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“Pro-Immigrant” Liberalism and Capitalist Exploitation: Why Corporate Democrats Do Not Support Immigrant Justice

Immigration uncertainty profits the right and the left.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema pose for photos with immigration reform activists after a discussion on immigration reform October 23, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. With the fate of DACA up in the air, Democrats have been relatively silent on the plight of nearly 10 million other undocumented immigrants. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

“Liberal academics are busy supporting the DREAM Act or whatever helps them avoid being called racist.”

This is how a member of Chicago’s Moratorium on Deportations Campaign expressed her frustration at the lack of critical analysis surrounding the “comprehensive immigration reform” bill that had just passed the Democratic-led Senate in June 2013.

It’s not hard to understand why: The legislation included $46 billion to further militarize the border with Mexico — already guarded by nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents, dozens of drones and 700 miles of border walls. This bill included a version of the DREAM Act, as well as a permanently temporary legal status for 5 million other undocumented immigrants, masquerading as a so-called “pathway to citizenship.”

Today, President Trump’s knack for throwing around demeaning and racist epithets and bringing official US government discourse in line with its corporate-backed policy in countries such as Haiti and El Salvador has liberals across the country and blogosphere up in arms. Paul A. Kramer has rightfully exposed the short-sightedness of this hand-wringing. He underscores the racist undertones that have long subtended official US immigration policy, and prods us to ask some very important questions:

To what extent are the countries of the global north implicated in forces that prevent people in the global south from surviving and thriving where they are? In what ways do restrictive immigration policies heighten the exploitation of workers? How does the fear of deportation make migrant workers easier to discipline, hurt and rob? In what ways does mass migration from the poorer parts of the earth to centers of wealth and power reflect the larger problem of global inequality?

The real challenge lies in answering these questions in a way that does not amount to a mere restatement of their premises accompanied with an ever-growing sense of moral indignation. It is absolutely vital to denounce the brutal legacy of colonialist plunder that set the capitalist system in motion over 500 years ago, but it must not be forgotten that the nation-states forged in the fire of colonialist violence have always been fraught with their own internal power struggles.

A concrete analysis of the explosive contradictions of contemporary capitalist globalization demonstrates that neither Trump’s explicitly racist vitriol nor the paternalistic “pro-immigrant” discourse of corporate liberals and the multicultural elite challenges the structures allowing for the exploitation and oppression of immigrants and migrant workers.

This is not to say that there is no difference between the two. Quite the contrary, it is highly illuminating to consider the relationship between such apparently divergent rhetorical strategies and the material interests of specific groups of capitalists and their forms of profit-making. This will make it easier for the grassroots struggle for migrant and immigrant justice to clearly discern the true colors of the corporate, Democrat-led anti-Trump “resistance,” and adopt a genuinely progressive platform.

The Political Economy of Anti-Immigrant Discourse

The radical social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein argues that the underlying tension between the formally universalistic ideology undergirding bourgeois democracy and the undeniably racist and sexist manner in which this political system actually functions is a reflection of the contradictory needs of capital accumulation. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously proclaimed that “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe,” but what it produces above all are its own grave-diggers in the form of “free” workers who must sell their labor power on the market. In the United States, the capitalist class quickly learned to keep the working class internally fractured by creating relatively privileged strata of (largely white male) workers alongside groups of particularly tractable workers whose “cheapened” labor power is rendered so disposable that its owners might even be expelled during times of economic crisis.

This deliberately reductionist framework has the merit of refusing to naturalize racist oppression and rhetoric as a mere manifestation of racism, as if this latter phenomenon did not in turn need to be explained. Its haphazard application can certainly lead to simplistic analyses, but this model may also serve as a fruitful backdrop to a deeper analysis of the present moment.

The strongest social base for the intensely racist discourse in currency today is arguably those capitalists who are invested in the business of immigrant detention and deportation. This is not because they are morally depraved, but because their ability to earn a profit is literally dependent on an endless supply of highly racialized and deportable bodies. They are painfully aware, and they use their considerable social power to shift public discourse in order to serve their own interests.

Activists and scholars have done an excellent job exposing the collusion of corporate executives and state legislators with ties to the private prison industry and the much larger “immigrant industrial complex.” These lawmakers have passed extremely repressive anti-immigrant laws such as Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56. From the buses used to transport immigrant detainees, to the corporations that provide woefully inadequate but highly lucrative medical services to them, and the phone companies that charge them $4 a minute, many seemingly innocuous sectors of the economy profit handsomely from this loathsome state of affairs.

This is indeed morally outrageous. Yet, it is not indicative of a crisis of individual morals, so much as a structural crisis of the global capitalist system that reduces human beings to the commodities they either produce, consume, or — in the case of their labor power — are forced to sell.

As William Robinson has argued, militarized accumulation — whether it takes the form of constructing border walls and prisons or hiring and arming paramilitary-style organizations such as the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement — responds to this crisis in two crucial ways. First, it provides outlets to capital at a time when many other opportunities for productive investment have dried up. What is more, the systematic repression of racialized surplus populations is clearly an attempt to keep a lid on growing discontent among the most socially marginalized, who come to serve as scapegoats for the system’s growing instability.

Immigrant workers have indeed grown increasingly organized in recent years, demonstrating that they are unafraid to withhold their labor power as a means of demanding justice. Precisely because they are some of the most highly exploited and legally vulnerable workers, they have not been rendered totally superfluous to global capital. Since the “immigrant industrial complex” treats immigrant bodies as raw materials in the production process, it actually poses a threat to other capitalists who seek to extract surplus value from them.

