by Alissa R. Ackerman and Rich Furman (eds.). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2014. 302pp. Paper $40.00. ISBN: 978-1-61163-356-6.

Reviewed by Bianca Easterly, Department of Political Science, Lamar University. bianca [dot] easterly [at] lamar [dot] edu.


America’s response to the recent surge of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. not only demonstrates its complex and oftentimes conflicting relationship to immigrants but it also provides a poignant example of the need for humanistic approaches to immigration policy. Throughout history, America’s display of hospitality toward some groups and the criminalization others is like a metaphorical game of musical chairs that is designed to systematically exclude certain groups. It is difficult to reconcile an American iconic figure like the Statue of Liberty calling on other nations to “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” with a government that enacts anti-immigration legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese interment Executive Orders, and Operation “Wetbacks” (Lazarus and Eiselein 2002). Simply put, how does a nation of immigrants use terms like “aliens” or “illegals” to both describe and treat undocumented entrants?

Alissa R. Ackerman and Rich Furman’s edited collection THE CRIMINALIZATION OF IMMIGRATION: CONTEXTS AND CONSEQUENCES culls a host of social science experts in the area of social work, law, sociology, anthropology, and criminology, as well as personal accounts of those whose lives are impacted by immigration law, to shed light on the enduring inconsistencies in state, national, and transnational immigration policy, and the toll the laws take on human lives. Despite being the “supreme law of the land” as stipulated in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI), the federal governments’ decision to treat undocumented border crossing administratively is often eclipsed by powerful and prevalent nativist forces that shape immigration laws in the states and abroad. Nativism, according to Ackerman and Furman, is a response to the potential loss of economic and political hegemony America once enjoyed in the 20th century. By framing immigration as a “crisis” or another “war” that our government must fight against at all costs (like the “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism”), Ackerman and Furman theorize that lawmakers pacify citizens with policies that reinforce the notion that the only way to fight the perceived enemy is to criminalize them.

The five sections in this collection emphasize this point. The first section familiarizes the reader with the theoretical issues and key assumptions that encompass the issue of immigration criminalization. According to Sanchez, Furman, and Ackerman (Chapter Two), the three-pronged pacification strategy lawmakers employ focuses citizens’ attention on the perceived economic and social threat immigrants pose incentive to attract ethnic [*373] “blame game”) and the legal and institutional mechanisms necessary to punish them for their criminal behavior, which diverts citizens’ attention away from real policy problems and distracts them from critically evaluating the structural problems within society as a whole, and within certain institutions and structures (p.16). Next, David Brotherton bridges sociology, criminology, and performance studies to transform his experiences as an expert witness in immigration appeals court deportation proceedings in “The Deportation as a Theater of Cruelty” (Chapter Three) into five theatrical dramas. This artistic approach enables readers to experience the contradictions and everyday suffering of immigrants living in an “Immigration/Deportation Nation,” which he concludes is critically absent in criminological theory testing (p.44).

Section Two describes Arizona, Alabama, and Indiana’s recent controversial laws to demonstrate the complicated role of federalism in immigration policy. Susanna Jones explains in Chapter Four how enduring racial tensions in Arizona led to the adoption of its harshest anti-immigration measure, “Support Our Land Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” (SB1070), which passed in 2010. In Chapter Five, María Pabón López and Natasha Anne Lacoste argue that Alabama’s “misery strategy” through the adoption of the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2011 (H.B. 56), works counterproductively against federal laws that would likely “yield better results for all parties involved” (p.70). López and Lacoste argue the misery strategy is likely to fail because “The American people cherish lawfulness but resist cruelty” (p.71). Sujey Vega’s troubling enthnography in Chapter Six of an undocumented mother whose life in Indiana becomes further marginalized by the adoption of SB590 in mid-2011 illustrates the personal implications of criminalized immigration.

