Immigration and neo-liberalism: three stories and counter accounts

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Cheryl. R. Lehman*, Marcia Annisette, and Gloria Agyemang

* Cheryl R. Lehman

Department of Accounting, Taxation,

And Legal Studies in Business

Hofstra University

Hempstead, NY USA 11549

Marcia Annisette

Schulich School of Business

York University
4700 Keele Street, Toronto

Ontario Canada M3J 1P3

Gloria Agyemang

School of Management

Royal Holloway, University of London

Egham UK TW20 0EX

*Corresponding Author


Purpose –

This paper advocates for critical accounting’s contribution to immigration debates as part of its core agenda for advancing social justice and potential role in significant debates. We focus on how global immigration policies are driven by neo-liberalist restructuring, thinking, and tactics, and counter these competitive modalities with “real accounts” – those of immigrants’ stories.

Methodology –

The work illustrates three neo-liberalist strategies: information profiling, responsibilization, and expansion of knowledge networks, linking accounting technology as a significant contributor: monitoring immigration policies, reducing people to merely economic beings, and privileging market rationalities. The paper provides three case studies from the US, the UK and Canada to demonstrate the impacts of neo-liberalism and to provide counter accounts through immigrant narratives.

Originality –

The work is a unique contribution to the underdeveloped study of immigration in critical accounting. By unmasking accounting’s role and revealing techniques underpinning immigration discourses, enhanced ways of researching immigration are possible.

Research implications/limitations –

The work reveals the illusion of accounting technology as neutral, and immigrants as market rationalizers, but rather distinguishes immigrants as social agents with capabilities and aspirations. No single story captures the nuances and complexities and thus further development is encouraged.

Findings -

The paper suggests through the narratives and stories of immigrants critical and counter accounting for immigration may be developed.

Paper Type - Research Papers
Key words – immigration, accountability, neo-liberalism, narratives, critical accounting and governance.

Immigration has emerged as a critical field of political, economic and social practice. In many of today’s advanced capitalist economies, immigration policy is linked to economic development and is a highly contested political issue, whilst the plight of immigrant communities is considered a, if not the major social issue. As a field of policy, immigration is fraught with tension and contradiction. In Canada, the UK and the US, immigrant status in now seen as a marker for social disadvantage, being highly correlated with poverty, homelessness, and low labour market outcomes. Despite the observation that immigrant status has emerged as a potent basis for social conflict and inequality in many national sites, there has been little critical accounting enquiry into this field1. Yet critical accounting research has led the way in probing accounting’s partisanship in the major social struggles of our times. In this paper we explore the ways in which accounting and its related practices have come to intervene in the field of immigration and use immigrant narratives as a means of giving (counter) accounts of the accounting-immigration nexus. By focusing on immigrant stories, we follow a long tradition in critical accounting research in giving voice to the marginalized (see Annisette, 2003; Arnold, 1999; Chwastiak, 2009; Dambrin and Lambert, 2010, Dillard, 2003; Dillard and Reynolds, 2008; Duff and Ferguson, 2011; Gallhofer and Haslam, 2006; Hammond et. al. 2009, 2011; Killian, 2010; Lehman, 2012; Oakes and Young, 2008; Reiter, 1997).
Central to the analysis which follows is our firm belief that immigration policy and practice under advanced capitalism is an integral part of neo-liberal restructuring (Bauder, 2008) and that accounting is a vital technology in the tool box of neo-liberal governance and rule (Miller and Rose, 1990). We argue that contemporary neo-liberal states have singled out the development of a “knowledge-based economy” as a key driver of comparative advantage in the global economy, and to that end many have re-crafted their immigration policy into a skill-based strategy aimed at attracting individuals whose repertoire of skills match those presumed needed for neoliberal market economies. Consequently immigrants are often accounted for by the statistical tables, flow charts and annual government reports attempting to document and classify them in those terms, whilst audits and inspections are employed by governments to manage migration, to sift and to sort out the acceptable from the unacceptable. On the other hand, written stories, visual images, and the oral tradition of storytelling, reveal immigrants as otherwise silenced people and as human beings in motion with aspirations. Immigrants’ stories and their narratives provide more nuanced accounts and offer an alternative means of evaluating and understanding immigration decisions and lives. They highlight the effects of “pushing metrics into more and more areas which are properly the domain of human judgment” (Power, 2004, p. 772).
By tying the current rhetoric of global neo-liberalism to contemporary immigration, and reflecting on the stories immigrants recount, this paper aims to integrate accounting with immigration discourses and to analyse the significant consequences of economic globalization on people. In so doing we add to the work of others before us in illustrating the potential of migrant stories to improving theorization on migration and neo-liberalization (Lawson 1999, 2000, Annisette and Trivedi 2013). The paper achieves its purposes by discussing three immigration episodes from three countries, the US, Canada and the UK.
Our arguments are developed in 5 sections. The next section, Section 2 provides a guide to conceptualizations of neoliberalism. We draw on current debates and policies from the US, the UK and Canada to illustrate the commonalties and varieties of neo liberalist thinking as well as its impacts, showing how accounting technologies are implicated and used. In Sections 3 we discuss alternative accountings through the use of stories and narratives. Section 4 contains three stories from the 3 countries that illustrate both the use of accounting technologies in the context of neo-liberalism and the narratives that immigrants tell about the impacts of specific policies. The final section 5 provides a concluding discussion.
2. Contemporary immigration, neoliberalism and accounting

