The perception exists among a number of Mexican scholars of history that, in a relationship with the United States marked by belligerence and hegemony, the worst events have in fact occurred under Democratic administrations. There’s plenty of evidence to give credence to the hypothesis.
The Mexican-American War of 1846, triggered by Democratic President James K. Polk under trumped-up pretexts, led to the United States annexing over half of Mexican territory. American troops returned in 1914, this time to engage in a brutal occupation of the city of Veracruz ordered by President Woodrow Wilson; two years later, Wilson sent another ten thousand troops across the border in a fruitless attempt to track down revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. In the “repatriation drives” of the 1930s and ’40s, begun under the Hoover administration but continued assiduously throughout FDR’s three-plus terms, well over a million people of Mexican descent — at least 60 percent of them American citizens — were rounded up and expelled to Mexico. The chilling nature of the raids foreshadowed the tactics to be used by Border Patrol agents and ICE in generations to follow.
Recent history is more widely recalled. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed in 1993 by a Democratic-majority Congress and signed into law by President Clinton, who had pushed aggressively for it. Well aware of the increased migration flows the agreement was likely to cause, Clinton set about militarizing the border through “Operation Gatekeeper” in California, “Operation Safeguard” in Arizona, and “Operation Rio Grande” in Texas.
In addition to constructing emblematic sections of border wall, the programs effectively routed immigrants through inhospitable mountainous and desert terrain, causing the deaths of countless thousands. Clinton also signed into law the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which accelerated deportation procedures and set the stage for family separations, as well as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act, which created the legal infrastructure for future anti-immigrant crackdowns.
For its part, the Obama administration increased the immigration enforcement budget by some 300 percent and used it to rack up a record-setting three million deportations — more than those of all of the twentieth-century presidents combined. It also ramped up the detention of immigrant families while establishing the practice of detaining children for excessive periods of time and in prison-like conditions.
And in the opposite direction of immigrants went guns: building on Bush-era programs, the administration launched Operation Fast and Furious, a botched gunrunning operation in which some two thousand firearms were let loose into Mexico at the height of its “drug war” violence. Over half of the weapons were lost; many wound up in the hands of organized crime. Due to the deaths it caused and the violation of sovereignty it entailed, the program remains a major political scandal in Mexico to this day. The Obama administration further goaded Mexico into adopting its Programa Frontera Sur project of militarizing its southern border with Guatemala, an initiative gleefully taken up in turn by the Trump administration.
The Not-So “Natural Home”
None of this, of course, should be construed as letting Republican administrations off the hook for their crimes throughout Latin America: the 1954 coup in Guatemala plotted by the Eisenhower administration, the 1973 coup in Chile masterminded by Richard Nixon, the genocidal paramilitary violence unleashed by the Reagan administration in Central America, and the 2019 Bolivia coup abetted by Donald Trump are just some examples that leap to mind.
Indeed, millions of Latinos in the United States fled, or are descendants of those forced to flee from countries that suffered the horrors of Republican foreign policy. What is more, the programs mentioned above — from immigrant purges to border militarization — have each been initiated, promoted, or perpetuated by the GOP in a malevolent game of catch in which the parties take turns blaming the other for starting it all.
But of the twin pillars of American imperialism, it is the Democrats who consider themselves to be uniquely entitled to the Latino vote — regardless of what they have actually done when in power. “The Democratic Party is the natural home for Latinos,” Terry McAuliffe announced blithely during his tenure as DNC chairman, a sentiment considered axiomatic among the party elite. Armed with this and the “nowhere else to go” card it uses on all minority groups and the Left, the party spent this year’s presidential primary season engaging in a clumsy and often tin-eared courtship with its “natural” constituency, including unsolicited bursts of stilted Spanish in the debates and, as a delightful capper, candidates Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer marching into the studios of the Spanish-language station Telemundo without even being able to come up with the name of the president of Mexico, much less any substantive policy detail.
