Border Crises

In May 2018, as Trump’s family separation policy became a major scandal, former Obama speechwriter and “Pod Save America” host Jon Favreau tweeted a photo of two migrant girls sleeping on the floor of a cage. “Look at these pictures. This is happening right now, and the only debate that matters is how we force our government to get these kids back to their families as fast as humanly possible.” As a number of his replies pointed out, the photos were actually from 2014, when his boss was still President. As with Biden’s response to the recent assault on Haitians, Favreau was fixated on the image.

Five decades of ordinary bipartisan anti-immigrant politics

Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1937: Mexicans picking cantaloupes one mile north of the Mexican border. Imperial Valley, Califoria. 6:00 a.m. This is highly skilled labor.
Dorothea Lange, Mexicans picking cantaloupes one mile north of the Mexican border, 1937. Via Library of Congress.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, it was easy to interpret the horrific consequences of his immigration policies—kids in cages, Muslims barred from entry, the move to eliminate DACA, the mean symbolism of the border wall—as somehow emerging from his monstrous personality alone. What was happening at the border often seemed to flow from the whims of a sociopathic madman, rather than a broken system. But now that it’s Joe Biden presiding over the detention of child migrants and deporting planeloads of Haitians, it should be clear that the horror of American border policy transcends short-term fluctuations in domestic political leadership.1

Stories about immigration and migration were often front-page news during Trump’s first few years in office. Because public furor over the issue seemed generally beneficial to the President, it would resurface whenever he and his allies tried to fearmonger their base into a state of permanent high alert, or as they sought to juice turnout ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Trump’s center-left political detractors, meanwhile, saw in his immigration politics a shorthand for his purportedly exceptional evil. But during Trump’s final year in the White House, the coverage receded thanks to the world-shaking new reality of the pandemic—which also for a time slowed cross-border migration—and the tremendous force of the Black Lives Matter uprisings. After Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, however, the arrival of more than 100,000 migrants at the southern border in February, and then more than nearly 200,000 in March and April—many from Central America’s Northern Triangle but even more from Mexico and elsewhere—briefly made big headlines and elicited the expected hyperventilation on Fox News. And then the news cycle continued its rapid-fire turnover. The ongoing pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida and countless wildfires in the West, the right’s distorted fixation on Critical Race Theory, and various intra- and interparty squabbles in Washington: all of these have had their turn over the past few months. No story seems to last in a period of what feels like permanent and compounding upheaval. The months ahead of the 2016 election, when Trump could keep the nation riveted to his nativist demagoguery, feel like another time entirely.

Still, whatever its place in the news cycle, the fight over immigration policies has continued in the courts. In September a federal judge blocked Biden from using a policy called Title 42, which was first applied by the Trump Administration and which both Presidents have used to turn away adults and families at the border, using the coronavirus pandemic as a thin and immoral pretext. The Title 42 ruling, however, came a few weeks after the 6–3 Supreme Court essentially ordered the Biden Administration to revive Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, through which the US forces asylum seekers to endure interminable waits for an official hearing on the other side of the border.

But since Biden took office there has been nothing quite like the awful spectacle of US Border Patrol agents on horseback attacking, chasing, and verbally abusing Haitian migrants at the border. According to a report by John Holman at Al Jazeera, migrants at a makeshift refugee camp had returned to Mexico to buy food—only to be met on their way back by the agents, who shouted, among other things, “This is why your country’s shit, because you use your women for this!” as they ran their horses into the crowds, with one agent swinging long horse reins like a whip. Biden was outraged by the images. “It’s an embarrassment. It’s beyond an embarrassment. It’s dangerous. It’s wrong. It sends the wrong message around the world. It sends the wrong message at home. It’s simply not who we are.” The images may have been too Trumpy—but the policy remained the same, with up to seven deportation flights taking off for Haiti each day at the height of the crackdown. Biden clearly believes that a dramatic escalation is the only way to contain the situation and appease or at least diffuse the nativist right-wingers frothing on Fox News and the House floor. But southern border crackdowns are what makes the event of migration into a “crisis” in the first place. The Administration’s manufactured border spectacles shift the debate onto terrain favorable to the nativist right: Biden is handing ammunition to his Republican enemies, a process that’s happened time and again for the past three decades. This is what the history of immigration politics under Clinton, Bush, and Obama—all supposed immigration moderates—teaches.

