hat has changed in matters of immigration enforcement since Donald Trump and his administration took power? In some respects, responding to this question is simple. While certainly and justifiably alarming, Trump’s policies represent a continuation of the increasingly harsh program of criminalization, detention, and deportation of immigrants instituted by previous presidents and administrations. A quick scan of immigration enforcement trends prior to Trump taking office is indicative. Criminal prosecutions for violating an expanding number of immigration laws, as well as increasingly punitive sentencing, have been on the rise for years now. With this, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are now—that is to say, already—responsible for referring more individuals for criminal prosecution than all other Department of Justice law enforcement agencies combined (Meissner et al., 2012: 94-5). Between 2003 and 2016 there was a 50 per cent increase in border patrol personnel, going from 10,000 to 21,370 staff, such that by its own admission CBP is better staffed than at any time in its history (Department of Homeland Security, 2011). And, former President Barack Obama’s legacy includes the record for the highest annual rate of detention, with 477,523 immigrants detained in 2012 (Noferi, 2014) in addition to a record number of deportations—435,000—in 2013 (Gonzalez-Barrera and Krogstad, 2014).

Trump’s plans, therefore, are a scaling up of this “actually existing” (Brenner and Theodore, 2002) and utterly egregious enforcement system, with designs to add 15,000 more border agents (American Immigration Lawyers Association, 2017a: 2) and recently approved government appropriations that include a DHS budget increase of $1.45 billion over spending in 2016, bringing the budget for border and immigration enforcement to $42.2 billion annually (American Immigration Lawyers Association, 2017b: 1). In just the first few months of 2017, there has been a marked increase in detained immigrants, with an average of 41,000 individuals detained daily (American Immigration Lawyers Association, 2017a: 3), and an approved budget for 2017 that funds an average daily detention rate of 39,324 individuals (Detention Watch Network, 2017). This means an increase of more than 5,000 immigrants detained every day beyond the daily quota of 34,000 detention beds, a detention quota that has been in effect since 2009.

Yet, simply characterizing Donald Trump’s actions as more of the same risks representing what is happening to immigrants and in society more broadly as ‘not unusual,’ which, in turn, runs the risk of normalizing this State and a state of affairs that is anything but normal. In offering my reflection, I want to highlight two dimensions of the current administration’s immigration enforcement strategy that are particularly disturbing, and that suggest that a shift is taking place with respect to the monetized value of immigrants vis-à-vis profit-seeking and detention expansion.

Trump’s plans and actions represent a troubling shift when it comes to the economic value of immigration detention. As noted earlier, I do not want to underestimate the already-existing problem and our knowledge related to the complex webs of bureaucratization and massive profits that detention currently wields (see, for example, Golash-Boza, 2009; Detention Watch Network, 2011; Doty and Wheatley, 2013; Conlon and Hiemstra, 2017). Nevertheless, towards the end of Obama’s presidency, in August 2016, the U.S. Justice Department announced plans to end the use of private prisons with subsequent proposals along the same lines for immigration detention facilities. There was, perhaps, a rare moment of euphoria for advocates, activists, and critical migration scholars alike when, in response to this announcement, stock values for the largest private prison and detention center operators in the United States nose-dived. On August 18, 2016, the stock market value of Corrections Corporation of America (now rebranded CoreCivic) dropped from $27.22 to $17.57 and GEO Group’s value dropped from $32.29 to $19.51. However, under Trump and following Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversal of plans to end such private sector entanglements with incarceration, both corporations have now regained and continue to accrue stock value. For instance, on May 2, 2017, CoreCivic traded at $33.08 and GEO Group was valued at $32.59. With this, it is clear, as the New York Times reports, “few industries have stood to gain as much under Trump as private prison operators” (Confessore et al., 2017).

