Immigrants’ rights activists are under pressure to quickly find the way forward in the Trump era. Although the Obama years were hardly easy for activists, a liberal administration presented opportunities for a vibrant grassroots movement, particularly among undocumented youth, to grow and achieve concrete victories.
The way forward in the Trump era will require activists to take stock of the lessons of the recent past, overcome the failed strategies of liberal power-brokers, and at times look beyond national boundaries for paths to long-term victory.
Despite anti-Mexico rhetoric or diplomatic flare-ups between Enrique Peña Nieto and Trump, Mexico is a stalwart ally against asylum-seekers headed for the United States. The rise of right-wing parties in Europe, along with Trump’s election, teach us one lesson about global political trends. Our partnership with Mexico to deter asylum-seekers from Central America teaches us another.
In early 2014, Central American children crossed the US border by the tens of thousands. They traveled atop the cruel and deadly trains known collectively as la bestia (“the beast”), braved punishing deserts, and evaded, as best they could, robbery, rape, and death at the hands of human traffickers.
Once they arrived in the United States, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) kept them in concrete pens cold enough to turn lips and fingers blue. In the hieleras (coolers), as these rooms became known, children huddled together on metal benches and cement floors, and slept under heat-reflective Mylar “space-blankets.” The Obama administration was simultaneously beset by nativist demands to seal the border, liberal outrage at the mistreatment of children, and legal action by non-governmental organizations.
By the summer, as the crisis began to fade from the headlines, Mexico announced Frontera Sur, a program billed as a partnership between Mexico and Guatemala to foster economic development and the human rights of migrants crossing Mexico’s southern border. As one might expect, Frontera Sur is a militarized security program created at the behest of the United States as part of a vigorous “layered enforcement” strategy intended to stop migrants from seeking asylum north of the Rio Grande.
In 2012, former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official and border czar Alan Bersin said that “the Guatemalan border with Chiapas, Mexico, is now our southern border.” Through Frontera Sur, the United States has given Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as training from CBP, biometric technology, x-ray vans, and helicopters; the United States Northern and Southern Commands of the combined US military forces, or NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM, jointly sponsor periodic working-group meetings with the police agencies and militaries of Central American countries.
Unjust and illegal practices that won the ire of non-governmental organizations in the United States, like detaining children in abysmal conditions and failing to inform migrants of their right to apply for asylum, also took hold in Mexico. According to documents obtained by the Washington Office on Latin America, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) even maintains a presence at Siglo XXI, a detention center in Tapachula, Mexico that houses child migrants.
Last year, Andrés Manuel Luis Obrador, leader of the left-wing Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena) Party and candidate for president in next year’s election, accused the current government of carrying out the “dirty work” of the US government, violating human rights, and doing the very things in Chiapas for which they criticized then-candidate Trump.
According to José Antonio Domínguez, consul of El Salvador in Arriaga, Mexico, the approach toward migrants has moved from “a certain tolerance of the migrant to total control.” In other words, Mexico built a wall and the US paid for it.
Frontera Sur succeeded in pushing most of the refugee crisis beyond the practical reach and attention of the most powerful US-based nongovernmental organizations and, perhaps more importantly, beyond the headlines. Central American migrants are increasingly choosing to stay in Mexico rather than fight for asylum in Trump’s America.
After 3,400 applications for asylum in 2015, Mexican civil society groups are anticipating 20,000 this year. Naturally, the increased enforcement has done nothing to address the reasons Central Americans choose to leave their homes in the first place; it has simply made the trip more violent and expensive by creating lucrative opportunities for criminal organizations and corrupt Mexican officials.
Asylum seekers that do make it to the US border find themselves thwarted not by US immigration agents, but Mexican ones.
Grupos Beta, the humanitarian branch of the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migración that assists migrants transiting through Mexico, has established an “appointment” system with CBP. Migrants who don’t have an appointment are referred by CBP to Grupos Beta. However, Grupos Beta then regularly refuses to give them an appointment. Human Rights First has called the appointment system a “charade.”
