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The Bipartisan War on Immigrants Is Heating Up

Towards the elections in November, Biden and Trump have both made immigration a central issue for their campaigns, showing the central role the crisis at the southern border is for U.S. imperialism – and the necessity for the American working class to reject the chauvinist divisions it imposes.

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Photo: Anadolu Agency

As the 2024 election cycle heats up, the migrant crisis at the southern border is, once again, at the center of national politics. Recently, after consolidating their respective party nominations for their inevitable showdown in November, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump made high-profile visits to the border in Texas, highlighting the centrality of immigration and border security for both of their campaigns.

In 2016, Trump burst upon the political scene not only with promises to “drain the swamp” — or, to shake up the political establishment in Washington — but also with thundering chants to “build the wall” between the U.S. and Mexico to curb immigration and keep out those he termed “rapists” and “murderers” coming in from Mexico. Eight years later, that xenophobic, anti-migrant rhetoric is, once again, at the center of his political campaign as he ups the ante, claiming that migrants are “not people” and are “poisoning the blood of our country.” Along with a return to his original anti-migrant policies — most of which are actually still in place under Biden — Trump is promising to deputize the National Guard and police in “cooperative states” to police migration and to “deliver a merit-based immigration system that protects American labor and promotes American values.”

For his part, earlier in his term, Biden at least tried to present himself as a president who would “fix” the immigration process, providing a pathway for migrants to come to the United States. As the election has come closer, however, Biden has increasingly presented himself as the candidate who is “serious” about enforcing anti-migrant policies and “securing” the borders. He has steadily gone from asking Congress to pass more border enforcement measures to calling on Donald Trump to work with him on passing an immigration bill to dehumanizing and calling migrants “illegals” in his State of the Union address. Although he was quickly forced to walk back this comment in the face of public backlash from a sector of the Democratic Party base, and may be likely to give some lip service to immigrant rights, perhaps even paving a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country, especially among DACA recipients, the Biden administration and the Democratic Party have shown their willingness to adapt to Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and crack down on immigration.

The Attack on Immigration Is a Bipartisan Project

Both Biden and Trump’s offensive against immigration comes amid a political situation in which the crisis at the southern border continues to deepen. Under the Biden administration, deportations have increased exponentially, as has the number of immigrants crossing the border. According to the Office of Homeland Security Statistics, over 6 million people have attempted to cross the southern border into the United States since January 2021, with Biden having removed or deported over 4 million of them. Soon after taking office, Biden preserved the Trump-era Title 42 regulations that, amid the pandemic, allowed Trump to severely ramp up deportations. Although the current administration ended Title 42 in May 2023, Biden spent the first two and a half years of his administration using the policy to remove over five times the number of migrants as Trump.

Now, as the election cycle heats up, deepened by worsening living conditions due to increased cost of living and anti-immigrant hysteria fueled by the Far Right, immigration is once again center stage and is a key crisis for the bipartisan regime. According to Gallup’s latest poll from March, immigration ranks among the top concerns for Americans heading to the polls this year, with 48 percent seeing illegal immigration as a key concern. In the same poll, when asked to name, unprompted, what they believe is the most important problem facing the country, 28 percent noted it to be immigration, making it the top concern, ranking above government/leadership and inflation.

The persistence of this anti-immigrant hysteria among the American masses is deeply tied to the prevalence of Trumpism and its criminalizing discourse. Amid the crisis of neoliberalism that erupted after the banking collapse in 2008, there emerged a deepening alienation of the masses from the institutions of the regime that were unable to provide structural solutions to the crisis and, instead, passed them on onto the backs of the working class. It is in this circumstance that Trumpism emerged in 2016, and organized the discontent of a sector of the American masses. Contrary to the reality that these compounding crises and worsening social and economic conditions was the product of the irrationality of capitalism, Trumpism organized millions around a chauvinist, America-first rhetoric and worked to build a new common sense: that the real cause of unemployment, “violence,” and social decay was the surge of illegal immigration from the southern border.

Without a resolution to Trumpism, especially as U.S. imperialism has become embroiled in geopolitical conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, this new common sense has further organized the ranks of the Republican Party. Contrary to Biden’s attempts to revitalize the institutions of U.S. imperialism through a new multilateralism after the decline of U.S. global hegemony during the Trump years, a prominent sector of the Republican Party, shaped through the experience of Trumpism, posits an America-first unilateralism. At its core, this is based on a protectionist and xenophobic policy that is geared toward a withdrawal from “foreign wars,” not out of any anti-imperialist sentiment but because they see the main “war” here at home — at the southern border.

