Human Worth, Corporate Plunder, and How Progressive Discourse Misses the Mark on Borders and Migration

Just a few months after news of children being separated from their families and held in cages at the border, a national spotlight is shining on the migrant caravan that in mid-October began its journey to the Mexico-U.S border. Traveling from the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, the caravan reached The San Ysidro border crossing in late November. After such events—when the violence enacted on migrants by our government becomes particularly visible—a recurring narrative surfaces. These rhetorical arguments set the terms for the ways we think of migrants as deserving of space and resources from the same entities attempting to exclude them. This ordinarily involves asserting all of the “contributions” (social, cultural, economic) which can be expected from migrants should they be granted freedom of movement. Yet, this pattern of argument further exposes the contradictions of a system incapable of seeing displaced people as anything but surfaces on which to articulate power.  

Visibility for these issues often looks like liberal journalists only covering stories about migrants when one has been convicted of a crime or is targeted by immigration enforcement entities. Another tactic is to champion assimilation by fetishizing those who embody “american’’ values of “hard work” and bootstrap progress. This is not just a problem of mainstream media. NGOs have been willing to stand up for migrants, but only when this fits in with myths claiming that america is a welcoming and generous land of opportunity and liberty. The same organizations fail to help migrants advocate for themselves by providing them tangible resources to build up their own communities.

In this context, it is imperative that we challenge state-centered narratives of criminality and assimilation. There are two dominant themes that emerge: one positions migrants as threats to some alleged “national,” collective well-being; the other suggests that the law exists outside of history and is universally righteous and everlastingly objective. Such framing disproportionately leads to legislative policy and discourses that threaten the lives of Black and Brown diasporas on a daily basis.

Though direct critique of these rhetorics promises to reduce some of the violence associated with socially and politically isolating migrants, this strategy for resistance does not mitigate the violence of dispossession that precedes any individual or collective decision to migrate. We must emphatically resist framing migrants as threats to “law and order,” harbingers of violence and poverty, and contaminators of the (white) social/cultural fabric of the United States of America. However, we must also resist the consistent instinct to elevate rhetoric focused entirely on identifying “worthy” empathetic characters.

Considering the current depiction of migrant caravans as an “invasion” to be “deterred” through state-sanctioned violence, and contextualizing displacement as an historical consequence of colonialism, I explore two implications of engaging exclusively with such rhetoric of deserving-ness:

  1. “Inclusion” will not prevent future migrations. Even when some set of circumstances have managed to convince the representatives of this settler colony to absorb some of us into its borders, this does not mean that they have not continued to facilitate and profit from the land theft, labor exploitation, resource extraction, and political exclusion which compel present and future migrations.

  2. Empathy does not mitigate the pervasive and ongoing impact of imperialism and colonialism. The criterion for empathy which we are attempting to widen and appeal to came into existence through historical amnesia regarding over a century of U.S-backed military coups and economic neocolonialism. Appealing to it only benefits a minority of migrants. Becoming too invested in it, we limit ourselves to a reactive self-defense that ultimately fails to assert that all people have the right to move in the face of violence and dispossession.

To claim oneself threatened by an event, it is necessary to first suffocate it before it has a chance to breathe and then dissect it; to carve out the pieces of it which validate our anxieties, and put these on public display as the event itself. This can be seen in the current portrayal of the migrant caravans as nothing more or less than a threat to law and order and, therefore, a threat to national security which can then be described as a deliberate “invasion.” This is why the term “historical amnesia” never quite fits the precise, intentional practice of controlling the historical narrative. Consistent refusals to acknowledge events like the so-called “migration crisis” for the fullness of their wisdom, as opposed to what systems imposed allow it to be interpreted as, eventually become difficult to see as anything but strategic and deliberate.

Imperialism in Defense of Corporate Plundering

Let’s make one thing clear: there is no such thing as a “migrant crisis.” The crisis we face is a crisis of dispossession which has been created by the historically consistent imperialist and capitalist alliances between the settler colonies of the americas. The term “migrant crisis” suggests that people are leaving their homes voluntarily. It further insinuates that the threat they pose is to the security of a collective “the nation,” which is allegedly shielded from harm by borders. More accurate terms to refer to the people whom the Mexican and U.S. states are currently punishing for being displaced would be refugees or asylum seekers.

U.S support of violent and undemocratic regimes in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala dates back to at least the early 1900s. This led to internal displacement between and within these countries until, in the 1980s, campesino-led rebellions broke out and were met by massacres and scorched earth tactics carried out by death squads. These groups were funded and trained by the Reagan administration. Counterinsurgency efforts were matched by trade liberalization policies that opened up the region to the interests of global capital [1]. This further disrupted traditional forms of agriculture, and worsened the conditions of economic and political exclusion against which the Indigenous campesinos had been fighting [2].

The United States intervened to support the quelling of these popular rebellions, ultimately creating the social and economic conditions in which Barrio 18 and MS-13 have come to thrive. Notably, these gangs were born in Los Angeles when Salvadorans escaping the 1980-1922 civil war were met with similar marginalization to what they had been facing in El Salvador. They have since been weaponized against the very communities attempting to escape them.

