Immigration policy under Trump

From deporter in chief to xenophobia unleashed

Justin Akers Chacón is an activist, writer, and educator in the San Diego–Tijuana border region. He is a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego City College. His previous work includes No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border (with Mike Davis). His forthcoming book, Radicals in the Barrio uncovers the lost history and rich tradition of political radicalism behind some of the twentieth century’s most important social movements, documenting the ways that migrant workers carried with them radical political ideologies, new organizational models, and the shared experience forged in the flames of intense class struggle in Mexico as they crossed the border into the southwestern United States during the first three decades of the twentieth century. ISR editorial board members Ashley Smith and Lance Selfa interviewed Justin in March.

Trump has made attacking immigrants, Muslims, and refugees central to his presidency. What impact is this having on immigrants?

The Trump Administration has issued an executive order that explicitly restricts the entry of Muslim travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen to the United States, imposing a three-month ban on those seeking to apply for a visa. It also places a similar four-month comprehensive ban on refugees, by suspending the already woefully inadequate “United States Refugee Admissions Program.” The rationale for the targeted exclusions is, according the order, “Each of these countries is a state sponsor of terrorism, has been significantly compromised by terrorist organizations, or contains active conflict zones.” 

Iraq was originally included, but then removed, after it became apparent that significant Iraqi military and political personnel working alongside US military forces, the CIA, and private contractors as part of the continuing US occupation would not be able to travel to Washington for training and debriefing. What the order fails to mention, is that the United States government has already been targeting these predominantly Muslim nations through aerial bombings, proxy wars, drone attacks, and a variety of other forms of clandestine warfare as part of the larger “War on Terror”—a generational effort to project its power and influence in the Arab and Muslim world. While claiming that this order is to “Protect…citizens from terrorist attacks, including those committed by foreign nationals,” the order ignores the fact that no citizens from these countries have committed any acts of terrorism on US soil. Rather, this is part of a long tradition in the United States of using immigration policy as another type of weapon in the empire’s arsenal. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Trump and his inner circle of advisors are patently racist Islamophobes. In practice, though, the administration’s mounting attack on Muslims is not a departure, but rather an intensification of the ideological war on people who have been the immediate subjects in the crosshairs of US imperialism over the last two decades. Characterizing Yemeni refugees as potential terrorists legitimizes the US government’s ongoing drone assassinations in that country, and reinforces support for a bloody invasion and sustained bombing campaign against the Yemeni population by the US-allied and armed Saudi Arabian government. 

It should be noted that Trump’s attempted bans on people from countries such as Syria and Iraq reveal the depths of hypocrisy in US politics, as refugees from these countries are fleeing US-led wars in their countries. In 2015 and 2016, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States dropped over 47,000 bombs on Syria and Iraq alone, killing untold thousands. On March 17, for example, a US-led airstrike killed over 200 people huddled in a bomb shelter in a residential district in Mosul, Iraq, after allegedly targeting ISIS positions. Claiming Syrian and Iraqi refugees are therefore a “threat to national security” is the ultimate irony, as millions of Syrians and Iraqis have been displaced as a result of US policies. 

A second front on this attack targets undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants within the United States. Again, the order falsely characterizes this population as a threat, claiming “Aliens who illegally enter the United States without inspection or admission present a significant threat to national security and public safety… Among those who illegally enter are those who seek to harm Americans through acts of terror or criminal conduct. Continued illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger to the interests of the United States.” Researchers have long dispelled the notion of the “criminal immigrant,” including researchers who collect crime data for police departments and the FBI, but that is not the point. 

The order rhetorically affirms the continuation of the trajectory of immigration politics and policy from Reagan to Clinton, and from Bush to Obama: increased militarization of border enforcement and further expansion of the already-existing 600 mile wall; augmentation of enforcement personnel and their authority; police participation in immigration enforcement; and expansion of the detention and deportation capacities. While Congress must approve the funding for Trump’s increased expenditures for the Department of Homeland Security (already $65 billion in 2016), the proposals are based on existing policy statutes that enable such increases. The presidents of both parties have made use of this statute to ratchet up enforcement over the last generation. 

