The Situation at the Border and How to Respond to it

Currently camped out at the Mexican and US border are some 5000-7000 mostly Honduran migrants seeking entry to the United States to live and work. Their numbers are dwindling as some are turning back to Honduras because of the conditions of the camp and the realization that they’re unlikely to be admitted into the United States. Opinions on how to deal with migrants tend to break in two directions. For those on the cultural left, the migrants are described as asylum seekers and the reluctance to allow them into the country is decried as bigotry, racism, and xenophobia. Others are more skeptical, concerned about policies and practices that allow easy access to the United States.

The United States is the most generous country in the world when it comes to immigration. With a population of around 326 millions persons (the third largest after China and India), the US has the largest foreign-born population of any other country—some 47 million persons. Less than one in twenty in 1965, foreign-born persons (not including native-born children of immigrants or children of naturalized citizens) now comprise more than 13 percent of the US population, approaching the all-time highs of the early 20th century (when the nation’s population was still under 100 million). The foreign born today make up around 17 percent of the labor force. In 2016, the United States admitted more than a million legal immigrants. That’s a typical year. This is why the numbers of immigrants is climbing so rapidly and the proportion of foreign-born is approaching 1910 levels (see below).

Source: Migration Policy Institute, 2016

The United States takes in immigrants at great cost to its citizens. Each immigrant costs citizens $1,600 to sponsor. Subtracting naturalized citizens from the total amount of foreign-born persons yields a figure of tens of billions of dollars. This is what economists call an “externality,” money for which the private sector should be accountable as a business expense, but that becomes a burden placed on the public’s shoulders. A vastly larger sum of value—a half a trillion dollars annually—is transferred from the working class to the capitalist class every year because of the wage differential between native-born and foreign-born labor. Immigration is thus a feature of capitalist globalization, and its function, if not its goal, is to put the working class at a disadvantage for the sake of higher profits for capitalists and unearned income for investors.

I want to be very clear about this: it is not immigrants who are driving down the wages of American workers. It is completely understandable that foreign workers would want to come and work to the United States, taking advantage of its relatively higher wages, better working conditions, more generous welfare state, and greater liberty. Rather, it is capitalists using immigrant labor to create the conditions of futility, forcing native-born workers to toil for lower wages and fewer benefits. Just as capitalists send production overseas and south of the border in order pit American workers against foreign workers, capitalist lure immigrants to the United States to pit them against American workers here at home. The globalization works in two directions: factories and fields can be moved to where the foreign workers are or foreign workers can be moved to where the factories and the fields are. Unfortunately, while the left gets the problem of globalization in one direction, they don’t understand globalization in the other direction. 

What about refugees and humanitarian obligation? There is a legal process for those seeking asylum in the United States and it is enshrined in international law. Article 1 of the Convention Relating the Status of Refugees, as amended by the 1967 protocol, defines a refugee:

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Article 1 of the Convention Relating the Status of Refugees, United Nations

Although the left described the Honduran migrant caravan as “asylum seekers,” none of the Hondurans who are currently at the US border would likely qualify under international law. They are economic migrants, the vast majority young males, attempting to the enter the United States to work. Yet the media and political framing misleads. The migrants claim that they are fleeing high crime rates in Honduras. Yet many of the Mexican states the migrants have passed through have lower crime rates than many US cities.  Why do they not seek asylum in these safer Mexican states? Wages in Mexico are too low to generate enough money to send money home to their families in Honduras. “You don’t earn well here,” a migrant told Reuters news service. In a single day in Tijuana, 600 of the migrants applied for permits to work in Mexico but not for asylum. Why? To holdout for a change at the US border, they said. It’s about economics, not about violence.

The practice of coming to the United States to work and send money back to the home country, a common practice, represents a massive transfer of money out of the United States. Mexico alone receives $30 billion from migrants working outside the country. Migrants with this goal in mind are feigning refugee status in order to dupe officials at the border. And they’re not the only ones. The vast majority of asylum applications are rejected. 

Perhaps realizing that they cannot convince courts that their cases warrant asylum, and frustrated that they are not allowed to cross the border so they can disappear into America’s crowded cities, the Honduran migrants are prepared to use violence to get their way, as the video below clearly shows. In this video you see mostly young men breaching a security barrier to enter the United States. On the other side of the fence, the mob assaults law enforcement officers and damages property. They are repelled by border control with CS gas. The optics of violence are particular bad for those who wish to portray migrants in a sympathetic light. The image is compounded by the arrest of a MS-13 gang member traveling with the caravan. Many of those in the public who know about this are surely wondering, is he the only one?

The media depicts the use of this tearing agent as extraordinary; however, according Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection agents have used CS gas 126 times since 2010:  26 times in 2012, 27 times in 2013, 15 times in 2014, eight times in 2015, three times in 2016, 18 times in 2017, and 29 times in 2018. Moreover, border agents used pepper spray 540 times between 2012 to 2018. Obviously the use of various tearing agents covers many of the years Obama was president. Many in the public wonder about this, too. Where was the moral panic over the border during Obama’s presidency? Obama aggressively enforced immigration law. Where was the media on that story?