Canada was among the first to specifically link immigration policy to skill, doing so in a limited way in 1967 and increasingly expanding it over time. Australia, New Zealand, and the UK formally changed to a skill based strategy in 1989, 1991 and 2011 resp. According to Pottie-Sherman (2012), the list of countries that have moved to supply-driven systems now includes Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Singapore, South Africa, Lithuania, and Romania.

Immigration policy in many of these countries is increasingly framed within the context of a “global competition for talent” (Castles, 2000; Castles and Miller, 2009; De Genova, 2002: Dhawan, 2007; Gold, 2005; Li, 1992; Menz, 2009; Ong, 2006, 2010; Papademetriou et. al., 2008; Papastergiadis, 2000; Shelley, 2007; Brown and Tannock, 2009). Brown and Tannock (2009, p. 381) explain the global competition for talent in this way:
The basic story goes as follows: the path to national prosperity lies in maximizing global competitiveness; to be competitive globally, nations (rich nations, in particular) need to maximize their share of the world’s high tech, high skill, knowledge economy jobs; to help create and fill these jobs, nations need to recruit the world’s most skilled and talented individuals, from wherever they come; since other nations are competing for these same workers (and indeed, for one’s own set of domestic workers), nations need to adjust their immigration, education, economic and social policy.
There are examples in the policy documents from several countries attesting to this focus on skills. In Canada for example, a report of the Conference Board of Canada stated:
To ensure an adequate supply of talented workers to fuel economic growth and to sustain Canada’s standard of living and quality of life, it is estimated that Canada will need to bring in more than 300,000 immigrants annually after 2011—representing an increase of about 60,000 immigrants per year over the levels that have prevailed since 2000…It is no longer the case that skilled immigrants and international workers are going to “walk in the front door” and plan on working or settling in Canada. There is just too much global competition for top talent. The competition for international talent with tertiary education in science and engineering, for example, is intense, with the U.S. capturing 45 per cent of this professional and technical migration while Canada captures just 10 per cent (Watt et al 2008, p. 5).
Similarly, in the UK in 2006, a policy document stated the following:

We think that there are some high-level benefits that should be delivered by any effective managed migration strategy. These are: Economic and international competitiveness • Identifying, attracting and retaining, those who will increase the skills and knowledge-base of the UK;• Identifying and attracting those who will invest capital or in their education in the UK; enabling employers to fill short-term gaps in the labour market;• Contributing to the UK economy (The UK Government, 2006, CM6741, p. 9).

