This article is part of a broader month-long series on prison reform. Check here for other articles in the series.

Advertising neoliberal migration regimes as fostering economic opportunity, participating governments often camouflage the pervasive inequalities and injustices characterizing labour migration. By carefully depicting international labour mobility, labour-receiving states successfully mask inglorious realities to take advantage of power imbalances. As world-systems theory highlights, sustaining power differentials in globalized economies is possible, where countries contribute to the economy in markedly diverging ways. Most notably, such differences in roles inevitably lead to varying levels of economic and bargaining power. 

Since labour-receiving countries offer economic opportunities to migrants from labour-sending countries constrained in their ability to negotiate, their relationship is not one of equal-to-equal. Given their advantage, labour-receiving countries often opt to exploit migrant workers to secure their growing cheap labour needs at minimal costs. In order to mask this behaviour and quiet complaints from workers and human rights organizations, neoliberal states often frame labour migration using hospitality and state security narratives, leading to migrant dehumanization and criminalization.

The Hospitality Narrative

Foremost, labour-receiving countries conceal abusive dynamics by framing recruitment as generosity and altruism. This is especially true when welcomed workers come from impoverished countries with enormous wage differentials, as labour-receiving countries can easily exploit the figure of the pitiable and explicitly thankful, hard-working and compliant worker. These narratives are commonly used when recruiting labour for the agriculture and care sectors, where strenuous work is devalued and commoditized. By framing the recruitment of workers as an act of selflessness, states can avoid addressing workers’ complaints while at the same time, benefitting from this relationship by filling labour shortages at minimal costs. 

Emphasizing hospitality enables labour-receiving countries to establish a lower ‘tier’ of workers, who have fewer rights and benefits than non-migrant workers. Despite claims that migrant workers receive equal protection under employment standards as their domestic counterparts, the terms of their contracts make them vulnerable to abuse, as their employment status largely depends on the will of their employers. As a result, workers can become ‘criminals’ simply for voicing discontent with abusive working conditions. 

The State Security Narrative

Together with the hospitality narrative, labour-receiving countries also employ a narrative of protection to secure their economic gains. Through careful legal agreements, labour-receiving countries define the conditions under which migrant workers are allowed on the national territory, warning that any contract breaches will constitute a violation of territorial safety meriting a withdrawal of their ‘hospitality.’ Since international law dictates that states may respond when their territory is threatened, framing contract breaches in this way authorizes states to react forcefully. By instrumentalizing this protection imperative, states can depict migrants as ‘illegal aliens’ who need to be controlled, punished and deported in the name of territorial safety. 

When such narratives are advanced by liberal states which claim to promote the universality of human rights, McGill Professor of International Development Studies Kazue Takamura suggests that their insistence on “protection” is hypocritical. Professor Takamura specializes in the study of migrant mobility and argues that by depicting illegal migrants as undeserving of rights, labour-receiving countries justify migrants’ surveillance and incarceration in conditions where law is suspended by presenting them as being necessary to national security.

While claiming to actively promote inalienable rights, these states commit numerous violations when dealing with ‘illegal’ migrants who, merely due to their unsanctioned presence, are identified as threats to national security. Supplementing security concerns with warnings that if migrant workers breach their contracts with impunity others might follow, efforts to curb deviation are enthusiastically welcomed. As a result, justifications of appropriate “punishment” often enable abuse.  

Criminalization as Undeservingness

Rightlessness due to criminalization can concretely be observed through the case of the United States, where the 2001 Bush administration military order entitled, “Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Certain Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism” enacted the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. While indefinite incarceration and inaccessibility to legal representation are widely known to occur in this infamous location, human rights and torture conventions are also routinely violated in other countries preaching rights protection, according to Professor Takamura.

Deceptively, liberal democracies’ treatment of illegal migrants is framed as a state of exception: a provisional and exceptional ‘emptiness of law’. Usually reserved for substantial crises such as civil wars, democratic governments act counter to liberal norms and routinely instate this state of exception on illegal migrants. Applied to non-citizens, the state of exception has historically been fuelled by concerns about race, political ideologies, the economy, crime and terrorism. Justified through the language  of national security, the use of this state of exception has become embedded within the dominant understanding of sovereignty, insulating it from legal correction, political control as well as popular criticism. As a result, state violence in these instances is both unchecked and unquestioned. 

Rightlessness in Detention Centers

As these findings highlight, international human rights discourse is unable to hold states accountable when it comes to regulating their political power over their territory As such, the state of exception results in widespread human rights abuse. Since identifying who is ‘alien’ and who is not is intended to distinguish who may participate in the political process, protecting state security allows for the omittance of human rights throughout the state’s identification, supervision and deportation of illegal aliens. Reflected from civil rights to legal rights, rightlessness permits courts not to regard immigration detention and deportation as punishment. Having lost ‘inalienable’ human rights and protection against arbitrary violence, illegal aliens are vulnerable to ‘bare life’; robbed of their legal personality, they become anomalies for whom the general law does not provide, and as such are vulnerable to the police’s arbitrary and unrestricted rule. 

In the United States, this results in the ‘inapplicability’ of traditional constitutional protections such as the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to trial by jury, the prohibition on ex post facto laws, the right to appointed counsel, and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment, despite requirements by the Fifth Amendment that immigration proceedings be ‘fundamentally fair.’ Essentially criminal detention without constitutional protections, immigration detention endangers irregular migrants; and, in the United States alone, 111 deaths were reported between 2003 and 2015 in detention centres. 

Importing Workers, not People

As a whole, the manipulation of the image of migrants through discourse allows labour-receiving countries to fulfill their labour needs while minimizing costs. Initially recruiting capable workers through the language of hospitality, these countries can instrumentalize migrants’ ‘desperateness’ and vulnerability to establish a lower tier within the workforce. Pairing this language with a ‘national security’ narrative, host countries establish conditions which, if disobeyed, generate a portrayal of migrants as criminal, illegal aliens who endanger the nation. In turn, the state’s protection of national security results in complete disregard for human security and human rights. Imposing rightlessness in processes of migrant identification, detention and deportation, labour-receiving liberal democracies paradoxically breach the human rights discourse they ordinarily defend. By justifying such ruptures in human rights discourse through ‘state of exception’ claims, host countries prove they, indeed, import workers, not people. 

I would like to personally thank Professor Kazue Takamura. Her scholarship on the topic of migration considerably informed the arguments advanced in this piece. 

Edited by Jane Warren.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image includes images by Jason Hargrove – licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0Tim Dennell – licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0, Thierry Ehrmann – licensed under CC BY 2.0BBB World Service – licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0Joe Piette – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Association of Medical Illustrators – licensed under CC BY 4.0, and Washingtonnydc – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.