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The fight for migrant rights in the U.S.

Interview with Justin Akers Chacón

Brendan Stanton interviews Justin Akers Chacón, a socialist based in San Diego. Akers Chacón campaigns for worker and immigrant rights in the U.S.-Mexico border region and is the author of The Border Crossed Us: The Case for Opening the U.S.-Mexico Border. The article first appeared in Red Flag under the title, “The fight for migrant rights in the U.S.”

Brendan Stanton: After the polarization under former President Trump, what has shifted in the politics of the border and migration during the Biden era?

Justin Akers Chacón: The short answer is that it’s gotten worse. There were some 400 executive actions taken by the Trump administration that affected immigration, including family separation at the border, the Muslim travel ban, expanding the border wall, and ending temporary protected status for many groups. Much of this framework has been institutionalized under Biden.

This is despite the fact that, in the lead-up to the 2020 election, the whole discourse of the Democratic Party was towards dismantling the inhumane and punitive measures of the Trump regime. While Biden wasn’t on the left wing of that discourse, he characterized Trump as harmful to immigrants and refugees and promised a pathway to legalization for migrants in his first 100 days. This shifted immediately after the Democrats won, and they quickly walked back any discussion.

Landscape shot looking down the border fence that goes up and down rolling hills. On the left of the fence is open space and a residential area, and on the right is a dense urban area with a number of tall buildings.
The border between San Diego and Tijuana. Image by Amyyfory.

It’s worth also mentioning that Biden technically ordered a month’s moratorium on deportations early in the administration. But the order was overruled by a Trump-appointed federal judge on the day it was issued. The administration used this as an excuse to abandon the promise completely, but it was quickly pointed out by immigration scholars that there were multiple ways in which the administration could have worked around that ruling to stop deportations.

Although vocally opposing Title 42 [a Trump-era measure allowing authorities to turn away migrants at the border on public-health grounds], one of his first acts as president was using it to conduct a mass deportation of Haitians from south Texas. Even while the Trump policy of family separation at the border was stopped, the Biden administration announced that it’s going to begin the process of reauthorizing family detention.

The Democrats’ real orientation around border politics was signaled by Kamala Harris when she was sent to Guatemala in 2021 to tell Central Americans, “Do not come to the United States.” This signaled the institutionalization of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which defunded the legal side of the asylum process.

This, of course, didn’t stop people from migrating. Just like under Trump, it created conditions where large populations are forced to live in overcrowded encampments, on the street and in other uninhabitable areas on the Mexican side of the borderlands.

The Democrats played an equal or even greater role in building the immigration enforcement apparatus than the Republicans. They have no left or progressive or reformist orientation towards immigration, and they face pressure from the right when the Republican Party redeploys all the racist tropes like “our border is under attack,” or “we’re being invaded” during each election cycle. So they consistently diverge their rhetoric during elections, and after elections they converge with Republicans again.

That’s how we’re in a situation where far more people were deported in Biden’s first year than under the previous four years of Trump.

BS: Has there been any opposition from the likes of Democratic Party Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or other people who made a name for themselves calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security division in charge of deportations?

JAC: There was this interesting period in 2019, when a lot of these people on the left of the party were going to detention centers and giving speeches. Ocasio-Cortez gave a very moving account of the horrors of a detention center, and said we have to close the “concentration camps.”

But as soon as the Democrats won, it all evaporated. She and others on the left of the Democratic party stopped calling these horrible places “camps” and started promoting the idea that with Democrats in office, there’s going to be reform. That reform never happened, but there has still been a shift in terms of softening rhetoric or not talking about it at all. Since the abandonment of immigration reform after the election, there has been no movement within the Democratic party to change the status quo.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in campaign mode leading up to 2024, the Biden administration makes similar promises as before. But for now, it’s shifted far to the right, taking the whole party tent and the stakes to the right with it.

