There has been mass outrage and protest against the Trump administration’s increasingly fascist border and immigration policies. However, these policies are by-and-large a continuation of and expansion of those of the Obama administration. What’s more, while Democratic politicans now oppose a bigger border wall, they are still increasing the drone presence at the border. Given this it is important to examine the history of U.S. imperialism in Central America and how it relates to the present situation at the border.
Since taking office, President Trump has pursued a “zero tolerance” policy on “illegal” immigration. The implementation of this policy has led to massive outrage, especially over the detainment and caging of thousands of migrant children who were forcibly separated from their families. At the same time, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol have become more openly and explicitly white supremacist—no doubt emboldened in part by Trump’s embrace of white nationalism—and have acted in an increasingly brutal and fascist manner. As a result, the abuse and oppression of migrants at the hands of the U.S. state has grown significantly in recent years.
With the arrival of a large group of migrants to the border in late November of last year, the Trump government doubled down on midterm election promises and sent 5,200 US soldiers (in addition to the over 2,000 members of the National Guard already there). This is on top of the tens of thousands of Border Patrol, ICE, and local law enforcement already working on the detention, deportation, and oppression of migrants at the border and across the country. After a group of migrants attempted to cross the border and threw stones at U.S. forces, the Border Patrol fired tear gas into the crowds in Mexico to quell their resistance. The gassing of asylum seekers and migrants drew international condemnation, but this gassing is only one example of the brutality migrants face at the hands of the U.S. state.
Since December 2018, at least four people have died while in Border Patrol custody, including two children from Guatemala, aged 7 and 8. Even more disturbing, a January 2019 report found that at least 22 people had died while imprisoned in ICE detention centers in the first two years of Trump’s presidency alone. These deaths are explained away by ICE and CBP as “extremely rare” but are in fact a direct result of both the poor conditions and neglect in detention centers, as well as the psychological, sexual, and physical abuse which are business-as-usual for U.S. law enforcement.
Deportations had been increasing exponentially long before Trump took office.
But these abuses are not unique to the Trump presidency. In fact, while Trump has introduced more explicitly racist rhetoric to immigration policy, pushed for a border wall along the entire southern border, and even declared a national emergency over the issue, the vast majority of his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy is a continuation and expansion of policies set under Obama. What’s more, the Democrats have put forward many false solutions to the current “crisis” in order to distract from the the root issue that causes hundreds of thousands of people to flee from their homes in poor countries in the first place—that is, capitalist imperialism.
This includes U.S.-sponsored wars, coups, and dictatorial regimes which terrorize the people; competition between the U.S. and other imperialist countries like Russia and China over the land, labor, markets, and resources of oppressed nations; and neoliberal and austerity policies dictated by the imperialist power (and their institutions like the International Monetary Fund), which drive millions of people into poverty, force peasants off their lands, and only enrich the ruling classes of the imperialist powers and the comprador puppets in the neocolonies.
In order to effectively fight back against racist attacks and deportations of immigrants, we have to avoid the tunnel-vision promoted by much of corporate media which places all the blame for these problems on Trump. Instead, we must look at the legacy of immigration policy and U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
The Creation and Development of Mass Deportations
The foundation of Trump’s immigration policy was already in place. While there is a long history of deportation and oppression of immigrants in the U.S., the government first began to shift to its current path of militarization of the border under Bill Clinton. Clinton greatly increased the number of crimes which could lead to deportation, opening the floodgates to a hyper-militarized border policy—more deportations, more officers equipped with military gear, more detention center prisons, etc. This was a requirement of the monopoly capitalist class that Clinton served. For a period after the Cold War, U.S. imperialism was the only superpower in the world, and used its new position to rapidly expand its power. This period is sometimes referred to as “globalization”—in which American multi-national corporations greatly expanded their influence all over the world. Without a major strategic rival they were able to open up a variety of new markets for U.S. exploitation which had previously been part of the Soviet Union’s imperial sphere of influence.
Since the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. corn exports to Mexico have surged, displacing corn grown by Mexican peasants, and forcing them into bankruptcy.
