The election of Joe Biden and the return of Democratic Party control of Congress has raised hope that Trump’s disastrous immigration policies could be undone. Separated and incarcerated families long to be reunited and freed, refugees blocked into deadly camps at the border wait for legal channels to be reopened, undocumented workers cut out of pandemic relief efforts endure dangerous working conditions and economic devastation, and all Trump’s other orders designed to be cruel and inhumane urgently need to be reversed.
What’s more, after decades of legislative impasse on tangible and just reform, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have the opportunity to advance a legislative initiative that can finally—once and for all—carry through a full-scale legalization that will provide relief and opportunity for the millions of people whose lives have been wracked by years of enforcement-only policies of criminalization.
That appears highly unlikely.
Despite the campaign rhetoric and repeated promises to restore a “fair and humane” policy, Biden and the Democrats are already walking that back—and appear to be walking away—from any real push for substantive immigration reform. The much-touted flurry of executive orders to ostensibly roll back the horrible policies of Trump have been only half-steps. Many of his initial orders and memos introduce temporary pauses to some aspects of enforcement to supposedly allow for review without making explicit changes.
Meanwhile, the promise of immigrant legalization within one hundred days is shaping up to be a replay of the failed promises of the Obama era. Furthermore, the Biden proposals leave the already sprawling architecture of migrant repression intact.
The abdication of political will to carry through structural reform results from changes in the functioning of US capitalism, especially over the last three decades. The growth, expansion, and maintenance of wealth accumulation have become dependent on three interconnected factors that characterize the nature of US imperialism in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. These are: the opening of markets to US capital export through so-called free-trade agreements; the containment and control of economically displaced people and the repression of opposition and resistance movements within subjected nations; and the criminalization of transnational migrant people in order to increase the rate of exploitation of their labor.
While there are managerial differences between the Democratic and Republican parties over how to negotiate and execute policy, there are larger underlying agreements that make the system function with consistency even when disagreements over details spill into the public sphere. Partisan wrangling over the details of immigration policy have clouded the fact that there has been a convergence of interest in maintaining an enforcement-only approach.
Nevertheless, we are at the crescendo of this historic process. Either an increase of state violence against migrant people continues fuel social degeneration and fascist barbarism over the next generation—or we build an abolitionist movement to dismantle borders, close the camps, and disband la migra.
Bipartisanship under Capitalism Means There Is No Opposition
The Republican Party is more exuberant and unrestrained in its management of the capitalist state and the execution of imperialist objectives, appearing confident and unashamed of its class partisanship. The Democratic Party is also committed to increasing the gains of capital and drafting and executing its own imperial blueprints.
The difference, due to the peculiarities of US politics, is that the Democrats project their pro-capitalist project less obviously. Since they rely on working class and liberal votes to propel them into office, typically after ruinous episodes of Republican rule, they package their capitalist programs with less zeal and more ambiguity: adding minor social reforms, filing down the sharpest edges and calling it a negotiation, or using outright duplicity of pretending to stand for reform while collapsing their efforts behind the status quo without a fight. More like the “good cop” in a violent interrogation than an actual opposition party, the methods of complicity of the Democratic Party once in power have become more obvious, craven, and wholly inadequate—especially against a backdrop of heightened social polarization and economic crisis.
This cycle of capitalist state management has become increasingly dysfunctional. The economy is lumbering through its second major downturn in ten years. The hardened arteries of neoliberal state governance have shown to be impervious to change, funneling a seemingly infinite amount of wealth to millionaires and billionaires while offering working-class people a starvation diet of austerity. This crisis has provided the conditions for social polarization, including a portal for fascist and far-right politicians and movements to broach mainstream politics.
The depth of the crisis and the inflexibility of the electoral system to tolerate even the meekest of socialist or social democratic entreaties exposes the myopic limitations and outright bankruptcy of Democratic Party politics—and most specifically its incapacity to provide any solution. This allows US politics to be pushed further to the right, especially over the inaction around borders and migration. The volatility is coming into focus around Joe Biden’s plan for immigration reform.
The proposals coming from the White House repackage the policies of Clinton and Obama, which amounted to an abandonment of legalization and the institutionalization of enforcement only. Not only did these politics lead to Trump, but they have also led to the consolidation of Trumpism within the Republican Party. That is to say, Biden’s current path toward acquiescence to his opposition from the right will likely lead to another era without reform, and with even more misery for migrants and refugees, and may quickly feed the reorganization and revitalization of stronger, more aggressive, and even more dangerous far-right movements.
