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Abolish ICE, and Abolish the Border Too: A Socialist Perspective

The movement to abolish ICE has sparked a conversation among socialists about borders and their relation to capitalism.

Sonja Krieger

July 30, 2018
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Immigration has long been a major political issue in this country, but the election of Trump has made it a central political issue. Since he promised to build a “great, great wall” along the Southern border, Trump has built his image on being tough on “illegal” immigrants. In response, Democrats have criticized him for his harsh stance and racist rhetoric. Over the last few weeks, a movement to “Abolish ICE” has sprung up, and a recent poll shows that more people view the agency unfavorably than favorably. Socialists are able to contribute to this much-needed debate about ICE by elucidating the connection between borders and the capitalist system. Understanding this connection is crucial to the abolitionist case if the struggle is to go beyond ICE to the heart of the issues around immigration and the harrowing treatment of people crossing into the U.S. without documentation.

By uprooting hundreds of millions of workers and farmers in Southern
nations from their ties to the land and their jobs in protected national
industries, neoliberal capitalism has accelerated the expansion of a vast
pool of super-exploitable labor. Suppression of its free movement across
borders has interacted with this hugely increased supply to produce a
dramatic widening of international wage differentials between industrialized
and developing nations, vastly exceeding price differences in all
other global markets. This steep wage gradient provides two different
ways for northern capitalists to increase profits: through the emigration
of production to low-wage countries, or the immigration of low-wage
migrant workers for exploitation at home.

John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-first Century (188).

No ICE, and No Nice ICE Either!

The most hated federal agency in the U.S. at present is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. In cities across the country, people are protesting against Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy” and shutting down local ICE offices. Despite the repression, such as happened on July 3 in Philadelphia, it is unlikely that the calls to abolish ICE are going to go away any time soon. The challenge now is to make this demand a part of the fight for systemic change in this country and beyond.

The constant stream of stories about the separation of children from their parents has hit a nerve with Americans and has stirred up a massive response to the point where even conservative politicians feel compelled to publicly express their disapproval of Trump’s immigration policies. Progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have made “Abolish ICE” a central item on their campaign agendas, motivating high-profile Democrats like Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, as well as New York mayor Bill de Blasio, to follow suit. Most recently, NYC gubernatorial candidate and now self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” Cynthia Nixon echoed the criticisms, referring to ICE as a “terrorist organization.” Given that Nixon is decidedly more of a democrat than a socialist, this bold statement is another sign that liberals are willing to not only embrace the demand to abolish ICE but to also go so far as to equate ICE and ISIS.

Still, it is worth asking why the Democratic Party would decide to jump on the “Abolish ICE” train. In all likelihood, the answer has something to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton’s party needs an image change if it hopes to take back the House of Representatives in the fall and the White House in two years, and that such an image change seems to require a move to the left, if the last election and the subsequent growth of the DSA are any indication. Of course, just like the leopard can’t change its spots, so will the Democratic Party always be the other party of capital, regardless of what gestures it makes to appeal to its progressive base. Such gestures illustrate something, however, which is that movements on the left are having an influence on national politics, and the movement to reform immigration policies in the U.S. is clearly making an impact.

Socialists, on the other hand, must continuously push for more than immigration reform. When Ocasio-Cortez announced that she wants to see ICE replaced with an “updated INS-like structure”, she was met with considerable criticism from the left, including from within the DSA. Rejecting those statements by AOC, groups of DSA members (such as the Immigrant Justice Working Group in NYC) have organized to call for open borders and to address the “root causes” of immigration. Of course, installing a less “authoritarian” and less “un-democratic” border control agency — a nice ICE — cannot be enough. After all, the Immigration and Naturalization Service used to carry out raids and deport immigrants for decades before ICE took over. It is true that ICE effected a rapid escalation of the terror against undocumented immigrants. However, in the decade before 9/11, the number of deportation proceedings was already more than half of what it was in the decade after 9/11. Therefore, “Abolish ICE” cannot be about substituting one monstrously violent apparatus of the capitalist state for a slightly less violent one. A genuinely socialist response to the long history of U.S. American anti-immigrant policy is to demand the abolition of all border enforcement and all borders.

