Aviva Chomsky

The grim truth about Biden's plan for the border

Joe Biden entered the White House with some inspiring yet contradictory positions on immigration and Central America. He promised to reverse Donald Trump's draconian anti-immigrant policies while, through his "Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America," restoring "U.S. leadership in the region" that he claimed Trump had abandoned. For Central Americans, though, such "leadership" has an ominous ring.

Although the second half of his plan's name does, in fact, echo that of left-wing, grassroots organizations like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), its content highlights a version of security and prosperity in that region that's more Cold War-like than CISPES-like. Instead of solidarity (or even partnership) with Central America, Biden's plan actually promotes an old economic development model that has long benefited U.S. corporations. It also aims to impose a distinctly militarized version of "security" on the people of that region. In addition, it focuses on enlisting Central American governments and, in particular, their militaries to contain migration through the use of repression.

Linking Immigration and Foreign Policy

The clearest statement of the president's Central America goals appears in his "U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021," sent to Congress on January 20th. That proposal offers a sweeping set of changes aimed at eliminating President Trump's racist exclusions, restoring rights to asylum, and opening a path to legal status and citizenship for the immigrant population. After the anti-immigrant barrage of the last four years, that proposal seems worth celebrating. It follows in the footsteps of previous bipartisan "comprehensive" compromises like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and a failed 2013 immigration bill, both of which included a path to citizenship for many undocumented people, while dedicating significant resources to border "security."

Read closely, a significant portion of Biden's immigration proposal focuses on the premise that addressing the root causes of Central America's problems will reduce the flow of immigrants to the U.S. border. In its own words, the Biden plan promises to promote "the rule of law, security, and economic development in Central America" in order to "address the key factors" contributing to emigration. Buried in its fuzzy language, however, are long-standing bipartisan Washington goals that should sound familiar to those who have been paying attention in these years.

Their essence: that millions of dollars in "aid" money should be poured into upgrading local military and police forces in order to protect an economic model based on private investment and the export of profits. Above all, the privileges of foreign investors must not be threatened. As it happens, this is the very model that Washington has imposed on the countries of Central America over the past century, one that's left its lands corrupt, violent, and impoverished, and so continued to uproot Central Americans and send them fleeing toward the United States.

Crucial to Biden's plan, as to those of his predecessors, is another key element: to coerce Mexico and Guatemala into serving as proxies for the wall only partially built along the southern border of the U.S. and proudly promoted by presidents from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump.

While the economic model lurking behind Biden's plan may be old indeed, the attempt to outsource U.S. immigration enforcement to Mexican and Central American military and police forces has proven to be a distinctly twenty-first-century twist on border policy.

Outsourcing the Border (from Bush to Biden)

The idea that immigration policy could be outsourced began long before Donald Trump notoriously threatened, in mid-2019, to impose tariffs on Mexican goods to pressure that country's new president into agreeing to his demand to collaborate with Washington's anti-immigrant agenda. That included, of course, Trump's controversial "remain in Mexico" policy that has continued to strand tens of thousands of asylum-seekers there.

Meanwhile, for almost two decades the United States has been bullying (and funding) military and police forces to its south to enforce its immigration priorities, effectively turning other countries' borders into extensions of the U.S. one. In the process, Mexico's forces have regularly been deployed on that country's southern border, and Guatemala's on its border with Honduras, all to violently enforce Washington's immigration policies.

Such outsourcing was, in part, a response to the successes of the immigrant rights movement in this country. U.S. leaders hoped to evade legal scrutiny and protest at home by making Mexico and Central America implement the uglier aspects of their policies.

President Trump blustered and bullied Mexico and various Central American countries far more openly than the previous two presidents while taking such policies to new levels. Under his orders, Mexico formed a new, militarized National Guard and deployed 12,000 of its members to the Guatemalan border, even as funding from Washington helped create high-technology infrastructure along Mexico's southern border, rivaling that on the U.S. border.It all began with the Mérida Initiative in 2007, a George W. Bush-initiated plan that would direct billions of dollars to military equipment, aid, and infrastructure in Mexico (with smaller amounts going to Central America). One of its four pillars was the creation of "a 21st century border" by pushing Mexico to militarize its southern border. By 2013, Washington had funded 12 new military bases along that border with Guatemala and a 100-mile "security cordon" north of it.