Biden’s Return to Status Quo Ante
While revoking the most extreme of Trump’s executive orders, the Biden plan continues much of the same institutionalized framework of migrant criminalization and repression. This includes: the use of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to police migrants and refugees at the border and in communities across the country; ongoing detention of migrant adults, families, and children; and systematic mass deportation. A summary of Biden’s executive orders and policy memos are as follows:
- Biden has cancelled federal funding for the expansion of the physical border wall, requiring that those funds be redirected to other enforcement measures, but has not withdrawn funding for any other aspect of border militarization. The operations budgets of ICE or the Border Patrol are enhanced, funding for military technology at the border and detention centers increased.
- A modified “zero-tolerance” policy only encourages federal prosecutors not to prosecute misdemeanors, but does not require it.
- A newly convened task force to reunite separated families faces a “logistical nightmare” as an estimated 5,500 children were separated with untold hundreds lost into the system, while many parents were deported into uncertainty, given the Trump administration’s intentional effort to not document locations. An initial report found that 506 separated migrant children still haven’t been found and that their parents were likely deported.
- Biden issued a directive to the Department of Homeland Security for a hundred-day moratorium on deportations, which was temporarily blocked by a Trump-appointed federal judge. While the injunction prevented the Biden administration from issuing a blanket moratorium, the ruling did not require deportations to continue. In fact, as legal observers have pointed out, the Biden administration could have simply ordered a halt to the scheduling of any deportations—but refused to do so. The DHS has proceeded to deport an estimated tens of thousands of people.
- A Trump-era order continues to allow immigration agents to carry out summary deportations during the pandemic.
- Biden has begun the process of reinstating pre-Trump asylum policy and overturning the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
Designed to fail? Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021
Stressing the urgency of the matter, Biden announced his immigration plan called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 (USCA) on his first day in office. The 353-page bill, which is being carefully studied by legal scholars, advocates, and opponents, includes the following components:
- An estimated eleven million undocumented people could apply for Temporary Legal Status (TLS), including anyone who arrived before January 1, 2021. Adults must work for five years, after which they can apply for a green card and then apply for citizenship after three more years if they consistently work and pay taxes.
- Qualified Dreamers, those having arrived in the US before age sixteen and have lived in the country for at least five years, can apply for a green card immediately and apply for citizenship if they consistently work and pay taxes. These proposals are not amnesty or legalization, but rather a type of indentured labor as a condition for qualifying for a path to citizenship. This labor requirement guarantees that capitalists can have direct access to three to eight years of cheap labor per person, in which wages and working conditions can be suppressed under conditions of noncitizenship. Much like the Bracero Program and work visas, this makes workers dependent on their employers for their job—and the ability to remain “on the path.” This gives employers total control over the workers and ensures they do not speak out for better conditions, join unions, or otherwise jeopardize the work-requirement rule that could disqualify them. These guaranteed exploitative conditions will transfer billions of dollars of profit to US capitalists over the next decade.
- Three- and ten-year bans on re-entry (passed under Bill Clinton) for people who have been removed or deported from the US would be eliminated. The result would restore eligibility for LGBTQ+ people, increase diversity visas, raise per-country visa caps for family-based migration, and allow approved family members to come to the US while waiting for their visas.
- Religious-based exclusions would end (for example, Trump’s “Muslim ban”)
- Funding for judges and court infrastructure to expedite adjudication processes would increase.
- Labor task forces could be established to address labor rights of people working under noncitizen TLS status.
- Funding for the “virtual wall” (technology-based border enforcement) would increase. 1There is general agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the need for enforcement. The primary difference in border enforcement has been the “physical wall” versus the “virtual wall.” While the physical was begun under Bill Clinton and the Democratic congressional leadership with the implementation of “Operation: Gatekeeper” in 1994, it was the Republican Party that expanded it to over six hundred miles under the eight years of George W. Bush. Trump made expansion of the border wall his signature campaign promise. The Democratic Party under Obama shifted favor to expanding a virtual wall that emphasizes the deployment of battlefield technology to enforce the border. This includes drones, aerostats, x-ray scanning systems, surveillance systems and command centers, thermal sensors, license plate readers at ports of entry, giant x-ray scanners for trains and trucks, and equipment that can capture biometric information.
