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Borders and Capitalism: A Socialist Perspective

The socialist left needs to transform the opposition to ICE into a struggle for open borders. As part of the debate around Bernie Sander’s opposition to open borders, we are publishing this article from the latest issue of Left Voice magazine.

Sonja Krieger

April 22, 2019
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Megan Spencer

No Nice ICE

Sparked by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, a series of mass mobilizations took place in hundreds of cities across the United States. There were rallies and protests, even occupations of local ICE offices, to demand the abolition of the federal agency responsible for mass  arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants. The family separations in particular galvanized the outrage on the left, generating a reform movement that reached into mainstream politics. After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez adopted the slogan “Abolish ICE” as part of her platform, other Democrats suddenly proclaimed themselves ICE abolitionists.

Get your copy of the latest issue of Left Voice magazine, which includes this article.

The government shutdown made it look like the two parties were at loggerheads with each other, but in reality the Democrats merely want 21st century border security: drones, not walls. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first voted for a bill that included funding for ICE, then voted against a similar bill, most everyone else in the Democratic Party appears to agree with Republicans that ICE is necessary – despite the fact that the agency is viewed unfavorably by the majority of Americans.

Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin from Guatemala was just one person to die in ICE custoday. But abolishing ICE and replacing it with an “updated INS-like structure”, as AOC initially proposed 1, will not end the systematic, state-managed terrorization of people who flee their homes in Central America and migrate to the United States. It is true that ICE rapidly increased deportations after it was founded in 2003.  However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) used to carry out raids and separate families decades before ICE took over. Making border security less horrific seems like a laudable goal, but the Democrats are only calling for  the substitution of one monstrously violent apparatus for a slightly less violent one.

Imperialism, Borders, and Migration: The Case of Central America

It is not difficult to see the direct connection between capitalism and migration. The search for profit was behind European conquest and colonialism, resulting in the displacement of non-European populations. Imperialism forces poor people in the periphery to migrate to the metropolis. Today, refugees are pouring into Europe and the United States, due to the damage caused by the long history of capitalist expansion, plunder, and wars.

Over the last 150 years, U.S. elites have routinely intervened, often militarily, in any movements fighting for more independence in Latin America. Leaving behind a ghastly trail of blood and death, the U.S. government installed brutal pro-capitalist dictatorships across the continent. From the 1980s onwards, it has utilized the World Bank and the IMF to pursue a neoliberal agenda and thus exacerbated poverty and violence while enriching corporations and banks.

Central America in particular has been the target of U.S. aggression. In El Salvador, for example, the U.S. played a critical role during the long civil war in 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. This resulted in the murder of 75,000 people, including leftists and communists, trade union leaders, students, and peasant leaders, journalists, priests, teachers etc., as well as in 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 United States Guatemala, where the CIA staged a coup d’etat in 1954, removing the democratically elected president there in order to protect the profits of the United Fruit Company. The regimes that came to power in the aftermath of the coup proceeded to unleash a genocide against the native population, murdering 200,000 people during a civil war that lasted 36 years.

In 2009 in Honduras, the United States supported a coup that forced president Manuel Zelaya into exile. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton installed a right-wing coup government in Honduras, opening the door to more violence and misery. It is therefore no mystery why Hondurans are leaving their country in large numbers. Staggering unemployment, one of the world’s highest homicide rates, and severe government repression, along with rampant corruption, extortion, and femicide were driving the recent caravan of asylum-seekers, 80% of whom were from Honduras.

Mexico, the country that continues to contribute the highest number of immigrants to the United States, 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. agro-businesses.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 – while the movement of people across the border is restricted and criminalized.

Why Capitalism Needs Borders

Competition among workers is a basic requirement of capitalist exploitation. Profit – or in Marx’s famous formula, M-C-M’ – is the extraction of surplus value from the working class. This extraction and appropriation of surplus value is made possible by private property of the means of production. There are a number of mechanisms that enable the class of owners to maximize profits, and competition in the labor market is one of them. The more competition, the lower overall wages, the more profit. One source of competition is a differentiated labor force: a pool of laborers who are forced to work for less than others. This dynamic depresses everybody’s wages, which benefits the capitalist class as a whole. It is for this reason that populations of workers whose living conditions and legal rights are particularly precarious constitute an important source of value for the ruling class.

Patriarchy, racism, and other forms of oppression help perpetuate this kind of differentiation within the working class. Borders accomplish the same purpose. What borders do is create a disenfranchised and extremely vulnerable population of workers who can be even more easily exploited and forced to work for lower wages. The function of borders, in other words, is to divide “legal” workers from “illegal” workers, or documented from undocumented workers. Of course, in order for capitalists to actually take advantage of such division, borders cannot be completely successful – they are not intended to entirely prevent the movement of people from one nation-state to another. This partial “failure” is necessary for the effectiveness of borders, from the standpoint of capital.