Through Free Trade Agreements like NAFTA, the U.S. corporate elite was able to more effectively outsource production to Mexico (and elsewhere) where wages were significantly lower than in the U.S. This helped to lower wages in the U.S. while also driving many poor Mexicans off their land as multi-national corporations rushed to setup factories in Mexico and U.S. agricultural conglomerates were able to undercut Mexican peasant farmers’ ability to sell their crops. This U.S. corporate plunder increased the number of poor and unemployed here in the U.S., and also compelled many people, especially from Mexico, to come to the U.S. for work. Corporations were eager to take advantage of the cheap labor of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and used the threat of deportation to impose long hours and dangerous working conditions.
The ruling elite of this country also promoted white supremacist propaganda which aimed to distract the white working class and middle class from the fact that capitalist plunder was the source of their increasingly dire economic circumstances. Instead, they were encouraged to blame immigrants for their woes. This propaganda also helped to justify the expansion of the border security forces which were needed in increasingly large numbers to control undocumented laborers.
These deportation policies continued to expand under Bush. His administration used the 9/11 attacks to justify massive increases in domestic surveillance, militarization, and wars abroad, all in the name of “security.” Bush also began a policy called “Secure Communities” which facilitated cooperation between local police/sheriff departments and immigration agencies by sharing fingerprint data. This led many undocumented immigrants to be turned over to ICE for deportation (a then newly created agency) who had only committed minor traffic violations or other similar offenses. But it was Obama’s administration which turned this militarized border security system into a well-oiled deportation machine. This expansion of deportation machinery was in large part a response to both the growing unemployment and poverty after the 2008 capitalist crisis, as well as the growing politicization of many immigrants.
In Obama’s first four years in office, it was estimated his administration spent over $18 billion on immigration enforcement—a massive increase from the Bush years. This trend didn’t reverse either, in 2016 alone, a whopping $19 billion was budgeted for CBP and ICE. Obama’s “crowning achievement” however, was deporting record numbers of people. Around 2.5 million people were deported during his administration, more than any other president before him. While ICE claimed the majority of people were criminals and “threats to national security,” the majority either had no criminal record or only had minor violations on file.
Under Obama, even basic legal proceedings were routinely discarded for immigrant children, and between 2013 and 2016, around 7,700 children were deported without ever appearing before immigration court. These courts are often merely there to rubber-stamp the deportation process, but the growing tendency to deport people without even a pretense of a democratic process reflects the increasingly fascist way the U.S. treats undocumented immigrants.
Trump’s response of tear-gassing migrants after some resisted the border militarization by throwing stones is similar to the harsh Israeli responses to Palestinian protesters. This is but one example of how Israeli tactics and technology tested against the Palestinian people are being adopted for use at the border with Mexico.
On top of this, Obama massively militarized the border, with devastating consequences. His administration oversaw construction of steel walls, a surge in the number of agents in both CBP and ICE, and huge increases in funding for these agencies. He also made border crossing exceedingly dangerous. This was done through bills like a $600 million “border security” bill in 2010, which added 1,500 new agents, expanded the number of Border Patrol checkpoints, and even added a fleet of aerial surveillance drones to the Border Patrol’s arsenal.
With more agents, checkpoints, and surveillance, many migrants were compelled to travel in more dangerous conditions and through more dangerous terrain to avoid the violence of various agents and goons. The U.S. state relies on the fact that many migrants will die in making the border crossing through the desert to help check the flow of immigrants into this country. Border Patrol agents routinely poor out water that activists leave at the desert crossings.
Violence and corruption by immigration agencies is rampant. The CBP is one of the deadliest and most corrupt law enforcement agencies in America. Recent investigations have shown that in the 15 years from 2003-2018, 97 people—both migrants and citizens—were killed in encounters with the Border Patrol, and most of the agents who murdered people were never reprimanded. Between 2005 and 2012, nearly one Border Patrol officer was arrested every single day for misconduct. Only the most egregious cases of misconduct lead to the arrests of border patrol agents, so it is fair to conclude that actual misconduct is even more ubiquitous than this disturbing statistic indicates. Sexual assault against migrant women is also rampant in both agencies, with thousands of complaints filed against ICE and many thousands more left unreported out of humiliation and fear of deportation and retaliation.
