Society as Checkpoint

There is no humane border regime, just as there is no humane abortion ban

Susan Collis, The centre cannot hold (Upshot). 2018, Ink and pencil on paper, hallmarked platinum. 29 × 12 × 6". Courtesy of Seventeen Gallery.

The horror at the US-Mexico border has provided us with the defining images of the Trump presidency — at least so far. The pictures — of children torn from their parents, sleeping on concrete covered in Mylar blankets; of young men and women standing in shackles and handcuffs in mass trials — have gone as global as the Abu Ghraib prisoner photos did in 2004. As the war in Iraq defined the George W. Bush presidency, so will ICE and CBP define that of Donald Trump.1 Abroad, countries with immigration policies no better than the United States’ can once again be reassured by the image of a leader who does not feel compelled to utter liberal pieties as he herds the enemy into cages. Domestically, the Democratic opposition has finally found a moral fulcrum more powerful than the slow-burn drama of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election: the specter of an American Holocaust, made increasingly plausible and concrete by the exterminationist theory and concentration-camp praxis of the administration. No matter how flawed the analogy, it registers the depth of outrage at what is a genuine moral crisis and points to a potential opening in America’s otherwise dire politics over immigration. Events are far too grim to speak of a silver lining, but in 2018 the extent of our cruel border policy has finally been revealed. It is now not just undeniable but impossible to look away from.

Just as the Iraq war was not the beginning of US imperialism, even in Iraq, Trump’s immigration crackdown has roots in an older bipartisan project. Two moments in particular have shaped the history of modern US immigration policy. The first took place in 1985, when the Supreme Court ruled that a detention program targeting only Haitians was illegal. Instead of abolishing detention, the result was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which laid the groundwork for a broad-ranging network of public and, increasingly, private detention centers targeting every nationality. Yet this system did not extensively interact with the deportation apparatus until the end of the Clinton era, with the passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Previously, immigration removals had tended to be large-scale but “voluntary” (an option chosen by many deportees to avoid future immigration consequences); in many cases formal proceedings were never even filed. Beginning in 1996, but especially under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, immigration policies came to be defined by formal deportation, employment eligibility checks through E-Verify, and a vastly expanded reliance on detention centers. As a result, four times more people are detained today than before IIRIRA, and in 2014 this number was even higher. Though a raft of aggressive policies were recently announced that will likely change the picture, by the end of 2017 formal removals were down slightly from the last pre-Trump year.

The presence of ICE repression in the life of our society — our homes, schools, streets — has become dramatically more palpable.

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But there are two fundamental gaps separating the old dispensation from the new, Trumpian one. The first is the role of interior enforcement — hunting down immigrants suspected of being undocumented and removing or detaining them. In the early days of the Trump presidency, visa officers and passport control could continue to function as the gatehouses of a Fortress America still notionally free to pretend things were normal within its walls. Trump’s executive orders have changed the place of immigration enforcement in society, making it visible and pervasive. ICE is now beginning to turn all of society into a checkpoint, moving beyond CBP’s legal right to ignore all constitutional restraints in a hundred-mile-wide strip beyond every land and sea border. Under Trump, the number of ICE agents has tripled, and their raids on workplaces have doubled. The presence of ICE repression in the life of our society — our homes, schools, streets — has become dramatically more palpable. As of the end of 2017, interior arrests were up some 40 percent. Morale among ICE and CBP agents is up: in its year-end report on immigration enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security announced that “the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results for CBP and ICE personnel significantly improved [in 2017], reflecting that the Administration is allowing them to faithfully execute their duties and fully enforce the law.” When Trump was first elected, liberal commentators imagined that he would suspend elections and loosen constitutional restraints to create some radically new fascist order. With the connivance of congressional Democrats, this has turned out to be unnecessary; the resources of existing institutions were fully adequate. A permanent regime of racialized state terrorism has once again proved fully compatible with the cherished norms of the American republic.

The deeper break from the Obama era is a matter of ideology. The foundation of the old immigration order was the distinction between “legal” immigrants and “illegal” ones, long peddled as sacrosanct to immigrant communities like my own. There were procedures in place; as long as you filled in the right forms and found a way to stay alive while the process dragged on, you had a shot at becoming American just like anybody else, validating the civic nationalism of the melting pot in the process. “Illegals” were cheaters who devalued the “legal” immigrants by jumping the line; they needed to be removed to protect the rest. This formulation, of course, was full of lies. From the racism and class bias that shaped every stage of the process to the constant misrepresentation of how long, difficult, expensive, and arbitrary it would be — only a sucker would fall for it.