Biden inarguably proves what was already long obvious: Trump’s intensification of anti-immigrant politics was a continuation of ordinary bipartisan anti-immigrant politics. For nearly five decades, American politics have been beset by so-called crises that have warped our understanding of the border. For all its extremes and gruesome spectacles, the current conjuncture is an elaboration on the recent past, rather than a break from it. The border isn’t just a line on the map—it is itself a spectacle, one that, through the very act of its enforcement, obscures the history of our transnational regime. The border has a past, and its future isn’t set in stone.

In the 1900s, a booming agriculture industry in the southwestern United States began to recruit large numbers of Mexican workers, facilitating and incorporating transnational Mexican labor migration into a part of the country that had, of course, made up the northern half of Mexico before the US seized it in 1848. Mexicans were the target of numerous nativist attacks, including during the Great Depression, when federal, state and local governments drove hundreds of thousands from their jobs, the relief rolls, and ultimately the country as part of a massive “repatriation” campaign that combined coerced deportations and voluntary departures, including of US citizens. But with explicitly racist immigration laws restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and barring it entirely from Asia—save for colonial subjects in the Philippines—business interests fought to ensure that large-scale Mexican migration continued. And it did.

This movement was subsequently formalized in the massive Bracero guestworker program, which issued 4.6 million temporary visas between 1942 and 1964, when the program came to an end amid the exposure of widespread abuses and strong opposition from organized labor. The government then further restricted legal Mexican immigration in 1965 by numerically capping it for the first time ever, and again in 1976. With the US having closed off legal migration pathways, throughout the late 1970s large numbers of immigrants crowded together to cross without authorization in places like Tijuana, facing down a beleaguered Border Patrol across the line. The specter of “illegal immigration” took root in domestic politics around this time, as the utopian liberal promise of the Great Society crashed against a bloody defeat in Vietnam, Nixonian criminality, and stagflation. The message that dramatized “illegal immigration” and first made it resonate electorally was decidedly right-wing: immigrants were decried as welfare leeches, job stealers, criminals, and just-plain-too-foreign. Here, then, was the template for the border crisis; by the late 1980s, this imagery and its accompanying rhetoric would become permanent features of our national politics.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), signed into law by Ronald Reagan, was meant to present a solution to the renewed interest in the “immigration problem.” IRCA was a mass amnesty that legalized an estimated 2.7 million immigrants who were already in the US; leveled sanctions against employers who hired undocumented immigrants, thus ostensibly shutting off demand; and, in what in retrospect was almost an afterthought, created a commission to study possibilities for economic development in Mexico and throughout the region, in hopes of reducing supply. Still, in spite of the mass legalization, IRCA was a failure on its own terms. The employer sanctions were not effective. More importantly, no US immigration law alone could hope to sever the ties binding the US and Mexico: the two countries had long since joined in an unevenly integrated transnational economic system across which flowed capital (legally) and labor (often criminalized).

IRCA’s failure galvanized a growing nativist movement that was coming into being in California in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1989, gatherings of hundreds of anti-immigrant motorists staged “Light Up the Border” protests in San Diego, shining their headlights toward Mexico to ward off migrants and demand government action. In 1990, the Border Patrol installed stadium lights along a mile of the Tijuana River and began to erect the first fourteen miles of modern fencing—made of ten-foot-tall welded steel landing mats from the Vietnam War—along the border at San Diego with assistance from the Army Corps of Engineers and the California National Guard. This was the first phase of an actually existing border wall and, twenty-five years later, it would make Trump’s call to “build the wall” possible—never mind that his campaign was premised on pretending that the wall didn’t already exist.