BS: A couple of months ago, a story broke about undocumented children working in quite dangerous conditions for major U.S. corporations. Have there been any significant changes around labor protection in the wake of that scandal?

JAC: It actually created an internal conflict within the Biden administration. Some officials who were monitoring the child refugee crisis were calling the administration’s attention to how many of these children were being absorbed into the workforce as early as a year and a half ago. People higher up, like Susan Rice, one of the chief advisers of Biden, knew this was happening. They basically quashed it, said it was not a priority, and so it took outside reporters to break the story.

It’s important to understand what immigration enforcement is designed to do and what it’s not designed to do. It’s not designed to stop people from migrating or to prevent people from falling into these conditions. It creates pathways for this to happen by essentially creating systems of regulation for a growing segment of the workforce in this country.

Being exposed for their awareness that child labor is flourishing once again in the United States is a public relations problem for the Biden administration, but it hasn’t provoked a political crisis. It’s also because the Republicans and the right don’t have a problem with this issue—they’re not going to try to make it an issue.

Even within organized labor, it’s not clear that there’s any effort to address the issue of child labor. Like so many other things, it’s either under-reported or swept under the rug really quickly. It’s a reflection of how little opposition there is inside the U.S. to the politics of immigration enforcement.

BS: How do you think socialists and leftists should understand the class dynamics of border politics?

JAC: We can walk through that child refugee scenario from beginning to end and explain how this is a political function of capitalist policy.

Between 2011 and 2016, almost 200,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, came to the United States. Two major factors played a key role in this. One is the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement first implemented in 2006. By 2010, there were radical economic changes like the opening up of these economies to unrestricted foreign capital investment and the privatization of much of the economy.

There was a systematic displacement of people who could no longer afford to work the land, or whose jobs in manufacturing were displaced by foreign capital. This foreign capital is invested in extreme forms of labor production associated with maquiladoras [U.S.-owned factories], basically laboratories for increasing productivity, repressing wages, and keeping unions out.

This destroys many of the social aspects of the economy, and by 2011 we saw the first significant effects of these policies displacing people.

Earlier, in 2007, the U.S. initiated a region-wide security strategy called the Mérida Initiative, through which it gave money and political support to Mexican and Central American governments to expand the border enforcement apparatus of the United States further south. The U.S. trains police and militaries in these countries to engage in the Drug War and also control migration.

Alongside the other realities of the War on Drugs, which contributed to the growth of drug cartels, this has destabilized the region. The illegal drug industry is now one of the major industries of the Western hemisphere, and these cartels have grown in rhythm and tempo with the criminalization of drugs and the growth of enforcement mechanisms. Instead of the cartels being contained and defeated in Mexico through this regional militarization, they’ve been pushed further into Central America.

In 2009, the U.S. greenlit the overthrow of the left-of-center president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. This set up the rule of the far right for the next several years, including Juan Orlando Hernández, a strong U.S. ally who was also on the payroll of the cartels. While he was president, a lot of the funding and technology he received from the U.S. for the drug war went towards repressing Indigenous populations and social movements. Lots of people were displaced, and hundreds of labor organizers, socialists, LGBTQ people, Indigenous organizers, and other leftists were killed.

So all that’s happening down there while we have the building up of the border enforcement apparatus, and the children who ultimately make it through to the United States end up in the workforce to survive. How do we understand the end of that scenario without understanding how every sort of step of this process is predicated on strengthening the ability of capital to exploit?

The overthrow of a left-of-center president in 2009 helped embolden a far-right government to destroy the Left, attack all these vulnerable groups, and displace countless people. When thousands of these children and teenagers start appearing in meat production facilities and construction jobs in the U.S., it’s a manifestation of U.S. regional policies. It’s not necessarily a conscious act that someone masterminded, but it’s the outcome of decisions that advocate for the interest of capital.