Many of us did. Even knowing that for every successful immigrant there were others with equal moral claims who suffocated in vans, drowned in the ocean, or were turned back to die in the Holocaust, we willingly made ourselves complicit in the system of exclusion that divided “legals” from “illegals.” Once we had a toehold, many of us tried to protect ourselves with every form of insurance we could: families, careers, houses, civic activism, bureaucratic maneuvering, investments, expensive lawyers, fanatical loyalty to the Republican Party, hatred of other immigrants. Once we accumulated enough of these, we were promised, we would never have to think about being immigrants at all.

In a gesture of casual contempt for the decades of patient ideological work that had gone into maintaining this promise, Trump’s Executive Order 13769 (“Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”) revealed it for the con it was. The order prioritized country of origin over immigration status; stories of longtime residents, even pro-US dissidents, trapped outside the US by an accident of travel appeared immediately in the press. It was clear that legality paled beside Islamophobia, racism, and imperialism as motivations for immigration policy. (Today, North Korea and Venezuela are the only non-Muslim-majority countries on the list. You can’t make this stuff up.) The courts have since forced rewordings that have softened the legal language of the bill, but as Trump has declared more than once, this “watered down, politically correct” version is not to be taken as a retreat. It is explicitly white supremacy, not legality, that now determines your place in the human hierarchy of migration.


The details of ICE terror as it enforces this policy are so on the nose they would seem downright corny as fiction. This starred-and-striped Gestapo now also targets immigration offices, the very places once meant to offer the way out of hiding and persecution; even the act of filing for a change of status now risks (if you happen to be denied for any reason) the immediate commencement of deportation proceedings. This is a fundamental shift in the immigration order, to the point of making the whole apparatus incoherent except as a screen for a program of social cleansing. It is as if the Inquisition had branched out from burning unrepentant Jews and heretics and started cutting people down as they stood before the altar to receive the host.

At first, all we found to cling to in the face of this was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It would be hard to find a law more emblematic of Obama-era liberalism, and not only because it relied on the fantasy of a powerful and lasting Democratic executive to sustain it until Congress came around. The central arguments around DACA were soteriological. The innocence of those brought to America as children, their good works as measured in start-ups and college degrees, their faith in America as exemplified by a lack of non-English language skills or remaining social ties to their birth countries — these entitled Dreamers to a kind of purgatory, not quite the paradise of the native-born or legal-immigrant elect, but immunity from the inferno of the detention centers to which their parents, willful criminals who knew what they were doing when they trespassed, were condemned.

I do not mean to adopt the facile pose of the leftist critic for whom all accommodation to the reality of the fallen world is just so much cowardice or betrayal. DACA allowed hundreds of thousands of people who would have otherwise lived in fear to enjoy some fraction of the peace and security the rest of us take for granted. But we should be clear that the gesture that bestowed this gift also confirmed as natural and moral an immigration regime that was artificial and unjust — a regime that made targets out of millions of desperate people fleeing countries devastated by humanitarian intervention and globally mobile capital in the service of American empire. Worse, it was a dispensation whose moral claims were easily ignored when, in the late fall of 2017, the Democrats had the chance to initiate a debt-ceiling standoff to defend it. In the event, the Democratic congressional leadership suspended the debt ceiling for a year without extracting concessions on immigration from Trump. It was as if they never really believed in that kind of redemption in the first place.

Meanwhile the list of targets has expanded to include naturalized citizens, whose status is increasingly conditional — another broken promise of “legality.” A Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) task force has been formed to investigate and denaturalize people convicted of “cheating.” Trump had once casually suggested the removal of citizenship as a punishment for the First Amendment–protected act of flag burning. But even without such an unconstitutional restriction, it is very easy to find yourself among the ranks of “cheaters.” All the government has to do is prove that you lied during the immigration process. An unthinkable thing to do on a government document, I know, but if you have any doubt about how capacious the notion of a lie might be, I recommend leafing through Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization. The subtleties of the application go deeper than the familiar questions about being a communist, prostitute, or habitual drunkard. Have you ever indirectly persecuted someone for a political opinion? Such as, say, the opinion that a nativist authoritarian state would be a good thing for the people who really count? Have you dared to suggest that punching a Nazi might not be so bad? Have you admitted this to the Department of Homeland Security?

Whether the creation of this task force will result in more than a handful of actual cases of “denaturalization” (or the “few thousand” promised by the head of the USCIS) is almost irrelevant; it is simply another weapon in the arsenal of anti-immigrant terror, albeit subtler than most. The constant document checks on buses and trains, whose racialized criteria are evident in cell phone videos, build on the methods of Joe Arpaio to paint crosshairs on people of color regardless of documentation status. Digging up decades-old legal troubles — once a practice cited with horror by anticommunist critics of Stalinism — grows more popular as a deportation technique. More such disruptive innovations are undoubtedly forthcoming, especially since local ICE officials are finding creative ways to profit on the side from the helplessness of their victims — as in the case of former ICE lawyer Raphael Sanchez, who made almost $200,000 by stealing immigrant identities — while private corporations are contributing everything from facilities and logistics to surveillance and IT support in hopes of cashing in on the growing fascist bonanza. Other ICE operatives and private jailers take more direct advantage of their power: more than a thousand accusations of sexual abuse were filed against the organization before the latest spike in detentions, and the real number of victims is likely far higher.

