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Immigration Geopolitics Beyond the

MexicoUS Border
Mathew Coleman
Department of Geography, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA;
Despite the centrality of MexicoUS border policing to pre- and post-9/11 US immigration
geopolitics, perhaps the most significant yet largely ignored immigration-related fallout of the
so-called war on terrorism has been the extension of interior immigration policing practices
away from the southwest border. As I outline in this paper, these interior spaces of immigra-
tion geopoliticsnominally said to be about fighting terrorism, but in practice concerned with
undocumented labor migration across the MexicoUS borderhave not emerged accidentally.
Rather, the recent criminalization of immigration law, the sequestering of immigration enforce-
ment from court oversight and the enrollment of proxy immigration officers at sub-state scales
have been actively pursued so as to make interior enforcement newly central to US immigration
geopolitics. I argue here that these embryonic spaces of localized immigration geopolitics shed
newlight on the spatiality of US immigration governance, which has typically been thought of by
geographers as active predominantly at the territorial margins of the state. I conclude the paper
with some thoughts as to how geographers might rethink the what and where of contemporary
US immigration geopolitics.
After 9/11, US lawmakers and administration officials scrambled to
present undocumented migration as a possible national security threat.
The reasoning, as Malkin (2002:8) echoed bluntly in her post-9/11 best-
seller Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and
Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores, was that undocumented mi-
grants and terrorists make similarly surreptitious use of US borders:
The September 11 hijackers all came through the front door, but illegal
immigration . . . is the passageway of countless terrorist brethren. As
such, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, immigration law reform and bor-
der enforcement were quickly positioned as frontline defenses against
terrorism, as they had following the 1993 World Trade Center and 1995
Oklahoma City bombings. Although Canadas immigration policies and
the CanadaUS border received an unusual share of attention (Andreas
2003), the border with Mexico playedand continues to playa promi-
nent role in this discussion (Ackleson 2005a; Garcia 2003; Waslin 2003).
For example, the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucuswhose
website tells of al Qaeda cells working with Mexican smugglers to
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sneak across the US southwest border between official ports of entry
endorsed a reading of the border as Terrorist Alley.
That the 9/11
hijackers did not cross into the US from Mexicoor in fact across any
land borderis apparently besides the point (Ackleson 2005b).
It would be misleading, however, to claim that 9/11 ushered in novel
US immigration enforcement practices at the MexicoUS border. For
example, pre- and post-9/11 US immigration policing strategies are un-
derwritten by a comparably racialized and nationalist discourse of threat
which typifies the MexicoUS border as a site where masses of immi-
grants from the global south are poised to overthrow the ethno-cultural
and economic territorial sanctity of the US (Purcell and Nevins 2005).
But also in a more grounded sense, the Bush administrations war on
terrorism, brought to bear in the US southwest, is but an augmentation of
the immigration policing practices engineered and fine-tuned under the
former Clinton administration (Ackleson 1999; Andreas 2003; Coleman
2005). In this sense, the current expansion of immigration agents, fences,
and surveillance technologies at the borderfinanced by the largest bor-
der enforcement budgets ever contemplated by Congressreplays the
rigid either/or territorial logic of the immigration enforcement strategies
initiated in the mid-1990s under President Clintons Operation Gate-
keeper, well documented by Nevins (2002). Moreover, current immi-
gration enforcement at the border echoes the Clinton era in that it, too,
makes increasingly indistinct military and police practiceswhat Bigo
(2001:106) calls the blurring of the line between what belongs to in-
ternal security and what belongs to external security or defense (see
also Andreas and Price 2001). Predictably, this has ensured that immi-
grant deaths due to the militarization of immigration policing remain
a pressing problem at the border (Cornelius 2001; Eschbach, Hagan
and Rodrguez 2003; Nevins 2003; Reyes, Johnson and van Swearingen
The point is that post-9/11 US immigration policing at the south-
west border is part of a decades-old expansion of low-intensity warfare
tactics there (Dunn 1996) and as such is best understood in terms of
a longstanding politics of anxiety in the US concerning Mexican un-
documented migration (Heyman 1999). This said, 9/11 did signpost a
change of accent insofar as the events of that day surfaced new spaces
of immigration-related geopolitical practice. Despite the obvious im-
portance and continuity of border policing per se to pre- and post-9/11
immigration geopolitics, then, perhaps the most significant yet largely
ignored immigration-related fallout of the recently conceived war on
terrorism has been the growth of interior immigration policing prac-
tices, nominally geared to fight terrorismbut in practice often concerned
with a broader problematic of undocumented labor migration. Properly
speaking these practicesand the laws that informthemdate fromthe
1990s. However, these interior immigration enforcement practices have
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been recently extended and deepened to assume a newly central place
in US immigration enforcement efforts.
In order to get at these interior spaces of immigration geopolitics and
at how they work, I will document two recent shifts in US immigration
policing which, in conjunction with the border militarization process
sketched out above, I take to be definitive of the post-9/11 immigra-
tion enforcement landscape. First, lawmakers since the mid-1990s have
sought to bind immigration control to criminal law enforcement, such
that a criminal conviction can be used as grounds for deportation from
the US. I refer to this as the criminalization of immigration law. As part
of this process, lawmakers have carved out a paradoxical space in which
immigration policing occurs. This space, while strictly speaking codi-
fied in law, is ultimately about limiting the legal review of immigration
and criminal charges brought against undocumented migrants and oth-
ers. As I will argue below, this mode of immigration governance means
that immigration law is ultimately exempted from judicial review, even
as it works largely on the basis of criminal law.