For the US, Pottie-Sherman (2012) observes the 2007 failure to pass a US Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA) (proposed by Republicans) that included a points-based-system based on skills, was argued against (by Democrats) for weakening the moral foundation of the USA, enshrined in its policy of family reunification. However, this is a suspect claim at best, as skills have always been privileged in US immigration policies, status, and legal entry provisions. Politics, discourse, the complexity of neoliberalism, race, and immigration policy in the USA can create a myth that skills are not employed as a criteria, while also recognizing the US need for “less skilled” labor (Pottie-Sherman, 2012; Heyman, 1998).
This framing of immigration policy as a platform for national competitiveness is illustrative of what Ilcan and Phillips (2010) refer to as “the neoliberal mentality” characterized by an unremitting extension of market logic and rules into all spheres of social life. The immigration apparatus that we explore in this paper therefore should be considered part and parcel of a wider state apparatus designed to harness and extract life forces according to market principles of efficiency and competitiveness (Walsh 2011, p. 862; Ong 2006, p. 4). Neo-liberalism, is a “political –rationality” that forces the social realm to operate under the forces of market logic” (Pottie-Sherman 2012, p. 5). In a nutshell therefore, by erasing their capabilities as social and moral agents, contemporary neoliberal states recast immigrants and would-be immigrants, as primarily economic agents (Castles and Miller, 2009; De Haas, 2011; Hansen and Porter, forthcoming; Nussbaum, 2000; Pallitto and Heyman, 2008). Once so defined, they are immediately rendered available for economic measurement and manipulation via a range of calculative technologies of which accounting is one. The ultimate effect of neoliberal immigration policy and practice therefore is to confound prior understandings of citizenship and what it is to be a citizen. As Ong (2006, p. 6-7) points out:
the elements that we think of as coming together to create citizenship –rights, entitlements, territoriality, a nation- are becoming disarticulated and rearticulated with forces set in motion by market forces. On the one hand, citizenship elements such as entitlements and benefits are increasingly associated with neoliberal criteria so that mobile individuals who possess human capital or expertise are highly valued and can exercise citizenship-like claims in diverse locations. Meanwhile, citizens who are judged not to have such tradable competence or potential become devalued and this vulnerable to exclusionary practices.

Conceiving of accounting and its related technologies (e.g. the audit) as an important means through which neoliberal immigration policy is made operable, we follow a well-established line of accounting research which views accounting and calculative technologies as a major component in the arsenal of neoliberal governmentality (Armstrong, 2002; Catchpowle et. al., 2004; Chwastiak, 2009; Chwastiak and G. Lehman, 2008; Everett, 2003; Ezzamel, 2009; Ezzamel and Hoskin, 2002; Knights et. al., 1987; Laughlin and Broadbent, 1993; Neu and Ocampo, 2007; Neu et. al., 2006; Robson, 1992; Vollmer, 2003; Young, 2006.). Described as “government at a distance” (Rose 1999, p. 49), governmentality under neoliberalism is facilitated and enacted though the creation of neoliberal subjects, who by internalizing the principles of market logic deploy it to measure themselves, their activities as well as that of other social actors and constituencies (Walsh 2011; Ilcan and Phillips 2010). To this end, as many have pointed out, neoliberal governments are associated with a discourse of targets, best practices, costs and cost-benefits which provides the framework within which individuals, groups and agencies are given freedom and autonomy to act (Ilcan and Phillips 2010: Judt, 2010; Klein, 2007; Mitchell, 2002; Leitner et al 2008; Walsh 2011). Relatedly, it is associated with the creation of a plethora of calculable spaces as individuals, groups and agencies are expected to render their activities visible to centers of calculation so as to track progress and monitor outcomes (Leitner et al 2008). However, as accounting creates visibility and calculability by privileging certain practices, it also silences others.

For Ilcan and Phillips (2010), whilst neoliberal rationalities of government take on diverse forms, three are linked to calculative practices: information profiling, responsibilization, and knowledge networks. These rationalities recast social and political issues into technical problems solvable by economic calculus that relies to varying degrees on different forms of accounting. We briefly review the three, cognizant of their overlaps. Information profiling refers to the rudimentary accounting acts of classifying and categorizing human populations thereby transforming them into calculable sites for expert manipulation and interrogation. In the field of development for instance, Ilcan and Philips note that information profiling serves to parse populations into “discrete empirical spaces that are correlated with changing variables such as nutritional status, GNP and genetic endowment, and enmeshed in Western scientific practices, such as statistics” (Ilcan and Philips, p. 851). Thus information profiling is associated with an insatiable demand for numbers producing what Hacking calls an “avalanche of numbers” (Hacking 1990, p. 5). Within the field of immigration, this avalanche of numbers is palpable. On its web site Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC)2 boasts of the wealth of statistical information it produces on “permanent and temporary residents as well as immigration and citizenship programs” via a wide range of quarterly, annual and ad hoc publications (see
In the UK, commentators on migration and immigration constantly spout statistical information issued by the Office of National Statistics, employing them to reflect on the success or otherwise of government policy. One such illustration is the 2012 claim of Immigration Minister Damian Green: “Our reforms are starting to take effect … Home Office figures from the second half of last year show a significant decrease in the number of student and work visas issued, an early indicator for the long-term direction of net migration. Net migration remains too high but, as the ONS states, it is now steady, having fallen from a recent peak in the year to September 2010” ( ).