- “Adequate care” for adults, families, and children in detention would be better funded. In fact, Biden has already reopened the notorious Carrizo Springs child detention facility in south Texas, which had been closed in 2019 in response to public outrage and Trump’s policy shift to keeping all refugees out of the country. At a cost of $308 million and designed for up to 1,300 children, the reopening indicates Biden intends to continue child detention.
- Funding would grow for ICE/CBP to crack-down on smuggling and for collaboration between ICE/CBP and DEA/FBI to suppress “transnational gangs.”
- $4 billion for “regional security and development” in Central America would follow a framework of expanding free trade policies and providing police and military aid (explained in more detail below).
Despite containing some progressive elements and appearing less punitive than previous immigration proposals, the USCA is not all that it seems. Almost immediately after its release, White House officials and congressional Democrats publicly conceded that they did not expect it to pass. Citing Republican opposition (as well as opposition within the right wing of their own party), they are already beating a quick retreat from reform.
At best, this policy will be denuded of any meaningful content in committee negotiations and weighted down with more oppressive measures. At worst, it will never leave committee and will die a quick death as the Democrats throw up their hands and walk away. Either way, it will likely set up the perpetuation of the continuation of enforcement-only policies into the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, there is no real possibility of returning to a pre-Trump status quo. A different context exists. Prolonged economic crisis and social polarization combined with intransigent opposition from the right makes this a path to nowhere. If the Democrats fold, which already appears to be happening, the Republican right and its backers will take the lane and launch a merciless counteroffensive.
Democrats Beat a Quick Retreat from Reform
The USCA framework is already seen as a nonstarter by those on all sides of the issue. The Biden Administration declared that any immigration reform will have to be supported by the Republicans in the Senate, which is impossible given the current electoral math.
The Democrats could turn this into a public campaign and cultivate popular social mobilization behind the proposal by moving labor unions, nonprofits, NGOs, and large portions of the general public to take action (a strategy Trump the Republicans have perfected). They could maneuver, call for public protest and other actions, attack Republican obstructionism, and otherwise “play hardball.” Yet none of these tactics exist in the Democratic playbook.
Instead, Biden and congressional Democrats are already surrendering this framework on the altar of “pragmatism” and signaling a willingness to accept whatever formulations of policy are palatable to the Republican detractors. Within days of announcing the bill, for instance, an unnamed White House official quickly leaked to the media that “this bill was not designed to get to 60 . . . There’s no pathway to 60.”
Furthermore, leading Democrats are already indicating that they will take whatever scraps they can get out of negotiations with the Republicans. White House officials told the Wall Street Journal that they intend to wrap up immigration reform efforts after Biden’s “first six months in office . . . to ensure that any legislation wouldn’t bleed into the 2022 midterm campaign” where they see it as a losing issue.
That the roar for reform is already winding down to a peep and muscular declarations are giving way to weak knees and half-heartedness requires deeper analysis. Why is legalization such an untouchable and thorny issue for the Democratic Party—while unbending and tenacious opposition to any reform is not a liability for the Republicans?
Why Are the Democrats Unwilling to Fight?
By using the phantom of Republican opposition to reform—even after an electoral defeat and the repudiation of Trump’s xenophobic exploitation of immigration politics—the Democrats reveal that immigration reform is not a priority. Secondly, the Democratic Party has already abandoned legalization and deployed enforcement-only policies since the first administration of Bill Clinton in 1992, speaking to more significant underlying factors to explain Biden’s behavior.
For instance, some immigrant rights advocates have pointed out that the Democratic congressional leadership could package immigration reform directly into the budget reconciliation process being considered for the $1.9 trillion stimulus proposal. This maneuver would only require a simple majority and not one single Republican vote. The Democratic leadership has so far sidelined this possibility in the lead-up to the approaching April deadline for new legislation.
Bob Menendez, the lead Senate backer of the proposal, announced the bill with the sound of fiery partisan resolve, proclaiming, “Time and time again, we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to recognize the humanity and contributions of immigrants to this country.”
Nevertheless, the retreat from the reform proposal is already on full display. Menendez himself has already announced a willingness to break the proposal into smaller and narrower pieces that are palatable to Republicans. Biden has stated publicly that he firmly opposes any go-it-alone approach on immigration that doesn’t get the Republicans’ blessing. In effect, the Democrats are signaling their plan to sacrifice immigration reform without a fight, perhaps to curry Republican support for their stimulus plan.
