by Robert Koulish
first appeared in baltimore sun, aug. 2006
Borders are a key element of national identity. When borders are violated, the result is often crisis and war. Look no further than this summer’s conflict in the Middle East, set off by a cross-border kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants. Protection and defense of borders is, for most nations, a high priority.
Thus, it is troubling to see our government intent upon passing control over its borders to private companies.
Immigration control is a fundamental exercise of sovereignty, and sovereign powers are considered almost inviolable. As a legacy of its plenary powers over immigration, Congress has enacted some of this country’s most racist and arbitrary policies, which the Supreme Court has never struck down. Examples include Chinese exclusion, national origins restrictions and expedited removals.
Turning over immigration powers to private companies further endangers democracy. Immigration policy, programs and current proposals are replete with references to privatization – enforcement, detention, inspections and services – that would place the fate of potential immigrants in the hands of private mercenaries and military contractors.
The Customs and Border Protection’s Expedited Removal Program has contracted with Halliburton to oversee the expansion of the federal government’s capacity to detain immigrants. Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, has proposed deploying private “Ellis Island Centers” in foreign countries for the purpose of recruiting and managing guest workers.
Privatization, a neoliberal trend begun in the 1970s, means policy is driven by profit-seeking. During the early 1980s, the federal government began experimenting with incarcerating people for profit, using immigrant detention as its canary in the coal mine. In 1984, the Corrections Corporation of America, the private-incarceration leader, cut its first deal with the federal government to operate Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers in Houston and Laredo, Texas. Since then, private incarceration has become a boom industry as well as a lightning rod for credible human-rights abuse litigation.
U.S.-Mexico border control is also being privatized. After more than a decade of border militarization with “Operation Gatekeeper” and “Operation Hold the Line,” the deployment of the National Guard and plans for 700 miles of fencing, in May the government solicited bids from military contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Ericsson and Northrop Grumman for a multibillion-dollar contract to build a “virtual fence” of unmanned aerial vehicles, ground surveillance satellites and motion-detection video equipment along the border. With final awarding of the Secure Border Initiative Network set for September, the arrival of military contractors at the border is imminent.
Add Blackwater Inc., a private security firm that has run mercenaries in Iraq and New Orleans, and is negotiating a contract to train U.S. Border Patrol officers, and you get a virtual fence that has guns for hire welcoming newcomers at ports of entry.
Military contractors and private mercenaries as immigration policymakers represent a foreboding prospect for any democracy.
Another issue is the use of technologies of power to help manage a cheap postindustrial labor force. Guest worker proposals are helping to frame immigration within a neoliberal trade context, which opens another door to privatized control.
For example, Mode 4 of the recent proposed General Agreement on Trade in Services, negotiated in the World Trade Organization, would accomplish what the North American Free Trade Agreement couldn’t achieve, reducing migrant workers to the status of commodities.
Mode 4 would hasten the demise of Human-rights protections for border crossers, while the Senate’s guest-worker provision would help make Mode 4 binding on domestic policy. As an outcome, guest-worker provisions would expedite the movement of temporary workers, secure private “bantustans” for border crossers in northern Mexico, and control guest-worker populations in this country while further marginalizing efforts by NGOs to hold the process accountable.
Finally, guest-worker policies would provide additional opportunities for the security-industrial complex at the border. With CCA, Blackwater, Lockheed Martin and others as gatekeepers, guest workers would come face to face with law-and-order activities twice removed from public scrutiny.
The looming presence of “virtual” technologies, mercenaries and military contractors as front-line defenders for U.S. sovereignty is cause for alarm well beyond the potential for individual human rights violations. It suggests this country’s “deciders” are less interested in physical border fences that would harm trade and impede the flow of cheap labor than in securing a system of “virtual fence” and paramilitary strategies that would facilitate wholesale control over migrants in the name of profit.
Robert Koulish is a political scientist and France-Merrick professor of service learning at Goucher College. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.