What’s behind our terrible immigration policy?

Photo: Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus. stevepavey.com

by Tim W. Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Over the weekend a dear friend shared a rage-inducing story with me about how he was treated at a customs entry point in Texas. Despite having a valid visa and legitimate reasons for traveling here, my friend was ruled “inadmissible” to the U.S. and sent back to Mexico after a full day of interrogation. He was pressured into signing self-incriminating statements with a penalty that he can’t return to the U.S. for five years. The alternative, the agents said, was that he would be detained indefinitely until a judge could hear his case. With no real option, he chose the plane home.

We’re fighting his case, but in the meantime, we need to see this as part of a larger policy trend. My friend’s story is but one in a sea of horrifying sagas related to immigration that appear to be on the rise. So what is behind this trend, which is starkly different from the traditional U.S. self-narrative as “beacon of democracy” and “nation of immigrants”?

Here’s my thinking. The large-scale direction of immigration policy is dictated much more by economic conditions and the necessities of the ruling class for cheap manual labor than by what’s democratic, logical or humane. 

In the 19th century when immigration from Europe was encouraged, or at least much less regulated, the general understanding was, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” I’m suggesting that this had little to do with the democratic tendency of this country, even though that was the narrative that was and still is promoted.

The policy of welcome at Ellis Island also could not have had to do with those immigrants being “white,” as is sometimes said. Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles and Slavs were not considered white at that time and faced heavy discrimination in US society based on their ethnic and religious background. They would “become white” much later. This policy of welcoming the immigrant, then, had more to do with the expanding industrial economy in the country. The robber barons had a great need for exploitable labor power. It also bears saying that welcoming immigrants from Europe was in stark contrast to the treatment of Native peoples, African Americans and Chinese immigrants at that time.

Another time when particularly Mexican immigrants were welcomed — in fact, actively recruited to come to the US — was with the creation of the Bracero Program during World War II. There was a shortage of agricultural labor, as millions of U.S.-born men were activated for the war effort. So Mexicans were brought in by the busload to produce our nation’s food. This was certainly not out of a sudden benevolence or change in white racist behavior or perception toward Mexicans. It was an economic necessity. Two decades later when their labor-power was no longer needed, most of these same Mexican workers were unceremoniously rounded up and sent home, no matter that many of them had settled down and were making a life in the U.S.

A noticeable shift has occurred in immigration policy in the past few decades, and it has followed the trends in the economy. Immigrant communities rightfully denounced Barack Obama, calling him “Deporter-In-Chief” as his administration oversaw record numbers of deportations. Obama, of course, took office in 2009 in the depths of the Great Recession after the housing market crashed and it took years to regain the jobs lost. We don’t need to rehash here the record of Donald Trump’s presidency and his wildly anti-immigrant policies, as they are still fresh in our minds. 

Now the Joe Biden administration, despite campaign promises to pass immigration reform and halt deportations, continues many of the practices of his predecessors without the rhetorical bombast. Against the pleas and demands of the immigrant communities, the current administration has opened new child detention centers and continues to operate old ones located on highly contaminated Superfund sites. The Department of Homeland Security continues to deport people to dozens of countries in the midst of the pandemic, requiring receiving countries to take their deportees and spreading the virus around the world. 

Many barriers, not just the border wall, have been erected by federal agencies as deterrents for coming to the United States. High costs and complexity of forms and applications, painfully and intentionally slow processing times and a ramped-up, militarized patrolling and detention apparatus are all set up to deter those who would attempt to come to this country.

Underneath this shift in national orientation toward immigration is not individual hard-heartedness on the part of politicians and federal agents, though there are many awful individuals working in the system. Rather, I think we have to consider that the root of this policy shift is a changing economy. Automation is destroying the need for such massive unskilled manual labor as capitalists needed in the past. Some industries are more difficult to automate, but even agriculture, restaurants and construction are seeing the incursions of labor-eliminating technology. Given the changing needs of the economic ruling class, it follows that immigration policy would try to slow the flow of laborers entering the U.S., no matter that millions of families are now necessarily transnational and need to cross borders.

Technology brings in another new element related to the possibility for remote work. In the context of global migration, “working from home” takes on a new meaning. Communication technology and the widespread availability of the internet have made it such that businesses that before would have lobbied for more open and welcoming immigration policy can now more easily hire people directly in their home countries. Instead of becoming immigrant workers on work visas in the U.S., many skilled workers can often do their jobs “from home.” That is, their home country — where they can be paid much less. Housing, taxes and other living expenses are generally lower in the Global South. In addition, labor laws and protections also tend to be more lax and less enforceable, which allows for higher levels of exploitation that benefit the employer. This arrangement has played out in call centers and tech support for years, but my read of the pandemic economy says that many other sectors will be moving to this global work pool model. 

I don’t advocate for letting nasty or hateful federal agents off the hook, and especially not elected officials like Joe Biden. I’m just saying they aren’t the only culprits here. Customs officers’ orders come from somewhere, and Biden doesn’t write immigration policy himself. The whole poverty-producing, profit-seeking, death-dealing, Earth-killing, family-separating system has blood on its hands. I don’t see much hope in fixing the immigration system piecemeal while that larger system remains intact. 

In fact, dividing the poor and dispossessed along lines of immigration status is a central part of the strategy of the economic ruling class. If we’re unable to work, organize or agitate for better conditions — together, across these lines of division — that means they, with their minuscule numbers, will be able to stay in power. So while we fight for our loved ones on an individual level and fight for change at a policy level, we also must understand that our fight is for something much bigger: a fundamental shift in the way we get what we need to live. 

We’re entering an era in which fewer and fewer workers will be required by business. Don’t let the “reopening” of the economy fool you — most businesses have reported that they’re spending more on labor-eliminating technologies. That, in a general sense, means that more and more of us will be deemed disposable, both in the U.S. and around the world. We won’t be able to win fundamental changes in immigration policy, or the return of the welfare state, while the demand for labor-power is shrinking. (And under current property relations, shrinking is inevitable and irreversible.)

I’m convinced that my friend did nothing wrong. He also didn’t simply get unlucky talking to a “bad apple” in the customs line. He was a victim of a sea change in the global economy toward automation. How this is playing out is increasingly harsh and inhumane treatment of foreigners who are not among the super-rich, as well as a criminalization of the poor born in the U.S. 

Despite the size of our opponents and the difficulty of the fights ahead, I find great hope in coming together and identifying the connections among our fronts of struggle. Gaining clarity and connectedness among leaders is key to building the kind of movement we need to win liberty and justice for all. 

Two events coming up are being organized to show the connection and power among the poor and dispossessed globally. 


Saturday, May 1, 2020, 11 AM EDT

¡Papeles sí, migajas no!
(Papers, not crumbs)
Immigrant mobilization at the White House, Washington, DC.

Saturday, May 8, 2021, 2-4 PM EDT

Unity Across Language: Multilingual organizing for social change
Unidad en Lenguaje: Lucha multilingüe para el cambio social

Online forum. Simultaneous interpretation in English and Spanish.
More information and registration at cuslar.org/ual

In addition, watch the recording of yesterday’s Moral Monday / Lunes Moral on Immigration, hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Online recording in English or Spanish.

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