Summary: From a presentation to a meeting of the Los Angeles chapter of the International Marxist-Humanist Organization — Editors
A call for reflection and action
I want to start with an acknowledgment that in the US and in many other parts of the world we stand on Indigenous lands that were once cared for by Indigenous peoples, who roamed freely for thousands of years prior to the colonial invasion and settlement. It is also our responsibility to reflect upon and challenge the violence that was and continues to be bestowed upon Native communities and the land that is integral to their ways of life. We must recognize our own complicity and seek humanizing and decolonizing alternatives to the relations of domination that continue to negatively affect Indigenous communities.
In any discussion of im(migration) we need to challenge the false and deceptive narrative that this is a land of immigrants and that immigration is a choice. Although there was a horrific genocidal war waged against Native peoples, they were never eliminated. According to the 2021 census, there are over 6.5 million Native Americans living in the US and they are the most undercounted demographic. Millions of African peoples were forced into slavery through the transatlantic slave trade and these cannot be called immigrants. Nor can the Chicano communities, colonized twice over, as a result of the Mexican-American war, be called immigrants.
The concept of im(migration)
The concept of im(migration) normalizes the existence of borders that presumes that countries have the right to determine who and under what conditions certain peoples can enter and settle within the country. Yet, with few exceptions, migration has never been a “choice.” Most immigrants who enter the US are forced to leave their homes and families in order to survive or to seek what they hope will be a better life.
Yet the so-called immigration problem is much more complex than how it is simply explained as the desire for people to come for better conditions and whether we have the resources to support the influx
Indeed, the movement of peoples from peripheral nations to the imperial or sub-imperial world is a function of global social relations wherein the most vulnerable peoples of the Global South are hyper exploited, removed from their land and subsistence, forced to live in war zones, or forced to flee from environmental disasters. The richest nations in the world are always implicated in these social conditions.
The greatest number of immigrants to the US come from Mexico, with other large sending countries including predominantly Latin America and Asian countries, countries and or peoples that have seen the mighty fist the US’s racist political and economic policies. Asian countries have a long history of US exploitation, including the often and conveniently forgotten extreme exploitation of Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad and, in the process, established communities that continue to draw peoples that have been highly exploited by multimillion-dollar companies who outsource manufacturing to these countries for cheap labor. US Wars and violent political interventions waged in Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, and other countries, have set the stage for political and economic manipulation that eventually push people to seek a better life elsewhere, but often in the same country that exploited them but also infiltrated their consciousness with false narratives of democracy, freedom, and the American dream.
In Latin America, there is a history of continuous US political and economic intervention that has directly resulted in the appropriation of people’s lands and opportunities for subsistence, including the already mentioned expropriation of the Southwest, the existence of the United Fruit Company, which controlled vast territories and transportation networks in Central America, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has facilitated the explosion of highly exploitative maquila industries in Mexico and the expropriation of land and resources which have pushed entire communities out of their homes, and the creation of the endless and highly unsuccessful War on Drugs aimed at curbing the drug trafficking that exists primarily in response to an overwhelming US market. After 9-11, a new War on Terror that has cost millions of additional dollars was decreed at the border even though to date no terrorist has ever been apprehended at the US-Mexican border. This merged war on Narco-Terrorism has brought extreme violence to Latin America and serves as a surveillance strategy that keeps the US government informed of any political activity or socialist rumblings that may interfere with US government and corporate interests.
Marx recognized the imperialist demands of the capitalist system, referring to the “so-called primitive accumulation” that colonialism provided as not merely a one-time significant accumulation of capital to jump start capitalism but a process of thievery that would be continuously necessary to maintain the capitalist system (Marx, 1977).
Thus, mass immigration to the US, is a direct result of historical and current dealings in other countries that make people economically or politically vulnerable and create conditions of violence, which enrich the US with political power and capital. We are very much responsible for the influx of immigrants to the US. And our greater “economic development” is absolutely a function of the theft of resources and the political maneuvering that has left the Global South and its peoples vulnerable.
