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An Open Border Could Benefit Us All

Above photo: Asylum seekers wait next to the U.S. border wall to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing from Mexico on December 13, 2023, in Jacumba Hot Springs, California. Qian Weizhong / VCG via Getty Images.

Instead, Both Parties Want To Build A Wall.

The GOP pushed Texas’s horrific new bills into law, but both parties have stoked expansion of immigration policing.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed two bills into law designed to further harden the southern border. SB 3 provides $1.5 billion for additional wall building and to support more state law enforcement targeting of low-income immigrant neighborhoods, like Houston’s Colony Ridge. SB 4 gives local police the power to engage in immigration enforcement, including arresting people for not having the right citizenship papers and deporting people into Mexico, regardless of their country of origin.

The bills, which Abbott signed into law on December 18, represent a dangerous and almost certainly unconstitutional expansion of police power, consistent with Abbott’s earlier interventions along the border, which have included dispatching the National Guard as part of Operation Lone Star, which directly contributed to drowning deaths on the Rio Grande border. The U.S. Department of Justice has already filed suit claiming that this interferes with the federal government’s constitutional authority to regulate immigration. The main accomplishment of this cynical expansion of police power will be to mobilize conservative voters in local elections and gin up more right-wing pressure on the federal government to further militarize the border; something with a long history in American politics.

Border Control Has Always Been A Racial Project

The use of border restrictions to mobilize racial resentment and punitively control labor is nothing new. Until the late 19th century, the U.S. had no formal immigration restrictions. The border was essentially open, with only customs controls directed at shipping. Beginning in the 1870s, the U.S. began to create restrictions after 200,000 Chinese laborers immigrated to build the railroads and perform farm labor in the West. In 1875, Congress passed the Page Act restricting immigration to Chinese women, and in 1882, it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to prohibit further immigration of anyone Chinese. Much of the language used in debating the act was explicitly racist and consistent with local bans on the right of Chinese people to own property and appear as witnesses in court.

With the rise of mass European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came growing nativist resentment. Throughout this period, groups such as the Immigration Restriction League and the nativist American Party organized around ideas of racial purity, cultural superiority and religious prejudice to demand an end to open immigration. This was finally achieved in 1924 with the passage of the Immigration Act, which established nationality-based immigration quotas for the first time. To enforce these quotas, Congress created the U.S. Border Patrol.

The new Border Patrol focused on limiting unauthorized immigration from Mexico. Most enforcement was at designated border crossings, with only a few “linemen” patrolling in between. In practice, individuals and even vehicles needed only to venture a few miles from a formal checkpoint to cross. Part of the reason for weak enforcement was the strong desire for Mexican workers among growers in Texas and California, who vehemently opposed restrictions on their access to cheap labor. The enforcement that did occur was often profoundly racist, with overt brutality and extrajudicial killings. Historian Kelly Hernandez in her book Migra! describes numerous incidents of revenge killings and reckless shootings of border crossers.

During World War II there was a great need for farmworkers. The Border Patrol largely ignored Mexican immigration while keeping an eye out for possible enemy combatants, though almost none were discovered. The U.S. government developed the Bracero Program to try to regularize migrant farm work. Employers were obligated to provide decent wages and working conditions, and migrants received official permits to work in the United States. Enforcement was lax, and wages and working conditions were quite poor and well below the standards set for other workers. Women, children and domestic workers were not covered by the program, so unauthorized immigration continued. In addition, many employers refused to use the new program, especially in Texas. Farmers and ranchers resented federal intervention in their longstanding labor systems, which often amounted to peonage. Workers who complained or organized against low wages and abysmal conditions were simply handed over to the Border Patrol for deportation.

In 1954 the U.S. launched “Operation Wetback” to try to stem the tide of post-war migration through intensive border enforcement and raids in cities and on ranches, forcing more employers to utilize the Bracero Program. More than a million people were deported. In the end, the farmers and ranchers relented, especially after workplace protections were reduced and heavy penalties for worker organizing enacted. The title of the operation, however, speaks volumes about the mindset of federal officials and the Border Patrol.

