Tortuous journeys by people all over the world come to a halt at the feet of patrolled walls and militarized border agents. Deterred by informal wait lists run by cartels, they are forced off roads to venture through blistering deserts or immense seas. On the other side, constant surveillance of communication, unlawful raids and deportation proceedings end different kinds of journeys—the daily struggles of those living and laboring in places they have already called, or are trying to learn to call home.
Some people in power judge the present conditions a “crisis,” citing a threat of lawlessness within our borders and the crowded detention facilities as one of its breeding grounds. Others express disbelief at the cruelty of the government’s policies: exalting phrases like “this isn’t the country we know” in the same breath as “who is going to do all the jobs that our citizens would never be willing to do?”
In the face of present abuses, the voices of those seeking justice for migrants in the United States’ social-democratic left have responded promptly with ardent demands: abolish ICE, stop separating families, close the concentration camps, and enact humane migration policies. For those behind chain-link fences, fleeing persecution, or awaiting their court proceedings, the success of any of these measures would not be inconsequential. At their core, these demands aim to improve the material conditions of human lives worn thin through duress. We shouldn’t denigrate them as simply “reformist” fights.
If, however, one recognizes that the pain inflicted by the United States comes long before the arrival of migrants at the border, before their denial of a right to seek asylum, before crammed cells and indefinite detention—in essence, long before the Department of Homeland Security can claim jurisdiction—then one can also recognize that asking our government to stop the cruelty, or, prevent the suffering of the migrants it will continue to repel, will never be enough.
From the perspective of socialist organizing, therefore, seeking to broaden the scope of these demands is neither futile nor utopian. Our demands for migrant justice must acknowledge how inhumane practices at borders and checkpoints only make sense within a broader toolkit of military and financial coercion, domestically and abroad. We must recognize that the struggles of people at our borders and in our communities sear the landscape of every nation-state where the regime of capital rules.
At the forefront of this proposed framework is the necessity to understand how reserving undocumented, exploitable labor suits the interests of capital everywhere, and that waging war and the expansion of unrestricted markets worldwide does so, too. The question of migration, and of migrant justice, is inextricable from the pursuit of justice in other realms — namely, in the channels through which the United States (or any other country reliant on economic imperatives to do its bidding, for that matter) engages with the world through war, diplomacy, or finance, and anywhere where migration intersects with labor.
The consumption and accumulation of resources by privileged classes worldwide imply dispossession elsewhere. So long as these relations remain intact, all other struggles will be subsidiary. If we are to take up an effective strategy to guarantee dignity to all migrants in or to the United States, our lens must still be global. Tools for inequity always link arms, so the fighters for justice must, too. Our struggle must be anti-racist, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist. If they are not, we will in effect be denying the fact that violence against migrants denies two rights at once: the right to free movement, and the right to stay home.
We must demand the world for all people: uniting struggles, redistributing resources globally, and defending a global commons that may grant people everywhere the right to not migrate and the right to move to a place where, as Joseph Nevins writes, they may realize “the right to be.”
Borders Hurt All Workers
This discussion must begin with labor. A strand of ostensibly pro-labor, economic populism in the United States has laid the claim in recent years that protecting domestic workers entails restrictions on authorized and unauthorized immigration alike. This advocacy assumes that immigrant labor drives down native-born workers’ wages, and stricter enforcement protects current labor from unfair competition.
At first glance, this argument seems plausible. But a closer look at this logic demonstrates that it is a fallacy—naive at best, threatening dangerous nationalism if taken just a step further.
First of all, restricting migration—whether through deterrence or tightened enforcement at the border—not only physically imperils migrants in their periods of journey and detention. It also ultimately creates another class of undocumented workers—a kind of labor institutionalized in the economies of many states nationwide.
Functioning beneath the law, this labor becomes expendable and exploitable, while producing as its fruits the wealth and profits for the country and the companies that employ them. Take a look at the dairy industry in New York as one example, or California’s agricultural workers in the Central Valley, or domestic workers in cities everywhere.
Documented migrant and seasonal workers bear a similar burden: meager wages and no strong legal recourse for their grievances. Despite their visas and recognition by the Department of Labor, any insistent complaint against work or housing conditions can result in deportation and blacklisting for future employment for them.