What the individuals in the video are doing is illegal. Crossing the border without permission is a misdemeanor. For persons already deported once, crossing the border again without permission is a felony (this is similar to European law, even in the most socially democratic countries). Seeking asylum at a port of entry is not a crime; migrants at the border have a legal right to request asylum, but they have to present themselves as such. Throwing stones is a criminal offense. Law enforcement, just like any other persons, have a right to defend themselves, as well as the border, which is their job. Leftwing media, such as ThinkProgress, have described the migrants as “unarmed.” Along with fists and sticks, stones are the earliest deadly weapons. You are armed if you are aggressively throwing stones.

Here is a border control agent reporting the situation at the border (his account is supported by numerous reports): 

Many on the left are defending illegal border crossing while condemning the rule of law and law enforcement generally using humanitarian rhetoric. They are a minority, but a very vocal one. They are joined by well-funded open-borders groups, such as Pueblo Sin Frontera and Al Otro Lado, who help migrants to cross the border. Encouraged by misplaced sympathy and enticement by open-border groups, migrants are emboldened to travel across Central America and Mexico. They are using violence against law enforcement (Mexican police have also experienced violence at the hands of migrants) and to enter the United States illegally. They are even prepared to put children in harm’s way. Instead of encouraging migrants to make a dangerous journey from San Pedro Sula to Tijuana, humanitarian concern should cause people to dissuade Hondurans and others from making the treacherous journey north.

Path of Migrant Caravan

We should be honest that part of the rhetorical dynamic is a concerted effort to delegitimize the present administration. This is the frame of the corporate media, which is representing the establishment against Trump. Before anybody misunderstands my argument, I did not vote for nor would I ever vote for Trump or anybody like him, and I oppose most of his administration’s policies and actions. I have written about the problems with Trump and his brand of political ideology o this blog. He is a ethnic nationalist, a white supremacist, and an authoritarian. But my strong dislike for Trump doesn’t blind me to the fact that there is a double standard on the cultural left and the corporate media about immigration and border control that is largely driven by partisanship and not the value of objectivity. Again, this double standard is demonstrated by the virtual absence of opposition to the immigration policies of Obama, who deported more immigrants than any other president in US history, deportations that involved family separations, as well as the use of violent tactics by law enforcement.

An objective analysis of the situation would focuses on the scholarly literature and the actual situation of ordinary Americans. Studies of migration identify two factors shaping the movement of people from one area or country to another: those pushing people to leave a place (push factors or drivers) and those pulling them to some other place (pull factors). Among the major push factors are (1) disgrace, (2) fear of punishment, (3) lack of opportunity, (4) persecution, and (5) weak attachments. Of these five, only persecution is likely to cause what we might described as “solid citizens” to migrate. By solid citizen we mean persons who have strong attachments to their community, are law abiding, and have not done anything to bring disgrace to themselves or their family. Such persons are highly likely to stay were they are, and even high levels of crime and violence are unlikely to push them to leave. Obviously, if they have means they are more likely to leave, but a sense of place remains strong for established persons. Lack of opportunity can produce desirable migrants, but combined with the other push factors tend to produce troublesome migrants. The major pulls are (1) anonymity and escape, (2) economic opportunity, and (3) greater freedom. Economic opportunity, especially combined with the push factor of lack of opportunity, provides a strong incentive to migrate. This push-pull dynamic is the main reason for economic migration to the United States. Unfortunately, economic migrants often come with the problems identified above. Thus thorough vetting is required. (DHS had clear evidence that more than 500 persons with a criminal background had infiltrated the migrant caravan.) 

Persecuted minorities can be desirable migrants, as well. What defines persecution is defined by international law, cited above. The Obama Administration expanded the definition to include credible victims of interpersonal violence such as domestic violence or gangs. The asylum statute does not cover these categories. The policy was returned by the new administration to its pre-Obama scope. This was the correct decision, as asylum law was never meant to be a vehicle for those suffering general political and economic hardship. Asylum law is purposely narrowly-defined, addressing only extraordinary group persecution (effectively hate crimes), not broad social problems such as violence stemming from economic or gender inequality. These categories cover vast numbers of people and would lead to an unmanageable asylum system. As it is, the wait for determination of status is weeks and months, and for every person granted asylum, another ten are rejected. Most people seeking asylum either cannot present a credible case of persecution or they deceive authorities about their situation to gain entry to the country.

As I have stated before on this blog, the immigration issue is of central important to working class politics. The working class in the United States (and this is true in Europe, as well) enjoyed its highest standard of living and greatest degree of political power when the proportion of foreign born in the US population was at its lowest point. To be sure, illegal immigration is only a part of the larger immigration issue. But the tolerance for illegal immigration reflects an attitude towards immigration in general, the result of political disorganization of the left by the forces of globalism, and the shift from the old left politics of worker solidarity and class struggle towards a cultural leftism that fetishes ethnic and racial distinction (paradoxically mirroring the attitude of the political right). Tightening border control is part of a larger process that slows down the pace of immigration to allow for greater assimilation, to dismantle cultural barriers to national unity, and build labor solidarity necessary for concerted class struggle against the true enemies of working people: the bourgeoisie.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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