Second, there has been a concerted effort on the part of lawmakers
and the Bush administration, particularly since 9/11, to use local proxy
forcesor non-federal delegatesto enforce immigration law. I argue
that together, the criminalization of immigration law, as well as the
enrollment of proxy immigration officers at sub-state scales, constitute a
newlocalized or rescaled geopolitics of immigration policing. Although
intended broadly as a border policing initiative, these practices take
place at some significant remove from US borders, and specifically
from the MexicoUS border. And although conducted under the pretext
of counterterrorism, these laws and practices implicate for the most part
a more general category of undocumented migrants.
These newly materializing spaces of immigration geopolitics are im-
portant to consider because they demonstrate that border enforcement
and immigration policing are neither one and the same thing nor coter-
minous. Indeed, I argue that these embryonic spaces of immigration
policing shed new light on the spatiality of US immigration policing
efforts, which typically have been thought of by geographers as active
primarily at the territorial margins of the state. But by suggesting that
immigration-related geopolitics at the border have been supplemented
in the interior and away fromthe border, my point is not to reify the local
as a discrete arena of politicking (Cox 1998). Nor is it my point to insist
that state territoriality belongs to a now defunct era usurped by local,
regional, and/or global governance structures (Mansfield 2005). Rather,
my goal is, first, to refuse the state writ large as the only meaningful
scale at which governance regarding immigration is operative, and sec-
ond, to explore the local as something more than a site nested neatly and
subordinately within the national. The point is to refuse both a method-
ological territorialism and methodological nationalism in the study of
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contemporary immigration geopolitics (Brenner 2004:38). The former
assumes that relations of power are bound to discrete state territorialities,
and the latter that relations of power are territorialized coherently at and
across the national scale. In sum, I hope to show that in the case of im-
migration enforcement, the spatiality of state governance is now much
more complicated than the straightforward enforcement of an either/or
territoriality at the edges of the state. By pointing to the complex rescal-
ing and localized contestation of immigration policing after 9/11, I argue
that state geopolitical power is undergoing an adjustment mostly at the
municipal scale, and that the outcome of immigration-related strategies
of governance are as a result less than clear.
In the next section, I outline the rapprochement between criminal law
and immigration enforcement that took place during the 1990s and after
9/11, as well as how this development relied on the gradual limitation
of court oversight over immigration enforcement. In a second section, I
discuss the exceptional constitution of federal immigration law, and the
relevance of the so-called plenary power doctrine to that exceptionalism.
Third, I look to the spatiality of current immigration enforcement prac-
tices, and in detail at the post-9/11 enrollment of sub-state proxy forces
by federal immigration authorities. I argue that the power to police im-
migration has been devolved to local scale peace officers who until very
recently were not permitted to enforce immigration law. I conclude the
paper by asking how the two major trends discussed in the paperthe
development of a criminalized and exceptional immigration law, and
the devolution of immigration policingmight compel geographers to
think differently about the location and substance of US immigration
enforcement efforts of relevance to the MexicoUS border.
The Criminalization of Immigration Law
Congress passed a bevy of laws in the mid-1990s intended to obstruct un-
documented migration to the US.
These laws resulted fromwidespread
bipartisan panic concerning the professed links between urban crime,
welfare abuse, terrorism, inner city drug addiction, the failure of the
melting pot citizenship model and the growth of undocumented mi-
gration. The legislation in question can be considered a complex of
instrumental, expressive and symbolic statutes which sought to revise
immigration lawby disrupting existing judicial practices concerning im-
migration enforcement, which lawmakers on the whole believed to be
overly lenient (Tushnet and Yackle 1997).
Together the laws treated
an overwhelming volume of amendments to the 1952 Immigration and
Nationality Act (INA) (Gimpel and Edwards 1999), and in conjunction
with the Clinton administrations then newly conceived US Southwest
Strategic Doctrine of Border Control, resulted in a significant milita-
rization of the MexicoUS border. However, two important but often
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underacknowledged shifts in immigration enforcement brought about
as a result of this period of frenzied immigration lawmaking did not
deal directly with border enforcement. These provisions expanded the
criminal grounds for deportation from the US and limited the scope of
judicial review over immigration enforcement.
Although as a whole
the laws were concerned to increase immigration enforcement directly
at the MexicoUS border, these measures were intended explicitly to
bolster immigration enforcement efforts in the interior and thereby re-
duce undocumented migration, primarily across the MexicoUS border,
by heightening disincentives to migrate. These changes are important
insofar as they constitute the conceptual and practical scaffolding of
post-9/11 immigration-related lawmaking and enforcement.
Immigration law reform efforts in Congress during the 1990s signifi-
cantly enlarged the category of crimes which could count as aggravated
feloniesa specific class of crimes committed by non-citizens, applica-
ble only in the context of immigration law, and warranting deportation
fromthe US. The aggravated felony charge was initially legislated in the
late 1980s to deport drug kingpins under murder, firearms and weapons
trafficking charges. In the 1990s, the charge was expanded repeatedly to
embrace a huge assortment of crimes, including many misdemeanors or
minor offenses (Johnson 2001). The principal goal was to make a broad
array of controlled substances and general property offenses count to-
wards immigration inadmissibility. The result was a literal grab bag of
convictions (Coonan 1998:600) with no overall coherence which could
provoke deportation from the US. For example, the aggravated felony
was made to include prostitution, car theft, forgery, bribery, undocu-
mented entry following deportation, perjury, shoplifting, counterfeiting,
drug possession, drug addiction, petty theft, simple battery, tax evasion,
and more generally any offense with an imposed sentence of one year
or more.
