Building a Wall, Building a State: How and Why Congress Constructed the Border Enforcement Apparatus, 1996-2010.

Kimberly Morgan, The George Washington University

Starting in the mid-1990s, U.S. policymakers began a massive expansion of the immigration enforcement apparatus. An important part of this build-up has been the development of fencing and deployment of military technologies at the (southern) border, as well as dramatic growth in the number of border patrol agents. This paper conceptualizes the border build-up as a form of state-building and asks why U.S. policymakers have attempted to build enforcement capacities through border control. Contrary to the common tendency to associate border enforcement policies with particular presidents, and to assume that Congress is gridlocked and incapable of legislating in this and other domains, I show that Congress was the central driver of the expansion, which largely occurred between 1996 and 2010 and had bipartisan backing. Features of Congress – the rootedness of its members in state and local politics, frequency of elections, and permeability to interest groups – explain why policymakers prioritized border enforcement. As unauthorized migrants moved outside of the traditional settlement states, local reactions against them were channeled through individual members and built into broad support for tough action. Yet, because members of Congress are acutely attuned to the preferences of their constituents, including employers, worksite enforcement as a strategy of migration control was out of the question. Migrants seeking to enter the U.S. have few champions in U.S. politics, and so policymakers put the costs of enforcement on them, rather than impose costs on their own constituents. This episode is illustrative of a more general dynamic in American political development whereby the central role of Congress in state-building has consequences for how power is mobilized and deployed.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 228. Migration Policy and American Political Development