By STEVE LEIGH
“The Border Crossed Us: The Case for Opening the U.S. Mexico Border,” by Justin Akers Chacon (Haymarket 2021).
Justin Akers Chacon has written another excellent book! The politics of immigration in the U.S. is the latter part of the book. The main thrust of it is about the creation of the “North American Model”(NAM) of capitalism that includes the U.S. and Mexico, and to a lesser extent, Canada.
It also has a shorter examination of the politics and economics of Puerto Rico. The U.S. and Mexico are totally integrated economically, resulting in Mexico becoming again a neo-colony of the U.S. This integration also integrates the working classes of Mexico and the U.S.
He explains the results of the Mexican Revolution, which started a nationalist development project. It was radicalized over time, especially in the ’30s when Mexico nationalized its oil. Peasant struggle pushed the expansion of the ejido system—cooperative farms owned by the state. The process from 1910 on went in two directions—radicalization in response to struggle and in the opposite direction, the reestablishment of a strong private capitalist class. Over time, this class along with the U.S. pushed Mexico away from its Import Substitution Industrialization model.
The 1980s were a big period of the return of neoliberalism. However, the process was underway much earlier. The author documents closely the various developments that led to the re-colonization of Mexico. In fact, he believes that the imperialist neoliberalization of Mexico was a model, certainly for other Latin American countries, but for others as well (p. 113).
Neoliberalization went along with growing financialization. In spite of massive industrial and other investment from the U.S. and other powers, the net result was deindustrialization of Mexico. This, along with NAFTA, which drove peasants off the land without enough jobs in the cities, led to the massive increase in emigration.
“Opening the border for capital led to massive internal displacement in that country. As authentic labor unionism declined, jobs disappeared and the state downsized its social welfare provisions. This drove migration to the United States, even as the implementation of international free market capitalism coincided with the restriction of movement of workers across borders—the paradox is at the heart of NAM” (p. 16).
One study noted that just between 1970 and 2010, the Mexican people lost $872 billion from “ trade mispricing, … capital flight, bribery and corruption, tax evasion, money laundering and other forms of wealth transfer” (p.118).
The results of neoliberalism on workers’ living standards were clear:
“By 2002, wages for all manufacturing workers fell 14% below what they were in 1983” (p. 128).
“ The minimum wage rate stagnated, becoming one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. … In 2000, Mexico’s labor costs were 58% more expensive than Chinese labor. … By 2015, the average manufacturing labor costs … were … almost 20% lower than those in China” (p. 129).
The primary early role of Mexico in the creation of U.S. imperialism is often ignored: “Prior to the Mexican Revolution , access to Mexican labor, land, markets and other natural resources was essential for the original accumulation of capital that allowed the United States to scale up to the level of a Pacific empire” (p. 59).
The growth of neoliberalism inside Mexico was not just capital vs. the state. The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) was the party of government for decades. A wing of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) was pulled in the same direction even if PAN (National Action Party, the party of private capitalists) was most prominent in this. The later parties, PRD and then Morena, the party of the current president, López Obrador, just try to go back to the PRI at a certain point in the trajectory to neoliberalism. None of them are actually for a radical rejection of neoliberalism.
The Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) program of the PRI after the 1910 revolution was not a working-class paradise. The labor bureaucracy was tied to the PRI. Workers were incorporated into what Justin calls state capitalism. There was plenty of repression of independent workers’ movements. However, this intensified under neoliberalism, which saw no need to co-opt workers’ organizations and incorporate workers. Recently, he notes, there have been working-class victories based on fully independent struggles in the maquiladoras and other areas.
The last section of the book discusses U.S. politics around immigration. The author notes that the union movement has had a checkered history on this. For much of its history, it has been anti-immigrant. The rationale was similar to other forms of exclusion. The labor movement could go broadly in 2 directions: Organize all and raise wages and conditions for all, or keep the authorized/skilled labor force small to raise the price of labor under the theory of supply and demand. The AFL chose the latter. It was vicious in this regard, excluding or segregating Blacks, Asians, Mexicans and women and opposing the influx of immigrant labor.
This approach by unions began to change recently. The number and militancy of the immigrant work force forced labor to try to include immigrants. Labor supported the 1986 Amnesty, ignoring the negative aspects. The 1986 law subcontracted enforcement of immigration laws to employers. Labor saw this as making bosses pay the price. In fact, it gave capitalists a tool to fire militant workers by using the INS and later ICE. The 1986 law was a capitalist consensus based on the need to regularize the labor force.
The law spurred immigrant involvement in the labor movement. Once this became clear, employers in general were no longer interested in further amnesties. When labor pushed for another amnesty in 2000, this went nowhere, especially after 9/11, which upped surveillance and deportation.