The most immediate threatening act of the Trump Administration has been a series of rule changes (“guidance memos”) that are currently being implemented by the DHS under executive authority. The memos give a broader mandate for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to arrest, detain, and deport undocumented people, as well as authorizing them to act on their own impulses and target people more generally in the course of conducting their “duties” without restriction or checks. 

Under the new rules, if someone can’t prove that they have been living in the United States continuously for two years, they are eligible for “expedited removal,” that is, without the opportunity for legal consultation or a court hearing. Previously, this was limited in practice to those apprehended within 100 miles of the border and who had arrived within the past two weeks. This is designed to allow the Border Patrol, ICE agents, and the bureaucrats of the DHS themselves to become the handmaidens of mass deportation. 

Trump has also ominously stripped federal privacy protections for undocumented youth who registered with the federal government in order to qualify for the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This program has shielded over 750,000 people from deportation and allowed them to apply for work permits. By repealing the privacy provisions, the Trump administration is indicating that their names and information could be turned over to immigration agents if DACA is repealed.

It should be noted that the union representing the Border Patrol officially endorsed the candidacy of Donald Trump, showing the alignment of thinking with the 20,000 member armed border force. In other words, this order is designed to allow more impunity to the federal border police, a federal agency already accused of widespread human rights abuses. In effect, the Trump administration is unleashing and encouraging the immigration police to go on the offensive and unleash a more far-reaching reign of terror on undocumented immigrants, which will undoubtedly increase and intensify state violence and abuse. 

The Arizona-based human rights organization No More Deaths, for instance, produced a comprehensive report that documents 30,000 incidents where human rights abuses occurred between fall of 2008 and spring of 2011. Since 2010, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition, forty-six people have been killed on the border. Another study conducted by the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a bi-national organization promoting humane immigration policies, found that about “40 percent of Mexican migrants deported from the United States said Border Patrol agents violated their human rights, and two-thirds said their families were returned to Mexico separately.” These daily abuses were committed during a period when the border police had minimal restrictions on their rules of engagement. 

ICE agents operating within the interior are no different, although their patterns of arrest have been more selective and targeted. Even though the claim is to catch and deport “criminals,” the initial results show a different reality. Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, an Arizona-based worker and mother of two, who was detained and deported after an annually required “check-in” with ICE. She had previously been arrested for using false documents to work during a workplace raid in 2008 under the regime of notoriously racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio, charged with “identity-theft,” and spent one year in prison. 

In the era of Trump, this has the potential to be even more political, as illustrated by the fact that another early detainee in the interior of the country was DREAM activist Daniela Vargas. A twenty-two-year-old DACA college student, Vargas was arrested moments after speaking publicly at an immigrant rights rally in Jackson, Mississippi and transferred to a detention center in Jena, Louisiana. 

Enrique Balcazar, Zully Palacios, and Alex Carillo-Sanchez, community and labor organizers with Migrant Justice, a workers’ rights organization in Vermont, were also arrested in late March. Since they had no deportation orders, criminal records, or any other factor that would have brought them to the attention of ICE, this shows that they were surveyed, arrested, and detained by regional agents for no other reason than for their immigrant rights advocacy.

Not only are the armed enforcers of Trump’s immigration orders animated by their new license to target immigrants, but the Far Right is also emboldened. For example, racists in the well-funded, right-wing information production industry are jubilant. The fake think tank Center for Immigration Studies, an overt anti-immigrant organization that produces bogus research to justify exclusion and receives access to practically every mainstream media outlet, rejoiced at the new rules. Director of the group, Mark Krikorian, claimed that “The message is: The immigration law is back in business.” After declining in the first few years of the Obama administration, when it was believed that immigration would pass through a Democratic “supermajority” in Congress, the number of anti-immigrant hate groups and membership is once again on the rise. 

