Give the U.S.A. its Proper Name

Let’s call this country, the U.S.A., for what it really is, the United States of Apartheid.

I was reminded of this recently in a story about McFarland a farming town south of Delano. The people of McFarland, half of whom are said to be “undocumented” — systematically denied legal status and basic civil rights with no realistic means to change that status — mobilized to oppose the opening of a private run ICE detention center in their town.

The lock ‘em up for lucrative profit prison companies are being forced by a recent California law – AB32 — to shut their private state prisons across the state. The law, which went into effect in January, also mandated closure of private immigration prisons. But anticipating the law, Geo Groups and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) signed long term contracts, skirting, and subverting the law’s intent. Determined to sustain its profits, Geo moved to replace the loss of its money-making state prisons by converting them, including several in McFarland, to prisons for refugees and immigrants rounded up by ICE.

As word got out about Geo’s plan, the people of McFarland began a movement to stop the conversion. Among the organizers were farm workers and their children. They went door to door asking residents to sign cards opposing the detention center. And they persisted despite threats that the loss of prison tax money would cripple their town’s basic services. When the McFarland planning commission met on February 20, hundreds of McFarland residents rallied to denounce the camp. The Commission then blocked the conversion from going forward, much to the relief and joy of the community.

A recent New York Times article on this conflict described McFarland, located in the middle of a grape and fruit growing area of California’s Central Valley, as “impoverished”. But this poverty is not a natural endowment and hardly applies to grape and other fruit growers, and the many companies that thrive off an enormously wealthy and productive California agriculture system. (For example, two thirds of this country’s the nut and fruit crops, and one third of its vegetables are cultivated and harvested by California’s 800,000 farm workers). As many as 90% of those workers are Mexican and half are believed to be undocumented. The poverty of the farm working people of McFarland, and generally across the state and country – the vast majority of whom are Mexican, and “undocumented” — is not wrought by nature but by the nature of the social system in which all this production takes place.

250 years of slavery baked racial oppression into the economic, social and political foundation of this country — where it remains well entrenched to this day. It is here that U.S. apartheid’s historical roots lie.

Apartheid is defined in the Miriam Webster dictionary as a “policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European peoples”. This system fosters racist views and racially biased laws, but apartheid is anchored in the deeper needs of the economic system where it persists and constantly renews itself, even as attitudes change and struggles explode in opposition to the injustices it creates. For example there was a decades long union struggle to organize farm workers that began in nearby Delano in 1965. It gave rise to a prolonged and hard fought movement with massive farm worker strikes that swept California in the early part of the 1970s. These eventually led to the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, granting farm workers the right to union elections. While these struggles and legal changes pushed up wages and improved working conditions to some degree they made no dent in the fundamental social relations of an apartheid labor system.

The determination of the people of McFarland to stop the Geo’s ICE camp comes from deep well springs of history and life experience. California’s grape and fruit workers and those across the southwest – and across the country – have long lived with low wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, environmental hazards like polluted drinking water and pesticide poisoning, poor housing and schools. Their conditions are enforced by the immigration system, and related legal and social practices. While raids by la migra, once a regular part of life in the fields, have diminished over recent decades in deference to growers’ needs for a year round labor force, the threat of ICE and deportation remains a constant presence in peoples’ lives. In recent years incarceration in ICE prisons has become a growing source of fear.

Jailing immigrants has evolved in recent decades into a profitable multi billion dollar business. But it is not mainly profit that spurs its growth. As the dependence on immigrant workers has spread beyond the fields and across the country, beyond farming and dairy, to construction, meat packing, and service industries of all kinds – and along with that, a growth in the size of immigrant and non – white communities – the apparatus of immigration enforcement has grown in size and harshness.

The Clinton, Bush and Obama governments of the 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of border walls, the militarization of the border region, and laws criminalizing immigrants. These administrations carried out a calculated and cold blooded policy to drive NAFTA and others seeking refuge from countries devastated by U.S. exploitation and domination, into the desert where thousands died attempting to immigrate. In these decades we’ve witnessed massive increases in deportations while immigrant detention camps have sprouted like diseased deformities on the landscape. According the Freedom for Immigrants, an organization that aids immigrants in detention and advocates for the end of the detention system, there were just 30 immigrants incarcerated in immigration jails in 1980. Today that population, on any given day, stands at about 50,000. And all this has been normalized to an alarming degree!

Even as the apparatus of repression becomes more robust and brutal, the promise of immigration reform and a path to legalization is dangled out at intervals. It serves to keep the populations most impacted by these anti-immigrant policies, or those sympathetic to immigrants, believing there is a solution within the present order of things. But because U.S. capitalism admits to no apartheid labor, nor racial caste system, and yet can’t function without workers deprived of basic rights . . . we have had unending discussions and endless promises of “comprehensive immigration reform” — a convoluted and hypocritical debate over policy, so entangled in its own contradictions that a dweller in Alice’s Wonderland would find it beyond the pale . . . And with no end in sight!

The rise of Trumpian fascism represents a change in a dangerous direction. Both Republicans and Democrats have long publicly opposed “illegal” immigration (while steadfastly maintaining large undocumented populations by closing off any path to legalization for 34 years!), as an affront to law and order, a threat to “national security” and a violation of the U.S.’s “sovereign borders” (even as it violates the sovereignty of other countries with impunity). Both parties in power have defended and strengthened the apparatus of subjugation of immigrants but without a lot of overt racial animus. With Trump things have taken a different turn by linking the fortunes of the nation, overtly, to its racial composition.

