The Business of Mass Migration: Fear, Exploitation, and the Political Economy of Immigration Restriction

On November 8, following a military buildup at the United States’ Southwest border, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an interim rule mandating that asylum seekers from Central America enter the United States at official ports of entry for processing. To do otherwise, as Trump proclaimed the following day, will be considered an “unlawful entry” barring migrants from claiming refugee status.  The intent of Trump’s policy is very clear: to expand the population of unlawful migrants in order to expedite detention and deportation.

We have been here before: In the 1980s, the Reagan administration refused to recognize the asylum claims of hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants and almost 1 million El Salvadorans and Guatemalans on the false grounds that there was no political repression and state-sponsored violence in their home regions.[1] Trump’s endeavors to constrict Central Americans’ grounds for lawful entry today build upon the more recent nativist response to what has been a mass migration of Mexicans north, however. Additionally, as I will argue, Trump’s immigration restrictions not only follow the demise of a historically contingent mass migration, detention and deportation have become big business, a new political economy of migration in their own right.

Some Key Statistics on Migration

Despite Trump’s and others’ claims to the contrary, the United States has never experienced a mass migration of Central Americans to the polity. Central American migrants today collectively make up only  8.5 percent of the immigrant population in the United States, with Honduran migrants constituting 2.5 percent of the 43.7 million foreign-born (comparatively, Cubans constitute 3 percent and Indians 5.6 percent).[2] In contrast, Mexicans are the largest group  of  immigrants  in  the  United  States, at 11.6  million  people (currently  26  percent of U.S. immigrants). This sizeable population is relatively recent. In 1960, for example, the Mexican immigrant population accounted for only 5.9 percent of U.S. immigrants, with Italians making up 13 percent followed by Germans and Canadians (about 10 percent each). But, between 1970 and 2000, the Mexican population in the United States rose from 760,000 to just over 9,177,000, increasing from 7.9 percent to 29.5 percent of the total U.S. immigrant population, a mass migration surpassing in scale many of the European population movements to the United States in the late nineteenth century (see Table 1 and Figure 1). The United States responded coercively with border walls and legal restrictions alike.

. . . [B]etween 1970 and 2000, the Mexican population in the United States rose from 760,000 to just over 9,177,000 . . .

Ironically, however, given the security buildup and ongoing administrative efforts to make migrants at the Southwest border ever more deportable, even the crossings of Mexicans from Mexico are no longer this country’s largest immigration stream, having been surpassed by those from China and India in 2013. Indeed, Southwest border apprehensions of Mexican nationals, which indicate patterns of illegal entries, topped 1 million in 2005, falling to 303,916 in 2017, the lowest absolute number since 1971.[3] As I discuss later on, the drop suggests that the mass migration of Mexicans to the United States was in fact historically contingent and that the logic of restrictionism now lies elsewhere: in big business.

Table 1. US immigrant population by country of birth 1960-2016.
Source: Data are drawn from the Migration Policy Institute Immigrant Data Hub Tool.

. . . [T]he crossings of Mexicans from Mexico are no longer this country’s largest immigration stream, having been surpassed by those from China and India in 2013.

