“Donald Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants. My administration will end it.” So tweeted Joe Biden from the campaign trail as he made a bid for the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2020.
Fast-forward to December 2, 2021, when the Biden administration announced that it would officially reinstate the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), popularly known as “Remain in Mexico,” subject to the policy’s final approval by the Mexican government. As the details of the deal between the two countries have been released to the public over the last week, it has become clear that Biden is not only reinstating the policy he was so horrified by while stumping for Latinx and progressive votes in 2020, but is in fact expanding it to more cities along the border and including other migrants in the program who were previously exempt.
As part of his solemn vow to “restore the soul of America,” Biden promised to put an end to the Trump-era policy, which forces migrants seeking asylum in the United States to be detained in Mexico while their applications are processed. From the time the policy was announced in December 2018 to when Trump left office, over 70,000 migrants were detained in camps in Mexico — crammed into overcrowded and dangerous facilities or forced to fend for themselves on the streets of border towns, facing disease, assault, kidnapping, rape, and even murder.
On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order suspending MPP. But then in April Republican lawmakers in Missouri and Texas petitioned a federal court to order the administration to reimplement the program, claiming that state and local governments were ill equipped to handle an influx of migrants and asylum cases. When the case was brought to the Supreme Court, those nine unelected judges — including several Trump appointees — ruled to uphold the decision and ordered the Biden administration to lift the suspension of MPP.
“Remain in Mexico” Is Here to Stay, but It’s Not Just Because of the Supreme Court
Though the administration claims that its hands are tied, this is just the latest act of repression by the Biden administration against the tens of thousands of migrants who have attempted to seek refuge in the United States this year — continuing the immigration agenda of the Trump administration and Obama before him. Despite his progressive rhetoric and photo ops with migrants’ rights NGOs, Biden has made it clear that one of the only campaign promises he is planning to keep is that “nothing will fundamentally change.” From the courts to Biden, the U.S. regime is united in its xenophobic immigration policy.
After the Supreme Court verdict, Biden is dutifully “following the law” and accepting the court’s decision; the program began again on December 6 in new cities on the border. Although the administration piously swears that it fully intends to terminate the program for good, its actions send a different message: the Democratic Party is more concerned with keeping up the illusion that the system and its institutions work and with negotiating new terms for U.S. intervention in Latin America, than it is with protecting the lives of the tens of thousands of migrants who come to the United States each year and the millions more who already reside there.
The Biden administration isn’t just biding its time until it can get rid of MPP once and for all. The new Remain in Mexico policy negotiated by the Biden administration and the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico goes a step further than the previous iteration of the program, and shows the two governments working closely together for the benefit of the United States and Mexico’s capitalist interests.
Remain in Mexico could not have moved forward without AMLO’s approval. In exchange for solidifying Mexico’s role as the southern arm of U.S. border control, AMLO has persuaded the Biden administration to move forward with the “Sembrando Oportunidades” (Planting Opportunities) program of investment in Central America to “address the root causes of irregular migration.” Far from improving the lives of working and poor people in Central America, however, this program is nothing more than an excuse for further economic intervention by the United States in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, and increased militarization of Mexico’s borders with these countries to repress and persecute migrants.
Despite AMLO’s progressive rhetoric of standing strong against the United States, his policies have done little more than tie Mexico even closer to the imperialist power to the north, both economically and politically. His administration worked closely with the Trump administration to prevent migrants from reaching the United States, and it is now doing the same with Biden’s government.
In the previous version of MPP, Mexico agreed only to accept Spanish-speaking immigrants into its borders and into detention centers. Other migrants were detained in the United States. Now, AMLO and the Mexican government have agreed to take in all immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, no matter where they are coming from. This includes the influx of Haitian, Brazilian, and other immigrants who do not speak Spanish currently seeking asylum in the United States. They will be made more vulnerable as a result of the policy. According to a survey by the migrants rights organization Al Otro Lado, 20 percent of Haitian asylum seekers have been subject to physical violence or extortion by Mexican law enforcement.
The horrors facing immigrants in these detention centers and in border towns are well known. As the Guardian reports, “There have been more than 1,500 cases of reported kidnappings and attacks against migrants subjected to the system, known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).” Immigrants wait for months in squalid conditions for their cases to be addressed. And after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the immigration courts, their cases were delayed even longer, only to be denied later by U.S. judges.
But languishing in a detention center in the United States is not a solution for migrants either. These detention centers, many of them established under the Obama administration, crowd people into unsanitary conditions, separate families, and were the source of several severe Covid-19 outbreaks last year. The reinstitution of MPP, coupled with other repressive border patrol policies enforced by the DHS, will only force more migrants into dangerous detention centers on both sides of the border.
The news about MPP is not an anomaly. The Biden administration has continued Trump’s hardline stance against protections for immigrants — albeit sugarcoated with humanitarian rhetoric — showing more elements of continuity with his predecessor than not. While he may have suspended MPP, Biden has used another Trump policy, Title 42, as the state’s primary tool of expedited deportation. This policy, a xenophobic measure to deport immigrants using the excuse of the pandemic, allows officials to immediately deport immigrants even if they are seeking asylum. In several cases, this policy caused migrants who contracted the virus while in the custody of U.S. immigration services to spread Covid-19 in regions whose healthcare systems were already under severe strain from the pandemic.