This detailed expansion of the aggravated felony charge to account for
a good deal of non-violent crimes was accompanied by a far-reaching
recalibration of what counted as terms of conviction and imprisonment
for immigration admissibility purposes. As concerns conviction, the
laws mandated that potential aggravated felony adjudications deferred
by judges, regardless of the absence of sentencing, were still to count as
convictions warranting deportation from the US if immigration author-
ities could find sufficient evidence that a crime was committedsuch
as an initial admission of guilt or some finding excluded from the court-
room (Marley 1998). The result was that individuals could be identi-
fied as deportable aggravated felons without an explicit conviction for
an aggravated felony. As concerns imprisonment, the laws legislated
that any sentence of one year or moreserved or suspendedcould
count as evidence of an aggravated felony. As a result, convictions both
postponed and suspended by the courts were to count as grounds for
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deportation (Morawetz 2000). To this, the laws added that the aggra-
vated felony charge could be applied retroactively without limit, and
that conviction would entail a permanent bar on re-entry to the US for
all deported aliens, without exception (Candioto 1997; Krasker 1998;
Morawetz 1998). Moreover, the laws legislated mandatory and indefi-
nite incarceration for those charged and awaiting deportation, as well as
lengthy jail terms for aggravated felons caught re-entering the US (Cox
2001; Legomsky 1999). The result of these provisions was an increas-
ingly deep convergence between the criminal and immigration justice
systems, such that a criminal conviction was likely to trigger detention,
deportation and permanent exclusion from the US (Kanstroom 2000a),
as well as a bizarre multiplier effect whereby minor infractions from
decades past could be resuscitated in the present to effect deportation
from, or deny entrance to, the US.
To substantiate the expansion of the aggravated felony charge, immi-
gration law reform undertaken at this time sought also to restrict court
oversight of immigration enforcement. This was done because lawmak-
ers considered that aggravated felons and persons unlawfully present in
the country had too many channels of legal petition which resulted in
too many stalled deportation hearings. Two basic remedies were leg-
islated. First, the laws stripped the courts of many powers of review
over aggravated felony criminal cases, and refused access to many le-
gal procedures or petitions that could delay removal from the US for
those charged with an aggravated felony (Marley 1998; Gelernt 2001).
So, while aggravated felons in the early 1990s had the ability to peti-
tion their removal from the US, for example through application for a
stay of deportation or for political asylum, the new laws implemented
a historic series of due process restrictions which limited the judicial
and administrative channels available to aggravated felons to contest the
deportation process. Second, the laws introduced a wider sphere of new
procedures of expedited deportation similarly removed from close le-
gal scrutiny, to apply broadly to undocumented aliens (McKenzie 1997;
Solbakken 1997). Rather than distinguish between aliens who had en-
tered the US and those who had not, the new laws introduced the con-
cept of admission, or authorized and inspected entry to the US. All
unadmitted (ie undocumented) aliensregardless of geographical loca-
tion, at the border or in the interiorwere deemed to be permanently
in the process of unlawfully seeking entry or arriving until actu-
ally apprehended, and thus were labeled as automatically inadmissi-
ble (ie deportable) upon apprehension. Recategorized as never having
made a legitimate entry into the US, undocumented aliens were thus
treated extra-territorially as subjects standing at USborder ports of entry,
and were made subject to summary exclusion by federal immigration
officers without defense or relief through the courts. This second re-
striction of legal oversight over immigration enforcement marked a
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significant change to what previously stood as the entry doctrine,
which had afforded due process protections to undocumented aliens ap-
prehended in the US on the grounds that they were within the territorial
jurisdiction of the federal US court system (Chen 2000; Foster 1997).
The single protection left was a substantially overhauled habeas corpus
review which sought only to properly identify deportees prior to their
The mid-1990s severity revolution (Simon 2001) in immigration
lawmaking and enforcement was ratcheted up by the events of 9/11. In-
deed, the current zero tolerance scrutiny of the aggravated felony charge
in order to effect deportations, nominally concerned to thwart threats
to national security but in reality occupied with a class of much less
serious offenses such as undocumented entry, means perhaps a final
criminalization of immigration law (Morris 1997). In other words,
9/11 has brought about a near conclusive blurring of what by the late
1990s amounted to an already well-faded distinction between the legal
offenses of undocumented laboring, criminal activity by aliens and ter-
rorism (Miller 2005). The June 2004 street-level immigration sweeps
in southern California are evidence of this development. Resulting in a
staggering 11,000 ad-hoc interrogations and some 450 formal detentions
and deportations, the roving Border Patrol operationsreminiscent of
the mass deportations under Operation Wetback in 1954were justi-
fied under the broad post-9/11 umbrella of securing the border region
and protecting national security, even as they targeted exclusively Mex-
ican nationals suspected of working without papers in the US (Martinez
2004; Nu nez-Neto 2005:2728; Wilson and Murillo 2004a, 2004b).