Ilcan and Phillips’ conception of information profiling mirrors Power’s (2004) view of first order and second order measurements, and arguably combines the two. First order measurement, relates to classification and counting, making things visible for monitoring and control. Second order measurement builds on first order measure becoming techniques for long distance control, and leading to process of reform and regulation. Thus, measuring the number of students within migration statistics (detailed in Section 4) may lead to interpretations about the proportion that leave the UK after qualification, setting in motion actions by the UK Border Agency. Information profiling means people are counted, measured, profiled and they become subject to examination.

Responsibilization is the ongoing process by which the neoliberal subject is created. It is linked to the set of practices by which social agents are made responsible to care for and govern themselves (Ilcan and Phillips 2010). Calculative practices are employed to see monitor and measure the extent to which this is happening. Ilcan and Phillips (2010) illustrate with Millennium Development Goals: how they are used to build and review the capacities of organisations and individuals responsible for development. Accounting techniques such as budgets and standard costs are well known to be part of a wide array of knowledge and expert systems referred to as technologies of the self (Foucault 2003; Armstrong, 2002; Buck-Morss, 2009: Ezzamel, 2009; Fainstein, 2010; Mitchell, 2002; Nussbaum, 2000; Neu et. al., 2006) which ensure that the goals and interests of the human agents and agencies upon which they are applied become “fully aligned with the politically determined goals of the state” (Graham 2010, p. 33). Within the field of immigration, responsibilization works first and foremost to divest authority for the execution of immigration policy from the state to a variety of private authorities –such as corporations and universities- which via the implementation of accounting, reporting, audits, and accountability devices,come to work on behalf of the state indirectly taking on state-like functions of immigration control. In short “government becomes governance” (Shamir 2008, p. 6). As organisations and people are made responsible for activities, new forms of audit and monitoring are developed to manage the changes in risk that responsibilization introduces. De Genova (2002) illustrates the ways in which surveillance in the United States (i.e. immigration control) has been increasingly transferred among different centers of responsibilities: the police, other state officials (those responsible for housing and welfare benefits), to employers, college admissions officers and the like. Increasingly financial penalties are used to coerce employers into responsible behavior (to not employ undocumented migrants). Target setting has also become a calculative practice used to enforce responsible behavior.

Responsibilization in the field of immigration also works on incoming migrants to transform them into ideal neoliberal citizens who view themselves as “self-sufficient market actors who provide for their needs and those of their families” (Brown 2005, p. 42 in Brodie 2007, p.103). Indeed the process of creating neoliberal subjectivities starts at immigrant recruitment for as Walsh (2011) has shown, the market-based technologies of evaluation currently in use by neoliberal immigration regimes serve to privilege those candidates most likely to exhibit the neoliberal ideals of flexibility, cosmopolitanism, individualism and entrepreneurialism. In other words the system is already biased to selecting those immigrants who already normalize the principles of market logic and rationality. Once having obtained immigrant status, the vision of market rationality as the principle basis of action is further reinforced by a system which “rewards individuals and institutions who enact the vision” (Brown 2005 ,p. 39-40 in Brodie 2007 p. 100). Thus the end result of responsibilization within an immigration regime is to transform the incoming immigrant into a citizen is “who is disciplined, productive, industrious and acts as an ‘entrepreneur of him or herself’ by continuously investing in and enhancing their ‘human capital’” (Walsh 2011, p. 872).

Ilcan and Phillips’ third calculative practice of neoliberalism is an ever-growing emphasis on knowledge networks for governing, and this applies as an important aspect of the global reach, interacting and overlapping internationalizations of accounting. Whether accounting creates the myth of omnipresence through accounting international financial reporting standards (“IFRS”) or seeks homogeneity in compliance rules, governing, and outreach in globalized-localized firms across the globe, these are illusions of accounting and auditing practices as objective parts of these knowledge networks. Although our subsequent narratives illustrate immigration in three nation states, issues of immigration, competition, border flows, information gathering, and accountabilities are essentially overlapping. Neoliberal and global pressures have eroded the nation-state as sacrosanct, with a corresponding dramatic worldwide growth of global networks, NGOs and international human rights organizations monitoring immigrant deliberations, divergences, and data bases. These knowledge networks operate as a third neoliberal rationality of government, endeavoring to define immigration, codify reports, identify the groups and agencies involved with immigration, and share strategies. Knowledge networks involve a variety of groups including: federal government agencies, private sectors and international organizations, developing and broadening relations between people, operating within and through various economic, political or market situations. Ilcan and Phillips (2010) observe that information and communications technologies (ICT), link members to each other using technologies as knowledge, proliferating forms of identities, expanding structures of control, and providing rationales for activities. Thus by way of expanded outreach, these information networks create new ways of being in, conceptualizing, and seeing the world of immigration.