U.S. border enforcement has always been primarily about the social production of whiteness as a racial identity distinct from Latinos and economic inequality through discriminatory labor control. The border has never been truly closed to poor immigrants. They have been allowed in, with tight regulation, or officially denied entry but in practice allowed to enter in large numbers, with few legal protections from employer exploitation and abuse. Each of these systems place immigrants in a degraded economic position where their rights to organize are denied and they are forced to work in substandard conditions for low wages.

From early on, the Border Patrol has engaged in racial profiling — and empowering local police to enforce immigration will only exacerbate this problem. Border police have always argued that “looking Mexican” is sufficient grounds for stopping, questioning and demanding identification. In 1973, the Supreme Court codified these practices in U.S. v. Brignoni-Ponce, in which it upheld the right of the Border Patrol to use racial profiles as the sole basis for vehicle stops and forced identifications. The ruling was based in part on a 1953 federal regulation created by the Justice Department that gives Border Patrol agents the right to suspend constitutional protections within a hundred miles of the border and stop, search and ascertain the immigration status of any person, whether or not they have any probable cause or even reasonable suspicion.

Local Police Don’t Belong In Border Enforcement

In the 1990s the Clinton administration significantly expanded federal and local border policing, creating new criminal penalties, dramatically expanding the size of the Border Patrol, creating new federal immigration courts and detention centers, and offering local police the opportunity to receive official authority and resources to enforce federal immigration law. This authority, under section 287(g) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, has created a huge dilemma for some local police, who have been pressured to participate, but in many cases view that cooperation as counterproductive to “good” policing. In areas with high rates of unauthorized immigrants, fear of police is already very high. If people believe that they or their friends, family members, co-workers or neighbors may be at risk of deportation, they will be gravely reluctant to bring any issues to the attention of police. That is why many cities have either refused to participate in 287(g) or designated themselves “sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement efforts.

Past measures giving local police immigration enforcement powers has created a burden for mostly Latino communities by increasing racial profiling in all kinds of police interactions, leading to more traffic stops, more families torn apart, and more needless low-level criminalization across the board because of increased interaction between police and poor people. It has also created fear among entire communities that have been subjected to increased identity checks. As William Lopez shows in his book Separated, entire communities will need to worry about being able to prove their identity and citizenship status at all times or risk being arrested or even wrongly deported. In addition, many families contain a mix of documented and undocumented members, meaning routine interactions with police even for documented people may lead to the arrest and disappearance of their loved ones, often with no information about what has occurred.

Low-level misuse of funds and corruption are also a risk when local law enforcement get involved. Since 2003, the Department of Homeland Security has been increasingly pulling local police into the job of border enforcement. While 287(g) asks for police cooperation in identifying criminal aliens, Operation Stonegarden directly subsidized local police to undertake a variety of border enforcement activities, offering money for overtime pay and special equipment for drug raids, pursuing suspected undocumented migrants and patrolling the border. There has been almost no oversight of how this money is spent. The Arizona Daily Star uncovered massive overtime payments to officers, sometimes in excess of their base salaries, leaving local taxpayers to come up with dramatically higher pensions as officers retire and collect pensions based on these inflated salaries.

There Is Another Way

Abbott’s decision to take on Donald Trump’s cries to “build a wall” will not only fail to stop migration, it will further endanger the lives of those who attempt it. The U.S. government has been trying to build a wall along the southern border for many decades and has little to show for it, other than massive fiscal profligacy and the deaths of migrants pushed into ever harsher and more remote terrains. There is no logistical way to build an effective wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The terrain is too difficult, the cost too great, and the ways around it too many. For one thing, 40 percent of all people in the country illegally come by plane and overstay one of a variety of visas. Walls can’t just be built and left to do their thing. They must be staffed and maintained. Any wall can be breached, climbed over or tunneled under if no one is watching. That would require a vast army along the fence, which would undoubtedly contribute to more unnecessary deaths.

