U.S. Capitalism and the New “Brown Scare”

by Justin Akers Chacon

The spectacle of candidate Donald Trump casting aspersions on Mexicans in the United States as “criminals” and “rapists” cannot be fully understood as just the noxious ranting of a self-entitled bigot. Renewed attention to Trump and his newfound anti-Latino and anti-immigrant posturing illustrates more than just another perversion of an electoral system long corrupted by well-heeled and poorly coiffed mediocrity. Rather it is a political calculation to gain traction for what might otherwise be perceived as just another satirical ploy to capture attention. Latching onto Mexican- and immigrant-bashing to leverage support from a shrinking yet well-funded and well-organized base of white conservatives is a strategy designed to recharge the fetid Trump brand, which has become little more than a running punchline in popular culture. Latino race-baiting and immigrant-bashing has become a ritualized practice on the conservative circuit and a political get-rich-quick scheme for opportunists seeking traction in the polls through inflammatory incitement.

Trump’s antics also reveal more than just the bankruptcy of immigration politics in the U.S., in which the racial dehumanization of Latino migrants and immigrant workers as “illegals” is normalized in media and political discourse. Rather, it is the latest exhumation of the “Brown Scare,” a deeply rooted strain of racism directed towards people of Mexican and Central American origin that is re-imagined in new forms in changing historical contexts. While Latino/a people have been in the U.S. since before it was constituted as a nation, the Latino presence has been reproduced in the popular imagination as a perpetually recent phenomenon. One way this has occurred is through the closing of the citizenship gateway.

While previous patterns of migration and settlement over the first half of the 20th century have led to a greater Latino share of the U.S.-born and citizen population, citizenship was obtained under conditions of overt racial discrimination. By the time the next substantial waves of migration occurred, this had led to social under-development, confinement to low-income occupations, political neglect, and the reproduction of poverty. Migrants from Mexico and Central America arriving over the last three decades have found the pathways to citizenship gradually closed. Although U.S.-born Latinos/as and more recent immigrants have different experiences and status, they continue to be marginalized within the political and economic structures of the U.S., well into the second decade of the 21st century. In the terrain of official U.S. electoral politics, this has meant the flattening of Latinos/as into one-dimensional objects. They enter the public imagination either as the “Latino voter” or the “illegal immigrant.”

During recent elections, for instance, Latino/a voters have received a lot of attention as a peculiar phenomenon in an otherwise normal situation. In this case, Latinos/as only become relevant if they can influence an electoral outcome. They are often perceived as capricious and homogenous in their thinking; and they are represented as a disruptive force if they favor the other side’s party. More commonly, as Donald Trump reminds us, the undocumented immigrant threat narrative is revived as an electoral bogeyman. Both representations are part of the same reproduction of the Latino/a as an external or foreign presence encroaching on or disrupting the otherwise natural state of affairs in U.S. society.  

Trying to disentangle and rationalize the ambiguities of the Latino in the U.S. political economy becomes perplexing, unless analyzed through a class lens. The elaboration of a labyrinthine and punitive complex of immigration policies, restrictions, and exclusions; backed by the expanding web of an enforcement state, reflects the growth of a new regime redefining labor and citizenship in the 21st century to match the imperatives of U.S. capital in a changing global system. In the context in which the U.S. share of global trade has been receding in relation to its major competitors, the ruling U.S. parties have forged a new consensus for how to arrest U.S. economic decline: expanding free trade agreements to enlarge the areas of U.S. capitalist preeminence, downsizing the welfare state, and weakening working-class organization to free up more surplus value. 


Opening Borders for Capital Accumulation

Commonly referred to as the neoliberal turn, the last thirty years has witnessed a substantial increase in U.S-led free trade agreements. From the North American Free Trade Agreement to the Dominican Republic and Central American Free Trade Agreement, to the recently proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Alliance; bi-partisan administrations have made the aggressive push for pro-corporate free trade regimes a centerpiece of the epoch. At the heart of these agreements in relation to Mexico and Central America has been the dismantling of economic developmentalist policies, the re-writing of trade rules that dismantle tariffs and favor multi-national corporations over smaller producers, privatization of state industry, and the requirement of “labor flexibility” so as to decrease labor costs.[i] The components of trade agreements had been perfected by corporations and applied within the United States through successive administrations before being exported to Mexico and Central America under the aegis of International Monetary Fund debt restructuring diktats.    

In the U.S., labor flexibility has been a primary strategy employed by the U.S. capitalist class since the 1970s. The over-arching goal has been to increase worker productivity while suppressing working-class living standards as a means to increase the rate of exploitation of labor. Central to this strategy is union busting. Employers have relied on a number of strategies to weaken or break unions as part of this process, and they have been successful. For instance, the rate of unionization in 2014 sank to 11.1% of the workforce, the lowest it has been in 100 years. As the need for capital accumulation moves more aggressively to the forefront of policy-making priorities, new forms of labor control have evolved and are being generalized and codified. Another front of this capitalist-class offensive has been through the manipulation of immigration policy to fill the ranks of a vast and politically disempowered workforce.

