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Policing Immigrants

Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines

The United States deported nearly two million illegal immigrants during the first five years of the Obama presidency—more than during any previous administration. President Obama stands accused by activists of being “deporter in chief.” Yet despite efforts to rebuild what many see as a broken system, the president has not yet been able to convince Congress to pass new immigration legislation, and his record remains rooted in a political landscape that was created long before his election. Deportation numbers have actually been on the rise since 1996, when two federal statutes sought to delegate a portion of the responsibilities for immigration enforcement to local authorities.

Policing Immigrants traces the transition of immigration enforcement from a traditionally federal power exercised primarily near the US borders to a patchwork system of local policing that extends throughout the country’s interior. Since federal authorities set local law enforcement to the task of bringing suspected illegal immigrants to the federal government’s attention, local responses have varied. While some localities have resisted the work, others have aggressively sought out unauthorized immigrants, often seeking to further their own objectives by putting their own stamp on immigration policing. Tellingly, how a community responds can best be predicted not by conditions like crime rates or the state of the local economy but rather by the level of conservatism among local voters. What has resulted, the authors argue, is a system that is neither just nor effective—one that threatens the core crime-fighting mission of policing by promoting racial profiling, creating fear in immigrant communities, and undermining the critical community-based function of local policing.

Read the first chapter.

208 pages | 8 maps, 4 figures, 13 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Chicago Series in Law and Society

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: Public Policy, Race and Politics

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


Policing Immigrants is one of the few books to comprehensively analyze the devolution of immigration enforcement into the ‘patchwork’ of policies and practices that defines contemporary immigration policy in the United States. Drawing on a large cache of original data, the authors trace in careful detail the historical development of the variations across local jurisdictions and provide clear and in-depth analysis of how devolution is proceeding, including the challenges and implications. The book makes an important contribution.”

Kitty Calavita, author of Invitation to Law and Society

“How to address immigration is among the most significant political issues in the United States. With the political parties increasingly polarized on whether or how to integrate the eleven million undocumented immigrants presently in the country, Policing Immigrants makes a major contribution to our understanding of US legal policy on immigration and will contribute to the debate for years to come. No other book so well describes the dramatic variations in local immigration enforcement or the implications for local communities and federal policy.”

Charles R. Epp, author of Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship

“This timely book exposes the ragged edges of federalism. What many in Washington think is a federal problem calling for national solutions has become an inward-looking and highly varied set of practices reflecting local priorities and politics. These play themselves out differently everywhere, leaving migrants caught up in this morass to an uncertain fate. What is certain is that this political struggle is far from over. This important book should play a major role in clarifying the magnitude of the contradictions that are at work in the immigration debate.”

Wesley G. Skogan, author of Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities

"Although these scholars are not the first to argue that immigration enforcement varies widely across localities, no other studies have covered this topic with such extraordinary breadth. The book skillfully distills the complex and dynamic landscape of immigration policing, making it accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike. . . . This is timely and essential reading for scholars, students, and practitioners interested in policing, immigration enforcement, and immigrant–police relations."

Theoretical Criminology

Table of Contents


1. Introducing the Conflicted Politics of Localized Immigration Control
2. The Evolution of Devolution
3. The Problematic Patchwork of Immigration Federalism
4. Going Their Own Way: Community Context and Its Influences on the Patchwork
5. Discretion on the Front Lines: Immigrant Policing in Action
6. Negotiated Understandings between Law Enforcement and Local Communities
7. Conclusions and Recommendations: Finding the Way Forward

Appendix: Multivariate Analyses of Policing Practices and Local Government Policies


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

American Society of Criminology, Division of Policing: Outstanding Book on Policing Award

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