The implications of this shift are especially revealing when it comes to asylum seekers. Over the past several months, groups working with immigrants and immigration detainees have reported increasing numbers of asylum seekers being turned away at the US-Mexico border, asylum seekers being detained unreasonably, and being denied parole in accordance with established legal provisions. Initially, some suggested that immigration agents, acting individually, felt emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and plans. In a sense, they were ‘deputized’ to take the law into their own hands and to make decisions that contravene national legal protections and international treaties. But, in fact, the blueprint for these actions is laid out in two memoranda issued by the Department of Homeland Security on February 20, 2017 that implement immigration policy as articulated in Trump’s January 2017 Executive Orders (for a detailed review see Human Rights First, 2017).

Upon hearing this, I was reminded of an interview with an immigration lawyer that I completed as part of a research project some years ago. The project examined immigration advocacy and support sector responses to economic austerity and the rising tide of ill-sentiment towards immigrants at the time (Gill et al., 2012). In my interviews, one lawyer likened US immigration courts to “the Wild West,” referring to the broad variability in protocols, behavior, and treatment of people in the immigration system. That was back in 2012. In light of current events, how should we characterize the system now?

In this renewed era, “the Trump era” (Sessions, quoted in Hesson, 2017), I want to suggest that asylum seekers have, effectively, become ‘detention bait’ in the bloated, profit-centered immigration enforcement system. This is not only linked to xenophobia but also to shifts in the character of immigration and the newly expanding economic value of detention. What I mean here is that while the number of immigrants apprehended and subsequently likely to be detained or deported along the US-Mexico border has been declining in recent years1, the number of requests for asylum has been increasing in connection with the plethora of crises that are unfolding and ongoing around the globe. In the first six months of 2016, there were 112,400 new asylum applications made in the US compared to 78,200 in the first six months of 2015—an increase of 44 per cent (UNHCR, 2017). The overall total for asylum claims in 2015 (172,700 affirmative and defensive applications) represented a similar increase of 42 per cent over 2014 figures (UNHCR, 2016).

To return to the opening question, what I suspect has changed is that asylum seekers, along with other vulnerable groups including women, children, and families, are being monetized through increases in the use and profitability of immigrant detention, and their ontological insecurity is being usurped, transformed into value, and stripped down to crude relations of monetary exchange. This leads to two final reflections when it comes to efforts to support migrants as well as those more directly engaged in push back and resistance against “the Trump era” of immigration enforcement. First, as Don Mitchell has noted with regard to the role academics can play in such efforts, sometimes “to make a difference beyond the academy it is necessary to do good and important, and committed work, within the academy” (2004: 23). That is to say, rigorous research and meticulous knowledge production are as necessary today as they have always been. Scrupulous, thoughtful, and engaged research is vital to providing expert testimony in asylum cases or in public inquiries, for instance (see, for example, Gill et al., 2014). In addition, work to investigate and unveil the myriad actors who are involved in and profiting from immigration detention is indispensable to efforts to hold individuals and institutions accountable. To this end, there is a growing body of scholarship that critically examines detention and enforcement at both macro and micro scales, with significant momentum around ‘intimate economies,’ which refers to the intricate and apparently unrestrained political and economic dynamics that are facilitating immigration detention and enforcement expansion (see Conlon and Hiemstra, 2017).

Finally, with regard to the growing significance of asylum seekers and the injustices they face in the current era, I am reminded of an article by Welch and Schuster (2005), which characterized the public discourse surrounding asylum in the UK as ‘noisy’ while that in the US was comparatively ‘quiet.’ This was largely in connection with UK media outlets relentless portrayal of asylum seekers as ‘bogus’ or having ‘fake claims.’ In spite of these differences, both States detain asylum seekers routinely as part of their enforcement regimes. Now, as asylum seekers become ‘bait’ in the increasingly monetized US detention system, the noise level surrounding asylum, as well the need for critical, counter discourses, is increasing. With this, the necessity of exchange across national boundaries is intensified, despite distinct legal and judicial systems, yet ever more convergent political systems. And, with this, the potential and power of cross-national and international solidarity for immigrants’ rights will be amplified as a corrective to the current din. 


1 CBP figures are: 479,371 in 2014; 331,333 in 2015; and 408,870 in 2016.


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