The Democrats’ Long War on Immigrants

Author Harsha Walia discusses the Democratic Party’s fundamental role in shaping the long arc of U.S. border policy.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept, Getty Images (4)

As Joe Biden took the oath of office last month, Guatemalan security forces at the Honduran border thwarted thousands of U.S.-bound migrants. While decadeslong American imperialism has facilitated displacement throughout the region, the U.S. is increasingly outsourcing its deadly immigration policy. This week on Intercepted: The Biden administration announced it will begin to process the 25,000 asylum-seekers stuck in squalid border town camps as part of Donald Trump’s so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, a program commonly referred to as “Remain in Mexico.” But immigration advocates fear Biden will not reverse the bipartisan trend of his predecessors to further militarize the southern border and expand the reaches of immigration enforcement — policies that have led to more migrant deaths and detention in recent decades. Despite Biden’s executive actions to reverse the Muslim ban, initiate migrant family reunification, and fortify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, his administration has indicated that it will continue to support Mexican and Guatemalan armed enforcement of their borders on behalf of the U.S.

Activist and writer Harsha Walia joins Intercepted to discuss the Democratic Party’s fundamental role in shaping the long arc of U.S. border policy and why the practice of “prevention through deterrence” will continue to incur more suffering and preventable deaths. She also presents an abolitionist view of a world without borders. Walia’s most recent book is “Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism.”


Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Musical interlude]

Harsha Walia: My name is Harsha Walia. I’m an organizer and activist trained in the law. I’m the author of “Border and Rule” by Haymarket Books.

Judy Woodruff: The new Biden-run justice department rescinded the Trump administration’s zero tolerance border policy. It led to thousands of family separations.

Joe Biden: Today I’m going to sign a few executive orders to strengthen the immigration system, building on the executive actions I took on day one to protect Dreamers and the Muslim Ban and to better manage our borders.

HW: The moratorium came about as Joe Biden was making various executive orders with respect to rolling back Trump’s horrific immigration mandate which was just so violent. Of course we know that Trump’s legacy included overtly malicious policies of separating families, caging children, the Muslim Ban, the border wall. All of that.

JB: There’s a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I have signed. I’m not making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy. What I’m doing is…

HW: But it was short-lived because a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the pause on deportation.

Laura Ingraham: Well on an issue that actually does matter, a federal judge who was actually appointed to the bench by President Trump has already taken action against Biden’s 100 day moratorium on deportations and Fox…

HW: And so what we saw within a few days of Biden’s announcement was that ICE began deporting hundreds of people to Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti.

Newscaster: President Biden has ordered a 100 day moratorium on deportations. But attorneys for 27 year-old Javier Castillo-Marediaga, who is DACA-eligible, say ICE has scheduled him to be on a plane back to Honduras on Monday morning. Marediaga’s family organized a rally Sunday…

HW: Part of what’s frustrating about the “ICE gone rogue” framework is that it presents the Biden administration as somehow powerless, when in fact they’re not. That really sets the context, I think, for what we can expect in the battles, really, to come with the Biden administration.

I think it’s so important to understand how immigration enforcement has been a pillar of the Democratic party’s governance for three decades. And it really was under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, you know, not Donald Trump exclusively, that an entire immigration enforcement apparatus that was bent on expanding detention and deportation, that was bent on criminalizing migration through criminal prosecutions, that was bent on militarizing the border, the very bipartisan agenda of detaining and deporting and terrorizing migrant communities.

Bill Clinton: All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected, but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.

HW: The Clinton years really normalized the most severe consequences of border militarization and mass detention, both at the same time. 

BC: The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service they use impose burdens on our tax payers. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before. We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years and we must do more to stop it.

HW: 1994 is a really important year because 1994 was the year that the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed.

BC: NAFTA will tear down trade barriers between our three nations. It will create the world’s largest trade zone and create 200,000 jobs in this country by 1995 alone. The environmental and labor side agreements negotiated by our administration will make this agreement a force for social progress as well as economic growth.

