All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
When Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels inscribed these words in the Communist Manifesto over 170 years ago to explain the inexorable march of global capitalism and the merciless destruction of existing social relations, they may not have anticipated what a 21st century pandemic could do.
In a matter of weeks, the global spread of COVID-19 has brought the big gears of the capitalist mode of production to a grinding halt. The underlying operational logic of capitalism, the exploitation of labor for the accumulation of profit, has been exposed in stark relief for all to see as the system spirals downward without workers.
The coronavirus shutdown has laid bare the failings of the global capitalist system to prevent, withstand, or solve the crisis without further exposing and exacerbating the extreme class divides that characterize it. The rich have responded by using the state to transfer the next generation’s public wealth to itself and elbowing the rest of us out of the lifeboat. Even in the throes of global destabilization, the managers of the system are only offering more poverty, unemployment, and debt.
For millions of workers and their families that reside within the US—but live and work outside the gates of citizenship—the crisis results in more repression and criminalization. With one hand, the undocumented working class is feeding and serving those sheltering-in-place or requiring emergency services, while the other hand is being held behind its back by the migra-state.
Capitalist crisis has always spawned racist and xenophobic reaction against immigrants, such that migration repression has become a permanent political regime existing as part of the governing frameworks of both ruling parties. It is the fetid and pestilential soil that has produced the rise of Trump and the reanimation of reactionary white mobs and of red, white, and blue fascism.
As Trump gears up to declare yet another charge in the war on immigrants to clinch a next term, it is imperative that a movement also be declared and organized that is the very antithesis of the Trump has harnessed—that we open the border. We will only be able to do so by being unequivocal about the nature and function of the border and immigration enforcement.
Migration and border enforcement are features of an imperialist framework which facilitates the ability of US capital to exploit labor on an international scale. The US empire has enriched itself through regional capitalist domination, resource extraction, and the exploitation of labor across and within borders. The current phase of US capitalism has situated itself within the border enclosure complex as an important mechanism for capital accumulation.
Foremost, border enforcement relies on systematic violence to curtail and contain the movement of workers within the same domain where capital moves freely, and has re-drawn and integrated markets without regard for territorial boundaries. In fact, borders exist only for labor.
The bordering of labor occurs in two primary ways: through the criminalization of transnational labor mobility using border wall complexes, and through containment and control of sectors of labor within and across nationally bordered zones through international immigration agreements and deployment of enforcement agents. The US-Mexico border wall is the marker of this regime and the policing of migrant labor has become an outwardly expansive feature of the North American model of bordered capitalism.
These mechanisms of labor control maintain and enforce schisms between working classes based on national lines of separation, even as workers are increasingly employed by the same capitalist firms or investment aggregations or linked transnationally through supply-chain production and distribution networks. They further dislocate, subdivide, and stratify workers by race, nationality, and citizenship status within nations in order to further increase the rate of labor exploitation.
Bordered capitalism has re-defined how whole industries have come to increase profitability from this arrangement, from agriculture to service work, and from auto manufacturing to transportation. The super-exploitative character of this model has become even more discernible in the pandemic crisis. Maquiladora workers in Mexico are kept working in densely-packed sweatshops by their US-owners. Farmworkers are compelled to continue to perform “essential labor” without basic protections, and under conditions of increased criminalization.
Essentially Criminalized Workers
The closing of the economy in such an immediate and widespread manner has brought to light the central function of labor in capitalist accumulation. It shows how vulnerable the system becomes when workers withhold their labor, providing a candid dramatization of Marx’s labor theory of value in action.
The rush by some sectors of the ruling class to kick and shove the working class back into production and service work under conditions of spreading infection and increased mortality, is a visceral compulsion on their part to “save the economy” at the expense of the working class. It is an exposition of the existing relations of production. The owners of the means of production need to exploit labor to survive as a class, and workers need to sell their labor power as a means to survive.
While many migrant workers are “essential,” their oppressed status excludes them from even the hollowest gestures of national collectivity amid crisis. They are already at the frontlines of expendability and have the fewest options. State repression of migrants has a certain inertia and is one of the few functions of the state that has not shut down. In fact, it is intensifying.
