by Ted Morgan
For many years now, an immigration “crisis” has regularly emerged as a hot topic in the corporate media. Presidents and Members of Congress from both political parties have in different ways raised alarms about undocumented or “illegal” immigrants in the United States. And both parties have raised false expectations that they might resolve the nation’s crisis.
Befitting what Noam Chomsky called the “legitimate discourse” of corporate media, however, there is a familiar commonality to the arguments of both sides. Each side frames its arguments around a kind of moral appeal regarding victims of one kind or another. Both omit the fact that US foreign policy drives much of the flow of immigration, and thus immigration becomes a form of blowback –a phenomenon thrust upon Americans because of US actions largely hidden from public view. In sum, the immigration discourse is sanitized in ways that consistently legitimize the US, while blame is simply cast on the other side of the argument or on the immigrants themselves –a classic example of what Daniel Hallin called the “sphere of legitimate controversy” that leaves out views that are “unworthy of being heard.”1
Immigration history and the controversies over contemporary policy are, of course, complex and detailed phenomena. Given space limitations, my intention here is to include enough information from these realms to illustrate the validity of my argument about mainstream discourse. There are, of course, many sources one could pursue to gain a more comprehensive understanding of immigration in the US.2
The Contemporary Debate
Echoing earlier Breitbart attacks on President Obama, Donald Trump began tweeting about immigration during the Republican primary of 2016, typically claiming that “I will end illegal immigration and protect our borders! We need to MAKE AMERICA SAFE AND GREAT AGAIN!” During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed that if elected, he would end the “invasion” of “criminals,” “terrorists” and others who “steal American’s jobs.” Evidence suggests that his anti-immigration stance helped him get elected in 2016.3
As has been well documented during his presidency, Trumpian discourse is full of lies and inflammatory personal attacks. Whereas Trump claimed that illegal immigrants “compete directly against vulnerable American workers,” studies have demonstrated that immigrants do not, in fact, take American jobs.4
As Aviva Chomsky notes, the two major structural developments causing downward shifting employment patterns in the US during the late twentieth century are deregulation and deindustrialization –the latter largely driven by globalizing capitalism.5
Nor, as many studies have documented, does immigration cause crime rates to grow; in fact, if anything, immigration produces a slight reduction in the crime rate over time. According to one such study, “Americans have long believed that immigrants are more likely than natives to commit crimes and that rising immigration leads to rising crime…. This belief is remarkably resilient to the contrary evidence that immigrants are in fact much less likely than natives to commit crimes.”6
During the 2018 caravan of Central American migrants marching north from Honduras and Guatemala, Trump announced that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” creating a “national emergency” requiring the deployment of about a thousand active duty Army troops to the border. The administration later admitted it had no evidence of “unknown Middle Easterners” in the caravan. Furthermore, the administration pressured Mexico to arrest and deport immigrants arriving across Mexico’s border with Guatemala, and Trump threatened the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador with a cut-off of US “massive” aid to those countries –a mere $450 million to the three countries, much of which has bolstered government repression in all three (more on this below).
Trump’s language about crime and job threats is couched as a kind of emotional, moralistic argument appealing to marginalized white Americans’ sense of their victimhood –part of his ongoing appeal to a crucial component of his political base. Trump’s rationale echoes earlier Republican state and local officials’ complaints about the impact of immigration on their communities. As reported by Aviva Chomsky, for example, back in 2014 Massachusetts state representative Mark Lombardo remarked of the “invasion” of children: “We just can’t afford it. We’re not adequately taking care of our own children, our own veterans, our own families who are struggling here in Massachusetts. We gotta put American families first.”7
Hundreds protested on the Boston Common demanding “Americans before illegals.” These kinds of complaints echo a long US history in which immigrants have been racially “Othered” as a way of allegedly protecting “native” populations.
