US-Mexico border US-Mexico border. Photo: Peg Hunter / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked below article

John Clarke on the inhumanity of the US’s border regime and its function as a system of repression rooted in US imperialism

If you were to seek out an image from the mainstream media of a dangerous border crossing, you would be shown no end of examples of the repressive containment efforts of regimes the US-led Western powers are at odds with.

Two likely candidates would be the stern and forbidding measures in place at the border between North and South Korea and the infamous Berlin Wall. If anyone were to suggest that the US Mexican border should be regarded as an even more cruel and dreadful barrier to the free movement of people, they would be scoffed at by those who shape official discourse. Yet, the proposition is very far from being an outlandish one.

The efforts of undeniably repressive states to trap those who wish to seek a new life elsewhere are certainly to be deplored but the US border, though it is an exercise in exclusion rather than containment, is every bit as inhumane and it is responsible for much greater levels of death and suffering. It represents a uniquely livid dividing line between the ‘first world’ and the poor and oppressed countries that are the victims of imperialist plunder and exploitation.

Controlled exclusion

The first striking consideration, when it comes to this border, is that its location is itself the product of an agenda of robbery and aggression. The US Mexican War of 1846-48 was the culminating act in a process that saw Mexico lose 55% of its territory to the emerging imperialist power to the north of it. The present border between the two countries was drawn up on the basis of this act of armed robbery.

The scale on which people from Mexico and other countries to the south of it try to find a way across the border into the US is truly enormous. Last July, the US Border Patrol reported 199,777 ‘migrant encounters,’ a figure that indicates the scale on which the crossing is being made. The repressive measures in place force many migrants to traverse harsh desert terrain, which leads to death on a huge scale. ‘Border Patrol has recorded approximately 8,600 immigrant deaths at the border’ since 1998 but advocates suggest that this underestimates the true loss of life by an enormous margin.

The brutal reality is that massive deployment of state power that is used to secure the border is operated under false pretences. The last thing that US employers want is for the flow of migrant labour to actually be curtailed. The lethal guarded border and all the brutal mechanisms it entails are in place to ensure that those who succeed in the desperate scramble to survive will enter the US as ‘illegal’ and highly exploitable workers.

We may be sure that, while migrant workers must live under the threat of detection and removal, the process of criminalisation won’t be extended to the employers who hire them. In truth, the US operates a process of controlled exclusion that is designed to create a supply of workers who must always look over their shoulders and whose employers know this only too well. Indeed, during the Trump presidency, concern was expressed in high places that his crude racism and brutal crackdowns might go too far and interfere with the supply of farm workers.

The Biden restoration meant an end to Trump’s racist flourish but border enforcement remains as ugly as it needs to be in order to serve the needs of profit. When he sought office, Biden was very anxious to portray himself as a progressive champion. He declared that “Donald Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants. My administration will end it.”

While the Democrats were ready to posture in this way on the campaign trail, once in office Biden ‘walked back his plans for immigration reform.’ Biden ‘has continued Trump’s hardline stance against protections for immigrants—albeit sugarcoated with humanitarian rhetoric—showing more elements of continuity with his predecessor than not.’ Title 42, Trump’s ‘primary tool of expedited deportation,’ has been used by the Biden administration ‘to deport immigrants at a breakneck pace.’ This reflects the fact that ‘The repression of migrants is not just bipartisan, it is a feature of U.S. imperialism.

The ugly rituals of this system of repression continue under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The process is by no means limited to maintaining a strongly guarded border with Mexico or controlling other points of entry. 21,000 Border Patrol agents maintain a repressive network that operates throughout the country. A 100-mile border zone was created in 1953 that gives special powers to these agents in any place ‘that is within 100 miles of a U.S. land or coastal border.’

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explains that, within this border zone, where two thirds of the US population or roughly 200 million people live, federal agents may establish immigration checkpoints and may stop and search vehicles if they have ‘probable cause’ to believe that an ‘immigration violation’ has taken place. As the ACLU points out, however, ‘In practice, Border Patrol agents routinely ignore or misunderstand the limits of their legal authority in the course of individual stops, resulting in violations of the constitutional rights of innocent people.’

The ACLU suggests that ‘Federal border agents are stopping, interrogating, and searching Americans on an everyday basis with absolutely no suspicion of wrongdoing, and often in ways that our Constitution does not permit.’ It points out that such behaviour often occurs outside of the 100 mile zone. It takes little imagination to appreciate the deeply racist way in which this massive enforcement operation is conducted or the climate of fear it creates for those who have been forced to live and work in the US ‘illegally.’


When considering the guarded borders and repressive systems pitted against people seeking safety and a decent life in the imperialist countries responsible for the oppression and poverty that forces them to relocate, it is vital to set aside notions of helplessness or passivity. Underlying this movement of people are systems of communication and forms of organisation that defy and defeat the racist sentinels that stand guard. Sometimes, this organising reaches the level of a political movement and an open social struggle. That was the case with the migrant caravans that drove Trump into a racist frenzy. Such powerful and determined efforts are now being thrown against the more duplicitous Biden administration.

There is a broad array of organisations in the US that act in solidarity with migrants and refugees and that challenge the mechanisms of racist exclusion. That such networks of support threaten the repressive state power can seen in efforts to impose brutal prison sentences on people who have placed food and water for people crossing the desert in order to enter the US. This appalling attempt to prevent such life saving measures is the clearest indication of the nature of border enforcement in the US.

In the period ahead, we may expect the factors that are driving people to migrate to greatly intensify. The present ‘global cost-of-living crisis is pushing an additional 71 million people in the world’s poorest countries into extreme poverty.’ The intensifying climate crisis will generate an utterly unprecedented movement of people. Nowhere will the necessity and desperation that drives this effort to survive, along with the brutal attempt to contain it, be sharper than across the length of the cruel and inhuman US-Mexican border.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.