Immigration Enforcement and Domination

Date01 March 2017
Published date01 March 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(1) 42 –54
© 2016 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912916680036
Boubacar Bah came to the United States from Guinea in
1998 on a tourist visa, remaining in New York to work
sixty-hour weeks as a tailor after it expired. When he
heard about a special green card program to regularize his
status, he applied for and obtained permission to visit his
family, whom he had not seen in nearly ten years. But
upon returning to New York, he learned that his applica-
tion had been denied. Instead of opting for deportation, he
chose to fight his case from the Elizabeth Detention
Center in New Jersey, run by the private company
Corrections Corporation of America.
We do not know how Bah’s skull was fractured in cus-
tody nine months later. In February 2007, he was found
unconscious on the floor of his dorm bathroom. When he
was brought to the medical unit run by the U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the
Public Health Service, he became agitated. Documents
obtained by the New York Times detail how he was
“shackled and pinned to the floor of the medical unit as
he moaned and vomited, then left in a disciplinary cell for
more than 13 hours, despite repeated notations that he
was unresponsive and intermittently foaming at the
mouth” (Bernstein 2008). He spent five days in the hospi-
tal with a skull fracture and multiple brain hemorrhages
before officials alerted the family.
While Bah languished in the hospital, ICE managers
sought to avoid media scrutiny and discussed strategies to
avoid paying for his medical care. These included deport-
ing him and granting him the green card he sought so that
he could be eligible for Medicaid. Ultimately, they
decided to make Bah’s cousins in New York responsible
for his medical bills, but he died before he could be
released to his family. An internal ICE review concluded
that no action was warranted, as ICE employees were not
at fault.1
Boubacar Bah’s case is by no means unique (National
Immigrant Justice Center and Detention Watch Network
2015). In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union and
the New York Times invoked the Freedom of Information
Act to investigate the number of immigrants who had
died in custody (Bernstein 2008, 2010; Harris 2010).
Between 2003 and 2015, 150 people died in immigrant
detention centers with most common causes listed as car-
diovascular (33.3%), cancer (16.1%), suicide (13.4%),
and other (12.8%) (Granski, Keller, and Venters 2015). In
recent years, deaths in ICE detention have declined, but
reports of abuse of detained migrants remain widespread
(Martínez, Slack, and Heyman 2013).
Bah’s case raises questions about the morality of
immigration administration and enforcement and the role
of bureaucratic discretion in controlling migration. In
680036PRQXXX10.1177/1065912916680036Political Research QuarterlySager
1Portland State University, OR, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alex Sager, Department of Philosophy, Portland State University,
Neuberger Hall, 393, 724 SW Harrison, Portland, OR 97207-0751,
Immigration Enforcement and
Domination: An Indirect Argument
for Much More Open Borders
Alex Sager1
Normative reflection on the ethics of migration has tended to remain at the level of abstract principle with limited
attention to the practice of immigration administration and enforcement. This paper explores the implications of this
practice for an ethics of immigration with particular attention to the problem of bureaucratic domination. I contend
that migration administration and enforcement cannot overcome bureaucratic domination because of the inherent
vulnerability of migrant populations and the transnational enforcement of border controls by multiple public and
private actors. The implication is that even if restrictive immigration policies are permissible in principle, the attempt
to enforce them leads to injustices that make them ethically unacceptable in practice.
bureaucracy, domination, migration, neo-republicanism, open borders

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