In response to what was seen as a child-migrant crisis in the summer of 2014 (sound familiar?), President Barack Obama further pressured Mexico to initiate a new Southern Border Program. Since then, tens of millions of dollars a year have gone toward the militarization of that border and Mexico was soon detaining tens of thousands of migrants monthly. Not surprisingly, deportations and human-rights violations against Central American migrants shot up dramatically there. "Our border today in effect is Mexico's border with Honduras and Guatemala," exulted Obama's former border czar Alan Bersin in 2019. A local activist was less sanguine, protesting that the program "turned the border region into a war zone."

Trump called for reducing aid to Central America. Yet under his watch, most of the $3.6 billion appropriated by Congress continued to flow there, about half of it aimed at strengthening local military and police units. Trump did, however, temporarily withhold civilian aid funds to coerce Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador into signing "safe third country" agreements that would allow the United States to deport people with valid asylum claims to those very countries.

Trump also demanded that Guatemala increase security along its southern border "to stem the flow of irregular migration" and "deploy officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to advise and mentor host nation police, border security, immigration, and customs counterparts." Once the Central American countries conceded to Trump's demands, aid was restored.

This February, President Biden suspended those safe third country agreements, but is clearly otherwise ready to continue to outsource border enforcement to Mexico and Central America.

The Other Side of Militarization: "Economic Development"

As Democratic and Republican administrations alike outsourced a militarized response to immigration, they also sought to sell their agendas with promises of economic-development aid to Central America. However, they consistently promoted the very kind of assistance that historically brought violence and poverty to the region — and so led directly to today's migrant crisis.

The model Washington continues to promote is based on the idea that, if Central American governments can woo foreign investors with improved infrastructure, tax breaks, and weak environmental and labor laws, the "free market" will deliver the investment, jobs, and economic growth that (in theory) will keep people from wanting to migrate in the first place. Over and over again in Central America's tormented history, however, exactly the opposite has happened. Foreign investment flowed in, eager to take advantage of the region's fertile lands, natural resources, and cheap labor. This form of development — whether in support of banana and coffee plantations in the nineteenth century or sugar, cotton, and cattle operations after World War II — brought Central America to its revolutions of the 1980s and its north-bound mass migration of today.

As a model, it relies on militarized governments to dispossess peasant farmers, freeing the land for foreign investors. Similarly, force and terror are brought to bear to maintain a cheap and powerless working class, allowing investors to pay little and reap fantastic profits. Such operations, in turn, have brought deforestation to the countryside, while their cheap exports to the United States and elsewhere have helped foster the high-consumption lifestyles that have only accelerated climate change — bringing ever fiercer weather, including the rising sea levels, more intense storms, droughts, and floods that have further undermined the livelihoods of the Central American poor.

Starting in the 1970s, many of those poor workers and peasants pushed for land reform and investment in basic rights like food, health, and education instead of simply further enriching foreign and local elites. When peaceful protest was met with violence, revolution followed, although only in Nicaragua did it triumph.

Washington spent the 1980s attempting to crush Nicaragua's successful revolution and the revolutionary movements against the right-wing military governments of El Salvador and Guatemala. The peace treaties of the 1990s ended the armed conflicts, but never addressed the fundamental social and economic divides that underlay them. In fact, the end of those conflicts only opened the regional floodgates for massive new foreign investment and export booms. These involved, among other things, the spread of maquiladora export-processing plants and the growing of new export-oriented "non-traditional" fruits and vegetables, as well as a boom in extractive industries like gold, nickel, and petroleum, not to speak of the creation of new infrastructure for mass tourism.

In the 1980s, refugees first began fleeing north, especially from El Salvador and Guatemala, then riven by war, repression, and the violence of local paramilitary and death squads. The veneer of peace in the 1990s in no way brought an end to poverty, repression, and violence. Both public and private armed forces provided "security" — but only to elites and the new urban and rural megaprojects they sponsored.