Fighting for the dissolution of an agency that has a budget of $7.5 billion and over 20,000 employees is not a minor struggle, to be sure, especially considering that ICE has played a central role in the Trump administration’s racist, xenophobic, anti-worker policies. ICE has been responsible for the most egregious cruelties committed against immigrants, including not only the much-publicized family separations but also arrests without warrant, solitary confinement, all manner of abuse, and even deaths. Given this situation, it is heartening to see activists organize to put ICE on trial and groups like the DSA mobilize people in rallies and occupations in support of immigrants. At the same time, we must not stop at demanding the elimination of ICE but fight for an end to all borders and for the abolition of capitalism. This is because capitalism is a root cause of both immigration to the U.S. and other wealthy nations and the anti-immigrant policies in those countries.

Imperialism and immigration

We need not journey very far back in time to discern with great clarity the direct connection between capitalism and migration. Just as the search for profit was behind European conquest and colonialism throughout the modern era, and therefore behind the displacement (by way of land theft, enslavement, and genocide) of non-European populations, so has 20th-century imperialism created the conditions of immigration from the periphery to the core countries, including the U.S. but also the European countries, where a major refugee crisis has been unfolding over the last several years, fueled in large part by imperialist interventions and wars.

It has been pointed out many times by writers commenting on immigration that the reasons why people from Mexico and Central America have been flooding into the U.S. for decades have everything to do with U.S. foreign policy and ultimately with the interests of American capital. It is no secret that the U.S. has long interfered in the governments of foreign nations, especially in Central America but also in South America and the rest of the world.

At least 150 years of U.S. imperialist intervention in Central America have created the conditions that force people to flee from their homelands. Throughout the 20th century, the political elites in the U.S. sought to crush any socialist or communist “threat” south of the border, leaving behind a ghastly trail of blood and death. From the 1980s onwards, the World Bank and the IMF, together with the U.S. government, have imposed policies on these countries (and many others in the “global South”) that have exacerbated poverty and violence while enriching corporations and banks. The War on Drugs has put U.S. American weapons in the hands of gangs that collude with corrupt governments to terrorize, torture, and disappear people.

In El Salvador, for example, the U.S. played a critical role during the long civil war in and beyond the 1980’s by supplying large amounts of military and economic aid to murderous governments, which worked with the military and the paramilitary death squads controlled by the wealthy landowners, killing 75,000 people, including leftists and communists, trade union leaders, students, and peasant leaders, journalists, priests, teachers, etc., as well as for massacres of entire villages. Today, El Salvador is plagued by massive gang violence, partly exported from the U.S. through deportations. The rate of femicides in El Salvador is the third highest in the world.

Another country that has witnessed an exodus of people migrating to the U.S. is Guatemala, where the CIA staged a coup d’etat in 1954, removing the democratically elected and reformist president there in order to protect the profits of the United Fruit Company. The U.S. installed a series of dictators who proceeded to unleash a genocide against the native population, murdering 200,000 people during a civil war that lasted 36 years. Many of the children separated from their parents recently are from Guatemala, where people face the same threats to their physical and economic existence as in El Salvador.

The third country that is part of the so-called “Northern Triangle” is Honduras where the U.S. supported a coup in 2009 that forced president Zelaya into exile, throwing the country into political turmoil and opening the door to more violence and misery. It can therefore be no mystery why Hondurans are leaving their country in large numbers. Staggering unemployment figures, one of the world’s highest homicide rates, and severe government repression, along with rampant corruption, extortion, and femicide were driving the “caravan” of asylum-seekers that Donald Trump has called a “disgrace.” 80% of the people in this caravan were from Honduras.

Further, it is hardly a coincidence that the country that continues to contribute the highest number of immigrants to the U.S. is also the country that has been economically devastated by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexican farmers are not able to compete with the subsidized U.S. American agro-business while companies from the North are moving their factories to Mexico in order to take advantage of the low wages there. In other words, goods are freely moved across the border so that capitalists can make more profits. However, the movement of people is restricted.

