Post by Alpa Parmar, Departmental Lecturer, Centre for Criminology & Border Criminologies, University of Oxford. Follow Alpa on twitter @AlpaParmar11. This is the final instalment of the themed series on the Border Criminologies September workshop on Race, Migration and Criminal Justice, offering a summary of the main points of Alpa's presentation. The papers from this workshop will appear in 2017 in a book edited by Mary Bosworth, Alpa Parmar and Yolanda Vázquez and published by Oxford University Press. You can read the storify story of the #RaceMigCJ workshop here

In September, Mary Bosworth, Yolanda Vazquez and I organised a workshop entitled ‘Race Criminal Justice and Migration Control’ – a project that we had been planning for close to a year finally came to fruition. The two days brought together a range of scholars from criminology, sociology, law, anthropology, women’s studies, critical race and ethnic studies and other disciplines. Not only were academic boundaries crossed, but so were geographical ones. Scholars from all stages of their careers came from near and far with the overarching aim to critically analyze, focus on and expose understandings (and misunderstandings) about race in scholarship on criminal justice and migration.

Photo: Alpa Parmar
My paper entitled ‘Policing the Boundaries of Belonging’ was based on empirical research conducted as part of a project funded by the John Fell Fund at Oxford. The research includes ethnographic work carried out in police custody suites over the last ten months where I observed the ‘booking in’ process for people who were brought into custody by the police, under suspicion for an offence. My aim was to understand, in particular, how foreign nationals suspected of a crime were processed and passed on for further immigration checks. The interdependence between the police and immigration service was a point of focus, as was the changing nature of policing more generally. Previously, I’ve looked at the impacts of police stop and search on Black and Asian minority ethnic groups and I in the current project I am keen to conceptualize the contemporary policing of migration within its older (but very much linked) historical context of the policing of earlier groups who came to the UK. It is this continuum of understanding which is often lacking in contemporary migration scholarship and arguably the connecting thread between older and contemporary discourses on migration, is race.

How are traditional forms of policing intersecting with government pressures to ensure the swift removal of prolific and serious national offenders? Who is subject to foreign national checks when brought into police custody? Do police officers see immigration control as part of their daily routine? Who appears to belong in British society and is this informed by race? If so, how? These were among the questions raised in my presentation at the workshop.

Previous research (mostly in the US by scholars such as Carbado and Harris, Provine and Doty) has shown that when immigration control is enforced through traditional policing methods, practices of racial profiling are likely to occur, generating fear amongst settled and recently arrived migrant communities. The ‘Go Home Vans’ that patrolled the streets of London in 2013 offer a recent example of this kind of effect, eroding vital channels of trust and co-operation between the police and local communities.  Familiar themes of over-policing and under-protection towards minority ethnic communities are recast, legitimated and directed to the most vulnerable groups in society.

My research explores how the police contribute to the social construction of race in their work with foreign nationals.  It also illuminates the important role of the public in reporting suspected migrants to the police in line with government initiatives which aim to make Britain a ‘hostile environment’ for those who are criminalized as being here illegally.

I am interested in understanding how those who are suspected of not being British are selected for further immigration status checks and what factors influence the decision for further checks. The suspect’s appearance, English language skills and accent usually determined if foreign national offending checks were deemed necessary. Having darker skin usually inspired the custody sergeant to question their nationality, even if the suspect had a British accent. Distinctions were also made between white suspects – those who appeared or sounded as though they were of Eastern European descent were more likely to be flagged for checks into their right to remain in the UK and also whether they had been convicted of offences in their ‘home’ country. The racialization of Muslim identities was likewise evident and elicited differential treatment by the police. For example, Irfan, who stated that he was a British citizen, but then found not to hold British citizenship, was not asked further questions and instead recorded as an economic migrant. It was noted that his dietary requirements were halal and when he was taken to his cell he was informed that the painted arrow on the ceiling pointed to mecca, should he wish to pray. Attitudes, beliefs, religion, language and lifestyles were often assumed and scrutinized at the same time and all people of Muslim background were assumed to be inherently observant of Islam.

At the same time, nobody used explicitly racist terminology.  Instead nationality was coopted as a safe mode of expression with detention officers and police often talking of groups in stereotyped, homogenized ways, making assumptions about their right to belong (or not) through framing them as deserving or undeserving migrants based on where they had travelled to the UK from. I overheard ‘Afghans’, or ‘Eritreans’ being talked about as ‘likely to be genuinely seeking asylum’ whereas ‘Albanians’ were usually ‘caught up in something criminal’. This way of talking about groups –as engaged in types of behavior through their nationality in a racialized way, was somehow acceptable, discussed openly and presumably not regarded as racist. Discussions in Britain have always elided nationality and race, so I wondered whether this represented a continuation of raciological articulation in post-racial times.

Overall, it is clear that the increased onus on the police to respond to migration (whether through official government policies and partnerships, or the increased demand on policing in an era of mass mobility) results in the intersection of old and new modes of policing. On the one hand, policing increasingly relies on new technologies and fresh partnerships – for example fingerprint databases can verify a person’s right to remain almost immediately and immigration and police officers are expected to merge working practices – both physically and conceptually. However novel challenges are also presented– for example how can different offences be meaningfully interpreted across geographical and legislative borders, and how can the different working practices and paces of immigration and policing be practically reconciled? On the other hand, much of what I saw was astoundingly familiar –  my research underlines that a person’s appearance – namely their skin tone- continues to determine how he/she is treated in police spaces. Many second-generation migrants who had been born in the UK were questioned about their right to belong in the UK when they were brought into police custody, reiterating the reality that being non-white and British remain mutually exclusive in many spheres. What is worrying is that the impetus to control and remove criminal non-UK nationals is coalescing with enduring forms of racial disproportionality in policing with an increased zeal, and one which legitimizes the police’s role in circumscribing who might or might not belong in Britain.

Historically, constructions of threat, and law and order responses to such fears have tended to form along racialized lines. This research highlights how fresh concerns about mobility intersect with old tropes about race, how suspicion about belonging and criminality merge and how they are renewed and legitimized through new forms of policing.

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