The four chapters in Section Three entitled, “Actors and Players: The Socio-Political Context of Criminalization of Immigration,” explore the effect punitive approaches to immigration have on contemporary issues, including labor standards enforcement, immigrant detention, the right wing perspective in the United States and in Europe, and white supremacy. Kati L. Griffith’s investigation of the labor-related aspects of what she refers to as “crimmigration” (p.91) in Chapter Seven assesses the potential threat to baseline workplace and labor standards these policies pose by creating fewer incentives for immigrants to report abuses of their workplace protections or to engage in collective activity. In Chapter Eight, Alissa R. Ackerman and Rich Furman, along with Britt Judy and Jeff Cohen, expand on the detainment component of the pacification strategy introduced in Chapter Two. They detail the lucrative business of immigrant detainment for private prison industry, the industry’s legislative efforts to increase profits, and the perils of detaining undocumented immigrants. Chebel D’Appollonia’s comparison of conservative ideologies in the United States and in Europe in Chapter Nine reveals two diverging political implications. In particular, while restrictive citizenship policies and an underrepresentation of minorities in government offer Rightist parties in Europe little incentive to attract ethnic [*374] voters, it has become increasingly important for the U.S. Republican Party to balance policies that appeal to their core white voters with the policy interests of Hispanic voters. A case study of a white supremacist organization in Chapter Ten by Stanislav Vysotsky and Eric Madfis exposes the various strategies similar groups employ to suppress their racist ideology in order to garner the attention of and support from mainstream anti-immigration supporters.

Section Four puts immigration criminalization in a global context by examining its effect on human rights, Mexican migration, the making of the Maras and in the United Kingdom. David Androff ’s “Human Rights and the War on Immigration,” considers the implications of state-level laws on the principles of human rights and the international covenants, conventions, and organizations that protect the rights of immigrants and those of migrant workers and their families. Androff believes a rights-based approach would consider the rights of migrants before prioritizing economic and security concerns (p.159). In “Transnational Dimensions of Mexican Migration at the Cusp of Immigration Reform”, William Haller (Chapter 12) explains the equivocal relationship between the United States and Mexico is a product of transnationalism that ultimately led to both the prevalence and dissemination of criminal activity throughout the Americas. Sonya Wolf’s case study of the Maras (Chapter Thirteen), which is a gang of El Salvadorian youth that originated in the U.S. but whose violence in the 1990s resulted in members’ deportation, demonstrates the effect punitive immigration laws have had on spreading gang activity throughout North and Central America. This section concludes with Ana Aliverti’s essay (Chapter 14) that analyzes the historical and political aspects of immigration breaches such as “over-stayers” and asylum abuses that are criminalized in the United Kingdom.

The compelling collection of ethnographies and the autoethnography that comprise the final section of the collection represents the lives of undocumented immigrants (“The Crime of Presence: Latino Meatpacking Workers in Iowa” by Mark A. Gray and Michele Devlin, and “No Somos Vagabundos” (“We Are Not Loiterers”): The Impact of Anti-Immigrant Policies on the Lives of Latino Day Laborers in the United States” by Nalini Negi and Neely Mahapatra ), their children (“Children of the Unauthorized: Domains of Compromise in Development” by Carola Suárez-Orozo, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, and Dalal Katsiaficas ), their advocates (“Systematic Parallels: The Impact of Criminalizing Immigration on Work with Asian Victims of Intimate Partner Violence” by Tien Ung” ), and even those who are in charge of detaining them (“The Impact of Detaining Immigrants on a Detention Officer: An Autoethnography by Doug Epps ).

THE CRIMINALIZATION OF IMMIGRATION: CONTEXTS AND CONSEQUENCES makes innovative use of real life stories of immigrants to acquaint readers with the multi-governmental complexities of the criminalization of undocumented immigrants. Although varied in style and tone, each well written essay commits to exposing the politics of immigration policymaking and, most importantly, to [*375] advocating for a humanitarian perspective on immigration which is likely to appeal to both academic and non-academic audiences.


Lazarus, Emma, and Gregory Eiselein. 2002. EMMA LAZARUS: SELECTED POEMS AND OTHER WRITINGS. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Copyright 2014 by the Author, Bianca Easterly.