Biden, Borders, and the Fight for Migrant Justice
An Interview with Justin Akers Chacón
December 10, 2021
A KEY PLANK IN JOE BIDEN’S PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN was the promise of progressive immigration reform. Alas, the hopes of so many have been sadly frustrated. Although Biden overturned some of Trump’s most draconian executive orders, he has kept the deportation machine in high gear, expelling hundreds of thousands of migrants at the US–Mexico border, while scrapping plans for meaningful immigration reform. All of this raises crucial questions for migrant justice advocates.
In a fascinating conversation with Ashley Smith, author and activist Justin Akers Chacón discusses the history of border regimes in the US, capitalism and immigration control, and strategies for migrant justice.
The Trump administration’s America First program of white nationalism intensified the long and bipartisan war on migrants, refugees, and their rights. What impact did Trump have domestically and internationally?
Trump took a hold of the border regime built by his predecessors and aggressively turned it against the undocumented and refugee population. He didn’t add new dimensions to this regime, but weaponized it with over 400 executive orders and guidance memos to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), all of which were designed to intensify the repression of migrants.
One of them gave immigration enforcement agents more discretion over who they can detain and deport. In the past, migrants were not subject to expedited removal if they had been in the country more than two weeks, and only within 100 miles from the border. Trump extended the deportable period to two years and allowed policing to extend throughout the interior. He also revoked the established guarantee for migrants and refugees to appear in court and make their case before an immigration judge. This greatly expanded the targetable population, basically giving agents the ability to deport most people, at any time, and from anywhere across the country.
He also implemented a “zero tolerance” policy which effectively dismantled the asylum system by treating refugees as if they are criminals. Prior to Trump, most people who crossed through a port of entry seeking asylum, would be granted admission, and allowed to live in the United States, pending a review of their application, which could take several months. Only a small percentage was detained. Trump criminalized all people crossing the border, whether they were asylum seekers or migrants. For example, he empowered agents to detain families on the suspicion that they were child traffickers. They were then placed in detention facilities, often separating parents from their children, whom they placed in separate facilities. We thus saw the massive expansion of concentration camps.
Another order he issued shut down the border almost entirely. Using the pandemic as a pretext, he invoked an archaic health code—Title 42—to allow expedited removal of all migrants. The US government treated them as if they were coming from countries where the pandemic was active and threatened the country with infection. Of course, at the time the US was the epicenter of the pandemic; it was spreading Covid into Mexico. Nevertheless, Title 42 subjected all migrants and refugees apprehended at the border to expedited removal.
Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy was the final nail in the coffin of the asylum process. It refused asylum seekers’ entrance into the US. This forced them to stay in Mexico awaiting the chance to apply. Tens of thousands have gathered in squalid makeshift camps along the US–Mexico border far from any city center. These camps lack infrastructure of any kind, from sanitation to roads, and healthcare. Trump further blocked refugees’ access to asylum by defunding the courts so that there were very few judges who could preside over their cases.
All these policies gave the green light to Border Patrol and ICE agents, who were fervent Trump supporters, to detain, deport, and remove migrants and refugees with impunity. Of course, these agents have long abused people and their rights under previous administrations. But they were unleashed in a new way. They targeted activists and workers organizing for their rights. ICE put them under surveillance, tracking their social media, collecting data, and detaining and expelling large numbers of people from the country. In one example, poultry workers in Mississippi who had been trying to organize a union were raided and many deported.
Thus, Trump used all the weapons of the border regime to go after migrants and refugees. It was the centerpiece of his America First agenda. His policies whipped up a climate of hate. All to deflect attention from his naked, albeit erratic, service to the rich and powerful.
To stop these attacks from Trump, many migrant justice activists rallied behind the Democratic Party and Joe Biden in the 2020 election in the hope of winning reforms in the interests of immigrants and refugees. What is Biden’s record? And what have he and his newly anointed “border czar,” Kamala Harris, done in office? What is his overall strategy for immigration policy and the US border regime?
Biden is a very strange figure for migrant justice activists to support. His fingerprints are all over the construction and militarization of the border regime and the criminalization of immigrants. When he was in the Senate, he championed the passage of Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper, which deployed military technology and personnel for border enforcement. He spearheaded the Immigration Reform Act of 1996, which dramatically expanded the powers of what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the predecessor to ICE, to arrest, detain, and deport undocumented migrants. That led to a massive spike in expulsions and forced returns, which quadrupled under Clinton and exceeded one million people his last year in office.