Detention of Children
As we shall see, mainstream critics of Trump’s policies also use moralistic arguments revolving around the victimhood of the very immigrants he attacks. From 2017 through 2019, the detention of migrating children increased exponentially; a joint investigation by the Associate Press and Frontline revealed that a total of 69,550 children were so detained over the course of 2019 alone.8
Nowhere has public controversy been more evident than in the responses to the Trump administration policy of separating migrating children from their parents and subjecting them to barbaric conditions of long-term detention –a policy begun in April 2018.9
The separation of children from their parents, especially when visually documented by television or photojournalism and social media, inflamed the public discourse on immigration, unleashing a torrent of denunciation of this inhumane policy. Images of desperate children held in crowded cells without basic amenities, toddlers abandoned in isolation, and teenagers peering through chain link fences aroused public antipathy towards the detentions. Psychologists and other critics highlighted the traumatic nature of children being separated from their parents (who were then typically returned across the border). “Families Belong Together” protests erupted across the US, and the sponsoring organization’s chair declared, “Thousands have been traumatized, ripped away from their families, and at least six children have died preventable deaths in custody…. Congress must act to end these abuses immediately.”10
In June 2019, Congress passed a compromise bill providing $4.6 billion in humanitarian relief, including some funds for enhanced border enforcement.
Fearing lawsuits (which soon occurred), administration officials had earlier discussed ways they might claim that the policy made children safer. Initially, officials defended the practice of separation and detention as a “deterrent” to future immigration, yet failing to mollify the critics, they began to couch the detentions of children as a way of protecting them from “criminals” and “smugglers.” As former Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd put it, the administration had a “moral imperative” to “protect children from smugglers and ensure that gangs were not exploiting the shelter system to enter the country.”11
By contrast, a New York Times op-ed denounced the family separation policy as “immoral.”12
The “Wall,” Militarized Border, and Deportation
Detention of children hasn’t been the only controversy over Trump’s immigration policies. His bombastic claim that he would build an impenetrable wall across the US-Mexico border became a hot-button issue in both the media and Congressional debates. Although only a minor portion of a wall has been built, Trump continues to claim he will find the funds to construct it.
Similarly, in response to the wave of Central American immigrants approaching the border (or marching in the “caravan”), Trump dispatched Army and National Guard troops to block their entry, in addition to increasing the numbers of border patrol agents. As noted by immigration analysts Douglas Massey and Karen Pren, escalating border restraints have a kind of self-fulfilling impact: border apprehensions increase even as actual migration numbers level off or decline, and thus they are used by politicians and bureaucrats to inflame public opinion, leading to more restrictive immigration policies.13
Finally, inflamed fears of undocumented immigrants in the United States have been used to facilitate the removal of millions of immigrants over the years. Trump’s incendiary language and brutal enforcement policy via the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) became a particularly inflammatory part of the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” ICE tracks down immigrants in their homes, schools and workplaces, holds them in custody, determines their ‘criminality,’ and typically returns them to their native countries, where they face the very real threat of violence they originally fled from. Legitimate grounds for deportation were expanded from actual criminal convictions to “pending criminal charges” or being a “known gang member,” subject to ICE interpretation. Newspaper headlines warned of “Mass Migrant Roundups,” and undocumented immigrants curtailed their activities and lived with constant anxiety about their potential apprehension. In the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Trump’s policies were “deeply immoral,” and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and other Democrats have called for the abolition of ICE.14
Aimed at Latin Americans, ICE’s enforcement can be seen as an extension of broader, racist criminal justice practices in the US.
Whereas Trump’s deportation policies have stirred significant controversy, they are nothing new. President Clinton oversaw the repressive Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act in 1996 and had 1,864,343 immigrants either “removed” (arrested on criminal charges) or “returned” (sent back over the border via administrative action) during the year 2000 (188,467 were removed). In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush oversaw the creation of ICE, passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (that, like the “Illegal Immigration Reform Act” increased the number of categories of criminal activities by immigrants and green card holders) as well as the removal or return of 1,171,028 immigrants in 2008 (359,795 were removed).15
While President Obama has often been praised by liberal commentators for his “Dream Act” (DACA), aimed at protecting children of undocumented immigrants who were born in the US, he has also been labeled the “deporter in chief” by immigration advocacy groups, largely because the number of “removed” immigrants increased substantially during his presidency (333,592 in 2016). His policies created a division between a relatively few “good” immigrants (DACA recipients) and the remaining “bad” or “criminal” 10 million or so undocumented immigrants. It should also be mentioned that tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, whose industries depend on immigrant labor, have funded organizations like FWD.us to push for “comprehensive immigration reform,” while Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella criticized the precariousness of the “high skilled labor” necessary for “American competitiveness.”
