Justin Akers Chacon is a US immigration rights activist, professor of Chicana/o History at San Diego City College and the co-authorwith Mike Davis of No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the US-Mexico Border. The article below is abridged from a speech he gave on August 20 to the Radical Ideas conference, organised by Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.
At the press conference to announce his run for president last year, Donald Trump referred to Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” who must be stopped by “building a wall”.
Since taking office, Trump has continued to reiterate that message through policy initiatives designed to further degrade the quality of life for undocumented workers and their families. The overtly racist targeting of migrant and immigrant people by Trump has excited the far-right, and emboldened their efforts to organise, mobilise on a national scale, and terrorise working class communities of colour.
But Trump and a re-energised far right did not appear in a vacuum. The Democrats and Republicans have made the persecution of undocumented workers the hallmark of their administrations.
Under Democrat president Bill Clinton, much of the current infrastructure of immigrant repression was first built. This included a militarised border wall and provisions for local police to act as immigration enforcers.
Democratic president Barack Obama squandered a supermajority in Congress in 2008, failing to pass a promised legalisation program. Instead his administration carried out the largest deportation campaign since the 1950s.
The bipartisan attack on immigrants over the past 25 years has served as a catalyst for the rightward shift in immigration politics, which opened the door for the election of Trump and the growth of a far-right fascist movement.
Making racism mainstream again
The Trump administration has imposed an executive order that explicitly restricts the entry of Muslim travellers 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.
Trump’s order reads: “Each of these countries is a state sponsor of terrorism, has been significantly compromised by terrorist organisations, or contains active conflict zones.”
What this fails to mention is that the US government has already targeted these predominantly Muslim nations through aerial bombings, proxy wars, drone attacks, and a variety of other forms of clandestine warfare. It has done so as part of the “War on Terror” — a generational effort to project US power and influence in the Arab and Muslim world.
The order claims to, “Protect … citizens from terrorist attacks, including those committed by foreign nationals”. But no citizens from these countries have committed any acts of terrorism on US soil.
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 US dropped more than 47,000 bombs on Syria and Iraq alone, killing untold thousands.
On March 17, for example, a US-led airstrike killed more than 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.
The Trump administration has made a series of rule changes (“guidance memos”) that are being implemented by the Department of Homeland Security under executive authority. The memos give a broader mandate for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to arrest, detain and deport undocumented people.
Anyone who cannot prove two-year consistent residence can be put into the “expedited removal” process, regardless of criminal record.
The union representing the Border Patrol (along with the National Fraternal Order of Police) officially endorsed Trump’s candidacy, showing the alignment of thinking within the 20,000 member armed border force.
Trump’s actions are designed to allow more impunity to the federal border police, a federal agency already accused of widespread human rights abuses. The Trump administration is encouraging the immigration police to go on the offensive and unleash a more far-reaching reign of terror on undocumented immigrants.
The Arizona-based human rights group No More Deaths produced a comprehensive report that documents 30,000 incidents where human rights abuses occurred between 2008 and 2011. Since 2010, according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition, 46 people have been killed on the border.
ICE agents operating within the interior are no different, although their patterns of arrest have been more selective and targeted. There has been a spate of highly targeted arrests of undocumented immigrant rights activists showing that a Trump administration is using armed agents in a more explicitly political manner than his recent predecessors.
Through his Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, an unreconstructed segregationist, he is currently tangled up in the courts trying to bloc federal grant money from going to police in cities where “sanctuary” provisions are on the books.
In his proposed budget, which has stalled in Congress, Trump has allocated US$1.6 billion to begin extending the physical wall, now covering 965 kilometres of the 3218 kilometre boundary. Amid the tragic flooding of Hurricane Harvey, Trump took the opportunity to publicly threaten a federal budget shut down if the US Congress didn’t allocate funding for his wall.
He also used his executive authority to pardon Joe Arpaio, a notoriously racist and anti-immigrant Sheriff based in Arizona. By pardoning Arpaio, who had been facing prison time related to the unconstitutionality of his heavy-handed targeting of Latino communities, Trump is signalling to his boiled-down, hard-right base that his presidency will seek to re-establish open racism as part of the political mainstream.
The function of racism as a means to specifically target and repress immigrant workers coincides with the extension of free-market capitalism. As corporations displace workers in their home countries, they become an even more exploitable commodity through their disempowerment as undocumented immigrants. Once in the country, state repression keeps them segregated and isolated.
Trump has tapped into long and deep-rooted vein of anti-Mexican racism that has been part of US politics since its colonial inception.
Trumpism is the latest exhumation of the “Brown Scare”, a form of anti-Mexican racism that is re-imagined in new forms in changing historical contexts, but most closely linked to the capitalist political economy.
The current context is the huge catastrophe of neoliberal capitalism, specifically in the form of the North American Free Trade Agreement, that has devastated the working classes in North America. Since NAFTA began in 1994, there has been the dismantling of unions in the US, the shifting of capital investment south of the border and the evaporation of industrial jobs.
Mexican workers and small farmers have faced huge displacement due to the privatisation of the state industry, and the flood of US agricultural imports as tariffs and subsidies have been eliminated. As a result, more than 6 million people have left Mexico for the US. They have been re-constituted into the US working class as “immigrants.”
About 12 million Mexicans were residing in the country by 2007, primarily workers and their children. The undocumented workforce is now estimated at 5-7% of the national workforce and up to 20% of California’s labour force.
This is the context in which we see the militarisation of the border, criminalisation of immigrant workers and growth in anti-immigrant racism. The US ruling class has ratcheted up its campaign to extinguish unions, drive down wages and extract more surplus value. Key to this strategy has been the repression of immigrant workers.
By keeping a growing segment of the workforce as non-citizens and vulnerable to persecution, capitalists can push down wages, more easily fire those who try to organise, and foster or exploit racial tensions as a means to divide their workforces.
Resistance from below
The main opposition to these politics of repression and racism have come from immigrant workers themselves.
In 2006, there was a mass mobilisation on a national scale against a federal bill that would have made it a felony to be undocumented. More than 3 million people walked out of work and school and into the streets on May 1, 2006 — International Workers’ Day.
It took on the character of a general strike in several cities and towns, as whole sectors of the economy were shut down. The US-Mexico border in San Diego-Tijuana region, the most crossed border in the world, was completely shut down by joint action on both sides.
This killed the bill. But since then repression has increased.
Nevertheless, there were hastily organised protests organised in response to Trump’s “Muslim Ban”. This effectively closed some of the largest and busiest US airports and led to the ban being partially blocked in federal courts.
An immigrant rights movement has re-emerged and is developing. An anti-racist movement is gaining traction nationally. The slogan “no ban, no wall, sanctuary for all” is being taken up by people around the country.
This struggle will likely intensify, but we can see it is possible to defeat the policies of Trump — so long as we also understand this is a project of both political parties and the 1% they represent.