Given this approach, the far-right forces consolidating control over the Republican Party are already gearing up to turn this into another monumental legislative failure for the Democrats that they can capitalize on in the 2022 elections. The broad spectrum of the right, from the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal to congressional Republicans to racist and xenophobic hate groups, are all declaring steadfast opposition to any proposal that doesn’t scale up funding and mechanisms for migrant repression. In practice, the Democrats do not need to be cajoled into abandoning legalization, as they have paved the way for the enforcement-only movement. Clinton to Obama increased repressive policies in size and scope without progressing toward legalization.
From Amnesty to Enforcement Only
In 2006 over three million immigrant and migrant workers participated in strikes, walkouts, marches, and organized boycotts in hundreds of cities across the country to demand a new “amnesty,” or direct transition to citizenship without criminalization.2See Justin Akers Chacón and Mike Davis, No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.–Mexico Border (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), chapter 33. Hopes were modelled on the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a piece of legislation that enabled nearly three million undocumented workers to directly legalize their status. The mass action of 2006 and demand for another amnesty reflected the changing tracks of immigration politics in the country.
Following the previous amnesty, hundreds of thousands of legalized workers more freely joined into unions, even amid a general downturn of organized labor at the time. The boost for the labor movement, especially one catalyzed by migrant and undocumented workers, was not lost on the capitalist classes. Since 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, there have been intensive and coordinated union-busting efforts between the state and private sector across industries in the United States. Private sector union density in the United States fell by more than half from 1980 to 2000, or from about 20 percent to about 9 percent. By 2020, this number plummeted to about 6 percent.
In response to the surge in immigrant labor struggle in 2006, the Bush administration unleashed ICE to conduct targeted workplace raids and thousands of deportations across the country. The border wall expanded to over six hundred miles, and funding for ICE and CBP began to soar. State repression smothered the protest movement even though it reverberated into the 2008 elections, which saw the Republican Party wiped out and reduced to a minority party. Alongside the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq and the protests of the antiwar movement of the time, the once powerful immigration reform movement also mobilized large numbers to the polls—even leading to a raft of speculation by political scientists of the potential demise of the Republican Party.
Despite the popular support for another amnesty and a super-majority in Congress, the Democrats punted on first down at the goal-line. In its first one hundred days, the Obama-Biden administration announced it would not pass an immigration reform without support from the Republican Party. Handed this significant opportunity, congressional Republicans blinked at each other, and then giddily proceeded to kill comprehensive immigration reform.
By 2010, the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in part through the Tea Party movement that included regrouped anti-immigrant organizations hostile to amnesty. The Democrats’ failure to pass reform emboldened the right, while Republican obstinance to reform gave them a blunt-force weapon to use against the Democrats and an issue to mobilize the far-right and white supremacist base of US society.
2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned on an enforcement-only approach: the far-right concept of “enforcement through attrition,” which intended to ramp up repression and cruelty to such a scale that undocumented people would flee the country, or “self-deport.”
Obama won the election, yet again, by campaigning on a promise to pass immigration reform in his first hundred days. But, yet again, he pledged to only move forward with Republican support. Now experts on blocking any form of amnesty as a winning strategy, leading Republicans from John McCain to Marco Rubio proceeded to kill the next legislative effort in 2013–14 by opposing any legalization component until the “border is secure.” This enforcement-only approach is exactly what has been in place since then.
In fact, the politics of enforcement only have been in place since the Democratic majority under Clinton that built the first significant iteration of the border wall as part of “Operation: Gatekeeper” in 1994. Since Bush’s second term, there has been an acceleration towards more violent, cruel, and inhumane forms of migrant and refugee repression.
This bipartisan trajectory seeded the soil for the situation we are in today—one that has led to a qualitative shift toward the growing capacity, influence, and permanence of the far-right in US politics, from Trump’s resounding victory in the 2016 elections to the resurgence of far-right, anti-immigrant, and white supremacist groups that have waged campaigns of racist violence as the fascist street component of recycled “America First” doctrine of reactionary nationalism.
