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines. Her current work, with Dr. Monica Varsanyi, considers the different policy pathways taken by Arizona and New Mexico in responding to immigration from Mexico. This is the second installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on Crimmigrant Nations organised by Maartje van der Woude and Robert Koulish.

The global threat of the deadly COVID-19 virus has failed to bring about a global response. Nations are hunkering down, focusing on their own citizens and withdrawing from, or ignoring the institutions and organizations that make up “the international community”. The pandemic has revealed the relative weakness of bodies like the World Health Organization and the International Rescue Committee. More troublingly, it has become increasingly clear that looking inward is a viable political strategy. Politicians are responding to, and articulating the public’s growing fatigue with foreign war and skepticism about the benefits of global trade. 

Harsh restrictions on immigration stand out as the most deliberate and immediate response to the emerging politics of withdrawal. Why has the criminalization of immigrants become such a successful political strategy after a long period in which immigration was embraced by political leaders as a key to economic growth and prosperity? The flow of people across national borders is more controversial than the flow of money or goods across those borders, though probably less consequential than either of them. The explanation for the criminalization of immigrants, I suggest, is structural, political, and conceptual.  

Political structures favor enforcement-focused immigration policy

In most democratic states, immigration policy stands out as more centralized and under greater executive control than policies in other areas. It makes sense to set the standards for entry and residence at the national level because these decisions reflect on diplomatic relations between nation states. The local level, however, feels the impact of immigration policy. From a local perspective, federal immigration policy can seem like an unfunded mandate, in which the costs of federal policies are imposed locally.  This arrangement provides a potent source of political controversy. The safest strategy for national legislators is to stall and avoid coming to terms with this “third rail,” leaving the executive branch to fill the political void. The blunt instrument of executive authority over enforcement thus becomes the context in which debate over immigration policy occurs. As controversy over immigration grows more heated, pressure to step up enforcement grows.

Bordering as a political strategy

A deadly pandemic lends new energy to arguments for restricting immigration. Bordering -- through wall building, harsh restrictions on immigration, and frequent deportations make political sense in a period dominated by fears of impending economic collapse and massive loss of jobs. The pandemic has accelerated the erosion of economic opportunity for non-elites that has been occurring over the past two decades in many wealthy nations, feeding racially tinged frustration with policies that are perceived to favor immigrants. In this atmosphere, the constituencies that once openly favored immigration have become less willing to push their side of the debate. Restrictionism also responds to the contemporary sense that global trade has serious downsides, and that global corporations are too powerful and answerable to no one. The idea that ordinary people suffer from too much globalization was evident in the controversy over Brexit, for example. The Corona virus, in short, builds on already-existing trends, while offering a new argument for restricting immigration.

The concept of immigrant as guest

Still, it is startling how swiftly many nations have moved from welcoming immigrants, or, more accurately, not opposing their entry, to active opposition with strong grassroots support. A significant part of the answer lies in how people conceptualize immigrants and immigration. The dominant conception is of the immigrant as a guest, a person who may have been invited to settle, but who lacks right to stay if times become difficult. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights implicitly adopts this position by declaring an individual’s right to migrate from one’s home, but not offering a commensurate right to be accepted into a new state.  Although the European Court of Human Rights has considered several cases in which a long-settled immigrant has won the right to remain, there is no general right to choose a new national home. Economic downturns also create circumstances in which immigrants are asked to “go home.” The Depression of the 1930s fostered a repatriation movement in the US that deported thousands of long-settled immigrants and some Mexican-American citizens.

The only viable strategy for overcoming the structural, political, and conceptual pressures that make bordering a successful political strategy is the economic and political empowerment of immigrants.  Legislatures with a sufficient number of foreign-born representatives can exercise their power of moral suasion to re-kindle now-dormant conversations about comprehensive immigration reform. While our shrinking world and lack of economic mobility will always feed arguments for bordering, active politicking for immigration reform can succeed, as it has in the not-too-distant past. And when it does, the policy will, in its own way, weaken arguments for re-bordering the world.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Provine, D. M. (2020). Bordering as Political Strategy. Available at: [date]

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