Green Left Weekly’s Jacob Andrewartha and Zane Alcorn spoke to Justin Akers Chacón, a Mexican-based, US immigrant rights activist, in Melbourne for the Marxism conference in April.
What can you tell us about the current situation in the US regarding immigration, particularly as we enter the second half of US President Donald Trump’s term in office?
The situation is really dire in many ways. Trump has ratcheted up the attack on immigrants, including trying to prevent thousands of Central American asylum-seekers from even reaching the border where they could apply for asylum.
He has done this by essentially sending the US military to the border and working with (in the case of Mexico, where I live) the right-wing Tijuana Mayor, to essentially keep Central American asylum-seekers from reaching the point of entry — which is illegal… We have thousands of Central Americans in makeshift refugee camps on the Mexican side of the border living in horrible conditions.
We see increased criminalisation of people in the US who are undocumented and Trump was notorious over the last several months for initiating a policy of family separation.
Thousands of children were separated from their parents at the border, [and] placed into holding centres across the country. We have 15,000 children languishing in these holding centres … these are conditions that have been intensified under Trump.
There is a resistance movement, which has also responded and has been able to beat back [some of] the attacks.
Can you tell us more about the left-wing opposition to Trump’s border regime?
One of the most exciting things that happened last year — in terms of people coming together to resist this — was in response to the child separation policy.
Thousands of activists around the country organised to go to detention centres where ICE [officers] (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were bringing back people who were being detained and moving children from centre to centre, putting them into these holding centres.
People in several major cities formed what were called “Occupy ICE” campaigns where they, in some cases, surrounded these centres, blocked entrances and exits and effectively tried to disrupt the movement of detained people.
This contributed to another national campaign to stop the family separation policy, which was ultimately successful. It pushed a federal judge to order that Trump stop that [practice].
So, there are bright spots, in terms of people coming together to resist this. That is one of the most significant examples.
The other recent example was when Trump insisted on having US Congress allocate $5 billion to extend the border wall. There is a lot of opposition to this in the US. About 60% of the population oppose the extension of the border wall, and for about two months Trump refused to sign a budget that did not include funding for it.
This opposition pushed even the Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to hold back from including that money [in the budget]. So for about two months there was a partial government shutdown. Ultimately, this amounted to about 600,000 federal workers not being paid, including people who work at airports, including air traffic controllers.
After about a two-month period, several unions, including the flight attendants union came together and threatened to go on strike, and to shut down major airports if Trump did not sign the budget without the funding for the border wall. The threat of a strike ultimately forced him to back down.
So there is a lot of opposition … that shows that most people do not support this.
The far right internationally is looking at the US border wall and Australia’s offshore detention camps as examples of what it would do if it got power. What do you think about this?
Unfortunately, we have seen the significant growth of the far right in the US, growing in the political sewer that has been created by Trumpism.
It is a reflection of the vast inequality in US society and the crisis facing most working class people, creating the kinds of conditions where Trumpism can have a base of support by blaming people who cross the border.
The right has been very emboldened. People will be familiar with [the incidents at] Charlottesville and the resurgence and regroupment of various far right groups.
There has also been a vibrant anti-fascist and anti-racist movement in the US that has responded by confronting [them] in large numbers whenever they try to gather.
There have been some significant victories in demobilising far right groups in places like Boston. Where I am from, in San Diego, we have had several large mobilisations.
The anti-immigrant movement is not just in the Republican party, is not just in Trumpism — there has been a bipartisan consensus in the United States for about three decades, in which Democrats have contributed to the anti-immigrant environment. It was a Democratic-controlled Congress and Democrat president that began to initiate the first major walling-off of the border in the early 1990s.
While the Republican right is becoming the seed bed for the reorganisation of the far right, the Democratic Party has not put forth a substantial formal opposition to this and, indeed, it continued to accept the logic of immigrant persecution.
So the left has had to really take on both aspects of this anti-immigration politics.
You have probably heard that Bernie Sanders responded to a question about open borders, saying, “We can’t have open borders in the US, because then the poor people will start coming into our country, and we don’t want that to happen.” How should the left respond to such arguments?
Those of us who firmly oppose this set of politics have said that this is exactly what cedes terrain to the far right, by accepting a softer version of their logic. It is a tragedy when politicians who claim to represent the people then concede this terrain. But it is not surprising.
Bernie Sanders has stayed thoroughly consistent in taking this nationalistic line … and when he was asked this question he responded very indignantly, as if people should know his record is one of not wanting open borders.
There have been responses from the left [to Sanders] and this has been very eye-opening for a lot of people… We have seen, for instance, the election of some Democratic Socialists of the Bernie strain, and even more to the left, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, running in election campaigns, winning national office on the slogan of abolish ICE, so there is a push.
I think Bernie Sanders is definitely out of touch with that. He wants to win, and to win in the Democratic Party, you have to accept the agreed Democratic Party logic.
Hilary Clinton, less than a year ago, went on an international tour through Europe to try to cultivate a centrist coalition against the far right, as she put it. Her argument was that liberals and centrists need to become more anti-immigrant to prevent the far right from gaining too much ground!
So this is Bernie Sanders trying to show that he heeds this call, but I think it would be catastrophic if the people who look to Bernie Sanders began to accept this in any way.
At its core, this system relies on the free flow of capital, but not of labour. Given the global wealth inequality that exists, how does the demand for open borders relate to the global struggle for wealth redistribution?
