(Note:  this is an updated version of an article originally posted on We’re Hir We’re Queer here.)

In the wake of a five day hunger strike over conditions of confinement at Karnes family detention center in South Texas, many are beginning to look critically at family detention.  But this practice, and the struggle against it, is nothing new. Groups in the southwest, including Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families have been struggling to end family detention for almost a decade.  Most recently, these groups are struggling around a new facility in Dilley, Texas, the largest family detention project since Japanese internment.  In developing a strategy against immigration detention, we must consider how capital and the working class is composed and why there is a renewed emphasis on women’s and family immigration detention.

Immigration detention has been steadily climbing over the past few decades.  Some cite the prison boom as a 1980s-90s phenomenon, since the U.S. saw massive rates of incarceration of primarily black men due to draconian drug laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and other strategies for criminalizing the black working class.

At a certain point in the early 2000s, prison rates tapered off.  However, this is also around the time that immigration detention as a national phenomenon began to dramatically increase.  While Grassroots Leadership, and many other advocacy and community groups will argue that this shift toward detention expansion is parallel to the expansion of the private prison industry, I believe this is only one side of the story.  Why, in the middle of the deepest economic crisis in the U.S. since the Great Depression, is the federal government expanding the immigration detention system, and why are women and children being particularly targeted in this effort?  I will attempt to answer this question; but first, some background info.

Immigration Det Rates

Immigration Detention and the Private Prison Industry

Grassroots Leadership, along with many others, argues that the private prison industry is the driving force behind immigration expansion.  While I believe this is an incomplete explanation, it is 100% correct.  The growth of the private prison industry is a new phenomenon that mimics immigration detention expansion.  Companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) have been involved in lobbying efforts and even helped craft legislation such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, in effort to further expand incarceration.   National groups like Grassroots Leadership have written on this issue extensively, and even host a blog that tracks developments in the private prison industry.  Since this issue is comprehensively documented elsewhere, I will skip the analysis here.

Family and Women’s Detention

Family detention is a phenomenon particular to the post-2006 immigration era (2006 denoting the last major uptick in immigration struggle, culminating in a May Day strike opposing the federal Sensenbrenner Bill).  Immigration enforcement strategies under the Bush Administration included full-frontal attacks against immigrants, i.e. neighborhood and workplace raids; border militarization and tolerance for border vigilante groups; increased criminalization, detention, deportation, etc.

One aspect of this strategy included an experimental family detention facility located in Taylor, Texas, known as the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, or simply, “Hutto.”  Hutto, a CCA-run facility of 512 beds, opened in May of 2006 as a residential “alternative” to detention for families awaiting immigration hearings.  As ICE notes, “In keeping with the director’s call for civil detention reform, TDHRC represents a clear departure from historical detention settings. Residents experience expanded services that include free and open movement, recreational and educational participation, food services and medical and mental health care.”  Hutto remained open as a family detention center for three years.  During that time, ICE faced several lawsuits and community outcry, mostly around the practice of holding children in prison-like settings (see a record of the three-year fight against Hutto here).  In the end, DHS administrators decided to stop holding families at Hutto and instead turned the facility into a women’s detention center (another anomaly).  One can only assume the Bush Administration and DHS deemed family detention a failed endeavor.


As the political tides changed post-2006, and through the 2008 election, the strategy toward immigration enforcement also shifted.  The Obama Administration, while detaining and deporting more people than Bush, played a quieter hand, choosing instead to focus on targeting immigrants with criminal records rather than border crossers and asylum seekers and relying heavily on agreements with local police.  However, in practice, this meant dividing the immigrant population in two:  the “good,” young, educated, english-speaking [assimilated] immigrants (DREAMer DACA candidates) and the “bad,” criminal, older, (usually) spanish-speaking, [non-assimilated] immigrants.  Again, this trajectory is directly related to the 2006 struggle.  The 2006 immigrant rights movement was largely a struggle to legalize tax-paying immigrants who were already living in the U.S.  Over time, this once radical content laid the foundation for the good immigrant-bad immigrant split via the DREAM Act, Comprehensive Immigration Reform bills, and eventually Obama’s executive orders.  These policies allowed for concessions that traded legalization for border enforcement.