At the same time, recent immigration enforcement practice, as in-
tended by the earlier wave of 1990s laws, has sought to again distance
immigration enforcement from the purview of the courts in the form
of substantial legal rollbacks (Akram and Johnson 2002; Ashar 2002;
Morawetz 2005; Papandrea 2005; Reza 2002; Tumlin 2004; Williams
2004). The 2001 PATRIOT Act, for example, authorizes federal offi-
cers to arrest and imprison a broad class of non-citizens on immigration
grounds without legal review and without public disclosure of the spe-
cific charge for a period of seven days, or for a maximum of six months
if the case is deemed a national security risk. Importantly, this lack of
legal oversight portends the use of immigration law for ends that do
not relate directly to immigration enforcement per se (Kanstroom 2003,
2004). For example, Operation Predator, an initiative run by the De-
partment of Homeland Security (DHS) in July 2003and televised on
the show Americas Most Wantedrounded up nearly 2000 alien sex
offenders on immigration charges (DHS 2005a, 2005b). The operation
was not intended to police immigration lawinfractions. Instead, the goal
was to deport criminal alien sex offenders through immigration chan-
nels, which provide fewer judicial hurdles for detainment, disclosure of
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evidence and eventually, deportation (US Congress, House Subcom-
mittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, Committee on the
Judiciary 2004). In sum, if before 9/11 immigration lawwas already well
on its way to becoming deeply bound to criminal law enforcement, the
war on terrorismhas facilitated an even deeper convergence between the
two (Kanstroom 2005). At the same time, the events of 9/11 provoked
even further restrictions on judicial oversight over immigration law en-
forcement practices related broadly to alien criminal activity. The point
is that the double-pronged approach to immigration enforcement in the
1990swhich in effect expanded the criminal grounds for deportation
and limited the reach of legal oversight over these procedureswas
deepened and extended after 9/11.
The Exceptional Spaces of Immigration Law
How does one best conceptualize the above developments? Without
doubt current immigration law as well as the broad gatekeeping func-
tionof contemporaryimmigrationenforcement is rootedinthe post-Civil
War Chinese Exclusion Acts (Lee 1999). These actsarticulated on the
gendered, racialized, and class exceptionality of Chinese immigrants
suspended working class and independent female Chinese immigration
to the US, barred the re-entry of previously admitted Chinese labor-
ers, initiated an identity registry for Chinese families in the US, made
undocumented Chinese immigration a deportable crime, and perhaps
most importantly, subjected Chinese immigrants to expanded and non-
uniform deportation and exclusion practices whose contestability in the
courts was gradually eroded (Sayler 1991). More accurately, however,
current immigration lawmaking and enforcement owes its existence to
the plenary power doctrine over immigration which developed as a con-
sequence of the Chinese Exclusion Acts.
The plenary power doctrine transferred the specific exceptionality of
Chinese immigration to the immigration power writ large, in order to
insulate immigration enforcement from the judiciary. As a result of nu-
merous cases brought by Chinese nationals before the courts in the wake
of the Exclusion Laws, the Supreme Courteager to find a home for the
power to control immigrationruled that the immigration mandate was
tantamount to the plenaryor unconditional and unimpairedpower of
the government to conduct international relations and commerce. As a
result, the court concluded that the power to regulate immigration should
be an unequivocally federal mandate and that it could not be subject to
constitutional or judicial oversight. In short, the plenary power doctrine
awarded congressional representatives and the executive branch of gov-
ernment the absolute and unchecked sovereign power to regulate the
admission and expulsion of immigrants with limited judicial oversight,
and without adherence to otherwise generally held legal principles. As
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Wishnie (2003:739740) puts it, the Court . . . linked immigration law
to foreign affairs and national security and insisted on substantial def-
erence [of the courts] to the judgments of the political branches. The
basis of the ruling was that immigration is a national security matter
akin to waging war, whose pressing geopolitical constitution trumps
the need to extend judicial protections to non-nationals in the US or
seeking entry to the US (Olafson 1999; Holland 2000; Wishnie 2001a;
Engle 2004). From this perspective, immigration law and enforcement
is only partially about public policy analysis (Bigo 2002; Tichenor
It is this same foreign-policy-centric plenary power of lawmakers
and the executive to make and implement laws governing immigration
which lies at the core of the immigration lawmaking and enforcement
efforts today. But contemporary immigration lawmaking suggests that
there is more to this power than simply the straightforward exorcism of
judicial review in the name of national security and geopolitical strat-
egy. The plenary power over immigration does not simply jettison the
law. Rather, it works paradoxically through the law as it at once holds
the law at bay. In other words, present-day immigration enforcement
works by closing the gap between immigration control and criminal law
offenses as it at once widens the gap between on-the-ground enforce-
ment and judicial review. In this way, the contemporary expression of
the plenary power over immigration presents us with the puzzle of an
extra-legal law: immigration law and enforcement is about curtailing
aliens rights of due process while at once making them the object of
laws which hold themclosely accountable to standards (and definitions)
of criminal justice which would certainly be contested if court scrutiny
of the process was permitted, or if these same standards were applied
to US citizens. We might say that current US immigration law works
by placing the subjects of immigration lawfor the most part undocu-
mented migrants, as we shall see belowin the position of being legally
answerable to increasingly detailed criminal provisions codified in law
which at once are themselves subject to increasingly narrow channels
of legal contestation.
