In his first weeks in office, Trump has put 11 million undocumented workers in the crosshairs. The wave of intimidation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) following the Department of Homeland Security’s February 21 memo has been spine-chilling: parents being seized as they drop their children off at school; door-to-door sweeps of Latino neighborhoods; workplace raids at restaurants, construction sites and grocery stores; roadway checkpoints detaining workers on their way to the job; plainclothes ICE agents disguised in work trucks or unmarked minivans ambushing unsuspecting workers in shopping center parking lots. Forced to live on the margins of a society which would not function without their labor, Trump’s provocations have merely brought the excruciating nightmare of a huge layer of the US working class into broad daylight.
Trump takes the wheel
The January 25 executive order on border control and immigration enforcement (not to be confused with the “Muslim travel ban,” signed two days later), begins with an introduction full of reactionary arguments demonizing workers in the kind of language one would expect from Breitbart news: “Border security is critically important to the national security of the United States. Aliens who illegally enter the United States without inspection or admission present a significant threat to national security and public safety … Among those who illegally enter are those who seek to harm Americans through acts of terror or criminal conduct. Continued illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger to the interests of the United States,” and so on.
Taken together with the February memo, the Trump administration has laid out its reactionary plan of attack for all to see. The so-called “deportation force” is to be expanded by an increase of 10,000 ICE and 5,000 Border Patrol agents. This represents a tripling of what was already by far the most heavily funded federal law enforcement agency. In 2013, the federal government spent more on ICE and Border Patrol than on all other law enforcement agencies put together— exceeding the combined sums spent on the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, US Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Since 1986, the federal government has spent more than $306 billion to militarize the border.
Although Trump has sensationalized the issue, the “deportation force,” is not an innovation of Trump or Bannon, but a long-standing policy passed down and developed over the course of several administrations. Trump has been more than happy to pick up the torch of this bipartisan legacy, adding his own “improvements” to the project, fine-tuning this monstrous machine of mass detention.
The order calls for the arrest of all undocumented workers, whether they fall among the 60% who have lived here for over a decade, the 30% who have children and own their own homes, or those who arrived within the past two years. In the latter case, they are targeted for “expedited removal”—i.e. no court proceedings, no right to an attorney, straight to jail, and deported within days. Given the visible presence of ICE agents on the streets of cities throughout the border states, school districts are reporting thousands of absences as parents fear they will be seized or separated from their children. Local police departments are also instructed to join the hunt, and hand over any undocumented immigrant who crosses their path to the federal agencies—whether or not they are accused of any crime.
This means that, in addition to those who are seized in targeted raids, anyone in the vicinity whom officials suspect of being undocumented must also present identification, or face arrest. One particularly egregious example of “collateral arrest” is the case of Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year-old college student in Seattle, who has lived in the US since he was seven years old. Despite having legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (which Trump has called an illegal amnesty program), Medina was arrested during a raid targeting his father. ICE officials claimed the student had admitted to being a member of a gang—a claim he vehemently denies. There is evidence that ICE agents manipulated his statement in order to incriminate him.
To back up the campaign of arrests, the January 25 order also calls for the construction and contracting of further detention centers along the border, 70% of which are currently private, for-profit prisons. This industry has flourished from its lucrative link to the “deportation force,” as Homeland Security is currently required by Congress to maintain some 34,000 immigration detention beds, at a cost of $5.5 million a day. According to the New York Times, “ICE and the Border Patrol already refer more cases for federal prosecution than the entire Justice Department, and the number of people they detain each year (more than 400,000) is greater than the number of inmates being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for all other federal crimes.”
Border states are converting prisons into ICE detention centers, as in the case of Cibola County, New Mexico, where over 500 undocumented workers are currently being held. However, given the national scope of the arrests, the federal government is forced to find places to hold detained immigrants all around the country. For example, the state of Massachusetts is receiving $3 million in exchange for holding arrested immigrants in its jails in Franklin, Suffolk, and Plymouth counties.
Last but not least, the executive order calls for Homeland Security to “immediately plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border”—a project estimated by MIT to cost between $27 billion and $40 billion per 1,000 miles (a wall along the entire Mexican border would be 2,000 miles long). Along with the rest of the package, Trump’s signature proposal highlights the internal contradictions that permeate his entire program: Massive increases for the military budget and for further militarizing the border, are accompanied by cuts to all other federal programs, tax cuts for the capitalists, and topped off with fantastic promises of “tremendous” economic growth.
A departure from Obama’s policies?
Since coming to power, Trump has hit hard and fast. But while his policies represent a clear escalation, the daily dread endured by immigrant workers did not begin with this administration. Much of the media coverage has focused on a high-profile, five-day raid in early February which resulted in the arrest of over 680 undocumented immigrants in 12 states. However, despite the grim approval of reactionary mouthpieces who declare that “Trump is following through on his promises,” he has a long way to go before he reaches the bar set by his predecessors.
