Neoliberal and Neocolonial Entanglements: Women Seeking Asylum in the US

Paloma had been in the immigration detention center for four days when I met her. While in confinement, she and her children had been given clothes and a room to share with other families. While discussing her asylum interview, I asked about her job in her native country. Taking her hand to the back of her neck and pulling up the tag of her t-shirt to show me the brand name, she said: “I used to work in a maquiladora for this company. I made these t-shirts!”

—Based on a story told to me during a 2016 interview with an NGO staffer working at an immigration detention center at the US–Mexico border

Each year, thousands of heteronuclear families cross the US–Mexico border, fleeing from the violence in their countries of origin and seeking asylum in the United States. Even though locking asylum-seekers up goes against the UNHCR guidelines, many of these women and their underage children end up confined in one of the family immigration detention centers in the US. Migration regimes today are based on deterrence rather than human rights, and the confinement of refugees has become a common practice across the world. In this article, I focus on how the inclusion of private actors in the migration management arena has resulted in corporations profiting from the confinement of populations who are fleeing violence. In this way, women like Paloma are subject to an endless cycle of exploitation, first in their countries of origin and then once they reach the Global North seeking asylum.

Neoliberalism and migration

Migrant detention, visa processing, border surveillance, transportation of detained migrants, offshore processing, and so on have all been privatized and are managed by corporations. These companies receive money from the government for each person they keep confined. In this way, states cooperate with private actors to carry out their work. These public–private agreements increase restrictive migration control policies. Migrant detention became commodified mostly after the 1980s. Within border securitization, confinement today has become one of the key elements in detention, and thus in the management of migrant and refugee populations. The origin of confinement as a common practice in immigration governance is connected to the securitization of migration; after 9/11, US border security merged and became the center of national security. The securitization rhetoric is based on the idea that migrants are potential threats—to security, culture, the economy—and this justifies the confinement of any foreign population. The combination of the demonization of migrants and the privatization of migration management increased migrant detention. For instance, in fiscal year 2018, a daily average of 42,188 migrants were held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Even though there has been a notable decrease of migrant detention with the Biden administration, in 2021 during the pandemic, the number of migrants detained increased from 14,000 early in the year, to 27,000 in June. Similarly, President Biden has kept the Trump-era public health rule to deter migrants from crossing the border.

Immigration detention centers such as Campsfield in Oxford, UK, the South Texas Family Residential Center, and Curtin Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in Australia are run by private corporations. Extreme cases of privately run offshore processing centers include the ones Australia has set up in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, or the one that the United States has in Cuba—Guantánamo Bay. One element that facilitates the global homogenization detention regimes is the fact that many of the same large, for-profit corporations that run most private prisons operate in almost all the countries of the Global North. This is one means through which techniques of confinement get diffused across different countries. To get a broad overview of how neoliberalism has reached different places through the privatization of detention centers, consider that in the UK, seven out of the nine immigrant detention centers—and all of the short-term holding facilities—are run by multinational, for-profit companies; in the US, for-profit companies control more than half of the detention bed spaces; and in Australia, all immigration detention centers are run by private companies.

Neoliberalism has been a key feature in the expansion of the immigration and refugee detention system. Private and nonstate actors have gradually entered the border control arena, including the sensitive functions of detention and removal. Within immigration and refugee management, many logistical services, such as the transportation of migrants and asylum-seekers, provision of clothing, food and telephone services in detention centers, airborne deportation operations, processing of visa applications, security, prison management, drone vigilance, and so on, have been privatized. Similarly, other companies profit from the private management of prisons, such as those providing food services, maintenance, education, health services, bail services, and so on. Research shows how the privatization of prisons has led to understaffed centers, with less training, fewer benefits, high employee turnover rates, more accidents, and discouragement of unionization.

Confining migrants and asylum-seekers in detention centers costs US taxpayers approximately $2 billion each year. Today in the US, nine of the ten biggest ICE immigration detention centers are private, accounting for 62% of all ICE immigration beds operated by private corporations. Of this, GEO and CoreCivic combined operate 72% of the privately contracted ICE immigration beds. Occasionally, counties charge ICE above daily cost and thus they use immigration detainees to fund jails and other county services. In addition, a Washington Post investigation found that CoreCivic receives $20 million per month to detain women and children at the South Texas Family Detention Center regardless of how many women and children are actually held there. CoreCivic and GEO are two very profitable companies that expanded their combined share of the private immigrant detention industry from 37% to 45% in 2014. CoreCivic’s profits increased from $133 million in 2007 to $195 million in 2014, and it has a $1 billion contract with Homeland Security. Similarly, in that same period, GEO’s profits increased by 244%. The stocks in CoreCivic increased by 34% and those in GEO rose by 18% the day after Donald Trump was elected president. In addition, CoreCivic’s subsidiary TransCor America LLC is the largest prisoner transportation company in the United States. This company gets paid by per prisoner per mile and thus overcrowds its vehicles, limits food and water intake, and does not take bathroom breaks. TransCor generated a revenue of $4.4 million in 2014 and $2.6 million in 2016. This data shows that the trend of privatizing detention centers and related services, combined with the increase in the detention of immigrants and asylum-seekers, serves the interests of private corporations. Although these companies have been profitable over the years, some of them also have other activities that are not exclusively related to immigrant and refugee detention, such as cleaning, IT, and parking management services, and it is hard to know how much profit they earn from each area of business. In any case, if prison management were not a profitable business, these companies would most certainly not be investing in the sector. In addition, data shows that in the United States, alternatives to detention, such as letting border-crossers live in communities, can cost as little as 70 cents to $17 per day per person, in comparison to the $159 that ICE spends to detain one person for one day.

Women, neocolonialism and neoliberal regimes

As in franchise colonialism, women in the Global South are exploited for their labor and positioned in an interdependent economic relationship of uneven development. These are ongoing structures of domination that remain in place to this day. The failure to acknowledge the constitutive role of colonial exploitation in contemporary neoliberalism leads to weak representations of what is happening today in regard to the confinement of asylum-seekers. The Western world has a long history of confining and exploiting the bodies of women and people of color. It is not only through the exploitative form of labor and resource extraction that characterized colonialism—echoed by Paloma’s example of making t-shirts in a maquiladora in her country—that Western states profit from postcolonial subjects; here, profit emerges from the technologies of exclusion themselves, where passive, confined bodies produce profit from being “out of place” rather than through their labor. The demonized asylum-seeker is confined and profit is generated from the physical care of her body (housing, feeding, clothing, and transporting it). This is how corporations extract wealth from asylum-seekers’ bodies. Even though there are alternatives to immigrant detention, confining refugees in private facilities is a more lucrative business than having them live in the receiving communities.

The detention of asylum-seekers illuminates how global confinement systems work. As most refugees come from countries in the Global South, confinement is highly racialized and can therefore be seen as a part of the larger racist system of mass incarceration. Punishment regimes are shaped by neoliberalism and are substantively enforced by transnational corporations controlling the detention, transportation, and visa processing (among other things) of migrants and refugees, tasks that were formerly performed by the state.

Note: this piece is based on the chapter “Women for Profit: Seeking Asylum in the U.S., a Neocolonial Story,” in Dignity in Movement: Borders, Bodies and Rights, edited by Jasmin Lilia Diab, pp. 191–206. E-International Relations Publishing, 2021.

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