The Democrats imposed more restrictions on immigrant workers under Clinton—keeping the undocumented off social programs and making deportation easier. Clinton also massively increased border enforcement. Later programs of “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” were fundamentally anti-immigrant, establishing only a very restrictive path to citizenship. However, labor pulled back from its earlier better position and largely went along with the Democrats’ version. Later administrations—Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden—intensified the anti-immigrant regime. Labor leaders continued to support the Democrats in spite of their repressive stance.
“[Immigrant repression] budgets have more than doubled in the last 15 years and increased by 6000% since 1980” (p. 204).
Though ICE is engaged in a nationalist racist project, it is international: “ICE operations have fanned out across borders and along the modes of global transportation, with seventy-eight overseas offices in more than fifty-two countries” (p. 215).
Akers Chacon rightly insists that real labor solidarity requires solidarity with immigrant workers. This is even more important now that immigrants are part of a North American working class where national origins mean little. He calls for a transformation of the official labor movement’s attitude on this question.
He is also encouraged by the anti-ICE movement that has grown in the last few years. ICE is the spearhead of the oppression of immigrants, along with Customs and Border Control (CBP). The author notes that a return to the INS should not be the goal. Rather, we should seek a total dismantling of the anti-immigrant system.
He clearly and savagely attacks the Democratic Party for its sometimes nice rhetoric that covers its anti-immigrant actions. The “Squad” etc. went along with growing popular opposition to ICE by calling for its abolition, but they soon backed off (p. 230). As noted above, even the welcome abolition of ICE would still leave the repressive system intact. Biden has not rescinded all of Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders. The main point is that serious immigrant rights activists cannot rely on the Democratic Party, but must confront it as much as the Republicans.
Both parties of U.S. capital are committed to the NAM, which relies on cheap, restricted immigrant labor, both for U.S. corporations and as a safety valve for Mexican unemployment. They rely on the increased rate of exploitation that illegality allows. This reliance on undocumented labor has grown over time and is now central to profit making in many different industries. This new dependence was a shift from the period during the Bracero Program [1942-1964], when it was more marginal. Farm owners relied on braceros and also on undocumented workers. Once that program ended, employers relied even more on undocumented labor. This reliance spread from agriculture to many other industries.
The author notes that profit making goes beyond just the general economy. There is a whole section of capital that relies directly on imprisoning immigrants, supplying the immigrant prisons etc. This is an important , though supplemental, source of capitalist support for the immigration regime. There are leftists who see various complexes and lobbies as the source of U.S. policies—the prison industrial complex, the military industrial complex, etc. Akers Chacon does not accept this analysis. The source of immigration restriction, he says, is the general need of the capitalist class for cheap, controlled labor. The particular sections of capital that rely on incarceration are supplemental to that. Though the author doesn’t go into analyzing the other complexes, his analysis of immigration applies to them as well.
His conclusion from this is that full achievement of equality for immigrants would require opening the borders as part of a general overthrow of capitalism. Immigrant rights are not just a matter of equality and liberation. They are also necessary to advance the interests of all workers. The oppression of immigrant workers drives down wages for all.
His analysis is very concrete and convincing. It is in sharp contrast to some analysts that don’t see immigration restriction as central to capitalism today. Some see immigration restriction as a result of the conflict between the political and economic drives of the system. They believe that the state needs immigration restriction but the capitalists don’t. They believe that the capitalists would be better off with free access to labor from Latin America and indeed the rest of the world. Of course capitalists need abundant labor, but crucially, they want cheap, easily exploitable labor. The current system maintaining the illegality of millions of workers greatly enhances their profits. It also conveniently divides the working class between legal and illegal and makes unity harder. Though the regime may sometimes cause spot labor shortages, it overall works to the advantage of capital. This is why both capitalist parties strongly support it.
The author’s strategy for the future shines through at the end: “The recent episodes of struggle against migrant repression and border walls demonstrate the power and illustrate the social forces necessary to abolish the migrant repressive apparatus and, by necessity, the system of capitalism as a whole. This will also require a convergence and reintegration of socialist politics as a guiding framework of class struggle, rooted in internationalism and a concrete vision for building working class unity within and across borders. … The growth of a new and generational socialist and anti-capitalist left, rooted in working class struggle and broad support for the necessity to replace capitalism with socialism, shows the possibilities for envisioning and realizing a world without borders in our lifetimes” (p. 235).
The author is optimistic that the integration of the working class in North America can lay the basis for a unified movement against capital and for opening the borders. Too often immigrant rights activists have been trapped in the liberal framework of just modifying the repressive anti-immigrant regime. “The Border Crossed Us …” is an excellent antidote to that narrow framework. It is a book that everyone interested in the issue of immigrant rights should read!
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and of the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
Photo: Immigrants riding a train through Mexico to the U.S. border in 2014. (Eduardo Verdugo / AP)