Indeed, at both state and federal levels, this trend toward greater militarization of the southern border has been at the center of Republican policy in the last period. For months, Republicans – in particular the far-right House Freedom Caucus – held up the federal budget to demand more money to militarize the border. In a sign of the growing disagreements over imperialist policy, the Far Right argued that the United States would have to choose between funding Ukraine’s war effort and militarizing the border. This reflects how the Far Right is establishing a policy that sees a need for the United States to pick and choose where it focuses its repressive resources, and sees militarizing the border as a bigger priority than Europe.

At the state level, Texas governor Greg Abbott and Florida governor Ron DeSantis have been at the forefront of these attacks, matching their anti-migrant rhetoric with extreme policies against immigrant rights. They have bussed migrants to Democrat-led cities, and have put forward initiatives to use the state’s repressive forces like the police and National Guard to violently deter migrants from the border. In fact, as a recent escalation in Eagle Pass by Abbott shows, the Republican Party is nearly united around taking extreme measures to show that they are ready to wage war on migrants and further militarize the U.S.-Mexico border.

For their part, the Democratic Party and the Biden administration are now trying to prove that they are “tougher” on immigration, and are proposing to increase budgets for ICE and the Border Patrol, sending active troops to the border, and continuing the “drug war” rhetoric against fentanyl. After the end of Title 42 last May, Biden began turning refugees away at the border and demanding that they apply from their home countries or in the country they crossed through. In that sense, he has deepened the relations with Mexico and the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), as well as several other Latin American administrations, deputizing these governments to act as the United States’ police and thus extending a the border through the region.

U.S. Imperialism Is to Blame for This Crisis

While the two capitalist parties sharpen their assault on immigration, it is essential to remember that the current crisis is but a product of the decades-long assault of U.S. imperialism on what it sees as its own backyard. The massive movement of migrants from and through the Central American isthmus is the result of the neoliberal plans imposed across Latin America by U.S. imperialism, which have kept the region in a vicious circle of poverty and violence, exacerbated climate degradation.

From military coups to impose regimes that would be friendly to imperialism, to structural adjustment plans through international monetary institutions like the IMF, the U.S. has transformed Latin America into its semicolony. And while both parties talk about stemming the growth of drug cartels through the region — the growth of which are directly tied to the decaying social conditions amid neoliberalism — the bipartisan regime has long shown that it cares nothing about the results of cartel violence, but will use it as a guise to expand its military and security influence. 

In the name of security, the U.S. has long put forward bilateral initiatives to advance its neoliberal agenda. Programs such as Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative purported to address drug trafficking and organized crime, but they ultimately served to militarize the region and subordinate it to the U.S.’s economic interests. They did this by providing extensive military aid and training to repressive regimes, enabling them to suppress dissent and secure favorable conditions for foreign capital through the promotion of privatization and looting of natural resources, deregulation of markets, and erosion of labor rights. Along with state, parastate, and drug violence, this militarization, combined with the neoliberal program of U.S. imperialism, emerged as a mechanism of social control, opening untold violence in the form of disappearances, executions, and femicides, and forcibly displacing communities.

Yet these aren’t just records of a time that is past. Indeed, without any exit from the conditions of neoliberal decay, this policy continues to be extended with the partnership with various Latin American regimes as its trends toward militarism continue to deepen. For two years, in El Salvador, far-right president Nayib Bukele has launched a draconian campaign against gang violence based on the hyper-policing of communities, the opening of mega-prisons, and the criminalization of poverty. Despite the humanitarian crisis his policies have unleashed, his policies have become a model for other regimes in the region. The same policy of violence is being carried out by Daniel Noboa, the president of Ecuador, and Xiomara Castro, the president of Honduras.

Amid this, furthermore, the refugee crisis from Haiti warrants special attention. From October 2020 to May 2023, U.S. authorities recorded 146,000 encounters with Haitian migrants. With the United States violently deterring migrants, Mexico is now receiving a record number of asylum claims from Haitian refugees. As we, along with the other organizations of the Trotskyist Fraction — Fourth International have highlighted, the crises forcing Haitians to flee their homes are the direct product of imperialist interference by the United States, the United Nations, and other imperialist powers who have, under the guise of promoting “democracy” and “aiding” to lift Haiti out of poverty, worsened the social and economic fabric of the country.

Across the border in Mexico, most importantly, AMLO is under mounting pressure from the Biden administration that claims to want to crack down on the passage of fentanyl through the country and into the U.S. Despite his strong words on U.S. interference in Mexico’s domestic matters and his promise on the campaign trail to “return the army to its barracks,” AMLO has, in reality, extended the militarization of Mexico by giving the armed forces increasing influence over many aspects of civil society, from attempting to replace the country’s federal police with a new National Guard, to putting the military in charge of infrastructure projects and most notably, with policing migration on the country’s borders.