A Factual Context for the Contemporary Debate
Not surprisingly, the contemporary immigration debate echoes the history of immigration to the United States. In successive waves, the Irish and Germans; Southern and Eastern Europeans and Jews; the Chinese, Japanese and eventually all Asians, encountered a virulent backlash, variously targeting their alleged immorality, criminality, disease, or in the case of the Chinese, racial characteristics that made them “aliens” who could not be assimilated. Aiming to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” the 1924 Immigration Act created the first, sharply-limited quotas for European immigrants, and banned immigrants from Asia. Immigrants from the Western hemisphere faced no such restrictions. [It should be added that post-9/11 Arabs and Moslems in general faced harshly racist attacks.]
Beginning during World War II, Mexican immigrants were encouraged to enter the US to fill vacant industrial jobs. From the 1940s until its elimination in the mid-60s, the government’s Bracero Program brought millions of mostly Mexican “guest workers” to perform the most onerous agricultural work, chiefly on the expansive farms of California. Finally with passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, immigration from all nations were subjected to quotas. The aftermath of the Act saw a dramatic increase in immigration from Latin America (including Mexico) so that more than half of all foreign born Americans in 2017 came from Latin America, a significant number being unauthorized.
Much of the contemporary hype about immigration focuses on “illegal” immigrants, chiefly those from Mexico and Central America. Yet, as Aviva Chomsky has noted, their very “illegality” was created by the 1965 quota system. Prior to that, Latinos and Latinas weren’t illegal in any sense, though for years it was chiefly Mexican migrant workers who came during the agricultural months and returned home.
The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the US grew rapidly from around 1990 to a peak of 12.2 million in 2007 to an estimated 10.5 million in 2017. 2011 saw a surge in immigration from the three “Northern Triangle” nations of Central America –Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Between 2007 and 2017, the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico fell by 2 million –a drop-off attributed to growing US hostility and improved opportunities in Mexico — whereas the estimated number from Central America increased by 400,000.16
As controversies around immigration swirled, a number of liberal commentators in the media began to note that, in contrast to the punitive stance of the Trump administration, the current “crisis” was being “pushed” by the violence prevalent in all three Northern Triangle nations, rather than “pulled” by the potential of economic opportunity. The official “legitimate” explanation for the violence coming from the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018 was that the Northern Triangle “remains menaced by corruption, drug trafficking, and gang violence.” This explanation has echoed through much of the corporate media where Central American violence has been fingered as a catalyst for immigration. The New York Times, for example, ran a multi-page article on the plight of victimized women in Guatemala. Filled with grim details about widespread fear and stories of rape and murder victims, the 6000-word article about migrants “fleeing a society controlled by criminals” includes two fairly brief references to the United States, both critiquing Trump’s repressive policies and his threat to cut off aid to the Northern Triangle –aid “we now spend on strengthening civil society and chipping away at the power of gangs and drug cartels.”17
The piece can be seen as an appeal to the moral conscience of Americans. What is telling is what is left out.
The Invisible Actor: US Foreign Policy
Responsibility for the out of control violence in the Northern Triangle can be laid directly at the feet of the United States. In 1954, the US overthrew the democratically-elected Arbenz regime in Guatemala because Arbenz was planning to seize unproductive land held by United Fruit (paying the going market rate) for distribution to peasant farmers. Falsely labeling Arbenz a Communist, the US replaced him with the Rios-Mont dictatorship which proceeded to wipe out 200,000 mostly indigenous Mayans over the next few decades — an act much later officially labeled “genocide” by the Historical Clarification Commission. The New York Times’ report on the commission findings noted that “the United States gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed “acts of genocide” against the Mayans during … Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.”18
Entirely absent were any independent details about the extent of US military training and support, to say nothing of the overthrow of the Arbenz regime that established the US-backed genocidal regime. The Times routinely refers to struggles against the US-backed oppression in Guatemala and El Salvador as “civil wars,” rendering the crucial US role invisible.
While the US supported military police states in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua for decades, it wasn’t until the 1980s that US policies began to have significant immigration implications. After the Sandinista-led revolution overthrew the US-backed Somozan dictatorship in Nicaragua, the US waged an unrelenting proxy war to overthrow the (as of 1984) democratically-elected Sandinista government, at the same time continuing to provide military training and support for the savagely repressive regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. In 1980-81 alone, the Salvadoran military and right wing terrorists killed 35,000 Salvadoran civilians — 75,000 over the decade of the 1980s. At the same time, the US built up a powerful US-backed military in Honduras as the staging ground for its war on Nicaragua. Thousands fled these repressive conditions — some 10% of all Salvadorans among them.
