The Biden Administration has spent the past twenty two months painting itself as the stable, humane alternative to the chaos of the Trump years. All of its campaign promises were made to this effect; one such promise was that a Biden White House would respect, and protect, the rights of immigrants, and ease the burden of the state on their lives.
But the Biden Administration, and the Democratic Party writ large, has done little these past two years to make good on that promise. And with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives taking office this month, the window to secure policies like the renewal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have all but closed. Biden’s vision for immigration – reform, on capitalist terms – is wholly insufficient to meet the turbulence of the moment, especially as the right gets bolder.
Florida Man Steals, Lies, Sends Migrant Families to Massachusetts
In September of this year, 48 immigrants from Venezuela touched down in Massachusetts. They had been told they were going to Boston, where work and financial assistance were awaiting them. But soon after they stepped off the plane, only to find that they had landed not in Boston but the island town of Martha’s Vineyard, it became clear that these people had been lied to.
The immigrants had been transported from San Antonio, Texas, where they had initially sought asylum after crossing the U.S.’ southern border, but the planes had in fact been chartered by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, for his part, took full credit. He didn’t even hide from the allegation that he used public funds from the state of Florida to charter planes in Texas – he defended himself by claiming, with no evidence, that the immigrants had planned, eventually, to settle in Florida. DeSantis said also that “states like Massachusetts, New York, and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration.” Far from just ejecting the immigrants, DeSantis had used them as props for a political stunt.
Several months later, on Christmas eve, several busloads of asylum seekers from Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Peru, and Colombia were dropped off in freezing temperatures at the doorstep of Vice President Kamala Harris. The White House issued denunciations of the move – likely orchestrated by Texas Governor Greg Abbott – but it was local activists that stepped in to find shelter for the stranded migrants.
Though barbaric, these are not innovative stunts. State and local governments frequently send groups of asylum seekers from one place to another, typically to “blue” areas like New York City and Chicago. The idea is that if Democrats care so much about immigrants, as they often claim, then they should have no problem accepting and integrating a group of them sent at the whim of a right-wing official like DeSantis or Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
It’s a challenge issued in bad faith. However, it is worth noting that the community of Martha’s Vineyard took it up as ordinary people stepped in to help, like they did in DC just last month. Immediately after the immigrants arrived, they were provided with shelter, food, and translation services; and at the time of writing they have been given legal aid in a class-action lawsuit filed against the State of Florida. DeSantis had banked on the people of Martha’s Vineyard being exactly as cruel, racist, and xenophobic as he is; and he was clearly proven wrong. Put another way, that help was provided so quickly speaks to ordinary working people’s instincts toward empathy and solidarity. But we need to be clear that solidarity on the ground isn’t necessarily reflective of the Democratic Party’s approach from above.
Two Parties of Capital, One Policy Vision
So far, the Biden White House has approved yet more construction of Trump’s southern border wall; it has met Haitian refugees with arrests and violent confrontations from on horseback; it has deployed Vice President Kamala Harris to tell immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean “do not come;” and it has presided over an historic influx of border arrests – roughly two million in the last year alone.
If immigration issues have not been front page news in the last few years, it is not because policies have become more humane under Biden. In fact, the new administration’s policy has in some ways been a continuation of the previous administration’s (and so on and so on backward, across presidential terms).
Worse still, the current administration has made ready use of Title 42 of the Public Health Services Act. This policy, a favorite of the Trump Administration, was deployed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic; it holds that the government may turn away anyone at the border, immediately, on the grounds that their entrance into the country poses the risk of spreading disease. Federal statistics show that over one million people have been expelled from the border under the policy.
Title 42 is built on a racist lie, and it’s for that reason that even some within the Biden White House have criticized its continued use; it’s so contentious that, in November, a federal judge has finally barred the White House from invoking the policy, following a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Workers, Migrant or Not
But for all the U.S. state’s rhetoric about its borders, the U.S. economy relies – and has always relied – on migrant labor. The hypocrisy should surprise no one. But the fact is that in the modern context, migrant labor serves a few key functions for the capitalist class.
In the first place, the precarity of migrant workers makes them especially vulnerable to exploitation by the bosses. They’re often forced into low-paying jobs that U.S.-born workers won’t or don’t take. Taking the job means being able to send money back home; and failure to comply with dangerous, burdensome demands could mean risking arrest and deportation.
Second, by hiring migrant labor, bosses and companies can drive down production costs across an entire sector. With a labor force that reluctantly accepts lower wages, a company can boost its profit margin and gain an edge over its competitors. That sector of the economy then becomes the site of a race to the bottom, as all the other companies drive down wages in kind.
