The images of kids in cages will be one the more enduring legacies of the Trump administration. However, it is also the case that Democrat and Republican administrations both contributed to the militarization of the border and amped up deportation mechanisms of the state for the last several decades.
While, for example, former President Obama is widely known as the “deporter in chief” for deporting 3 million undocumented persons, there is a false sense among many that former President Trump and his administration is solely responsible for migration injustices. Part of this has to do with branding and image: Obama as the “cool” president, and Trump as the “tell-it-like-it-is-racist” president. But mostly, it has to do with the perception that Democrats and Republicans differ more than they actually do on policy, especially on defense, security and surveillance.
Under a Biden presidency, we can expect echoes of similar politics that we saw under the Obama administration but this time, we have to look at the bigger picture, understand the root causes of injustices happening at the border, and strategize accordingly.
The history of both parties’ upholding border imperialism is brilliantly explained by activist and author Harsha Walia. For Walia, border imperialism is the system by which non-white people in the Global South are displaced by actions of Western governments, become migrants, and then are criminalized, dehumanized and put at the bottom of a racist hierarchy where their lack of citizenship status leads them to be exploited for their labor. Furthermore, Walia conceptualizes border imperialism as “an alternative analytic framework [which] disrupts the myth of Western benevolence towards migrants.”
In other words: The United States is either directly connected to the wars (or indirectly connected to them via policy at various levels, whether domestically or at the United Nations as a member of the Security Council) that displace many of the people attempting to migrate to the country. Given that reality, why are we acting like we are doing people a favor by allowing people to migrate here when we are implicated in their need to migrate in the first place?
Underpinning U.S. benevolence is U.S. exceptionalism, the belief that we are the best country on earth and that our values and way of life are unique and superior to others. It is this belief in our superiority — that our culture and political systems indicate something inherently elite about the American way of life — that fuels xenophobia towards migrants.
What Walia urges us to do is to see how U.S. border policy is connected to the U.S. empire as a whole. This is a challenge, as mainstream conversations rarely, if ever, refer to the United States as such. Yet the facts are clear: the United States is a global occupying force, with over 800 military bases around the world. The War On Terror killed close to half a million people and the War On Drugs displaced and killed people throughout Latin America and incarcerated many in the United States.
“If you’re not at a place right now where you want to dismantle the entire system, you haven’t really been paying attention.”
Similar to U.S. policing of Black communities within its borders, the U.S. military polices many countries abroad through a process of othering, criminalizing and brutalizing. Both Democrats and Republicans participate in othering migrants through rhetoric. As Walia explains, in countries practicing border imperialism “migrant and undocumented workers are included in the nation-state in a deliberately limited way, creating a two-tier hierarchy of citizenship. The common naming of migrant workers as foreign, illegal or temporary automatically signals their non-belonging.”
Organizers working at the frontlines of migration justice see the realities of border imperialism first hand. Rose Berry, an organizer with the Black LGBT Migrant Project told me over the phone, “migrant communities are often coming from countries where U.S. imperialism has forced its political structures [on them].” Their countries, they continued, are often formerly colonized and “have had their resources depleted by the United States in various ways, or have been war-torn by the U.S. military in particular.”
Discussing both parties’ history around immigration, Berry said “the Trump era exposed liberalism” because Obama’s rise to power, fueled in part by his support from immigrant communities, created a “political landscape … for more courageous innovations to be made.” However, “the Democratic Party shied away from them because of fear of backlash by Republicans and right-wing voters.”
While it’s right to celebrate that Donald Trump was pushed out of elected office, it’s clear we have to keep the pressure on the Biden administration to protect the rights of those impacted by border imperialism. Case in point: though Biden issued an executive order for a deportation moratorium, it didn’t effectively stop deportations and hundreds of people have been deported since he took office. One such case is Javier Maradiaga, a Dreamer from New York City who Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE, recently tried to deport to Honduras. Thanks to pushback from activists, the deportation didn’t go through.
Terry Lawson, the executive director of the immigrant rights group UnLocal Inc., which represented Javier, stated that this case was an indicator that “it will be business as usual for most of the ICE jurisdictions across the country.” Lawson believes that at this moment “the question isn’t whether they’re [ICE] is going to follow the executive order … the question is how do we dismantle a system that enables, that has given ICE so much power to terrorize families.”
How are people at the frontlines strategizing against border imperialism? A key part of our strategy has to be to resist Obama-era amnesia and amplify pressure on the Biden administration on migration issues— and we cannot make the same mistakes as before and let the migrant justice community carry that fight alone. The second part of our strategy has to be to connect migration issues to anti-militarism issues and work on, for example, counter-recruiting border patrol agents, organizing against war taxes, and campaigning against weapons sales. And finally, a key part of our strategy has to include abolishing the Department of Homeland Security, and the prison industrial complex.
Echoing Terry Lawson, attorney Sophia Gurulé, who has been representing people in ICE detention for the past three and a half years in New York told me, “If you’re not at a place right now where you want to dismantle the entire system, you haven’t really been paying attention.”
We should remember with Democrats in power now that hatred and marginalization of immigrants of color is not an aberration under Trump but rather a continuation of what this settler-colonial society has always been.
“We actually really don’t need to arrest, detain, surveil, criminalize, prosecute, and deport people because they weren’t born in this country,” Gurulé added. “That’s a choice we make as a nation that we really don’t need to be doing that at all … I think people just need to reconcile with United States history and our current role in mass displacement.”
This country has always been a white supremacist project, and small tweaks to our immigration system are not enough to fully undo that — only the abolition of border imperialism will.
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