From this perspective I think that immigration law is somewhat of a
misnomer. Properly stated, the plenary power enables immigration en-
forcement practices whichfloatbydesignseparately fromthe rule of
law. Inthis sense, the plenarypower tomake immigrationlawis about de-
lineating a space of policing practicesa juridical voidwhich cannot
be subject to constitutional reviewand/or protection, notwithstanding its
reliance on the criminal justice system as well as its own formal codifi-
cation as lawin the INA. The point is that immigration lawworks less as
a law and more as a sort of (permanent) state of emergency in which the
concrete, authoritarian power of the sovereign (in this case, lawmakers)
comes down decisivelyor, exceptionallyon migrant bodies, in the
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name of public security, via a selective deployment of the law (Schmitt,
1985 [1933]).
In this sense, I find that recent discussion of the force of law
(Agamben 2005) offers a compelling way of conceptualizing contem-
porary immigration law and enforcement in the US. The turn of phrase
force of law, or force of law without law, means that sovereign
powerwhich generally declares nothing to be outside the law
works paradoxically through the postponement of generally held legal
norms and practices. However, these postponements, or more accurately
sovereign exceptions to law, do not imply a simple topographical oppo-
sition(inside/outside) inwhichthe lawandthe political are hermetically
sealed spaces bridged by the sovereign, who moves arbitrarily between
the two when the need arises (Agamben 2005: 23). Rather, the state of
exception functions as the decisive moment within a larger context of
liberal constitutionalism (Agamben 1998). The force of law, then, de-
scribes a contradictory, but ultimately effective, liberal juridico-political
governmentality characterized by an indistinction between law and vi-
olence. Here, the sovereign obliges bodies to the law by making their
conduct dependent onit, but insodoingmay at once andinthe same place
forsake them to the political, or to a sphere of extra-juridical violences,
in the event that a state of emergency (ie a threat to national security) is
said to exist. In this sense, the declaration of a state of emergency is the
point of indistinction between violence and law, the threshold on which
violence passes into law and law passes over into violence (Agamben
1998:32).What is produced given some contravention of the lawin this
case, immigration lawand the abandonment of (non-citizen) bodies to
the political, then, is an unmediated, extra-juridical space of punishment
in which there is limited recourse to the courts to contest the sovereigns
exercise of power.
Interior Enforcement and the Devolution of the
Immigration Power after 9/11
The above typification of US immigration law as a collection of
sovereign decrees is meant to indicate how immigration enforcement
practices are paradoxically sequestered to an exceptional space carved
out by lawmakers who decide what shouldand more importantly, what
should notbe included under the umbrella of legal review as concerns
the power to police immigration. But at the same time, this exceptional
space of immigration lawmaking is in no easy sense sovereign, if
the latter term means exercised between blocks of undifferentiated state
space and with particular vigor at the territorial margins of the state.
Indeed, despite its explicit affiliation with the power to conduct for-
eign affairs and commerce, which are typically thought relevant only
outside the black box of the state and in terms of inter-state relations,
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the sovereign exceptionality of immigration law corresponds to a re-
scaling of immigration enforcement in still emerging localized spaces
of immigration geopolitics.
This is so in two senses. First, there has been a marked increase
in immigration policing operations away from borders in the interior.
Second, and perhaps more surprisingly, there has been a devolution of
the federal immigration power to non-federal officers, who have a greater
presence in these interior immigration enforcement spaces. In concert,
the growth of interior enforcement operations and the devolution of the
federal power to police immigration are about pushing border enforce-
ment inwards toward the municipal scale and away from the margins
of the state. This is not to suggest that the MexicoUS borderamong
other bordershas been rendered insignificant. Rather, it is to suggest
that US immigration policingin addition to its conventional location
at the borderhas been down-scaled in important ways as a result of
the 1990s period of lawmaking, and especially as part of the war on
terrorism. In other words, these new spaces of immigration geopolitics
suggest that the borderand border enforcementis increasingly ev-
erywhere. I will tackle interior enforcement and the devolution of the
immigration power in turn below.
The expansion of the aggravated felony charge and the limitation
of judicial review over deportation have combined on the ground to
produce a remarkable spike in interior immigration enforcement opera-
tions, at least as measured by annual deportation statistics. This should
not be surprising, as the laws passed over the 1990s and after 9/11 have
snowballed, first, to vastly expand the population of aliens subject to de-
portation; and second, to hasten the removal of aliens under accelerated,
extra-judicial channels, particularly if found to be unlawfully in the US
or if charged as aggravated felons in some other capacity. Between 1992
and 2003, for example, during exactly the period when the aggravated
felony charge was being expanded and court oversight of immigration
policing was being curtailed, deportable aliens located in the interior of
the US as a percentage of immigration apprehensions at the southwest
border more than doubled. Whereas in 1992 immigration apprehensions
by investigations districts (ie in the interior) made up approximately
5% of total immigration apprehensions made by the Border Patrol at the
southwest border with Mexico, by 2003 immigration apprehensions in
the interior had jumped nearly threefold to approximately 13%of south-
west border apprehensions, with the single largest increases coming in
1997directly after a major bout of immigration lawmaking in 1996
dealing with the aggravated felony offenseand then again in 2002
directly after 9/11 (Immigration and Naturalization Service 2002:242,
2003:244; DHS 2004:155). The overwhelming bulk of these cases in-
volve nationals from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,
who presumably entered at some point across the MexicoUS border.