In addition, the notion that we cannot accept any more immigrants because we cannot sustain them, is also a false cloak over our eyes, given that the US continues to operate guest worker programs that bring in approximately 200,000 people annually to fill jobs that cannot be filled through the existing workforce (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2021). One has to wonder why we keep deporting people from the US while simultaneously seeking others to come for work. Guest worker programs are well known for their human rights abuses which tie the workers to the whims of the employer and secure what has been likened to a modern-day form of slavery. The most infamous of these guest workers programs was the Bracero program, instituted after WWII, that employed over 4 million Mexican guestworkers over a 22-year history (Farmworker Justice, 2021).
Furthermore, research has shown that undocumented immigrants pay more taxes than they receive resources and that the jobs they take are the jobs that Americans won’t take. Often these are brutal jobs that are poorly paid and have poor working conditions. Research suggests that agricultural industries in the US would likely fall apart without the cheap labor force of unauthorized workers (Dudley, 2019).
Increasingly researchers are studying the feminization of migration. Currently women around the world make up 47% of all migrants. In the US, 51.8% of immigrants are women. While women migrate for similar reasons to men –survival and opportunity, the pull for women from the developed world is to resolve a ‘crisis of care’ that exist in “developed” countries, including for domestic labor and child and elderly care (Tittensor & Mansouri, 2017). This also supports pushing out countries because women send back a larger share of their incomes than men (American Immigration Council, 2020). This immigrant women’s labour market not only exploits but also channels them into traditional female roles, which has allowed middle-class women to enter professional fields and assume greater gender equality. In this sense, the immigrant women’s labour market also serves the ideological function of making middle-class women feel that the capitalist system works in their favor. Of grave concern should be the fact that while these immigrant women are filling these caring roles for more affluent, usually white, women, they are not able to devote as much care to their own children, which continues to reproduce a stratified raced and classed next generation.
Immigration is thus a very complex global process that reflects racial-colonial and gendered capitalist relations. Yet it is used simplistically as a political rallying point. White nationalist attitudes and the vilification of immigrants represent and continuously re-establish colonial relations. False narratives of the immigrants who come to take our resources are used to justify the hyper-exploitation of immigrants and other communities of color, mass deportations, inequality, and the millions of tax dollars used to support a border patrol system that forms part of the global billion-dollar prison and military-industrial complex, which cages and controls primarily Black and Brown bodies.
While the exploitation of land and workers of the Global South, forced migration, and subsequent exploitation of immigrants in the US is a central process of advanced capitalism, there is no denying that these violent processes were instituted from inception by the white man against the perceived “other” and has constructed a global division along racial lines. Women have also been highly manipulated within capitalism as the patriarchal family controls both women and their bodies in order to produce the next generation of workers. Women of color have fared the worst within this hierarchical structure, becoming the cheapest labor force and mere objects for men’s sexual exploits and white professional women’s “equality” agendas.
While capitalism is a violent system that targets all life forms, the hyper-violence that has and continues to target BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ communities, Muslims and Jewish communities, and other non-dominant groups, and in particular the women in these communities, makes clear the capitalism is a racial-colonial system.
Prevention through Deterrence
One of the most horrific strategies the federal government has adopted as a way to presumably limit the immigration of specific racialized communities is “Prevention through Deterrence,” first adopted in 1994 under the Clinton administration. It reflects a belief that people can be deterred from crossing if they understand that attempts will result in extreme forms of human suffering.
In an ethnography of the US-Mexican border crossers, Jason de León (2015) documents how border crossers have increasingly been funneled into crossing through the Sonoran Desert, which weaponizes the environment, as a strategy of this “Prevention Through Deterrence.” De Leon demonstrates the desperation that pushes border crossers and the extreme level of human suffering experienced, often dying along the way – their psyches and bodies beaten and destroyed by both human and animal scavengers. De Leon demonstrates through official documents that although Prevention Through Deterrence does not actually deter border crossers, officials measure its success by the increase in the death toll. It is estimated that at least 450 border crossers die yearly attempting to cross through the Sonoran Desert. This number, however, may be much larger given that the desert has the potential to remove all traces of human existence.
A second example of Prevention through Deterrence was the separation of asylum-seeking families mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, at the border in 2017 and later more aggressively expanded in 2018, when close to 5000 families were separated and children – some as young as a 2 years old – were thrown into cages, in some cases with little documentation as to who they were or where they were being sent. Even those children who had papers to be cared for by legal resident family members in the US were not given the right to stay with families. Only a complete disdain for human life can explain such a policy – a white supremacist assumption that they are the only ones with the right to human life and decency. Three years later, at least 1000 of these families remain separated.