That act also included the 287(g) program that allows for police to assist immigration enforcement agents. This new poli-migra state (“poli” denoting police and “migra,” immigration agents) now surveils, detains, and deports migrants throughout the country. The act also excluded migrants from most public welfare services, even though most pay taxes that fund them.
There’s no anti-immigration policy that Biden didn’t have a hand in crafting and enacting. The list is endless and perhaps best symbolized by his support for the USA PATRIOT Act—formally called the Homeland Security Act—that transformed and renamed INS to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and unleashed its agents against Muslims and migrants as if they were threats to the US state.
Of course, in his presidential campaign, Biden showcased little of his long anti-immigrant resume. The migrant justice movement that exploded against Trump’s concentration camps made such policies untenable. Biden instead promised to restore what he called a more humane immigration system. He didn’t offer much content to this promise except to say that Trump had taken things too far.
But he did promise a path to citizenship very quickly after being elected. However, this was largely a symbolic maneuver. His administration knew that it faced insurmountable opposition from both Republicans and Democrats and was unwilling to fight for it. In the end, Biden re-ran Obama’s show from 2008 and 2012, when Obama promised to legalize immigrants in order to corral the immigrant rights movement—he even had a Democratic “super majority” in his first term. But once in office, these plans were abandoned.
Biden is doing exactly the same thing.
True, Biden and Kamala Harris have reversed many of Trump’s worst executive orders, like the Muslim Ban, but many of those have been blocked by the courts, even though the Republicans have stuffed them with anti-immigrant reactionaries. For example, Biden promised to place a moratorium on immigration enforcement, but that was then blocked by a federal judge. Biden could have easily gotten around that by stopping all deportation orders, but he refused to do that. So, Biden’s promises have replayed the political theater we saw under Obama.
Biden has maintained the border regime and escalated mass deportation. He retained Trump’s Title 42, which has closed US borders and authorized immigration authorities to block, detain, and expel hundreds of thousands of people at the border. He most recently evoked it to violently round up and deport over 11,000 Haitians who gathered at a border crossing in South Texas. The result has been the multiplying and ballooning of the migrant camps in Mexico and expedited deportation for those trying to cross. Biden is set to surpass Trump in the current rate of deportations.
There has been no reevaluation of the Department of Homeland Security, specifically ICE and Border Patrol. In fact, the new administration has maintained the same budget that Trump passed, which was the highest in history. Trump lavished DHS with $54 billion, and Biden matched that figure this year. Thus, despite the reversals of some executive orders, we see the same pattern over the last several administrations. After each Republican administration, the Democrats say they’re going to reverse the trajectory of immigration policy. In fact, they maintain it minus a few of its extreme features. As a result, the repressive apparatus of the border regime has overall grown larger, more intrusive, and more repressive.
The Biden administration has also made clear that it wants to close off the flow of migrants to and through Mexico into the US. How has it implemented an expansion of the US border regime into Latin America?
The starting point for Biden’s strategy is the human rights catastrophe on the border that Trump caused. Tens of thousands of people languishing in makeshift camps in Mexico. They’re subjected to violence by criminal gangs, privations of all kinds, and horrific conditions without running water and sanitation. The new administration promised to undo the Remain in Mexico policy that caused the growth of these camps. It had started to open hearings for some refugees applying for asylum. But a federal judge’s ruling that upheld the policy has forced most refugees to stay and wait in Mexico in those squalid and dangerous camps. Biden has complied without a peep of opposition or counter-maneuver.
Biden’s solution to the crisis on the border is to try and contain the flow of refugees and migrants out of Latin America and the Caribbean at the source. Kamala Harris has been charged with carrying this out. She launched the project with her infamous speech declaring that the border remained closed and told migrants “do not come.” For refugees, she told them to apply for status through the US embassies in their home countries.
Their real project is to expand the border regime in Mexico and the states in the so-called Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This strategy has taken shape over the last several administrations. Its roots are in Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia. As part of the so-called War on Drugs, Clinton provided money to the Colombian state ostensibly to repress drug cartels and the drug trade. But the funds were primarily used to carry out the regime’s war against the guerilla insurgency, as well as against labor unions and social and popular movements.
