Blog post by Dr Lea Sitkin. Lea is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Westminster. Her research focuses on the political economy of immigration control, issues of labour market exploitation and precarity, the sociology of punishment and state-corporate crime. She received her DPhil in Criminology from the University of Oxford in 2014. Her monograph, ‘Rethinking the Political Economy of Immigration Control: A Comparative Analysis’ was published last year (Routledge).

Brexit, the furore over the US-Mexico border, the electoral success of nationalist groups across Europe - all signal that immigration has become a political touchstone in the West. Populist antagonism towards immigration is often rooted in arguments that immigrants take away jobs or are a drain on national resources. However, the evidence for these assertions is shaky at best and belie the many ways in which citizens economically benefit from immigration, from the cheap cost of apples picked by agricultural workers to sustainable healthcare and pension systems.

Understanding this seeming contradiction requires us to answer a series of questions. What are the benefits and drawbacks of immigration, and on whom do these fall? What is really achieved by restrictive and overtly punitive immigration policies? To what extent do immigrants contribute to economic insecurity – and, if their contribution is negligible, what is the primary cause? My book, Rethinking the Political Economy of Immigration Control, argues that when we ask these questions, it becomes clear that conflicts around immigration both reflect and are amplified by a much broader set of conflicts faced by Western capitalist states. These conflicts inhere in the underlying political economy and are likely to intensify in coming decades. In other words, it’s not immigration that’s the problem – it’s the economy. And what we are going to do about these more fundamental problems is far from clear.

The point of departure for the book is found in the works of Alessandro De GiorgiKitty CalavitaNicholas De GenovaDario Melossi and others. The central argument shared across this body of work is that the advent of restrictive, punitive immigration policy regimes across the West should primarily be understood in terms of theirfunctions within post-Fordist economies. For instance, one line of enquiry focuses on the way in which immigration policies – and in particular, the threat of deportation - shape immigrants into exploitable workers, suitable for the lowest echelons of post-Fordist labour market. Another argument is that changes in immigration policy reflect the growth of a low-skilled ‘social surplus’, whose labour is no longer in demand. In this view, our criminal justice and immigration control systems have become more extensive and exclusionary in character because we no longer need these workers: hence high prison rates, restrictive immigration policy and the enthusiastic use of deportation. 

Finally, the authors above highlight the ideological functions of punitive immigration policies. The argument here is that the spectacle of immigration enforcement compensates for the erosion of the state’s ability to legitimise itself and the underlying political-economic system through the provision of economic and social security for its citizens. Immigrants are blamed, so that the powerful are not. 

Re-thinking the Political Economy of Immigration Control both builds on and interrogates the arguments made within this body of literature, through unpicking exactly what has changed in immigration policy over the past decades. Contrary to expectations, it finds that admissions policies have not generally become more restrictive over time; there is also continuity in immigration status conditions, which have constituted immigrants as exploitable workers for many decades prior to the advent of post-Fordism.

However, other things have changed, including the economic context across which immigration policies play out. There are fewer regular, stable jobs available, particularly for low-skilled workers. This has made it more difficult for many immigrants to regularise their status because the legal right to reside in a particular country is often tied to having regular, stable employment. As such, while immigration admissions policies have not generally become more restrictive on paper, they have become more restrictive in their outcomes.

Further, immigration controls have become far more effective over time – including controls aimed at catching employers who engage in the illegal employment of foreign nationals. For instance, the development of online identity verification platforms, such as e-Verify in the USA, have made it far harder for employers to claim ignorance when caught hiring irregular immigrants. These developments undermine the ‘traditional’ role of immigration policy in mediating the relationship between employers and irregular migrant workers. For immigration controls to be functional to employers’ interests, they need to be enough of a threat to mould the employment relationship without preventing irregular immigration altogether. While this was once the case, the intensification of immigration controls means this is no longer so. As a result, immigration policy no longer works in the best interests of employers. 

Why has this change come about? Obviously, one factor is simply the development of new forms of technology that dramatically extend control capacities: biometrics“Big Data” analytics and so on. However, the mere existence of new technologies is not enough; politicians must choose to adopt and implement new technologies. The intensification of immigration controls is an inherently political process, designed to appease the growing sectors of the general public who see immigration as a security and economic threat.

The problem with this strategy (beyond the harmful impacts on immigrants themselves) is that it is unlikely to work. The source of economic insecurity is the underlying production regime rather than immigration. All Western countries have witnessed the decline of certain forms of work (regular employment, manufacturing work) and the ascent of others (flexible, service-sector work). While there are those that blame globalisation for this – represented either through the outsourcing of jobs to low-income countries, or the economic competition purportedly posed by immigrants - the evidence suggests the primary cause is automation

In turn, the shift towards service sector work implies a new set of distributional challenges. Service sector work is not easily augmented by technology; concomitantly, productivity growth is minimal. This means that it is difficult to sustain wage growth in service sectors, particularly where demand for services is dependent on price. Altogether, the result is that there is a trade-offbetween wages and employment for low-skilled workers in service sector economies. This is a serious challenge rooted in factors far beyond the purview of immigration policy.

The bad news is that distributional challenges are likely to intensify in coming decades as the forth industrial revolution unfolds. Labour-saving technologies currently in production include artificial intelligence which is equal with doctors in medical diagnosisvoice responding order-takers and driverless cars. In the UK, an estimated 30% of jobs will be at high risk of automation by the early 2030s; for those with a GCSE-level education or lower, the figure is 46%. In addition, the development of digital technologies, which allow the replication of informational goods and business processes at near zero marginal cost, will unleash winner-takes-all dynamics. Industries will increasingly be divided between a small number of highly profitable ‘superstar’ firms and a mass of follower firms – a process that also contributes to job loss and economic insecurity for a growing number of people. 

What to do in this context? Those of a more reformist bent have posited heavy investment in higher education, a focus on the recruitment of highly-skilled immigrants and institutions protecting workers’ rights as possible solutions. A more radical interpretation of events is offered by Marxists, who argue that these developments reflect the underlying contradictions of capitalism, which will inevitably lead to its demise. In this latter view, there is nothing that will stop growing economic insecurity and instability in capitalist societies - and eventually, collapse.

Putting to one side questions regarding the overall sustainability of capitalism, the book argues that the primacy issue facing us today is the loss of good jobs, rather than immigration. In turn, the challenges described above will affect immigrant and native worker alike – a fact that could potentially underlie the development of a politics of transnational solidarity. Unfortunately, however, populist responses over recent years suggest this is unlikely as people have responded to insecurity with protectionism rather than solidarity. 

Ultimately, the coming decades are likely to see an intensification of distributional conflicts as states grapple with the challenges associated with the changing labour market. Simultaneously, technological developments will also mean that the effectiveness of immigration enforcement will improve dramatically. While there are those that would welcome this development, others point out its risks, which include privacy considerations and the inherent harms associated with introducing more intrusive surveillance and policing of immigrants. Taken together, these trends predict that the situation facing immigrants in the West is likely to worsen for the foreseeable future.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sitkin, L. (2020). Re-thinking the Political Economy of Immigration Control: Immigration policy at the dawn of the Forth Industrial Revolution. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/04/re-thinking [date]