Confronting the Long Arc of U.S. Border Policy

Migrants from Haiti stand near the Zaragoza-Ysleta International Bridge after being deported from the United States in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Feb. 3, 2021.

Photo: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters

The celebratory clamor surrounding President Joe Biden’s 100-day deportation moratorium was short-lived, as a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the pause on deportation within a few days of its announcement. Even though the court order did not require the Biden administration to proceed with deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement swiftly deported hundreds of people to Guatemala, Honduras, and Jamaica anyway.

Marking the start of Black History Month, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an advocacy group, blasted Biden’s refusal to stop ICE and tweeted, “Nothing about this admin’s values + actions give us confidence that Black people will be prioritized in the ‘new’ national agenda. Continued detention & hastened deportations are a sounding alarm for what’s to come.” They and other immigrant rights organizations point out that the moratorium does not mandate the release of detainees from ICE prisons, and one person has already died in ICE custody under Biden’s watch. As organizers with Mijente, a grassroots organization made up of Latinx and Chicanx people, have said, “Joe Biden’s current plan — a de facto return to the Obama years — would mean more desperation, more deportations, and more death.”

That community pressure seems to have worked—for now. Following the outcry from the immigrant rights community, the Department of Homeland Security halted deportation flights to Haiti, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The immigrant rights movement will inevitably find itself in an ongoing battle with Biden and his ilk of liberal-centrists, especially when the administration attempts to force through future compromises over who gets to stay and under what conditions, and who is disposable and deportable. To effectively confront those state efforts at divide and rule, movement activists must understand how central Democrats have been to shaping abhorrent U.S. border policy and must refuse to sanitize the Democratic Party’s shameful record.

While former President Donald Trump’s overtly malicious policies of separating families, caging children, banning Black and brown Muslims, and building the border wall garnered international condemnation, cruel policies of immigration enforcement are a pillar of Democrats’ governance. The rhetoric of “productive” and “legal” immigrants, with the simultaneous demonization of “criminal” and “illegal” immigrants, has been the cornerstone of the party’s immigration platform for three decades. Under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, an entire immigration enforcement apparatus bent on expanding detention and deportation, criminalizing migration through prosecutions, militarizing the border, and imperialist outsourcing of border enforcement was cemented.

NOGALES, AZ - APRIL 10: United States army engineers extend a border wall as a Mexican boy on the other side watches on April 10, 1995 on the outskirts of Nogales, Arizona.(Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

A boy on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border watches as U.S. Army engineers extend the border wall on the outskirts of Nogales, Ariz., on April 10, 1995.

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

The Border Is a Prison

The Clinton years normalized the most severe consequences of border militarization and mass detention. In 1994, as Clinton was signing the North American Free Trade Agreement to ensure the free movement of capital, the Army Corps of Engineers was fencing the border to constrict the movement of the very people displaced by this latest iteration of neoliberal capitalist warfare. Border Patrol tripled in size to become the second-largest enforcement agency at the time, and operations such as Hold the Line in Texas, Gatekeeper in California, and Safeguard in Arizona militarized the border under the official strategy of “prevention through deterrence.” Within six years of funneling migration toward the more dangerous Sonoran Desert, Arizona uplands, and southern Texas brush, border deaths — what we should more accurately label as premeditated border killings — increased by 509 percent.

Clinton’s “tough on immigration” strategy converged with his “tough on crime” policies. In 1996, Clinton passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. These statutes mobilized the dehumanizing rhetoric of “crime, drugs, illegals” to expand the category of aggravated felony convictions and widen the net for detention and deportation of legal permanent residents with minor convictions stemming from stop-and-frisk policing and the war on drugs. The laws also fast-tracked deportation, mandated detention for many, and imposed criminal penalties for unauthorized border crossings. Within a few years, average daily detentions tripled, and deportations shot up to an average of 150,000 annually.

Decades later, “tough on crime” and “tough on immigration” policies continued to have devastating impacts. By 2009, about half of the people ICE detained had come on its radar through the “Criminal Alien Program,” which uses collaborations between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement as a pipeline for expulsion.

Crosses are posted on the wall that separates the US and Mexico 29 January 2006 in Tijuana, Mexico. According to the US Border Patrol, some 2,000 immigrants have died crossing into the US in the period 1998-2004 as operation Gatekeeper was being developped as a way to secure the border. To avoid such a perilous journey Mexico's National Human Rights commission announced a plan to distribute maps showing safe routes into the US, a move that created indignation by anti-immigrant groups and conservative politicians in the US. Because of this response Mexican officials have declined to implement the plan.  AFP PHOTO/Omar TORRES / AFP / OMAR TORRES        (Photo credit should read OMAR TORRES/AFP via Getty Images)

Crosses representing some of the thousands of migrants who died attempting to cross into the U.S. between 1998 and 2004 as Operation Gatekeeper was enacted are seen on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 29, 2006.