Capitalism Depends on Borders, Militarization, and Repression
The failure of the Democrats to even attempt another amnesty is not exactly the result of spinelessness, a more powerful and preponderant right, or because of popular opposition. It is because the very functioning of US capitalism has become increasingly dependent on border enforcement and migrant repression. As capitalist parties (and parties of capitalists), the Democrats and Republicans alike are dutifully bound to advance the interests of capital.
By criminalizing and maintaining millions of workers in conditions of segregation through noncitizen status (a reality for untold millions of transborder people going back to the 1980s), immigration enforcement works to artificially depress wages and working conditions, weaken and defeat union organizing efforts, and impose conditions of vulnerability on any form of resistance—which weakens working-class organization and solidarity in all forms.
It allows the right to politicize the issue and deflect from widening social inequality, while dividing and setting different sectors of the population as a whole against each other. Huge sums of value are transferred from labor to capital through the maintenance of a framework of migrant labor repression.
The utilization of politics that divide and weaken the working classes along racial and national lines is a long-standing feature of US society, and has become even more imperative as capitalism stumbles through recurring crises. The Great Recession of 2007–10 and the recession that began in 2020 in the womb of pandemic have shifted state priorities towards the stabilization, recuperation, and expansion of profits.
Instead of promised legalization, we have instead witnessed multiple public bailouts of faltering capitalism alongside neoliberal austerity carried out in seamless unity by Democrats and Republicans. This can explain why the Obama-Biden administration backtracked on legalization, bailed out Wall Street, and increased interior enforcement through the expansion of ICE and the virtual wall, mass deportation, and containment of Central American migration.
By 2013 what remained of immigration reform negotiations degenerated into Senate Bill 744 (S.744).3Akers Chacón and Davis, No One Is Illegal, chapter 37. Similar to Biden’s current proposal, S.744 proposed an eight- to ten-year labor requirement under conditions of noncitizenship for most migrants and a shorter path for Dreamers and farmworkers. In exchange for this so-called path to citizenship, it included a massive expansion of budgets of ICE, Border Patrol, and migrant detention capacity demanded by Republicans.
After all their demands were met, the Republicans seized their upper hand to change the terms of the negotiation. With such leverage, they changed their position to oppose any form of legalization until after the build-up of more border and interior enforcement according to their standards. The negotiations collapsed, after Democrats engineered the expansion of enforcement infrastructure during Obama and Biden’s first term.4Ultimately, Obama enacted DACA through an executive order as a temporary relief measure for undocumented youth. This was rescinded by Trump after the 2016 elections although it has been held up by court rulings.
Thereafter, the Obama administration focused the remainder of the second term toward repressing Central American migration, beefing-up ICE, expanding facility construction for family and child detention, and the funding and expanding policies of regional militarization into Mexico and Central America. This latter feature of US imperialism reflects the expansion of the US economy across the region in the last three decades and the state’s role in protecting US investments and profits from all forms or opposition or obstacle.
The Democrats and the Containment of Central American Refugees
During the 2020 campaign Biden touted Obama’s Central American initiatives to curtail migration. In 2014, Biden was designated as the administration’s point-person to resolve the matter, and along with then secretary of state Hillary Clinton he launched various efforts to detain, deport, and discourage refugees coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The Obama White House allocated $750 million for the project, which was distributed as follows:
- $300 million for “development” projects to governments
- $450 million for police funding and counter-narcotics operations
- $184 million for security projects
- $26 million in direct military financing, and
- $4 million for military training and education.
In this case, development aid worked within the framework of opening markets for US investors and to encourage government partnerships with US corporations to administer state functions, such as grants to privatize health and education. Police training included funds for sending Border Patrol forces (BORTAC) into Honduras to stop “unaccompanied” minors from leaving the country, setting up operations in three municipalities. This arrangement opened the door for Trump to expand the use of US immigration agents and resources for direct enforcement and training in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador during his tenure.
At this time the Obama administration also encouraged the Mexican government to block refugees at its southern border and increase detentions and deportations, paying the Mexican government $86 million for its efforts. Between 2011 and 2016, the Obama administration and Mexican government combined deported 800,000 refugees to Central America, including 40,000 children.
One study identified as many as eighty-three people deported from the United States who were murdered by criminal gangs or state forces on their return to El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras between 2014 and 2016 alone. By 2018, the United States had deported another one hundred thousand Central Americans back to their home countries.
