Events at the US-Mexico border mark another low for Donald Trump. They also remind us of the long record of exploitation and persecution of migrants to the US from Central America. For over 100 years employers north of the border have relied on migrants from the south, drawing in workers indispensable to American capitalism. At the same time US governments have periodically targeted the migrants as aliens, “invaders” and enemies of the wider society, launching campaigns of exclusion like that enacted by Trump and cheered on by the racist Right.
The most conservative estimates suggest that some 12 million irregular migrants are residents in the US, most originating in Mexico and states of Central America. Many have travelled along well-established routes which take them to specific workplaces across the border. One in eight workers in construction in the US is an irregular migrant: in agriculture the figure is one in six. Large numbers of irregular migrants also work in leisure, hospitality and manufacturing.
“Undocumented” migrants (those who have crossed the border without papers or who have become “overstayers”) are particularly attractive to employers who seek the most vulnerable labour – those who can be hired at the lowest wages and fired most easily, who are less likely to claim rights at work and to join a union, and for whom it is easiest to evade legal obligations on employer taxes and insurance. For decades the economy of the South and West of the US has been dependent upon them. As the right-wing Cato Institute notes, irregular migrants operate as “the lubricant to our capitalistic economy”.
Irregular migrants are integral to American capitalism. They are also mobilised ideologically to support campaigns of exclusion, becoming part of the repertoire of conservative nationalism and now of the Alt Right and of crypto-fascist currents. This reflects an apparent contradiction evident since the emergence of the modern nation-state. It is the search for profit (“the market”) that shapes patterns of exploitation of the working class. At the same time the nation-state requires ideologies of belonging based on notions of inclusion and exclusion.
The capitalist class may be unified in its approach to migration, especially at times of economic growth and strong demand for labour. It may also be divided on policy, notably when some sectors of the economy contract and/or when exclusionary currents play a particularly important role in the development or consolidation of ideologies of nation.
Some employer lobbies wish for continuous access to cheap and vulnerable labour; others back demands for border control, exclusion and persecution of migrants. Many change their approach contingently, lurching from one position to another. And many, like Donald Trump, have embraced both approaches. The US president employed irregular migrants to build Trump Tower in New York City, the headquarters of his property empire, and took on undocumented workers from Central America to build a new luxury hotel in Washington DC. Now he describes them as “criminals” and “animals”. Lacking formal status in the US, few irregular migrants are able to respond publicly to his attacks.
There are many historic precedents for Trump’s assault on migrants — part of a pattern that reflects intermittent tension between the demands of the market and the changing priorities of the state and of nationalist currents.
In the mid-19th century the US economy was growing at a dizzying pace. With slavery officially declared illegal (though widely accepted in some regions) the US government turned to Asia for new sources of labour. China had long been closed to foreign trade and commercial operations. Now the US pressured the country’s rulers to open “treaty ports” at which it could secure large numbers of peasants to work in construction in the US, especially on the trans-continental railroad.
In 1868 the US and China agreed the Burlingame Treaty, under which China’s rulers agreed to recognise the “inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and… the mutual advantage of free migration and emigration”. American historian Bill Ong Hing records that in the US the treaty was greeted officially with “fanfare and delight”. There were laudatory comments about Chinese people and the observation that China and the US were linked by “special destiny”. Migrants from China soon became an indispensible part of the workforce. In California by the 1870s they constituted 25 percent of the workforce.
At the same time the American Civil War had stimulated a new nationalism. States of the North were fighting for a revitalised Union, raising issues about who was to be a citizen — who belonged, who should be excluded? Foremost among the latter were people of Chinese origin — and in California the state legislature decreed that no indigenous American, Chinese person or “Mongol” (sic) could testify for or against a white person. In 1870 the US Congress, which had just ratified the Burlingame Treaty, forbade any Chinese person the right to naturalise as an American citizen.
Over 40,000 Chinese workers were driven out of California and many rail workers were forced to flee Virginia. They were attacked in the press as “pagan rat-eaters” coming to the US in such numbers that they would “fill the land in every direction”. They were described as “grovelling worms” and of being a “regressive and inferior race”. This mood affected the labour movement. The Workingmen’s Party of California called for abrogation of the Burlingame Treaty, arguing “The Chinese Must Go”.
