Tearing down their wall of lies
The anti-immigrant myths and distortions that Donald Trump spouted in his Oval Office speech arose long before him — and their source is bipartisan. Justin Akers Chacón, author of Radicals in the Barrio and co-author with Mike Davis of No One Is Illegal, sets the record straight.
TRUMP’S SPEECH on the border wall didn’t stray from the same script he has used since the start of his presidential bid, when he opportunistically hoisted his otherwise sideshow of a campaign upon the deeply worn treads of anti-Mexican racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Two years into his administration, he has tightened the screws of the already-existing “enforcement through attrition” strategy against immigrants. This refers to the far-right-wing plan — now mainstreamed and bipartisan — to decimate and atomize the immigrant and migrant working class through varying degrees of state terror.
The aim is to push them back into the social, political and economic margins and keep them pliant and subordinated.
This has not only served political purposes: The border as a post-9/11 “national security threat” has remained a mainstay of Republican Party relevance at a time of extreme inequality and economic uncertainty.
But the strategy also subdued an immigrant-led workers’ rights movement that was gaining momentum toward the realization of full legalization in 2006 and a potential surge in union growth and membership.
From the administrations of Bill Clinton to George Bush, and Barack Obama to now Trump, institutionalized tactics of immigrant repression have included selective workplace and community raids; targeted arrests and systematic deportations facilitated by the ever-expanding ranks of ICE, the Border Patrol and other police agents; National Guard troops sent to the border; and, most recently, a ban on entry by people from six predominantly Muslim countries, “zero tolerance” family separation policies, the armed repression of asylum seekers and the mass incarceration of child migrants.
Now Trump wants a 1,000-mile steel wall, and he has shut down parts of the federal government by refusing to sign any appropriation bill that doesn’t include $5.7 billion to fund initial construction.
In fact, this is only the latest attempt to build and expand the wall.
Wall construction began with Operation Gatekeeper and supplemental projects, which began under Democrat Bill Clinton and expanded from over 100 miles to 654 miles of physical barriers under George W. Bush (with majority Democratic Party support). Trumpism is, in fact, the progeny of 30 years of U.S. immigration politics transmogrified into its most grotesque and violent form.
TRUMP — WHO by all rights should be weakened, subdued and conciliatory after a significant repudiation of his policies in the November 2018 election — is emboldened by the fact that his Democratic “opposition” cannot effectively oppose him. They unreservedly embrace the premises of the enforcement model: immigrant criminality, the need for restriction and border militarization.
Trump believes he can roll over the Democrats or at least force them to make concessions, so he stonewalls them in the hopes that they will bend.
After all, it was only a year ago when Democrats quickly folded in the last government shutdown. In January 2018, the same congressional Democratic leadership briefly withheld approval for Trump’s omnibus spending bill, making support contingent on guarantees for the 750,000 DACA recipients who were facing potential deportation after Trump rescinded the Obama-era executive order.
Trump called their symbolic bluff, and a majority of the Democrats approved the bill without a fight.
Trump is banking on being able to exploit the contradictory nature of the Democratic Party, a thoroughly pro-capitalist and pro-national security state apparatus that doubles as the “opposition.”
For his Oval Office speech, Trump did without facts, evidence or even a modicum of authenticity, integrity or even effort. He simply ramped up the anti-immigrant rhetoric, peppering exhaustedly debunked claims about immigrants “taking jobs,” “criminality” and “strained social resources” with racist tropes and emotional fearmongering.
No matter how absurd, insidious and dubious his claims, his calculation is that he can fall back on the assertion that the Democrats are hypocritical at best — or “soft” at worst — on the “border security” that they already concede is necessary. He can get away with this because the Democrats show up to the battle ideologically disarmed.
Amid his usual barrage of blustery lies, the only (partially) true statement was in claiming that the Democrats have only opposed the border wall since he came to office. In Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s response, there was no reference to opposition to the existing border wall, only to challenging the expansion as Trump conceives of it.
When Pelosi and Schumer claimed that the wall was “ineffective,” they were counter-posing it to the form of border enforcement that the Democrats have championed as an alternative. They positioned themselves as having a “smarter,” more cost-effective approach that allows them to be “better” at border security. In effect, they are criticizing Trump from the right, even if they sound more humane and rational.
During the eight years of the Obama administration, there was an intensification of border enforcement that emphasized increased militarization, surveillance and armed personnel as opposed to physical wall expansion. This included the use of military technology and equipment repurposed from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to be deployed against migrant workers and refugees on the border.
The Democrats’ position was reflected in the observation of Rep. Henry Cuellar, who ridiculed Trump’s wall as a “14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem” that must be solved with a more “high-tech” and effective approach.
The Democrats’ “effective” approach has included watchtowers, Predator drones, aerostats (blimps that hover as high as 5,000 feet), military helicopters, thousands of infrared motion and heat sensors, and other factors that contribute to a “virtual wall.”
Furthermore, the Democratic Party’s trajectory during the Obama years focused on the increase in enforcement personnel and the spreading of immigrant policing throughout the interior of the country with the dramatic expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol.
NOWHERE IN the discourse of either Trump or the Democrats was there any mention of the tragic human toll of immigration restriction embedded in militarized border enforcement over the last 30 years.
Since 1994, an estimated 10,000 people have perished or gone missing trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, as the wall, increased personnel and deployment of military equipment and tactics have pushed migrants to cross in more deadly mountain and desert terrain.
There has also been a rise in killings of migrants by armed agents. In fact, border deaths have increased in proportion to the expansion of both the physical wall and the growth of the “virtual” wall, even as the number of border crossers has declined.
In rhetoric, the Democrat leadership is “resisting” Trump, but in practice, it has demonstrated that it isn’t against walls per se. It is criticizing the expansion of the wall as a less effective means to repress and restrict the movement of migrants.
Even the new “progressive” wave of Democrats that swept into the House as a result of the midterm elections, including self-identified socialists Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, fell in line. They voted along with every single House Democrat in favor of fully funding Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operations until February 8.
This bill was part of a Democratic strategy to outflank Trump in a bid to get the federal government reopened — to provide “border security” without funding Trump’s wall. This is a quick and shameful about-face from the “Abolish ICE” position that these left Democrats campaigned on.
If both the racist and xenophobic right, rallying behind Trump’s thuggish stand on the expansion of the border wall, and liberals and “progressives” in the Democratic Party accept the premise of militarized enforcement by different means, there is little chance for resistance to develop within Washington to the further slide to the right on immigration politics.
To actually resist Trump’s wall, there will need to be a mobilization of opposition to the underlying anti-immigrant premises embedded in both political parties — along with the system of capitalism which profits of the subjugation and segmentation of the working class along racial and national lines.