Moreover many of these communities fear not only gangs but also the increasingly militarized police forces of the region—also funded by the U.S—that supposedly exist to eliminate gang violence. Barrio 18 and MS-13 were exported to Central America by the mass deportations ignited by Bill Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. Then in the 2000’s, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala began entering CAFTA-DR, allowing U.S goods to enter these countries duty-free. This led to massive job loss and increased migration. The treaty also gave corporations the authority to sue any government which pursues policies such as raising the minimum wage, subsidizing public services, or supporting domestic industry instead of transnational corporations.

Advocating for Inclusion and Legal Reform Misses the Point

Liberal discourses of inclusivity, common humanity, and economic contribution are not enough. This framework amounts to a focus on what the oppressor claims the problem is (dangerous BIPOC threatening the sanctity of borders) rather than what the problem actually is (incessant expansion of corporate power facilitated by state-sanctioned violence). Such rhetoric was used when Central American refugees began arriving to the U.S during the civil wars of the 1980s [3]. The Reagan administration justified the exclusion of these communities by claiming that they were not refugees, but economic migrants escaping poverty. This was then consistently and conveniently described as unrelated to the long-standing, U.S-supported use of violence and electoral fraud which kept working-class Central Americans exploited and powerless. Advocates responded with claims that they were in fact refugees fleeing violence, and deserved a chance to be absorbed into the economic/social fabric of the United States. Unfortunately, the imperative to shield refugees from deportation left little space to challenge the driving forces behind migration.

Social and legal advocacy groups such as CARECEN [4] and Homies Unidos engaged in extremely valuable work during this time challenging the depiction of Central American migration as “economic.” Similarly, religious congregations created spaces of sanctuary for Central American asylum seekers in order to protect them from violence and deportation, as well as to counter the claim that they were “illegal aliens” and not refugees. This work succeeded in winning temporary legal protections such as TPS. However, it did not put an end to neocolonialism and the undermining of democracy that has deepened poverty in the region and left thousands with little choice but to migrate. For example, in 2009, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked to ensure that a coup against president Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was successful and legitimate despite international calls for his return. The coup ushered further waves of economic policies designed to keep people powerless and in poverty. Despite consistent advocacy by and for Central American migrants in the United States since the wars the 1980s, these states have continued the tradition of U.S-facilitated human rights violations.

Though securing refuge for vulnerable people is valuable work, it continues to fall short of standing opposed to U.S investment in social inequality in countries of origin. Moreover, confining ourselves to the boundaries established in service of capitalism and colonialism does not help us acknowledge how dispossession and displacement is woven into the very fabric of our existence. It certainly does not allow us to imagine alternative futures for ourselves: a future where we can demand that none of our elected officials facilitate and profit from violence in the name of economic progress; a future where policymakers are held accountable for their investments in protecting capital over human prosperity.

Perhaps we can even begin refusing to settle for the occasional, selective acceptance of victims of global capitalism into the most violent capitalist empire on the planet. Perhaps we can imagine ways of weaving such refusal into the communities we build and thus discover a middle path between fearful complicity, and exposure to the same demonization and decimation which has extinguished so many revolutions.

Thinking Beyond Repossession of Power

It will take a complete re-evaluation of how we have learned to regard power to imagine and implement radical acts of creative resistance against the violence and dispossession that past, present, and future administrations are fully invested in. Our choice is not between finding our way onto the surfaces of the machine, or breaking ourselves on it. Standing here, on this end of the colony, powerless to influence those convinced that their gold isn’t soaked in blood—it it is quite clear that no government on this continent has any intention of putting a stop to the plundering. Perhaps it is all we can do to welcome their victims with open hearts. And yet, an open heart is much more than a mere acknowledgement of humanity and granting of empathy.

Having refused to remain in places of dispossession, embodied resistance can be nurtured in newfound space to build, create, and move the material world. However, in no way does this give us permission to rely on advocacy that reaches only as far as the geographical and rhetorical borders established by the forces we claim to oppose.

The 5,000 people waiting at the border in Tijuana are not the beginning, and they are certainly not the end. We can only assume that many thousands more will follow. When they do, will we be content merely responding to the attacks that meet them at the border? Or can we tangibly support them in creating physical and discursive spaces where they can heal? The solution is as difficult as it is simple: we must collectively fight to sustain spaces in which their stories are heard, their voices uplifted, and their knowledge empowered.

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  1. Robinson, William (2003). Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change, and Globalization. New York: Verso, 89-90.

  2. Lindo-Fuentes,  Hector; Ching, Erik; Lara-Martinez,  Rafael A. (2007). Remembering a Massacre  in El Salvador: the 1932 Insurrection, Roque  Dalton, and the Politics of Historical Memory. University  of New Mexico Press.

  3. Coutin,  Susan (2011).  “Falling Outside:  Excavating the History  of Central American Asylum  Seekers,” Law & Social Inquiry,  36(3), 569-596.

  4. Ibid, 577.