The Paradoxical Function of Borders

The role that the border plays for U.S. American capitalism is a contradictory one. On the one hand, capital benefits from open borders not only for goods but also for some laborers. Immigrants, especially immigrants without documentation, work for lower wages and can be instrumentalized in union busting and other attacks on the working class. A relatively mobile army of cheap laborers is therefore essential for capital to expand. At the same time, a labor force will remain cheap if it has no rights. Workers who are “illegal” can be exploited as much as they are and controlled particularly effectively because they are under constant threat of being arrested and deported.

The fact that the U.S. has instituted foreign worker programs (like the Bracero Program from 1942-1964 and now the H-2A Program) shows that capital is more than happy to employ foreign workers. Indeed, this country has long relied heavily on immigrant labor. U.S. American agriculture still runs largely on the labor of immigrants, at least half of whom are undocumented. Many companies generally do not care about the status of their workers as long as surplus value can be maximized, and a maximization of profits depends on a vulnerable labor force. Workers who are temporary are vulnerable, but undocumented workers are even more vulnerable.

It is therefore important to remember when we use the phrase “open borders” that borders are always open in certain, circumscribed ways and for specific purposes because the capitalist market does not want to be confined and always aims to explode borders that operate as obstacles to the accumulation of wealth, which, as Marx put it, “chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.” That is why libertarians and free-marketeers like to gush about opening the borders to anyone who seeks “economic opportunity.” They enthuse endlessly about the prospect of the “freedom of movement” as if it were just an abstract right disconnected from material conditions and forces. They maintain that world GDP would double if only the U.S. would stop restricting immigration — never mind that this additional wealth would simply go into the pockets of the small elite that already owns everything, rather than to the workers.

However, just as capitalism needs national borders to be porous for some reasons, it also needs them to be rigid for other reasons. Borders play the role of maintaining in the countries of origin a cheap labor pool that can be exploited perfectly legally to the utmost degree. Simultaneously, borders create an “illegal” workforce in the destination country that can be super-exploited because it is deprived of all rights. Furthermore, undocumented immigrants, because they work for extremely low wages, are seen as competition and a threat to citizens, even if there is little actual competition (for the same jobs). The fear of competition, however, creates division, and division among the workers is good for capital. The criminalization and persecution of a sector of workers, in conjunction with racist and xenophobic scapegoating, sows distrust, and animosity within the working class. This worker-to-worker “alienation” serves to further discipline the labor force, both foreign-born and native-born.

In other words, capitalism requires borders just as it dispenses with them when it is convenient; it reaches across national borders in its endless search for new markets (as Rosa Luxemburg first theorized it in a systematic way) or virtually eradicates them in order to facilitate the free movement of labor and goods (such as is the case in the EU). At the same time, capitalism relies on borders in order to maintain its system of wealth accumulation. National borders help maintain global inequality and class inequality within countries. Capitalists from core countries are able to benefit from low-wage workers in peripheral countries precisely because those workers are trapped within national borders and the systems of laws and the US-backed authoritarian rule in countries like Bangladesh, Philippines, or Mexico. At the same time, capitalists from core countries are also able to benefit from the cheap labor of desperate immigrants and refugees from peripheral countries, such as has been the case in Germany where refugees have joined the “one Euro job” workforce.

Only the Tip of the ICEberg

ICE may be a recent phenomenon, but it is also not essentially different from what came before. Socialists must challenge any effort made by liberals and Democrats to make the grievous treatment of immigrants about Trump. Socialists must remind Americans that deportations and family separations happened under “deporter in chief” Barack Obama and previous administrations.

What’s more, socialists must not tire of pointing out that Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy is merely the tip of the iceberg that is the long history of racist anti-immigrant policies in this country, which goes back at least as far as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Socialists must point out that state violence against immigrants is endemic to capitalism.

In a spectacular act of protest, Therese Patricia Okoumou scaled the Statue of Liberty, drawing attention to the hypocrisy and brutality at the heart of the “nation of immigrants”; she has since spoken out in interviews about the “dual threat to black immigrants”, refugees, and asylees. As one article points out, Okoumou’s act is a courageous reminder that “r]acial profiling, disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates, and biased apprehension tactics such as stop-and-frisk work to make black immigrants especially vulnerable to draconian immigration enforcement tactics.” It should also be noted, however, that the person she specifically cited as her inspiration is Michelle Obama, whose husband expelled over five million people from the country ([3.1 million removals plus 2.2 million returns equals 5.3 million deportations).