While the formation of knowledge networks appears to be a process of simply “appealing to mutual interests”, their formation is better understood as an assembly of allied interests with multiple objectives, through calculation, persuasion, intrigue or rhetoric (Ilcan and Phillips 2010). This process of governing through knowledge sharing, mobile enough to shape efforts across a broad array of territories, does suggest the need for scrutiny in how international organizations are involved in shaping actions, are imagined as operating on global scales, and how knowledge networks facilitate particular forms of knowledge and expertise. Ilcan and Phillips ask: to what extent do they impose limits on conduct? (In the US case that follows the knowledge network between states and federal immigration bodies dispute the uses/ abuses of police conduct and force).

Replicating and reproducing the two other elements of neo-liberalist governing, knowledge networks cultivate the mobilization of new “measureable” subjects, and the control and dissemination of ideas about social and political change. Practices operate through procedures of calculation and classification, and in mobilizing the resources of diverse global actors, may increasingly form loose and temporary policy networks that cut across national, institutional and disciplinary lines. As a rationality of government, knowledge networks in varying degrees use calculative practices to inform or induce knowledge sharing, aim to organize actors, develop information and forge other relations into calculative projects. In the context of development, world-making schemes “and the mentalities of rule in which these schemes thrive, need to be scrutinized for their significance in producing tensions both in development organizations and in people’s daily lives…They are more than a ‘Major Distraction Gimmick’; they are everywhere being put into effect… [and] aim to enforce social transformation” (Ilcan and Phillips 2010, p. 864). We would argue similarly, that in global and national debates about migration generally and immigration in particular, scrutiny is necessary because of the impact of calculative practices on peoples’ lives.
The neoliberal project however is never absolute and is always unfinished. As a political rationality or art of governing (Rose et al 2006), it encounters pockets of resistance. Thus neoliberal governmentality as Miller and Rose (1990, p. 10-11) point out “may be eternally optimistic, but government is a congenitally failing operation [as] 'Reality' always escapes the theories that inform programmes and the ambitions that underpin them”. As they further argue:

Technologies produce unexpected problems…Unplanned outcomes emerge from the intersection of one technology with another, or from the unexpected consequences of putting a technique to work. The 'will to govern' needs to be understood less in terms of its success than in terms of the difficulties of operationalizing it (1990, p.11).

There is never one strategy or goal that can define neo-liberalism just as there has not been one strategy for capitalism given the multi-competitive interests of intra and inter industry (previously conceptualized as “financial versus industrial capital” interests); given global enterprises where nation-state regulations, environments, tax codes, etc. are readily manipulated; given that overlapping and opposing discourses are revealed and altered; and so on. Certainly restrictions and regulations over entry of immigrants seem strangely contradictory to the neo-liberal “liaise-faire” agenda and pervasive appeal to liberty. The language of freedom, democracy and individual rights is asserted in neo-liberal agendas -- rejecting banking regulations (and national-health care) while urging lockdowns on borders and stringent deportation of suspects4. As Hall et. al. (1978) point out discourses of anxiety and dread, constructing meaning and using panic to advocate certain public policies, regressive economic policies, and social structuring of neo-liberalism are complex. We follow these dichotomizations and overlaps, but do not intend in this work to explain the full range of neo-liberalist contradictions or rationales. Rather, we focus on illustrating a range of shifting strategies, while implicating accounting’s participation and providing counter-accounts of immigration. At the center of our work are the accounts of immigration through the stories of immigrants themselves and the impact of policies on people. Thus in the three cases which follow we illustrate the role of accounting and related technologies in operationalizing neoliberal immigration policies through their enrolment in neoliberal rationalities, particularly those of information profiling, responsibilization, and knowledge networks. We do this in the belief that accounting does not deliver the "true nature” of what prevails and is never neutral and also because Castles (2004) reminds us that:

Migrants are not just isolated individuals who react to market stimuli and bureaucratic rules, but social beings who seek to achieve better outcomes for themselves, their families and their communities through actively shaping the migratory process (Castles, 2004, p. 209).

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