Global economic integration along neoliberal lines—where corporations write the rules of trade, investment, and regulation in their own interest—has destabilized laboring classes internationally. As a predictable result, labor itself has become internationalized. By 2013, an estimated 231.5 million people migrated and took up residence in a foreign country. If that were itself the population of a country, it would be the fifth largest in the world, roughly larger than the population of each of the remaining 189 other countries. In the United States, an estimated 45 million residents were born in another country, more than doubling in number between 1990 and 2010.

Displaced workers that cannot be absorbed within their own national economies as a result of corporate-led trade policies have been compelled to cross boundaries into foreign labor markets where they can find work. This has altered workforce demographics internationally, from Qatar to the Dominican Republic to Japan. The end result of free-trade policies exported south has been destructive for Mexico and Central America’s laboring classes, dislodging millions of small agricultural producers and urban workers made redundant through skewed competition, privatization of state industry, and the downsizing of the welfare state. Migration has flowed in reverse through these same channels, as workers follow the profit streams that translate into disproportionate job creation north of the border. Once ensconced in U.S. labor markets, undocumented workers are regulated not by a liberal “free market,” but by immigration enforcement and employers themselves. In economic terms, the new “Brown Scare” serves the larger aim of disciplining immigrant workers and providing an updated means for labor control.


Immigration Policy as Labor Control

Free trade–induced destabilization has produced a substantial wave of migration from Mexico and Central America. Upwards of 10 million people have moved to the United States since 1990, marking it one of the largest population transfers in human history. Since this migration has been comprised primarily of working migrants, it has led to a substantial shift in the character of the U.S. workforce. This has been used to the advantage of capital, as Democratic and Republican administrations alike have whittled down the pathways to citizenship for this latest generation of immigrants while simultaneously increasing enforcement penalties.

This has gradually transformed migration from an economic act into a criminal one, at the same time that immigration has increased as a result of U.S.-led policy and immigrants have been fully integrated into the economy.[ii] While their labor is tacitly embraced as both necessary and productive, the criminalization of their presence and denial of citizenship erodes their capacity to participate in activities to improve their wages and working conditions. By keeping a growing segment of the workforce non-citizen and vulnerable to persecution, capitalists can leverage down wages, more easily fire those who attempt to organize or speak out, and foster or exploit racial tensions as a means to divide and segment their workforces to preempt collective-bargaining. The use of these tactics can weaken workplace organization as a means to extract higher rates of surplus value from all workers.

This helps explain the exponential rise of the immigration enforcement apparatus and the public spectacle of immigrant repression despite a corresponding decrease in crime committed by immigrants. A substantial rise in deportation has not been an episodic or measured response to an existential threat, but a systematic and institutionalized means to police a whole population and fortify the lines of delineation between citizen and non-citizen. This explains why deportation has become a permanent and normalized feature of the immigration enforcement apparatus, irrespective of other variable factors such as the rate of immigration, crime, or state of the economy. It also illustrates continuity regardless of which party is in power. Beginning with Ronald Reagan and the passage of the 1986 Immigration Act, 168,364 people were deported; another 141,326 people were removed under George H.W. Bush. After even harsher restrictions were passed under Democrat Bill Clinton, 869,676 people were deported during his tenure, followed by 2 million more under George W. Bush. Into the eighth year of the Obama Administration, the number of deportations has reached 2 million, even as the number of attempted crossings had declined after the onset of economic recession in 2008. Systematized deportation has mostly targeted non-criminal workers, revealing its role as a form of labor policing.

These acts of repression instill fear in people, producing effects that benefit employers: they have eroded freedom of movement, lowered confidence to speak out, allowed for the targeting of leaders, and diminished expectations for the possibility of inclusion. What’s more, the federal targeting of immigrants for prosecution and exclusion activates individual politicians, bureaucrats, and law enforcement agents at the state and local level to replicate federal policies. This in turn animates the actions of hate groups who feel sanctioned to carry out their own actions against immigrants. For instance, hate crimes against Latinos, immigrant and U.S.-born, significantly increased between 2000 and 2010, a period that corresponds to the highest uptick in immigration persecution and exclusion.

While corporations and labor internationalize along the same economic nodes of integration, an increasing number of states have introduced more stringent immigration restrictions, militarized border policing, and detained larger populations of unauthorized migrants. In the U.S., immigration enforcement has become a growth industry for defense companies, security firms, and for-profit correctional corporations. Profitability has become a frontline consideration for policy-makers, as enforcement is itself converted into a market. This includes the business of detention. While many countries have increased their daily “detention capacity” in previous years, the U.S. has outpaced the rest, with the largest population of detained migrants in the world, increasing from 6,785 in 1994 to 34,000 by 2013.