Racist sentiment was greatly increased by the Great Depression of the 1870s and in 1882 Congress passed the draconian Chinese Exclusion Act. This established that all Chinese people resident in the US were liable to deportation. When the Act was tested in the Supreme Court in 1889 the Court concluded: “[if Congress] considers the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous to its peace and security… its determination is conclusive upon the judiciary”.
By the end of the 19th century mass migration from Asia had come to an end. The labour force which had provided infrastructure for a massive expansion of American capitalism was now excluded, creating acute problems for US employers in construction and in states of the South and the West where land was being exploited intensively to supply food for urban centres of the East and mid-West. Now they sought workers in Central America. Between 1900 and 1910 some 20,000 migrants arrived from Mexico each year. By the 1920s the figure had risen to between 50,000 and 100,000 annually.
Migration policy again embraced sharp turns and apparent contradictions. In 1924 Congress imposed a new “quota” system for regulating migration, based upon racist categories that favoured people from Western Europe. Mexicans were exempt, however, because influential landowners argued successfully that without immigrants from the South the agricultural economy would collapse. In effect they received a dispensation from the US state.
When a new Great Depression brought mass unemployment and further demands for exclusion, the southern border was closed and 400,000 Mexicans expelled as racist campaigns swept the country. In cities with Mexican populations the local authorities identified people with Spanish names and targeted them for deportation. The intention, according to officials in Los Angeles, was “to scare many thousand alien deportables out of this district which is the result desired”. They termed this “scareheading”.
President Herbert Hoover claimed publicly that hundreds of thousands of people had been removed and that the US had ceased to be a country of immigration. Now it was to be a country of emigration. The incoming administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pledged to a “New Deal for the American People”, did not revoke the policy.
Policy changed abruptly once more during the Second World War. In 1942 the US and Mexico agreed the Bracero Program, which was to provide workers (bracero = labourer) for the war economy. Just as the US government had solicited workers from China in the 19th century it now recruited energetically in Mexico, stimulating migration routes which also brought “illegals” — those who did not travel through official channels. On one estimate, for every worker employed formally on the Program, four crossed the border by irregular means. This was convenient for employers and the US state, which ignored their formal status. In effect, officials and politicians endorsed arrangements in which there were two channels of migration — one official and one that was clandestine but also vital to the US economy.
After the war, rapid expansion of US capitalism sustained these parallel migration pathways, which had become particularly important for horticulture. One American academic describes “a kind of rolling quasi-amnesty program” for seasonal workers from Central America, many of whom still arrived illegally. When the Bracero Program came to an end in the mid-1960s, millions of Mexicans had travelled to the US as “wetbacks”, crossing rivers along the border to reach farms, processing plants and construction sites at which they became an established part of the workforce.
Periodically the US state clamped down on migration but policy was contradictory — both inhibiting and encouraging increased movements. Under the Texas Proviso of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, inserted to accommodate the demands of the horticulture industry, employment of irregulars did not constitute the criminal act of “harboring” — it was legal to employ irregular immigrants, who could still be deported. After the Korean War demand for immigrant labour lessened. In some areas “wetbacks” were pursued en masse and ejected, only for some to be readmitted legally or “paroled” back to their original employers as irregular workers.
For the next 20 years the formal status of most Mexicans in the US was a matter of indifference to both state and federal authorities. Then a global oil crisis and economic recession brought new concerns over migration. The media began to highlight irregular entry, using images of invasion and the language of threat. In 1978 William Colby, director of the CIA, described Mexican immigrants as the greatest security danger facing the US — a threat greater, he said, than that posed by the Soviet Union.
An official report of 1980 declared that the US could not “become a land of unlimited immigration”. It argued for “closing the back door to undocumented/irregular immigration [and] opening the front door a little more”. Mass irregular migration continued, however, and employers who wished for a free flow of labour lobbied aggressively for regularisation of “illegal” residents who had crossed the border as undocumented migrants. The nationalist right was enraged. One US senator who campaigned for exclusionary policies denounced the horticulture corporations, declaring: “The greed of the growers… is insatiable”.
In 1986 Congress passed an Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) which included a “once-for-all” amnesty and permanent settlement to those who had entered without authorisation; further acknowledgement of the vital role played by immigrant labour. Officials received some 2.3 million applications of which 70 percent came from Mexicans. This was a huge boost for labour agents, who recruited in Central America for US employers, and for “coyotes” who smuggled migrants across the border. Douglas Massey, a researcher on trans-border migration, observed:
“By handing out more than two million green cards [residence permits] to former undocumented migrants Congress dramatically raised the odds that millions of other family members still in Mexico would themselves enter the US as undocumented migrants.”
