Guest post by David Moffette, assistant professor, Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa. His research looks at the socio-legal regulation and the policing of immigration in Spain and Canada. He’s the author of Governing Irregular Migration: Bordering Culture, Labour, and Security in Spain (UBC, 2018).

Review of Protect, Serve, and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigration Enforcement, by Amada Armenta (University of California, 2017).

There is now an impressive and growing scholarship on the intersections of immigration and criminal law in the United States. Programs for the delegation of immigration enforcement power to local authorities (e.g. 287(g), Secure Communities) and state and local anti-immigrant legislation (e.g. Arizona SB 1070) have also been the object of critical scholarly inquiry in recent years. But as someone who was first trained as an anthropologist, I often find myself reading this literature and wondering what these multijurisdictional and multiscalar dynamics actually look like in the messiness of everyday life. Amada Armenta’s extraordinary ethnographic account of the policing of Latinx residents in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.A., provides us with exactly that kind of insight.

The book draws on two fieldwork trips and various shorter visits to Nashville between 2009 and 2013. During these stays, Armenta conducted 47 in-depth interviews with law enforcement agents, local officials, people involved in advocacy organizations and immigrants. She was also able to conduct ethnographic observations at various events and during the 120 hours she spent riding along Nashville police officers in the city’s Latino neighbourhoods. This rich data, combined with Armenta’s concise, clear and beautiful prose contribute to making this book a splendid piece of work. I can’t remember when was the last time that I was so captivated by an academic book that I couldn’t put it down. Like with a fascinating novel or a great biography, I turned the last page almost sad that it was over, still haunted by the stories and troubled by the mundane violence they depict. I spent the rest of the day letting the political and academic lessons sink in.

The book starts with a historical overview of the role of local law enforcement in controlling immigration in the United States since the 18th century. Succinctly, the author covers all key moments: the adoption of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) in 1952, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) – which led to the regularization of some 2.7 million people but was also a turning point in the current criminalization trend –, and the role of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in facilitating criminality-based deportations and expanding the powers of local and state police. This was carried out through a legislative reform that created the 287(g) program which allowed for state and local law authorities to enter into agreements with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be deputized to enforce civil and criminal immigration laws.

The following chapter maps out the heterogeneous policies that have contributed to the development of local immigration enforcement. Armenta shows how a federal welfare reform law that required that states collected the social security numbers of people applying for driver’s licenses – a measure meant to ensure that parents not paying their child support could be tracked down – could be reframed to prevent unauthorized immigrants from being able to drive legally, thus increasing their vulnerability while driving; or how an “English Only” city ordinance symbolically framed Latinx residents as outsiders and thus contributed rhetorically to the illegalization and criminalization of their presence. Conversely, the author also discusses how at the county level, the 287(g) program “gave local law enforcement agencies latitude to use [it] to suit their preferences and priorities” (p. 54). Armenta’s analysis of how laws and ordinances not officially concerned with immigration or crime can in fact contribute to the coercive regulation of immigrants, or how laws meant to control unauthorized residents can be deployed to serve other purposes is a welcomed addition to the crimmigration literature. Indeed, following Stumpf (2006), much of this literature insists on documenting an ever-growing ‘merger’ or ‘convergence’ between immigration and criminal law, which at times leads scholars to overlook the much more complex and contradictory everyday practices that can be captured by ethnographic work. Overall, Armenta’s reading confirms the thesis that immigration and criminal laws are converging in the United States, but she also nuances and qualifies this claim in many ways.

The richest sections of this book come from the author’s ride-along experiences. This methodological strategy allowed Armenta to capture and describe the logics and everyday pragmatic know-how and methods of the police officers she shadowed. She explains how the incentive to engage in “proactive policing” by finding any reason to stop vehicles for investigative purposes, while not officially racially profiling Latinx drivers for potential immigration offences, effectively put Latinx residents at risk of being caught driving without a license, which could trigger the deportation machine. As she explains, local “immigration enforcement relies on overpolicing” (p. 154). Indeed, she claims that the police department’s “choice to incentivize investigative police stops and its failure to establish mandatory identification policies contribute to undocumented immigrants’ insecurity. The policy of no policy gives officers the freedom to act according to their preference. This is a deliberate choice” (p. 154).

In a 2017 article, Armenta made a call for bringing race into analyses of immigration policing and while this is less explicit in the book, she shows the racialized nature of police knowledges and methods and their connection to broader structural racism. Taken together, deportability resulting from the illegalization of unauthorized presence, racial disparities produced at every step of law enforcement and legal procedures, overpolicing fueled by a workplace emphasis on statistical productivity, and significant officer discretion have disastrous effects. Armenta thus concludes the book with a discussion of strategies to limit local immigration enforcement, presenting sanctuary city policies as a good first step in this direction.

Armenta provides us with a rich ethnography of immigration policing in Nashville that is so insightful that it will also be of interest to scholars working on immigration enforcement, bordering practices, racial profiling, discretion, and policing in many other settings. It is truly a stellar book that should become mandatory reading on any syllabus or comprehensive exam list in border criminology and critical police studies in the United States and beyond.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Moffette, D. (2018) Book Review: Protect, Serve, and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigration Enforcement. Available at: (Accessed [date]).