The Immigration Crisis: Detention as an Emerging Mechanism of Social Control

By Welch, Michael | Social Justice, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Immigration Crisis: Detention as an Emerging Mechanism of Social Control


Welch, Michael, Social Justice


Introduction

As a result of worldwide political and economic shifts, immigration has emerged as an international problem affecting most Western nations. Indeed, immigration in the United States has increasingly become politicized at the national and local levels of government. Making matters worse, political leaders have yet to define and adequately implement a singular national immigration policy. Subsequently, government officials tentatively initiate one set of policies, only to abruptly reverse their position in favor of more repressive measures.

Historically, immigration has always met formidable resistance from mainstream citizens. Similarly, in recent times, immigration has become a lightning rod for mounting anger, and this outrage has taken on many forms. Immigration has contributed to a renewed sense of nativism, nationalism, and political isolationism, as well as to institutionalized racism. This antagonism is largely fueled by economic tensions, insofar as immigrants and undocumented immigrants ("illegal aliens") serve as convenient scapegoats - viewed as threats to scarce employment opportunities and blamed for draining public resources and social services.

Problems concerning immigration are as numerous as they are complex. Indeed, the complexity of the problems affects all aspects of immigration control, including immigration law, asylum hearings, border patrol, and parole. This article, however, concentrates on one particular mechanism in the control of immigration - the detention of undocumented immigrants. Although most illegal immigration takes place at the Mexican border (the Border Patrol reports apprehending and returning 1,000 aliens to Mexico each day [The New York Times, 1995]), there are more than 6,000 undocumented immigrants currently detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) (ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, 1993). Yet, even a cursory examination of INS operations indicates that detention policy is often ambiguous and contradictory as current immigration policy itself.

Recent investigations of INS policy have revealed major problems in the detention of undocumented immigrants. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project (1993) inspected INS detention centers in New York City and documented numerous institutional problems, as well as allegations of human rights violations. Moreover, similar institutional problems and human rights violations have been reported at several other INS detention centers (Welch, 1995; 1994a; 1994b; 1993; 1991). The objective of this article is to explore institutional problems facing INS detention centers. Additionally, INS detention policy is also discussed in the context of the new penology (Feeley and Simon, 1992), thereby conceptualizing detention as an emerging mechanism of social control.

INS Detention as an Emerging Mechanism of Social Control

Detaining large numbers of undocumented immigrants marks a relatively recent development in INS policy. "For twenty-five years prior to the 1980s, the I.N.S. maintained a policy of detaining only those individuals deemed likely to abscond or who posed a security risk" (Marks and Levy, 1994: 2). Policy shifts during the early Reagan administration marked a significant change in immigration and detention. With the arrival of the Mariel Cubans and the Haitian boat people, widespread detention was used as a deterrent to illegal immigration. Under this policy, all "excludable" aliens were detained for further inquiry. In July 1982, this policy was further formalized as an interim rule in the Federal Register, later codified in 8 C.F.R. SS 212.5, 235.3. "Under these rules, which are still in effect, all aliens arriving without proper travel documents are detained pending a determination of their status, unless they are considered eligible for parole for 'emergent masons' or reasons 'strictly in the public interest'" (Marks and Levy, 1994: 2; see 8 C. …

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The Immigration Crisis: Detention as an Emerging Mechanism of Social Control
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