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Contemporary popular discourse linking immigration and immigrants to crime has proved extremely difficult to dislodge, despite clear evidence that immigrant labor provides broad and direct economic benefits to a significant proportion of the US population. The criminalizing discourse directed at immigrants may in part be functional, by leading to restrictionist immigration policies and practices and subjecting immigrants to intensified economic exploitation.

This study examines the economic context in which state and local governments adopt restrictionist immigration policies and practices, and implicates the political economy of punishment (Rusche and Kirchheimer, Punishment and social structure. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939) not only in disciplining a flexible and exploitable unauthorized immigrant labor force, but also in providing direct economic benefits through immigrant detention. Looking at all 50 US States, I draw data from multiple sources to analyze and specify state-level factors (market scale, punitive economy, and market pressure) that correlate with the scale of local immigration enforcement. Results show a significant and strong linear correlation between market scale and local enforcement, and significant weak-to-moderate correlations between punitive economy, market pressure and local enforcement. These results suggest that locally driven immigration enforcement may be influenced by the profit potential inherent in immigrant detention, transportation, and deportation operations. I argue that this influence obscures the public interest missions of local law enforcement agencies, and calls into question the public interest purpose of federal–local immigration enforcement partnerships.


This work was originally published in "Outside Justice: Immigration and the Criminalizing Impact of Changing Policy and Practice," edited by D. C. Brotherton, D. L. Stageman, & S. P. Leyro.



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