On top of all this, ICE and CBP have routinely discarded basic Constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure in the so-called “100-mile border zone”—an area in which 65.3% of the U.S. population (and ~75% of the U.S. Latino population) lives. As a result, these agencies have been able to effectively operate outside the bounds of the U.S. legal system, and daily terrorize poor migrants or anyone who looks like they might be a poor migrant.
Border Patrol agents regularly destroy aid packages and water left in the Sonoran Desert for migrants by local activists.
Because of the increased difficulty and brutality of the journey, migrants are forced to travel deeper and deeper into the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, where many are found dead of dehydration, heat exhaustion, or infection. By the CBP’s own accounts, the number of people who died crossing the border was over 7,000 between 1998 and 2017 alone, and this is likely a gross underestimate.
Trump has certainly intensified state repression against migrants and undocumented people, and stoked racist fervor to blame migrants for poverty here in the U.S. However, the Democrats do not and have never supported the true interests of the masses of immigrants, migrants, and refugees. Clinton and Obama’s policies are testament to this fact.
Today Democrats like Clinton and Obama shed crocodile tears over the plight of migrants to create political hay and gain votes in various elections. But they are also worried that Trump’s more openly fascist and racist policies will damage America’s image internationally and foster greater protest and more rebellion domestically. However, because Democrats and Republicans both fundamentally represent the interests of a small ruling class—the CEOs, executives, bankers, politicians, generals, and other financial oligarchs who run this country—they aren’t interested in getting to the root of these issues. In fact, the U.S. ruling class constantly creates refugee crises as it sponsors war and violence around the world.
U.S. Imperialism in Latin America
Latin America in particular has been victim to U.S. intervention and corporate plunder for well over a century. For example, the first North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which was signed in 1994, allowed the U.S. to flood the Mexican market with corn—a staple crop in Mexico—produced by giant, subsidized corporate farms in the U.S. These U.S. corporate agricultural monopolies were able to out-compete Mexican peasant farmers. This effectively destroyed the peasants’ ability to sell their corn and other crops at a rate that allowed them to live. Since they could no longer sell their own crops, at least 2 million peasants in Mexico were forced off their land and lost their means of livelihood. This is one of thousands of examples of how NAFTA facilitated corporate plunder in Mexico.
U.S. companies have also long maintained control over the natural resources of Latin American countries. For example, big monopoly capitalists and landowners such as Dole and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) own much of the land in Central America and the Caribbean, and have invested in railways and communication industry—not for the benefit of the people in these countries, but to facilitate exploitation and plunder. When peasants and workers in these countries try to unionize and demand better conditions, these companies routinely send out hired goons to attack and murder activists. Unions in Colombia have repeatedly criticized Coca-Cola for hiring local right-wing paramilitaries who, between 1990-2003, murdered at least nine union activists at local bottling plants.
There is also a long history of companies such as these collaborating with the U.S. government, and the CIA in particular, to orchestrate pro-U.S. coups and wars to crush people’s rebellion.
One of many mass graves in Guatemala.
One of the most gruesome and well-known examples of this is U.S. intervention in the Central American country of Guatemala. Beginning in the early 20th century when U.S. imperialism was expanding its regional and global power, the United Fruit Company (UFCO) was the biggest landlord and employer in Guatemala. The workers at UFCO plantations were brutally exploited, barely able to feed themselves or their families as they picked crops to be sold in the United States.
This was not unique to UFCO, but is typical of how all big American monopolies worked to bring in profits and increase America’s portion of the world’s resources, markets, and labor. To help with this, the U.S. and other imperialists cultivated and bought off the local landowning elite so that they would operate as a local ruling elite sympathetic to and dependent on capitalist-imperialism. This is neo-colonialism, where a country is independent in name, but in reality it is dominated economically, politically, and culturally by imperialist powers.
The power of companies like UFCO also rely on extreme racism. About half of Guatemala’s population at the time was from one of the many diverse indigenous Mayan communities. Most of them were poor, landless peasants or wage-workers, and faced extreme oppression by the Guatemalan state and the hired thugs of the UFCO and other corporations.
