Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Performing Homeland Security within the US Immigrant Detention System

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Performing Homeland Security within the US Immigrant Detention System

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper examines the critical role played by the US immigrant detention and deportation apparatus in the construction of contemporary imaginaries of homeland security. I argue that the detention system works performatively by substantiating a paradoxical relationship between security and insecurity for system employees. Through research conducted in Ecuador with detained migrants' families and deported migrants, I scrutinize the behavior of detention personnel and the experiences of detainees. Data illustrate how the US detention system becomes an integral part of the governmental apparatus behind homeland security imaginaries. First, employees are disciplined through the constant repetition of narratives in which immigrants are immoral and untrustworthy. Second, the detention system is structured in such a way as to require employees to perceive detainees as sources of insecurity, through inconsistent policies, conditions of detention, and high volume and mobility of detainees. Consequently, I contend, employees' interactions with detainees play an important and under-recognized role in performing homeland security imaginaries by perpetuating and reinforcing negative tropes of immigrants as criminalized, dangerous outsiders. The paper contributes to understanding ways in which multiple and overlapping governmentalities work recursively in the country's immigration apparatus, as well as shedding light on the typically opaque detention and deportation process.

Keywords: deportation, detention, governmentality, immigration, performativity, security

Introduction

For nine months in Cuenca, Ecuador in 2008 and 2009, I volunteered at the municipally run House of the Migrant to assist families of migrants who were detained in the United States. The primary request of families was for information regarding detainees' location, case, and eventual deportation. In my efforts to obtain such information, I called dozens of facilities detaining migrants and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices. In one instance when I called a detention facility, the employee with whom I spoke directed me to call another facility, because "they have the body over there" (research journal, 20 June 2009). Such statements came up repeatedly during the hundreds of phone calls I made--statements indicating that within the US detention system, migrants can become dehumanized "bodies" to be shuttled about, guardedly managed, and dispassionately "removed". Data gathered through interviews with deported Ecuadorians offer further evidence of the constant dehumanization inherent in the detention and deportation process.

This paper scrutinizes this dehumanization of detainees--why it occurs, how it is enacted by system employees and experienced by migrants, and the larger disciplinary work that it does in service of ontologies of insecurity. I argue that the detention system works performatively in support of homeland security imaginaries by substantiating a paradoxical relationship between security and insecurity. At the confluence of pervasive negative narratives of immigration and the typically chaotic operation of the detention system, employees' perceptions of migrants as a source of insecurity are cemented and deepened. These detention center relationships, I suggest, play an important and underrecognized role in performing homeland (in)security, thereby perpetuating and reinforcing negative tropes of immigrants as criminalized, dangerous outsiders. Thus, the intimate operation of the detention system is woven into the fabric of governmentality that cloaks contemporary public and political thinking and discourse surrounding immigration in the United States. By drawing attention to the microscales at which migrant dehumanization occurs, this paper contributes to understanding ways in which multiple and overlapping governmentalities work recursively in the country's immigration apparatus. It also adds to scholarly and activist work on the often obscured modus operandi of the detention system, with a unique emphasis on the role of non-immigrants. …

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