Immigration has been a touchstone of United States political debates for decades, and several cities claim to be at a “breaking point” as they struggle to absorb and support arrived migrants. But is there really a border crisis? And why are cities like New York unable to cope with the influx of migrants when their numbers are not unusual by historic standards? Have the Biden administration’s changes in asylum laws made a difference? Is there a “solution” to the migration “problem”? Avi Chomsky addresses these questions in an exclusive interview for Truthout.
Avi Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of the Latin American studies program at Salem State University. She is the author of many books, including Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice (2022); Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration (2021); “They Take Our Jobs!”: And 20 Other Myths about Immigration (2007); and Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (2014).
C.J. Polychroniou: The influx of migrants at the southern border has sparked renewed attention lately, and the immigration debate is raging once again. In fact, anti-immigrant rhetoric has escalated after Donald Trump said in a recent interview that undocumented people were “poisoning the blood of our country,” while a MAGA radio host even called for the shooting of charity workers helping migrants. First, is there an actual migration crisis at the U.S. southern border? Most people seem to think that the U.S. does have a border crisis, though there doesn’t seem to be a political consensus on how to deal with the rising flow of migrants. What’s your own take on this matter, and why is it that the number of international migrants keeps increasing over the years?
Avi Chomsky: I don’t actually agree that there is a “border crisis.” There are multiple crises, both inside the U.S. and outside, and sometimes they become most visible to the media and the U.S. public on the border — but the border is only one node of the crises.
The real crisis is what’s happening in countries like Haiti, Guatemala, Venezuela, and other places where long histories of colonial exploitation, inequality, and violence are exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies, militarization, new forms of extractivism and displacement, debt and climate change, and pushing people from their homes and into migration. Most people who leave their homes to undertake a dangerous journey in hopes of reaching the U.S. are not exactly voluntary migrants — they are forced out of their homes by desperation.
The U.S. has played an outsized role in all of these crises through its military, political and economic role in the countries people are fleeing. In terms of the crisis on the border itself, of course the U.S. is 100 percent responsible, both in terms of its immigration policies designed to turn Global South workers into legally excluded, exploitable labor, and in terms of its border policies designed to criminalize and punish migrants, using military means to force them into dangerous and often deadly paths to enter the country.
Certain cities, such as New York, Chicago, El Paso and San Diego, claim to be experiencing a migrant crisis. Let’s focus on New York, where more than 100,000 migrants have arrived over the last several months. This influx of migrants is not unusual by historical standards, so why is the city failing to cope with these numbers? Indeed, the operational effort is going so badly that Mayor Eric Adams said a couple of months ago that “this issue will destroy New York City.”
A number of different factors or crises are intersecting right now in places like New York or my own hometown of Boston. Every city you mention has its own housing crisis, which existed well before the recent migrant arrivals. Public policy, the real estate industry and the development industry, and banks and lending agencies have collaborated in a gentrification process that replaces affordable housing with luxury housing and offices. Study after study has shown how poor and even middle-income people simply cannot afford to buy or even to rent in these cities. The concept of supply and demand just doesn’t work when it comes to basic human needs. All people need housing, but it’s more profitable to meet the “demand” of people with a lot of money, so investment flows into luxury housing. So, the ongoing housing crisis is one part of the puzzle.
A second piece is shifts in migrants’ origins. Mexican and Central American migration has a long history in the U.S., and most migrants who succeed in crossing the border move directly to places where they have family and jobs waiting for them. Housing may be crowded and inadequate, but they have a place to go. This year, for the first time, migrants from Mexico and Central America comprise less than half of those crossing the border. Venezuelans are the largest group right now — and they are much less likely to have established communities and families to take them in.
A third issue is recent changes in policy. President Joe Biden’s recent reforms created new avenues for people to cross legally — which is good in that it reduces the risks of dangerous desert crossings — but by pushing people from informal to formal routes, it leaves governmental and nongovernmental agencies flailing to deal with people who otherwise would just have been fending for themselves. In setting up these new avenues the government failed to take into account what would happen to people after they were allowed in. So, there was no plan for shelter or for facilitating work permits for people who have been let into the country legally.
Finally, the federal government is evading its responsibility for the migrants it allows in and hoping that cash-strapped cities will fill in the gap. Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who have shipped migrants to northern, Democratic-controlled cities, were responding to this very real problem that the Democratic administration created — that newly arrived migrants have needs, and individual cities don’t have the resources to fill all of these needs. The federal government is also wholly responsible for enabling these legal migrants to obtain work permits.