A Historically Contingent Mass Migration

Although it is often posited by scholars and pundits alike that Mexican migration to the United States is as old as the border itself, the movement of Mexicans to the United States after 1970 was in fact, like other European mass migrations before it, historically contingent. As such, it was based upon new interlocking political economic transformations north and south of the border. In 1964, Congress terminated the Mexican-American “Bracero” program that had regulated seasonal farm labor migration between the countries since 1942 and passed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, restricting Mexican migration (and thus seasonal movements) to the United States for the very first time. Both developments encouraged more permanent and legal, but mostly undocumented, migration of Mexicans to the United States (given the new and low legal quota of twenty thousand contained in the 1965 Act).[4] But, other economic transformations were also afoot that encouraged a steady stream of new migrants to cross the border in much greater numbers than the rotating population of near five hundred thousand in the “Bracero” years.[5] Beginning in 1965, for example, the Mexican government initiated the Maquiladora program along the U.S.–Mexico border to stimulate industrialization and reabsorb returning “Braceros.” The Mexican “growth miracle” of the post-war period characterized by a strong role for the state in the economy was still in full swing, but the government nevertheless decided to partner with foreign corporations to develop its border zone, linking the region to the U.S. and global economy in a new way. U.S. companies, hit by the 1960s profitability crisis, relocated south to take advantage of cheap labor pools. Economic development and industrialization at the border produced large migration streams northward from Mexico’s interior, just a few steps from even tantalizingly higher wages.[6] From 1970 to 1980, the Mexican population north of the border thus experienced its greatest jump, tripling from 7.9 percent to 15.6 percent of the U.S. population (760,000 to 2,199,000).

. . . [T]he movement of Mexicans to the United States after 1970 . . . was based upon new interlocking political economic transformations north and south of the border.


Soon, the Mexican “miracle” began to sputter, with the first Mexican debt crisis crashing onto the scene in 1976. By the early 1980s, and with Mexican economy now in negative growth, the Mexican government initiated full- blown liberalization of its economy at the behest of the United States, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Not only did the government sell its public enterprises that had heretofore provided the bedrock of its development, liberalize its financial sector, and encourage more foreign direct investment and trade, it cut its social programs. With public sector and manufacturing downsizing, wages fell, unemployment skyrocketed, and the safety net was no longer.[7] By 1990, and in the context of this liberalization, Mexican immigration to the United States doubled, rising to 4,298,000.

As consequential as the Mexican malaise was to mass migration north, the concomitant transformations in the U.S. economy also encouraged it.

The 1990s was the decade when Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, widely known in the Global North as a “modernizing neoliberal” convinced Mexican unions to sup- port the country’s entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), amid a peso devaluation that had brought the real value of Mexican wages lower than those in South Korea and Taiwan. Better access to the behemoth consumer market in the north, he argued, would boost demand for Mexican products and, thus, Mexican wages. What followed only entrenched the relationship between Mexican liberalization and migration, however. The economy experienced a very low growth rate (1 percent com- pared to 3.2 percent in the 1970s) while Mexican wages fell from 15 percent of U.S. wages in 1994 to 12 percent in 2003 (they had been at 23 percent in 1975).[8] At the same time, 2 million small Mexican farmers were displaced from the influx of U.S. agricultural products.[9] By 2000, the population of Mexicans in the United States more than doubled once again to 9,177,000.

As consequential as the Mexican malaise was to mass migration north, the concomitant transformations in the U.S. economy also encouraged it. Beginning in the 1970s and through the 1980s, the transformations were threefold and characteristic of not only traditional migrant-receiving states such as Arizona, California, Illinois, New Mexico, and Texas but also states such as Florida, Idaho, Nevada,   New York/New Jersey,  and North Carolina, as well as Georgia, Iowa, Oregon, and Minnesota. In all these regions, citizens exited the low-waged work of agriculture, while labor-intensive industries such as textiles and food processing de-skilled production and moved to non-union locales. Service economies also grew to accommodate “hyper-growth” in metropolitan areas. All three of these transformations stimulated demand for low-waged workers; a role the Mexican migrant came to fill in increasingly class-polarized and racially polarized border cities such as San Diego and beyond. While California drew the greatest percentage of migrants until 1990 (58 percent), rising nativism in the state and the militarization of the U.S.–Mexico border in San Diego under President Clinton pushed Mexicans into the other regions.[10] The geographic dispersion of Mexican migrants in the United States in 2000 shown in Figure 2 was that of a population at its peak as a percentage of total immigrants in the United States (29.5 percent). Never before had one group’s totality been so high and its dispersion so very quick.