If a government did threaten investors' profits in any way, as when El Salvador declared a moratorium on mining licenses, the U.S.-sponsored Central America Free Trade Agreement enabled foreign corporations to sue and force it to submit to binding arbitration by a World Bank body. In the Obama years, when the elected, reformist president of Honduras tried to enact labor and environmental improvements, Washington gave the nod to a coup there and celebrated when the new president proudly declared the country "open for business" with a package of laws favoring foreign investors.

Journalist David Bacon termed that country's new direction a "poverty-wage economic model" that only fostered the rise of gangs, drug trafficking, and violence. Protest was met with fierce repression, even as U.S. military aid flowed in. Prior to the coup, Hondurans had barely figured among Central American migrants to the United States. Since 2009, its citizens have often come to predominate among those forced to flee their homes and head north.

President Obama's 2014 Alliance for Prosperity offered a new round of aid for investor-driven economic development. Journalist Dawn Paley characterized that Alliance as in "large part a plan to build new infrastructure that will benefit transnational corporations," including "tax breaks for corporate investors and new pipelines, highways, and power lines to speed resource extraction and streamline the process of import, assembly, and export at low-wage maquilas." One major project was a new gas pipeline to facilitate exports of U.S. natural gas to Central America.

It was Obama who oversaw Washington's recognition of the coup in Honduras. It was Trump who looked the other way when Guatemala in 2019 and Honduras in 2020 expelled international anti-corruption commissions. And it was Trump who agreed to downplay the mounting corruption and drug trafficking charges against his friend, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, as long as he promoted an investor-friendly economy and agreed to collaborate with the U.S. president's anti-immigrant agenda.

The January 2021 Caravan Marks the Arrival of the Biden Years

All signs point to the Biden years continuing what's become the Washington norm in Central America: outsourcing immigration policy, militarizing security there, and promoting a model of development that claims to deter migration while actually fueling it. In fact, President Biden's proposal designates $4 billion over four years for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute. Such disbursement, however, would be conditioned on progress toward Washington-approved goals like "improv[ing] border security," "inform[ing]… citizens of the dangers of the journey to the southwest border of the United States," and "resolv[ing] disputes involving the confiscation of real property of United States entities." Significant resources would also be directed to further developing "smart" border technology in that region and to Border Patrol operations in Central America.

A preview of how this is likely to work came just as Biden took office in January 2021.

One predictable result of Washington's outsourcing of immigration control is that the migrant journey from Central America has become ever more costly and perilous. As a result, some migrants have begun gathering in large public "caravans" for protection. Their aim: to reach the U.S. border safely, turn themselves in to the border patrol, and request asylum. In late January 2021, a caravan of some 7,500 Hondurans arrived at the Guatemalan border in hopes that the new president in Washington would, as promised, reverse Trump's controversial remain-in-Mexico policy of apparently endless internment in crowded, inadequate camps just short of the U.S.

They hadn't known that Biden would, in fact, continue his predecessors' outsourcing of immigration policy to Mexico and Central America. As it happened, 2,000 tear-gas and baton-wielding Guatemalan police and soldiers (armed, trained, and supported by the United States) massed at the Guatemala-Honduras border to drive them back.

One former Trump official (retained by President Biden) tweeted that Guatemala had "carr[ied] out its responsibilities appropriately and lawfully." The Mexican government, too, praised Guatemala as it massed thousands of its troops on its own southern border. And Juan González, Biden's National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere lauded Guatemala's "management of the migrant flow."

In mid-March, President Biden appeared to link a positive response to Mexico's request for some of Washington's surplus Covid-19 vaccine to further commitments to cracking down on migrants. One demand: that Mexico suspend its own laws guaranteeing humane detention conditions for families with young children. Neither country had the capacity to provide such conditions for the large number of families detained at the border in early 2021, but the Biden administration preferred to press Mexico to ignore its own laws, so that it could deport more of those families and keep the problem out of sight of the U.S. public.

