No Friend of Immigrants

Democratic presidents have been responsible for some of the most punitive immigration policies in modern history.

A Texas Army National Guard conducts operations at the Texas-Mexico border in 2014. Texas Military Department / Flickr

In 2014, journalist Christiane Amanpour sat down for a town hall interview with Hillary Clinton. Amanpour asked Clinton what the US should do about the thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied minors who were crossing the southern US border at the time.

Clearly uncomfortable, Clinton demurred. Amanpour persisted, asking point blank: “Should they be sent back?” After some additional dissembling, Clinton responded: “[W]e have to send a clear message. Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.”

However callous, Clinton’s answer wasn’t necessarily surprising. While such harsh stances often call to mind openly anti-immigrant Republicans like Donald Trump, the Democratic Party’s record on immigration issues is far from progressive.

Over the past few decades, Democratic presidents have implemented some of the most punitive immigration policies and the most draconian enforcement in modern history, as part of a broader push to restructure the US economy and the state’s role in it.

Bill Clinton

When Bill Clinton came to office, he inherited previous legislative attempts to stem immigration across the Mexican border like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Eager to make his mark, the new president introduced his own draconian programs.

Immigration scholar Justin Akers Chacón singles out Operation Gatekeeper, which helped nearly triple the budget for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and employed a “control through deterrence” strategy that deployed more personnel and military hardware to the border.

The administration focused in particular on crossings in high-visibility areas of San Diego, erecting a fifty-two mile fence that stretched from Imperial Beach to the Otay Mountains. The barrier forced migrants to cross in significantly more dangerous regions.

Tellingly, federal guidance for such efforts came from the Department of Defense’s Center for Low Intensity Conflicts. In essence, Clinton was waging a war on migrants — with all the attendant casualties. Scholar Bill Ong Hing points out: “The number of migrant deaths increased six hundred times from 1994 to 2000; a number that could be attributed to Operation Gatekeeper.” One estimate put the number dead since Operation Gatekeeper’s enactment at over 6,600 — “and the remains of another 1,000 migrants have been unidentified.”

Clinton also signed two laws before the end of his first term that spurred more unjust detention and deportation. Regarding the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi writes, “families and communities have been torn apart; and entire generations of immigrants have been criminalized.”

Today the Clintons try to downplay the militarism and sheer aggressiveness of their deterrence strategies. Yet immigration control was central to Clinton’s presidential identity: his re-election campaign featured ads highlighting his administration’s harsh immigration laws. These measures, coupled with austerity legislation like Clinton’s welfare reform law, made the precarious lives of undocumented people even more difficult.

The subsequent eight years of Republican presidential rule didn’t substantially reshape US immigration policy. In George W. Bush’s second term, an explosion of immigrant rights marches, including the largest in history — the March 25, 2006 protest in Los Angeles — killed the Sensenbrenner-King bill, which would have earmarked $2.2 billion for more border fences and made undocumented migration a felony offense. Other legislation, which would have provided a “path to citizenship” but also included exploitative guest-worker programs, also failed.

Barack Obama

As Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office, many assumed he would be more sensitive than his predecessors to the racism underlying US immigration policies. His promises during the 2008 campaign help fuel that assumption. Speaking before the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), he proclaimed: “I will be a president who will stand with you, who will fight for you.”

Yet Obama’s about-face has been so pronounced that by 2014, NCLR president Janet Murguía was openly denouncing the president — a rare move for a nonprofit group so close to the Democratic Party.

“For us,” Murguía said at the group’s award ceremony that year, “this president has been the deporter-in-chief. Any day now, this administration will reach the two million mark for deportations. It is a staggering number that far outstrips any of his predecessors and leaves behind it a wake of devastation for families across America.”

Obama earned the “deporter-in-chief” epithet by building on Clinton’s aggressive enforcement apparatus and expanding George W. Bush’s surveillance state.

Under Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, the Secure Communities program requires local police agencies to forward the fingerprints of apprehended people to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The government then orders the deportation of any undocumented arrestees with criminal records.

2010 was a banner year for severe enforcement. The administration increased removals under Secure Communities by 71 percent, and the president signed a $600 million “border security bill” that called for an additional 1,500 Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors, and other border enforcement officers, as well as the deployment of unmanned aerial drones. By September 2011, Obama had deported more than a million undocumented people — just shy of the 1.57 million Bush expelled in his entire two terms.

Since then, deportations have continued apace. “Under Obama,” the Washington Post reported in December, “the number of deportations through 2014 hit a new high — while the number of returns is lower than at any point since the Ford administration.” Obama has long since passed the two-million mark that incensed NCLR’s Murguía, and continues to add to that number by the day.

Even the New York Times editorial board has criticized Obama’s immigration policies, particularly those regarding asylum seekers. Instead of offering protection, the Obama administration offered Operation Border Guardian — “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against . . . Among its tens of thousands of targets were more than 300 recent migrants from Central America, youths who crossed the border without their parents.”

After six years of unremittingly harsh policies — and, in the face of GOP intransigence, a failed attempt to push through an immigration reform bill — Obama signed an executive order in late 2014 that would have prevented millions from being deported and granted them the right to work in the US legally. The immigrant rights movement, which had pushed and prodded Obama throughout his presidency, celebrated.