John Kelly, the new secretary of DHS, has rightly been portrayed as a villain for defending Trump’s Muslim ban and his more recent suggestion that he would split mothers from their children in order to deter people from seeking asylum in the United States. As the former leader of SOUTHCOM, we should also expect him to further back a militarized approach to migration beyond US soil.
According to a source speaking to the Military Times, Kelly has “better relationships in Latin America than the State Department does.” In a questionnaire filled out prior to his Senate confirmation hearings, Kelly promised to establish a Plan Colombia–like strategy in Central America to counter drug trafficking and migration.
The US approach is strikingly similar to the one employed by the European Union against asylum-seekers arriving at its shores. Spain offers training, equipment, and, of course, money to local police along the coasts of Mauritania, Morocco, and Senegal to repel refugees. In March of last year, the European Union signed a deal with Turkey to crack down on migration spurred by the crisis in Syria in exchange for three billion euros, an acceleration of accession talks, and visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. The European Union has long offered financial support to Ukraine to stop EU-bound refugees, despite reports that Ukrainian officials subject them to lengthy imprisonment and torture.
Liberals were outraged when Trump referred to refugees held by Australia in Nauru as “illegal immigrants.” But few made any noise as the Obama administration said the very same thing about Central American children. As the liberal order across the globe collapses more completely and the freedom of movement for all come under threat, the distinction will become even less meaningful, if it continues to exist at all.
The Failure of Comprehensive Immigration Reform
For more than a decade, liberals have offered a bargain to conservatives and white nationalists on immigration reform: in exchange for increased enforcement, undocumented immigrants would receive access to a legalization program. Business interests were dealt in by the liberalization of employment-based visas, and some programs disfavored by white nationalists, like sponsoring siblings for family-based visas, would be curtailed.
In theory, the “comprehensive” model offered a way to satisfy every constituency and nullify every counter-argument. In practice, liberals trapped themselves in a cycle of perpetual concessions.
Through more than a decade of failures, liberals claimed to have the upper hand against a Republican Party that faced an existential threat by failing to woo sections of the so-called Rising American Electorate, and Latinos in particular, into their electoral coalition. Pointing to closing margins in presidential elections, liberals predicted a “demographic death spiral” for Republicans if they didn’t support reform, and thus appeal to Latinos and Asian-Americans. Over the years, reform advocates made repeated comparisons to the ill-fated Whig Party.
The Latino political class relished its time in the sun: Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, gave soccer-themed warnings to the Republican Conference for failing to act. “By taking no action,” Gutierrez intoned on the House floor in June 2014, “even after repeated warnings, you have decided it is up to the Democrats to pick Supreme Court Justices, conduct foreign policy, and carry out all of the functions of the executive branch for a generation or more to come.”
Republicans knew that the “death spiral” theory was complete nonsense as they counted the 1,042 elected offices Democrats lost during the Obama years. Inspecting it at the congressional level further proves it false: in the 114th Congress, 183 Republicans — the vast majority of their caucus — ran in districts in which Latinos made up less than 10 percent of eligible voters.
Those districts will stay that way even longer if Republicans manage to maintain control of state legislatures during decennial redistricting processes, used to draw state legislative and congressional districts, and suppress voters of color through other means, like changing how populations are counted for redistricting purposes, cutting early voting, and adding requirements like proof of citizenship or photo identification. And as 2016 made clear, Republicans don’t have to worry about the Rising American Electorate even in presidential years if Democrats fail to mobilize them.
Many of the most prominent undocumented activists first cut their teeth as organizers for immigration reform. However, after the failure of the 2010 immigration reform bill and the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill, these activists took a left turn and began targeting weak Democrats. Five Senate Democrats voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, largely to preserve the sympathetic “DREAMer” cases for the comprehensive bill, and the movement’s leftward elements sought to ensure that it never happened again.
In 2012, undocumented youth occupied Obama campaign offices, demanding an end to the deportations of undocumented youth, which the president answered by announcing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA is arguably the crowning achievement of the immigrants’ rights movement in the past thirty years, and it happened in spite of the campaign for reform, not because of it.