In late January 2021, CISPES joined a large coalition of peace, solidarity, and labor organizations that called upon the Biden administration to rethink its Central American plans. "The intersecting crises that millions in Central America face are the result of decades of brutal state repression of democratic movements by right-wing regimes and the implementation of economic models designed to benefit local oligarchs and transnational corporations," CISPES wrote. "Far too often, the United States has been a major force behind these policies, which have impoverished the majority of the population and devastated the environment."

The coalition called on Biden to reject Washington's longstanding commitment to militarized security linked to the creation and reinforcement of investor-friendly extractive economies in Central America. "Confronting displacement demands a total rethinking of U.S. foreign policy," CISPES urged. As of mid-March, the president had not responded in any fashion to the plea. My advice: don't hold your breath waiting for such a response.

Copyright 2021 Aviva Chomsky

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The following is an excerpt from, They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky (Beacon Press, 2007).

In 1993, Toni Morrison wrote, in a special issue of Time magazine on immigration, that the "most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture" for immigrants was "negative appraisals of the native-born black population. Only when the lesson of racial estrangement is learned is assimilation complete." Blacks, she said, were permanent noncitizens. "The move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens."

Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants may not have identified with, or been accepted into, white society when they first arrived in the United States. But they, or more often their children, assimilated by becoming "white" and experienced upward mobility as they melded into the white majority. And part of the assimilation into whiteness meant the adoption of white racial attitudes.

Black Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas described the generational gap among Italians in his Bronx neighborhood in the 1940s: the mothers and grandmothers accepted him as one of their own while the new generation attacked him as a "spic." One of the Italian boys speculated that if Piri had a sister, they could "cover the bitch's face with the flag an' fuck er for old glory," in a graphic rendering of Toni Morrison's point.

James Loewen points out that just as European immigrants moved out of their inner-city enclaves and merged into white America, African Americans were being residentially segregated as the phenomenon of "sundown towns," which explicitly prohibited blacks from remaining in them after the sun set, spread across the country. Assimilation for people of European origin was accompanied by ongoing exclusion of people of color already in the United States.

For immigrants of color, assimilation means something very different than it historically has for European immigrants. For Latin American immigrants, assimilation more often means shedding their American dream and joining the lowest rungs in a caste-like society where Native Americans and African Americans, the most "assimilated" people of color, have been consistently kept at the bottom. When Haitian immigrants assimilate, explains one study, "they become not generic, mainstream Americans but specifically African Americans and primarily the poor African Americans most vulnerable to American racism."

As Toni Morrison suggested, racial inequality is so deeply embedded in the national culture and social fabric of the United States that assimilation has historically meant finding, learning, and accepting one's place in the racial order. If new immigrants could succeed in challenging and transforming the racial order of the United States, that would be a good thing. But the signs do not point in that direction. The current anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces racial inequality.

The United States, as we have seen, defined itself from the first as a white, Anglo-Saxon country. Africans and Native Americans may have lived in the territories claimed by the United States, but they were not citizens. The Mexicans--primarily people of Spanish and Native American origin--who were added to the U.S. population with the 1848 conquest were granted citizenship, of a sort--but without shaking the firmly held idea that the United States was an Anglo-Saxon country.

The new, non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, starting with the Irish in the 1850s and growing with the southern and eastern Europeans from the 1870s on, were neither Anglo-Saxons nor people of color. Many of these new European immigrants came from nations that Anglo-Saxons considered inferior, and many of them came from peoples without states. They were oppressed minorities in the countries or empires they came from. Many came from the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many were Irish, from a land controlled by England, or they were Jews from Eastern Europe. Some were southern Italians, in a country only just unified, where the South was economically dependent on the North.

When European immigrants assimilated, they joined white society in social and cultural terms. Obviously, the color of their skin did not change--but the category of "white" expanded from its former association with Anglo-Saxons to include these newcomers. Anglo-Saxonism was fundamentally based on the domination of Africans, Native Americans, and Asians, and the institutions and ideologies of the United States reflected this reality. Southern and eastern Europeans were not originally part of this racial dynamic. Assimilating into it meant accepting it and identifying with the racial inequality it entailed--insisting, successfully, on their place among whites.