Labor clearly intersects with the question of migration, but the matter is not necessarily straightforward. Tackling the issue means attacking the dynamics of profit and exploitation at the root of a capitalist system along with fighting the racism and xenophobia of an economic nationalism, often racist and xenophobic in its premises, that pretends to defend labor. There is no true labor solidarity if it is only solidarity for those with passports and within our borders.
Assaults on labor and assaults on migrants are two sides of the coin. As David Harvey writes in the “The Right to the City” (emphasis my own):
The perpetual need to find profitable terrains for capital-surplus production and absorption shapes the politics of capitalism. It also presents the capitalist with a number of barriers to continuous and trouble-free expansion. If labour is scarce and wages are high, either existing labour has to be disciplined—technologically induced unemployment or an assault on organized working-class power are two prime methods—or fresh labour forces must be found by immigration, export of capital or proletarianization of hitherto independent elements of the population.
The usual slogan of resistance, “if capital can mobile, labor should be too” gets at something important. But we must note that the mobility of capital relies precisely on the immobility of labor. Without many reliable authorities to enforce standard international labor laws, capitalists are free to use undocumented labor domestically, or outsource exploitative conditions to countries currently more reliant on labor-intensive industries. Ironically, it is exactly due to the fact that the United States spent the Cold War decades attempting to decimate labor movements abroad that it now outsources its operations.
Any argument that pits labor against migration is therefore misguided. It misses the point that migrant labor—whether documented, temporary, or undocumented—isn’t the problem. Capitalism is premised on the pursuit of profit, so capitalists will do all they can to keep labor costs low. This skimming goes hardest after the most exploitable labor force, the one exempt from most rights and protections.
First, they came for the migrants—but we shouldn’t wait for them to come for everyone else. The drive of capitalists to maximize surplus value squeezes workers everywhere. Solidarity with migrant workers must go hand-in-hand with solidarity with workers worldwide, and a fight to guarantee their rights wherever they may toil.
In the U.S. as elsewhere, the tightening and enforcement of migration policies is also explicitly a class issue. As Eduardo Segura wrote on the recent raids in food-processing centers in Mississippi:
This toxic mix of capitalist exploitation and state-enforced nativism is assaulting the rights of undocumented workers — and weakening the working class more broadly. Just as our modern police forces grew out of slave-catching patrols in the South and strikebreaking forces in industrializing New York, ICE is a weapon for the ruling class to use against workers who resist their subordination. It’s time we recognize that the fight for immigrants and the fight against the bosses are one and the same.
The fact that workers specifically—not their employers—were the ones penalized demonstrates that the intent was not to crack down on the labor that stays off the books. Corporate interests rely heavily on this predatory system, and state enforcement authorities—whether ICE or the police—will always yield to the needs of the higher class.
As Segura notes later on, the raids were not random. They occurred at a time when thousands of employee complaints against management for harassment and unjust work conditions had amassed. The workers’ attempt to make their voices heard threatened the usual routine. In Mississippi, some of the most vulnerable workers faced the consequences for standing up for basic demands: a workplace where people could at least be safe, if not completely saved from the violence of menial labor. Despite the precarity of their circumstances, their fight was a fight for all workers. This example should lead our vision and the elaboration of our demands.
Again, posing the choice of migrant justice or workers’ rights is a false dichotomy. The possibility to win both comes through recognizing that the assaults on domestic workers and migrant workers will continue in a capitalist system. But competition is not the only way forward. Recognizing the common enemy is the only viable path ahead if the intention is to establish new, more equitable social relations.
The boss, the police, the border patrol, and the customs enforcement officer are all parts of a system working to protect property, profit, and class structures. It is imperative to recognize a common, systemic enemy to make sure that business doesn’t go on as usual.
The Entire System Should be on Trial
This is also true for refugees and asylum seekers. One of the first things asylum-seekers are often asked is: “Can you show us bruises?”