Marxist Analysis of Immigration.

So far all of this sounds like something that could have been written for Colorlines or any other liberal-to-progressive news source.  Unfortunately, there has been little analysis of the post-2006 state of immigration using Marxist categories.  Here, I will attempt to add some analysis, specifically around the crisis of social reproduction.

Some Marxists might lump immigrants with the surplus population, and many have argued that the split between the Bush strategy vs. the Obama strategy is intimately connected to the surplus population issue.  As production in the United States became increasingly automated, the number of workers who were necessary to produce decreased, thereby establishing a surplus labor population.  This population is cycled in and out of the production process as-needed, and serves to keep competition between workers high and, therefore, wages low.  The U.S. ruling class had a unique strategy for dealing with surplus populations:  the prison industrial complex (PIC).  Prisons and jails are currently warehousing over 2 million people, mostly men of color, who make up a surplus population.  It is important to note that the U.S.’s strategy toward the surplus population and the rise of the PIC is a historically-driven phenomenon, based on the country’s racialized history:  slave plantations were the historical basis for the chain gang, chain gangs were the historical basis for the penitentiary, the penitentiary is the historical basis for the modern-day prison, etc.  It is clear why black men tend to be both unemployable and incarcerated at extremely high rates.  For the ruling class, the goal is to somehow control these surplus populations and keep them immiserated enough to drive wages down.  Marx writes in Capital, Vol. 1:

“if a surplus population of workers is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, the surplus population also becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalist accumulation, indeed it becomes a condition for the existence of the capitalist mode of production.  It forms a deplorable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost” (784).

And, later:

“The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active army of workers; during the periods of over-production and feverish activity, it puts a curb on their pretensions.  The relative surplus population is therefore the background against which the law of demand and supply of labour does its work.  It confines the field of action of this law to the limits absolutely convenient to capital’s drive to exploit and dominate the workers” (792).

Anyone who has studied this volume will see clearly how immigrants fit into a dynamic surplus population, driving wages down through competition.  Similarly, many socialists have argued that approaches to immigrants as a surplus population range from controlling immigration with force (deportation, militarization and raids) to diplomacy (registering immigrants, a path to citizenship for a layer of “good” immigrants, and more “civil” detention centers).  The forceful side of these strategies represents the rulers who seek to control immigration by quantitatively minimizing it.  The diplomatic side seeks to control immigration by qualitatively shifting the terms in which immigration takes place.  These strategies are not divided strictly by party lines; in fact, many Republicans and Tea Party members in the southwest can be found advocating the diplomatic approach, in the interest of large and small businesses.  Furthermore, the strategies are oftentimes employed unevenly.  For example, the Obama Administration recently approved an ICE raid that rounded up over 2,000 “criminal” immigrants; however, the majority of people picked up merely had misdemeanors on their records.

This is an important analysis for understanding how the ruling class approaches the immigration question and where immigrants typically fit into the production process.  But the socialists will not root their analysis in an understanding of the crisis as a crisis of social reproduction.  The United States is deep in a crisis that began in the 1970s, a crisis that the ruling class has only been able to superficially manage without remedying it completely.  To simplify the crisis, in a fury to compete with each other, capitalists must rely on new, high-tech machinery and automation strategies.  This means capital has a general tendency to expel workers, or variable capital, from the production process, instead, relying on machines, or constant capital, to produce the world’s commodities.  However, while this may give capitalists a short term competitive edge, in the longer term, capitalists will not be able to accumulate profits at their former rates.  Marx calls this the falling rate of profit.  The capitalists must use a variety of strategies to supplement these meager profits, including: primitive accumulation, destroying constant capital, looting and degrading the land and environment, investing in fictitious capital, and refusing to reproduce the working class.  Combined, these strategies look like what modern academics have termed “neoliberalism.”  After decades of neoliberalism, we find ourselves in a unique crisis: a crisis of social reproduction, meaning capital cannot sustain itself by reproducing the working class.  In other words, capitalism can no longer afford to feed us, educate us, keep us healthy, and provide  us with our basic and higher needs that we have struggled for as a class.  Practically, this means an end to the welfare state, massive austerity, the decay of unions and other forms of worker organization, the individualization/atomization of the working class, etc.  These are all conditions we are familiar with; however, the conditions of the crisis are uneven along racialized and gendered lines.  Undocumented immigrants are one of the lowest wage tiers of the working class, making on average an estimated $24,000 or less annually.  Further, women, who are still expected to do most of the unpaid housework and care work in the home, whether employed or not, work more and get paid less.  This leaves them working doubly hard to reproduce themselves and their loved ones.

