“Cruelty is the point” — a phrase coined by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer — became a popular liberal refrain to describe the motivations behind what, at the time, Democrats called intolerable Trump-era policies. President Donald Trump’s moves to detain and deport immigrants at the southern border, including tearing families apart as policy, were highlighted as key justifications for the catchphrase.
There’s no doubt that a gleeful viciousness attended the Trump administration’s decisions to round up, cage, and expel desperate, nonwhite migrants.
Cruelty is, however, more than an affect.
The United States border regime is cruel whether or not its maintenance is enforced by a president spewing racist slurs or a president appealing to the need for “safe and orderly processing” while he announces a plan to turn away thousands of migrants en masse — as President Joe Biden did on Thursday.
The Biden administration unveiled a blanket policy to immediately eject asylum-seekers from Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua who cross the border from Mexico without having previously applied for asylum in a third country — which means obtaining a financial sponsor in the U.S. and going through a background check.
The same “transit ban” policy is already in place for migrants from Venezuela, an extension of the Title 42 measure deployed by the Trump administration in the first year of the pandemic as a way to turn away migrants under the guise of public health. In some nine months under Trump, nearly half a million people were removed under the law; keeping the law around for two years, the Biden administration has already used it to deport over 2 million.
It should be obvious that no amount of anti-immigrant policy will be enough for the white supremacist right.
Biden’s border regime would be no more acceptable if it were a political ploy aimed at insulating Democrats from “law and order” attacks by the right, but it isn’t even that: Republicans have made clear that they will paint Biden as an “open border” president, regardless of how harshly Trumpian his border policies remain. It should be obvious that no amount of anti-immigrant policy will be enough for the white supremacist right.
Yet it would be misplaced to understand anti-immigrant moves made by the Biden White House as simply failed efforts to appease the right. Democratic presidents, particularly so-called deporter-in-chief Barack Obama, have long opted for hard-line border rule.
Democrats couch their border logics in the neoliberal language of management and order, rather than explicitly racist “America First” slogans. The maintenance of the border as a racist, spatial fix for capital, though, has the same disastrous, deadly effects no matter the rhetoric with which it’s justified.
On Thursday, Biden pitched his border plan as a way to bring order to chaos, with between 7,500 to 8,000 refugees crossing the U.S.-Mexico border every day in December. The wealthiest country in the world could respond to this mass movement by working with direct service providers on the ground and providing sufficient resources to swiftly resettle those fleeing political turmoil — turmoil for which the U.S. carries significant historic responsibility.
Instead, the burden of this order is being placed on those fleeing for their own survival, with the alleged right to claim asylum at port of entry reserved only for those with the ability to apply and secure a U.S. sponsor before they reach the border.
“The right to asylum should not hinge on your manner of flight from danger or your financial means,” said Mary Miller Flowers, the senior policy analyst at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, in a statement. “Yet, for far too long, seeking safety is treated as a privilege for a select few, and the Biden administration’s cherry-picking of who can and cannot access protection proves this.”
The White House’s latest policy does include some carrot alongside the stick of mass, immediate expulsions. The U.S. will offer humanitarian parole for up to 30,000 asylum-seekers per month from Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, and Venezuela who have already applied for asylum while crossing Mexico, before reaching the border; gone through a background check; and secured a U.S. fiscal sponsor.
As Jonathan Blazer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s director of border strategies, put it in a statement on Thursday: “There is simply no reason why the benefits of a new parole program for Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians must be conditioned on the expansion of dangerous expulsions.”
The Biden administration continues to claim to stand against Title 42. Within minutes of announcing his latest Title 42-based expulsion plan, Biden told reporters on Thursday, “I don’t like Title 42.” The government has also fought to end the measure in court — an effort that was most recently rejected by the Supreme Court at the end of December.
The danger in the administration’s border policy lies in what it serves: an ideological commitment to immigration deterrence.
At the same time, however, the administration has deployed and continued to expand Title 42’s use to expedite migrant expulsion.
“The Supreme Court’s decision on Title 42 last week did not direct the Biden administration to apply the Title 42 expulsions to more people,” noted immigrant rights group Freedom for Immigrants, calling out the administration’s “Title 42 hypocrisy.”
Such hypocrisy has been the modus operandi when it comes to Biden and his Democratic predecessors’ approach to the border, and hypocrisy in and of itself is not the problem here.
The danger in the administration’s border policy lies in what it serves: an ideological commitment to immigration deterrence — not a prevarication over legal process, but a choice to condemn millions of predominantly Black and brown people to suffering and proximity to death. Cruelty is the constant.