By Ethan Blue, University of Western Australia
This essay has been reposted with permission from the author from the Religion and Ethics section of ABC.net.au. In 2012, NYU Press published Dr. Blue’s Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons. For more information on Dr. Blue’s scholarship, please visit his faculty profile. -ed
Donald Trump and the U.S. Republican administration’s controversial call for a new and massively militarized deportation force harkens back more than a century. It builds on legal and extra-legal traditions of White American ethno-national cleansing.
Trump is largely uninterested in history, but he sees a hard border and a deportation force as existential necessities. “Otherwise,” he said, “we don’t have a country.”
But Trump’s narrow nationalist vision and existential crisis conflicts with diverse – and equally American – movements for social, racial and economic justice, within and beyond America’s borders.
Deportation and Trauma
In the middle of the nineteenth century, disruptions caused by European and U.S. military and economic penetration into China – the Opium Wars being a prime example – forced many Chinese to seek better opportunities in the United States, Australia, Canada and across Latin America.
There, they met white workers and the middle classes equally anxious about their own place in modernizing political economies. Wage labour was uncertain; new, monopolistic, vertically consolidated corporations paid white male workers – accustomed to being independent breadwinners for their families – as little as they could get away with, and their pride and families suffered.
Some white workers came to challenge corporate power, and at the same time, they blamed recent Chinese arrivals – who seemed to them strange, spoke a different language and practiced a different religion – for lowering their wages and disrupting their society.
Even though Chinese migrants did crucial work for the American economy, white mobs tried to drive the Chinese out of their communities, resorting to massacres and burning down entire Chinese neighbourhoods in the name of community protection. Anti-Chinese mobbing was an horrific expression of popular sovereignty and direct democracy – racist and violent, to be sure – reflecting a form of “people’s justice” in immigration control.
In 1882, legislators passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was a “travel ban” – to use today’s terms – which lasted until 1943. It, along with related laws, tried to regulate immigration around a range of interrelated moral, political and economic fears. In each case, legislators understood that restrictive laws were less bloody, and more effective, than mob rule. They were also less offensive to transnational businesses who wanted to profit from Chinese trade.
As the availability of Chinese workers dwindled, Mexicans became a crucial low-wage workforce for the U.S. economy. Though there had long been anti-Mexican violence as part of westward expansion (to say nothing of near-genocidal warfare against many American Indian groups) anti-Mexican mob violence was eventually absorbed into a growing U.S. border security regime.
In part, the anti-immigrant mobs who attacked Chinese and Mexican denizens were no longer necessary because state agents would do the heavy lifting. Special Immigration Agents known as “Chinese Catchers” swept through immigrant neighbourhoods looking for people to deport. Other agents combed through an extensive system of detention centres – prisons, hospitals, county jails and workhouses – searching for others to expel.
The government also developed new systems for mass removal, including dedicated “deportation special” trains – effectively prisons on wheels – to cheaply and quickly connect distant parts of the nation’s interior to borders and ports for expulsion.
The Border Patrol formed in 1924 as a new anti-immigrant police force, and offered badges and government salaries to people who, a few years earlier, had been members of anti-Mexican mobs. But the modern deportation regime would be administered by state agents, civil servants and work-a-day bureaucrats, rather than angry citizens.
Some officials still wanted to terrorize migrants, but thought the threat of deportation would do the trick. Early in the Great Depression, a Los Angeles city official deliberately wanted to frighten migrants, using fear as a “psychological gesture” to “scare … alien deportables” into fleeing. More than 1 million people were deported to Mexico – and many U.S. citizens were among them.
Another anti-immigrant movement came in the 1950s, under the explicitly racist name “Operation Wetback.” Like its predecessors, it came in response to fears about non-white immigration and the belief that Mexican migrant workers were driving down white American wages. Never mind the fact that – then as now – few U.S. citizens were willing to do the backbreaking agricultural labour Mexican migrants performed, and especially not at the poverty wages that kept produce prices so low, and that many of the workers (or their labour, at least) were much cherished by large growers.
Operation Wetback was a thoroughly militarised affair, with a series of raids, roadblocks and checkpoints across the region, and during which immigration agents increasingly positioned themselves as controlling crime, rather than immigration. It also overlapped with strident anti-communist repression of the early Cold War, when one immigrant rights advocate decried what he called “the deportation terror” levelled against non-citizen critics of the U.S. administration.