Due to the brutal conditions the peasantry faced both from the UFCO and the domestic landowning elite, the country was rocked by protests, strikes, and rebellions of the people, led by both revolutionary and liberal/reformist groups. The fascist regime of Jorge Ubico, which granted huge benefits to UFCO and local landlords, was overthrown in a democratic revolution in 1944. In 1951, the reformist candidate Jacobo Arbenz was elected as president, promising to redistribute some of the cropland held by foreign companies and big landlords to the poor peasantry. This proposal had wide spread support, but directly threatened the profits of UFCO.
UFCO had particularly strong ties with the Eisenhower administration which ruled the U.S. at the time—both Secretary of State John Dulles and director of the CIA Allen Dulles were on the Board of United Fruit. The U.S. capitalist class—and especially the capitalists of United Fruit—saw the land redistribution in Guatemala not only as a threat to their immediate profits, but as something which could inspire revolutionary movements in Latin America to break free of U.S. domination and plunder. In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup in Guatemala. General Carlos Castillo Armas led a section of the Guatemalan military to overthrow Arbenz and establish himself as a military dictator. Immediately, he banned labor unions, left-wing political parties, and returned land to UFCO and the domestic Guatemalan elite.
A series of military dictatorships propped up by U.S. aid and weapons followed, and so too did the armed resistance of the Guatemalan people. From the 1960s up until 1996, various revolutionaries, left-wing political groups, and people’s militias bravely fought back against the fascist onslaught of various right-wing military regimes and juntas. The struggle intensified, and the people began to form revolutionary organizations to lead their struggle.
The banner reads “No to Imperialism, Guatemala is Not For Sale. Alliance for Life and Peace."
In 1980, one such organization, the Committee of Peasant Unity, led a group of peasants in a march to Guatemala City to protest the kidnapping and murder of peasants by the Guatemalan military. Once there, a group of peasants, students, and activists occupied the Spanish Embassy to garner international attention and support for their struggle. The Guatemalan military responded by launching white phosphorus and Molotov cocktails into the Embassy, starting a fire which killed 36 people, including bystanders. The outrage sparked by this massacre led to a surge in guerrilla activity in the countryside.
This struggle reached its height under the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power in a coup in 1982. Following the coup, President Reagan dramatically increased the amount of weaponry and military equipment to the Guatemalan government. The U.S. military trained Guatemalan army officers and soldiers in counter-insurgency, including at the infamous School of the Americas, where many Latin American generals and anti-communist paramilitaries received training.
With the full support of U.S. imperialism, the Montt regime pursued a genocidal “kill all, loot all, burn all” strategy against the mostly indigenous Mayan population of the Guatemalan countryside —where people’s resistance was strongest. Mayan villages were torched, and fleeing villagers were raped, tortured, and murdered by the Guatemalan military and by pro-government death squads made up of local thugs and criminals.
This genocidal war, which only ended in 1996, resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 people. Anywhere from 40,000-50,000 were “disappeared”—kidnapped by the police or military and never seen again. It is estimated at least 1 million people were internally displaced, and at least 100,000 fled to Mexico or the United States. Guatemala was only one of many regimes propped up by the United States to crush popular movements. Military regimes in El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Peru all waged massive wars against the people, often employing similar “scorched earth” tactics as the Guatemalan military.
This catastrophic war in Guatemala was not just an incident of Cold War proxy conflict, as many pro-imperialist academics and “historians” now claim, but is the operating logic of U.S. imperialism, and capitalist imperialism more broadly. This is clear when examining U.S. support for the coup in Honduras in 2009—nearly 20 years after the Cold War ended.
Protesters clash with Honduran soldiers in the capital city of Tegucigalpa in 2009.
In July 2009, the Honduran military overthrew president Manuel Zelaya, sparking protests which the military met with disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial killings. Zelaya was a member of the Honduran landowning elite—the dozen or so families which collaborated with the U.S. and multi-national corporations to plunder the country. In 2009, he began enacting policies similar to Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia—all countries which are dominated by Chinese imperialism. He came into increasing conflict with other elites, and joined the regional, Venezuelan-led alliances Petrocaribe and ALBA (which function mainly to facilitate Chinese and Russian capitalist-imperialist exploitation of Latin America).