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Thus, even if MexicoUS border region apprehensions continue to make
up the vast majority of total apprehensions, interior immigration enforce-
ment numbers are proportionally on the rise, and deserve attention as
an increasingly important component of this total. Moreover, we should
anticipate a further escalation of interior enforcement operations. The
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of the DHS, for ex-
ample, is readying to vastly expand immigration policing in the interior
as part of the war on terrorism (General Accounting Office 2004) while
the Bush administration (as well as prominent members of Congress)
intonate regularly that any future immigration legislation concerning
Mexico will necessitate stepped-up immigration-related criminal en-
forcement operations in the US interior, away from the MexicoUS
border (US Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary 2005).
While a wide range of legally resident aliens and refugee claimants
were affected by this recent expansion of interior immigration enforce-
ment (Lagenfeld 1999; Martin 1999; Kanstroom2000b), undocumented
aliens were doubtlessly the primary focus of the law reform movement.
For example, the undocumented migrant was consistently referenced
by lawmakers as the central subject of the 1990s laws, often due to
the supposed threat it posed to unemployed American workers, state-
funded welfare programs, urban safety, etc. (Coleman 2005). Indeed,
it is safe to say that without the perceived threat posed by the undocu-
mented migrant, and the way undocumented migrants were inflated and
held accountable for a number of different social ills (Nevins 2002), the
above changes to the INA around the aggravated felony charge would
never have been contemplated by lawmakers. But in a more tangible
sense, too, undocumented migrants were in the sights of the laws as
lawmakers sought explicitly to render insecure the conditions of pos-
sibility of undocumented laboring in the US. For example, the expan-
sion of the aggravated felony category over the 1990s to include the
crime of unauthorized entry, and particularly unauthorized re-entry
following an aggravated felony deportation (for which undocumented
entry counts), meant that significant numbers of undocumented laborers
could be deported from the US with extremely limited ability to petition
their removal via either judicial or administrative channels. DHS data
show that a major impact of this period of lawmaking was not simply
an increase in the number of formal deportations but more specifically
a large jump in the number of aliens detained and deported for being
present without documentation in the interior. In 1991 this number
totaled some 13,000 individuals; this number has now increased almost
sixfold to more than 70,000 cases annually (DHS 2004:157).
This heightened scrutiny of undocumented aliens in the interior pro-
ceeds, of course, without overtly policing the physical workplace
a move unpopular with agribusiness and other major beneficiaries of
undocumented labor (Calavita 1989). In fact, there appears to be an
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inverse relationship between workplace enforcement and interior immi-
gration enforcement. Whereas interior immigration policingmeasured
in terms of the above deportation versus border enforcement ratio
increased throughout the 1990s and after 9/11, workplace enforcement
declined precipitously after 1997. In that year there were some 17,000
workplace enforcement cases; in 2000 there were 1000; by 2003 this
number had dropped to 445 (DHS 2004:147, 157). Indeed, year-end
Department of Homeland Security data showthat the bulk of interior en-
forcement operations are extra-workplace investigations. On the whole,
deportees are located by immigration officers surveying the US inmate
population and court dockets for aggravated felons; as a result of street-
level criminal investigations to which federal immigration officers are
party; and, via entitlements and services fraud investigations launched
by state and local authorities and reported to the DHS. We can conclude,
then, that one major upshot of the most recent 16-year bout of immi-
gration law reform has been the legal transformation of undocumented
migrants in the interior into permanent criminals subject to expanded
and expedited deportation practices outside the workplace (Kanstroom
This said, I do not mean to imply some uniforminterior federal territo-
riality throughout which immigration enforcement occurs. Rather, what
we now see emerging is an uneven urban geography of immigration law
enforcement which is more strict in some areas than others, and which
at times pitches the federal government against local governments. This
has come about due to municipal laws which contest the application of
federal immigration law, and federal counter-attempts to undo or oth-
erwise circumvent these practices after 9/11 by devolving immigration
enforcement to willing local authorities.
Many cities have non-compliance ordinances on the books which pro-
hibit municipal employeesparticularly police officers and emergency
workersfromcooperating in federal immigration enforcement efforts,
for instance, by communicating the immigration status of their clients
to federal authorities. These dont askdont tell policies date back
to the 1980s sanctuary movement in which churches and synagogues
provided safe haven to migrants escaping Central America. Refugees
at the time were unlikely to be recognized as legitimate claimants due
to the Reagan administrations tacit support for the governments they
were fleeing, and so a vast underground network of human rights ac-
tivists and church members evolved to provide illegal shelter for
them (Bau 1994; Coutin 1993). The sanctuary movementwhich in
essence created a multiplicity of spaces of protest where federal im-
migration law was de facto exemptedspread to municipal and some-
times state levels. By the end of the 1980s, for example, entire states
like New Mexico and Oregon, as well as a slew of major cities up and
down the California coastline, had declared themselves sanctuary sites
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(Cunningham 1995:6266). A surprising number of major US cities
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle, Albuquerque, Denver, New
York, Austin, Houston, Durham, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Ann Arbor,
Portland, Chicago, and Atlanta, to name but a fewstill had these ordi-
nances intact after 9/11 (Seghetti, Vi na and Ester 2004:2122).