And third, as wages fall, right-wing forces can appeal to a section of U.S.-born workers as a base of social reaction, absent a left alternative. The right political figure – DeSantis, Trump – can make the argument that “illegal immigrants are taking jobs from real Americans,” stirring up racist and xenophobic sentiments in the populace. The populist right in the United States has posed as defenders of native born workers by opposing race-to-the-bottom policies like the bipartisan NAFTA trade deal between the U.S., Mexico and Canada (which Biden supported as a senator and which was signed by a Democratic administration).
The result of all these factors is to encourage the U.S.-born working class to see its national exploiters as friends, and its fellow workers as enemies. And the capitalists, having successfully divided the working class along lines of race and nationality, can continue exploiting working class people of all nationalities.
The U.S. and Latin America
Of course, the United States government has never waited for anyone to reach the border before ratcheting up the hostility. The twentieth century has seen countless examples of U.S. imperialist interventions into Latin America especially in Central America and the Caribbean – notorious among them are interventions into Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), El Salvador (1981), and Nicaragua (1985). By supporting coups d’etat, right wing propaganda efforts, and even death squads, the United States has wrought havoc any time its interests in the region – like American agribusiness profits or access to raw materials – are threatened. More recently, U.S. imposed “trade deals,” the climate disaster created by imperialist countries like the U.S. and the so-called “war on drugs,” have caused economic and social devastation in Central America and the Caribbean. .
Joe Biden is no stranger to any of this. In fact, he’s played a role of his own. As a senator he supported the Reagan administration’s invasion of Grenada (1983), a deadly act committed on the pretext of containing communist and Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere. He also supported the invasion of Panama (1989), in which the U.S. military deposed its own asset in the form of General Manuel Noriega; the invasion killed hundreds of Panamanians (if not more), and left many of the survivors impoverished and even homeless.
Not content just to focus on Central America and the Caribbean, Biden has played a role elsewhere, too. In his 2020 bid for the presidency he boasted of being “the guy who put together Plan Colombia.” The Intercept reports that the plan, approved by then-president Bill Clinton, was an aid package for the Colombian government, worth some $10 billion in taxpayer money, that went to bolstering and training Colombia’s military and national security forces. Biden lobbied hard for it as one more weapon in the War on Drugs. Later, the Bush administration used this plan to aid counterinsurgency efforts by the Colombian government. Between Plan Colombia, and the right wing militias armed by it, thousands of labor organizers have been killed, making Colombia a historically highly dangerous place to be active in the labor movement.
Living in the long shadow of empire means that nowhere is really “safe” for those seeking refuge. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, refugees traveled across Latin America looking for better living and working conditions. Many Haitians settled in South American countries like Brazil; but periods of local, economic downturn, and the election of right-wing governments (which often enjoy bipartisan U.S. support), force many of those same immigrants to make the long journey north, across multiple borders, to the United States – where they are arrested, detained, or sent back to Haiti and left stranded.
Fight Racism, Xenophobia, and All Exploitation with Socialist Internationalism!
Under Trump, massive crowds showing up in the streets and at airports to protest the U.S state’s horrendous immigration policies; it is precisely this mass action that continues to be necessary. But where is the will to organize it? Where have all the NGOs gone? And where’s the media to show the cruelty and racism of the current administration, as they did during the Trump years? A lasting and humane solution isn’t going to come from either, because they’re captured by the Democratic Party which represents corporate interests.
Fighting the immigration crisis means recognizing that immigrants are not the problem. Rather, the problem is a system that forces them from their home country in search of work. It means recognizing that the working classes of the U.S. and all other nations have more in common with each other than they do with the ruling classes of their own country. It also means taking up the fight for dignified working and living conditions for migrant workers.
To do this, the labor movement must stand firmly against any attempt by the capitalists to divide the working class, and take up demands like abolishing ICE, and ending all detentions and deportations. Labor must also wage militant fights against neoliberal trade policies, and to demand a full transition away from fossil fuels to stop the environmental catastrophe that is destroying Central American economies heavily dependent on agriculture. The labor movement must demand immediate and full citizenship for all foreign-born workers living in the United States.
Immigrant workers have historically been a vibrant, militant sector of the labor movement in the United States. Labor must continue this tradition, and use the banner of “organizing the unorganized” as an opportunity to bring today’s migrant workers into the fold. Workers the world over create all the wealth for the bosses, and a common struggle of working class people of all nationalities is what is needed to fight back against this system of exploitation, crisis, and oppression.