But in June of this year, their hopes were dashed and Obama’s attempt at ameliorating his odious immigration legacy was thwarted. The Supreme Court deadlocked, allowing a lower court’s ruling striking down the executive order to stand.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton’s 2014 comments to Christiane Amanpour were in keeping with past statements. In a 2003 interview with WABC radio, Clinton said:

I am, you know, adamantly against illegal immigrants. . . . [C]ertainly we’ve got to do more at our borders. And people have to stop employing illegal immigrants. Come up to Westchester, go to Suffolk and Nassau counties, stand in the street corners in Brooklyn or the Bronx – you’re going to see loads of people waiting to get picked up to go do yard work and construction work and domestic work.

Indeed, throughout her long career, in her various roles in government, Clinton has taken immigration stances even further to the right than most Democrats, and in certain respects, to the right of some Republicans.

When she was in the Senate, Clinton supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006, a bill to build more walls on the border. In 2007, when New York governor Eliot Spitzer backpedaled on granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, she not only backed him— she declared that as president she would not support any such proposal. And while on the campaign trail this election season, she has touted the “numerous times” she voted “to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.”

Today’s nexus of domestic law enforcement, barriers, increased border patrol, and “Homeland Security — bound together by policies like Secure Communities — represents an approach that Clinton has long advocated.

In her capacity as secretary of state Clinton added to her inhumane record, proposing deportations as a way to deal with a tragedy she helped create.

Clinton’s State Department provided material support for the 2009 Honduran coup, aiding and abetting the golpistas in their successful drive to consolidate power via a sham election. The resulting chaos from the putsch, as scholar Dana Frank notes, led to an “almost complete destruction of the rule of law in Honduras.”

Children began fleeing by the thousands, taking the long, perilous journey to the US. According to Hing, “920 Honduran children were murdered between January and March of 2012,” and many other Latin American refugee children fell victim to human and drug trafficking rings.

Many of them meet the criteria for receiving asylum: they have a “well-founded fear” that if they returned to their home country, they’d endure “persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Yet Clinton worries that granting these children asylum would send a “message that is contrary to our laws.” Instead of welcoming them, she publicly calls for their deportation.

Profits Inform Policy

Immigration policy doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The shifts over the past few decades — often draconian and frequently pushed by Democratic presidents — have been part of a broader process of economic restructuring, both in the US and around the world.

Key to this process is privatization, particularly the privatization of state functions. For example, until relatively recently, immigrants held while their status was being determined, or asylum seekers unable to post bond while awaiting a hearing, were kept in facilities maintained by the Border Patrol under the aegis of Customs and Border Protection.

Beginning in the late 1990s, however, corporations began taking advantage of the surge in detentions. The first privately contracted “Criminal Alien Requirement” prison opened in 1999, and the next decade saw a steady growth in privately managed prisons, with immigrant detention centers at the forefront because of their higher profitability. “[T]he tipping point,” the ACLU writes, “came in 2009 when, for the first time, more people entered federal prison for immigration offenses than for violent, weapons, and property offenses combined — and the number has continued to rise since then.”

The explosion of deportations under Obama — coupled with the exodus of immigrants from Central America — proved to be a windfall for these companies. In 2012, the Huffington Post reported that “[t]he two largest for-profit prison companies . . . have more than doubled their revenues from the immigrant detention business since 2005.”

What’s more, these prisons are subject to weaker regulation and oversight than other institutions under the Bureau of Prisons, allowing their operators to spend far less on detainees and pad their bottom line.

In order to cement that lucrative arrangement, top firms like Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group have parlayed their enormous growth into political clout. In the 2016 presidential election cycle alone, the two companies have together contributed more than $130,000 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her “I’m Ready for Hillary” SuperPAC. So while detainees languish in squalor, executives see their bank accounts swell, knowing the Democratic establishment has their back.

Also central to the shifting immigration landscape have been free-trade agreements — a significant “push” factor for migration to the US and a pet cause for neoliberal Democrats.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, eliminated many protections for Mexican workers, particularly agricultural workers and sustenance farmers. Family farms died out, forcing many people to seek work elsewhere.

David Bacon describes the disruptive process:

Corn imports . . . rose, from 2,014,000 tons to 10,330,000 tons from 1992 to 2008. US producers like Archer Daniels Midland, subsidized by US farm bills, sold corn at artificially low prices to gain control of the Mexican market. Then small farmers in Oaxaca, Chiapas and southern Mexico couldn’t sell their crops at a price high enough to pay the cost of growing them.

But the free movement of capital was not matched by the free movement of labor. The same year NAFTA began making it easier for corporations to flee the country, Operation Gatekeeper started deterring and sweeping up migrants.

In the decades since, the key, from the perspective of business and sympathetic elites, has been to regulate the flow of foreign labor to make sure capital has the requisite workers. For example, as digital technology becomes more and more central to the US economy, the federal government has readily accommodated the labor needs of US tech companies by using the H-1B program. H-1Bs are now being called “outsourcing visas” because they allow firms to train workers and send them home to do the same jobs for lower wages.

Draconian immigration policies and neoliberal restructuring dovetail neatly. Both exact a stark human toll while benefiting capital. They remove barriers for business while erecting them for labor. That the Democratic Party’s most powerful elected officials have been among their staunchest advocates is a stark reminder of whose interests it serves.