The racialized and gendered form the crisis takes has direct bearing on the immigration question.  For starters, immigration has slowed to historic levels in the past few years; border crossers from the south decreased by 80% between 2000 and 2013.  Further, Central American immigration has surpassed Mexican immigration for the first time ever.  As Central and South Americans watch the U.S. economy continue to recede, they will be less likely to decide to risk capture, injury or death for a chance at the apparent American Dream.  But most people are not migrating to the U.S. for strictly economic reasons today; there are more political reasons that drives immigration.  These immigration impetuses are rooted in U.S. policy, including the coups d’etats and other U.S. interventions  in Central American countries in the 70s-90s, gang member deportation in the 90s and 2000s, and the U.S. Drug War.  Women make up the majority of immigrants nationally, due to gang violence and the war on drugs in Central America.  And unaccompanied minors are crossing the border at an increasing rates, causing President Obama to declare the situation an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Furthermore, women immigrants are a special problem for the American ruling class.  There is no research looking specifically at immigrant women in terms of income levels, access to resources and overall exploitation.  But in piecing together the information we do have, we can infer that women immigrants are a super-exploited layer of the working class:  (1) Women are historically cheaper workers, earning 77 cents for every dollar men make.  (2) Many immigrants are not college-educated and make up the lowest tier of the workforce.  These jobs are starkly gendered, women taking up caring professions such as domestic cleaning and child care, and men taking up manual labor such as agriculture and construction.  (3) A survey of over 2,000 domestic workers found that 23% are paid below the state minimum wage, 65% do not have access to healthcare, and 35% work long hours with no breaks.

While surplus populations, in theory, are in place in order to drive wages down and increase competition among workers, in reality, labor power is not totally flexible across sectors.  People cannot always be shifted from one type of work to another.  So immigrant women, as surplus labor populations, are not able to jump into high demand jobs.  And even though the caring professions, specifically health care, are increasingly in need of workers, these industries are dependent upon the welfare state and capital’s ability to reproduce itself.  More to the point, in the midst of a crisis of social reproduction, the ruling class cannot afford to pay for the jobs that immigrant women do.

But, more specifically, what kinds of work do immigrant women do?  There is a schism between the kinds of work immigrant women did in their home countries and the kinds of work they are relegated to in the U.S.; only 13% of immigrant women work as professionals in the United States, even though almost three times as many worked as such in their home countries.  Here, immigrant women tend to work in the domestic sphere, particularly in home or commercial cleaning, child care, and other caregiving professions.  But, again, despite a material need for care workers in the U.S., with an ageing population and the deterioration of living standards, these jobs are not considered high demand.  These jobs make up the underside of value production, meaning they will not increase capital, remedy the expulsion of workers from the workplace, or more broadly, the falling rate of profit.  In fact, the burden of reproduction is increasingly pushed back onto the working class through neoliberal management of the crisis.  Therefore, an increase in reproductive workers exacerbates the situation.  This is a layer that is utterly expendable to the ruling class.

Finally, undocumented children are a special problematic for the ruling class as well.  On the one hand, there is a schism between the number of child immigrants living in and moving to the U.S. and the “need” for their labor.  On the other, there are regulations against child labor in the first place.  From the capitalist perspective, these two dynamics place children in a similar superfluous position that women immigrants are in:  they are simply bleeding capital of its already thin resources.  Let us look closer at these two dynamics.