The US Border Patrol, already emerging as the enormous paramilitary force we recognize today, responded to the permanent “crisis” of illegal immigration and growing anti-immigrant sentiment in 1993 with Operation Hold the Line, which deployed hundreds of agents to shut down regular crossings, often daily commutes, from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. The operation was quickly deemed a huge success, though it was not initially part of any sort of national strategy dictated from Washington. Instead, it was a rogue action taken by Silvestre Reyes, the Border Patrol’s first Hispanic sector chief. A New York Times story from the following year gushed that Reyes had “accomplished something no other officer of the Immigration and Naturalization Service ever had. He got the border in his sector under control. Not just for a brief, flashy demonstration, but permanently.” It made the previously inconceivable—total border security—seem suddenly possible and so became a model. Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, subsequently replicated the approach, beginning in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper, in San Diego. The model was formalized that year as “prevention through deterrence” in Border Patrol’s first ever national strategy document.

This strategy yielded lasting dividends for aspiring and established politicians alike. In 1996, Reyes was elected to Congress by voters in his heavily Hispanic El Paso district, becoming its first Hispanic congressman. “It is rare that any immigration issue unifies El Pasoans, but Reyes did so with his strategy,” the El Paso Times noted in its endorsement. “People laughed at us,” said Operation Gatekeeper architect and former San Diego Border Patrol chief Johnny Williams in 1998. “They said, ‘You’re crazy to try this.’ They just didn’t think it was possible to control the border.” The new faith was embraced with a convert’s zeal.

By now there was a bipartisan consensus that immigration was a “problem,” and the two major parties competed on who would best address it. The result was a coalescence of nativist revolt with a growing Border Patrol and rising deportations under Presidents in both parties. At the same time, the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement had by this point generated a nationwide controversy over open borders. Here was a moment of profound post–cold war anxiety at the dawn of neoliberalism’s third decade of wage stagnation, union decimation, and welfare state rollback. The American way of life seemed to be slipping away, which in turn seemed to have something to do with the United States’ place in the world. Anxieties fixated on the cross-border movement of capital and labor alike; most politicians worked to ensure that Americans blamed the latter.

In fact, NAFTA advocates had promised that the deal would address the root causes of migration. “In a sense, the whole point of NAFTA for Mexico is to be able to export goods and not people,” said Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1993. “That means creating jobs in Mexico.” Instead, the agreement crystalized widespread but diffuse fears over border insecurity and where the US stood in the New World Order, fueling support for insurgent presidential campaigns by independent Ross Perot and nationalist Republican Pat Buchanan. And as the wars on crime and drugs continued to intensify, the message that secured borders could in turn secure the inner cities and help the youth of America “just say no” was a winning one, too.

Unsurprisingly, the notion that immigration was out of control continued to dominate elections throughout the ’90s, even as the government was far more aggressively targeting migrants. Running for reelection in 1994, Republican California governor Pete Wilson successfully hitched his campaign to Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that barred undocumented immigrants’ access to public services and even to public education. (The proposition would be struck down in federal court, in part because Clinton’s 1996 welfare “reform” law banned most non-citizen immigrants from accessing many public benefits nationwide.) One 1994 campaign ad for Wilson showed immigrants running through the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego in what was called a “Banzai run,” darting through southbound traffic. “They keep coming,” the narrator declaims. “Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border, yet requires you to pay billions to take care of them.” What the federal government was actually doing, under President Clinton, was escalating Border Patrol enforcement—Gatekeeper was rolled out in San Diego to great fanfare just ahead of the 1994 election—thus making it more difficult to cross at unauthorized crossing points. In other words, it was newly intensified enforcement that was creating the scenes of border chaos in the first place.

That didn’t matter: Republicans would accuse Democrats of being soft on criminal immigrants and spending precious welfare dollars on alien layabouts who were (paradoxically) also stealing American jobs; Democrats would respond with their own somewhat less extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. The fundamental premise—that “illegal immigrants” posed multiple threats to Americans and that constantly escalating repression of immigrants would protect them—was a bipartisan one that largely went unchallenged in mainstream politics.