The political attack on immigrants has also increased the confidence of racist hate groups and individuals to commit acts of violence and terrorism. Encouraged by the rhetoric of Trump and the ratcheting up of state repression, the Far Right has increased its activities. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 incidents of hate crimes in the first ten days of the Trump administration alone, and further attacks have targeted a broad spectrum of people including immigrants, African-Americans, Jewish people, South and Central Asians, and others. For instance, in late February, a racist gunman in Kansas walked into a bar near Kansas City and opened fire on two Indian men killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla while yelling, “Get out of my country!” This is the violence of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies at the center of US politics in its most unfiltered, toxic form. 

Much of this was underway before Trump under Obama, so much so that he was termed the “deporter-in-chief.” What did Obama do and how did this pave the way for Trump? Given that Obama and the Democrats have been party to the war on immigrants, how should activists and the Left relate to the Democratic Party in today’s struggle?

Immigration reform was an issue Obama promised Latino groups that he would take up within his first “hundred days” in office. That didn’t happen. The narrative of the Democratic Party attributes the failure to Republican opposition and congressional gridlock. But a closer examination shows that the Democratic Party leadership allowed the Republican Party to determine the narrative and to effectively kill the possibility for legalization. After this failure, the administration walked away from legalization and instead became the most aggressive enforcer of restrictions in modern presidential history. 

The Democratic Party strategy under Obama was doomed from the start. During the campaign, Obama outlined the emerging strategy that would unfold under his administration. According to a campaign email, he believed that immigration reform must include a “three-pronged response”: 1) strengthen border security; 2) establish a path to legalization that includes fines and adherence to the rule of law for immigrants and their families who may have entered the United States illegally but are now contributing and responsible members of society; and, 3) create a “guest-worker” program whereby American businesses can temporarily recruit foreign workers for jobs that American workers cannot or refuse to fill.

The Democratic Party’s prescription for “reform” was hardly discernable from the mainstream of the Republican Party, although the Right preferred to ditch even the extremely vicarious “path to legalization.” When the Obama Administration introduced its policy guidelines, it bypassed the House and pushed the issue through the Senate first. 

According to Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, this was carried out to ostensibly protect “vulnerable Democrats” who might lose in more conservative districts if they tangled with such a thorny issue. In reality, it was an effort to preempt and sideline efforts by Congressman Luis Gutierrez and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to introduce a bill considered “too liberal” by Democratic leaders. 

The Democratic leadership’s vision for immigration policy followed a carefully worded script that would not allow for deviation. Like with the debacle over the passage of Obamacare, the Democrats squandered the opportunity to use their majority status in both houses of Congress to push for substantial reform, mobilize public support, and force the Republicans on the defensive. Instead, they conceded leadership to the minority-status Republicans in 2009, stating that any bill would have to pass through committee with “bipartisan” support.

Their unilateral commitment to bipartisanship allowed the Republican minority to steer the negotiations, despite the Democrats substantial majorities in both the House and Senate (a practical supermajority). This was also despite the fact that Republicans running on an anti-immigrant platform took heavy losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections, as well as in the Republican presidential primaries of 2008. This presented a golden opportunity to carry out a legalization program, with or without Republican support. 

Given this opportunity to lead on the issue, the Republicans torpedoed any possibility for reform. Through the negotiations, the proposal was loaded with repressive, enforcement-only measures. When the Republicans called for the legalization component to be postponed, in order to “secure the border first,” the effort collapsed. 

A similar effort again tanked after Obama’s reelection. Following the same path of “bipartisanship”—albeit after the Democrats lost their majority in the House and maintained only a slight majority in the Senate—the next attempt at immigration policy reform crashed even more abruptly. The Republicans learned that even as a defeated minority they could win, so why bother bipartisanship? 

In the meantime, the Obama administration enhanced the machinery of immigrant repression in the United States during his tenure. Between 2005 and 2012, a period spanning the second term of George W. Bush and through the first completed term of Obama, the Customs and Border Protection budget was nearly doubled, from $6.3 billion to $11.7 billion. The ICE budget increased from $3.1 billion to $6.3 billion, and total enforcement personnel increased from 41,001 to over 61,354, including the vast expansion of ICE offices, field operations, and detention centers throughout the interior of the country. 

