Fighting the Security State at the Southern Border

The border wall runs through the city of Nogales, which is divided between Sonora, Mexico and Arizona, USA. February 4, 2019. Photo: Robert Bushell, U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The border wall runs through the city of Nogales, which is divided between Sonora, Mexico and Arizona, USA. February 4, 2019. Photo: Robert Bushell, U.S. Customs and Border Protection


Turn on the news, and you’ll find pundits and politicians claiming migrants crossing into the United States have created a crisis at the border. The motivations and context for migration are omitted, and the proposed (bipartisan) solution is always the same: to “secure” the border. Despite its opposition to Donald Trump, the Democratic Party, in its perennial attempts at electoral triangulation, its loyalty to corporate power, and its infatuation with the national security state, has dropped any pretense of opposing fascistic border militarization. They not only refuse to roll back Trump’s border policies, but recently doubled down on those policies by backing the Senate’s “Border Act of 2024.” The bill, marketed as a compromise with the GOP, included:

  • $7.6 billion of extra “emergency funding” for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • Another $7 billion in “emergency funding” for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), hundreds of millions of which would go to hiring more Border Patrol agents
  • Funding for 50,000 immigrant detention beds
  • Requiring asylum seekers to show greater proof to seek refuge, and giving asylum officers more discretion to close cases before they reach court
  • Granting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the power to shut down the border if crossings average more than 4,000/day for a week
  • Implementation of a “border emergency authority” which would automatically shut down the border if crossings reached 5,000/day on average or 8,500 in a single day 

Make no mistake; these measures are a complete capitulation to xenophobia and the Republican Party. Despite their claims of resistance to Trumpism, this bill (which ultimately failed to pass into law due to Trump’s personal opposition) publicly announced the Democratic Party’s explicit collaboration with the far-right’s fascistic border agenda. 

Both parties accept as fact that immigration is a national-security issue, but immigration and the border have nothing to do with security and everything to do with exploitation, dispossession, and imperialism. The expansion of the national-security state at the border threatens the rights and livelihoods of the working class in every country, including the United States. It’s important for every DSA member to understand that the social forces influencing migration and the methods of control migrants are subjected to are driven by the primary enemies of the workers’ movement: capitalism, imperialism, and state power. 

People do not uproot their lives and undergo a long, dangerous, journey to a foreign land simply because they feel like it. Migrants are displaced through state-violence, political instability, economic crisis, and climate change, all caused or exacerbated by the US government and corporations. The border regime is a reaction to a process set in motion by the same politicians and businessmen responsible for the dispossession, political chaos, and economic woes causing migration in the first place. 

“Shutting down,” “closing,” or “securing” the border is popular political rhetoric, but every effort toward this goal fails. Each new piece of the border regime increases the number of dead without decreasing border crossings. There is a simple explanation for this: decreasing crossings is ancillary to the border’s primary function of increasing the exploitability of migrants through surveilling, categorizing, imprisoning, deporting, injuring, and killing them. The southern border acts less like a wall and more like a zone of exception, wherein human rights are erased. Those passing through the border are sorted into different categories and emerge stamped as “guest worker,” “asylum seeker,” or “illegal.” This social division of hyper-exploitable workers is a danger to workers everywhere.

Karl Marx himself wrote about the effects of dividing the working class this way. Describing 19th century Irish workers in England, he wrote, “The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker, he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation, and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” 

Then, as now, competition between laborers weakens working class power. The solution to capitalists undercutting domestic wages by paying immigrant workers less (i.e. that old nativist rallying cry “they took our jobs!”) is to organize all workers, domestic and foreign, to end their competition with one another and instead fight the capitalist class together. Workers seduced by nativist sentiment only strengthen the power capital holds over the entire class. For Marx, this situation is so detrimental he called it “the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization.”  Modern US politicians continue this English tradition by weaponizing the border against labor, keeping profits high for the capitalist class while advancing their individual political careers through crass xenophobia. 

The border regime, in addition to dividing the working class, also manages the consequences of imperialist intervention and ongoing climate catastrophe, while lining the pockets of arms manufacturers, construction contractors, tech companies, prison operators, and more. The United States is constructing a “border-industrial-complex,”and like the military-industrial complex, this necessitates the expansion of state power, which, if the history of the Cold War and the War on Terror are any indication, will not remain within its initial parameters. Migrants are the latest profitable scapegoat for expanding state power over everyone, citizen and non-citizen alike. 

DHS and its constituent departments, like CBP and ICE, in partnership with local law enforcement and private companies, form a massive web of indiscriminate surveillance across the United States. Private companies are selling aggregations of personal data directly to law enforcement agencies, while predictive data analytics, facial recognition software, and other biometric systems are continually being developed for purposes of “border security.” This technology is used to funnel migrants into an archipelago of incarceration, often operated by private, for-profit companies paid by the government for each detainee they’ve imprisoned. The border is a lucrative business, and it’s being exported abroad. 

Every year since 2008 the United States has provided Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador with funding and a set of priorities which include remedying “border security deficiencies.” US agencies like ICE, CBP, and DEA, play an important role in supporting and training border patrol units in countries aligned with the United States. CBP has twenty-one attaché offices and ICE has forty-eight offices around the world. In this way, the US southern border is part of a larger border system radiating outward from the United States to make the hemisphere safe for capital-accumulation and to intercept people fleeing north from the consequences of that accumulation.

While the border cannot be fully abolished while capitalism remains, it is difficult to imagine the end of capitalism without a concerted and sustained attack on the border regime and the entirety of the state’s repressive apparatus. Border regimes are deeply intertwined with global capitalism, state power, and ecological catastrophe. Simply ending immigration controls while keeping everything else intact is not viable. There is no reason to believe the border regime will end while it remains a key piece in managing capitalism at home and abroad. 

We cannot dismantle the two separately. One follows the other. There is no future in which US Congress votes to, and then carries out, the breaking of lucrative contracts with construction, surveillance, prison, and weapons manufacturers, while abolishing DHS, freeing everyone from detention centers, ending deportations, granting amnesty for all, demolishing the border wall, and implements a drastic reduction of the visa bureaucracy. The state does not relinquish power that way, and capital will not abide an interruption to its accumulation. Neither will it dismantle a mechanism, such as the border, that is so useful in combating working-class unity. There is no single policy that will undo the border regime, just as there is no single policy that will end capitalism. 

So what should the relationship between DSA and migrant workers be? Solidarity. We should not arrive at this struggle offering the paternalistic humanitarianism of NGOs and nonprofits, which often ignore root causes. This humanitarianism distills people into saviors and victims while comfortably existing within the global structures and institutions of capitalism. Solidarity, on the other hand, does not conceptualize people as saviors and victims but as equals working together, through disagreements and contradictions, to actively fight against border regimes. Solidarity is participatory not technocratic, equitable not paternalistic, and universalist in that it brings people of various identities together to fight a common enemy. Solidarity is the headwater from which socialist politics flow. It is, essentially, a duty. A duty to organize ourselves alongside migrants locally, nationally, and internationally. A duty to fight together for an end to the oligarchic world system that forces people from their homes and condemns them for it. Without this solidarity, we can’t build socialism. 

The labor movement of a single country, no matter how well organized, is useless if it views foreign workers as competitors and enemies. The only way forward is through international solidarity and coordination. If socialists lose sight of this fundamental principle, then there is no hope for socialism, or in the words of Eugene Debs, “If the principles of socialism have not international application and if the socialist movement is not an international movement, then its whole philosophy is false and the movement has no reason for existence.”