During the immigration reform campaign in 2013, reform advocates adopted some of the slogans and tactics of the youth movement, like “undocumented and unafraid” and street blocking. But the adoption of an aesthetic can’t make up for bad math and fake power. Liberals could have organized in Republican districts, built power, and done the difficult, granular work of changing people’s minds about immigrants. Instead, they bargained with white nationalists on policy — a path toward failure since the beginning.
Worse still, by accepting increased enforcement as a precondition for reform, reportedly to build consensus for immigration reform, Democrats disinvested their opponents from legislative success and validated their position. Furthermore, by supporting immigration reform under these terms, liberals implicitly became pro-enforcement.
Trump’s positions are extreme, but liberals did yeoman’s work legitimizing them for years in the name of achieving comprehensive immigration reform.
The Way Forward
Despite the right-wing nationalist appeal of “Make America Great Again,” a liberal, rules-based economic order has underwritten American hegemony for the past half-century. The collapse of that order has been fueled for years by cultural and economic anxieties among working people and, unsurprisingly, by liberals in pursuit of short-term political victories. Trump’s executive orders on immigration, along with his rebellion against free trade and the rule of international governing bodies like the World Trade Organization, can be understood as the first assault on that order by the American state, partially captured by the nationalist wing of the Republican Party.
Trump’s shock-and-awe campaign against the neoliberal era will present new opportunities to organize a broad-based movement. While we need legislation to win legal status for many undocumented immigrants, there will be no legislation — even something as compromised as past reform bills — so long as Republicans can prevent working people, communities of color, and other components of the Rising American Electorate from voting.
Rather than demographics to be micro-targeted every election, victory requires deep, broad organizing, and self-awareness as a coalition. As Bayard Rustin, the civil rights organizer, preached throughout his life, progressive forces in society wield power as a coalition, not when they fold illiberal elements into their ranks.
Long before another campaign for immigration reform begins, the Left must be responsible for making clear to liberals that the framework of past bills is no longer acceptable. When the time comes to fashion legislation, it should be designed to strengthen the bonds between the members of a left-wing coalition. To satisfy the entire political spectrum is impossible, and a proven path to failure.
Locally, we can fortify our defenses and train a new generation of activists and organizers. Campaigns to break linkages between ICE and local police are good opportunities on both fronts. We will need to develop structures to resist raids, deportation, and criminalization of all kinds. Where liberal administrations have already declared themselves sanctuaries, we must demand that they go further, and end all unjust police practices. Many of the forces that condemn immigrants actually condemn all people of color, but have downstream consequences for immigrants.
Outside our fortifications, activists will need to fully inspect the deportation machine for weaknesses. Trump’s executive orders may have created a few: although Trump has ordered the hiring of fifteen thousand immigration agents in the interior and at the border, at the moment, there are only three hundred immigration judges in the United States.
“If we are not given the resources necessary to adjudicate these cases fairly and in a timely fashion, then the removal process will break down,” said Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
At the moment, the administration will try to circumvent this obvious structural flaw by illegally expanding the use of expedited removal, a process that bypasses immigration court, beyond its current limits to the border region. Should the administration fail in its efforts here, it will face a crisis of its own making. It will be essential to demand that the legal structures that place limits on Trump’s power continue to bind him.
That capitalism encourages — and often forces — people to migrate is hardly a revelation. It has always been the case that borders mean far more to the poor than they do to the rich. As the crises of capitalism, most saliently war and climate change, make more migrants out of the world’s poor, defending freedom of movement will be critical to human survival.
As the sun sets on the liberal era and an illiberal, heavily securitized one emerges, we have to reckon with the multi-state structures we are up against and coordinate beyond borders. The first step is to forge ties between movements in different countries and learn how to support one another, even when we may never get the chance to meet in person. From there, we will need to develop new movement strategies and tactics to win. Those of us in destination countries should find our allies in transit and origin countries, and find new ways to work together.
It is hard to predict what even the near future holds, but the immigration movements will certainly need more of us working together in more places. We have little choice but to begin that work today.