The industry that employs the most undocumented children is agriculture.  A recent study by Human Rights Watch concluded that child immigrants make up at least 9% of agricultural workers, totaling over 200,000 workers under 18 years old and about 50% of these immigrant children are undocumented.  Putting morals and child labor laws aside, we could infer that capital’s “demand” for undocumented child labor is about 100,000 children at any given time.  However, compare this to the 70,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in 2014, plus the annual average of 20,000 child border-crossers, the countless families with children crossing the border annually, and all the undocumented children already living in the U.S.  Agriculture is simply not an expanding market that can accommodate this kind of sharp increase in labor power “supply.”  From a crude capitalist perspective, there is simply no need for the vast majority of undocumented immigrant children in the U.S.

Furthermore, child labor itself is contradictory grounds under capitalism. In earlier forms of capitalism, it became necessary to regulate child labor and increase wages so a single (or perhaps double) wage earner could afford to reproduce his or her children.  This occurred in response to a combination of things, including class struggle, the morality of a small fracture of the ruling class, and the increased profitability of new forms of organization production, such as the shift work system.  The point is, however, that these changes were not legislated from above, nor did they occur overnight.  It took many decades of change in stops and starts for the mode of production to be revolutionized in this way.  This is important in analyzing today’s composition of capital and the role of immigrant children as a surplus population:  capitalism is not forward-thinking and so child immigrants are, like women immigrants, a deeply burdensome layer for capital to reproduce in the midst of a crisis of social reproduction.  Concretely, we can see this in the high cost of childcare, the decay of the public school system (particularly the lack of adequate English as a Second Language instruction), and family detention.

I believe these particular needs and challenges for capital have caused an increase in deportation and detention of women and children, and a renewed interest in “humane” forms of family detention.  On the one hand, it is a political strategy to control an expendable surplus population; on the other it is an economic strategy to avoid reproducing a layer of the working class that capital can no longer afford to reproduce.  A skeptic might point out that family detention is much more expensive than welfare programs, for example, costing around over $300 per person per day.  However, as I mentioned earlier, capitalism is not a forward-thinking mode of production, and there is simply more money budgeted to DHS and law enforcement than welfare.  This trend is not likely to reverse itself; increasingly, the ruling class must manage the crisis with the stick, leaving the carrot back in the 70s.  So, in fact, family detention is a clever way for the ruling class to reproduce a layer of the class who might be useful for them at some point, or have easy-access for deportation or other management strategies if the layer is not useful.  If we follow the strategy to its logical conclusion, we see a modern-day Bracero Program at best, a chain gang at worst.

The Movement of the Working Class.

Where does working class struggle fit into all of this?  I have set this question aside, in order to locate family detention within a broader analysis of capital’s current composition.  However, it is an extremely important element, both in terms of what is possible for struggling against family detention and what sort of repression or counter moves we can expect from the state.

The immigration movement is uniquely poised for a renewed wave of militant struggle, since there is some small amount of national continuity from Chicano Power and the United Farm Workers of the 1960s and 70s, through the 80s immigrant rights struggles for amnesty, to the 2006 May Day Strike, and finally the struggle against S.B. 1070, the left wing of the DREAM movement that have openly defied border laws, and the recent wave of uprisings and hunger strikes in detention centers.  Furthermore, the immigration movement provides a crucial opportunity for international solidarity and an international workers movement.  On the other hand, we can see how family detention could be a direct response to these dangerous forms of struggle.  We can presume that it is no coincidence that the Dilley facility opened one year after the DREAM 9 border crossing, and only months after a surge in unaccompanied children crossing the border.  While there may not be a direct link, it is clear that the state and the ruling class are looking for more options in pacifying the militant layer of the immigrant rights movement, whether it be concessionary moves like DACA or family detention.

But the good news is, knowing this, we can continue to be one step ahead of the state and the ruling class, and advance the struggle in new and creative ways.  Further, as the crisis deepens, we can expect those who bear the burden of the crisis to fight back in increasingly militant forms.  For immigrants, this will mean women and youth.  As the fight against family detention unfolds, we should keep the crisis of social reproduction at the forefront of our strategy in order to understand not only what we can do but why we do it.