The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction: Past and Present

The leviathan at the Southwest border now targeting Central Americans has been the nativist political response to this great migration of Mexicans to the United States, as two-thirds are estimated to have entered the United States without authorization.[11] The restrictionism has passed through successive phases, with the most recent phase culminating in a mass deportation policy served by a growing for-profit security and immigration-industrial complex.[12] In the context of migration decline today, restrictionism as big business has become the new political economy of migration, a departure from restrictions past.

In the early years of restrictionism, the 1970s, groups such as the AFL-CIO, NAACP, and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights had demanded   more   border enforcement   by the U.S. government as a remedy against what they called the “unfair” competition of Mexican labor migrants.[13] In response, government officials, from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner General Leonard Chapman to President Ford, and media outlets increasingly linked rising U.S. poverty and unemployment to unauthorized migration from Mexico, leading to a rise in negative public sentiment.[14] The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) passed by Congress in 1986 accordingly made un- documented work illegal and incorporated an employer sanctions mechanism into the statute. Meanwhile, Reagan’s “War on Drugs” legitimized increased growth in INS Enforcement Division at the border.

. . . [R]estrictionism as big business has become the new political economy of migration . . .

By the 1990s, the AFL-CIO, NAACP, and the Leadership Council on Civil Rights had reversed course politically and no longer sought to single out undocumentedness on the grounds that targeting low-waged workers created an exploitable working population. The groups turned toward organizing immigrants instead. Yet, despite the volte-face of many organized citizen groups, the 1990s became anti- immigrant years as states, and subsequently the federal government, now sought to reform policies by targeting undocumented Mexican migrants and by increasing border control. Restrictionism was becoming good politics as 61 percent of a polled electorate in 1993 favored decreasing immigration rates.[15] Illustrating this anti-immigrant pushback, California passed Proposition 187 indicating widespread support for cutting public education, health, and services for undocumented migrants in the state. While the proposition was struck down in court, as a partial response, President Clinton increased the number of agents and control infrastructure at the border through Operation “Gatekeeper” in San Diego. Subsequently, in Congressional debates over the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Alien Responsibility Act (IIRARA), senators from other border states successively called for the same level of enforcement as California. They did this in the name of reducing expenditures in their home state, made more urgent as a result of federal public services cutbacks.[16] The logic of increased border control had thus moved from drug trafficking to policing access to the welfare state.

Figure 2. The foreign-born from Mexico in the United States as percentage of total county population, 2000.
Source: Migration Policy Institute Data Hub Source.

But 1996 also initiated a new trend in immigration enforcement and its political economy. In debates over the IIRARA, Senators began to bemoan the gap between INS expulsions of “criminal aliens” and those who were merely undocumented.[17] The increased deportations of immigrants with criminal records was itself a recent development dating to late 1980s efforts to increase bed space and state funding for the growing population of citizens incarcerated under the “War on Drugs,” what civil rights lawyer and advocate Michelle Alexander has called the “New Jim Crow.” While the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the IIRARA facilitated these criminal expulsions, Congress also crafted new crimes through which to target the undocumented more generally for what was to become mass expulsion (crimes which include traffic violations and other misdemeanors under state law that are not considered “criminal” for citizens).[18] Additionally, the IIRARA established  a new category of “expedited removal” in lieu of “deportation.” Under “expedited removal,” the INS could more quickly remove migrants after apprehension and detention, obviating the need to release them back into society to await an immigration hearing (reducing their “absconding” from immigration officers to use Congressional language).[19] The tightened controls would soon become foundational to the new political economy of restrictionism based upon private profits.

The Big Business of Immigrant Detention and Deportation

The reorganized Homeland Security bureaucracy after September 11, 2001 added the paradigm of national security to immigration enforcement. What was most salient about the post-2001 order in relation to undocumented migration, however, was not the War on Terror framework per se but the amount of resources now brought to bear upon their exclusion. Almost immediately, the INS budget increased threefold while the Border Patrol budget doubled. By 2012, the budget allocated to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (a re-configured INS) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reached $17.9 billion, fifteen times what it was in 1986 and 24 percent more than funding for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) combined.[20] While border apprehensions did not increase, reflecting the tapering of mass migration into the United States in the mid-2000s, internal deportations crested, almost doubling by 2008, a rise that continues today. In 2016, the Obama administration deported 65,332 from inside the nation, while Trump increased this by 30 per- cent in 2017, the majority of whom are men of color from Mexico and Central America.[21]

By 2012, the budget allocated to Immigration and Customs Enforcement …. and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reached $17.9 billion, fifteen times what it was in 1986 . . .

