America’s war on immigrants

In the name of safeguarding the nation, acute violations of human rights go unchallenged

March 17, 2014 8:00AM ET
Activists hold family photos outside the White House on March 12 to protest the nearly 2 million deportations that have taken place during Barack Obama’s presidency while Congress debates immigration reform.
Brendan Smialowski//AFP/Getty Images

As the interminable debate in Washington over immigration reform wears on, undocumented migrants in the U.S. continue to exist at the mercy of law enforcement efforts that defy all pretenses of justice and legality.

Earlier this year, Al Jazeera America reported on the stop-and-frisk-style raids being conducted in New Orleans by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to boost migrant deportation quotas. In that article, a Honduran immigrant recounts his experience of being handcuffed and shackled in the back of an ICE vehicle, which had been deployed to round up undocumented people using racial profiling techniques, saying, “I heard one of the agents say to another, ‘This is like going hunting.’ … And the other responded, ‘Yeah, I like this s---.’”

Also mentioned in the article is the fact that ICE agents in New Orleans “use mobile fingerprinting devices similar to those used by the U.S. military during its counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

If we add to this mix the prevalence of abuse that deportees face from federal officials, fatal shootings of migrants by Border Patrol personnel and the rampant construction of nativist border walls, it begins to appear that the U.S. is indeed waging a war on immigration. It starts at the very top: Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama has overseen more deportations than any other president in history — nearly 2 million people in the six years he has been in office.

The severity of such statistics is partially camouflaged by Republican accusations that Obama isn’t tough enough on immigration. Meanwhile, he is able to invoke Republican intransigence to excuse his inaction on reform. That much is clear. What is less clear and much more insidious is that political inertia ultimately benefits those in power, regardless of party. 

Going hunting

What is it that migrants to the U.S. have done to merit treatment as enemy combatants, as animals to be hunted? Their great offense has been to respond in survivalist mode to harsh economic realities imposed by the U.S. itself.

Consider the following New York Times article, which lists the ways the North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted in 1994, has contributed to migration patterns:

Domestic [Mexican] industries were dismantled as multinationals imported parts from their own suppliers.

Local farmers were priced out of the market by food imported tariff-free. Many Mexican farmers simply abandoned their land and headed north.

Even less fortunately for the victims of free trade, the globalization era plays host to a critical discrepancy between capital and labor, as outlined by J.A. Myerson in a Jacobin magazine piece titled “The Case for Open Borders”:

Multinational free trade agreements, supranational financial institutions and transnational corporations ensure that capital can float between nations with all the ease of a monarch butterfly. Labor, on the other hand, remains under the jurisdiction of border-obsessed states.

Thus no legality is conferred upon Mexicans and Central Americans in the U.S., who have been displaced from their livelihoods by the butterfly of capital, even when these laborers are performing jobs Americans won’t do and paying taxes. (According to the website PolicyMic, “the Social Security Administration estimates that half to three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay federal, state and local taxes, including $6 billion to $7 billion in Social Security taxes for benefits they will never get.”)

All too often in the U.S., however, these facts are disregarded in favor of anti-immigrant vitriol predicated on a hyperterritorial worldview in which migrants are cast as criminal invaders intent on Hispanicizing the homeland and exploiting its services.

The proliferation of such paranoid notions is arguably facilitated by the clogged immigration debate in Washington, which abandons undocumented migrants to a supposedly illegal status connoting criminality. 

‘Anti-illegal’ demagoguery has remained in fashion in part because the U.S. has no fundamental interest in ending the war on immigration.

The dragging of political feet and the cultivating of space in which xenophobic rhetoric is permitted to flourish have produced an additional form of boots on the ground along the already militarized U.S. perimeter.

In an article for The Nation, historian Greg Grandin writes that, starting around 2000, the U.S.-Mexico border “became a magnet for white supremacists, Nazis, nativists and militia members, many of them from the diverse right-wing ‘patriot’ groups that had gained strength in the United States throughout the 1990s.”

These elements were organized into anti-immigrant vigilante patrols by area ranchers, one of whom is quoted in the article as saying, “Humans. That’s the greatest prey there is on earth.”

It thus appears that, in some cases, there may be more than a slight confluence of sentiment among right-wing paramilitary fanatics and New Orleans law enforcement officers.

The immigration industry

Beyond predatory vigilantes, the threats that undocumented travelers face en route to the United States are legion. There are the untold number of Mexican and Central American migrants who have perished as a result of dehydration, hyperthermia and hypothermia. Or the 20,000 Central American migrants annually abducted for ransom as they transit Mexico to the U.S. border, often on the tops of trains. Health professionals claim that up to 6 out of every 10 migrant women and girls are raped along the way.

The dearth of compassion in the U.S. for the plight of these economic refugees comes as little surprise in a system that values life in terms of profit. Undocumented workers are deported from the U.S. at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, with no regard for the separation of families.

But what, ultimately, are the financial motives behind the dehumanization of migrants, the deportation regime and the propagation of a bloated sense of entitlement among U.S. citizens?

The sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza calls attention to the “immigration industrial complex,” which she defines as the confluence of “public and private sector interests in the criminalization of undocumented migration, immigration law enforcement and the promotion of ‘anti-illegal’ rhetoric.”

Golash-Boza explains that, as with the prison and military industrial complexes, the creation of a “culture of fear directed at an undesirable other has justified massive government expenditures” in the name of “safeguard[ing] the nation.” In each case, she notes, “marginalized groups have paid the heaviest price for the enrichment of the powerful and well connected,” for whom the acute violation of human rights is apparently of little concern.

Comprehensive immigration reform stands little chance of taking hold in such a climate — especially given the enlistment of the fearmongering media in the service of the status quo.

In a Feb. 19 op-ed for The Washington Post, conservative political commentator and radio host Laura Ingraham railed against immigration reform, providing what she considered alarming statistics. “In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, Hispanic voters … were more hostile to the word ‘capitalism’ than almost all other groups surveyed,” she wrote. “Among immigrants today, it is increasingly fashionable to reject American exceptionalism in favor of multiculturalism.”

To understand why such demagoguery has remained in fashion, one must recognize that the U.S. has no fundamental interest in ending the war on immigration. To do so would be a dangerous, costly business. After all, as long as migrants are dehumanized as “illegals” threatening national identity and security, we as a people can avoid any meaningful self-reflection that might force us to confront our collective responsibility and lack of humanity.

And that would be exceptional indeed.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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