This creates larger and larger pools of exploitable workers, on both sides of the border, who are hard to organize, including workers who are regulated by the state. That impacts wage thresholds and impacts the whole labor economy. And when immigrant workers rise up, as they did in 2006, that leads to an increase in the repression of the state.

BS: In light of these border dynamics, in what direction do you think the socialist movement and the labor movement should go?

JAC: There has to be a rejection of criminalization and border enforcement. That has to be a demand for all workers. In 1986 it actually was, when unions backed an amnesty for undocumented workers. This led to a surge in unionization among newly legalized workers, who were much more class conscious than the rest of the population. Legalization was a huge boost for the union movement at a time when it was otherwise declining. It also means supporting workers as they organize on the other side of the border.

I’m going to try to paraphrase Marx. He said something like, you don’t know what the problem is until a solution presents itself. In the context of the North American class struggle, capital has invested so much by shifting production south of the border and dividing production into cross-border supply chains. Therefore, the working classes in the U.S. and Mexico have become fused together in ways that are much more apparent. More of these workers, especially workers in Mexico, recognize that class struggle is by necessity transnational, and there have been flashes of this potential and some sustained processes of a transnational labor response.

There are some maquiladoras in Tamaulipas [a northeastern state bordering Texas] making parts for General Motors that are going to be used for assembly in Tennessee or in Detroit, and there are also GM plants making whole cars in Mexico.

The workers in these factories in Mexico have to be very savvy organizers, because in Mexico you don’t just organize against the employers, you organize against the fake unions that are muscle for the employers. You often have to organize directly against local and state governments and sometimes the federal government.

In 2019, these workers in Matamoros [across the border from Brownsville, Texas], in extreme conditions, coordinated a series of wildcat strikes all at once. Rank and file women and men workers organizing these networks got over 35,000 workers and shut down 48 factories over a month and a half. All of them won a 20 percent pay increase and a significant rise in their annual bonuses. A big part of why they won is because shutting down their factories disrupted parts supplies all across the U.S. and Mexico, costing bosses an estimated $50 million per day.

On the left is a multi-colored hand-painted sign of a mother and father united with children and lettering saying, “No more detention, no more deportations. Abolish I.C.E.” On the right are demonstrators in warm-weather clothes marching with signs that say, “Abolish ICE.”
Demonstrations for the abolition of ICE in 2018. Image on the left by Master Steve Rapport, on the right by Fibonacci Blue.

That same year, United Auto Workers union members went on strike at GM, shutting down almost all production in the U.S. and Canada, but not in Mexico. So GM decided to shift more production to Mexico to avoid further disruption and undercut these workers. In this context, workers trying to organize a union at the largest GM plant in Mexico, in Silao, Guanajuato, said that they supported the strike and the demands of the United Auto Workers in the U.S. They asked for the UAW to support them and bring them into the union or at least help them build an independent union so they could strike, start the process of shutting down Mexican auto production and completely shut down General Motors production.

Unfortunately, the UAW ignored them and accepted a largely concessionary contract. But in the fallout was some recognition that they blew this opportunity. How could they not support the organization of auto workers in Mexico, when GM is actively using these disorganized workers to undermine them? A couple of years later, the UAW began to support these Mexican workers in their unionization efforts—they won and even expanded to other non-GM auto plants. This didn’t create equal wages. but it was a recognition by the UAW that they can’t afford not to support Mexican workers organizing.

In this process, more workers, especially militants fighting to build fledgling unions, recognize that they have to build international solidarity and engage in class struggle across the border. They recognize they’re not fighting just the employer but all of these other forces. It’s interesting to see how these workers are recognizing that, as capital is operating at a North American scale, they too have to organize against it at a North American scale and not let the border divide them.

Featured image credit: Peg Hunter; modified by Tempest

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Brendan Stanton View All

Brendan Stanton is a socialist teacher based in Melbourne, Australia. Originally from the U.S., he spent more than a decade organizing in Houston, Texas, in anti-racist and immigrant rights campaigns, and in the student and workers' movements.