Even though it is undoubtedly true that borders like the U.S.-Mexico border must necessarily be somewhat porous in order to serve the ruling class, it does not follow that “open borders and mass migration are a victory for the bosses,” as Angela Nagle argued in her much-discussed piece “The Left Case Against Open Borders.” 2 Open borders would allow immigrants to fight for more rights and unite with the native working class, which would help strengthen their position vis-a-vis the capitalist class.

Because the undocumented are desperate for work and have no rights, they are willing to work for less and are unlikely to protest unfair and brutal treatment. They are often instrumentalized in union busting and other attacks on the native-born working class. They are also easily controlled because they live in constant fear of being arrested and deported. Without legal status, these workers have no recourse to redress their grievances and thus serve as a lever for the bosses in their fight against the working class and their organizations. This is why at least half of the immigrant laborers whom U.S. agriculture largely relies on are undocumented. Whole industries – such as meat processing – are dependent on “illegal” labor.

The Neo-Liberal Version of Open Borders

For capital’s benefit, borders need to be permeable in very particular ways. While criminalizing the movement of people, borders need to allow the movement of goods. After all, the “free market” does not like being confined and will always aim to explode any barriers that present obstacles to the accumulation of wealth as the ceaseless search for profits, in Marx’s words, “chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.” 3 This is the reason why national boundaries have been steadily eroded by the advancing neoliberal regime. When it comes to investment and trade, capitalism wants no limits to its power to privatize resources, dump products, destroy unions and impose austerity – basically to do whatever it wants to do to line the pockets of shareholders.

Sometimes, a relatively mobile labor force serves the interests of capital, such as in the EU where workers from Eastern Europe provide a cheap labor pool for companies in the west. At the same time, capitalism needs borders in order to maintain its system of wealth accumulation through maximum exploitation. National borders perpetuate competition between workers and social inequality everywhere. They trap people in poor countries and simultaneously deprive migrants of all rights. This allows capitalists to continue to increase the exploitation of workers on both sides of the border.

Only the Tip of the ICEberg: Toward the Abolition of National Borders

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 issue of border security about Trump’s wall. Socialists must continue to point out that family separations happened under “deporter in chief” Barack Obama and previous administrations. What’s more, socialists must not tire of showing that Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy is merely the latest chapter in 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. Trump has been far more shameless than Obama in defending anti-immigrant policies, but he inherited a system that had already been created. The continuity between Obama and Trump in this regard must be stressed because it illustrates that anti-immigrant violence has very little to do with which party occupies the White House.

Sure, a few of the most progressive Democrats might be serious about #AbolishICE, 4 but they do not offer a sweeping critique of the idea that national borders are necessary and beneficial. It is the task of the socialist left to explicate how borders are only necessary and beneficial for capitalist profits.

Bernie Sanders is a case in point. In his 2016 campaign, Sanders argued against open borders, claiming that was a “Koch brothers proposal.” He believed that unrestricted immigration is what all capitalists want because it invariably leads to everybody’s wages being lowered. In reality, it is the withholding of rights from “illegal” immigrants that tends to result in overall wage depression. Sanders’ false premise only lends credence to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump and the right, which aims to divide the working class and pit groups of workers against each other by stoking xenophobic fears and distracting people from the real cause of their troubles.

The working class cannot allow this to happen. Solidarity is the alternative. That means uniting workers on both sides of the border in the struggle for a better life.

This is an idea the socialist movement has defended for a century. Back in 1914, the German revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht spoke at an anti-war rally in France. This was just a few weeks before the beginning of World War One. 20,000 workers came out to call for international solidarity. As a newspaper reported, Liebknecht said:

Comrade Liebknecht made his listeners understand how ridiculous borders are. What are borders? Why are they there? What is their purpose?” Liebknecht had travelled through Germany, Belgium and France, and “everywhere he saw poor workers who struggle to get their daily bread, against a handful of wealthy exploiters who have millions and millions. Workers do not need borders; borders only serve the top layer of each country, who use all means at their disposal to poison the peoples’ minds with hatred. If we want to confront chauvinism, we have one means at our disposal: workers’ organization. We must work to ensure that the workers of all countries unite in order to impose their will.5


1. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Twitter post, May 26, 2018, 12:45 PM.

2. For a rejoinder, see Jimena Vergara and Luigi Morris, “Nagle Is Wrong: There Is No Left Case Against Open Borders,” Left Voice, November 30, 2018.

3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Bourgeois and Proletarians,” chap. 1 in The Manifesto of the Communist Party in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 98-137

4. Robert Draper, “The Democrats Have an Immigration Problem,” New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2018.

5. Volksfreund (Karlsruhe), July 18, 1914 (our translation).

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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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