Over 30,000 Central American refugees continue languishing and are exposed in shelters and makeshift camps along the US border, as Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy denying asylum remains was officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court as the pandemic intensified. Over 50,000 more migrants and refugees have been kept locked up in for-profit detention centers and denied basic protections while the virus is quickly spreading and turning them into death camps. The US government has deported over 7,000 (including over 400 children) people since the beginning of the pandemic, including those already infected with COVID-19.
While migrant workers carry out their essential work, immigration agents have become even more aggressive in policing the boundaries of their marginalization. According to a New York Times report,
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun 24-hour-a-day surveillance operations around the homes and workplaces of undocumented immigrants. The agency plans to deploy hundreds of additional officers in unmarked cars in the coming weeks to increase arrests in cities where local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
While the US population has been intimately re-introduced to the essential labor of farmworkers, most of whom are undocumented migrants, the federal government has been taking measures to lower wages for farmworkers by suspending federal minimum wage requirements for seasonal agricultural “guest-workers” and making such workers easier for employers to attain.
Within the education system, the administration is also targeting undocumented youth. The Department of Education under Betsy DeVos deliberately carved DACA recipients out of eligibility for emergency aid to the undocumented. Undocumented people and families with undocumented members have been systematically barred from receiving the modest payouts as part of the multi-trillion-dollar bailout for capitalists. These bailouts have had broad bi-partisan support, with Democrats in Congress validating the exclusion of immigrants alongside their Republican counterparts.
Exclusion has also been carried out in some states run by the Democratic Party. New York State Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, disqualified undocumented workers from access to state aid.
Trump used the closing of ranks against immigrant inclusion to feel confident enough to declare a moratorium on all immigration. He recently announced a 60-day ban on the issuance of green cards, claiming his intention to “protect work opportunities for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the pandemic.” Since nearly 40% of the workforce—roughly 40 million people so far—have lost their jobs so far, the suspension of several hundred thousand green cards a year will neither address the much grander scale of unemployment, nor is designed to. In effect, the lack of opposition to Trump’s heightened campaign of immigrant criminalization is allowing his administration to turn attention away from a monstrously iniquitous and crisis-prone system of capitalism and towards immigrants in order to polarize society on the eve of economic depression. This is a highly refined art in the history of the US politics.
Ramping up punishments and exclusions of migrant workers and their families, while they simultaneously feed and service the needs of a society in crisis, illustrates another key dimension of the political economy of bordered capitalism. The political managers, acolytes, and ideologues of the profit system are turning their sights on immigrants as scapegoats, as we head into the eye of the storm. The right wing is already sharpening its blades.
The Right Wing Ramps Up Xenophobia
Trump is a manifestation of the racist political economy that reproduces itself in various forms in every period but comes roaring back to life during capitalist crisis. He has configured a base among the most reactionary segments of the US population by connecting to and mobilizing the hideous underbelly of white nationalist exceptionalism. Despite his optics that play to the animosities and anxieties of his horde, Trump’s policies are most beneficial to big capital.
His administration botched the response to the pandemic (out of fear for profitability) and he is now deploying new means to organize and activate his crew of zealots, by acting on behalf of capital to get accumulation going again, while also sounding off against immigrants. These two factors, forcing people back to work without regard for their health, and blaming immigrants for scarcities that are already emerging, amount to the current solutions on offer to the crisis. The latter will become more pronounced when the working classes begin to push back against the effects of the crisis. This sense of trepidation is already being expressed by realist bourgeois economists, risk assessment analysts, and the capitalist press, who are anticipating a near-future of social crisis and working class unrest; one potentially surpassing the scale and severity of the Great Depression.
With impending uncertainty—combined with an election—Trump is toxifying the political soil against immigrants as the conditions of capitalist crisis begin to fall squarely on the shoulders of working class people. As the structural conditions of scarcity in work, housing, and support services intensify, so too will the Right amplify its call for more immigration restriction, deportation, and wall-building, and a host of other cruel punishments.
