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Immigration policies and migrant flows: regulating and containing mobile surplus labor

Through the redesign of policies over more than a century, the US immigration regime has, in some moments, contained the flow of immigrants into the country, and, in other moments, selectively regulated legal and “illegal” entry of migrants (De Genova, 2005; Hahamovitch, 2014; Ngai, 2004). Actors with opposing interests intervened in this process, often creating policies with paradoxical, unintended effects in the administration of migrant populations (Calavita, 1992). One of these policies, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants who had worked and resided continuously in the country since 1982. Under the program, 2.3 million Mexicans obtained legal residence and a path to citizenship.

An unintended consequence of the program was that it did not stem the flow of undocumented immigrants, whose labor continued to be in permanent demand in certain industries (Cornelius, 1998). Pahuatecos/as and Zapotitecos/as, along with millions of other Mexican migrants, arrived in the United States after IRCA. Up until the mid-2000s, migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol were deported back to the border area in Mexico and re-attempted clandestine crossings until they successfully crossed and reached their destination in the US interior (Espenshade, 1994). In this process, which Heyman (1995) termed “the voluntary-departure complex,” the US appeared to be making an impressive number of arrests, protecting the country from illegal "aliens” while continuing to import Mexican labor on a large scale. The porosity also allowed for circular migration at intervals of several years among undocumented adults and children.

In the 1990s, during the rapid increase in the number of undocumented migrants present in the United States, the symbolic figure of the “illegal alien” dominated political debates. Politicians used the figure to galvanize their campaigns, promising voters to be “tough” on immigrants (Andreas, 2000). Some policies aimed to deter would-be migrants in high-traffic urban areas by installing more Border Patrol personnel, border walls, night-vision and electronic surveillance equipment. These efforts were part of a prevention-through-deterrence strategy that involved the militarization of the border (Dunn, 1996) to combat undocumented migration and drag trafficking (see also Nevins, 2010). The immediate consequence for migrants was to push them to cross in the deserts and mountains far from urban areas where they would be more easily identified, detained and deported (Cornelius, 2001).

During the 2000s, after the 9/11 attacks and in the context of the War on Terror, significant reorganization of the federal government and increased federal spending bolstered the securitization of immigration and ended the “voluntary departure complex” (Golash-Boza, 2012; Heyman, 1995). The border enforcement apparatus inflicted “specific patterns of trauma” on clandestine crossers (Jusionyte, 2018), making migrants increasingly vulnerable as they crossed the US-Mexican border (De León, 2015; Martínez, Slack, & Martinez-Schuldt, 2018; Slack, Martinez, Whiteford, & Peiffer, 2013, 2015). To avoid detection by the Border Patrol, migrants made longer treks—sometimes up to a week—in the desert, increasing the risk of dying of exposure and dehydration (Lee, 2018; Slack et al., 2016). Under these conditions, criminals and bandits easily preyed on migrants in the borderlands. With the physical, emotional, financial and legal risks for clandestine crossings higher than ever, apprehensions of Mexican migrants at the border fell to lows recorded in the 1960s (Gonzalez-Barrera, 2016). Compounding the trauma, clandestine entries were subject to criminal penalties. When detained at the border, migrants were subject to formal removal proceedings without due process (Lydgate, 2010).

After the mid-2000s, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 was applied vigorously in the interior of the country. This law increased the range of offenses that led to removal, including non-violent administrative infractions. Millions of non-citizens, both undocumented and legal immigrants, were suddenly subject to removal, many without

Surplus labor and restructured economies 45 due process (Caldwell, 2019; Golash-Boza, 2012). As a result, the number of removals grew from 165,000 in 2002 to 434,000 in 2013. the year with the greatest number (Chishti, Pierce, & Bolter, 2017). From 2005 to 2015, there were 2.6 million removals of Mexican nationals (BBVA & Consejo Nacional de Población, 2017, p. 83).S9

Immigration policies to contain flows at the border or to remove individuals from the interior are not intended to completely block the United States’ access to cheapened labor. With the more porous border from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, scholars speculated that border enforcement separated workers from their dependents in Mexico, thereby ensuring the costs of reproduction of workers’ families were borne by the workers, family members in Mexico and the Mexican state (Wilson, 2000). However, in the recent rise of mass deportation in the United States (Martinez et al., 2018), separation of family members with long-standing ties to the country through deportation is not serving the same function with respect to the reproduction of cheap labor. With the growth in the number of US children born to Mexican immigrants in the United States, and Mexicans brought to the US as children and socialized in the country, removals, and the threat of them, terrorize and fracture immigrant workers’ families (Boehm, 2016; Caldwell, 2019; Dreby, 2015). Depriving US children of parents to economically provide and care for them or banishing young people to Mexico with the skills and social capital to contribute productively to the United States are practices that do not appear to strengthen US capitalism.

As Heyman points out (2012) border policies are never directly functional for capitalism. Rather, anti-immigrant policies strengthen the material and ideological power of the “illegal,” a criminalized category of persons stripped of rights (Gonzales & Chavez, 2012; Heyman, 2014). Border controls combined with interior enforcement “balance the competing political priorities of deporting the undocumented while maintaining a disciplined undocumented workforce in the US” (Goldstein & Alonso-Bejarano, 2017, p. 1). Further, the border shapes “differential mobility with two simultaneous agendas: broad class inequality reaching across borders and nation-to-nation inequality contained within borders.” (Heyman, 2012, p. 266). Over time, the post-IRCA flows—of which Pahuatecos/as and Zapotitecos/as incorporated into—were profoundly conditioned by “illegality.” They were differentiated from the migrant subjects who were able to benefit from the legalization process of IRCA and start businesses, take part in Mexican and hometown politics, promote and finance luxurious ritual celebrations and vacation in the homeland.

The increasing restrictions and the financial crisis decreased circularity between the two countries as migrants tended to prolong their stays and settle in the United States. The previous temporary residence of Mexican migrants in the US evolved into relatively more permanent residence (Arroyo et al., 2010) that took on the characteristics of "settlement migration” (Griffith, 2005). In Mexico, many return and would-be migrants stayed put. These changes marked the end of accelerated migration from Puebla.

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