George W. Bush deepened this regionalization of border security through his Plan Merida, itself modeled on Plan Colombia, but emphasizing northern and southern border militarization in Mexico. This agreement subcontracted border policing and securitization in Mexico, and facing south, to the Mexican state. Obama further tied aid to Mexico to the containment of migration. Then, Trump extended this further into Central America. He made all aid to the region contingent on immigration control. He also sent ICE and the Border Patrol to train their border enforcement agents, militaries, and police.
The US did all of this at the same time they were expanding “free trade” arrangements through the implementation of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), beginning in 2005. That caused economic havoc in the region, displacing millions from their previous jobs and farms. The expanded border regime locked those workers in place as cheap labor for US and multinational capital.
The Biden and Harris aid package to Mexico and the Northern Triangle states continues this expansion of the regional border regime. It is meant to stop the flow of people out of the region and keep them in the export processing zones in countries like Honduras, which has one of the region’s largest garment manufacturing industries. North American capital needs to keep workers in Mexico’s enormous industrial sector. There are over eleven million workers—a quarter of the workforce—employed in Mexico’s export processing zones. The border regime is a regime of capital accumulation.
Let’s step back a bit and look at the origins and nature of the world’s states and border regimes. How did capitalism and imperialism bring this system of states and borders into being, and how do they cause migration, regulate it, and block it?
Of course, state control over labor and labor supply predates capitalism. It is a feature of all states that preside over class societies. Ruling classes need to ensure they have access to and control over the laborers they exploit, whether they be slaves, serfs, peasants, or wage workers. And they use their states to accomplish that task.
Under capitalism, state borders and border regimes take on new functions that have changed over time. The state must guarantee capital access to cheap and plentiful supplies of wage laborers. Initially, many centers of capital accumulation and investment in the US had shortages of labor. So, the state facilitated migration from Europe to overcome that problem.
Much of the current US working class are descendants of migrants who came to the country to provide labor for its industrial development from the Civil War right up to World War I. So, the state encouraged open borders to entice immigrant labor into the country. At the same time, the border regime has been a regime of racialization that excluded other groups of workers on racist grounds.
But the creation of border walls is a very recent phenomenon in the history of capitalism. I argue in The Border Crossed Us that border securitization reflects a crisis-ridden stage of capitalism in which the US needs access to cheap and criminalized labor within its borders, as well as access to cheap labor in other countries—whose workers are kept in place by borders. Of course, capitalist states have done similar things in the past. For example, the US state enforced slavery, share cropping, and legalized racial segregation. So, today’s border regime has certain continuities with earlier periods.
It builds walls and polices migrants not to stop them from entering the country. In fact, there’s no evidence to support the idea that the US–Mexico border stops migrants. People who want to get across the border succeed in doing so even if they risk their lives in the process. The border regime serves a function other than stopping migrants; it criminalizes them, making them a largely unorganized source of cheap, racialized labor denied basic civil and union rights.
The world’s border regimes create hundreds of millions of people who earn dramatically less than documented and citizen labor in their new countries. In the United States, the current eleven million or so undocumented workers (and millions more over the last decades) are a tremendous source of wealth for capitalists. So, border walls equal increased exploitation.
Turning to the larger history, how did the US state construct the border regime and how has it changed over time?
The US state formed through genocide and slavery. It killed and displaced the Indigenous population through settlement and westward expansion. It enslaved African labor as part of its original accumulation. The state was the mailed fist of this settler colonialism that established the US borders.
This process was premised on the denial of citizenship to African and Indigenous people. It could not grant Africans the right to citizenship like the rest of the population, because that would have compromised slavery. It could not grant Indigenous people citizenship, because that would have blocked colonization, extermination, and forced relocation to so called reservations.
For everybody else, the US state maintained open borders up through the 1800s, enticing migrant workers to become citizens. A few things brought that period to an end toward the close of the nineteenth century. First, workers began to form unions and build anticapitalist political parties. Second, the US started excluding people they considered unfit for labor, like people with disabilities. Third, the US became a contending imperial power with aspirations for colonial expansion. It justified that project with the racism first forged against Native Americans and enslaved Africans. The state’s border regime began to exclude racialized populations from the zones of US imperial domination. The most important example is the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred immigration of Chinese and many other Asian populations. That was an early taste of border policing. It would intensify during the Palmer Raids after the Russian Revolution, when the state expelled leftist immigrants in the thousands.