This helps explain why detentions and deportations accelerated under Obama, reaching a record 2.5 million over the course of his tenure, a majority of which committed no crime whatsoever. The ramping up of repression, even while his administration claimed to be championing the rights of immigrats and striving for humane reform, only goaded the Republicans and “Blue-Dog” Democrats to take an even harder line against any relief for undocumented workers. Furthermore, this ninety-degree shift led liberal supporters to become muted, lower their expectations, or even drop the issue altogether as a policy priority.

The failure of the Democrats to make more than a symbolic gesture at immigration reform greatly demoralized the pro-legalization base of the Democratic Party who showed up at the polls in fewer numbers in the elections of 2010 and 2012. This failure energized the hard Right “Tea Party” that mobilized bigoted anti-immigrant sentiment in greater numbers to the polls in 2010 and 2012, helping to pave the way for the ascendancy of the Republican Party and Trump in 2016 on a reactionary and racist platform of attacking immigrants once more.

In the Trump era, the Democrat Party nationally has failed to present any coherent or principled opposition to Trump’s initial policies. While governors of the predominantly liberal states with substantial immigrant populations, like New York and California, have rhetorically postured against the federal government, a new round of deportations has commenced with little actual outcry beyond immigrant rights activists. A new movement in defense of immigrants will need to hold Democrats and their auxiliaries accountable when they are complicit or silent, put massive pressure on them to take public stances against Trump and the Republican’s immigrant-bashing policies, and block them by all means at their disposal, while retaining complete independence from the party and resisting its multi-faceted capabilities to coopt, divide, and demobilize social movements.

How have immigrant rights activists responded to this assault? 

One of the first responses took place before Trump even assumed office. Across the country, student activists began organizing to get their school administrations to declare themselves “sanctuary campuses.” While the definition of “sanctuary” varies, it generally involves the campus administration making a public declaration not to voluntarily comply with immigration enforcement on the campus, a pledge not to share student information with federal immigration agents, and that campus police not collaborate or assist in any form of immigration policing. 

Perhaps the most impressive response since the inauguration was the airport protests in response to the executive order imposing a travel ban on Muslims. Immediately after the ban was announced, an estimated one hundred people had arrived from the banned countries and were detained at various airports across the country. In an amazing display of opposition to the ban, and in support for those detained, tens of thousands of people converged at airports across the country on short notice, from San Diego to New York City, to confront the over-zealous ICE agents and demand the detainees be released. The outpouring undoubtedly cajoled a group of federal judges to overturn the order in a matter of days. 

To defend undocumented workers immigrant rights activists across the county have returned to the strategy that was developed after previous waves of repression unleashed by the Bush Administration in the wake of the May 1, 2006 protests and in Arizona in 2010. Namely, they are forming or reactivating, “emergency response networks” to mobilize rapidly to protest and protect immigrants being targeted. 

In Arizona, for instance, when Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was detained during her “check-in,” a group of about 200 activists affiliated with the long-standing immigrant rights organization “Puente Movement” quickly gathered at the Phoenix offices of ICE. For several hours, they blocked federal vehicles attempting to leave with Garcia de Rayos until they were physically repressed by the Phoenix police. In other parts of the country, similar networks are forming or reconnecting, and conducting legal workshops, civil disobedience trainings, establishing communication networks, and other strategies to intervene on behalf of targeted people and communities. 

Scattered immigrant rights marches have been organized in different parts of the country. Where immigrant-rights organizations have some continuity and connection to the labor movement, such as in Milwaukee, the actions have been impressive. On February 13, for instance, a crowd estimated at 30,000 marched through the Latino-majority south side of Milwaukee in response to the call for “a day without an immigrant,” and for people not to work, shop, or go to school. This protest also directed its message of opposition to Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a Trump partisan who has stated his intention to volunteer local police to assist in federal round ups. These actions show the possibility for larger and coordinated mass actions as organizations and networks take shape. The dominant slogan that has emerged from these protests—“No Ban, No Wall, Sanctuary for All!”—shows how a new generation of activists is making the convergence of struggle against Islamophobia and a reinvigorated anti-immigrant Right.