HW: As Bill Clinton was signing NAFTA to ensure the free movement of capital, the impacts of which continue to be felt today, is when the Zapatistas rose up in armed rebellion, citing NAFTA as one of the reasons for their rebellion.

Zapatista militant: Nosotros, armados, para hacer una revolución, para buscar paz y justicia en nuestro Chiapas y México. Viva la revolución! [Translation: We are armed to make a revolution, to seek peace and justice in our region of Chiapas and in Mexico]

HW: And that was because the Zapatistas predicted, as many others did, that the North American Free Trade agreement would bring misery and impoverishment, specifically and especially across indigenous communities in Mexico. And that it was the latest iteration of neo-liberal, colonial, capitalist warfare on their communities. 

Subcomandante Marcos: In Mexico, for the indian people, if you want food, if you want school, if you want help you must die or kill for take this. We don’t want more papers. We want schools. We want hospitals. We want land. We want support of the government. 

HW: At the same time that NAFTA was being signed and rammed through, the Army Corps of Engineers was fencing the U.S.-Mexico border to constrict the movement of people coming in from Mexico. And the Bill Clinton administration knew that NAFTA would create more misery and hence more displacement and more migration. Which is precisely why they tried to constrict the very movement of the people that they have displaced.

BC: The solution is to welcome legal immigrants and legal, legitimate refugees, and to turn away those who do not obey the laws. We will make it tougher for illegal aliens to get into our country and we will increase the number of border patrol, equipping them and training them to be first-class law enforcement officers. Today’s initiatives are about stopping crime, toughening the penalties for the criminals and giving our law enforcement people the tools they need to do their job. And it’s certainly plain to anybody with eyes to see that the border patrol is drastically understaffed. Breathtakingly understaffed.

HW: Border patrol tripled in size and it became the second largest enforcement agency in the United States at the time. And also we saw border patrol adopt the official strategy of what they call “prevention through deterrence.”

BC: For example I’ve asked the attorney general to increase those elements of our border patrol strategy that are proving most effective including the use of helicopters, night scopes and all-terrain vehicles. I’ve asked the members of the cabinet to create for the first time a national detention and removal plan to dramatically increase the identification and removal of deportable illegal aliens.

HW: And it’s actually intended to create border deaths because you’re trying to deter through death. And operations such as Hold the Line in Texas, Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Safeguard in Arizona, all worked together to militarize the border under this strategy.

BC: One of the cornerstones of our fight against illegal immigration has been a get-tough policy at our borers. We initiated Operation Hold the Line at El Paso, Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, Operation safeguard in Arizona, all with one clear intention: to secure the southwest border. As we speak, these initiatives are making a substantial difference. Illegal immigation is down. Crime is down. 

HW: And within six years of these operations, we saw that border deaths — which I argue we should more accurately call border killings because they’re intentional and premeditated by the state — they increased by 509%. 

BC: Under the budgets already passed, we’ve added a thousand new patrol agents just in the southwest. By the end of 1996 our administration will have increased overall border personnel by 51% since 1993. Thirdly I have asked for new funds to double the deportation of criminal aliens next year and to triple them by 1996. 

HW: In 1996, Clinton passed two laws that really kind of saw the nexus of this dehumanizing rhetoric of “crime and drugs and illegals.”

BC: But we won’t tolerate immgiration by people whose first act is to break the law as they enter our country. We must continue to do everything we can to strengthen our borders, enforce our laws and remove illegal aliens from our country. This week, I sent strong legislation to Congress to try to stop those abuses, to secure our borders in the future and to speed up deportation of illegal immigrants. 

HW: And what these two laws did is they expanded the category of aggravated felony convictions which essentially widened the net for detention and deportation of legal residents who had minor convictions in the criminal legal system stemming from stop-and-frisk racist policing and the racist war on drugs. What happened is within a few years the average daily detentions in the United States tripled and deportations shot up to an average of 150,000 people annually.

BC: Right now we’re deporting 110 illegal aliens everyday. That’s almost 40,000 a year, and we’re going to do even better. Our plan will triple the number of criminal and other deportable aliens deported since 1993. Whether they’re innocent or guilty of the crimes they’re charged with in court, they’re still here illegally and they should be sent out of the country. 