The Crisis of Neoliberalism and the Confrontation with China

This increased militarism across Latin America goes hand in hand with the United States’ renewed efforts to consolidate its hegemony in the region, particularly around its growing competition with China on the world capitalist stage. As U.S. capital looks to decouple its economic dependence on Chinese manufacturing — given that the incorporation of the Chinese working class into the world economy offered crucial motors of growth for capitalism and was at the center of industrial production in the last period — its relationship with Latin America has emerged as a crucial component in this effort, once again serving as a key region for U.S. economic interests, providing access to natural resources, cheap labor, and export markets. Indeed, with technology and green energy increasingly becoming central to this confrontation of great powers, Latin America’s vast rare mineral resources such as copper and lithium will be key for U.S. capital to gain and maintain access to.

Central to this program for U.S. capital is the consolidation of its North American bloc, which, in effect, means the increased subordination of Mexico to the interests of U.S. capital. Through the first decade of the 2000s and the period of globalization, NAFTA oversaw the increased dependency of Mexico on the U.S. and the precarization of Mexican labor under the vestiges of foreign capital, which facilitated the expansion of maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexico border where labor rights abuses, low wages, and environmental degradation were rampant. This process undermined Mexico’s national sovereignty by enabling foreign corporations to challenge any Mexican laws and regulations that threatened their profits. Now, amid the trends toward decoupling with China and toward creating shorter, more resilient supply chains for U.S. capital through “nearshoring,” the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA)  rewrites and strengthens this subordination of Mexico.

Replacing NAFTA in 2020, the Trump-era USMCA agreement maintains and even reinforces Mexico’s subordination to U.S. imperialism by maintaining low wages in Mexico, providing preferential access for U.S. corporations to Mexican markets (which allow them to dominate key sectors such as automotive, agriculture, and manufacturing), as well as through investor-state dispute mechanisms, which undermine Mexico’s national autonomy in favor of U.S. capital.

For the United States, indeed, the availability of Mexico’s cheap labor force is a key motor for recovering its supply chains and lessening its reliance on China. Under the influence of this restructuring, in 2023, Mexico superseded China to become the main exporter of goods to the U.S., making up over 15 percent of U.S. imports. Last year, Mexico also received a record of more than $36 billion in foreign direct investment, over 40 percent of which came from the United States alone, and over half of which went to manufacturing.

For his part, along with overseeing an unprecedented militarization of Mexico, AMLO has begun industrializing the south of the country, hoping to capitalize on these shifts in global industrial production. From expanding rail services to developing the Tehuantepec Isthmus Corridor to improve infrastructure and logistics, to the establishment of special economic zones (SEZs) in southern states that offer incentives to foreign capital, AMLO’s social and economic plan to put Mexico on the map requires extending maquiladoras across the country and further exploiting Mexican labor in service of foreign capital. As Bárbara Funes, Pablo Oprinari, and Yara Villaseñor write in our sister publication, these measure “will surely have consequences on the ground for the Mexican working class, where many who in the southern Mexican states sought to migrate to the U.S. will become workers in those industrial parks, demonstrating that developmentalist policies are subordinated to gringo economic needs.”

Which Way Forward for the Working Class?

For the bipartisan regime, the militarization of the southern border, along with the offensive against immigration, will mark a key feature of the recomposition of American capital and, consequently, of U.S. imperialist hegemony in the next period.

For an emboldened Far Right led by Trumpism, the war on migrants is an essential component to its protectionist agenda, because it perceives migration from the Global South as a threat to the interests of the U.S. working class. And, as we have seen, while the Democratic Party and its allies put some limits to this sector’s xenophobic rhetoric, they too fundamentally take up the task of strengthening the border and, under the guise of regional cooperation, only subordinate Latin America further to the interests of U.S. capital. As the political situation heats up towards November, neither Trump nor Biden will propose any reasonable solution to this crisis, which, from its onset, has been a product of U.S. imperialism. Instead, in varying degrees, both propose rebuilding a new American chauvinism that pits the working class here at home against that of the Global South. This division only creates the terrain for the further exploitation of workers on both sides of the border. While capital restructures and deepens the exploitation of the Latin American working class, strengthening the attacks on migrants and using nearshoring policies in Latin America as a source of cheap labor, it uses the precarity of both the working class in Latin America and immigrant workers to further drive down wages and working conditions of American workers.