The last time immigrants were attacked in such a frontal manner was back in 2006 with the Sensenbrenner Bill. That provoked mass marches and work shut downs called “A day without an immigrant.” How does today’s situation compare with that response?

What happened in 2006 was very important, and worth recalling. The House of Representatives approved the reactionary Sensenbrenner-King Bill in December 2005, named after congressmen James Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin and Steve King from Iowa. Its provisions would have turned twelve million undocumented immigrants and anyone who aided them into felons. Millions of immigrant workers, their families, and supporters were pushed into opposition, flocking to protests called by small groups. Since no national structure existed, few were prepared for the size of the protests. Nevertheless, organizations were created and grew significantly during this period. 

Following a mass protest of 20,000 in Washington, DC, at least 300,000 took to the streets of Chicago on March 10, 2006. This was the largest protest in Chicago history and shut down the city, as workers left their jobs and students walked out of schools to join the human streams that jammed several city blocks. Entire families marched together, and the vast majority had clearly never been to a protest in their lives. 

After Chicago, the dam broke. Mass protests of immigrant workers took place in more than fifty cities within two weeks. About 150,000 crowded onto Denver’s streets, 50,000 marched through the streets of Phoenix, and over 30,000 took to the streets in Milwaukee. In Atlanta, more than 80,000 heeded a call to not go to work. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, 5,000 came out to oppose anti-immigrant legislation, 15,000 marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, 3,000 took to the streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and thousands more clogged the downtowns in a constellation of other cities and towns across the country. The turnout reached new heights in Los Angeles, where over one million people transformed the downtown area into a human sea; every open space commandeered by the otherwise hidden workforce of the city’s vast street-level economy. 

These demonstrations also inspired student actions. Sons and daughters of the Latino working class shut down schools across the country in protest of anti-immigrant racism. In California, tens of thousands of students walked out of classes across the state. In Dallas, 4,000 walked out of school, another 2,000 in El Paso, 3,000 in Las Vegas, and 1,000 in Aurora, Illinois. In Tucson, 1,000 middle school students walked out of their schools, showing that many young teens were keenly aware of what’s at stake, and were making their voices heard. 

Some union organizations also got on board joining with the National Council of La Raza and other civic and religious organizations calling for a day of protest. On April 9, half a million more came out in Dallas, 100,000 in San Diego, and 20,000 in Salt Lake City. Protests also sprouted in smaller towns and in rural regions. Three thousand people converged on the small agricultural community of Garden City, Kansas. Thousands more turned out in South Bend, Indiana; Portland, Maine; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Lake Worth, Florida. 

On April 10, protests continued in ninety-four cities. Half a million came out in New York City, 30,000 in Boston, and 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin. More than 50,000 came out in Atlanta and in Phoenix, and 10,000 protested in Boston and Omaha. The protest movement culminated in the call for a general strike and economic boycott for May 1, where an estimated two to three million people left their homes, work, and schools to participate in the single largest protest action in US history. In response to this popular outpouring of opposition, the repressive bill was killed. 

Many of the immigrants’ rights organizations that were developed during the mass marches, strikes, and boycotts of 2006 that contributed to the defeat of the Sensenbrenner-King Bill have disappeared or have been dismantled after the successful election of Obama and the Democrats in 2008. With Democrats in power, many believed some form of immigrant legalization was imminent. When it didn’t materialize—and when the persecution persisted and intensified—the largest organizations, that were aligned with the Democratic Party, organized little public opposition. 

This included liberal membership groups, non-governmental organizations, labor unions, church groups, and think tanks. With the exception of DREAM activist networks, that went against the stream and intensified their activism, including repeated sit-ins at Democratic Party offices, disruption at several of Obama’s speeches, and other high profile actions, the opposition demobilized under the Democrats and has yet to recover. Nevertheless, some of these groups are once again emerging and coalescing. It will also be important that the veteran organizers in the unions and on the left who played a pivotal role in the mass movement of 2006 bring their experience and organizational networks back onto the field of struggle. 