When Asian and Latino immigrants assimilate, they also assimilate to the United States racial hierarchy, but in a different way. Very few of them can cross the line into whiteness. Instead, they assimilate by becoming people of color in a racially divided society. Assimilation, instead of bringing upward mobility, brings downward mobility. Of course there are exceptions, but overwhelmingly, the social and economic statistics have told the same dreary story for many generations: blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even--perhaps especially--those whose ancestors have the longest presence in the country. It's not lack of assimilation that keeps them marginalized--it's assimilation itself.

The relationship between assimilation and downward mobility has been especially noted in studies of schoolchildren. Education professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco conducted two major studies of Latino adolescents in which he found that the most recent immigrants tended to be the students with the highest aspirations and the strongest belief in the American dream. This was because, as immigrants, they were not yet educated into the U.S. racial order. Teachers consistently reported on new immigrants' commitment to education, their work ethic, and their respect for their teachers. As they became more Americanized, they entered an oppositional inner-city teenage culture that valued money, drugs, and reckless behaviors defined as cool--the opposite of the hopeful and hard-working recent arrivals.

Over time new immigrants lost their optimism. They became acculturated by becoming aware of the long-standing historical place of Latinos in U.S. society. They realized that education was not the solution they had originally believed it was. In fact, studies have shown that the higher the educational level, the greater the income disparity between whites and nonwhites in U.S. society. Rather than leveling the playing field, educational achievement maintains or even exacerbates inequalities.

Although students of color may not be aware of the statistics, their decisions seem to reflect a larger awareness that education is not an automatic ticket to the American dream. A 2000 study found graduation rates to be 76 percent for white students, 57 percent for Native Americans, 55 percent for African Americans, and 53 percent for Hispanics. The newest immigrants look a lot like the oldest "foreigners" in the United States in terms of social status. Unlike whole generations of European immigrants, no amount of assimilation will ever make them white.

Like earlier generations of immigrants, those arriving today still see learning English as crucial to survival and success. But new immigrants also become aware that learning to speak English will not resolve the problems of race. Native Americans and African Americans are native speakers of English--but this has not helped them to assimilate into a U.S. society that still in many ways defines itself as white.

Of all Latino groups in the United States, it's Puerto Ricans who are the most assimilated. All Puerto Ricans have been citizens since 1917. Puerto Ricans tend to know English, and to speak English as their primary language, at much higher rates than other Latinos. Puerto Ricans also have a huge advantage over other immigrants because their citizenship status makes them eligible for public social services and gives them the automatic right to work, rights that many immigrants from other parts of Latin America lack.

Although Mexican nationals are not automatically citizens the way Puerto Ricans are, Mexicans have the longest history in the United States of any Latino group. Mexicans residing in the territories taken by the United States in 1848 were granted citizenship, and Mexicans have been migrating into the United States for a longer time than any other group.

Yet Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have the highest poverty rates of any group of Latinos in the United States. Cubans, the vast majority of whom came to the United States after 1959, Dominicans, who started coming in large numbers in the 1970s, and Central Americans, whose massive migration dates to the 1980s, all have much lower poverty rates: 24.1 percent of Mexicans and 23.7 percent of Puerto Ricans in the United States lived below the poverty line in 2003, while only 14.4 percent of Cubans did.

In an interesting study of black West Indian immigrants, Mary Waters found that "immigrants and their children do better economically by maintaining a strong ethnic identity and culture and by resisting American cultural and identity influences . . . those who resist becoming American do well and those who lose their immigrant ethnic distinctiveness become downwardly mobile . . . When West Indians lose their distinctiveness as immigrants or ethnics they become not just Americans, but black Americans."

The picture is clear. Immigrants of color do assimilate into U.S. society, but, in contrast to white immigrants, for people of color assimilation means downward mobility. Assimilation means learning the racial order of the United States, and for people of color it means joining the lower ranks of that racial order. The association often made between assimilation and upward mobility is based on the experience of white immigrants. For immigrants of color, the trajectory of assimilation is a very different one.

Reprinted from
They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths about Immigration by Aviva Chomsky Copyright © 2007 by permission of Beacon Press, www.beacon.org

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