But the modern border regime really took shape during the Cold War. That was the result of a couple of factors. First, was the threat of massive unionization and the challenge it posed to racial segregation in the US. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organized hundreds of thousands of African Americans and Mexicans in the 1930s and 1940s. It mobilized Mexican miners in Arizona, factory workers in New Mexico, garment workers in Los Angeles, as well as port workers and cannery workers in San Diego. The Communist Party and other socialists and radicals were central to all this unionization.
That’s why the US state under both Democrats and Republicans turned to McCarthyism to carry out the domestic side of the Cold War, targeting Communists, radicals, and the entire CIO to beat back the working class and its challenges to racial segregation. They smashed or drove out many of the key unions in the CIO, particularly those with the largest numbers of Mexican and Black workers.
In the same period, the US state launched Operation Wetback, which deported tens of thousands of Mexican workers. In justifying this racist class attack, the government equated migrants with Communism and labor unrest. They targeted areas where the CIO had grown the most, like the barrios in Los Angeles. They used new powers to go after immigrants for their membership in radical groups and participation in union militancy.
That’s when the US built the first border wall. It was a chain link fence in Calexico, which was a crossing point for migrant workers, just east of San Diego. It was constructed with fencing repurposed from Japanese internment camps. That is a demonstrative symbol of the new border regime, one wrought out of imperialism, racism, anticommunism, and labor repression.
The 1950s were the first time the US identified immigrants on a mass scale as an internal threat. The media of the time was filled with articles warning that Mexicans who crossed the border were a communist menace to the US. The mass deportations under Operation Wetback devastated the largest, most vibrant, antiracist wing of the labor movement. Once established, successive administrations built on the basic structure of this border regime.
Another key point of its expansion was in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan when the US supported counter revolutionary movements in Central America and the Mexican government’s suppression of radical student and agrarian movements. This repression displaced millions of people across the region, many of whom made their way into the US as the harvest of empire. This in turn led to the rise of undocumented workers in the US. Reagan responded with the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. It had a dual character; it legalized a couple million workers but tied legalization to increased border enforcement. It legitimized this expansion of the border regime by claiming it would stop Central American revolutionaries from destabilizing the US. Reagan also increasingly justified it as part of the so-called War on Drugs.
This is how the US border regime shifted from open borders (to provide workers for capitalists) to one of border enforcement. In the neoliberal period, the state and corporations busted unions, cut workers’ wages and benefits, shredded the social welfare state, and internationalized sections of production to exploit cheap labor abroad. It used migrant labor, criminalized by the border regime, as cheap labor at home. At the same time, the US state, under both parties, blamed migrants and workers abroad for stealing jobs. It intensified US nationalism as it facilitated capital’s globalization. And those predatory economic policies—often backed up by right-wing regimes in various Latin American countries—only served to drive more people from their homelands to the US, where they were portrayed as a threat to the country.
Trump did this in the most explicitly racist fashion, describing migrants and refugees as rapists and terrorists. While the Democrats who participated in this border regime may not have engaged in the same explicit racism, their policies were nonetheless xenophobic and racist. Remember, before Trump, Obama put whole families in detention camps. Without saying it, that spread the idea that all migrants—including families with children—are a threat that cannot be let loose in society.
That’s how both capitalist parties, right-wing Republicans and (neo)liberal Democrats, built on each other’s policies to create this vast new border regime. They acted like ancient rulers of Mexico and Central America who built on each other’s pyramids, each one higher and bigger than the last. In the same way, successive US administrations continued the project of building and enlarging the border regime.
In your new book, The Border Crossed Us, you analyze how the US reorganized the border regime in the neoliberal period. You call this the North American Model. What is the function of this model, and what impact has this had on workers in Latin America, Mexico, and the US?
The North American Model deploys border enforcement as a mechanism of labor control. It is a model because most of the world’s capitalist states are imitating it to varying degrees. This model’s roots lie in how the US, as part of its colonial formation, invaded and occupied Mexico. The US plundered Mexico’s natural resources, exploited its labor, and incorporated its economy.
The Mexican Revolution, which itself was a reaction to US imperialism, interrupted that semicolonial subordination. After the revolution, the Mexican state tried to construct a form of state capitalism that attempted to carve out space for independent capitalist development freed up from the United States. After World War II, many states in the developing world tried to do the same thing. The US saw this as a threat to its hegemony, especially over Mexico.