Photo: Omar Torres/AFP via Getty Images

Clinton’s punitive crime and welfare laws also intensified neoliberal impoverishment. The 1994 crime laws expanded police and prisons and mandated harsher sentences while the 1996 welfare laws barred many people with drug convictions from accessing benefits and slashed welfare, especially for single teenage mothers. The war on crime, like the war on drugs, pathologized Black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Indigenous and other racialized cultures as the cause of poverty, when structural inequality was actually an inevitable consequence of racial capitalism.

As Naomi Murakawa explains on the long arc of the carceral crisis, “The US did not confront a crime problem that was then racialized; it confronted a race problem that was then criminalized.” The particular association of Black communities with both welfare benefits and crime gave legitimacy to policies of austerity that shrank the welfare state while policies of law and order expanded the carceral state. The simultaneous production and policing of precarity is what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls organized abandonment alongside organized violence. The prison industrial complex exploded to enforce both poverty and confinement on deliberately gendered and racial lines, a modern method of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous genocide, giving the U.S. the shameful honor of having the world’s highest incarceration rate.

Police, prisons, and borders all operate by immobilizing the people caught in their crosshairs.

It was this expanding neoliberal carceral state, including the largest immigration detention system on the planet, that provided the material foundation for Trump’s horrific immigration concentration camps and, subsequently, thousands of mobilizations to demand their closure. At the same time, abolitionist uprisings in response to the cold-blooded police murders of Black trans and cis men and women George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery exposed the irreformable brutality of carceral institutions.

Police, prisons, and borders all operate by immobilizing the people caught in their crosshairs. Notably, the word “mob,” a criminalizing vocabulary used to link large groups of poor, racialized people to social disorder in inner cities and at the border, derives from the word “mobility.” Angela Davis and Gina Dent write, “We continue to find that the prison is itself a border.” Drawing on Davis and Dent, we can say that the prison is a border and the border is a prison. Indeed, the U.S.-Mexico border was formed between 1846 and 1850 by annexing over 525,000 square miles of Mexican territory, capturing Indigenous lands, and punishing Black movement through the Fugitive Slave Act. The violent transformation of land and people into racial property sanctioned global white citizenship; meanwhile, racialized migration was scrutinized and controlled. The border is thus at once domestic and global, and a world without police, prisons, private property, militaries, and borders is a necessarily interconnected abolitionist horizon of freedom.

WASHINGTON - JULY 28:  Dozens of U.S.-born children from across the country traveled to the White House with their undocumented parents to march and demonstrate against recent deportations July 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. Organized by CASA de Maryland, Familias Latinas Unidas, and other organizations, marchers describing themselves as "Obama Orphans," or children whose parents have been deported, called on President Barack Obama to keep his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Dozens of U.S.-born children from across the country traveled to the White House with their undocumented parents to call on President Barack Obama to keep his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform on July 28, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The War at Home, The War Abroad

A decade after Clinton, Obama also spent billions of dollars securing the border, and during his tenure, border and immigration enforcement budgets began to outpace the budgets of all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. In 2010, Obama ordered more than 1,000 troops to the border before signing legislation to increase the number of Border Patrol agents and expand the border’s virtual surveillance systems. Private contractors making a killing through war contracts were also granted billions of dollars to build the virtual wall with their promises of infallible high-tech drone surveillance.

Depictions of domestic and foreign threats merged. Unmanned aerial vehicles were first tested on the U.S.-Mexico border before they were used in drone attacks on Yemen and Pakistan. Obama dropped 26,171 bombs — an average of three bombs every hour — mostly through air strikes and drone warfare on Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan in 2016. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defense acquired the largest drone fleets of all state agencies; thus boomeranged the war at home and the war abroad.

Obama earned the moniker of “deporter-in-chief” for overseeing 3 million deportations, which he accomplished by weaponizing “good immigrants” against “bad immigrants.” Like Clinton, his administration prioritized deporting noncitizens with criminal records. Before introducing his much-lauded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, protections, Obama signaled his intention to increase enforcement against undesirables with the Secure Communities program: “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

Obama turbocharged the Secure Communities initiative until 2014, under which over 1,000 local law enforcement jurisdictions were linked to ICE and FBI databases, nearly doubling deportation rates. By 2014, about half of all federal criminal arrests were immigration-related. That same year, following a surge of unaccompanied minors at the border, Obama laid the foundation for incarcerating migrant families by detaining them in camps on military bases, which then escalated to forced family separation and hundreds of missing children under Trump. In fact, several of the photographs of children in cages that went viral during Trump’s presidency were actually taken during the Obama years.

Obama laid the foundation for incarcerating migrant families by detaining them in camps on military bases, which then escalated to forced family separation and hundreds of missing children under Trump.