In the 21st century, successive U.S. administrations have increasingly restricted immigration, and the Trump administration treated immigrants harshly and inhumanely. Now, the Biden administration has made a dramatic shift in asylum policy in order to help solve the migrant crisis. How have the changes to asylum laws affected people who are migrating to the U.S.?
Biden has made some significant changes in terms of policy — but those changes must operate within current immigration law, which can only be changed by Congress. The policy changes are aimed at expanding legal pathways for people at the border to apply for asylum, while making it almost impossible for people who cross the border without permission to do so. Biden has also applied great pressure on Mexico, Guatemala, and other countries to halt immigrants before they get to the U.S. border and militarize their own borders, and to provide refuge for migrants that the U.S. doesn’t want.
In terms of increasing legal access, Biden has opened up special programs for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ukraine and some other “politically useful” countries, and set up an online system for asylum seekers to set up appointments for processing. The online system might sound good, bureaucratically… But most people who are fleeing dangerous situations don’t have time to wait patiently for an appointment to open up. The flip side of the new policy is that Biden has made it practically impossible for anyone crossing the border without permission to apply for asylum at all. This latter policy is a clear violation of international law.
So, despite his campaign promises to treat immigrants more humanely, Biden has also promoted a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, including recently waiving federal environmental regulations to enable new segments of the border wall.
Migrant crises have influenced the rise of far right movements. In fact, migrant crises have not only boosted right-wing, anti-immigration political movements but have even led moderate governments to shift their policies toward immigration by becoming themselves more right wing. Are there real solutions to migration?
I think to talk about “solutions to migration” we need to redefine the problem. Migration is not the problem: The problem is the economic, social, political and environmental collapse confronting many poor countries. Migration, in fact, is the solution for many.
In Venezuela and Cuba, U.S. sanctions and subversion have played a big role in the economic crisis. Removing the sanctions would not solve all of those countries’ problems overnight, but it would help to create the political and economic space that they need to find real solutions to their problems.
Central Americans have been trying to solve their countries’ problems for generations. The problems are rooted in colonial economic and social structures that privilege a small elite, cater to foreign investors, and deny land, labor, environmental, economic and social rights to the poor majorities. When the Central American poor resisted these policies in the early 20th century, the U.S. termed them “savages” and “bandits” and stepped in repeatedly to restore investor-friendly order. After World War II, when the poor resisted these policies and sought to restore sovereignty over their countries’ resources, the U.S. called them “communists” and poured in military aid to crush them. With revolutionary movements crushed by the 1990s, the U.S. was able to turn them into neoliberal investors’ paradises. The only solution that remained for the dispossessed and displaced was migration — but the U.S. won’t even allow that solution!
One final question: What do you consider to be the biggest myths about migrants and immigration?
I titled my 2007 book “They Take Our Jobs!”: And 20 Other Myths about Immigration because I think that “they take our jobs” is one of the most common and pernicious myths about immigrants.
Really, the U.S. and other wealthy countries have long functioned on the basis of a kind of dual economy: a formal economy that is regulated and, at least for the past 100 years, has provided a relative degree of protection for workers, with things like minimum wage, health and safety, child labor, and other laws. Meanwhile, in an unregulated, underground economy, workers lack legal rights and protections.
Since the 1970s, the economy has shifted in many ways. The unionized industrial sector has shrunk. Many old and new informal sectors have grown, including everything from fast food to landscaping to gig and delivery sectors. And some industries — like meat processing — have moved away from unionized cities into remote rural areas. All of these industries sought out immigrant (frequently undocumented) workers who they could easily exploit. Undocumented workers, like guest workers — a whole other category of immigrants who are frequently exploited — are unlikely to leave a job or raise their voices because they fear being turned in and deported.
Immigrants take the jobs that nobody else wants — many of them are the workers who, as became clear during COVID-19, are “essential” to everyone’s well-being, but who are the worst treated, worst paid and most vulnerable. Furthermore, they are “essential” because, as the U.S. workforce ages and the birthrate declines, we simply wouldn’t have enough young workers to do the work and pay the taxes without immigrants.
Another big myth about immigrants is that they are a burden on society because they use social services but don’t pay taxes. In fact, most immigrants (depending on their legal status) are not eligible for most social welfare programs, and all immigrants pay taxes. Anyone who works in the formal economy and receives a paycheck will have payroll taxes deducted — income tax, social security, workers comp, etc. Undocumented immigrants who use false papers pay those taxes but will never be able to receive the benefits.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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