To gain safety first requires proving injury—brutal injury. Making the case for dignified treatment must inherently assume abuse or persecution, for at least one of the five strict eligibility criteria set out by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the meager defense counsel—if any—finds that there’s a case to be made, a court authority will judge whether a person is a “real” victim or not—a subject guaranteed to (an uneasy) protection. Even this restricted pathway faces further threat. The refugee cap is being slashed to an unprecedented low.
This protocol itself—one means of sanctioned migrant processing that can reveal much about the rest—frequently relies on a burden of proof to demonstrate individual-on-individual violence: a process of victimization that proves one’s worth. But in a landscape of people fleeing violence, the destruction of homes by climate collapse, and other daunting circumstances, this framework is deficient.
The idea that these extreme cases are at the margins is misleading. Millions are fleeing their home countries — and not just because of particularly grim interpersonal disputes, but because of climate change, free trade agreements, US-backed violence, and many other factors.
Does this put a number of the current demands of the social-democratic left at odds? Not necessarily. But a holistic understanding of the issues we face and the possible pathways to move forward can’t just include necessary but limited reforms to ease the suffering of today’s migrants, but an offensive strategy to undo those harms and prevent further fallout. As Samir Amin said:
We have to move from defensiveness to a positive strategy that is, to an offensive strategy, and reverse the relations of power. Compel the enemy – the power systems – to respond to you instead of you responding to them. And take their initiative away from them.
We cannot call for the acceptance of more migrants and refugees and at the same time capitulate to increased border patrol funding — or worse, the out-sourcing of militarized guards further out from our own borders, pushing other countries to do the dirty work. We cannot plead for the DREAM Act and give in to the curbing of legal immigration, a demand fueled by a white supremacist understanding of who should be populating the United States. Liberalizing immigration cannot be the only component to a structure of sustainable solutions for stopping migrant deaths.
More than reacting exclusively to present crises—the product of historical circumstances—we should be willing to raise the stakes, grappling with past and present actions to create a more promising future of anti-militarism and a global redistribution of resources.
The Past is Still Our Present
Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Yemen. Somalia. Libya. Niger. These are the seven countries the United States acknowledges it used military force against in the last fiscal year. Five of which (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya) were hit with 26,171 bombs in the year 2016 alone.
These same five were also the countries that did not meet adjudication standards under U.S. immigration law throughout what became known as the “Muslim and Refugee Ban.” Certainly, the world knew that this ban was racist and xenophobic. Yet Trump passed it anyway.
More than the fulfillment of a humanitarian duty, the right to seek asylum in the United States once seemed like a subtle apology to the inhabitants of nations that our government had displaced through its bombings and invasions. The complicated history of seeking asylum or refugee-status in the United States also shows that the rules of the process are fluidly determined depending on what is most politically beneficial, and not providing protection to those who deserve it. It’s no surprise that in the past five decades, the US has accepted the most refugees from Vietnam, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union—once “communist” countries—and the least amount from Latin American countries, with whom it has strong diplomatic and financial ties.
Now, even this imperfect system is threatened with new roll-backs. This moment grants us the opportunity to reassess what the rights of migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees should mean when the United States is haunted by a repertoire of historic interventions abroad. We are certainly reaping the harvests of empire. An interventionist past is still our present.
Consider the countries of the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. These are some of the places with the highest per capita murder rates of the world, and some of the countries from which high rates of political persecution and economic insecurity have forced hundreds of thousands to flee. These aren’t, as Greg Grandin writes in The Last Colonial Massacre, just the Cold War’s last killing fields. US meddling in these countries continues today.
In Guatemala, US soldiers continue carrying out joint-military operations with the country’s special forces. In El Salvador, the MS-13 gang, a US export, continues to recruit young men in an environment of economic precarity, the aftermath of the country’s civil war fueled by US support. And in Honduras, thanks in part to the US turning a blind eye to the illegal ouster of democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, a far-right regime seized control of the presidency—causing kidnappings and killings of activists to skyrocket.
Migration scholars often cite a framework of “push” (insecurity, precarity) and “pull” (economic incentives, safety) factors to explain reasons for migrating. It’s clear that migrants arriving in the United States don’t come from nowhere, or for no reason. The larger issue is that the political repression, harsh economic conditions, and environmental degradation can all find some aspects harkening back to the historical interventions and present actions of the US.