There is potential for mass mobilization on May 1, 2017, as well as workplace actions, walk outs, and other forms of protest reminiscent of 2006. At the same time, the Trump administration is determined to terrorize immigrant working-class communities and to undermine opposition as much as possible. It’s worth recalling that George Bush authorized a national campaign of workplace raids in the weeks following the mass actions in 2006, which set back the movement as people understandably retreated from the streets in fear. While we are not likely see the same scale of mass action on May 1, there is a broader sense of solidarity emerging across the different populations threatened by Trump. If organized labor plays a role, and takes a public stance in defiance of Trump and in defense of immigrants, that could change the equation. 

How has the labor movement responded to the attack on immigrants? What should labor militants be demanding from their unions?

Unfortunately, there has been no substantial, positive response from the national leadership of labor. Shamefully, the AFL-CIO leadership under Richard Trumka has set the wrong tone for labor, bending to Trump instead of resolutely opposing his policies on principle. Trumka recently met with Trump—hat in hand—claiming a desire to “work with him,” especially on renegotiating trade deals and immigration. Trumka also appeared on Fox News right after Trump’s first address to Congress, stating that the speech, in which Trump declared his intention to publish a list of immigrant “criminals” as part of his larger war on immigrants, “was one of his finest moments.”

 He further went on to congratulate Trump for including “legal immigrants” as well as “undocumented immigrants” being “used to drive down wages.” Aligning himself with Trump, he concluded, “We partner with him to write the rules of immigration, absolutely.” Cozying up to Trump and trying to align unions with his anti-immigrant project will be a poison pill for organized labor. Trump’s criticism of “free trade” isn’t that it is unjust for workers; rather, he believes trade rules can be “improved” so that they are less regulatory, provide even fewer rights for workers, and give even more power to corporate profiteers. Any immigration policy that this president presides over will be designed to oppress immigrant workers more, to stoke more racism, to further isolate them, and to widen the divides in the working class along racial and national lines as part of a larger strategy to weaken and break unions. 

The organization and incorporation of immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, is essential to rebuilding labor unions in this country. Unions have been in a state of perpetual decline and represent the lowest percentage of workers in modern history. The failure to take a consistent stand to combat the anti-immigrant policies embedded in both capitalist parties has allowed for the current recycling of right-wing reactionaries into the highest echelons of government. To reverse course, unions will need to build on previous gains made in defending and organizing the immigrant workforce. 

In California, the state that boasts the largest immigrant worker population, immigrant workers have been the fastest growing segment of organized labor over the last few decades. Nationally, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has become the largest and fastest growing labor union in the United States, claiming a membership of 1.8 million, with immigrant workers accounting for two-thirds of that figure. In the Midwest and South, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union now represents over 250,000 workers, nearly half of them Latino immigrants. Unions and locals at the state and regional level will need to take action, in some cases despite their own leadership. 

There is some indication that some unions and locals are building support and planning to participate in actions on May 1, or International Worker’s Day. Since 2006, when immigrant workers revitalized this historic day in the United States, there has been a gradual reorientation by those on the labor left to sustain the tradition of using the day for labor action and commemoration. In light of the reactionary turn against immigrants, mobilization of the organized working class alongside immigrant workers would be a significant step in demonstrating our strength and solidarity, and build the confidence to use our collective class power and resources to beat back Trump’s policies.

Right now we are witnessing the largest migration in human history with over sixty million people in flight from their countries. Why has this happened? 

War and violence have played a role. As previously mentioned, the US-led “War on Terror” has had a major destabilizing impact on the Middle East, displacing millions from the region. In Mexico and Central America, the US-led “War on Drugs” has amounted to the militarization of the drug trade. Regional policies pushed by Washington, such as Plan Mérida Initiative (in Mexico) and similar efforts in Central America have allocated billions of dollars of military support and equipment to repressive state regimes to supposedly fight drug cartels, but in practice are also used against the population. 

In Mexico, over 100,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict since it began in 2006, and 25,000 have been “disappeared,” including the missing forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. According to the Mexican think tank Parametria, over two million people have been displaced. In Central America, a study conducted by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimates that over 850,000 people have been displaced by state repression and drug-war violence from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. 