While the country was still primarily under the thumb of U.S. imperialism, the CIA and U.S. State Department were concerned that they were losing control of their puppet. So, Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and flown out of the country so a new regime could be consolidated. While Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initially denied any role in the coup, Wikileaks later revealed that the ousting of Zelaya was supported by the U.S. State Department. Clinton worked to stall and prevent action by neighboring countries to restore Zelaya to power, and controlled the flow of aid to the country to gear up for elections which could be used to “fairly” establish a Honduran government more amenable to U.S. interests. This whole incident is a typical example of how inter-imperialist competition plays out in neocolonies.
Since then, the Honduran state has become more bloated, corrupt, and violent than ever. Power has been further consolidated in the hands of the presidency, and the military police are granted a carte blanche to commit violence against the people, often openly collaborating with local gangs and cartels. The murder rate in the country skyrocketed by 50% from 2008-2011. Peasant and union organizers, opposition political candidates, and activists fighting for environmental, indigenous, and LGBTQ rights are regularly targeted for assassination (by either local thugs or U.S.-trained soldiers).
Capitalist “development policies” and inter-imperialist competition create the conditions that compel people to leave their countries and seek asylum in places like the United States. The coups, civil wars, and poverty caused by neo-colonial rule allow gangs and death squads to run rampant and act as low-level thugs for imperialist interests and the ruling classes of these countries. There is very open collaboration between gangs, Latin American governments, and multinational corporations such as Chiquita and Coca-Cola, and these gangs are often used against labor unions, peasant organizations, indigenous communities, student movements, and other people’s movements which the neo-colonial regimes see as threats to their rule. On top of all this, the United States takes advantage of the vulnerability of many refugees and immigrants to exploit and oppress them once they make it across the border.
Tyson Chicken factories are notorious for long hours and dangerous working conditions.
The U.S. Ruling Class Relies on Undocumented Labor
The monopoly-capitalist class of this country needs easily exploitable immigrant labor. Because the mere existence of immigrants and refugees is criminalized, undocumented workers fleeing countries like Guatemala and Honduras can be employed well below the minimum wage, and are denied even the few meager labor rights that exist in this country. What’s more, the U.S. state prevents them from accessing the few public welfare benefits that still exist in this country (despite the fact that undocumented immigrants still pay the government billions of dollars in taxes). Because they are constantly threatened with deportation, undocumented workers face some significant risks when fighting back against this oppression and exploitation.
The big monopoly capitalists use these circumstances to their advantage all the time. For example, in 2001 it was revealed that Tyson—the largest meat processor and manufacturer in the U.S.—actively smuggled workers across the border to work at their plants in this country. Workers were often told they would be given a path to citizenship only to wind up becoming wage-slaves in meat-packing plants. Injuries in Tyson plants are common—the production lines move so fast most workers develop repetitive stress injuries or get injured using the machinery. In addition, Tyson—as well as other poultry companies like Sanderson Farms, Perdue Farms, and Pilgrim’s Pride—were found guilty of denying bathroom breaks to workers in 2016, forcing many to wear adult diapers to work or relieve themselves on the floor to avoid punishment from supervisors. For undocumented workers, an injury on the job or a reprimand by a supervisor often leads not just to being laid off, but to deportation as the company no longer has any use for them.
The U.S. government has ICE keep immigrants in brutal immigration prisons while they are awaiting deportation.
But the U.S. ruling class cannot use fear as a weapon forever. Inevitably, workers see the direct contradiction between their interests and the interests of the CEOs, executives, etc. They inevitably start to demand better wages, better working conditions, and more. Because of this, the U.S. state has created a whole system for deportation—not to uphold “the rule of law,” but to act as a strikebreaking force against workers who raise the slightest protest to their working conditions. That is, to uphold the rule of capital over labor.