The Wilson campaign was something of a trial run for Clinton’s own reelection effort in 1996. That fall, Clinton signed the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), which called for a thousand new Border Patrol agents to be hired annually for five years, barred deportees from lawfully reentering for three or ten years (depending on how much time they’d spent in the US without papers), empowered the attorney general to construct border barriers and authorized construction of a layer of secondary fencing in San Diego, and, critically, operationalized the criminal justice system to facilitate deportations. In campaign ads against Republican Bob Dole, Clinton boasted of “a tough anti-illegal immigration law protecting US workers” and having “doubled border agents.” In one Clinton ad, an authoritative voice declared, “160,000 illegal immigrants and criminals deported: a record.” Dole, meanwhile, slammed Clinton for opposing Prop 187 and accused him of giving “citizenship to aliens with criminal records” against a stark backdrop of prisoners and young, apparently Chicano men walking down the street. “Twenty thousand in our prisons; four hundred thousand crowd our schools. Every year they cost us three billion tax dollars,” the narrator intoned. “We pay the taxes. We are the victims. Our children get shortchanged. If Clinton wins, we lose.”

Clinton’s election victory legitimated the conservative position on immigration, spurring further bipartisan attacks on so-called illegal immigration. In a November 1996 memo to Clinton, written a few months after IIRIRA was signed into law and a week after the President had won reelection, adviser Rahm Emanuel advised Clinton that “illegal immigration legislation provides that same opportunity” to perform a tough-guy co-optation of Republican politics as the 1994 Crime Bill had. It was important, he said, that Clinton could “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.” Like welfare and crime, immigration was an opportunity for vintage Clinton triangulation: “By incorporating the opposition’s rhetoric, you remove their policy claims.” Maybe so, but that strategy also had the obvious effect of advancing Republican policy aims. For Clinton’s New Democrats this was beside the point.

With bipartisan consensus behind the so-called border crisis, enforcement exploded to new heights. The number of Border Patrol agents surged from 4,139 agents in 1992 to 5,942 in 1996 and 9,212 in 2000. Between October 1994 and June 1998, the San Diego sector received a 150 percent staffing increase along with new seismic sensors, vehicles, infrared night-vision goggles, and helicopters. Permanent lighting was extended from one mile in length to six. This increased investment occurred amid a broader crackdown on immigrants, which sent growing numbers into a criminal justice system rapidly expanding under the wars on crime and drugs. Border patrol, prisons, and police found themselves in a “crimmigration” feedback loop that amplified their already oversized presence.

The Clinton-era approach to the border has endured across four subsequent administrations. The methodology was touted as “deterrence”: deploying enough agents and building enough fencing so that migrants would simply stop trying to cross. But enforcement has failed in two ways. First, it hasn’t actually made Americans feel socially and economically secure, which is the border war’s bigger political (and perhaps libidinal) promise. And second, it didn’t really “secure the border.” The border militarization that accelerated in the 1990s didn’t keep Mexican migrants from coming, even as it did create a “caging effect,” whereby would-be circular migrants decided to put down roots in the US once they had crossed. To make this absolutely clear: scholars, notably including sociologist Doug Massey, have found that border militarization actually increased the population of undocumented immigrants. New migrants still continued to cross, but they did so in more and more dangerous conditions, most lethally in the Arizona desert. The policies increased the numbers of the incarcerated and the dead at the same time. By pushing migration routes eastward, they also pushed California’s anti-immigrant politics into Arizona, which would soon supplant California as the epicenter of American nativism.

Bill Clinton’s border triangulation against Republicans set the stage for a new round of border crisis escalation under George W. Bush. First, the war on terror transformed the border into the homeland’s first line of defense. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was folded into the newly created ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE, alongside the Border Patrol, was housed within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The overriding mission of both was anti-terrorism, rendering every migrant, above all else, a possible terrorist threat. The new National Border Patrol Strategy, released in 2004, declared: “We cannot reduce or eliminate illegal entry by potential terrorists without also dramatically reducing illegal migration across our borders.” Appropriators agreed, and by 2009 the Border Patrol would grow to become more than 20,000 agents strong. This didn’t stop any terrorists. In fact, no terrorist is known to have ever crossed the southern border without authorization. But the conflation of border security with the war on terror helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of Islamophobia as a core feature of the mid-aughts right wing.