In the wake of 9/11 these municipal-scale obstructions to federal im-
migration law have come under intense scrutiny (US Congress, House
Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, Commit-
tee on the Judiciary 2003b), and have been referred to by leading re-
strictionist lobby groups as a growing impediment to combating the
wave of illegal aliens residing in the country (FAIR 2003). Lawmak-
ers, increasingly interested in the possibility for a more effective interior
immigration enforcement strategy (US Congress, Subcommittee on Im-
migration, Border Security and Claims 2002), have explicitly called for
the abolition of sanctuary ordinances on national security grounds, as
well as for concerted federal legal court action against non-compliant
cities and states. Indeed, Congress is considering legislation which if
passed would forcibly compel state and local law enforcement agencies
to make immigration-related arrests, specifically in those cities where
sanctuary laws currently stand (US Congress, House Subcommittee on
Immigration, Border Security and Claims, Committee on the Judiciary
2003a). If passed, the legislation will cut off federal monies for local law
enforcement offices which refuse to cooperate with federal immigration
The Bush administration has also become keenly interested in getting
around sanctuary ordinances. For instance, following 9/11 the Depart-
ment of Justice repealed a long-standing legal opinion which held that
local police officers did not have the authority to make immigration-
related arrests (White House 2002). The now deposed ruling denied that
non-federal peace officers could enforce immigration law on the basis
that states and localities cannot pass or enforce laws that either contra-
dict or complement extensive federal legislation, in this case as regards
immigration violations (Benitez 1994). In place of the old opinion is a
new reading on the local enforcement of immigration law which argues
that non-federal officers indeed have the inherent authority to arrest
aliens for immigration violations, and that local peace officers have the
subsequent power to transfer to federal authorities aliens imprisoned for
entering the country without documentation (Lewis et al 2002; Seghetti,
Vi na and Ester 2004:79; Wishnie 2001b). Because this new reading
on the devolvability of the immigration power to local authorities is not
available for public consumption, the rationale behind the change to the
old rulingthat is, beyond the logic that the current war on terrorism
constitutes a state of exceptionremains unclear. However, the concept
of federal immigration enforcement by local proxies has been corrobo-
rated enthusiastically in Congress. For example, lawmakers re-legislated
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an unenforced section of the INAin the 2001 PATRIOTAct, which deals
with the local enforcement of immigration law (Chisti 2002). The rel-
evant section encourages state and local law enforcement authorities
to sign special memorandums of understanding with the Department
of Homeland Security so that local officers can identify, process, and
when appropriate, detain immigration offenders they encounter during
their regular, daily law enforcement activity (DHS 2005c).
As one observer puts it, the goal here is to enhance enforcement of
immigration laws by adding 650,000 state police officers to the 20,000
federal border patrol agents, of whom only 1947 have been employed
for internal enforcement (Herman 2004:1221).
And perhaps most im-
portantly, given that the Bush administration and Congress have re-
quested and not compelled cooperation, is that localities are responding
favorably. Florida, Virginia, and Alabama have filed memorandums of
understanding which allow their state troopers to report the immigra-
tion status of detained individuals to federal authorities, and to make
immigration arrests. Likewise, under pressure from the Bush admin-
istration, Mayor Bloomberg announced the termination of New York
Citys sanctuary laws in May 2004. Similarly, the Los Angeles and
Orange County police departments have unofficially agreed to report
undocumented migrants to the DHS, and moreover have arranged for
special immigration law enforcement training for their officers (Winton
2005; Winton and Blankstein 2005). Moreover, the grassroots Proposi-
tion 200 in Arizona, which compels that states lawenforcement officers
to make immigration-related arrests, has been recently expanded under
the national umbrella group Protect America Now to seven states: Vir-
ginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Washington, Nebraska, Georgia, and Mas-
sachusetts (Barry 2004).
Borders and border policing are important and ongoing components of
immigration enforcement in the US. And, as noted at the outset of the
paper, the present clampdown at the borderas with Operations Hold-
the-Line and Gatekeeper, initiated in the mid-1990stranslates into
large numbers of fatalities there as undocumented migrants are forced
to navigate treacherous landscapes adjacent to increasingly fortified ur-
ban corridors. This said, the argument I have tried to make in this paper
is that there is more going on than borders and border policing when it
comes to understanding howthe USis dealing with immigration enforce-
ment. I will conclude with three thoughts about how geographers might
think differently about the location and substance of US immigration
enforcement efforts of relevance to the MexicoUS border.
First, immigration enforcement can be rethought in terms broader
than the straightforward deployment of troops and immigration agents
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directly at the external frontiers of the state. Part of what I have tried to
conceptualize above is a shift in the where of immigration policing: that
US immigration policing, particularly after 9/11, and through the lens
of counterterrorism, has shifted gears insofar as interior enforcement
has taken on a renewed importance since that date. Indeed, the emerg-
ing complementarity between immigration policing efforts at the border
and new spaces of immigration geopolitics in the interior, via local and
state actors who previously enjoyed little or no power to enforce immi-
gration law, is what I take as the most significant aspect of post-9/11
immigration lawmaking. For this reason, geographers might differenti-
ate between border policing (ie directly at the territorial margins of the
state) and a spatially looser configuration of boundary policing prac-
tices. By boundary policing I mean practices of internal organization
and external bounding constitutive of state territoriality (Agnew 1997),
but undertaken by a multiplicity of federal and local actors and not geo-
graphically limited to the territorial margins of the state. In other words,
boundary policing might refer to border policing and practices of immi-
grant regulation which take place away from state borders, even if they
are in the end concerned to regulate the flowof bodies across the latter
a sort of border enforcement from afar. Moreover, using the Operation
Predator example discussed above, immigration-related boundary polic-
ing need not have immigration enforcement strictly speaking as its goal,
even if the deportation of aliens is achieved through the latter. Indeed,
boundary policing, at least in terms of the discussion above, can be con-
ceptualizedas a far-reachingmode of extendedborder control inwhich
undocumented migrants and others are harbored subject to the whim
of the government and may be deported whenever the government so
desires . . . a shifting, even retroactive, regime of deportation sanctions
dependent on political context rather than strictly on the transgression
of immigration law (Kanstroom 2000a:1907).