While the most conservative and reactionary elements inside of the Republican Party have driven the discourse of immigrant exclusion, there has been pushback from corporate sectors against the more extreme efforts that threaten access to labor. Nevertheless, there has been convergence between the far-right and corporate sectors within both parties to narrow the scope of reform to emphasize non-citizen status that permits employment. For example, the Obama Administration’s recent proposals to allow for temporary work permits, and not citizenship, to undocumented childhood arrivals (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the undocumented parents of U.S.-born citizen children (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents) illustrates the narrowing terrain of consensus.

The significant surplus value extracted from an immigrant workforce with limited or no rights and protections has encouraged a gradual evolution in thinking about the value of immigration policy as one of labor procurement and control. The scope has broadened to include the regulation of immigrants from agricultural labor to tech workers in Silicon Valley. Over the last decade, the profitability of immigrant labor has led corporate interest groups as well as philanthropies linked to billionaire investors to close ranks around the issue and form lobbying campaigns to drive policy through the corridors of Washington, D.C. This has catalyzed the evolution of “immigration reform” from one that includes citizenship, such as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, to one singularly designed to produce captive and more easily controlled labor with only a limited and narrow pathway to citizenship. The most recent “comprehensive immigration reform” proposal, referred to as S. 744, requires that prospective citizens work ten years before they can enter into the application process and pay taxes, while they are excluded from government services and could be “disqualified” if they lose their job or slip into poverty—this while dramatically ramping up further spending on stricter punishments and border militarization. This latest manifestation of “reform” reveals how successful corporations have been at re-defining discourse and promoting their interests through the Democratic and Republican parties. It also charts the degeneration of discourse as the notion of the criminal immigrant now finds broad acceptance amongst policy-makers and commentators.


The Poverty of Immigration Politics

While capital and labor have internationalized on starkly unequal terms, immigrant advocates and organized labor have adjusted to the liberal capitalist framework that has prioritized enforcement over citizenship. The coded phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” refers to the tradeoff of further criminalization and restriction in exchange for some relief or limited admittance. The rightward trajectory of corporate-leadership on the issue has emphasized the former over the latter.

When the last significant amnesty provision embedded in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act empowered 3.4 million undocumented people to become citizens, capitalist ideologues reeled from the effects. Service-sector unions such as the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU) and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (UNITE-HERE) made significant advances in organizing newly naturalized immigrant workers, bolstering their ranks on a national scale. At the same time, the Act introduced the first significant language for the militarization of the border and the criminalization of working without legal documents. Since the Act, business interests have moved in more organized fashion into the national electoral arena to close the door to future legalization and ratchet up enforcement provisions while at the same time aggressively pursuing free trade agreements. 

In the absence of an alternative strategy, organized labor and non-governmental organizations have also followed the same path, prioritizing lobbying campaigns to contend with corporations for influence inside the architecture of the Democratic Party. If they can help turn several million undocumented workers into citizens, it is reasoned, they can recruit these workers at the end of the reform pipeline. This has been the strategy since the passage of the IRCA in 1986, which created the first model of “comprehensive reform.” Despite the earlier gains, the “comprehensive” strategy has failed to produce significant results for a path to citizenship, as corporate entities have closed ranks within both parties.    

Organized labor has proven incapable of leveraging its influence within capitalist political economy by using the same tools and copying the methods of the capitalist class. It cannot exceed or even match corporate funding (in all of its various guises), and it cannot convince corporate-structured and corporate-funded political parties that immigrant legalization and union organization are in their best interests at a time when U.S. capitalism is restructuring for profitability based on squeezing labor at home and abroad. Furthermore, labor unions cannot readily organize millions of workers rendered vulnerable to arrest and deportation, or subject to the whims of employers who are empowered to fire them at will or report them to immigration in order to break up organizing drives.

Organized labor and immigration advocates will need to reject the anti-worker logic of border militarization and immigration criminalization, and actively pursue the organization of all workers in the U.S. regardless of their immigration status if they are to stanch their decline and re-position organized labor for growth in the years to come. Extending the fight for citizenship rights across capitalist borders will also strengthen efforts to oppose destructive free trade agreements like the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership Alliance. What’s more, failure to change the current course of immigration politics will allow opportunistic political aspirants like Donald Trump, and those who come after, to gain a hearing and to mobilize bigoted sentiment to the polls for years to come.

[i] For a full discussion of the origins, development, and effects of neoliberal policy in the U.S. and abroad, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 

[ii] For a full discussion of policies passed under Democratic and Republican administrations over the last few decades, see Kevin R. Johnson, Raquel E. Aldana, Bill Ong Hing, Leticia Saucedo, & Enid Trucios-Haynes. Understanding Immigration Law. LexisNexis, 2009.

Justin Akers Chacon's picture

Justin Akers Chacón is an activist, professor, and writer from the San Diego-Tijuana border region. Along with Mike Davis, he co-authored the book No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Haymarket, 2006) and is a contributing author to the book Walls, Fences, Borders, and Boundaries: Essays on Social Exclusion, Inclusion and Integration (Kendall-Hunt, 2010).