“Al Qaeda terrorists and Chinese nationals are infiltrating our country virtually anywhere they choose from Brownsville to San Diego,” Representative John Culberson, a Houston Republican, warned in an October 2005 “Border Security Alert.” “A large number of Islamic individuals have moved into homes in [the Mexican border city of] Nuevo Laredo and are being taught Spanish to assimilate with the local culture.” Fears of immigrants, old and new, were being remade into a total worldview with apocalyptic overtones. “Full scale war is underway on our southern border, and our entire way of life is at risk if we do not win the battle for Laredo.” The abject failure to “keep Americans safe” through fighting wars overseas ricocheted back to the border in 2005 as the right mobilized against Bush’s proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. The politics of American reaction rapidly swung from enthusiasm for overseas war to Fortress America, a paranoiac rearguard action to preserve an empire in self-inflicted crisis.

The most visible symbol of the ascendant nativist movement was the Minuteman Project, a far-right group that in 2004 began high-profile vigilante patrols across the borderlands. As in the 1970s, when the spectacle of border agents outfitted with military surplus from Vietnam galvanized public attention, America’s never-ending wars loomed large. Many Minutemen were Vietnam and Iraq vets, retired white men continuing a long war. “I don’t want this country to end up like they did, dead on that battlefield,” said Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist. “Too many immigrants will divide our country. We are not going to have a civil war now, but we could.” The right located the enemy in the other abroad, in the other entering America as immigrants, and—finally—in the treasonous other at home: the fake American liberals who sold real Americans out.

Many politicians supported the Minutemen, and others indulged them. Representative J.D. Hayworth, a right-wing Arizona Republican, praised the Minuteman Project for demonstrating that “the federal government can do something about illegal immigration other than to raise a white flag and surrender to the invasion on our Southern border.” Bush’s response suggested that he agreed, affirming the far-right militia’s message: he deployed National Guard troops to the border and signed the Secure Fence Act, which directed the new Department of Homeland Security to build fencing along at least 700 miles of the Southwest border. The Act passed Congress with support from the majority of Democratic senators, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden. Though the Minutemen appeared to stem from a far-right groundswell, the policies they helped enact, like the history they emerged from, found bipartisan support.

It also found unprecedented media amplification. In the early 2000s, one-time Moneyline host Lou Dobbs refashioned himself into a warrior for downtrodden Americans, using his popular CNN show to take simultaneous aim at greedy corporations and immigrants that were squeezing the everyday worker. Foreigners were threatening American jobs, he said, and might even be spreading frightening diseases like leprosy. He even suggested that “the White House” was “using amnesty to create a North American union.” In fact, Bush was sweeping up massive numbers of undocumented immigrants in workplace raids—including, in 2006, the detention of nearly 1,300 immigrants at Swift & Company meatpacking plants—and sending them to prison for identity theft before deportation. Dobbs was the most high-profile anti-immigrant demagogue with a mainstream perch, but by then a right-wing mediasphere had successfully stitched AM talk radio, Fox News, and the internet into a potent web of outrage and conspiracism, stoking fears over a changing nation.

Under Obama, Republican attacks on the President’s comprehensive immigration reform legislation coincided with birtherist conspiracies about his place of birth and the nativist upsurge that began during the Bush Administration. That reaction was national in character, stretching from Arizona to the small city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which became the subject of widespread debate when it passed an ordinance barring landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. Like Bush, Obama was accused of offering “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants. In reality, both Obama and Bush’s “comprehensive immigration reform” agenda paired a pathway to citizenship with draconian border security escalations and new guestworker programs to sate business.

