This article provides a genealogy of the idea of an immigration industrial complex. The immigration industrial complex is the confluence of public and private sector interests in the criminalization of undocumented migration, immigration law enforcement, and the promotion of ‘anti-illegal’ rhetoric. This concept is based on ideas developed with regard to the prison and military industrial complexes. These three complexes share three major features: (a) a rhetoric of fear; (b) the convergence of powerful interests; and (c) a discourse of other-ization. This article explores why Congress has not passed viable legislation to deal with undocumented migration, and instead has passed laws destined to fail, and has appropriated billions of dollars to the Department of Homeland Security to implement these laws. This has been exacerbated in the context of the War on Terror, now that national security has been conflated with immigration law enforcement. This is the first in a two-part series on the immigration industrial complex.