Homeland Security has thus become very expensive, but it has also become very profit- able as the increased funding allocated to immigration enforcement under the national security framework has established a massive opportunity structure for the security sector. Private companies now increasingly lobby Congress and the DHS on Homeland Security issues to receive contracts for border infra-structure and technology as well as detention facilities serving the mass deportation policies. According to OpenSecrets.org, for example, interests lobbying the government on this issue rose from under hundred in 2002 to eight hundred in 2008.[22] Many of the interests include firms that have received border contracts, such as Unisys, Boeing, and G4S.[23] Similarly, industries tied to the mass detention of non-citizens prior to deportation have been equally active. Between 2004 and 2015 for example, the Corrections Corporation of American (CCA) spent more than $8.7 million and the Geo Group spent $1.3 million to lobby Congress solely on Homeland Security appropriations.[24] Both private prison companies have enabled DHS to meet its imperative, established by Congress in 2004 under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, to expand its detention capacity by eight thousand beds per year from fiscal year (FY) 2006 through FY 2010.[25] Private prison companies have also worked with local counties to build facilities for detention as a way to attract federal dollars and, thus, jobs and revenue into localities. While President Obama had endeavored to curtail ICE contracts with private prison companies, Trump claims to want to achieve a detention rate of not thirty-four thou- sand but eighty thousand a day. Profits are notably up at companies involved in immigration detention.

Between 2004 and 2015 . . . the Corrections Corporation of American . . . spent more than $8.7 million and the Geo Group spent $1.3 million to lobby Congress solely on Homeland Security appropriations.

Despite the growth of the security state, however, apprehensions at the border continue to be down from their highs in the early 2000s, reaching a low number not seen since 1971. Moreover, the population of Mexicans in the United States has declined in real numbers to nearly 11,574,000 in 2016. While the government has underscored the role of its border enforcement policy in driving the decline, social scientists have dismissed it on the grounds that, while border patrol expenditures began increasing notably in the early 1990s, Mexican migration to the United States did not fall until the mid-2000s. In contrast, they have given explanatory power to the slowdown in economic growth and the reduction in labor demand in sectors of the U.S. economy that employ the largest share of Mexican-born workers (i.e., construction) after the Great Recession.[26]

The Great Recession thus appears to have short-circuited the interlocking relationship between a liberalizing Mexico and the post-1970s’ U.S. low-waged economy that had previously generated mass migration. In the interim, however, nativism has fast become big business, furthering a new political economy of migration based upon control and expulsion irrespective of migrants’ circumstances.  While  the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia recently ruled that the Trump administration cannot indefinitely detain asylees, new repressive rules curtailing asylum do not only restrict immigration. They simultaneously place migrants in an expanding immigration-industrial complex prior to deportation, allowing security companies’ profits to define the new political economy of immigration restriction.


Gabrielle E. Clark is a lecturer at Dartmouth College and former faculty fellow in the History of American Capitalism at Harvard University. She has published on labor and the law in Studies in Law, Politics, and Society; Law & Social Inquiry; and more. She is currently completing a book on foreign labor and American law from the time of the Knights of Labor to the politics of Donald Trump.


