Introduction: Imprisonment, Immigration Control, and Drug Enforcement

Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Imprisonment, Immigration Control, and Drug Enforcement


THIS SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE EXAMINES THE WIDENING NET OF INCARCERATION, immigration policing, and drug and crime enforcement as well as the role of an increasingly authoritarian national security state in a globalized 21st-century economy. The phenomenon is transnational in scope, though the contributions here focus mainly on developments in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is the fruition of a conservative program, initiated in the Reagan and Thatcher years, and continues under George W. Bush and Tony Blair's New Labour. Central to it are lowering the cost of labor, regressive tax cuts, reductions in environmental regulations (especially in the U.S.), gutting affirmative action and welfare benefits, and greatly expanding the military and the criminal justice system. Each country has pushed the world to accept unilateralist, preemptive militarism, most notably with the Bush-Blair intervention in Iraq. Each has been engaged in a prison-building binge, such that the U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration of any modern democracy and England has become the prison capital of Western Europe. Articles in this issue speak to an integrated system of global workforce management and governance that is increasingly based on restricting civil, political, and human rights.

Authors discuss the degree to which these long-term tendencies have been accelerated or intensified due to the events of September 11, 2001. Jonas and Tactaquin make the strongest case that current policing of immigration crystallizes a trend underway since the passage of anti-immigrant legislation in 1996, but the Bush administration has taken it in a new and dangerous direction. Detaining asylum seekers as threats to public safety and national security extends the net of criminalization to a new group, but more ominous in the post-September 11 period is the shifting line dividing those having and those lacking "rights," first from undocumented migrants to all noncitizens, and now to citizens with the Bush administration's citizenship-stripping measures. All native-born U.S. citizens have reason to fear that the ongoing constitutional violations now experienced by noncitizens (withdrawal of rights such as due process, habeas corpus, and to legal counsel) will be extended to them. More broadly, the willingness to violate the basic rights of the most vulnerable (immigrants and noncitizens) threatens the quality of democracy for the nation and its citizenry.

Democratic structures are already severely tested by the staggering numbers of people experiencing rights-restricted regimes. Some 86 million migrant workers--about half of all migrants and refugees--are employed in the global economy (ILO, 2004). Hall are women and many or most are largely excluded from the protections of international labor standards and the benefits of national labor and social laws. In the U.S., the estimated seven to 11 million undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico (70%) and Latin America, have little prospect for even a limited legalization program (Frieden, 2003; Rodriguez, 2001). Another part of the widening net is prisons. Last year, the nation's prisons and jails held 2,078,570 men and women; 63% of them are Latino or black, often young males. Since the War on Drugs has overwhelmingly targeted communities of the poor and near-poor, especially the minority poor, African Americans and Latinos constitute almost 90% of all offenders sentenced to state prison for drug possession. Thirteen million Americans have been convicted of felonies and spent time in prison--more than the population of Greece (New York Times, 2004). Many states strip ex-convicts of voting rights, a fact that became decisive in the 2000 presidential election since in Florida alone, over 250,000 African Americans cannot vote because of felon disfranchisement. Prisons are expensive institutions--state prisons alone cost $30 billion a year to operate--that don't work. The notion that "prisons are for punishment" cast aside even the pretense of the rehabilitative ideal of educating and improving the chances of reintegration of those convicted of crimes. …

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