As I argue in my book, the combination of the 1970s global economic crisis and the consequent entrapment of the Mexican state in debt, led a faction of the Mexican capitalist class to cut a deal with Washington and US capital to abandon state capitalism for neoliberal globalization. The US state, through the Treasury and International Monetary Fund, played an enormous role in undermining similar state capitalist regimes throughout the developing world. In Mexico, the US opened the country to a flood of American and international capital.
In the process, the US and Mexican ruling classes carried out an enormous transfer of wealth to themselves from Mexico’s workers and peasants. They claimed private ownership of the means of production, natural resources, and land. And they integrated displaced peasants and workers into the newly regionalizing system of production. This transition from state capitalism to one of the most neoliberalized systems of capitalism in the world happened in just a couple of decades from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. It was not carried out in direct colonial fashion, but through a partnership between the Mexican capitalist class and the US one. Remember, these classes are highly integrated right down to sending their kids to the same schools.
Mexico became a laboratory for neoliberalism. It is now the most open economy in the world; it has more free trade agreements than China and the United States combined. The Mexican ruling class has profited enormously from its integration into the world economy, spawning a new billionaire class. As a result, Mexico and the US are now two of the most unequal societies in the world.
US capital, of course, also profited enormously off this process, buying up Mexican industries and banks. But the main thing it did was restructure production and distribution across the US–Mexico border. US capitalists transferred whole sections of industrial production to the infamous maquiladora zones and connected those through a transnational logistics and transportation network. This pioneered the transnational supply chains that now link the world economy together.
Mexican, US, and multinational capital used the opening of Mexico for transnational production and distribution to push deeper into Central America. The ruling classes did this to increase profits by exploiting Mexican and Central American workers, who are paid vastly less than those in the US to do the same work. In a familiar pattern, they internationalized production to pit workers against one another in a race to the bottom. In the US, capitalists regularly use the threat of sending plants to Mexico to drive down workers’ wages at home.
While the ruling class tries to use the border to maintain and take advantage of these wage differentials to divide workers, the internationalization of production also binds workers together. Take the auto industry as an example. Mexican workers make parts that get shipped from Michigan to Tennessee and other US centers of auto manufacturing. And that’s just one example of a pattern of transnational production in many industries.
This is also true of distribution and logistics. Mexican truckers drop off their cargo at the border and then US truckers pick it up to finish the delivery. The same is true of retail and banking. Walmart dominates the Mexican retail business, and US banks own much of the country’s financial sector. This new system of integrated finance, production, distribution, and sale fuses workers together across borders, creating the conditions for international labor organizing.
For example, workers at Walmart in the US are trying to organize into unions and fight for better wages and working conditions. Mexican workers are doing the same thing, but in a much more militant fashion; they’re striking and winning. That makes it possible for workers in Mexico and the US to collaborate and learn from each other, especially from the example of Mexican workers striking for authentic union recognition.
As Marx argued, capitalist development creates the conditions where workers can unite and fight for their common interests. So, ironically, the North American Model that used the border to divide workers and lower their wages on both sides of the border also makes international labor organizing and struggle a possibility and a necessity.
While the US ruling class has thoroughly integrated Mexican and migrant labor into its system of production, at the same time its two parties use nationalist attacks on these workers. How does this serve its economic and political interests?
The short answer is that the US ruling class uses nationalism to bind US-born workers to it, and to divide them from Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean workers. This nationalism has, of course, racial overtones: migrants are cast as people of color threatening white America. The US ruling class and its two parties weaponize the migration they caused and the migrant laborers they exploit, scapegoating them for the country’s growing class inequality.
They long used xenophobic nationalism to legitimate their capitalist and imperialist project. It’s a key part of American exceptionalism—the racialized promise of giving priority to white workers over all other workers. But the foundation of this ideology is crumbling. Most importantly, the racial and national character of the US working class has changed dramatically over the last several decades. The class was never as monolithic as its ideological representations; large fractions of it have always been made up of racially and nationally oppressed people. But the ruling class has always distorted this reality to ideologically construct an image of the nation as white.
That has become untenable over the last several decades with the changing racial and national composition of the entire population, especially the working class, which is more diverse than at any point in US history. That makes it increasingly difficult for the ruling class to legitimate their project on xenophobic and racist terms.
Such nationalism impacts liberal views on immigration, as well as those among labor officials and parts of the Left. Bernie Sanders, for example, dismissed the demand for open borders as a Koch Brothers idea. Why do you argue that these adaptations of nationalism are a block in building a fighting workers movement?
