Immigration Controls, Capital and Producing Illegality

by Serene John-Richards

Politicians target immigrants while capital and de-regulated market forces seem beyond their reach, leading to policing of borders and peoples and producing a bipolar regime targeting people on the basis of race and class.

First published: 02 October, 2014 | Category: Migration

When the new Rolls Building, Britain’s state of the art commercial court, opened in London, the justice secretary Chris Grayling said "People all over the world know: for dispute resolution, you come to Britain.”

Grayling hailed London as the world ‘international’ court, the legal equivalent of the City of London. Elites regularly fly in from Moscow and Saudi Arabia to settle legal disputes, contributing £3.5 billion to GDP. One particular court case, worthy of a Hollywood epic, concerned a Saudi Prince’s alleged attempt to fund Hezbollah as well as allegedly smuggling about $3.5bn-worth of precious stones out of war torn Congo, made possible through an extensive network of shell companies.

Britain is open for business indeed. Other hobbies include luxury mansions that are bought and sold, and left empty as investment outfits. Travel is as easy as online banking, with yachts docked in St. Tropez. Top tier international itinerants are welcomed with Cheshire cat grins as wide as their wild bank accounts.

For their part, the lowest tier wayfarers who are fleeing persecution, with no bank accounts to their name, end up in detention. With extensive cuts to legal aid, they are unlikely to be able to challenge this decision or determine how long they are likely to be detained. For those not seeking asylum, life is confined to a precarious existence on zero hour contracts, like the University of London cleaners from Latin America with Spanish citizenship, who suffer discrimination and unpaid wages.

Such is the tension around the subject of immigration, revealing what some have termed the “contradictions of globalisation.” The circulation of goods and capital has led to more restrictive circulation for the vast majority of people in the world. A veritable Western fortress, complete with restrictive and repressive immigration policies, has resulted in the massive production of “illegal aliens” in Europe and North America.[1] The speed of capital, along with the growing transnational political economy has led states, particularly the most powerful, to actively pursue a policy of differentiation and hierachisation of members of the global population.

This global apartheid, or bipolar regime, concerned with the movement of people has shifted beyond the classic ‘north’ vs. ‘south’ dichotomy to one overwhelmingly concerned with the targeting of people on the basis of both race and class. This results in a system favouring insecurity and precariousness and thereby calling for ever expanding mechanisms of securitisation.[2]

(Re)imagining borderlands

Frontiers today evoke different meanings. Whether we think of them as fluid national borders facilitating transient spaces, or see their potential use as fortresses of exclusion and expulsion. The frontier delineates a space, a territory, and can also create zones of exclusion within territories based on socio economic differences and class. Internal frontiers within nations can also exclude by ‘denaturing’ i.e. by inscribing anthropological alterity and demarcating members of the common on the basis of sex, race, health and other factors.[3] Rodrigo Plá’s film La Zona illustrates well the potentially exclusive nature of internal borders. The film’s portrayal of a private gated community’s obsessive use of surveillance and policing to protect themselves against a perceived threat from their fellow citizens can, by extension, be applied to the perceived threats of immigrants. In this case the collective identity of citizens living in La Zona is defined against the otherness of foreigners, that other being their fellow, poorer, citizens.

Immigrants embody the articulation of borders and boundaries. They cross national borders to settle in a new society and discover boundaries through the differential treatment to which they are subjected.[4] It’s likely that a corporate executive or UN official travelling to meetings ultimately experiences a different reality of ‘border crossing’ to that of a Calais migrant. Etienne Balibar argues that they are distinct borders that are common in name only, whose function is precisely a mechanism of social sorting. In effect, the border ensures that individuals from different social classes have different experiences of the law, bureaucracy, the police, and basic rights like freedom of movement and freedom to work, so that the border has the capacity to actively differentiate individuals amongst social classes.[5]

The significance of boundaries and borders changes over time. Certain historical periods are more favourable than others for the development of barriers between territories and people. The sensitivity of the question of immigration, the hostility toward aliens, the consolidation of borders, and the delimitation of boundaries appear to be a cyclic phenomenon[6] that tends to coincide with times of economic structural adjustment and transformation.