Since coming to power in late 2018, the government of Andres Manuel López Obrador has also been complicit in the repression of Central American and African migrants and refugees. The government’s creation of the National Guard in 2019, ostensibly to combat crime, has instead been deployed to the southern and northern borders to “contain” Central American and African migration. Mexico has also expanded its detention center complex. In fact, according to one report,
Mexico has one of the largest immigration detention systems in the world, employing several dozen detention centers—euphemistically called estaciones migratorias—and detaining tens of thousands of people every year. Intense pressure from the United States and continuing migration from turmoil-wracked Central America have helped drive up detention numbers, which surpassed 180,000 in 2019.
The most notorious detention centers, like that in Tapachula, Chiapas, near the border of Guatemala, incarcerate African and Central American adults, families, and children under squalid, unsanitary, and overcrowded conditions.
Another strategy inside the US was to begin holding Central American families at detention centers, sparking a national debate about keeping children in cages before Trump later accelerated and expanded the practice. Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State also worked to stop the refugees, ran her 2016 presidential campaign on a platform of stopping migration, saying at one townhall meeting in 2016 that as president she would send the kids home. Current DHS head Alejandro Mayorkas was deputy secretary of DHS under Obama and Biden, and in his position oversaw one of the largest episodes of mass deportation in US history.
While not spelled out in detail, Biden’s recent statement of intention to spend $4 billion “investment in Central America” as part of immigration reform appears to follow in the pattern of the policy he helped administer between 2014 and 2016. This will likely include money to extend free-trade investment opportunities, encourage privatization and opening more public sectors for US-based capitalist speculation, and fund military and police.
Bipartisan Imperial Road Map: Free-Trade Policies and Regional Militarization
US capitalism under Biden, as much as under Trump, is also contingent on the functioning of imperialism: the state-led advancement of US economic, geopolitical, and military interests of the US capitalist class against rivals and opposition movements in subjected or dominated countries. Within this framework is the flow of capital export through so-called free-trade agreements (FTAs), which are the initiative of rich nations like the US to force open protected or nationalized economies for the purpose of plunder.
The regionalization of capitalism through FTAs has been supported and implemented by both parties since the 1990s, from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico in 1994, and its successor in the 2020 United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Trade agreements were extended with nations in the Caribbean including Haiti with the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA) in 2000, and to Central America and the Dominican Republic with the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) in 2005 among others.
FTAs have become an important source of wealth accumulation for US capitalism. They have led to the regional capitalist integration of Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean economies through arrangements that foster conditions for the super-exploitation of labor and the transnationalization of production and supply chains and other forms of economic domination. These are the main drivers of the outmigration of displaced peoples from Haiti to Guatemala, many of whom try to make it to the US where the expatriated wealth of their own nations flows and concentrates.
Through this process, US capital investment now extends across borders and throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean in most forms of manufacturing and production (maquiladoras), finance, insurance and banking, retail, agriculture, and logistics and transportation.
This regionalized economy is dependent on repressive labor systems to be in place, from maintaining subjugated labor and antiunion enforcement in Honduras to raids and selective deportation of undocumented workers in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, these policies have also produced the economic displacement of millions of workers, alongside the violent and disastrous effects of the US-led drug war, driving ongoing waves of migration north ever since.5The United States’ Plan Mérida supported and contributed to the catastrophic drug war against the cartels in Mexico from 2006–2012, leaving over 120,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. This also contributed to the expansion of cartels into Guatemala, Honduras, and other parts of Central American where they took control of sections of the countries, the domestic economies, and entered into politics in different ways. The violence and corruption created as a result are major factors driving migration from Central America.
Furthermore, the effects of FTAs also produce oppositional and anti-imperialist movements in the region, from the Zapatista Indigenous-led movement in Mexico in 1994 to the advent of nationalist and socialist political movements across the hemisphere—especially where there has been resistance to the US-centric model of international capitalism. The most recent and enduring source of opposition occurred with the nationalizations of US oil and other investments carried out by the government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and his subsequent efforts to create a counter-movement of aligned nations against US domination. It is not a coincidence that after taking office Biden announced his recognition of the dubious and corrupt opposition figure Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, a signal of the intention to continue the same imperial policies.
Since 2006, successive US administrations have executed the fulfillment of Plan Mérida. This plan was modelled on the 2000 Plan Colombia that offered support for the Colombian state’s repression of armed resistance movements and the policing of rural populations in that country. The adaptation to Mexico and Central America has aimed to create a North American-wide border security zone to control, regulate, and stabilize the migration of displaced people, and to deliver direct aid, training, and equipment to military and police regimes to control, contain, and repress displaced people and dissident movements.
