New York Times
By Amanda Taub and Max Fisher
February 23, 2017
New deportation rules proposed by the Trump administration risk creating an American underclass with parallels to others around the world: slum residents in India, guest workers in oil-rich Persian Gulf states and internal migrant workers in China.
Those groups provide a cautionary tale for what could happen if the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, as well as their family members, are forced deep into the shadows.
Stuck in a gray zone outside the legal system, they are vulnerable to exploitation, including wage theft and sex trafficking. Because they are denied formal protections or services, informal alternatives take their place — creating an ideal space for corruption, gangs and other forms of criminality.
The result is often the precise opposite of what the administration is seeking: not a cohesive society but a fragmented one, not less crime but more, and, rather than ending undocumented immigration, deepening the secrecy that makes it difficult to manage.
In the United States, undocumented immigrants have always lived in limbo, officially illegal but often tolerated. But President Trump’s new rules, aimed at reconciling that contradiction, risk deepening it. As a result, they could increase the burdens on undocumented migrants and, more broadly, on society.
A Community in Legal Limbo
This kind of underclass begins with a gap between law and reality.
India’s slums, for instance, are often portrayed as emblems of the country’s struggle with poverty. But they also signal India’s failure to keep up with its rapidly growing urban populations. People who migrate to cities, unable to find sufficient affordable housing, improvise sprawling settlements that become more permanent.
While cities often tolerate these illegal settlements — their residents help drive the economy — there is always a chance that slums can be cleared. Residents, living in legal limbo, can’t get access to full state services or, often, rely on the protection of the police.
In China, the “hukou” system of residence permits has left an estimated 250 million people as a semipermanent urban underclass.
Rural laborers who move to cities for work have been vital to China’s economic growth for decades. But the hukou system ties their right to services to their residential status.
As a result, a quarter billion urban workers are registered as rural, cutting them off from basic services like health care in the cities where they live. Their children are even denied education — urban schools serve only children registered as urban — entrenching their status as a permanent underclass.
America’s undocumented immigrants live under a similar contradiction between law and reality. Though millions reside in the United States, often bolstering local economies, being in the wrong place at the wrong time could lead to deportation.
Previous administrations focused on deporting criminals, giving most undocumented people tacit permission to feel secure in basic interactions with the state.
The Trump administration’s new deportation rules will, by radically expanding who can be targeted for deportation, remove that security and heighten the burdens of life in limbo.
A Vacuum Filled by Illegality
The gulf states of the Middle East demonstrate how creating an underclass can also invite abuse and corruption.
Under what is known as the kafala system, a gulf state employer can unilaterally dictate the legal and immigration status of unskilled foreign migrants who work jobs like construction and housekeeping, putting those workers at the whims of employers.
This system, though legal, forces foreign workers outside of anything resembling a formal set of laws. Allegations of abuse are widespread, including wage theft and forced labor.
When so many people exist in the shadows, the rest of society is inevitably affected, investigations have found. Loan sharks proliferate, as do predatory business practices built on easily exploited and barely regulated labor, the abundance of which undercuts local workers.
Undocumented immigrants in the United States face a similar problem. Economic conditions attract workers, but their illegal status prevents the state from either protecting them or ensuring that their labor is regulated and taxed in a way that fairly benefits everyone.
India’s slums demonstrate another issue: Residents, cut off from basic services and the justice system, need something to take their place. Often, it is criminal elements that rush in to fill the vacuum.
People need electricity, for instance, but when anyone who diverts electricity into a slum city is by definition a criminal, then criminals will fill that need. The same goes for sewers, electricity and basic security — a need that tends to produce violent protection rackets.
Sean Fox, a lecturer at the University of Bristol in England, has studied the political economy of urban slums. In some Latin American slums, he said, gangs “are actually providing a regulatory function in their neighborhoods by creating territories.”
“People within that territory are considered part of the gang’s agreement of protection,” Dr. Fox said.
American immigration restrictions have long created a similar vacuum. Undocumented migrants turn to criminal smugglers for help entering and leaving the country, for instance.
Mr. Trump’s new deportation rules risk extending this vacuum across the border into much of the United States. If millions of undocumented migrants and their family members conclude they cannot call the police to report a crime without risking deportation, they will lose formal legal protections. Only informal alternatives would remain.
Rather than bolstering the rule of law, these rules could open a yet wider space where it does not exist.
A Barely Tolerable Equilibrium
These informal systems persist because they work just well enough for just enough people, Dr. Fox said.
In India, for instance, the slums provide just enough of a solution for everyone — slum dwellers survive day-to-day, criminal groups extract their slice and local officials siphon off something for themselves. This means that everyone works to preserve the equilibrium, despite its costs.
“There’s always a kernel of hope that these hybrid systems are going to evolve” into something more sustainable, Dr. Fox said, “but unfortunately the fact of their hybridity makes them susceptible to shifting political winds.”
When these systems come under inevitable pressure to reform, that can happen in one of two ways — expelling the populations or bringing them out of the shadows — but neither has proved easy.
Mr. Trump is trying the first option, but similar efforts by other countries show that this rarely solves the underlying problem and can create new challenges.
Some officials in India have tried to fix their slums by simply razing them, reasoning that the constructions are illegal. This can lead to clashes with residents and to corruption, with developers and officials colluding to seize valuable land.
Even if slum residents are cleared out, this does not fix the problem that put them in slums in the first place: Cities need cheap labor but often don’t provide cheap housing. If anything, it exacerbates the costs of this problem, with families being ejected from the legal limbo of the slums to the lawlessness of living on the street.
A lesson from such efforts: Populations who live in legal limbo are not the cause of the problem, but rather a symptom. Targeting them with expulsion can end up deepening the underlying issue, making it costlier and harder to resolve.
Efforts to move such communities out of the shadows have also run into problems.
Some Gulf states, facing growing international pressure, have tried to improve migrants’ rights. But business groups have opposed those efforts. The changes also face political resistance because they touch on difficult questions of national identity in countries where foreign workers outnumber citizens.
China plans to grant, by 2020, urban resident status to 100 million rural migrants living in its cities. But this has met opposition from urban communities, who see unwelcome competition for already-scarce resources like housing and education. The plan will benefit migrants who prove themselves to be desirable, and cities will set their own standards, creating further layers of separate social and legal status.
The United States has itself granted periodic amnesties to undocumented migrants. But while this temporarily reduces pressure on migrants and on the state, it leaves the underlying problem in place — and tends to prompt a populist backlash that leads to policies like Mr. Trump’s deportation rules.
These marginalized communities are often targeted by populists, Dr. Fox said, precisely because their status leaves them unable to fight back.
By definition, any effort to fix such a system means upsetting whatever equilibrium has developed. When that happens, it is almost always the most vulnerable — the slum residents, the migrant workers, the undocumented immigrants — who will suffer the consequences.
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