Document Type


Publication Date

January 2012


Over the past four decades, increasingly punitive and enforcement-oriented U.S. immigration policies have been legitimized by a rhetoric of criminality that stigmatizes Latino immigrant workers and intensifies their exploitation. Simultaneously, there has been a sevenfold increase in the prison population in the United States, in which African Americans are eight times more likely to be jailed than Whites (Western 2006, p. 3). In this paper, I draw on scholarship in history and sociology, as well as my own anthropological research, to develop the argument that criminal justice policies and immigration policies together disempower low-wage U.S. labor and maintain categorical racial inequalities in a “postracial” United States. First, I review the historical role of race in U.S. immigration policy, and I consider the evidence for systemic racism in immigration enforcement in the contemporary period. Second, I discuss criminal legislation in the neoliberal era and examine the ways in which criminal legislation and immigration policies together disempower large segments of the U.S. workforce, satisfying employer demands for low cost and pliant labor. Finally, I argue that a political focus on immigrant workers’ “illegality” masks the role of the state in (re)defining the legal status of low-wage workers and veils the ways in which punitive policies maintain historical racial and class inequalities.