The US response is instructive. Refugees fleeing the so-called “totalitarian” Nicaragua, assaulted by the US Contra War, were granted political asylum. Peasants fleeing for their lives from the horrifically repressive Salvadoran and Guatemalan forces were not classified as political refugees, but “economic immigrants,” most of whom were thereby denied legal entry or shipped back to an almost certain death. During the Clinton administration, passage of the Nicaraguan and Central America Relief Act allowed asylum seekers from Nicaragua to obtain legal status in the US, but prohibited this and ordered deportation for mostly Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans who lacked a previous visa or who previously violated US immigration laws.
The mostly Salvadoran refugees who made it to the US tended to settle in the Los Angeles area. Their children grew up in poor, racially isolated neighborhoods where established gangs of Mexicans (to say nothing of the more established Crips and Bloods) often ruled the day. By the early 1980s Salvadoran youths drawn into the dominant Mexican gang broke off and formed their own gang, Mara Salvatrucha –roughly meaning ‘gang of vigilant Salvadorans’ — or MS-13. Traveling back and forth to El Salvador, MS-13 began to gain a foothold in that country in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the 1996 passage of the Illegal Immigration and Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, however, the US stepped in and began deporting thousands of gang members who subsequently wreaked havoc in El Salvador. It wasn’t long before El Salvador began to be labeled the “murder capital” of the world (to be replaced later by Honduras), and gang violence spread into Guatemala. In both countries, gangs have carried out often violent work for drug traffickers and organized crime syndicates.
In 2009, Hondurans had for the first time in memory elected a reformist president, Mel Zelaya. However, the Honduran military, with US backing by the Obama administration, executed a coup that was condemned throughout the hemisphere with the exception of the United States. Subsequently, Hondurans have had to endure violent repression and social chaos. Most recently Hondurans have matched or exceeded the numbers of immigrants coming from the other Northern Triangle nations.
In the end, US policy rejects immigrants fleeing violence for which the US bears major responsibility, instead returning them to face a bleak chance at survival –a situation for which, the US is also responsible. This clearly contradicts any claim of morality. But what’s more important is that it is also structural, and therein lies the key to finding a way forward. As David Feldman has observed, “Moral pleas and strident denunciations of xenophobia and hate that are not simultaneously buttressed by an anti-capitalist critique practically invite co-optation by the multicultural corporate elite.”19
Historically, the United States has unilaterally granted itself the right to forcefully cross national borders at will –a right that is unquestioned in the corporate media. This “right” evolves from an imperial foreign policy designed to sustain the US as a global hegemon maintaining reliable access to the exploitation of human and natural resources and to world markets –in short a climate conducive to profitable investment. The implications of such a policy were spelled out by Daniel Hellinger and Dennis Judd in their book The Democratic Façade:
The important features of a good business climate, as defined by corporate and foreign policy elites, are: a tractable low-paid labor force; an absence of worker-controlled unions; weak or nonexistent environmental protection laws; lax health and safety regulations in the work place; tax concessions and government subsidies for business; the use of public money to provide the infrastructure necessary for the functioning of business; and laws permitting the tax-free repatriation of corporate profits back to the United States.
They add: Because political revolutions commonly arise in reaction to such a system of exploitation, a repressive political system is a necessary feature of a ‘good business climate.’ ”20
In short, the US seeks to impose a neoliberal world on the peoples of Latin America, and has done so consistently. Increasingly, of course, corporate elites, and the Republican Party in particular, seek to impose such a world on the American people.
Needless to say, the impact of US foreign policy extends well beyond Latin America. Indeed, the mass migration from the Middle East to Europe has been driven by the decades of war and chaos the US has imposed on that region. And globally, much immigration from the South to the North reflects the long history of Euro-American colonial and imperial exploitation. In both European and American contexts aroused fears about these waves of immigration have helped right wing and nativist interests gain political power, thereby skewing the political discourse to the right.
Furthermore, it must be added, immigration, whether documented or undocumented, is highly functional for capitalist economies. Most immigrants provide relatively cheap labor for the US economy; they often fill low-pay, menial jobs that Americans are loathe to accept, and by keeping the labor pool expanding they enable corporations to suppress wages.
The implications of the restricted discourse in our corporate media and political institutions are profound. An understanding of the roots of the immigration problem point to a very different kind of debate, one that foresees a democratic world far different from the neoliberal capitalist order we live in.