When Bernie Sanders said open borders was a Koch brothers’ idea, he claimed that if the US opened the border, half the world would want to come in, and that would threaten the US working class’s standard of living. Such chauvinism is the liberal version of “America First.” It counterposes the wellbeing of citizen workers in the US to that of the international working class as a whole.
Such liberal nationalism distorts how the US and world economies work. US capitalism is in fact propped up by the exploited labor of immigrants and refugees, who form a key part of the US working class, as well as the exploited labor of workers in other countries. Rather than being separate and apart, US workers are an integrated part of global capitalism. And the border, rather than benefitting US workers, has been used to divide them from workers in this system to the detriment of all.
This kind of nationalism is not new. It has a long and disastrous history on the US left. From its founding in 1900, the Socialist Party had xenophobic, white supremacist, and class reductionist currents. These were indifferent or hostile to the struggles of oppressed people, from African Americans to Native Americans, immigrants, and women. All of it was premised on the idea that the working class (presumed to be citizen, male, and white) is only concerned with bread-and-butter economic issues and that the way to organize and mobilize them is through fights for generic economic demands.
I would argue that such economic reductionism has been a dominant current of the socialist movement in this country all the way up to the present. Unsurprisingly this current also ignores or even supports US imperialism and the role it plays internationally. It is a deadly flaw because it leaves the Left defenseless against something like the North American Model in which the US uses globalization and the border regime to divide and conquer workers in the US and Mexico.
Nationalist politics also have little to say to millions of migrant workers who, in addition to economic demands for wages and benefits, also have political ones, like legalization of status. For these workers, political demands are inseparable from economic ones. Leftists who avoid these issues are not merely abstaining, they’re positioning themselves on the Right. And some are explicit about that, putting forward reactionary “solutions” like closed borders and deportation.
This current is simply adapting to capitalist politics, its nationalism, its xenophobia, border regimes, and imperialism. It’s been the dominant current in the trade union bureaucracy and an Achilles’ heel especially of the union movement. We don’t have strong unions, in part because they have capitulated to such politics by their allegiance to the Democratic Party.
We don’t yet have a strong socialist left that can counter this current in the workers movement. And tragically, where the Left is growing, a big section of it is adapting to these old nationalist ideas as opposed to developing the internationalist ones we desperately need. As a result, there is little political expression of what the leading edge of workers actually think about all these issues.
Polls demonstrate that most people are way to the left of the establishment and its parties. Despite decades of immigrant bashing, most people favor immigration reform. That is the result of the level of integration of US-born workers and immigrants, as well as the radicalization to the left against class inequality. Integration and the development of mixed-status families tend to inoculate people against all the xenophobia spewed by the two capitalist parties.
What’s needed is a current in the new socialist left that unapologetically supports open borders, legalization, and the abolition of ICE. This is key for the rebirth of the labor movement, which must have migrant workers and immigrants in other countries, especially Mexico, right at the center of organizing. It is in fact the only way we can build a movement to challenge the North American Model.
In the face of these attacks Mexican and migrant workers have waged an unrelenting resistance. There have also been lots of struggles along the border. What are the patterns of resistance over the last few decades? What are the strategic lessons from these?
There is a long history of class struggle in Mexico, but I’ll just focus on the recent neoliberal era. The working class is very large; 80 percent of the working age population work for wages in the formal or informal economy. In the 1930s state-controlled unions were formed that became increasingly repressive and accommodating to neoliberalism by the 1970s. Since the 1970s, the state and individual companies have created phony unions in the new industries designed to control workers and keep wages at the lowest possible threshold. When you exclude these two dimensions of labor misrepresentation, Mexican workers have one of the lowest rates of authentic unionization in the world.
Despite this fact, waves of militant class struggle have developed outside of these phony unions against the imposition of the North America Model on Mexico. Not all of this has been at the point of production. There have been many struggles around a variety of class issues outside the workplace, like students fighting against tuition fees, or renters fighting against landlords.
In workplaces, struggle has emerged in the new manufacturing industries that grew dramatically over the last few decades. Auto is booming and now employs about 900,000 workers and accounts for something like a fifth of the country’s GDP. Hundreds of factories export auto parts for plants in the US and Canada. There are also whole automotive production facilities where they put all the parts together and produce cars. Every major auto company in the world is now in Mexico.