In a recent tweet, Trump seemingly fired the starter pistol, linking the destruction of the pandemic to immigrants “stealing” jobs using notoriously racist rhetoric: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”
In this overtly racist fusillade, Trump is calling on his allies and supporters to start the deafening chorus that has shown it can steer discourse in this direction and drown out all others, especially the few voices and perspectives blaming capitalism for the hardship inflicting working class people.
In this way, Trump is channeling the many ghosts of presidents past who have deflected attention away from their own missteps during crises of capitalism to target and scapegoat immigrants. But, it will not be Trump alone. If history can teach us anything about the intersections of crisis and immigrant scapegoating, he will have bipartisan support—whether explicit or tacit.
Every Presidential administration of the 20th and 21st Century, whether Republican or Democrat, has dabbled in or been devoted wholly to the repression of migrant people. Whether it be the first mass deportation by Herbert Hoover as the opening shots of the Great Depression, Roosevelt excluding immigrants from New Deal programs while Clinton cut them from modern welfare, Harry Truman overseeing targeted deportation of immigrant workers, unionists, and radicals during the Cold War, Eisenhower continuing deportation en masse with Operation Gatekeeper, or Obama carrying the out the single largest epoch of deportation in history; from Carter initiating the first post-Cold War increase in funding for the Border Patrol, to Reagan shifting the “War on Drugs” to the border and linking it to migration, and Clinton taking the baton to build the first phase of US-Mexico border militarization called “Operation: Gatekeeper.”
Trump is a logical outcome of this trajectory in US politics, albeit a more degraded version mirroring the decline of the capitalist system and the increasing violence necessary to prop it up. He is betting that he can deport his way out of the worst aspects of the political crisis, and the rest of the ruling class will likely go along with it.
Nevertheless, many people in society, including a newly revived socialist movement and millions of people looking in that direction, do not see immigrant workers as the threat to their livelihoods. To counter the growing threat of Trump, the violence of bordered capitalism, and the re-emergence of open and confident fascism, a new migrant rights movement must be organized. It must be organized unequivocally—and not concede one inch to the violent logic of xenophobic anti-immigration. To do so, we must collectively organize around the call to open the border.
Building an Alternative Means an Unequivocal Call to Open the Border
The coming period will be one of uncertainty and volatility. The working classes will be expected to pay for the crisis through unprecedented bailouts for the rich with public monies, budget and welfare cuts; the elimination of jobs, unemployment, underemployment; and many other forms of reduction, scarcity, and austerity that will wind through every aspect of daily life. They will be expected to accept a downgrade in the standard of living while the state and capitalist class work feverishly to reinstall the neoliberal economy and reimpose capitalist relations of production as they were prior to the crisis.
Previous periods of profound economic crisis show that is possible for groundswells of opposition to organize for an alternative. As Marx and Engels pointed out in the Manifesto, radical transformative forces can quickly sweep away old ideas, structures, and prejudices, especially in periods of crisis when the social classes erupt into open contention for power and control. The socialist labor movement will find itself in the frontlines of the struggles already developing and yet to come. At the center of the conflicts to come will be whether labor can internationalize its understanding of the class struggle, build unity between workers within and across borders, and not fall victim to the barrage of xenophobia, reactionary nationalism, and scapegoating that will become ubiquitous within the echo chamber of US politics.
With urgency and coherency, all movements emanating from this crisis must begin with the call for open borders. But what does this mean in practical terms for the class struggle to come? To begin, we need to call for all workers to have full and equal citizenship rights and benefits immediately; for support and assistance for undocumented workers to join or organize unions; for the closure of all detention centers and sheltering of the people; for the end of the “Remain in Mexico” policy and admittance of all refugees; and for the overturning of all immigration bans and an immediate halt to ICE and Border Patrol operations and a moratorium on deportations.
As the class struggle intensifies over the next years, so too should our demands, until we achieve the level of organization and mobilization of social forces capable of abolishing the migra-state and bordered capitalism altogether.