Stymied by the nativist right, Obama responded in the same spirit as Bush. He escalated crackdowns on immigrants in the interior, merging immigration enforcement with the criminal justice system by forcing local jails to identify undocumented immigrants in their custody and transferring them to ICE, and dramatically ramped up prosecutions of unauthorized border crossers for federal misdemeanors and felonies. Deportations and prosecutions reached record highs. When large numbers of Central American families began to arrive at the border seeking asylum in 2014, the Obama Administration detained them in horrendous conditions and deported others—some, reportedly, to their deaths. Why such cruelty? To serve as a deterrent, of course. “It will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back,” DHS secretary Jeh Johnson forebodingly warned while presiding over the opening of a massive detention facility for women and their children in Dilley, Texas. The message, then and now, was: Do not come. But Republicans were unimpressed, absurdly blaming Obama’s implementation of DACA for luring the migrants in the first place. A fundamental political reality that Democrats refused to understand during the Obama era—and which remains elusive—is that border crisis politics are always zero-sum, always in the same configuration: they help Republicans, which inherently precludes them from helping Democrats. Liberals who accept the premise that immigration is a crisis inevitably cede the debate to the nativist right.

Under Obama, the dominant nationality of the migrants changed, but America’s role in producing migration while claiming to deter it, and in endangering migrants where safer passage once existed, remained the same. Central Americans fled to the US in large numbers even as the long era of mass Mexican migration had ended (for the time being). While plenty of media accounts described the impoverished and violent conditions that spurred people to leave Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, few managed to explain the United States’ central role in Central America’s manmade disaster. The US government’s longtime support for export-oriented oligarchies across the region; Reagan’s murderous counterrevolutionary dirty wars throughout the 1980s; deportation policies from Clinton onward, which sent US-raised gang members south; and fossil-fueled climate change had all coincided to make the region simply unlivable for many in the poor majority.

The eternal return of the border crisis has rendered this context and history invisible. In May 2018, as Trump’s family separation policy became a major scandal, former Obama speechwriter and “Pod Save America” host Jon Favreau tweeted a photo of two migrant girls sleeping on the floor of a cage. “Look at these pictures. This is happening right now, and the only debate that matters is how we force our government to get these kids back to their families as fast as humanly possible.” As a number of his replies pointed out, the photos were actually from 2014, when his boss was still President. As with Biden’s response to the recent assault on Haitians, Favreau was fixated on the image.

What marked Donald Trump’s sharpest break from bipartisan convention on border policy wasn’t his high-profile cruelty, but rather his fitful and less broadly registered effort to restrict legal immigration. During his campaign, many nativist leaders were annoyed by Trump’s obsession with building a wall that would do nothing to stop large-scale legal entry. But then, at an August 2016 rally in Phoenix with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Trump announced that he would not only crack down on “illegal immigrants” but also “control future immigration” so as “to keep immigration levels measured by population share within historical norms” and limited to immigrants of the sort who would achieve “success in US society.”

Trump was calling for a return of the sort of restrictive and racist immigration regime that was repealed in 1965 with the Hart–Celler Act. “This kind of emphasis on dealing with legal immigration in this way is not something a major nominee has done in the last sixty years,” enthused Roy Beck, the head of a major anti-immigration advocacy group called NumbersUSA. “Trump is returning to the ideas of the 1924 Immigration Act,” crowed white supremacist Richard Spencer. “Immigrants will reflect the racial makeup of the country.” Trump’s campaign promised to restore America to the heyday of its past white, settler colonial fantasies—or at least to the eugenically inspired fantasies that rebooted settler politics in the decades following the closing of the frontier. Once in office, it seemed like he actually planned to do so.

But despite Trump’s best efforts, which included slashing refugee resettlements and banning entry to people from multiple Muslim-majority countries, legal immigration never gained as large a stake in the mainstream political arena as the ardent nativists in his retinue desired. Even the resolute attention of Stephen Miller could do nothing to advance legislation that would permanently restrict legal immigration through Congress. Instead, Trump’s attention would return to the wall and to the border. The border spectacle, which has done so much to deform US politics and harm migrants, has ironically also kept legal immigration from becoming the sort of hardcore culture war issue that nativists need it to be.

