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Liberal Policies, Punitive Effects: The Politics of Enforcement Discretion on the US-Mexico Border

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 July 2020

Abstract

This article examines why deportation and imprisonment for immigration offenses rose under presidential administrations that claimed to favor more “humane” approaches to immigration enforcement. I examine the politics of enforcement discretion on the US-Mexico border during the administrations of Bill Clinton (1993–2001) and Barack Obama (2009–17). Drawing on historical and ethnographic research, I argue that the Clinton and Obama administrations took a punitive humanitarian approach to enforcement discretion aimed at punishing “illegal immigration” at the border while protecting “legal immigrants” with long-standing ties to the United States from deportation. The findings show that such an approach extended crime control to US-Mexico border enforcement. This blend of humanitarian and punitive approaches systematized criminal enforcement priorities and expanded the discretion of border agents to deport and imprison. Just as other scholars have shown how liberal reform contributed to the rise of the carceral state, this article shows how immigration policies that blended humanitarianism and security punished the very people such policies were designed to protect.

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Articles
Copyright
© 2020 American Bar Foundation

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