It should come as no surprise that the first two large-scale deportation operations in the U.S. were against Mexican migrant workers who were no longer able to be profitably employed—first, during the Great Depression, to open up more jobs for white workers in the New Deal and crush unionizing efforts in Mexican and Chicano-majority workplaces; second, in the 1950s during “Operation Wetback”—in which over 1.1 million people were deported in 1954 alone—as the ruling class stoked racist hatred blaming undocumented migrant workers for the depression of wages among other workers.
Still, deportations are principally a tool to control the pool of undocumented labor and stoke racist divisions among the people. The threat of deportation is ever-present for immigrant workers, and the slightest sign of resistance to oppression often results in a call to ICE. In Boston—a so-called “sanctuary city”—in 2017 an undocumented construction worker had ICE called on him by his employer after he was injured on the job and tried to claim workers comp!
There have been a number of large scale protests against the government’s family separation policy. However, many of these have been limited to calls to “abolish ICE” and “end family separation.” While important, these demands are narrow in scope, led by bourgeois reformers, and do not address the underlying issue of U.S. imperialism.
Workers in Tyson plants or in California fields who raise their voices in protest of the brutal conditions often face the same response from their bosses—justified with the white supremacist logic that migrants and refugees are expendable. This logic is reflective of how capital views labor, as useful only insofar as it can be profitably employed.
Once this is impossible, due to injury, economic crises, or political resistance of the workers demanding better conditions and wages, then the labor and lives of the working class are seen by the capitalists as useless and disposable. The officers in Border Patrol and ICE also take up this same logic to justify their actual role in society.
This white supremacist and fascist trend has grown stronger within these groups (and U.S. society more broadly) in recent years as well. Calls to deport all undocumented people, to crack down on so-called “anchor babies” or get rid of birthright citizenship, and to “build the wall” are related to fascist calls to make the U.S. a “white nation.” While the U.S. is already a white supremacist country, a growing section of law enforcement—especially immigration enforcement—is taking up politics that advocate for one form or another of ethnic cleansing in the U.S. However, many among the ruling elite still need a large number of undocumented workers to exploit.
Trump’s increasingly militarized and openly racist immigration policy is reflective of these white supremacist and fascist trends within the U.S. state as a whole. But despite this growing threat to oppressed people, the official opposition to Trump’s immigration policy has been especially uninspiring. The “progressive” Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have raised radical-sounding slogans to “Abolish ICE.” However, this slogan has been gutted of any meaning, and now only represents a reformist measure to shift the task of deportations from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) back to the Department of Labor (where Immigration and Naturalization Services was before it was transformed into ICE under Bush). AOC herself, in typical fashion, has back-peddled her position on this as well, clarifying in a tweet that abolish ICE “does not mean abolish deportation.”
Politicians like AOC often use slogans and social media spectacles to cultivate a progressive image. However, they ultimately serve the interests of the ruling elite.
In addition, all Democrats in the House— including all the new “progressives”—voted to allocate special funding to DHS during the most recent government shutdown. This granted funding to ICE and CBP to continue their “business-as-usual” in oppressing migrants while the representatives of the ruling class bickered over how militarized they wanted to make the border. In effect, this contradiction reflects the fact that many among the ruling elite rely on undocumented workers for cheap labor, and as a result they would take a big hit to their profits if every undocumented person was deported. On the other hand, the ruling elite is in agreement that they need a large militarized force to monitor, control, and deport undocumented people by the millions. If people in this country want to join the struggles of undocumented people, we must understand that the ruling elite have not, cannot, and will not fix these issues.
As revolutionaries, our solidarity with refugees must come not from a place of pity—which is the dominant way liberals view immigrants—but from the recognition that we have a common oppressor: the U.S. monopoly-capitalist ruling class and the state it controls. The same state which launches ICE raids on poor immigrant workers and intervenes in countries all over the world, unleashes police attacks on working-class Black and Latino communities. The same ruling class which feeds immigrants false promises of citizenship, feeds poor white workers a lie of “superiority,” and confines the entire working class of this country in the chains of wage-slavery. Solidarity with refugees ultimately means uniting in struggle against our common enemy, and ultimately overthrowing this imperialist system, and creating a truly pro-people, socialist, and anti-imperialist society in its place.