Even larger numbers are displaced by the economic logic of world capitalism. Global economic integration along neoliberal lines—where corporations write the rules of trade, investment, and regulation in their own interest—has destabilized laboring classes internationally. As a predictable result, labor itself has become internationalized. By 2013, an estimated 231.5 million people migrated and took up residence in a foreign country. If that number was the population of a country, it would be the fifth largest in the world, roughly larger than the population of each of the remaining 189 other countries. In the United States, The Pew Research Center estimates that forty-two million residents, primarily workers and their families, were born in another country. This number has more than doubled over the last three decades.

Displaced workers that cannot be absorbed within their own national economies as a result of corporate-led trade policies have been compelled to cross boundaries into foreign labor markets where they can find work. This has altered workforce demographics internationally, from Qatar to the Dominican Republic, and from Japan to the United States. The end result of US-led free-trade policies exported south has been destructive for the laboring classes of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean nations, dislodging millions of small agricultural producers and urban workers made redundant through skewed competition, “debt-servicing,” privatization of state industry, and the downsizing of the welfare state. 

Migration has flowed in reverse through these same channels from poorer to richer capitalist nations, as workers follow the profit streams that translate into disproportionate job creation or opportunities in other nations. Once drawn into US labor markets, undocumented workers are regulated not by the “invisible hand of the free market,” but by immigration enforcement and by employers themselves. 

Most recently, thousands of Haitians have been entering Mexico with the hopes of crossing into the United States. Haiti, a country where three quarters of the people live on less than $2 a day, has been wracked by US-led military intervention and destabilizing economic policies. For example, the US government passed the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2006 under the existing Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA). This policy gives garments manufactured on the island duty-free access to US markets. As a result, US-based corporations such as Levi Strauss, Haneswear, Nautica, Dockers, and others have relocated production to the island to take advantage of lower wages alongside the corporate tax breaks, with assembled garments now comprising 90 percent of the country’s exports. These companies, with the support of the State Department operating through the Haitian embassy, helped block a planned minimum wage increase from being implemented in the garment industry in 2009, which would have tripled the minimum wage of $1.75 a day to over $5 a day. As a result of pressures placed on the Haitian government, including the threat of capital flight, the garment industry was exempted and limited to an increase of only $3 per day.

After the great earthquake of 2010, which devastated the already poor country, the lack of significant and meaningful international aide further accelerated an exodus of migrants from Haiti. Many went to Brazil, while others flowed into Tijuana hoping to apply for a type of refugee status under a humanitarian parole provision granted after the earthquake. Then in September of 2016, the Obama Administration reversed its policy, denying Haitians entry and vowed to deport them if they entered the country without authorization. By Trumps inauguration, over 5,000 Haitians were still languishing in the Mexican border region, largely housed in privately run shelters since the Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto has ignored their plight. 

What should the Left agitate for in terms of demands in the short term as well as the long term? 

In the immediate term, the Left will need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of those willing to struggle to defend targeted communities, and undocumented immigrant workers, students, and their family members facing arrest and deportation. This will likely require a higher level of militancy and confrontation with emboldened and empowered agents of the state. 

In the current social environment, politically polarized along class, racial, and generational lines, a mass-opposition to Trump and the Right has already emerged and has quickly situated itself to the left of the Democratic Party. Millions of people have already registered some form of action against or discontent with the reactionary turn in US politics and the ideological bankruptcy of the Democratic Party. There has already been some visible convergence between anti-Trump, feminist, and pro-immigrant sectors of the protest movement in the first two months. This will have to be strengthened and expanded if there is to be any substantial left challenge to the scale of the attacks yet to come.

Even small victories can galvanize a sustained resistance, and draw wider segments of the population into active opposition. This will be necessary to build a revitalized Left that can sustain long-term social movement opposition, especially important in order to build a more powerful base of opposition rooted in the labor unions. This will be necessary because “Trumpism” is providing an opening for the Republican establishment to advance its reactionary agenda, while also nurturing the resurgence of the Far Right and fascist movements in the streets. Any long-term possibilities for the Left depend on how fast and how well we can organize in the coming months.

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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