Similarly, the groundwork for the terror of Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” program — a program that allows U.S. border officials to return asylum-seekers back to Mexico as they await their hearings, which has trapped tens of thousands of Central American and African migrants in teeming tent camps — was laid by Obama’s imperial outsourcing of border enforcement. Though Biden has directed Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to review the MPP protocols, he has made no mention of the extensive network of migration prevention protocols that predate them.

Initiated by President George W. Bush and vastly expanded under Obama, the multibillion-dollar U.S.-Mexico Mérida Initiative provides funding to Mexican police and border agents and has created a battery of police and migration checkpoints beginning all the way in southern Chiapas and ending at the U.S.-Mexico border. Mérida and its counterpart, the Central American Regional Security Initiative, paramilitarize the entire landscape through the triad of the war on drugs, the war on Indigenous lands, and the war on migrants.

The U.S. also funds immigration enforcement in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico through the Grupo Conjunto de Inteligencia Fronteriza. Shortly after the U.S. launched the Mexico-Guatemala-Belize Border Region Program, Homeland Security officials declared that “the Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border,” thus solidifying this new frontier of U.S. border militarization.

Biden has announced that he will halt border wall construction, but the outsourcing of border policy, a system perfected by Obama, will allow the Biden administration to strengthen an entire fortress stretching far beyond the symbolic border wall itself. Just as Biden took office, thousands of migrants from Honduras headed toward the U.S. were blockaded and tear-gassed by Guatemalan soldiers and police. Instead of condemning the crackdown or implicating the long arc of U.S. dirty colonial coups, enforced capitalist trade agreements extracting land and labor, or climate change causing displacement and migration, a senior official in the Biden administration warned the caravan against making the journey.

Though less visible than the horrific images of immigration raids and overflowing detention centers within the U.S., border outsourcing is a more sophisticated and dangerous enforcement method aimed at preventing migrants from even reaching the southern U.S. border. Immigration diplomacy through the soft power of aid agreements or outright threats of trade war has compelled various Latin American countries to accept outsourced migration controls. Imperialism is already a root cause of global migration, and now the management of global migration through outsourcing the enforcement of the border is also becoming a means of preserving imperial relations and outsourcing U.S. policies of migrant repression.

PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 3: Activists listen to a speaker during a protest calling for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on October 3, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. A week of peaceful demonstrations pushed Portland toward 130 days of protests against police violence and racial injustice. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Activists listen to a speaker during a protest calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 3, 2020.

Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Abolish ICE, Abolish Borders

Under Biden in the coming years, the catastrophic effects of climate disasters — displacing one person every two seconds — will likely escalate talk of “refugee invasion” or “border crisis.” Climate migrants and refugees will be declared the new migration crisis, and the U.S. border will hypocritically be positioned as a victim. Language like “migrant crisis” depicts migrants and refugees as the cause of an imagined crisis at the U.S. border while conveniently erasing the role of the U.S. as a primary driver of the actual crises of global capitalism, conquest, and climate change.

The far right will feed us eco-apartheid drivel about migrant and refugee “swarms” ruining our environment, stealing our jobs, draining our services, infecting our neighborhoods, and tainting our values. This dangerous nationalist and ruling-class ideology will deflect responsibility from the underlying systems producing mass inequality in our warming world by conveniently scapegoating “foreigners.” In response to revanchism, the Biden administration will peddle tired old liberal centrism. We will be offered the shallow politics of humanitarianism, such as “Welcome refugees,” or liberal multiculturalism proclaiming, “We are all from somewhere,” or commodifying platitudes such as “Immigrants build our economy.”

But our movements must refuse Biden’s banal liberal center. Calls to abolish ICE, Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and all immigration enforcement must replace assimilationist calls for immigration reform that rely on white supremacist and cisheteronormative distinctions between “good” and “undeserving” migrants. Criminality and illegality are both political constructions within which proving one’s innocence or respectability is a frustrating and inherently impossible political stance.

Just as migrant justice must not endorse categories of desirable or undesirable, we must also refuse gestures of charitable humanitarianism, tropes of grateful refugees migrating to modernity, the commodification of immigrant labor to benefit capital accumulation, and carceral regimes as legitimate institutions of governance. Instead, we must make clear: not one more detention, not one more deportation, and immigration status and labor protections for all.

We must also go further and reject the normalization of the colonial border that casts racialized people as perpetual outsiders, erases Indigenous nations, reproduces an anti-Black social order, fortifies the West against the rest, deflates labor power, and is the ideological basis for all immigration policies. After all, the borders of settler states are illegal; human beings are never illegal.

This article is adapted from Harsha Walia’s forthcoming book, “Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism” (Haymarket, February 9, 2021), with a foreword by Robin D.G. Kelley and an afterword by Nick Estes. Excerpts are included here with permission of the publisher.

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