HW: As recently as last decade, half of the people that ICE detained came under its radar through what’s called the “Criminal Alien Program” which uses collaborations between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement as a pipeline for expulsion. And of course this disproportionately impacts Black communities, Afro-Carribean communities, communities that are doubly triply punished through federal enforcement.

BC: Our country was built by immigrants, but it was built also by people who obeyed the law. We must be able to control our borders, we must uphold respect for our laws. We’re cracking down on this huge problem we found when I got here and we’re going to keep working at it until we do much much better.

HW: You know this kind of structural inequality that was being entrenched through the war on crime, through the war on immigration, through the kind of war on welfare, all of these worked together to really entrench a criminalizing agenda on a number of racialized communities. And at the same time, it was justified through this kind of pathologizing rhetoric of, you know, that culture is the cause of poverty, rather than this deeply structural political inequality that was created as a consequence of racial capitalism.

JB: It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter, or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background that enabled them to have, to become a social — become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are the victims of society. The end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons. So I don’t want to ask what made them do this. They must be taken off the street. They are beyond the pale, many of those people. Beyond the pale. And it’s a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society.

HW: So this is the context for how we see the explosion of the prison industrial complex, which includes detention centers. So the United States not only has the shameful honor of having the world’s highest incarceration rate, it also has the world’s largest immgiration detention system on the planet. Those work in tandem. And I would argues that they’re both a modern method of anti-Black and anti-indigenous genocide, which is the foundation of this country. 

[Musical interlude]

HW: Police and prisons and borders, all operate through a spatial logic of immobilization. The very regimes of police prisons and borders is to immobilize and constrain and control people who are caught in their crosshairs. And the word “mob,” which we often hear politicians use —

Donald Trump: The radical Democrats have turned into an angry mob. And you don’t give power to an angry, left-wing mob. Republicans believe in the rule of law, not the rule of the mob.

HW: The word “mob” derives from the word mobility. The free, uncontrollable, ungovernable movement of poor racialized people is the root of this criminalizing vocabulary.

Jeanine Pirro: The mob of illegal immigrants, illegal aliens pushing through from Guatemala to Mexico against police and enforcement and what we saw in those few seconds were virtually all men…

Barack Obama: No matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable. 

HW: Barack Obama really furthered what Clinton put into place and also escalated it beyond that.

Jeffrey Brown: Today President Obama signed a bill upping borders security by $600 million. The money will go for a thousand new border patrol agents plus 250 agents for ICE — the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — and 250 officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that polices against terror and other threats.

HW: Obama spent billions of dollars securing the border just as Clinton did in ’94 after NAFTA. And under Barack Obama, the budgets of border and immigration enforcement actually began to outpace the budgets of all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.

Chip Reid: Under President Obama’s border plan, the national guard will assist with intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance support, analysis and training as well as supporting counternarcotics enforcement.

HW: Under president Obama, the kind of depictions in the public narrative of domestic and foreign threats they merged, right? So, the war at home and the war abroad boomeranged back and forth. The drones that the United States used to first attack Yemen and Pakistan were first tested on the U.S.-Mexico border. And President Obama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize, is a president who dropped an average of three bombs every hour in the year 2016, just prior to his departure, mostly through airstrikes and drone warfare on Syria, on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on Libya, on Yemen, on Somalia and on Pakistan. And when he signed DACA, you know the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which was received with much praise and much celebration, but it was very worrying because he also signaled his intention to increase enforcement at the very same time using the Secure Communities Program, which is very similar to the Criminal Alien Program under Bill Clinton. And under Obama, deportation rates doubled, just as they had increased under Clinton, and by 2014 about half of all federal criminal arrests were immigration related.

BO: Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we’re also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws and I believe that they must be held accountable, especially those who may be dangerous. That’s why over the last six years deportation of criminals are up 80%. And that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons not families. Criminals not children. Gang members not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize just like law enforcement does every day.