Over $3 billion worth of equipment and training has gone to Mexican and Central American governments. While construed as a plan to also confront and stop the drug cartels, Plan Mérida and extenuating arrangements and agreements have instead expanded the US model of migrant policing and detention and border enforcement throughout the region. The relationship established through military funding and capitalist relationships and partnerships has also solidified political alliances with right-wing regimes. These alliances became useful.
In 2009, the Obama Administration embarked on a major effort to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership Alliance, an FTA that would open the door more widely for US capital to operate in eleven additional countries. At that same time, Honduran president Manuel Zelaya began to establish relations and collaboration with Chavez and joined the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA. Furthermore, he began to implement wage reforms that were out of line with the imperatives of free trade. According to one report:
Not only had Zelaya raised the monthly urban and rural minimum wages to a whopping $290 and $213, respectively, he had also shown himself to be more willing than his predecessors to listen to the complaints of impoverished communities affected by mining and other toxic operations by international corporations.
Shortly thereafter, the US gave the green light to the Honduran military to overthrow the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya. This was followed by the installation of the far-right National Party of Honduras, the traditional party of landed oligarchs with direct ties to international cartels who enforce the status quo of free trade. This reintroduced military, police, and vigilante repression and death squads to suppress the popular movements and murder or disappearance of hundreds of Indigenous, left, LGBTQ+, and environmental activists and leaders.
Conclusion: Only Through Border Abolitionism Can We End the Crisis
The 2016 election of Trump, underwritten by border wall fantasies and enforcement-only screw-tightening, is the twisted result of decades of the Democratic Party’s abandonment of legalization as a goal and continuation of the strategy of regional militarization. While Trump may have lost the 2020 election, Trumpism isn’t going anywhere.
Trump sent 5,200 US troops to the US-Mexico border two weeks before the mid-term elections in 2018, characterizing the flow of refugees as an “invasion of our country” and claiming that “Middle Eastern” people were among them—just two days after a neo-Nazi opened fire killing eleven people in a Jewish synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a community in Pittsburgh. But so too did Bush and Obama send US troops to the border to “contain migration.”
The main points of enforcement Trump emphasized do not represent a rupture but an acceleration and qualitative shift. Besides border wall construction and more egregious measures to punish and detain refugees at the border, contain them at their own countries, etc., most significantly and perhaps long-lasting was the increase of power, impunity, and autonomy of immigration enforcement agencies to the point that they operate like states-within-the-states, with white supremacist and fascist radicalization akin to what is happening inside national police forces.
In July of 2020, the Trump administration designated Immigration and Customs Enforcement a “security/sensitive agency.” The move further shields ICE from public accountability, allowing them to withhold even more information by extending exemptions to FOIA on virtually all activities conducted by or associated with its agents—essentially shielding them from prosecution.
Ken Cuccinelli, who was deputy secretary of Homeland Security from 2019 to 2021, signed a contract with ICE’s union on the eve of the Biden inauguration that conveyed that all agency-related policy coming from the White House or Congress has to be approved by ICE union. New York Times reporters note that of ICE, “whose top leaders were enthusiastic supporters of Mr. Trump, has signaled that it does not intend to accept all of the new administration’s reversals of his policies.” Even though Biden has the prerogative of overturning Cuccinelli’s arrangement, it does not appear that the he has any intention of confronting ICE leadership or challenging the autonomy of the agency. In fact, Biden already blinked. He backed away from any challenge and issued new orders that not only preserve the power granted by Trump—but actually expanded their operational purview.
Capitalism’s dependence on the exploitation of undocumented labor and the bipartisan operation of imperialist policy provides a framework for understanding why the Biden administration has no intention to dismantle border walls, close detention centers, or defund the DHS—or, for that matter, to offer meaningful legalization.
For that we need to build a movement that imposes demands on the whole political establishment. To achieve justice for migrant and refugee people—and uplift the whole working class—these demands must include full legalization without criminalization, opening the border, and abolishing the Department of Homeland Security. Furthermore, we must be ready use the tools of class struggle to achieve these goals, including protest, civil disobedience, direct action, and mass strikes—starting now.
Co-published with puntorojo magazine.