The Root Cause of the Immigration Crisis: The West’s Legacy of Violent Conquest

The Trump administration’s cruel policies towards black and brown migrants stem from a long history.

James Thindwa June 28, 2018

(Getty images)

It is time to clear the air on immi­gra­tion. For cen­turies, white peo­ple have arro­gat­ed onto them­selves the right to invade and con­quer the black and brown world of the Glob­al South to extract min­er­als and oth­er resources, includ­ing slaves and cheap labor. These inva­sions fore­shad­owed rela­tions among coun­tries that would bring us glob­al­iza­tion.” From the time they enslaved Africans for the con­ve­nient devel­op­ment of their New World, the pur­vey­ors of the emerg­ing world order and their suc­ces­sors always fan­ta­sized that they could con­trol the terms of the glob­al move­ment of peo­ple and resources.

If corporations can traverse the globe in search of higher profits, why can’t workers cross borders to better their lives?

Enjoy­ing the fruits of their labor but hat­ing black and brown work­ers calls to mind ear­ly efforts to repa­tri­ate freed slaves to Africa, and fuels the cur­rent depor­ta­tion of ille­gal” immi­grants and use of state ter­ror to achieve it. Sep­a­rat­ing and incar­cer­at­ing fam­i­lies as a tool of con­trol, exclu­sion and dom­i­na­tion — what is now play­ing out on the U.S. south­ern bor­der — was also used against slaves, Native Amer­i­cans and Japan­ese Amer­i­cans, and fits the stan­dard def­i­n­i­tion of state-spon­sored ter­ror­ism. Steve Schmidt, a renowned Nev­er-Trump” strate­gist, has resigned from the Repub­li­can Par­ty, cit­ing the trou­bling his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels. Anti-immi­grant ani­mus exem­pli­fies the desire by west­ern soci­ety to have it both ways: We use you when we need you, and dis­card you when we don’t. We can have our glob­al­iza­tion with­out the demo­graph­ic shift that we disdain.

Pre­dictably, this self-serv­ing bar­gain would prove naïve and fol­ly, giv­en the impulse of peo­ple to want to bet­ter their lives. The view from the street goes like this: If cor­po­ra­tions can tra­verse the globe in search of high­er prof­its, why can’t work­ers cross bor­ders to bet­ter their lives?

Anti-immi­grant U.S. polit­i­cal elites and their aggriev­ed” white work­ers have respond­ed by cry­ing foul and demand­ing strong bor­ders to keep out work­ers from poor­er coun­tries. They ignore the fact that west­ern coun­tries have long cre­at­ed for them­selves and their cor­po­rate enti­ties favor­able terms of par­tic­i­pa­tion in the glob­al econ­o­my. They did it pri­mar­i­ly through con­quest (slav­ery, colo­nial­ism), which brought boun­ti­ful har­vest for them. Writer Vijay Prashad not­ed that the British lit­er­al­ly under­wrote the down-pay­ment for the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion from India though trib­ute pay­ments from Ben­gal and Bihar” that allowed the mills of Man­ches­ter and Birm­ing­ham to run. They lat­er did it through neolib­er­al poli­cies that pri­or­i­tize cor­po­rate prof­its over work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties. And their added priv­i­lege to afford inter­na­tion­al trav­el gives west­ern­ers advan­tage over work­ers from poor­er coun­tries who can­not afford law­ful” inter­na­tion­al trav­el with its pro­ce­dur­al jug­ger­naut for visas. That’s why they pur­sue extrale­gal options.

It must be acknowl­edged that the dis­lo­ca­tion of work­ers and fam­i­lies is a byprod­uct of glob­al forces beyond their con­trol. For decades, the inter­ests of entire regions in the Glob­al South were sub­or­di­nat­ed to the geopo­lit­i­cal imper­a­tives of a Cold War-obsessed super­pow­er and its west­ern allies, with democ­ra­cy often a casu­al­ty. The U.S. gov­ern­ment desta­bi­lized these regions by back­ing dic­ta­tors who immis­er­at­ed their own peo­ple, forc­ing many to flee to safer coun­tries. The wars that engulfed Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Sal­vador in the late 1970s and 1980s and the result­ing mass exo­dus and desta­bi­liza­tion were a cul­mi­na­tion of this interference.

Fur­ther­more, the U.S.-imposed neolib­er­al Struc­tur­al Adjust­ment pol­i­cy brought harm­ful dereg­u­la­tion of glob­al mar­kets and pri­va­ti­za­tion schemes that dis­man­tled state assets such as mass tran­sit, weak­ened trade unions, imposed aus­ter­i­ty, exac­er­bat­ed inequal­i­ty and sus­tained unac­count­able gov­ern­ments — no mat­ter how ruth­less — just as long as they embraced neolib­er­al­ism. Many gov­ern­ments in the Glob­al South were sub­ject­ed to this régime of social and eco­nom­ic depri­va­tion. Inter­na­tion­al lend­ing insti­tu­tions employed threats of cred­it denial to enforce com­pli­ance, and their client gov­ern­ments in turn used dra­con­ian polic­ing to fore­stall pop­u­lar revolt. In many places, that meant get­ting rid of uni­ver­sal health­care and edu­ca­tion pro­grams, often with cat­a­stroph­ic con­se­quences for those fac­ing HIV and oth­er epi­demics. These poli­cies alien­at­ed peo­ple and forced mil­lions to find refuge else­where. Who is respon­si­ble when the vic­tims of such poli­cies have to migrate to mit­i­gate their suffering?