Through their attacks on immigration and the increase in militarization of the border, the bipartisan regime is united in selling the lie that the interests of Latin American workers are counterposed to those of workers in the U.S., and that it is essential to curb this tide to protect the interests of the latter. Against these false divisions, it is essential that we fight for the unity of the working class on both sides of the border, understanding full well that our enemy isn’t our class siblings around the world, but the bosses who exploit us regardless of where we are. While the bipartisan regime, at the service of U.S. capital, proposes and implements increasingly draconian policies to curb the flow of people — many of whom risk treacherous journeys to get to the U.S. — it also works to guarantee that those borders don’t exist for the flow of capital.

During the closing session of the 2024 Labor Notes Conference, to thunderous applause in a hall with thousands of rank-and-file workers, UAW president Shawn Fain spoke of how there is a class war underway, and the corporate and billionaire class has divided workers over questions of race, gender, and nationality. “They try to villainize some poverty-stricken person trying to find a better life,” he said. “They are not our enemy, they are our family.” Through the speech, Fain — a key figure of the resurgent labor movement — spoke of class war. Fain is right that the interests of workers and the bosses are counterposed, and that capital wages war on workers; but he left out an important detail. He failed to explain the way that capitalist and imperialist states use violence to prop up the bosses both at home and abroad.

For the liberation of the working class on both sides of the border, it is necessary to unite the ranks of our class to fight not only the bosses and their greed, but also the bipartisan regime that protects them. It is a regime that is united in its task of advancing the interests of U.S. capital around the world through imperialist penetration.

In the same speech mentioned above, Fain also spoke of how the U.S. working class was key to building the “arsenal of democracy” amid World War II to defeat the fascists, who sought to divide and conquer the working class. In reality, however, the war contained the aspirations of an insurgent working class behind an imperialist war that set the terrain for the emergence of U.S. imperialism as the hegemonic force in world capitalism. Now, too, as U.S. hegemony faces a historic crisis amid the growing confrontation with China, and as the working class here in the U.S. increasingly see itself as essential, these strategic questions become relevant once again.

Despite his fighting rhetoric, Fain has emerged as the face of Biden’s reelection campaign, giving him UAW’s endorsement in January, and joining him at the State of the Union in March. This was preceded by the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Biden in 2023, far before the campaigns even began. Since January, too, many other unions have joined the bandwagon, lining up their endorsements for Biden. But to line up behind Biden in the hope that this his election will create a more favorable terrain for labor is to dig our own graves: while the Democrats may put on a more benevolent face and, at best, give some crumbs to workers in the short term, they have the task of finding a way to restore capitalist stability that will guarantee the continued exploitation of our class, both here and abroad.

Against the tendencies to negotiate a peaceful coexistence with a capitalist, imperialist regime, and toward building the real unity of our class internationally, the working class must break with the Democratic Party and the bipartisan regime, and fight for its own program and with its own tools. Millions of workers now see themselves as essential, and thousands are fighting the conditions imposed by the bosses, and fighting to unionize their workplaces. In the last period, amid the eruption of Israel’s genocidal war, young workers fought to pass cease-fire resolutions in their unions, and set limits on the Zionist regime and U.S. imperialism, which has long acted in cahoots with it. In university encampments that have spread across the country, faculty have stood shoulder to shoulder with their students, loudly rejecting the role of U.S. institutions in upholding and strengthening Zionism. The experience of two economic crises, the outbreak of war, and the growing tendencies toward militarism has put the conditions of the working class — the biggest losers of neoliberalism — in stark relief, and is now bolstering important shifts in the subjectivity of our class.

Toward uniting the ranks of the working class internationally, we need to fight the xenophobic attacks and the imperialist policies of the bipartisan regime and chart an independent path. We need to build the strength of a united, international working class that fights all repressive apparatuses, from military, police, and federal agencies in the United States to Mexico’s National Guard to the mass penitentiaries of El Salvador, Ecuador, and Honduras, and that rejects any policy that subordinates Latin America to U.S. influence, whether it comes in the forms of IMF debts, coups, sanctions, or “cooperation” with capitalist governments throughout Latin America. We need to fight for the full rights of migrants, for the cancellation of foreign debt that maintains workers in the Global South in cycles of poverty, and for open borders.

And above all, as the increasing conflict between great powers grows more acute, it is essential that the working class pose its own solutions to these crises. This means rejecting peaceful coexistence with the Democratic Party, which guarantees our subordination, and instead fighting for our own political organization — a party that can organize the power of our class against capitalist despair and build a far more rational society that meets our needs.

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Sou Mi

Sou Mi is an activist based in New York City.

Samuel Karlin

Samuel Karlin is a socialist with a background in journalism. He mainly writes for Left Voice about U.S. imperialism and international class struggle.

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