The Biden administration has continued to use this policy to deport immigrants at a breakneck pace. Over 800,000 people have already been expelled from the United States in 2021 under Title 42.
Moreover, although Biden promised to stop detaining immigrants in for-profit prisons, he has exempted ICE from an executive order reducing the government’s use of private prisons. Since then, the number of immigrants in detention centers has doubled to over 29,000 people.
Attacks on Migrants’ Rights Are a Feature of the Regime
The truth is, the swell of migrants at the southern border has been a thorn in the side of the Biden administration from the start. In the first few months of his presidency, Biden immediately walked back his plans for immigration reform, telling immigrants, “Don’t come over.” But as the intervention of the United States and its international institutions abroad results in increased pressure on the economies of dependent and semicolonial countries in Latin America and worsen conditions for working and poor people, many people see no other choice but to risk their lives and begin their journey to the United States.
The Biden administration and the Democratic Party have attempted to walk an awkward line between fueling the illusions of sectors of their base in immigration reform and appearing to restore “law and order” to the border in order to appeal to more conservative sectors. The Build Back Better plan, currently before the Senate, includes many provisions for expanded protections and rights for immigrants, but these are likely to be cut from the final plan; the lives of immigrants are thus used as a bargaining chip to throw away so that the Democrats can pass a watered-down version of the legislation. And the fact that the administration, as it faces increased pressure from the Right, made no effort to fight the court’s order to reinstate MPP shows that it is more worried about satisfying the conservative elements in its own party.
After the experience of the Clinton and Obama administrations, however, it should come as no surprise that a Democrat would enforce such attacks on migrants. Even though it may provide certain reforms for migrants under pressure from its base, historically the Democratic Party has only provided a left cover for the xenophobic and racist immigration policies of the U.S. state whether they are written by Republicans or Democrats.
The repression of migrants is not just bipartisan, it is a feature of U.S. imperialism. After all, in its decision on MPP earlier this year, the Supreme Court effectively dictated immigration policy, not just in the United States but in Mexico and all of Central America. Criminalizing immigration and making the lives of immigrants more precarious is good for business on both sides of the border. Far from prioritizing the needs and safety of people who risk their lives to immigrate to the United States, these policies are meant to ensure that U.S. and multinational capitalist interests have a reliable source of highly exploitable and cheap labor at their disposal.
Rather than relying on the courts, the Democratic Party, or even the NGOs that merely direct real energy and outrage to endless legal battles, the only force capable of stopping policies like Remain in Mexico and fighting for migrants’ rights is an independent and international movement that sees the influx of immigration to the United States for what it is: a crisis born of U.S. imperialism and its exploitation of the working class and oppressed across the world.
There were stirrings of such a movement during the Trump years, when thousands of people took to the streets to decry Trump’s xenophobic policies and racist pandering to the extreme Right. They protested the separation of families at the border, the rollback of protections for the children of immigrants, attacks on the rights of migrant workers, and the horrifying conditions of immigrants in detention centers. They demanded the abolition of ICE and the closure of all detainment centers, even those opened under the Obama administration.
The Democratic Party capitalized on this energy to funnel the real outrage at conditions facing immigrants in the United States under the Trump administration towards electing Democrats. They ushered people out of the streets and undermined any potential to expand the protests and unite migrant rights activism with the struggles of other sectors of the working class and oppressed. In doing so the Democratic Party was able to cut this nascent activism off at the knees. Now, almost a year into the Biden administration, the reports of thousands of migrants crowded together in makeshift camps at the Mexico-United States border, or the images of border patrol on horseback whipping immigrants, show that the Democratic Party offered a doomed deal from the start.
Against both the Right and the Biden administration, we need to build a movement that will fight for migrants rights with a program that isn’t limited by the bounds of a capitalist system, which needs a permanent underclass of vulnerable migrant labor to survive. No organization or bourgeois politician, be they Democrat or Republican, can offer that. But this doesn’t mean putting our faith in NGOs to fight in the courts or provide endless stopgap aid at the border. At best, these organizations put a Band-Aid on a gushing wound and treat immigration as an isolated issue that can be resolved by incremental reforms to U.S. immigration policy. At worst, they dissuade people from taking to the streets, urging them to take their anger to the polls and put renewed faith in bourgeois politicians to put an end to the most immediate threats to migrants’ lives and safety.
Instead, we need to rely on the collective force of the working class and oppressed to fight for the rights of migrants. We need to build a movement that fights for our own demands. That will fight for the free movement of and full political, social, and economic rights for all people. That will fight to close detention centers and immediately release all immigrants. That demands the abolition of ICE and the police who help them. That demands an end to the Supreme Court which puts our lives in the hands of nine unelected pillars of the capitalist state. And above all, we need to rally behind a program that fights to put an end to U.S. imperialist domination, which threatens the lives of the working class and oppressed across the world.