On March 11th, 2010, the raid came just before the lunch rush. Police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers came busting through the back door of Timbuktu Restaurant in Hanover, Maryland—a suburb situated between Baltimore and Washington DC. Workers at the restaurant scrambled to flee the agents, one even sliding under a shelf in the freezer where he hid for seven hours—he was so cold after the agents left that his coworkers had to carry him out. The Timbuktu raid was one of several happening simultaneously in the area that day. Ultimately 29 people were detained and left to await deportation.
Mass immigration raids like the one in Hanover were nothing unique under the Administration of Barack Obama. Recent news of Donald Trump’s raids that rounded up 600 people for deportation last week has been met with appropriate shock and horror, but it does not even approach the audacity of the Obama years, during which ICE averaged 941 deportations per day. At the height of Obama’s deportation regime in 2012, ICE deported 409,849 people, more than 1,100 per day.
Deportations have been increasing dramatically for 30 years, reaching a fever pitch under President Obama. They are the natural outgrowth of an escalating war against immigration that sought to play on nativist and racist sentiment by invoking the “illegal alien” as folk devil, a scapegoat for the problems of a deeply unequal society. Ever since the rightward turn of the 1970s when business organized as a class to shift the balance of economic and political power decisively into the hands of the capitalist class, the condition of the working class (or the 99% to use the vivid imagery of the Occupy Movement) has deteriorated, leading to massive growth in wealth and income inequality. With growing inequality has come the re-segregation of communities and schools, the gutting of social programs, and a host of other social ills.
Seeing a need to channel social unrest, politicians and the media provided people with a litany of folk devils to take out their anger and frustration on. For suburban whites, the deterioration of cities was a product of black criminality, of “super-predators,” not disinvestment and structural unemployment. For men, the problem was liberated women who emasculated them, not the destruction of traditionally male—and therefore higher paying—working class jobs through de-unionization, technological change, and offshoring. And for Americans generally, the fact that their paychecks didn’t stretch as far as they used to had nothing to do with employers taking a bigger share of profits, rather, it was the product of illegal immigration.
While a declining rate of profit in the 1970s led the business community to attack unions, wages, and benefits—leading to Fed Chair Paul Volker’s famous declaration that “the standard of living of the average American has to decline”—politicians like President Gerald Ford told the public, “The main problem is how to get rid of those 6 to 8 million aliens who are interfering with our economic prosperity.” Ford’s head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Leonard Chapman, even cynically told Reader’s Digest that mass deportations would reduce unemployment by half. Former head of the CIA under Nixon and Ford, William Colby, took an explicitly neo-Malthusian position, warning that the “most obvious threat” to the United States was explosive population growth in Mexico, “[the Border Patrol] will not have enough bullets to stop them.”
Even while presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan used the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy to induce recession and raise unemployment, they cynically struck out at immigration as the source of economic woe in the country. Promising more enforcement and more deportations, INS resources were re-oriented from the interior to the US-Mexico border. Budgets were more than doubled, weapons flowed in, and border policing became simultaneously more militarized and racialized. The letters section in the June 4th, 1986 issue of the LA Times shows the degree to which this smear campaign against migrants worked to shift blame for economic decline down the social ladder. As the reader claims, “They [Border Patrol agents] report illegals arrive with food stamps in their pockets, Social Security cards and stubs of unemployment checks… they take good jobs in factories, construction, services, and numerous other trades from legal Mexican-Americans, blacks, whites and Orientals.” His image of the “immigrant loafer” (not coincidentally) matched perfectly to Ronald Reagan’s myth of the “welfare queen,” the ultimate embodiment and justification of the need to roll back the social safety net and workers’ rights.
The racist pile-on of immigrants was a bipartisan affair with Clinton Democrats going hard against immigration in the 1990s. California Senator Barbara Boxer called for the deployment of the National Guard on the US-Mexico border to stop what was increasingly called an “invasion” of immigrants into the United States. Her fellow senator, Dianne Feinstein, in a move that would presage Trump’s promises to build a border wall, demanded that the size of the Border Patrol be doubled and came up with a plan to make Mexicans pay for it.
In 1996 the Democratic Party made securing the border a major plank in their platform, describing the US-Mexico border as a place where “drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.” President Clinton was praised for “making our border a place where the law is respected and drugs and illegal immigrants are turned away” and upgrading re-entry into the country to a felony offense. They went on to “applaud the wisdom of Republicans like Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani” for opposing “welfare benefits for illegal immigrants.”
The hysteria whipped up around immigration from Latin America allowed more money and resources to flow into INS coffers, eventually turning the Border Patrol into the country’s largest police force equipped with assault rifles, Stryker armored personnel carriers, Blackhawk helicopters, and drones. Every president from Gerald Ford on made immigration enforcement a major part of their platform, increasing budgets and increasing deportations. Bill Clinton was the first president in history to deport 100,000 people in a single year, George W Bush was the first to deport 200,000, and Barack Obama was the first to deport 400,000. Such escalation would have been impossible without normalizing mass raids.
What set the immigration raid in Hanover in 2010 apart from a normal raid, however, was the timing. The raid was scheduled to occur ten days before March for America, a major protest in which more than 200,000 people marched in Washington DC to demand immigration reform. In fact, President Obama was meeting with Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, an immigrants’ rights organization that worked in Hanover, when the raids occurred. Obama was promising to work with Groups like CASA to reform the broken immigration system while Torres’ phone was being bombarded with calls and texts about the raid. It was deeply cynical politics. While Obama saved face by meeting with Torres, his ICE agents were smashing down the doors of people’s houses with battering rams in an effort to intimidate march organizers (an effort that did not work as Hanover’s Latino community still showed up in force, some even showing their newly acquired ankle monitors to Washington Post reporters at the march).
None of this is to excuse the actions of the Trump Administration which seems dead-set on continuing the shameful practice of scapegoating immigrant workers. Rather, it is to condemn both parties who have provided political cover for the redistribution of wealth upwards by blaming immigrant workers, black youth, single mothers, etc. for the declining fortunes of the American working class.
With the rise of Trump and the colossal failure of the Democratic Party to oppose his neo-fascist politics in any meaningful way, history has provided the American Left with an important opportunity to break out of the stranglehold of reform politics. The mass actions that shut down airports to stop deportations, the physical opposition to the presence of racists like Milo Yiannopoulos on college campuses along the west coast, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement should be the blueprint for a new Left politics, unburdened by the cynical betrayals of the Democratic Party. The struggle against racist immigration policies provides us with another opportunity to chart a new path. Let us not just oppose Trump’s border wall, let’s demand that the 700 miles of wall already in existence be torn down! Let’s not just oppose ICE raids, let’s demand the complete disarming and dismantling of INS, ICE, and the Border Patrol!
Brian Platt is an aerospace machinist who lives in Seattle.