Fur­ther­more, hav­ing dan­gled the good life” to these mass­es through west­ern film and mass media, who would blame them for want­i­ng more? After all, that’s what Euro­peans and cor­po­ra­tions do: con­tin­u­ous­ly find the rich­est and most prof­itable lands (like South Africa) to reap fortunes.

The med­dling has con­tin­ued into the 21st cen­tu­ry, as dra­ma­tized by U.S. efforts to under­mine Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the Oba­ma administration’s sup­port of the 2009 coup d’e­tat in Hon­duras. That event con­tin­ues to desta­bi­lize Hon­duras today, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of dan­ger­ous gangs cit­ed by refugees is a con­se­quence of this insta­bil­i­ty. The med­dling is most obvi­ous, lethal and dis­rup­tive in the end­less war-mak­ing in the Mid­dle East.

Con­quest, extrac­tion and eco­nom­ic exploita­tion are not the only dri­vers of pop­u­la­tion dis­lo­ca­tions. Cli­mate change, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly fueled by west­ern con­sump­tion, is increas­ing­ly impli­cat­ed. With only 5 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, the Unit­ed States pro­duces more than a quar­ter of impli­cat­ed green­house gas­es. The UN Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate change has warned that by 2050, the there could be as many as 150 mil­lion cli­mate refugees” world­wide. Who is respon­si­ble when poor peo­ple lose land due to cli­mate change and have to move? It is pro­found­ly cru­el for the cli­mate-deny­ing U.S. admin­is­tra­tion to pre­vent hordes of unde­sir­ables” — them­selves often vic­tims of dis­lo­cat­ing forces it unleash­es — from enter­ing the coun­try to escape their condition.

One day in the 1950s I woke up to find 250,000 white peo­ple in my coun­try which, with­out my per­mis­sion, the invaders had renamed South­ern Rhode­sia.” Not con­tent, the set­tlers” had renamed many of our mon­u­ments and his­tor­i­cal sites, includ­ing our famed Vic­to­ria Falls.” Our unin­vit­ed guests com­prised a stag­ger­ing 20 per­cent of the country’s pop­u­la­tion. Mil­lions more whites migrat­ed from Europe to South Africa. At their zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, whites in that coun­try num­bered 5 mil­lion, com­pared to 25 mil­lion Africans. I’m very con­fi­dent that the hordes of white peo­ple who came to south­ern Africa did not have papers” per­mit­ting them to enter. Their gov­ern­ments in Europe may have sent them, but my ances­tors did not invite them. And it is impos­si­ble for whites to have reached these lev­els of migra­tion with­out the chain migra­tion” so derid­ed by the Amer­i­can right. So when Amer­i­cans feel besieged by ille­gal immi­grants” they would be advised to con­sid­er that the 11 mil­lion undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants in the Unit­ed States con­sti­tute only 3 per­cent of the population.

But amaz­ing­ly, amid such per­va­sive oppres­sion, Africans did not start anti-immi­grant move­ments to expel white peo­ple. We did not walk around ask­ing white peo­ple to show me your papers.” We did not call them ille­gals,” though in our view their pres­ence was ille­git­i­mate, and even allowed them the benign des­ig­na­tion of set­tler.” In twist­ed irony, it is the white set­tlers who imposed a racist reg­i­men of ID require­ments on their unwit­ting black hosts. It is a val­ues dif­fer­ence that despite this despi­ca­ble behav­ior, Africans were will­ing to co-exist with their invaders. I can attest to the fact that I nev­er heard any­one in my fam­i­ly call for the expul­sion of white peo­ple, even after we gained inde­pen­dence. We just want­ed to be treat­ed with dig­ni­ty and have the right to gov­ern our­selves. Our lib­er­a­tion wars were not about expelling white peo­ple, they were about the desire for dig­ni­ty and self-determination.

It is why I am find­ing it dif­fi­cult to under­stand the ill-treat­ment of peo­ple from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, espe­cial­ly the offi­cial kid­nap­ping of chil­dren to dis­cour­age black and brown migra­tion. West­ern­ers need to ask them­selves: What would they be with­out this his­to­ry of con­quest, extrac­tion and eco­nom­ic dom­i­na­tion? Where would the Unit­ed States be with­out allies” in the Glob­al South who served as its bul­wark against com­mu­nism,” often at the expense of their own inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and civic insti­tu­tions? Indeed, much of the insta­bil­i­ty in Africa, Cen­tral and South Amer­i­ca that has giv­en rise to mass migra­tion can be traced to the missed oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op these insti­tu­tions dur­ing the 50 years of the Cold War.

This is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a call for open bor­ders, though there are cred­i­ble argu­ments in its favor. Instead, it is an invi­ta­tion to white Amer­i­cans to let the his­to­ry of west­ern colo­nial­ism to inform how they treat these des­per­ate immi­grants — the least among us.

James Thind­wa is a mem­ber of In These Times’ Board of Direc­tors and a labor and com­mu­ni­ty activist.
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