The truth is that Trump’s policies are an extension of already-existing practices. Donald Trump has been more open about his anti-immigrant agenda, but he inherited a system that had already been created and was certainly used by Obama, whose administration oversaw a significant expansion of the system of arrests, detentions, and deportations, and who was responsible for a massive spike in forced removals as soon as he assumed office. Migrant families were also detained and separated under Obama, and immigrant children were drugged, abused, and trafficked. The Obama administration had to be forced by a 2015 court order to stop jailing children for more than 20 days, a decree that was ultimately used by Trump to justify further family separations.

The continuity between Obama and Trump and Obama’s key role in expanding the deportation system in the U.S. cannot be stressed enough because they point to the systemic nature of the violence against immigrants. Anti-immigrant policies are precisely not unique to the Trump presidency or the sole province of Republicans; Democrats are just as culpable for the long-standing dehumanizing treatment of people crossing the border without papers. Worse still, some people who call themselves “democratic socialists,” such as Bernie Sanders, argue for the preservation of borders and border enforcement, claiming that doing so is pro-worker. This is absurd.

Sanders argued in his 2016 campaign against open borders. He claimed that advocating for unrestricted immigration is a capitalist’s wet dream because it leads to a lowering of wages for everybody and that therefore immigration restrictions need to remain in place. The deeply unethical nature of this logic aside, Sanders assumes that because capitalists seek always to replace higher-paid workers with lower-paid workers, undocumented immigrants will pull everybody’s wages down. However, there is no solid evidence for such an assumption and thus little basis for the conclusion that keeping lower-paid workers from gaining entry is going to protect higher-paid native-born workers. The idea that immigration brings down everyone’s wages is simply not borne out by the facts. This is partly because the native-born population is generally employed in different sectors than the immigrant population. It is also due to the fact that an influx of workers means more consumption, which creates jobs. Research over the period from 1994 to 2007 has shown that immigration has an overall small positive effect on the wages of native-born workers of the same level of education and training (0.4%).

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is first and foremost a means of dividing the working class and pitting groups of workers against each other, putting fear in people’s minds, and distracting us from the real cause of our troubles. We can’t allow this to happen. Solidarity is the way forward. Solidarity has proven to protect workers and advance the class struggle. Together we fight for all of us. The real enemy is capitalism. We have to fight against imperialist trade agreements and American interventionism, against the destruction of economies and people here and abroad, against exploitation and oppression on both sides of the border and around the world. We need to question the existence of national borders.

The struggle for the abolition of borders cannot harken back to a time before Trump or to earlier centuries. It is true that the U.S. once had few restrictions on immigration, but that past is not something to be sentimental about. Let’s remember that European immigration to this continent was possible because it was based on conquest, genocide, and slavery. And while there may have been no ICE until 15 years ago, citizenship rights have always been withheld from groups of people in this country, and limits have been placed on immigration, particularly for people not from Northern and Western Europe.

Socialists have to demand an end to national borders and all enforcement apparatuses. It is not enough to call for a more humane kind of enforcement agency. Borders benefit the capitalist class; they are a means of giving capitalists unlimited rights (to increase their profits) and of depriving workers and poor people of as many rights as possible. Borders are instruments of control. They serve to keep out black and brown people from countries that have been devastated by Europeans colonialism and wars, and they serve to preserve capitalism.

More and more, borders are also sites of struggle. ICE may be relatively easy to dismantle, but socialists shouldn’t stop at what’s easy. Marx’s”Manifesto” ends with the rallying cry: “Workers of the world unite!” It’s clear that borders are an obstacle to unity. Socialists must fight against deportations, for full rights to our immigrant sisters and brothers, and to abolish ICE as well as any other border enforcement agency. Ultimately, however, socialists must fight to end the system of wage-slavery that is the engine behind not only the refugee crises, mass displacement, and migration, but also behind all sorts of dystopias produced by capitalism and imperialism.

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Sonja Krieger

Sonja has been an editor and writer for Left Voice since 2016. She teaches college students and is an active AFT member.

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