Protect, Serve, And Deport: The Rise Of Policing As Immigration Enforcement

Author: Amada Armenta
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017. 212p.
Reviewer: Nicolás Eilbaum | July 2018

The sharp rise in deportations over the last two decades could not have taken place without the active participation of local law enforcement. Following Congress’s authorization of the 287(g) program in the 1990s, hundreds of cities and counties around the country agreed to share information about local jail bookings with federal immigration authorities. The consequences have been extraordinary — routine traffic stops have triggered hundreds of thousands of deportations, breaking families and communities apart. In the course of two decades, local police officers have become decisive pieces of an ever-growing immigration enforcement machine.

Sociologist Amada Armenta’s Protect, Serve, and Deport examines the role of local police in immigration enforcement as it plays out on the ground. Focusing on metropolitan Nashville, the author earned the trust of local police officers and spent hundreds of hours going on patrol, making traffic stops, and responding to calls with them. She also spent time with sheriff’s deputies in the Davidson County Jail as foreigners were interviewed and processed for potential immigration violations. Drawing from her observations of local policing as practiced every day, Armenta reveals the mindset of local police officers as they approach immigration enforcement.

The core finding presented in the book is unsettling — local police are not fully aware of their own role in immigration enforcement. In one scene observed by the author, an officer responds to what sounds like a domestic violence call. Once there he struggles to understand what’s going on. The alleged victim doesn’t speak much English, she acts scared and uncooperative, and it’s no longer clear who placed the call. Back in the car and feeling frustrated, the officer attributes this woman ’s lack of cooperation to the complexities of domestic violence. That she might also be concerned about her immigration status does not even seem to register.

This officer is not alone. Immigration status, Armenta writes, appears to be “institutionally invisible” to most officers (p. 102). And what is not seen is not questioned. As minor traffic violations routinely lead to major life disruptions such as deportation, some officers might question whether the system is fair. But the immigration consequences of their work remain invisible to them. When pressed to discuss their role in immigration enforcement, they largely claim ignorance. Their focus is on making the largest numbers of stops—whether immigrants end up deported is beyond their visual field. This institutional compartmentalization allows for local police to play a key role in mass deportations almost without knowing it.

In a highly divided country, the question of local police involvement in immigration enforcement has become fiercely contested. Some police departments have embraced their role in immigration enforcement (and some have even gone beyond federal expectations). Other departments have raised concerns about the potential for undermining the local community’s trust in the police, in some cases actively rejecting the federal government’s enforcement approach and responding with so-called sanctuary policies. Despite these broad debates surrounding their activities, Protect, Serve, and Deport suggests that police officers on the ground are likely to be dangerously indifferent—they will collaborate with immigration enforcement but without ever stopping to think about it.

Armenta’s fieldwork is very impressive—she spent hours and hours riding along with officers in patrol cars. The result is a book that captures the texture of local immigration enforcement as police officers approach it on the streets of Nashville. It shows that such enforcement at the local level is often tied less to ideology (how officers feel about immigrants generally) and more to the specific institutional arrangements of officers’ jobs—from the incentives to make traffic stops to the bureaucratic division of labor that makes immigration invisible to them. Most crucially, it shows how easily government machines can be set up so that the people who operate them don’t see the suffering they inflict. That is the relevance of this exceedingly timely book.

Nicolás Eilbaum, Greensboro College

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