Capitalism profits off immigrants’ woes

June 8, 2023

From the May-June 2023 issue of News & Letters

by Buddy Bell

For three years, a COVID-emergency provision referred to in shorthand as Title 42 was in force. It required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their asylum hearing appointment. Normally, when refugees first arrived at a U.S. port of entry to claim asylum, depending on certain factors, it was possible they would be released on their own recognizance to await a hearing date.

Migrants confined at the border in crowded conditions. Photo: Sandor Csudai. Creative Commons


But Trump and his extremist White House advisor Stephen Miller used the COVID emergency to institute Title 42 in 2020, then tasked U.S. border agents with guarding the bridges on the Mexican side, so that migrants could not reach a port of entry without an appointment. (President Obrador’s government in Mexico tacitly facilitated this setup.)

Backlogs grew day after day, until asylum seekers could expect to wait six months or more for an appointment. Meanwhile, they added to the population of overwhelmed shelters and tent cities springing up along the U.S. border in Mexico, where they were preyed on by rapists, kidnappers and other criminals.

In his first year as president, Biden dragged his feet on reversing Title 42, long enough for a conservative federal judge to issue a court injunction. This arguably prevented any reversal. Eventually the legal battle was settled with an expiration date of May 12.


As the date approached, conservative pundits cried “open border” and mainstream media reported on what they expected to be a frenzied rush of asylum seekers to the border at midnight of the deadline. Even when that didn’t happen, they went right ahead with their regularly scheduled guest interviews.

What wasn’t often mentioned, but what thousands of migrants knew, is that Biden simultaneously put in place a different Trump proposal—to require refugees to prove that they sought asylum in the first country they encountered. Honduran nationals, for example, would now need to prove they’d already applied for asylum in Guatemala and were denied. Guatemalan nationals fleeing their own very dangerous country would first have to seek asylum in Mexico, and so on.

Videos posted on social media indicate that most asylum seekers were thinking about this as a U.S. border closure. That perspective ultimately drowned out the misinformation of the perennial extortionists who hoped to take advantage of crowds of new migrants amassed at the border.


It is still unclear, as asylum cases progress, how strictly Biden’s new policy will be enforced. Some migrants expect to be deported to their home country or the country of first encounter.

It is instructive that Vice President Kamala Harris, on a 2022 visit to Guatemala, oversaw the opening of a migrant processing center, funded by U.S. money, which apparently went directly through the Guatemalan government without any substantive demand for it to clean up its human rights record. Another processing center was built in Colombia. The mother of Colombian refugee Luis Enrique Montoya told him over Whatsapp: “[U.S. agents] say, ‘come on in, come on in,’ and it turns out that when [migrants] come in, it’s so they can put them on a plane and send them back here.”

Easier to see is who benefits when asylum status, not to mention any path to a green card and citizenship, becomes more and more difficult to attain. The bosses of undocumented workers are quick to use lack of status as leverage. Any complaint can be silenced with an implied threat. Under capitalism, this is a rule, not merely a matter of scruples.


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