[1] U.S. support for the political regimes was part of its global anti-communist foreign pol- icy, which, under the Reagan administration, superseded long-standing U.S. asylum policies. While the majority of Haitians never received asylum, by 1990, and in response to coordinated activism around the crisis, Congress pro- vided Temporary Protected Status to 274,000 Central Americans.
[2] Statistics in this article are, unless otherwise noted, culled from the Migration Policy Institute’s (MPI’s) database on immigration. The database draws upon the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey (ACS), 2017 Current Population Survey (CPS), and 2000 decennial census; the most recent  data from the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and State; and Mexico’s National Population Council (CONAPO) and National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). As per the MPI data, “the term “immigrants” (or “foreign born”) refers to people residing in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth. This population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), certain legal nonimmigrants (e.g., persons on student or work visas), those admitted under refugee or asylee status, and persons illegally residing in the United States.” See https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently- requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states#Numbers.
[3] United States Border Patrol, Southwest Border Sectors, “Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions by Fiscal Year,” available at https://www.cbp.gov/ sites/default/files/assets/documents/2017-Dec/ BP%20Southwest%20Border%20Sector%20 Apps%20FY1960%20-%20FY2017.pdf.
[4] Aviva Chomsky, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).
[5] Douglas Massey has compared “Bracero” era migration to post-1965 migration and has concluded that there was no net increase. What this analysis obscures is that the Bracero migrations were short term, and thus did not involve a new population every year, as did the post-1970 flows.
[6] Oscar J. Martinez, “Migration and the Border, 1965-1985” in Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration, ed. Mark Overmyer-Velázquez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 103-21.
[7] Norman Caulfield, NAFTA and Labor in North America (Champaign: The University of Illinois Press, 2010).
[8] Ibid.
[9] David Bacon, Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008).
[10] Helen B. Marrow, “Race and the New Southern Migration, 1986 to the Present” in Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration, ed. Mark Overmyer-Velazquez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 125-60.
[11] Douglas Massey, “The Past and Future of Mexico-US Migration” in Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration, ed. Mark Overmyer-Velazquez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 254.
[12] Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism (New York University Press, 2015) and Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, “The Immigration Industrial Complex: Why We Enforce Immigration Policies Destined to Fail” Social Compass 3, no 2 (2009): 295-309.
[13] Chomsky, Undocumented.
[14] Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond (New York: Routledge, 2010), 78-80.
[15] Ibid., 80.
[16] “Proposals to  Reduce  Illegal  Immigration  and  Costs  to  Taxpayers,”  Hearing  before   the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representations, 104th Congress, 1st Session, March 14, 1995 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995).
[17] “Removal of Criminal and Illegal Aliens” Hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representations, 104th Congress, 2nd Session, September 5, 1996 (Washington, DC:U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996).
[18] Patrisia Macías-Rojas, From Deportation to Prison: The Politics of Immigration Enforcement in Post Civil Rights America (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
[19] Massey, “The Past and Future of Mexico-US Migration.”
[20] Doris Meissner, Donald M. Kerwin, Muzzaffar Chishti, and Claire Bergeron, “Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery,” Migration Policy Institute, January 29, 2013, available at http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigration-enforcement-united-states-rise-formidable-machinery.
[21] U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, available at https://www.ice.gov/removal- statistics/2017. See Golash-Boza, Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism. https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/issuesum.php?id=HOM.
[22] https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/issuesum.php?id=HOM.
[23] James M. Cooper, “The Rise of Private Actors along the United States-Mexico Border,” 2016, available at https://scholarlycommons.law. cwsl.edu/fs/240.
[24] Sharita Gruberg, “How for-Profit Companies are Driving Immigration Detention Policies,” December 18 (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2015).
[25] Livia Luan, “Profiting from Enforcement: The Role of Private Prisons in U.S. Immigration Detention,” May 2, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, DC, 2018
[26] Social scientists have also dismissed the idea that improvement in the Mexican economy resulted in decreased migration. The Mexican economy is not strong enough, despite growth, especially given that “average household income, when adjusted for inflation, actually decreased slightly from 1998 to 2010 and the official poverty rate remains high at 52.1 %.” See Andrés Villarreal, “Explaining the Decline in Mexico-U.S. Migration: The Effect of the Great Recession,” Demography 51, no. 6 (December 2014): 2203-28.


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