Second, to take up immigration enforcement as suchie in terms of
localized relations of social control, which while disproportionately im-
pacting undocumented laborers does not entail an increase in workplace
investigationsalso means that geographers give renewed attention to
the what of immigration enforcement. Immigration law has typically
(and with good reason) been side-stepped by geographers in favor of a
more grounded focus on immigration enforcement practices themselves,
which at least in the MexicoUS case study raise a number of immediate
and pressing social justice questions. But the expansion of interior im-
migration enforcement in the US over the 1990s and after 9/11, as I have
tried to demonstrate, has to do with the criminalization of immigration
law; or, with how lawmakers have merged and then sequestered crim-
inal law and immigration law to an exceptional space of immigration
enforcement practices paradoxically beyond judicial reproach. In this
sense, practices of immigration enforcement are rooted squarely in the
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geopolitics of immigration law, which we might define as the strategic
bracketingor placing asideof the reach of constitutional law. This
strategic bracketing ensures the expedited removal of undocumented
migrants and others under criminal law charges, now increasingly at
the hands of local authorities and under the generally unproblematized
guise of counterterrorism. While geographers have dealt broadly with
the intersection of law, power and space, this specific nexus between law
and immigration enforcementand indeed, the geopolitical role played
by immigration lawmakingrequires more research.
Lastly, to focus on the legal basis of immigration policing brings us
to the problem of the uneven spatiality of immigration enforcement.
To examine the geopolitics of immigration law is at once to examine
how statecraft is about increasingly irregular and uncertain localized
conditions of possibility rather than about coherent, macro-scale strate-
gies of state governance (see generally, Dahlman and

O Tuathail 2005;
Graham 2004; Warren 2002). In addition to rethinking immigration en-
forcement away fromthe border and in terms of immigration lawand the
exceptional practices it authorizes, I think it important to underline how
immigration enforcement is being multiplied and activated unevenly
across sites which, although typically thought marginal or at least tan-
gential to geopolitical practice, are increasingly otherwise. As noted
above, the post-9/11 devolution of immigration law enforcement to lo-
cal proxy forces has occasioned a patchwork municipal geography of
interior immigration enforcement, as certain localities sign immigration
enforcement memorandums with the Department of Homeland Security
while others do not.
But the situation is arguably more complex than simply the production
of an uneven geography of participating and non-participating localities.
In other words, the problem is not simply one of regional differentia-
tion. At stake is a larger question about the myriad, conflicting scales of
immigration policing in the US, a problem rarely if at all noted in the
academic literature. In the case of municipal non-compliance related
to immigration, federal immigration law is obstructed on the ground
via municipal ordinances whichin a sort of mirroring of the excep-
tionality of federal immigration lawdeclare cities as exceptional sites
exempt from federal immigration laws. While immigration law works
increasingly, then, via an exception to the domestic rule of law, munici-
pal immigration-related ordinances themselves work via an exception to
immigration law. And of course this is challenged by the post-9/11 ex-
tension of federal immigration proxies into select urban centers, which
brings the exceptionality of federal immigration law to bear directly on
urban spaces, albeit by non-federal agents. The result is a convoluted
hierarchy of interpenetrating scales of exception or exemption in rela-
tion to the law, in which the final territorial jurisdiction of immigration
enforcement remains fundamentally unsettled.
2007 The Author
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My sincere thanks to Bruce DArcus, Joe Nevins, Joe Heyman, Mary
Thomas and Melissa Wright for their insightful and constructive com-
ments on this paper.
Border deaths slowed after 9/11 but remain well above those registered before the Gate-
keeper operations commenced (Eschbach, Hagan and Rodrguez 2003; Nevins 2003).
The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (2005) reports that between
October 2004 and September 2005 some 460 migrant bodies were recovered from the
border region.
The 1990 Immigration Act, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement
Act, the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and the 1996 Illegal
Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
Instrumental statutes effect a change to legal practice; expressive statutes communicate
values through legislation; and, symbolic statutes make a political statement, with little
intention to change law.
Technically, this bout of lawmaking eliminated deportation. The concept of re-
moval was introduced in its place to do away with the procedural distinctions between
exclusion (ie denial of entrance at the border) and deportation (ie removal from the
interior). The goal was to purge court protections offered under the latter. I use the word
deportation to refer to removals.
For a list of aggravated felonies, see Coonan (1998), Cook (2003) and Marley (1998).
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transformed . . . into a heinous act, an aggravated felony; a deferred adjudication for the
1958 offense that emphatically was not a conviction metamorphosizes into a conviction
in 1996; a suspended sentence not worthy of a single day in jail for a 1958 transgression
transmogrifies itself into imprisonment worthy of deportation in 1996.
There are approximately 11,500 border patrol agents, not 20,000.
Some localities are maintaining their independence. New Haven is considering mu-
nicipal identification cards for undocumented aliens to allow greater security from de-
portation when dealing with local police (Yardley 2005). Longmont, CO has hired an
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