As the 2018 midterms approached, Trump latched on to the steady progress of a thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans traveling together to protect themselves from the constant threats of assault, robbery, corruption, kidnapping and rape—conditions that the US-backed drug and border wars had made a reality in Mexico. For Trump, their solidarity presented an opportunity. Trump blamed Democrats for creating the policies that facilitated migrants’ entry and even suggested that someone, perhaps liberal Jewish financier and philanthropist George Soros, was funding the caravan. “I don’t know who, but I wouldn’t be surprised. A lot of people say yes,” Trump said, when asked to confirm the right-wing conspiracy theory. “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” Trump warned in a tweet. These were people supposedly so dangerous that the President deployed the military to confront them. If necessary, he suggested, soldiers might open fire. Here and throughout the 2018 midterms, Trump hearkened back to an old strategy: take the bipartisan construction of migration as a (dangerous) problem, and make it clear that only the right has the tough solutions.

Trump’s “caravan election” merged the MS-13 and ISIS threat into one, but it also spectacularly ratified the far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews are organizing mass immigration to destroy the white race. With just under two weeks left before election day, a man walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and massacred eleven Jews. Beforehand, he had posted an explanation on a far-right social media site attacking the country’s leading Jewish refugee resettlement agency. “HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people,” he wrote. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The border control spectacle and its inevitable failure always generates demands for something more: the wall, troops, a massacre.

Two years later, Covid-19 proved to be a godsend for nativist policymaking even as it eclipsed the hot fervor of nativist politics: Trump took advantage of the pandemic to use public health as a pretext to essentially deny the right to asylum at the border—a policy that Biden shamefully continued until a federal court judge stepped in. But for all the cries of “China virus” and paranoia about migrants infecting Americans with Covid, the pandemic and the mass protest movement that emerged after George Floyd’s murder dislodged nativism, for the first time, from the center of Trumpist politics. The specters of antifa, BLM, and Dr. Fauci took its place.

We take it for granted that immigration and the border are problems to solve. In 1995, President Clinton infamously described “illegal immigrants” as “people whose first act is to break the law as they enter our country.” For the European settlers who violently wrested North America from Indigenous people, the in-migration of Europeans and enslaved Africans was not immigration at all: it was the necessary means of settler-colonialism. It was only when people who were not considered to be co-members of the settler project began to migrate that migrants were conceived of as immigrants, and that immigration was conceived of as a problem. (It goes without saying that the anxieties over race in place were not limited to migration from abroad: the migration of Black people off the plantation, up to the North, or into white neighborhoods has defined the past century and a half–plus of the American politics of race panic.)

Democrats and Republicans alike have attempted to solve this problem through different forms of policing. But instead of convincing a skeptical public that the border was under control, the efforts only generated increased attention on the border and affirmed nativists’ charge that the border was out of control. Members of the bipartisan political establishment have constantly incited more nativism in a bungled attempt to manage it. Consistently, this launches an escalatory cycle: the failure of each border control effort incites calls for an even tougher crackdown. This is the history that positioned Trump’s maximalist call to “build the wall” as sensible to far too many.

Border crises obscure the true causal story about why people migrate and what migration means, and they normalize the border as natural. Normalizing the border, in turn, normalizes the difference between here and there: a United States of promise holding the line against—or, for the more liberal-minded, extending a helping hand to—an impoverished and dysfunctional Latin America desperately surging forth from below.