Quite simply, the detention of immigrants removes their labor power from the (non-prison) labor market. This is a fundamental contradiction, and the contemporary debate around immigration politics must be properly placed within this context.

Corporate Liberals to the Rescue?

In the face of intensified deportation campaigns, the liberal wing of the US-based transnational capitalist class — including the CEOs of Silicon Valley giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook — is even more willing than usual to put forward a seemingly progressive and even explicitly anti-racist discourse. Many top executives are immigrants themselves. They call for immigrant families to be kept together, and they will decry the most egregious cases of abuse of immigrant workers.

Denunciations of xenophobia and hate that are not simultaneously buttressed by an anti-capitalist critique practically invite co-optation by the multicultural corporate elite.

Yet when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella advocates for the “right use” of the H-1B “guest-worker” program, he is calling for the utilization of “high-skill labor” to promote “American competitiveness,” not challenging the highly precarious existence of the program’s participants. He doesn’t seem very concerned about the working conditions of the thousands of “unskilled” and low-wage immigrant workers who ensure that the “campuses” of these global corporations run smoothly, and must dispose of the toxic chemicals produced by this supposedly “eco-friendly” industry on a daily basis. Those who provide the vital labor sustaining the lifestyles of the industry’s more affluent workers — such as gardening, child care, cleaning, repair work and food service — are hardly better off.

Billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates know that they are utterly dependent on immigrant labor. With this in mind, they have funded organizations such as in order to push for a “comprehensive immigration reform” along the lines of the Senate’s 2013 bill. With a team comprising former congressional staffers, campaign managers and NGO professionals, uses online advocacy and local chapters in order to “mobilize the tech community to support policies that keep the American Dream achievable in the 21st century.” The organization recognizes that “human ability provides the foundation for everything” the tech community does, and laments that $37 million is lost each day as a result of the country’s “broken immigration system.”

If it is true, then the “tech community” has its own formula for converting immigrants into dollar signs, and is shrewd enough to appropriate rhetorical themes that one often hears in more community-based organizing. Attempting to put a human face to those dollar signs — rather than more dollars in the pockets of those humans — it encourages immigrants to share their stories and demonstrate that “real lives hang in the balance.” This lays bare an unfortunate but unavoidable fact: Moral pleas and strident denunciations of xenophobia and hate that are not simultaneously buttressed by an anti-capitalist critique practically invite co-optation by the multicultural corporate elite.

All social justice movements must be resolutely committed to an anti-racist politics, but turning “colorblind” ideology on its head by pointing out the ubiquity of “race” and denouncing all manifestations of racism is no substitute for the development of a long-term strategy grounded in a structural analysis of how the unequal and thoroughly racist class relations of global capitalist society are continually reproduced. This is not an easy task, but with an openly racist president in the White House, it acquires a new sense of urgency.

A Truly Progressive Platform

I have argued elsewhere that the three apparently antagonistic aspects of official US immigration policy — mass detentions and deportations, a qualitatively new stage of border militarization, and attempts to pass a so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” — lay the groundwork for a system of immigrant labor control anchored in “liminal legality.” In short, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protective Status — as well as certain agricultural workers — would most likely receive some sort of preferential treatment in any future “reform” bill. Yet the essentially temporary nature of those pseudo-legal statuses would be quietly smuggled into a deceptively definitive, decades-long “pathway to citizenship,” as well as an expanded and revamped “guest-worker” program.

A truly anti-racist and progressive response would insist on the full and immediate “legalization” for all, while striving to abolish the exclusionary nature of national citizenship itself.

When Rep. Luis Gutiérrez attempts to claim the moral high ground from the Trump administration by tweeting that “$25 billion [for border security] as ransom for Dreamers with cuts to legal immigration and increases to deportations doesn’t pass the laugh test,” he is being dishonest. In fact, the “immigrant rights champion” vigorously supported a bill passed by the Democratic-led Senate in 2013 that allocated nearly double that amount of money for “border security,” while also increasing funding to the deportation apparatus and making similar cuts to “legal” immigration.

The point is not that Trump and Gutiérrez are hypocrites, but that they embody the contradictions built into the global capitalist system. They will continue to use Dreamers as a “bargaining chip” because of their structural role in upholding such a profoundly unequal social order, which cannot be effectively challenged by appealing to the moral sense of its most powerful guardians.

The White House has vocalized its “support” for Dreamers, but with the fate of DACA up in the air, Democrats have been relatively silent regarding the plight of the nearly 10 million other undocumented immigrants in the country — let alone the hundreds of thousands of “guest workers” and the millions of “legal” immigrants struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis.

This only reinforces the “good immigrant/bad immigrant” divide that undocumented youth themselves have been tirelessly repudiating for years. Worse still, it will make the eventual inclusion of an interminable “pathway to citizenship” seem like a victory wrested from the jaws of xenophobic reaction. In reality, it is an insidious bid by capital to assert greater control over a highly precarious, mobile and increasingly active undocumented population.

The incredible amount of anti-deportation organizing around the country shines a beacon of light during these dark times. However, corporate liberals will seek to harness this grassroots energy by essentially insisting that “good immigrants” have the right to stay and be super-exploited as a legally vulnerable workforce. A truly anti-racist and progressive response, in contrast, would insist on the full and immediate “legalization” for all, while striving to abolish the exclusionary nature of national citizenship itself, and dismantle the walls that uphold it.

Liberal politicians can — and must — be pushed further to the left. Nonetheless, their hands are tied by the constitutionally enshrined rights of capitalist private property, so the struggle for true migrant and immigrant justice must ultimately serve as a key plank in a larger, mass-based movement to abolish this historically-transient form of social power.

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