The recent treatment of Haitian migrants seeking refuge at the Texas border is an example of the push and pull of immigration. Approximately, 30,000 Haitian migrants have arrived since September this year. They are fleeing the economic and political devastation residents are feeling in Haiti, which can also be connected to the long history of US abuses (Suggs, 2021). As far back as Haiti’s independence we can see the US exerting its power in order to secure its interests. Although Haiti won its independence in 1804, the US did not recognize Haiti as an independent nation until 1865. This occurred as part of the short-lived era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The US feared that recognizing their independence would threaten white supremacy and American slavery. In 1915, the US invaded Haiti and establish a 19-year long US occupation, which was, according to the Washington Post, marked by the assassination of political dissidents and a system of forced labor that ravaged the peasantry. A change to the Haitian constitution, brought on by US pressure, legalized the sale of Haitian lands to foreigners, resulting in the sale of large parcels of land to US companies. A succession of puppet governments gave the US even greater control of Haiti’s finances and led to an increase in the concentration of wealth among a small group of elites while increasing the poverty of the masses. In the 1980s, under Reagan, American rice growers were heavily subsidized by the government and packages of food aid in the form of Miami rice flooded the Haitian market, making it nearly impossible for Haitian farmers to compete. In 1990, when a democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, planned to stabilize the economy by limiting rice imports, a CIA-backed military coup took over and one year later American Rice, Inc. negotiated a nine-year contract of rice imports. The Clinton administration, which restored Aristide to power, also continued to pressure Haiti into lowering its tariffs for American rice imports. In 2004, Aristide was again deposed with U.S. acquiescence by right-wing forces. Then the devastating earthquake of 2010 provided additional opportunities for US corporations to make money off of Haiti’s suffering. Economic devastation often results in political instability and violence. In July this year, the rightwing, pro-U.S. President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated. This brief history shows a century of tumultuous activity spurred on by US interventions aimed at benefitting US economic and political interests. Those who pay the highest price are the working people who suffer poverty and violence. Why would we turn them away when it is our doing that has put them in this predicament? And even if it weren’t our doing, don’t they, as every human being, deserve a life with dignity and opportunity?
The image of border patrol agents whipping Haitian asylum seekers reminded me that the horrific past of American slavery should never be forgotten, for the sentiments of white supremacy, greed, hate, and dehumanization that embedded it continue to lurk in the hearts and minds of many within the US and in many of the policies that aim to intimidate, control, and exploit communities of color.
I want to end with a question: As a society, we can legislate against people who merely want to find a place where they can work and provide for their families and where their children can grow healthy and get an education. What makes us as “Americans” more worthy than anyone else? Immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, are human too.
American Immigration Council. (2020). Immigrant women and girls in the United States. Sept. 24, https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/immigrant-women-and-girls-united-states
de León, J. (2015). The land of open graves. University of California Press.
Dudley, M.J. (2019). Why care about undocumented immigrants? For one thing, they’ve become vital to key sectors of the US economy. The Conversation, January 14, https://theconversation.com/why-care-about-undocumented-immigrants-for-one-thing-theyve-become-vital-to-key-sectors-of-the-us-economy-98790
Farmworker Justice. (2021). Guestworker Programs. Retrieved October 23, https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/advocacy_program/guestworker-programs/
International Organization for Migration. (2020). Gender, migration and remittances. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/about-iom/Gender-migration- remittances-infosheet.pdf
Marx, Karl. (1977). Capital vol I, translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1977.
Mullin, L. (2021). How the US crippled Haiti’s rice industry. Haiti Action Committee, Retrieved October, 23, https://haitisolidarity.net/in-the-news/how-the-united-states-crippled-haitis-domestic-rice-industry/
Southern Poverty Law Center. (2021). Guest worker rights. Retrieved October 23, https://www.splcenter.org/issues/immigrant-justice/guest-workers
Suggs, D. (2021) The long legacy of US occupation of Haiti, The Washington Post, Aug. 6, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/08/06/haiti-us-occupation-1915/
Tittensor, D., & Mansouri, F. (2017). The feminization of migration: A critical overview. In The Politics of Women and Migration in the Global South (pp.11-25). London, UK: Palgrave Pivot.