The workers get paid a fraction of the earnings of those in other countries, and that has generated waves of job actions and strikes. In early 2019, workers started organizing to form independent, authentic unions in about fifty different automotive related maquiladoras in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. They already had a fake union, but workers organized outside of it. They staged a wave of forty-five wildcat strikes in the first two months of 2019, primarily in the US-owned auto plants that export parts to manufacturers in the US and Canada. It disrupted the whole North American automotive industry.
This strike wave happened the same year as the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the US and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) in Canada struck against General Motors. One of the several motivations for these strikes was to stop relocation of plants to Mexico. Indeed, one of GM’s threats to the UAW and CAW was that if it didn’t accept this crappy contract the company would move more facilities to Mexico.
The UAW and CAW had a real opportunity to build cross-border solidarity against this strategy of divide and conquer. They could have forged ties with workers in the large GM assembly facility in Silao, Guanajuato, Mexico. Workers there had been organizing in horrific conditions. When UAW workers went out on strike, the workers at this plant offered to strike with them to neutralize the threat of plant relocation. They asked the UAW to stand with them and support their organizing an independent union.
If the UAW and CAW had supported them, that would have strengthened the strike and class solidarity across the border. Instead, both the UAW and CAW largely ignored the Mexican workers. GM took advantage of that and fired most of the Mexican militants who had made the offer of solidarity, and the others had to keep their heads down. As a result, GM got most of what it wanted, including closing a plant with the intention of moving it to Mexico.
Despite this setback, the workers in Mexico persisted in organizing and just recently won a big victory. They threw out the old phony union and are in the process of creating a new one they call the Independent National Union of Automotive Workers in Mexico. That has happened while many other workers in different industries are forming independent unions. All of them understand the transnational character of production and the need to build international unions to challenge the North American Model.
This shows the opportunity for workers to build across borders for common unions with collective, industry-wide contracts that improve the wages and benefits of all workers in North America. If unions seized that opportunity, it would put genuine internationalism back in the union movement. But we need an organized left within the unions, and the working class more broadly, to argue and fight for the unions to make this possibility a reality. Of course, this will be a hard struggle, but it’s necessary for the unions to challenge the North American Model.
What about the migrant justice struggle on the US side of the border? What have been its patterns and pitfalls and what are the lessons for the future?
Immigrants have always been in the vanguard of the class struggle in the US. They have been the lifeblood of union militancy and dynamism. The ruling class knows this and that explains, in part, why they exert such political control over transnational labor. They green-light the Mexican, Caribbean, and Central American states, especially in the Northern Triangle, to repress independent unions. But that leads workers to resist with more militant strategies and tactics.
When these workers emigrate from the region they carry with them these traditions of organization, political consciousness, and militancy. That leads them toward greater willingness to join unions and fight their bosses in the US. There is a deep history of this that stretches all the way back to the dawn of the modern labor movement. More recently, since the last amnesty in 1986, immigrants have been at the center of revitalizing the labor movement. That’s one of the reasons I don’t believe the capitalist parties will ever grant blanket legalization again—without being forced to do so.
The people who were legalized in 1986 were already organized and fighting. That shifted the union officials who, faced with declining membership, saw an opportunity to rebuild their numbers and said, “we’ll help you now because you’re going to become citizens.” It wasn’t a fundamental shift on their part to real internationalism, but more of an opportunist adaptation to struggle from below.
This push was led both from below by the workers themselves, as well as from above by officials in the Southwest who understood that immigrants were already organizing themselves, sometimes through kinship, language, and other associations in their neighborhoods, or inside their workplaces. After the unions shifted, they expanded their ranks under the amnesty by about three million people.
Finally, in 2007, the AFL–CIO leadership took a position in favor of the right of undocumented workers to get citizenship. But they never fully committed to the idea of unconditional legalization. And they continued to support restrictions on immigration and punishment of employers for hiring undocumented workers. As a result, they did not fully embrace organizing migrant workers. Nevertheless, some militants have consistently agitated for their local unions to support immigrants.
These workers’ militancy was expressed in the 2006 mass movement against the Sensenbrenner-King Bill, which would have criminalized all migrants and any organizations that helped them. Over three million undocumented people, their families, and allies organized a “Day Without an Immigrant.” Workers engaged in strikes, walkouts, boycotts, and other militant actions that shut down whole sections of the country. It was the largest strike in US history and that militancy killed the bill in Congress.