Hitler in the 1930s rode to power by linking Germany’s national fortunes to its racial composition. These racial views were popularized in the trenches of World War I where millions of German soldiers were being slaughtered to advance the fortunes of German imperialism against powerful imperialist rivals. The German military command, to bolster the flagging morale of their troops, insisted that Germans, due to their superior racial status, deserved a more prominent position in the world and would triumph over their supposedly inferior enemies, particularly the Russians and other Slavic peoples. Hitler, himself a WWI soldier, absorbed these views and adapted the racial arguments he embraced as the core of Nazi ideology. He went on to develop the view (in Mein Kampf and elsewhere) that nations were racial entities and the success or failure of a nation depended on its racial make up. Nazism held that German national success hinged on a correct racial policy. Racism and racial exclusion of “unwanted” and “inferior” groups were not only acceptable under Nazi rule, they were required of a true German patriot.

Trump’s support and encouragement of this outlook (adapted to U.S. conditions) has drawn white supremacist and Nazi groups around him. As fascist racial views have gained traction among a broader section of society influenced by this regime, Trump has positioned himself as a racial leader whose faults are deemed unimportant in the eyes of his cores followers as long as he remains the most powerful and committed defender of the “race”.

“Make America great again”, for the true believer in Trump’s base, justifies violent acts and heartless repression against “racial enemies”. Atrocious actions, even against children, are acceptable, even admirable, in order to achieve the necessary change in the country’s racial make up. Marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us” and shooters who attack Mexican Americans as “invaders”, are front line fighters for this Trumpian vision of the U.S. And Trump, who has surrounded himself with like- minded fascist ideologues, has sought to prove he is at least moving in that direction.

Yet this Trumpian racial ideology runs up against immediate reality and necessity. The U.S. has always relied on non-white and immigrant labor and can not function without it.

Trump, like Hitler, is first and foremost a defender of the capitalist / imperialist order and its corporate elite. Germany’s elite, at a certain point, threw their weight behind the fascist program, including its racial program, as the most effective way to advance their interests. Those who disagreed kept quiet or were suppressed.

In the U.S., there is a more open, overt split in the power structure, with a section that sees the Trump program as a danger to maintaining the cohesion of an increasingly diverse society, especially at a time when there is a growing dependence on an apartheid labor system.

For example, the devastation caused by a changing climate has increased the demand for cheap, vulnerable labor. In the wake of hurricanes in New Orleans (Katrina), Houston (Harvey), No. Carolina (Florence) and South Florida, (Michael and Irma) large numbers of immigrants were recruited for clean up and reconstruction under conditions that other workers, not living under the threat of deportation and detention, would have refused to accept. This includes wretched living conditions, poor wages, outright wage theft and other abuses. Enforcing these kinds of conditions has always required special laws and special institutions, with ICE always looming large.

An aging population and a declining birth rate are additional factors that favor immigration. For example, there were large influxes of immigrant workers in 1986 with the Simpson Rodino Act and in the mid 1990s in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) when millions of small farmers and others in Mexico were driven off their lands and livelihoods by a flood of cheap U.S. corn and investment capital, and some headed north across the border. But those are now decades in the past. I was in Salinas last summer visiting a strawberry field during the harvesting. It was apparent that the crews, in this physically demanding work, were fairly old. The supervisor of the crews confided that finding young workers has become a critical issue for their company and he predicted that if that didn’t change they would be out of business in a few years. Stories like that are not that difficult to find. Dairy farmers, for example, have been very explicit in their insistence that without an influx of immigrant workers their businesses can not survive.

Trump has sought to assure some wary business groups that he is heeding their concerns. For example, in a meeting with a farmer group at a White House round table last April, Trump promised that their labor needs would be met. Under Trump the H2A contract labor program (once called the Bracero Program) has expanded from 165,000 to 242,000 workers. But some growers expressed distaste for that program as cumbersome, bureaucratic and too costly. Trump assured them he had their backs in words that caused one farmer to remark, “He (Trump) has a much better understanding of this than some of the public rhetoric we have seen (sic).”

There are reports that the rules in the H2A program that is supposed to guarantee certain basic working conditions and wages for H2A workers are being eased. There are also indications that recruitment of workers, outside the H2A program, is going on in Mexico, and perhaps elsewhere. This would be nothing new since U.S border policy throughout its history has had this duplicitous character — pronouncements on “defending sacred borders” proceeding along with less public measures to ensure that needed cheap labor is ushered across the border.

This past December a bill, “The Farm Work Modernization Act” passed the House with some bi-partisan support. The bill is designed to stabilize the farm workforce by holding out the promise of legalized status in exchange for years of farm work.

It remains to be seen whether bill makes it into or through the Senate and whether Trump would sign it. But the bill signals to farmers a willingness to take measures to satisfy their desperate need for labor.

Meanwhile Trump’s 2021 budget proposal calls for a dramatic expansion of immigrant detention and the government’s capacity to take migrant children into custody — a $3.1 billion increase to bring detention center capacity to 60,000 at any given time.

The expansion of detention camps, the separation of families, the encaging of children, the threat to “flood the streets” of Sanctuary cities with elite ICE Bortac (border tactical) units, and moves to punish those cities economically for refusing to fully cooperate with ICE, all serve a dual purpose: They signal Trump’s white supremacist base that he is “taking care of business”, moving to fulfill their ethnic cleansing dreams while fortifying the apparatus of fear and terror among immigrant workers, their families and communities. There is an implicit threat in all this that those who stand in solidarity with immigrants, with the “alien race”, will be considered traitors to the favored, ie, white race.

Bruce Neuberger is a retired teacher and author of Postcards to Hitler: A German Jew’s Defiance in a Time of Terror.