For instance, during the 50s and 70s, the US authorities often ignored the formal status of most Mexican migrants. This changed during the global oil crisis and recession in 1973. The US media, along with national and local politicians, helped fuel public fear and perpetuated a notion of crisis. In 1978, the director of the CIA, William Colby, described Mexican immigrants as the greatest security danger facing the United States, greater than that posed by the Soviet Union.[7] Historical comparisons underline the permanence of complex interactions between economic and political interests, of the ideological manipulation of social fears, and of the obsessive deployment of surveillance technologies.[8]

If we are to think of immigration as first and foremost embodying an act of crossing a national border then the question of identity and its significance to belonging necessarily arises. State identity, and the discourse surrounding it therefore, plays a crucial role in determining our relationship towards immigration.  Defining identities in relation to the nation is a tricky practice, not least because there are no official juridical or national criteria on which to sincerely found this on. Yet identity plays a crucial role in setting the relation between others like immigrants. To concretely define a particular identity involves what Balibar calls a “reduction of complexity”[9] by the state. That is, paradoxically in fact, precisely the very ‘supplement’ of simplicity which then complicates matters of belonging. One could say then that the state plays a fundamental role in ‘masking’ and formally limiting differentiation, so as to preserve the notion of national citizenship.[10] Despite this, “identity concerns” in Europe are common – both in a general and personal sense. A multiplicity of factors inform this including the plurality of culture today as well as the information age giving rise to networks and commonalities beyond state boundaries.

On the one hand, there is a crisis broadly concerned with collective identity or consciousness. On the other is a crisis of individual identity which has been increasingly marked by insecurity.

Europe has seen a drastic decline in those enjoying job security, with the majority of new jobs being part-time, temporary and fixed term with no benefits attached. This has effectively transferred the wage ‘labour contract’ into a source of fragmentation and precariousness rather than of social homogeneity and security.[11] Bauman argues that, as a result, the proposed solution to the crisis of ‘individual identity’ has been sought elsewhere: in the drive towards ensuring the security of the collective.[12] The latter seems more manageable as a political target, not least because

“the sources and causes of individual insecurity, the mysterious “global financial markets”, are much less visible to an unarmed eye than are the ostensible threats to collective security.”[13]

Free flowing capital and de-regulated market forces seem to be beyond the reach of the local political will to ‘solve and repair’ leaving the proximity of “ethnic strangers”[14] an easy target. Promises including the closing of borders, tightening asylum laws and deporting those deemed unwelcome is portrayed as the solution to a much a deeper crisis, linked to global capital and inequality, for electoral gain. The result is the policing of borders and of peoples, and the perpetual reproduction of illegality.

Biopolitics & Illegalisms

Today, the law functions mainly as a system of regulation and administration. In a sense, we can think of the law as a tool, or as an institutional mechanism of biopolitical management.[15] It is biopolitical in the sense that life itself is taken as the object of political decision making in and of itself. More specifically, biopolitics can be understood as the control over life to prolong its duration – or not – as the main function of government. The law then can be regarded as a mechanism of administering what Foucault called ‘illegalisms.’ On elaborating upon what this might mean, Deleuze says

“[...] law administers illegalisms: some it allows, makes possible or invents as the privilege of the dominating classes, or even uses in the service of the dominating class; others again it forbids, isolates and takes as both its object and its means of domination.”[16]

Immigration controls are a classic example. Their enforcement does not put an end to ‘informal employment’ but instead “reproduce an illegality that in return justifies the necessity of repressive measures.”[17] By preventing asylum seekers from gaining legal status, ‘illegality’ is continuously produced, a process that is reinforced and amplified by the media and politicians of all stripes eager to “surf the xenophobic wave that has been sweeping Europe since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s.”[18] This produced ‘illegality’ then becomes ingrained at the core of the state’s security apparatus and in turn promotes social and economic programs of discrimination and hierarchisation of populations - thus heightening the sense of insecurity in targeted populations like asylum seekers.[19] Today, the UK has one of the largest networks of detention facilities in Europe, where just fewer than 30,000 migrants are detained each year.

The use of restrictive and repressive policies of immigration has been accompanied by the development of an administrative apparatus at the borders and within the territory. The result has not only been to control immigration and track the undocumented, but more worryingly to adjudicate refugee status and thus undermine international law. This level of bureaucracy is not “an impersonal machine mechanically rejecting immigrants. It is composed of men and women who routinely generate decisions affecting the lives of others.”[20] Furthermore, under the provisions of the Schengen and Maastricht treaties (concerning the ‘free circulation’ of European citizens), immigration has been defined as a continental matter of security, under the same heading as organised crime and terrorism.[21] It seems clear that matters of police, judicial and penal practices converge where immigration is concerned - in particular toward persons of colour who are present as easy targets of surveillance.