Nancy Fraser has argued that the 2016 Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns reveal that public support for neoliberalism has declined to the point that there is now potential for a new counterhegemonic ideology to take root. Debate between “progressive neoliberalism” represented by the Democratic Party mainstream, and “reactionary neoliberalism” represented by Donald Trump and the Republican mainstream is consequently “dying.” Instead, she sees Bernie Sanders candidacy (and popular base) representing “progressive populism” and Donald Trump’s rhetoric and his base representing reactionary populism. To counter the reactionary element with more progressive neoliberalism is to “exacerbate the very conditions that created Trump. And that means preparing the ground for future Trumps, even more vicious and dangerous.”21
In effect, the same can be said of the immigration debate. To counter the horrors of Trumpian policy merely with moral pleas and humanitarian improvements in immigration control, is simply to perpetuate immigration “problems,” to say nothing of a horrific US foreign policy. In no way does it move us closer to a truly democratic world.
Ted Morgan is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and a long-time Lehigh Valley activist. His most recent book is What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.
- Daniel Hallin, “The Media, the War in Vietnam, and Political Support: A Critique of the Thesis of an Oppositional Media,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb. 1984), 21.
- Along with several articles, Aviva Chomsky has written two helpful books on the subject: “They Take Our Jobs” and 20 Other Myths about Immigration (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007) and Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).
- https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-klinker-immigration-election-20170417-story.html (accessed 1/20/2020).
- “Americans Aren’t Being Squeezed Out of Jobs by Immigrants, Report Finds,” Julia Preston, New York Times, September 21, 2016, A16. The article focuses on a report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
- Aviva Chomsky, “They Take Our Jobs,” 4. See her Myth 2: “Immigrants compete with low-skilled workers and drive down wages.”
- Mary C. Waters and Marisa Gerstein Pineau, Editors, The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Washington, DC, National Academies Press, 2015).
- Aviva Chomsky, “The United States’ Continuing Border Crisis: The Real Story Behind the ‘Invasion’ of the Children.” Truthout, August 25, 2014.
- https://apnews.com/015702afdb4d4fbf85cf5070cd2c6824 (accessed 1/20/2020).
- See https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/doctor-compares-conditions-immigrant-holding-centers-torture-facilities/story?id=63879031 (accessed 1/27/2010).
- Quoted in Eoin Higgins, “Causing ‘Profound’ Trauma, Trump Administration Detained Record-Breaking 70,000 Children in 2019.” Common Dreams, November 12, 2019.
- Nena Satija et al, “Border Crisis No Surprise,” Washington Post, November 19, 2009, reprinted in the Morning Call, 15. The latter part of the quote is the newspaper’s text.
- Dora Galacatos, Alan Shapiro, and Brett Stark, “The Cruel Ploy of Taking Immigrant Kids From Their Parents,” New York Times, March 2, 2018, A23. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/opinion/immigrant-children-deportation-parents.html?searchResultPosition=1, accessed 3/4/2018).
- Douglas S. Massey and Karen A. Pren, “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America.” Population and Development Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (March 2012), 9 & 22.
- Ron Nixon and Linda Qiu, “What is ICE and Why Do Critics Want to Abolish It?” New York Times, July 4, 2018, A18. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/03/us/politics/fact-check-ice-immigration-abolish.html, accessed 1/22/2020).
- These figures are from the New York Times editorial, “All Presidents Are Deporters in Chief,” July 13, 2019, SR10.
- Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, ‘Mexicans Decline to Less Than Half the US Unauthorized Immigrant Population For the First Time,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/12/us-unauthorized-immigrant-population-2017/, accessed 6/30/2019.
- Sonia Nazaario, “’Someone Is Always Trying to Kill You,” New York Times, April 7, 2019, SR1ff.
- Mireya Navarro, “Guatemalan Army Waged ‘Genocide,’ New Report Finds,” New York Times, Feb. 26, 1996, A1 (emphasis added).
- David B. Feldman, “’Pro-Immigrant’ Liberalism and Capitalist Exploitation: Why Corporate Democrats Do Not Support Immigration Justice,” Truthout, February 18, 2018.
- Daniel Hellinger and Dennis R. Judd, The Democratic Façade (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1996), 296.
- Nancy Fraser, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born (London: Verso, 2019), 28.