Some immigration officers sought to terrorize migrants into silence or departure. Others simply wanted to follow the law, keep their own jobs, protect the country (as they understood it) and make the deportation machine run smoothly. In any event, they managed to make a system that was effective in mass removal, as well as in creating persistent fears of deportablity among undocumented migrants.
Mass Incarceration, Mass Deportation
Since the Reagan years, Democrats and Republicans cooperated to dismantle the institutions that regulated capitalist firms even as they built up policing and prison systems. Jobs left, real wages were stagnant or declined. People who still held onto precarious factory jobs would blame so-called criminals, welfare queens and illegal aliens for their strife.
The processes of blaming “Others” – people of colour in cities and migrants from abroad – and then seeking new kinds of government repression to control them was akin to the reactionary movement Stuart Hall identified in the UK as authoritarian populism.
Bill Clinton came into office by adopting tough-on-crime rhetoric previously monopolized by Republicans like Richard Nixon, and furthering Reagan’s deregulatory agenda. Clinton famously “ended welfare as we know it” at the same time that he and his allies railed against black and Latino criminal “superpredators,” and helped build a militarized security apparatus.
By the 1990s – bolstered by new immigration legislation that would vastly increase deportation for decades to come – the U.S. mass deportation assemblage would parallel and interweave with the system of mass incarceration. Both were responses to the structural forces of neoliberalism, efforts to contain the workers made redundant by corporate flight to Mexico or China, by automation, or both.
Unemployed citizens might be imprisoned (especially if they were non-white and poorly educated), unemployed non-citizens might be deported. And people who got laid off from factory or service jobs – be they black, white, Latino, or of whatever race or ethnicity – might find steady, well-paying work with the police, as prison guards, or for the border patrol. They also got uniforms with American flags, symbols that validated their own national inclusion and distance from non-citizens.
Traditional Keynesian economics came under fire with neoliberalism, but a form of carceral Keynesianism took hold, making the livelihoods of working class people of different races dependent on expanding prison and border policing systems. But because Clinton also espoused some progressive policies – such as initial support for gay rights, from which he later backtracked – Republicans attacked him as a leftist.
Like mass incarceration, mass deportation has had broad, bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans. Deportation accelerated under Bill Clinton. It accelerated again under George W. Bush, who oversaw more than 2 million removals.
It accelerated again under Barack Obama. As sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza has documented, the United States deported nearly 400,000 people in 2011, a number ten times greater than the deportations of 2001 – and more than all of the people deported in the entire 1980s.
Obama courted Latino support with immigration policies that provided work permits and deferred removal for long-time non-citizen residents who had arrived as children and were acculturated to life in the United States. But Obama also extended tough deportation policies for those with criminal convictions – supposedly dangerous criminals, but large proportions of whom were guilty of little more than traffic offences.
The twenty-first century deportation assemblage, built by Democrats and Republicans alike, moves faster and involves more complex systems than its predecessors. But for those whose whiteness or citizenship status insulates them from it, it appeared to be relatively bloodless. It wasn’t. Deportees face very real dangers on return to the lands they have fled; it traumatizes even U.S. citizens and tears millions of families apart.
The Lynch-mob Logic of Modern Deportation
Some might have seen this massive legal deportation apparatus refined by Clinton, Bush and Obama as adequate. But Donald Trump did not, and neither it seems did the minority of American voters who supported him. Trump’s proposed Deportation Force builds on the massive and existing militarized apparatus, but also calls for a return to nineteenth-century forms of expressive violence.
Even though Republicans are in strong positions in all three branches of government, the portent of intertwined legal and extra-legal violence loom large. Trump has explicitly foresworn the supposed niceties of “political correctness” and, in attacking a Mexican American judge’s suitability for office, has impugned the possibility of Mexican Americans being full citizens.
In addition to the flurry of constitutionally-dubious January 2017 executive orders and memos – which asserted executive power in unprecedented ways and denigrated the judicial branch – Trump’s Congressional Republican allies explicitly excluded Latino and Democratic legislators from meetings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
It appears that to today’s white nationalists and authoritarian populists, the massive and, indeed, terrifying deportation regime of the past century – based to the extent that it was on the rule of law – hid the violence of the lynch mob too well. Despite the modern deportation regime’s fearsome effectiveness at capture and mass removal, the relative invisibility of its structural violence – invisible to many white audiences, that is – was unable to express the desired catharsis of white nationalist racial rule.
