Last month, anyone with a conscience was horrified by the pictures that emerged of children, even babies, being separated from their parents and kept in detention camps. Their crime, it should be remembered, was not even illegal immigration but rather applying for asylum. The immediate response was to lay the blame at the feet of the Trump administration, founded on the kind of nativism and dehumanization of immigrants that makes scenes like that even possible. Trump, and the collection of ghouls that have congregated in his government, certainly deserve to be shamed for their inhumanity. In particular, it’s been reported that Trump aide Stephen Miller was the one who pushed to make separating families government policy, and his name should likely become an epithet.
But, as others have pointed out, the trend towards criminalization of immigrant families did not begin under Trump. ICE, the agency blamed for many of these abuses, was formed under George W. Bush, while Obama oversaw a record number of deportations and warned Central American children not to come. The militarized border has been bipartisan policy for a long time. The hateful ideology that fueled Trump’s rise has certainly aggravated the cruelty of this border, but it is not sufficient to explain it. For that, we must turn to economic factors.
There are, first of all, the corporations directly profiting off locking up kids. The boom in private prisons over the last decades have turned punishment into a business — and, under capitalism, every business must constantly be looking to expand. This means ever more people in prison, both because of longer sentences and trivial infractions such as drug crimes or parole violations. The criminalization of legal activities such as asylum seeking is certainly part of this, with private contractors responsible for many of the detention facilities. To justify their expansion, security contractors and their friends in Washington must constantly be constructing new threats, no matter what the statistics say. Hence the conservative news apparatus produces terrified phantasias of MS-13 members rampaging across America, while more liberal outlets tell frightening stories about human trafficking. (We can see this dynamic in everything from America’s ever-expanding war on terror to the crackdown on sex work.)
But even corporations not involved in the defense industry still benefit from America’s brutal immigration policy. It’s an open secret that large and vital industries such as farming, construction, cleaning and food service rely heavily on the work of illegal immigrants. From a corporate perspective, undocumented workers are the ideal employees. Not only are they typically motivated to work very hard, but they also can be paid below minimum wage, and without regard to any other labour laws. If an undocumented worker were to start talking to a union, or complain about being the victim of sexual assault, then la migra is always on call.
This is work that, at least since the end of slavery, has always been done by migrants, from the flow of largely legal immigrants from Europe at the end of the 19th century to the internally-displaced rural workers of the 1930s. When labour laws were weak, the state permitted these people to become American citizens easily — after all, one could underpay a new citizen just as much as an undocumented one, and with less hassle. It is perhaps not a surprise, then, that union-driven increase in labour law enforcement was quickly followed by tougher immigration laws.
Corporate America doesn’t want either entirely closed or entirely open borders, but rather a permanent underclass of undocumented workers with no legal protections. Even attempts at immigration reform have been motivated by this desire. Consider the DREAM Act proposed under Obama, which would give citizenship only to the nauseatingly-named “Dreamers” — that is, childhood immigrants now in college, the above-ground workforce, or the military, who would be more useful to business as middle-class professionals (or soldiers in America’s latest run of wars.) Amnesty for manual labourers was never on the table.
In the face of well-organized activism with the goal of destigmatizing immigration, maintaining spectacular punishments for undocumented workers who don’t stay quiet is all the more important. Discouraging asylum seekers serves this end. So are the horrific detention facilities that have made the news lately, where children are separated from their parents, and migrants of all ages are kept in harsh conditions indefinitely despite committing no crimes.
The particular ideological formation behind ICE’s detention facilities is American, but the general pattern is not. Canada has its own set of carefully ignored immigration detention centres, where people are also held without legal process. “Fortress Europe” policies have lead to the death of many migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and life in crowded camps for others. In Australia, would-be immigrants are kept in offshore prisons. The economic imperatives described above are also at work in these countries, and with climate change and global conflict creating an ever-greater number of refugees it seems the trend towards militarized borders will only grow in coming years.
Racism and xenophobia certainly played their part in the creation of the horrors we see on the US border. But it was the natural trends of capitalism — the expansion of corporate logic into the security sector and the need for exploitable workers — that ultimately drove these policies. This is not to say that we cannot imagine a capitalism that treats immigrants decently, or a capitalism that is kept away from borders and prisons, or even a capitalism with open borders. But we will have to fight for all of these things, and always be fighting uphill, against an economic system predicated on the supremacy of the nation-state over ordinary people.