Biden’s pledge earlier this year to invest heavily in Central America’s Northern Triangle gestures toward acknowledging the root causes of migration without meaningfully addressing it. But Kamala Harris’s message on her visit to Guatemala made clear that the fundamentals of the bipartisan border security state would remain in place: “Do not come,” she said firmly. In any case, ordinary development aid won’t stabilize Central American or Haitian lives, and funding security forces to violently repress gangs will only fuel more violence. According to the Biden Administration, humane policy or even mere adherence to asylum law would unfortunately call forth vast numbers of the dispossessed—from Tegucigalpa, the Western Highlands of Guatemala, Santiago, Port-au-Prince, and beyond—to entrust their lives and savings to nefarious smugglers on the dangerous journey north. Admitting more migrants would produce more exploitative and violent smuggling. This explanation is self-serving, assuredly, but it does gesture toward an uncomfortable truth: immigration law alone cannot deliver justice to migrants. What’s necessary instead are radical changes that redistribute American wealth southward and an end to the carbon emissions that drive climate chaos across the region. What’s necessary, in sum, is an alternative, reciprocal, and material relationship that will ultimately benefit all, rather than an extractive, unidirectional relationship that only benefits a few on both sides of the border. The current system denies people’s freedom of movement twice, first by denying them the right to stay home and then by denying the right to cross international borders under conditions of legality and dignity.

Such radically ameliorative projects, of course, are not currently on the agenda: Republicans plan on using Biden’s overlapping border crises to help retake Congress in 2022, and Biden hasn’t helped matters by signaling his hypersensitivity to accusations of border insecurity. Already, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott has responded to Biden’s “get tough” by offering to get even tougher: a Texas-built border wall, deploying state police to arrest migrants under state law and, in a recapitulation of 1989’s Light Up the Border protests, a “steel wall” of Texas state vehicles blocking the border. It is essential for the left to challenge not only particular border policies, but the entire conventional wisdom about the border. In fact, that wisdom has already shifted: contrary to what Trump’s rise might suggest, public support for immigration has in recent years been at historic highs. In the mid-1990s, Republican and Democratic voters were equally negative on immigration. As immigration politics polarized, Democrats became increasingly supportive of immigration and immigrant rights. As immigrant rights activists energetically protested enforcement crackdowns under Obama and Republican nativism grew even more extreme with Trump, supporting immigrant rights became a definitional issue for liberal voters. But the debate has still not changed enough. The very fetishization of the border as the crisis is the precondition for all the terrible politics and policies that have followed—and for reinforcing the fantasy that the interests of American workers are opposed to those of people coming from abroad. As long as conventional wisdom dictates that migrants are the problem and that border security is the solution, the debate will be framed by Republicans to Republican advantage.

Democrats have moved leftward along with their base amid radically changing conditions. And yet their plans for the future are still developed with an eye to what is possible, rather than what is necessary. On the border, Biden remains stuck in a past that he is habituated to, handing the right its familiar power to set the narrative. A chilling case in point came in April, when the Administration suddenly announced that it would keep Trump’s historically low refugee admissions numbers in place, unpersuasively contending that the situation at the border meant that the government didn’t have the capacity to resettle refugees. But then something remarkable happened: critics on the left and mainstream Democrats alike exploded in anger, and Biden quickly backtracked and then upped the cap to 62,500. (The Administration ultimately only resettled 11,411, blaming the Trump Administration’s damage to the program and the pandemic for the shortfall.) This is what immigration politics can look like when we don’t let the nativist right set the agenda. We should push much harder still. Biden should honor the right to asylum and repeal every one of Trump’s odious rules. It’s the least we should expect from a President who aspires to reclaim a bit of liberalism’s lost reverence for socially responsive government. He could even start to push back more dramatically against status quo common sense if he chose: he had the backbone and vison to do so even in the face of wall-to-wall media hysterics when it came to withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan.

Current politics aren’t up to the task of confronting the US-sponsored collapse of Central American and Haitian societies and the mass migration that results. But there’s no hiding from reality. The radical redistribution of resources across borders will only be politically viable if it is accompanied by radical redistribution at home. Until then, we can only build more power for ongoing fights, organizing against the spectacle and winning the majority to bold solutions that address our region’s shared problems and confront our shared enemy: a transnational capitalist elite who operate under the protection of US power.

  1. Portions of this essay are drawn from my book All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It (Verso, 2020). 

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