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A History of Walls: America's Legacy of Border Enforcement

Gallatin professor Hannah Gurman's research explores the history of U.S. immigration enforcement and its intersection in recent decades with criminal prosecution—a trend she and other scholars call “crimmigration.”
family at the border

Ban travel to the U.S. from certain Muslim-majority nations. Upend the Dreamers. Curtail the Temporary Protected Status of Salvadorans and Haitians displaced by natural disasters in their home country.

Build the wall.

In “A Collapsing Division: Border and Interior Enforcement in the US Deportation System,” published last summer by the journal American Quarterly, Hannah Gurman, clinical associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, reflects on the recent swirl of clampdowns proposed by the Trump administration. She outlines the history of American immigration enforcement, and how those policies may inform and explain this latest evolution of border policies.

NYU News spoke with Gurman, whose research continues to explore the nearly century-old legacy of U.S. immigration enforcement and its intersection in recent decades with criminal prosecution—a trend she and other scholars call “crimmigration.”

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In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s proposal to erect an all-encompassing wall along the US border with Mexico struck many people as, if nothing else, original. Was it?

During the campaign, both supporters and critics characterized the border wall as something new. However, a series of physical walls—including triple-fencing in some areas—as well as virtual sensors and surveillance technology, have been in place along much of the US-Mexico border since the 1990s. And the institution of border enforcement goes back much further. The U.S. Border Patrol was established in 1924, during a period of heightened nativism. A network of border checkpoints and roving patrols was implemented in the 1940s to police the flow of Mexican laborers. And the ideology of “border security” emerged in the 1970s in the context of the war on drugs. You might say that Trump made an old idea sound new by transforming the wall into a dramatic spectacle and emblem of populist nativism.  

So this is an extension of a long-running pattern along our border?

It’s important to emphasize that the expansion of border enforcement has not been confined to the territorial border. One notable development in this history took place in the 1970s. In a series of Supreme Court rulings about the legality of border searches more than 40 miles away from the border, the judiciary established the precedent of a “flexible” and “expansive” border that actually moves to wherever the border crosser goes. One of these rulings made it legal for border agents to include “Mexican appearance” as a factor in their decision to conduct a search. This is just one of many examples that complicates the presumption that border security is limited to the actual border.

Were these efforts precursors for the practice of what you and other scholars now call “crimmigration”?

Yes—over the last four decades, the institutions and laws of immigration enforcement and crime enforcement have been increasingly integrated. In the 1990s, local law enforcement officers were deputized to carry out immigration enforcement. After 9/11, Bush made the act of border-crossing a crime and implemented a program called “Secure Communities,” which mandated data sharing between local prisons and federal immigration enforcement. And Obama’s efforts to reform immigration enforcement explicitly focused on violent criminals and recent border crossers, rather than families with deep ties to the nation. This last measure was publicized as a way to humanize the deportation system. In reality, however, people were being racially profiled, detained, and deported for minor traffic infractions and immigration-related crimes, including the crime of border crossing. In fiscal years 2013 and 2014, the Obama administration deported 684,587 people—235,775 of which were “interior” apprehensions. You could say, then, that crimmigration is the most recent and most dramatic set of policies through which border enforcement has expanded into the interior.

Given that history, how does Trump’s approach to at-the-border expulsion and interior deportations differ from that of his predecessors?

One of the main distinctions between Trump and his predecessors is ideological. Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, US presidents have made a point of celebrating the role of immigrants in the fabric of American life. In contrast, Trump’s nativism echoes the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the early decades of the twentieth century and serves as a reminder that these sentiments are also deeply rooted in the nation’s history. While recent presidents have made concerted efforts to shield the public from the dark realities of the deportation system, and to downplay the role of racism within it, Trump has turned the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants into a public spectacle of white nationalist supremacy. In terms of actual enforcement, what we are seeing is a continued increase in the number of arrests and detentions in the interior of the country with less emphasis on criminal records. In 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detained 110,568 individuals, up from 77,806 in 2016. Of these, 33,888 had no prior criminal convictions, compared to 11,500 the year before. So despite Trump’s obsession with the wall, border removals actually decreased during his first year in office.  The trend is clear: Families who have lived in the United States for long periods of time are increasingly at risk.