Near the end of George W. Bush’s term, ICE raids had already approached a record average of around 650 arrests per week. From the time Barack Obama was given command of the “deportation force,” he never allowed this figure to dip below Bush’s record. Obama deported more undocumented workers than any president in American history, escalating the number of ICE raids each year until he set a new record in 2011 of 771 average weekly arrests. In September of that year he also set another record for the largest single roundup in a five-day national ICE raid, leading to the arrest of nearly 3,000 undocumented workers—a figure that towers over Trump’s recent offensive. Using the same methods—though euphemistically referred to by Democrats as “community arrests”—nearly 2.5 million immigrants were deported on Obama’s orders.
Some media outlets speculate that Trump’s raids are deliberately being conducted in the middle of the day, rather than at night, in order to draw attention and intimidate other workers. Regardless of the time of day the raids were carried out, it was during the Democratic administration that the systematic offensive against undocumented workers was launched, especially during the years when the Democrats had full control of the government. The sneering face of the “greater evil” is not so different from the smiling brutality of the “lesser” kind that preceded it.
Liberal commentators are quick to point out that Obama “prioritized criminals” while Trump is targeting all undocumented immigrants. However, according to the DHS, from 2009–2015, 56% of immigrants deported had no criminal convictions, while the vast majority of those labeled “criminals” had only minor misdemeanor charges. In 2014, 60% of those deported were guilty only of crossing the border without authorization. Likewise, 85% of the 450,000 who were arrested and deported last year were not accused of anything beyond illegal entry.
The recent intensification of anti-immigrant rhetoric and growth of far-right populism in various countries is ultimately a reflection of the impasse of the capitalist system. Given capitalism’s inability to create jobs, the xenophobic ravings of the far right provide an increasingly useful cover and detract attention from the contradictions inherent to the capitalist system itself. Even the more “moderate” political representatives of capitalism will play along and solemnly declare that “illegal immigration is an issue,” though they want a “humane” or “common sense” reform. At the same time, they understand the critical role played by cheap immigrant labor and the risk posed by Trump’s overzealous menace to this component of the labor pool.
As a recent editorial in the New York Times put it, “Mr. Trump describes immigrants as rapist-murderer-terrorists, but what they really are is a pillar of the American economy, producing a net benefit of about $50 billion since 1990. Farms and restaurants, hotels, manufacturers, retail businesses—all sectors of the economy benefit directly or indirectly from immigrant labor.”
Behind their moral outrage and noble talk about pillars and benefits, we see their cold, cash calculations. The capitalist class has no moral opposition to the separation of working class families, much less the inhumane conditions these workers endure, and least of all the downward driving of wages and conditions for the class as a whole. On the contrary, they are concerned precisely about the preservation of this mechanism, which allows them to keep their costs at a minimum and their profits at a maximum.
Even the more conservative section of the capitalist class is at odds with the full-scale deportation of 11 million undocumented workers. Last year, the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, estimated that the cost of “expelling all unauthorized immigrants, and keeping them out” would be between $400 and $600 billion, and would reduce the country’s GDP by $1 trillion.
The last shall be first
Though the labor leadership has moved far to the right over the last period and resigned itself to Trump’s attacks, the unions nevertheless have a key role to play in fighting for all workers. There are 43.3 million immigrants living in the US, both documented and undocumented, working in millions of workplaces side by side with workers of all backgrounds. The arbitrary distinction between those who are “authorized” or “unauthorized” by the state is destined to be swept aside in the course of the class struggle. It is this threat of a united working class that the capitalists fear most. By fighting for a socialist policy in the labor movement, guided by the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all, and fighting for immediate and unconditional amnesty for all, we can transform the labor movement into unstoppable force.
Even before the crisis of 2008 and the outbreak of the Occupy movement, the first major harbinger of a new epoch of class struggle was the militant wave of May Day demonstrations in 2006, when hundreds of thousands of documented and undocumented immigrant workers took to the streets in cities across the country to demand basic rights and dignified conditions.
Though that movement was subsequently channeled into the jaws of the Democratic party and the swamp of the lobbyists and courts, events over the past decade have had a profound impact on the consciousness of the working class. A widespread mood of defiance is already palpable at the mass demonstrations that have swept the country since Trump’s election, and an explosion of the movement beyond the proportions of 2006 is inevitable at a certain stage.
Unlike the liberals, who are seized with pessimism and see only darkness ahead, the outlook of revolutionary Marxism is guided by confidence in the historic power of the working class and a grasp of the deeper process which is unfolding: the molecular process of revolution. Every attack, humiliation, and executive order Trump signs is a provocation that increases the discontent in society and risks overflowing the cup. Each child separated from her parent by one of Trump’s raids is a potential fighter in the future American socialist revolution.