The immigrant then represents a symbol and target for all social anxieties which in turn legitimises a drift toward the penal management of poverty. This management of vast swathes of misfits and remnants that are simply in excess - that is, both failed workers and failed consumers – is reminiscent of America’s use of prisons to absorb the excess; argued to be a measure of curbing crime and regulating the lower segments of the labour force.[22] In fact, throughout Europe, ‘second generation’ immigrants, and therefore, citizens of a particular European state, are over represented within prison populations to levels comparable with the infamous ‘racial disproportionality’ in the US.[23]

In the end this mechanism of control and punishment extends beyond nationality to also include the working class who continue to be undermined by mass joblessness, falling wages and insecurity. The question around the subject of immigration is dominated by class and wealth; where access to justice, housing, freedom of movement and so on transcends nationality or citizenship the wealthier one is.

The alienating language of anti-foreigner rhetoric masks an already existing commonality and solidarity between migrant workers, asylum seekers and the working class who together are more deeply affected by today’s techno-capitalism, to the relief and amusement of both national and international elites alike, who are safely tucked away offshore in yachts and private spaces much like Britain’s state of the art commercial court in London.

This article is part of NLP's Immigration series

Serene John-Richards is a PhD researcher and teacher at the School of Law, University of Kent.


[1] D Fassin, 'Policing Borders, Producing Boundaries.' [2011] Annual Review of Anthropology 213, 214

[2] E Balibar, 'Qu'est-ce qu'une Frontière?' in Carloz-Tschopp, Marie-Clare and Pierre Dasen (eds), Mondialization, Migration, Droits de l'Homme: Un Nouveau Paradigme Pour La Recherche et La Citoyenneté (1st, Bruylant, Brussels 2007) 5

[3] E Balibar, We, the People of Europe?: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (1st, Princeton UP, Princeton NJ 2004) 68

[4] D Fassin, 'Policing Borders, Producing Boundaries.' [2011] Annual Review of Anthropology 213, 215

[5] Above n ii

[6] Above n iv

[7] P. Marfleet, Refugees in a Global Era (1st, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 170

[8] D Fassin, 'Policing Borders, Producing Boundaries.' [2011] Annual Review of Anthropology 213, 216

[9] E Balibar, 'Qu'est-ce qu'une Frontière?' in Carloz-Tschopp, Marie-Clare and Pierre Dasen (eds), Mondialization, Migration, Droits de l'Homme: Un Nouveau Paradigme Pour La Recherche et La Citoyenneté (1st, Bruylant, Brussels 2007) 3

[10] Above n ii

[11] L Wacquant, 'Urban Marginality in the Coming Millennium' [1998] Urban Studies 1639, 1642

[12] Z Bauman, Europe of Strangers (1st, Oxford University Transnational Communities Programme, Oxford 1998) 8

[13] Ibid

[14] Z Bauman, Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World (1st, Polity, Cambridge 2001) 103

[15] P Hanafin, 'Rights of Passage' in Rosi Braidotti and Patrick Hanafin (eds), Deleuze and Law: Forensic Futures (1st, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire 2009) 52

[16] G Deleuze, quoted in P Hanafin, 'Rights of Passage' in Rosi Braidotti and Patrick Hanafin (eds), Deleuze and Law: Forensic Futures (1st, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire 2009) 52

[17] E Balibar, We, the People of Europe?: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (1st, Princeton UP, Princeton NJ 2004) 62 [emphasis in original]

[18] L Wacquant, ''Suitable Enemies': Foreigners and Immigrants in the Prisons of Europe' [1999] Punishment and Society 215, 219

[19] E Balibar, We, the People of Europe?: Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (1st, Princeton UP, Princeton NJ 2004) p.63

[20] D Fassin, 'Policing Borders, Producing Boundaries.' [2011] Annual Review of Anthropology 213, 218

[21] Above n xviii

[22] L Wacquant, ''Suitable Enemies': Foreigners and Immigrants in the Prisons of Europe' [1999] Punishment and Society 215, 216

[23] Ibid

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