5 thoughts on “Women and Children First…But the First Shall Be Last

  1. “A skeptic might point out that family detention is much more expensive than welfare programs, for example, costing around over $300 per person per day. However, as I mentioned earlier, capitalism is not a forward-thinking mode of production, and there is simply more money budgeted to DHS and law enforcement than welfare. This trend is not likely to reverse itself;increasingly, the ruling class must manage the crisis with the stick, leaving the carrot back in the 70s. So, in fact, family detention is a clever way for the ruling class to reproduce a layer of the class who might be useful for them at some point, or have easy-access for deportation or other management strategies if the layer is not useful. If we follow the strategy to its logical conclusion, we see a modern-day Bracero Program at best, a chain gang at worst.”

    I was thinking about this part of your piece in terms of what you laid out earlier, the ruling class is split on how to deal with immigration, and also how movements influence official politics, and vice versa. So while capital is not forward looking, there are often these contradictions based on movements and the ruling class. The right has been increasingly powerful and in their general approach of incarcerating immigrants. Then the humanitarian elements of the dems or parts of the right will reform the tendency for incarcerating immigrant, and thus more “humane” ways of detaining immigrants. But also I was thinking about the movement so far. You made a link to these humane institutions and movements, ie the Dilley/family facilities ad the border crossings the Dreamers did.

    On the flip side, without revolutionary theory we can have no revolutionary organizations. The May 2006 movement being coopted into non profits and democratic politicians allowed for the conversation to be taken back to how to deal with the immigration “issue” using these reformist methods. Politicians start drafting bills around the Dream Act movement which pulls apart those splits and Dreamers start calling for “Enlist me (in the army) now” and the whole good versus bad immigrant, “I speak English” and so on. But then there was the left wing split who started participating in direct action against politicians.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say you got me thinking about how the many different levels influence each other and push and pull each other in different directions. I think your piece lays this out very well.

  2. Thank you, this is a really great piece! I really appreciate this effort to situate immigration and resistance within the crisis of social reproduction.

    I’d like to suggest that it’s not just incomplete but misleading to describe the private prison industry as a driving force behind immigration control, despite their participation as speculators and contractors. In their campaigns to “abolish for-profit prisons”, groups like Grassroots Leadership and Enlace are quick to point to the booster role that companies like CCA and GEO Group have played for legislation expanding the detention apparatus. But their rhetoric obscures how these companies aligned themselves with a force in motion, and how their influence *primarily drives the privatization of the new infrastructure and/or its management*. This distinction is significant, particularly when groups like Grassroots Leadership are cited as a credible source for analysis and so often frame strategic targets.

    Rhetoric that replaces structural imperatives with profit motives as an explanation become ever problematic when groups like Grassroots Leadership and Enlace remain silent about their alliance with powerful guard unions, such as CCPOA and AFSCME. These groups contribute substantially more than CCA and GEO Group each year to political campaigns and legislation that expand criminalization, in addition to mobilizing their base in opposition to decarceration and prison closure.

    If we anticipate a renewed wave of militancy, we should also keep a keen eye on how these organizations capture and channel the attention, resources, and energies of students, community members in faith organizations, and low-wage workers toward the reformist trap of divestment. As divestment campaigns achieve relative success in pressuring key institutions to move their money, and several states have significantly reduced or cancelled their contracts entirely with private prisons, we see that divestment and deprivatization have not resulted in a single person being freed. Instead, the imprisoned population grew last year for the first time in several years, and states canceling contracts with privates resulted in the return of that infrastructure to public management or moving imprisoned people to public facilities.

    I think it will be necessary to dislodge this narrative about the private prison industry and to overcome the influence of organizations promoting that analysis if we want all the powerful organizing, blockades, strikes, and prison insurrections to flourish toward freeing people to live, reproduce, move, and fight on our own terms. Building on an analysis of the crisis of social reproduction, the power of struggles to come will be determined as much by their purpose as their form. I think your piece and a lot of the analysis y’all are publishing helps clarify that, and I hope my critique above doesn’t outweigh that.

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