The Plantation Society, Circa 2008: Discussing Immigration through the Lens of Criminology

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The slave population, it could be and was assumed, offered itself up as surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human freedom, its lure and its elusiveness.

--Toni Morrison (1)

In this reflection on my teaching, I wish to share the problems I have encountered in teaching criminology students about immigration in general and the politics of immigration in particular. I suggest that these challenges are in many ways indicative of the general need for educators in the academy to do more in re-evaluating how we teach and learn about power. There is much about my experience that will be familiar to other radical teachers who attempt to confront complex social issues in the classroom at a historical juncture when such matters are more commonly reduced to individual failures (e.g., as prejudice, criminality, immorality).

At the same time, I argue that my experience reveals an uncommon insight, one largely missing from progressive or radical discourse on immigration. Namely, what my criminology students have shown me is that anti-immigrant discourse is fundamentally reliant upon criminological tropes widely distributed throughout the society. These tropes are so basic to our society that while it took teaching criminology for me to recognize it as such, it certainly did not take learning criminology for my students to apprehend the immigration issue in criminological terms. Students come to my classroom well-versed in the prevailing misperceptions of immigrants as "criminals." Rather than simply meeting this discourse of criminality on its own terms, my teaching implicates it in the legacy of white supremacy which, as I will explain below, is its condition of possibility.

Despite the historic variation in immigration policy, the criminological underpinnings remain constant. (2) During the period of nativism in the 1950s, immigrants from Latin America were charged with disrupting the job market and displacing "American" labor. This argument led to "Operation Wetback," the infamous policy of mass deportation of Mexican immigrants (along with many Mexican-Americans). Although "stealing jobs" never really disappears from the discourse, the 1990s anti-immigrant resurgence, especially in California, took the form of "resource depletors": immigrants and their children were represented as depleting scarce fiscal and natural resources. (3) As with welfare recipients, ex-prisoners, or even the poor generally, immigrants are disqualified through a discourse that holds a rule-breaker as morally deficient, socially inferior, and unworthy of civic inclusion. This moral discourse is racialized and owes its deep roots to Europe's imperial project. "Resource depletor" is a more expansive formulation of "job stealer," and both are simply different ways of saying "thief"--a criminal of the most basic kind.

In the present day, this criminological discourse occurs amidst an important divergence between crime and immigration. Since the 1990s, immigration to the United States--both documented and undocumented--has reached historic highs, and yet rates of violent crime and property crime have declined sharply over the same period, with the violent crime rate reaching historic lows. (4) This divergence is mirrored in the basic contradiction of contemporary criminal justice policy: since the 1970s, the overall crime rate has declined while the rate of incarceration and prison-building has increased dramatically. In other words, much as there is a fundamental structural disconnect between crime and incarceration, the evidence shows that immigration does not contribute to increased rates of crime. (5) Despite the post-9/11 conflation of terrorism (crime) with immigration, immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than are the native-born.

If the politics of immigration nonetheless continue to live through a more fundamental politics of criminality, then we need to understand the basic properties of criminological discourse as it prepares the ground on which people are encouraged to see the presence of (certain) immigrants in the United States as illegitimate. …