I can speak for the US-Mexico border, where I live, and say that the reality is that the borders exist for workers and refugees only.
The US-Mexico border is the most crossed border in the world. There are 350 million crossings on average each year and less than one percent of those involve people who are unauthorised. [Border control] is primarily, singularly focussed on working class people. We have over ten million undocumented people, the majority of them workers.
This regime criminalises people when they cross the border, and why? … Because capitalism creates the conditions by which immigrants can be segregated, can be repressed, they can be pushed in the shadows and their wages can be depressed.
People [are] moving to where the jobs are and finding jobs. Undocumented people are the most employed segment of the US population. The question is, whether we accept the criminalisation of those workers once they cross the border.
The border wall weeds out people who can’t make it across because it is expensive and deadly and dangerous. The border wall closes off migration through the cities, which is the safest and the typical way people cross and pushes it out into deadly terrain.
Getting rid of the border would save lives, but most importantly [it] would allow workers to have their status legalised.
In the United States … immigrants have been at the forefront of joining unions historically in the largest numbers. This is one of the reasons why the criminalisation of the border … is maintained by both political parties … because both political parties are capitalist. It is really just to rig the system to maintain and divide the working class.
What should the immediate demands of the movement be in the US and internationally?
The most immediate is to open the borders to refugees.
We see internationally this kind of degrading of human rights … the creation of concentration camps, or prison camps and detention centres.
In the US we see Trump trying to create these massive refugee camps outside the US border. On the inside there are tens of thousands of people in detention centres on average each day. This has become a profitable enterprise, but … our argument has been to demand that all the refugees be let in.
Another major demand in the US has been to abolish ICE, [which] is the main instrument of detention and deportation. It is an armed body of more than 20,000 agents … in every major state in the country and has a bloated budget and pretty much operates with impunity.
It is the closest thing we would have to a fascist institution, where people are disappeared off the streets, disappeared out of communities, arrested and pushed into vans — things like that.
Those two demands are the most immediate.
In the labour movement — I am also a member of a trade union — there is a growing demand for full legalisation, [including] the right to migrate, the right to work, because in the case of the US, as I mentioned, there has been a significant decline of unions. The border wall has actually worked against unions.
In 1986, the last time there was a legalisation … up to 3 million people … won legalisation, [and] most of those people joined unions and set off a 25 year period of union growth in the sectors where immigrant workers were concentrated.
And that is exactly why the ruling class in the US no longer supports the idea of amnesty or legalisation, because it has become central to the challenge to neoliberal capitalism. Immigrants have become a bulwark in the labour movement.
Full legalisation has been a growing sentiment [and] still broadly supported, even under Trump. People believe that immigrants should have the right to citizenship.
What about the recent calls for the US to accept refugees from Venezuela? Isn’t this rather hypocritical on behalf of the US establishment?
It is rank hypocrisy. In the New York Times there is a daily focus on Venezuela, in line with the Trump administration’s desire to foment a coup there.
There is now migration to Brazil and Colombia of Venezuelans. There is also massive migration from Central America and there has been from Mexico, so it is a very cherry-picked kind of concern about immigration.
What we already know is that the richest Venezuelans have left and have received asylum, in fact they have large communities now in Florida.
The poor Venezuelans who are fleeing are not getting the actual resources to be able to come. So that is purely a propaganda piece.
The rich Venezuelans have already been here for a while. They started fleeing when parts of the petroleum industry were nationalised under Hugo Chávez and they began to fear for their fortunes and fled to the US — just like the Cubans did after the Cuban revolution — [hoping] the US will lead a coup and install them back in power, where they feel they rightfully belong.
There has been no real discussion of enabling poor people coming from Venezuela. Instead, there are these highly-staged humanitarian aid missions, which are carried out by the US military, which clearly indicates that they are propaganda and ground-work for a potential coup in the future.
This is not anything new in the US. Demonisation usually goes along with attempts to carry out regime change, which is an ongoing process in US imperialist politics.
How is the issue of climate change interacting with the militarisation of borders and demonisation of refugees? What would be the impact in the event of food shortages due to failure of the corn crop in Mexico, for example?
One of the factors contributing to Central American migration has been droughts in the agricultural regions. This is coupled with increasing land concentration.
The US has free trade agreements with Central America and Mexico … These “free trade agreements” are basically imposed economic restructuring programs that open up large swathes of agricultural land to foreign ownership, so there has been significant land concentration in Mexico [and] in Central America.
Combined with other factors, such as climate change and the way it is impacting access to water, there is increased competition for water.
In Mexico right now, for instance, there is a battle in a border city called Mexicali.
A major US corporation called Constellation Brands — a major beverage distributor and beer company — recently received from the state governor of Baja California, which is controlled by a right-wing party, a charter to take over a large reservoir of public water for use in their facilities to produce beer.
Mexicali is a very dry place and water is very important and people are concerned that they are losing access to their water. Over the last year and a half there has been a major struggle between a local group called Mexicali Resiste (Mexicali in Resistance) against this major multinational corporation, and it is still ongoing.
There are probably a lot of examples like this … People have been losing access to their land and the resources that they need to survive for some time now, under these so-called “free trade agreements”, which are basically handovers of land and resources to the big corporations.
[Akers Chacón, a professor of US History and Chicano Studies in San Diego, California, is the author of Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican-American Working Class, published by Haymarket Books in 2018. This interview was originally broadcast on 3CR's Green Left Radio.]