When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer promised to “take the shackles off” immigration law enforcement (an invocation eerily similar to Dick Cheney’s call to “take the gloves off” and permit torture in the War on Terror), and ensure that “people who pose a threat to our country are immediately dealt with,” his language suggested that politics itself had inhibited state agents’ ability to protect the nation from immigrants. He invoked the premises of action unencumbered by law, akin to the lynch mobs a century earlier.
The twenty-first century, post-global financial crisis conjuncture of reactionary movements against the Democratic Party’s progressive neoliberalism have therefore been channelled into racially-gendered calls for hardened sovereign borders and a militarized deportation force. Its anti-modern revanchism rejects the putative softness of state control in favour of angrier expressive forms.
The Trump administration’s conjuration of Mexican rapists and criminal aliens “who routinely victimize Americans” – while in fact immigrants are statistically less likely to engage in criminal-defined acts – as well as new promises to publicize crimes committed by non-citizens against citizen-victims, expresses but also enflames incipient gendered racisms in the language of national and personal protection. It appears to have motivated a Kansas man, who allegedly yelled “get out of my country” before he shot three men, killing one, and later telling a bartender he had killed Middle Eastern men.
And like a century ago, today’s white nationalists, who perceive themselves throwing off the politically-correct shackles of “the Washington elite” move, counterproductively, against the weakest members of world’s labour markets – migrants displaced by the longer legacies of racial capitalism. The authoritarian populist tendencies captured and unleashed by the Trumpist Republican Party (abetted by traditional Republicans) again enact the rituals and symbols of racist exclusion, expulsion, and abjection, through the terrors of mass deportation.
So we should not be surprised as the lines between legal and extra-legal violence are blurred. But people dedicated to an egalitarian America (and broader world) should be frightened to learn that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate crimes have risen sharply. So have the number of hate groups.
In the 10 days after Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 hate incidents, many of them hate crimes. Of the nearly 1,100 incidents reported in the 34 days after the election, 37% made direct reference to Trump, his campaign slogans, or echoed his remarks about sexual assault.
If private citizens are using racial violence in the name of the President, state agents are also carrying out executive orders of dubious legality; one Republican official called for the extra-legal killing of campus protestors. Beyond a process of white nationalist radicalisation, little of this will address the historical forces that cause people to migrate, or that lead people to identify the United States as an enemy. They will likely make problems worse. The administration’s strident Islamophobia will surely exacerbate the fundamentalist radicalization it claims to protect against.
The Promise of Egalitarian Mutualism
But in contrast to authoritarian populism on the street and in the bully pulpit, another popular movement beckons. It is based in the traditions of egalitarian mutualism rather than authoritarian populism. Instead of racial nationalism, it draws on interrelated traditions of liberal and antiracist feminisms, LBGTQ rights, religious freedom, workers’ movements, Indigenous sovereignty and decolonization, prison abolition, civil rights and environmental justice. The millions who participated in the Women’s March on Washington (with parallel marches in deep blue and red states, and around the world) revealed Trump’s Inauguration crowds as anaemic.
Calls to racial nationalism and vigilantism have been answered by peaceful protestors challenging what they see as the Executive Orders’ racial and religious bigotry. So too have there been massive movements for sanctuary cities and campuses. Even calls for a non-violent general strike, little heard in the United States since the popular front radicalism of the 1930s, are beginning to gain a hearing. Together, these movements celebrate solidarity in struggle, not catharsis through exclusion.
It is impossible to predict the future of this regime. Trump is erratic and arguably unhinged, but his administration will most certainly continue to ignore, denigrate and criminalize the people who raise their voices and challenge its authoritarian populism with their visions of egalitarian mutualism. He may declare a state of emergency for a host of reasons and demand more power to suppress dissent in the name of national protection.
Fear is inimical to understanding. But without understanding the long trajectory of anti-immigrant nativism – in the contests of racial state power, authoritarianism, of forced removal and border violence – Americans cannot develop anything approaching a sound, ethical or effective policy. Without those, to paraphrase Trump, Americans may not have a country.