Nobody involved in this machine can be allowed to live the normal upper-middle-class existence of an administration official without constantly being reminded of the blood on their hands.

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Today, our call to action is “Abolish ICE,” a cry that after the outrages of the family separation policy has brought even some centrists to support radical action on immigration policy — even if it isn’t quite clear yet what “Abolish ICE” means to its increasingly heterodox swath of supporters. The votes of congressional Democrats remain symbolic, with few in the party willing to openly join more radical calls for migrant justice. Eventually, a compromise palatable to both the corporate and national-security wings of the party is sure to emerge. Given the past commitments of liberal politicians, it is likely to look something like this: a renamed ICE (or a Clinton-style Immigration and Naturalization Service), a stable immigrant population so terrorized by universal E-Verify it is incapable of resisting exploitation by bosses, and a favored class of native-born workers themselves stripped of labor protections but reassured by their immunity from xenophobic persecution. But perhaps that is optimistic. Most recently, a proposal to end birthright citizenship even made it into the opinion pages of the Washington Post, which markets itself as a beacon of democracy in the Trumpian night. These and other creative ideas for antimigrant social engineering once seemed the purview of far-right blogs and fishwraps; today, established Beltway venues have fewer scruples.

More than anything, the liberal solution will probably look like Australia and the United Kingdom, where years of public outrage about the treatment of migrants have mostly petered out and indefinite detention of asylum-seeking families (not usually separated from their children, to be sure) has become the norm. There, individual outrages over particular centers and particular practices have not come together in a wave of indignation about immigration enforcement in general. Of course this is in part due to the hegemony of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, which stokes racism wherever it appears. But even “common-sense leftists” in these countries routinely sniff at freedom of movement and open borders as juvenile romanticism. These concepts are nothing of the kind: historians have repeatedly shown that borders as we know them — with restrictive immigration and status categories that determine one’s social being — are not ancient but rooted in 19th-century racism and imperialism, and leftist writers have for decades been thinking through the implications of an unwalled world.  As the Congressional Hispanic Caucus rued in a recent memo, Trump’s policy “has resulted in mothers and fathers filling beds in detention centers rather than criminals” — as if these same mothers and fathers had not been criminalized for decades under Obama, and as if the cruel logic of mass incarceration didn’t produce equally outrageous abuses.

Against the madness of sensible politics stands the logic of organizing, occupation, and confrontation. No matter how venal “liberal media” bastions like the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Post have been in accommodating the Trump regime, reporters continue to register ICE abuses, needling the agency to the point where it complained about “numerous stories and allegations . . . falsely accusing ICE of conducting indiscriminate raids and sweeps” in its 2017 annual report. Around the country, socialist, anarchist, and migrant justice groups are blockading ICE facilities, challenging immigration officials at restaurants, and distributing advance warnings of raids. The message is clear: Nobody involved in this machine can be allowed to live the normal upper-middle-class existence of an administration official without constantly being reminded of the blood on their hands. The more fragmented, opportunistic, and widespread these encounters, the better. For every immigrant challenged for papers by a brownshirt on a Greyhound, the neighbors of a functionary at CoreCivic or the GEO Group — both operators of private prisons and detention centers — should learn about what they do for a living, perhaps from protesters in their quiet suburban neighborhood or leaflets on their morning commute.

More broadly, our task is now to make a single, simple point. There is no humane border regime, just as there is no humane abortion ban. The border will always tear parents from children, caregivers from charges, longtime residents from the only communities they’ve ever known. It may do it faster or slower, with ostentatious brutality or bureaucratic drag, but it will always do it. The liberal or apolitical masses who are prepared to analogize migrant concentration camps to the Holocaust have accepted, not always consciously, the moral dignity of immigrants, the impossibility of negotiation or compromise with the system that detains them, and the inadequacy of voting alone as a means to destroy it. This is an important opportunity. In the coming decades, climate change will send millions more migrants to the Global North, and the creation of fortress states will become an ever greater priority for those who seek to defend wealth and privilege rather than abolish it. Defeating the Nazis required partisans as well as armies, transnational solidarity as well as village-by-village resistance; today, those fighting the immigration nightmare must organize and subvert from below as well as legislate from above, build links with friends far away as well as confront waverers close at hand. The fight for free movement is the fight for a better world.

  1. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection), both formed as part of the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, are respectively the interior and exterior arms of immigration policing in the US. 

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