Heavy-handed immigration policing and wall building won’t make us safer or more prosperous. The last 20 years have taught us that trying to wall ourselves off from migration in hopes of benefiting from economic imperialism does not create broad prosperity. The wealth of the United States has increased dramatically in the last two decades, but all of that growth has gone exclusively to the richest 10 percent. The rest of us have seen wages and government services decrease. Our standard of living is not declining because of migrants but because of unregulated neoliberal capitalism, which has allowed corporations and the rich to avoid paying taxes or decent wages. It is that system that must be changed.

If the U.S. wants immigrants, documented or not, to be more “integrated” into society, it should end all federal immigration policing, remove social barriers in housing and employment, and acknowledge their important role in revitalizing communities and stimulating economic activity.

Unfortunately, both dominant political parties have embraced the expansion of immigration policing, whether as part of a system of restricted and managed legalization or as part of a fantasy of closing the border. Rather than debating how many additional Border Patrol agents to employ, how many more miles of wall to build, or whether to bring more local police into the process, we should instead move to largely de-police the border. Borders are inherently unjust, and as Reece Jones points out in his book Violent Borders, they reproduce inequality, which is backed up by the violence of state actors and the indignity and danger of being forced to cross borders illegally.

Until the Clinton administration, unauthorized cross-border migration was widespread, yet it did not lead to the collapse of the U.S. economy or culture. In fact, in many ways it strengthened it, giving rise to new economic sectors, revitalizing long-abandoned urban neighborhoods, and better integrating the U.S. into the global economy. And when the EU lowered its internal borders, there were fears that organized crime would benefit, local cultures would be undermined, that mass migration would create economic chaos as poorer southern Europeans moved north. None of this happened. In part because the EU began developing poorer areas within Europe as a way of producing greater economic and social stability.

We could do the same thing in North America, but instead have largely done the opposite. The North American Free Trade Agreement had devastating consequences for agricultural production in Mexico, displacing and impoverishing millions. The end of state-subsidized corn farming in Mexico led to the collapse of the rural economy there, driving hundreds of thousands to attempt to migrate to the U.S. By opening the doors to capital and goods but not people, we have created tremendous pressure to migrate. Instead, we should be opening the borders and working to develop the poorest parts of the United States and Mexico. This would create economic and social stability that might reduce the extent of migration. The $23 billion a year we spend now on border policing could go a long way toward that goal. It turns out that most people would rather stay in their own cultural setting than migrate if given the opportunity.

Ultimately, we must work toward developing a more internationalist ethos and analysis. The reality is that many people in Central America and Mexico are poor at least partially because of U.S. economic policies. By consistently subverting democracy, the U.S. government helped create the dreadful poverty in those places. In 2009, the U.S. government backed a coup against the democratically elected left-wing government in Honduras. That government went on to torture, execute and disappear environmental and labor activists. This was just the most recent in a long string of foreign direct and indirect interventions in the politics of Central America, including Ronald Reagan’s backing of dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as of the Contras’ attempt to overthrow the leftist government in Nicaragua.

Once we understand migration as a global process driven in large part by the policies of our own government, we in the United States should feel obligated to end those practices and open our doors to those fleeing them. Migrants are human beings who are no better and no worse than American citizens and should enjoy the same rights and opportunities. As the group Immigrant Movement International notes, migrants have as much right to international movement as “corporations and international elites”; “the only law deserving of our respect is an unprejudiced law, one that protects everyone, everywhere. No exclusions. No exceptions.” We should be working to improve the conditions where people come from and allowing them access to the opportunities we have. We cannot and should not rely on ever more intensive, violent and oppressive border policing to manage problems that we ourselves helped create.

Gov. Abbott’s grandstanding on the border will do nothing to make us safer or more economically secure, but that isn’t the point. Abbott surely knows that these measures are unconstitutional and will be overturned. This whole endeavor is merely a theater of cruelty designed to accelerate the politics of resentment against the most vulnerable among us so that we overlook those really responsible for our economic and social insecurity: the wealthy elites funding Abbott and the rest of the extreme right.

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