HW: In that same year, 2014, was the year where there was a surge of unaccompanied minors at the border. Obama began incarcerating migrant families by detaining them in camps on military bases.

BO: Although this summer there was a brief spike in unaccompanied children being apprehended at our border, the number of such children is now actually lower than it’s been in nearly two years.

HW: And you know, it was this foundation of incarcerating migrant families that then escalated to family separation and the crisis of hundreds of missing children and the caging of children under Trump. And in fact several of the photos of children in cages that went viral during Trump’s presidency were actually taken during the Obama years. 

BO: Our message absolutely is don’t send your children unaccompanied on trains or through a bunch of smugglers. We don’t even know how many of these kids don’t make it and may have been waylaid into sex trafficking or killed because they fell off a train. We have no way of tracking that. So that is our direct message to the families in Central America. Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.

HW: This was a bipartisan practice and it is just simply not possible and would not have been possible for Trump to have done the horrific things that he did were it not for the foundations that were laid by president Barack Obama and previously by President Bill Clinton.

We already know that the U.S is implicated in why people are forced to move in the first place and imperialism is already a root cause of displacement and migration, but I would argue that now, another key pillar of contemporary imperialism is the outsourcing of border enforcement. And so the U.S. is basically funding immigration enforcement in Mexico, in El Salvador, in Guatemala, in Honduras. And through these various kinds of border outsourcing programs the U.S. is essentially left off the hook and other countries now enact U.S. border enforcement. The border just moves further and further south.

Jen Psaki: Beginning on February 19th, the Department of Homeland Security will take steps to begin processing individuals who, under the previous administration, had been forced to remain in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocol. I will note this news should not be interpreted as an opening for people to migrate regularly to the United States; only eligible individuals will be allowed to enter through designated ports of entry at designated times. Through a whole-of-government approach…

HW: Trump’s infamous Remain in Mexico program was a program that allowed U.S. border officials to return asylum seekers and refugees back to Mexico as they awaited their hearings. And so there was a lot of news about, you know, tens of thousands of Central American and African migrants and refugees who were trapped in Mexico, in teeming tent camps under horrific conditions and immobilized in Mexico unable to enter into the United States. 

Really, what we will see under Joe Biden is that, you know, he may halt border wall construction, but he will continue to outsource border enforcement the way Obama did. And that will allow the U.S. to not only have a wall at the border, it will allow the U.S. to create an entire anti-migrant fortress that extends far beyond the wall itself. And we already saw this in the first few days of the Biden administration, when thousands of migrants from Honduras who were headed towards the United States were blockaded and tear gassed by Guatemalan soldiers and police.

[Sound of crowd being tear gassed]

The new frontier of U.S. border militarization is not Trump’s wall. It’s not that symbolic wall on the border. It is this far more dangerous, far more invisible, far more threatening and far more repressive form of immigration enforcement. 

JP: Now is not the time to come. And the vast majority of people will be turned away. Asylum processes at border will not occur immediately, will take time to implement.

HW: And the last thing that I would say is that we really have to go further to challenge the border itself. You know some of those early processes of border formation were very much about containment, whether that was the imperial annexation of over 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory, whether that was capturing indigenous lands and indigenous nations and forcibly forcing them into the U.S. settler state, or punishing free Black movement through the Fugitive Slave Act. 

All of these acts of and processes were central to U.S. border formation. And I think in the contemporary era, we often think of, you know, indigenous elimination, anti-Black enslavement, imperialism and migrant exclusion as linked but separated processes, right? Like, often our social movements don’t make these links. We see ourselves in solidarity with those struggles, but we don’t always see these deep historic ways in which these processes required each other to make the U.S. the settler colonial, imperial empire that it is, right? So, the border was not just a line on a map. It is a constantly produced racial regime. It’s a constantly produced labor regime and it’s a carceral regime. It’s a form of enacting immobilization and control. And that’s why I think that, you know, an internationalist and interconnected abolitionist vision of freedom requires a world without police, requires a world without prisons, requires a world without private property, requires a world without militaries and requires a world without borders. 

[Musical interlude]

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Lucie Kroening. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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