Just like in 1986, millions of undocumented people declared they were part of the working class, wanted to join unions, and wanted unconditional legalization. Two things happened to kill this momentum. First, the state, under George H.W. Bush, and every president since him, smashed immigrant organizing at the point of production, policed immigrant communities, and selectively targeted militants. Their aim was to intimidate the rest of the population and make people fearful of organizing to fight. Faced with this state crackdown, organized labor pulled back their short-lived support for immigrant workers and their struggles.
The worst example of this retreat was when then AFL–CIO president, Richard Trumka, said that he could work with newly elected president Donald Trump, and that he liked what he heard from Trump about supporting American workers. This represented a disastrous retreat to the reactionary nationalism that puts citizen workers before undocumented and international workers. This is premised on the mistaken belief that some workers will benefit from deporting and repressing other workers. Not only is that belief reactionary and wrong, but it also disconnects unions from organizing millions of undocumented workers who are, as I have pointed out, one of the potentially most important groups that can rebuild the labor movement.
The second reason for the loss of momentum, was the migrant justice movement’s orientation toward the Democratic Party, despite its long and reactionary record. The movement hoped that Democrats would at least open some limited path to citizenship. Obama took advantage of that and even went so far as to adopt one of the slogans of the movement—“Si Se Puede” (or “Yes We Can”)—and make it his campaign slogan, only to turn around and increase border enforcement and deport more immigrants than any president in US history.
So, the combination of state repression and mistaken support for the Democratic Party demobilized the struggle that had crested in 2006. But, as we saw under Trump, immigrants and their allies revolted against that administration’s white supremacist and xenophobic policies. We can hope that Biden’s betrayals, combined with the example of unrelenting organizing by Mexican workers, will lead the movement to return to independent organizing in the workplace and communities. That is how every advance for migrant justice has been won.
In these struggles, what role can socialists play in advancing an internationalist vision of working class solidarity? What sort of immediate reforms and long-term demands should socialists advocate?
Socialists should be advocating abolitionist demands—abolition of ICE, the Border Patrol, the border wall, DHS, and the entire border regime. This regime is responsible for untold numbers of deaths each year. We should call for open borders and international solidarity, especially in our unions. These demands are transitional ones that target the foundations of how US capitalism operates under the North American Model. They form an alternative program to the Democrats’ liberal nationalism as well as the Republicans’ white supremacy and xenophobia.
At the same time, socialists should raise concrete demands of solidarity with Mexican workers’ struggles and those of all migrant workers. Where we can, we should push US unions to issue solidarity statements with those fights, organize coalitions in support of them, and most importantly help organize migrant workers into the labor movement. If unions don’t do these things, they will be irrelevant to the political debates and the struggles of a key section of the working class.
If the unions do this, they could have an enormous impact in the US and in Mexico. Imagine what we could do if we had organized labor standing up for immigrants and refugees. We got a glimpse of their potential power during the battle over Trump’s budget in 2019. Trump wanted to include $5 billion for the border wall, but the Democrats only offered $1.5 billion.
So, Trump shut down the government and furloughed its workers. He was trying to blame the Democrats and their supposed support for immigrants as the reason for their lost pay. He tried to galvanize workers around his push for the wall, even though it was unpopular. Initially, the government unions responded with a weak set of press conferences against the government shutdown. They called for Trump to abandon his push for $5 billion for the wall and to put people back to work.
But this was relatively ineffective. What turned the tide was the impact of the government shutdown on the airline industry. The furlough of the air traffic controllers stopped flights, leading to airline workers losing work and pay. The president of the flight attendants’ union (the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA), Sara Nelson, threatened a strike, even going so far as to suggest a general strike. Trump buckled in twenty-four hours, ending the government shut down. That shows the power of workers to defend immigrant rights, forcing one of the most authoritarian rulers in US history to his knees.
This is a glimpse of workers’ power against the border regime. That’s why we must do everything in our power to push the unions to abandon their adaptation to nationalism and anti-immigrant positions. We must get them to adopt internationalism and support unconditional legalization for all undocumented workers. And we must argue for them to put their resources into solidarity and organizing in support of struggles that advance those demands. For the Left to advance these arguments it must become unapologetically and proudly abolitionist and internationalist. Nothing less than the future of the labor movement in Mexico and the US is at stake.