At the Democratic National Convention, Hispanic speakers were noticeably absent from the proceedings, with one wit noting that there were more Republicans slotted on day one alone than Latinos the entire week. Considering the fact that Joe Biden lost the Hispanic primary vote badly to Bernie Sanders, the failure to even engage in the typical prime-time pandering is difficult to fathom. More revealing still is the fact that, despite a sustained effort by Donald Trump to antagonize the Latino community over the course of his presidency, his polling among Latinos stands at 36 percent according to the latest Quinnipiac presidential poll, some eight points better than he managed in 2016. And when we zero in on certain states, the situation becomes even more dramatic. In Florida, for example, where Clinton won the Latino vote 62 to 35 percent in 2016, Biden is managing to lose it by four points according to NBC/Marist, a thirty-one-point turnaround.
Then again, considering that the former vice president is the type of candidate that tells undocumented immigrants to get in line, shuts down immigration activists at his town halls by telling them to vote for Trump, and has a history of bragging about voting for seven hundred miles of border “fence” while railing about “tons” of drugs “coming up through corrupt Mexico,” perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised.
It does not take a political sixth sense to realize that the chances of a Biden/Harris administration fundamentally altering the dynamics of militarization, private-sector intervention, and resource extraction that mark US policy toward Latin America are slim to none. As a senator, Biden was a chief architect of Plan Colombia, the murderous “anti-drug” policy that killed thousands, displaced some seven million more, and served as a model for spin-off plans in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Biden also engineered the Obama-era “Alliance for Prosperity,” which, under the pretext of aiding distressed Central American countries to stem the flow of child migration, shoveled money into military and police budgets, thus shoring up the drug-compromised Honduran regime of Juan Orlando Hernández that came to power on the back of the very coup green-lit by Obama and the Clinton State Department in 2009.
There are even signs that a Biden administration could be still more aggressive (in Washington-speak, “muscular”) than its predecessor in terms of its southern neighbors. In ninety-two pages of the 2020 Democratic platform, the only substantial mention of Latin America is a rejection of Trump’s “failed Venezuela policy, “which has only served to entrench Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorial regime and exacerbate a human rights and humanitarian crisis.”
A clue as to what this could entail in practice was recently given by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, ostensibly one of the more liberal members of the Senate, who took to whining at a hearing of the foreign relations committee that Trump has botched repeated attempts to depose Maduro, including the failed coup of April 2019. On Bolivia, meanwhile, while the Áñez regime repeatedly postpones elections and represses protesters seeking to restore democracy, both the party platform and the Biden/Harris ticket have opted for cowardly silence.
Nor is there much to cheer for in domestic policy. Absent a grand motivating policy such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, the cancellation of student debt, or monthly pandemic stimulus payments, the campaign is banking on a smaller plate of initiatives for Latino communities which, despite a handful of valuable measures such as making the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program permanent and allowing DREAMers to qualify for Pell grants, are nowhere near as likely to muster turnout.
On immigration, as well, although Biden promises to end some of the most emblematic Trump-era abuses, such as family separation and the Migrant Protection Protocols requiring asylum seekers coming from the south to be returned to Mexico while their cases are heard, his plan does nothing to dismantle our carceral state. The criminalization of those who cross the border (the infamous Section 1325 of Title 8 of the US Code), as well as those already residing in the United States, promises to continue unabated, using minor infractions as an excuse to hound and deport migrants while conflating immigration with criminality. “We’ve seen this before,” wrote the immigrant advocacy group Movimiento Cosecha on Biden’s plan. “It will mean millions more deportations.”
Historically and politically, neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties have been friends to Latin America or Latinos in the United States. This has not, of course, stopped the former from convincing itself otherwise, nor from considering itself entitled to every last Latino vote. If the presidential race tightens down the home stretch, as history suggests it will, and if the Biden campaign continues to shed Latino votes in its obsessive courting of suburbia, this attitude could prove particularly damaging in some very swing states. And for the future of the party, it bodes even worse.