In the early 1990s, during a further world recession, the anti-immigration lobby gained strength and US president Bill Clinton responded with a campaign to “regain control” of the border with Mexico. In 1993 he launched a series of initiatives — Operation Blockade (later renamed Operation Hold-the-Line), Operation Safeguard, Operation Gatekeeper, and Operation Rio Grande. — aimed ostensibly to contain irregular movements.
Irregular migration nevertheless increased. In 1995 more than 1.3 million people were apprehended (though not necessarily detained) for crossing from Mexico “without inspection”. This was a fraction of the total of irregular entries because, according to a joint study by US and Mexican authorities, for every irregular migrant who was apprehended two or three crossed the border without encountering US patrols.
The “crackdown”, which received enormous publicity in Mexico and the US, had contradictory outcomes. Under Operation Gatekeeper the strength of the US Border Patrol was increased to 5,000 officers, triple fences were erected in some areas, and a steel barrier constructed which extended 100 metres into the Pacific Ocean near the city of San Diego. In addition some border areas were militarised, using units of the US National Guard and even the regular army. In 1996 a new immigration law, the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), was introduced to speed up removal of aliens and “phoney asylum seekers”.
There was little impact on overall migration but fatal consequences for some migrants, who were compelled to attempt crossings through deserts and across fast-flowing rivers, with the result that by 1999 deaths of irregulars as the result of heatstroke, hypothermia, exposure or drowning had increased six times. Victims had become the desaparicidos — the disappeared — of the border. The American Civil Liberties Union commented that migrants “face the death penalty for seeking a job”.
Labour agents continued to recruit for US employers and in many areas the border was still permeable. A minority of irregular migrants were detained and of these most returned to Mexico without penalty. Meanwhile sanctions against employers who routinely hired irregulars were applied so patchily that millions of irregular entrants could expect to find work in the US without difficulty and continued to circulate across the border as they had done for decades.
The main beneficiaries of exclusionary laws were coyote networks and US employers who sought the most vulnerable immigrants. One academic analysis published in 1999 observed that the US state “tacitly tolerates unauthorised alien entry as it benefits certain politically influential economic actors”. This could have been put more plainly. The US accepted irregulars because powerful business groups continued to demand cheap and vulnerable labour.
After 2000 the number of migrants from the South diminished as the US went into recession and as older migrants returned to Mexico. Nonetheless between 2009 and 2014 almost 900,000 people moved to the US. A report by the US National Academy of Sciences published in 2016 set out multiple reasons why their presence was beneficial to the wider society, notably their contribution to key sectors of the economy and the presence of young migrants in an aging population.
Movements from the South are still facilitated by policies that offer what one researcher calls “loopholes, back doors and side doors” to potential immigrants. Many undertake hazardous journeys at high risk, joining large communities of undocumented residents in the US among whom employers recruit enthusiastically. The effect of Trump’s propaganda is to render them more vulnerable: open to more intensive exploitation; exposed to vigilantes and racist attacks; fearful of contesting their predicament.
Trump has promised to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the southern border. His populist constituency has cheered him on but there have been few plaudits from the main business lobbies. The influential magazine Foreign Policy described the commitment as “moronic”, adding: “the border is as under control as it’s ever going to be.” The journal’s analysis reflects a view held by influential sections of the capitalist class — exclusionary rhetoric has its limits, for US employers still need labour from the South.
Trump stands in a long tradition of racists who target the most vulnerable communities — those that lack basic resources of self defence, including familiarity with language and culture, effective collective organisation and access to key institutions and to media. Over the past 150 years these have included immigrants from China and Japan, Jewish migrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, Mexicans and other “illegals” from Central America. Trump is irresistibly attracted to such people, organising around them an agenda for persecution that now includes detention camps and the separation of families — practices that recall the most chilling episodes of modern European history.
Trump and his policies are repulsive but we should not forget others also attracted to vulnerable migrants — those who solicit workers to labour on farms, plantations and building sites, selecting out the irregular migrants who can best assist their drive for profit. They too are beneficiaries of the migration regime, even if they do not always applaud the theatre of the border now in performance at the White House.
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