Genuine, structural changes need to reckon with how injustices reinforce themselves, stratifying people by race, class, gender, and in this case geography. In other words, these issues have common roots; they are linked. And as Sylvie Freeman and Sam Hoffman argue: The present is always a good place to fight from.
Addressing the question of migration and the material impact of the players at the center of it requires addressing the United States’ responsibility: tackling the reasons why people are forced to flee in the first place and resisting the policies that have created or continue to materially create those conditions.
Which authoritarian leaders does our country support abroad? How do we engage in commerce? How do we disengage militarily and from the international arms trade?
These connections need to be made explicit and form the core of our praxis. DSA’s goals of tackling corporate impunity, inequity, mass incarceration, and climate collapse must not simply have a consideration for an “external,” international perspective—a global view is necessary to move towards a common, anti-capitalist future.
Shrugging off responsibility for the struggles that other countries currently face because of their existence under a United States orbit of power not only reverberates neo-colonial sentiments—it also limits the possibilities of forging genuine, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist struggles across the globe.
Fashioning what Joseph Nevins calls a “right to the world”—a right to migrate, a right to stay home, a right to well-being and self-determination—requires demanding change in policies and practices that cause harm abroad. This means crying loudly for no intervention, which historically only exacerbates conflict, violence, and impediments to the residents of other territories from pursuing dignified lives. This means the breaking down of doors and barriers for refugees and asylum-seekers whose present conditions policy can not immediately undo. It also requires engaging critically with more than the blatant, extra-economic means of coercion that have resulted in coups, power vacuums, and autocratic regimes abroad.
As the prospects rise for a Green New Deal and a just transition to a carbon-free economy, it will be crucial to consider how other production and consumption demands in the US can continue to fuel environmental degradation—whether in the lithium mining operations necessary for rechargeable batteries in Chile’s Atacama Desert, or the decrease of land productivity given deforestation rates in India due to biofuel production, one of the energy sources posed as the alternative to fossil fuels. US demands are in part to blame for these phenomena, and are therefore major contributors to the creation of climate refugees.
Today, this plays out in both the denial of the right for people to seek dignified lives wherever they may live, and then in turn—as their crops die and their homes are swallowed by the sea—in the denial of their right to seek better conditions elsewhere.
Demanding the World
When crafting the demands to propel a pursuit of dignity and justice for migrants, seriously contemplating all these variables is necessary. Remedying historical injustices must run parallel to reconsideration of present trends of consumption and accumulation that reinforce past dispossession. This will require reparations in the form of an expansion of the guarantee to migrate and seek safety, security, and well-being elsewhere. But it will also obligate the remaking of currently uninhabitable places, whether due to political or economic violence, or environmental degradation—thus remaking the possibility to not have to move, to simply stay home.
At the center of this process must rest the goal to redistribute global resources and grant access to a global commons. Ensuring the sustainability of life and well-being in territories bearing the brunt of the climate crisis will require pushing for reductions in consumption and accumulation in privileged territories and by privileged classes.
If and when people migrate, it will also be imperative to protect their rights as workers, as a system of exploitation will seek to pit “domestic” versus “foreign” workers, and undermine potential efforts to fight the system itself which threatens the dignity of all life, capitalism.
An honest discussion of what migration, and therefore, migrant justice means is an opportunity to discern the intimate ties of some of the central issues plaguing our society. Identifying the common enemy will allow us to seek more than the crumbs of separate struggles, and instead demand the world.
Economic nationalism, even when it touts against profit, has an expiration date—its demands soon become contradictory and insufficient. The building of a decent domestic society with disregard or at the expense of the rest of the world will result in failure. A struggle against inequality domestically, has to run parallel, or be replaced by a struggle against inequality everywhere.
We must demand the protection to migrate and stay home: redistributing resources globally, enacting a new international order, and engaging in solidarity with the struggles of migrants everywhere – from the Gilets Noirs, to the refugees in Kashmir, to the riders of La Bestia.
Fighting against the exploitation of migrants—in detention, in workplaces, in their journeys, and in their abandoned places of origin—means fighting for us all. Everyone deserves a dignified life everywhere.