As Central American asylum seekers are met with tear gas and rubber bullets, Amy O'Donoghue reminds us that state racism is nothing new
Central American refugees who had spent weeks travelling to seek asylum in the US recently arrived at the Tijuana–Mexico border to a militarised response from the US – to barricades, razor wire, tear gas and rubber bullets. Having fled their homes, they are now caught waiting at the border, denied entry to the US to make their asylum claims.
Trump seized on the Central American exodus to wage a racist, anti-immigrant campaign to shore up his support base throughout the run-up to the recent midterm elections. Throughout his political career, Trump’s rhetoric has demonised migrants and asylum seekers as a criminal threat laying siege to the US. His ‘America first’ doctrine has manifested in an intensification of the barbarism and militarisation of US border policy.
However, this should not be viewed as a break with a more liberal pre-Trump era. The roots of today’s border crisis are in the history of the US as a racist settler colonial state, founded on slavery and genocide. Racism has long been used to justify systemic oppression, from slavery to segregation to the new Jim Crow and police violence against black people. It has been used also, as now, to dehumanise immigrants, build public support for deportations and militarise borders.
The Democrats have no answer to Trumpism and the rise of the right. Last month, Hillary Clinton intervened to encourage an already fortified EU to further tighten immigration restrictions to, she said, stop the spread of the far right: 'I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame'.
Conceding that immigration is a political problem to be solved, this dovetails entirely with the (extreme) centrist approach to the rise of the far right – at both electoral and street-fighting level – which is to try (and fail) to beat them at their own game.
While couching their immigration criticism in the language of pragmatism, centrists such as Clinton have ceded the political argument on immigration to the right and legitimised racism in mainstream discussion.
Establishment Democrats shrank from taking on racism throughout the run-up to the midterm elections. (Joe Donnelly in Indiana pledged support for Trump’s plans for a border wall; Democrat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has since offered $1.6 billion in funding for the wall.)
After winning a majority in the House of Congress, and after weeks of racist scaremongering by the Republicans, Nancy Pelosi was conciliatory: ‘We have a responsibility to find our common ground where we can’; congress would be a ‘bipartisan marketplace of ideas’.
Without an alternative anti-racist political vision in mainstream discussion, the far right has been further emboldened; their rising confidence can be seen in the marches and violent attacks by open fascists that are now increasingly common throughout Europe and the US.
The response of the Left must be to actively oppose state racism and support those it affects, and to work for an end to the border regimes of the US and EU under which people continue to die in the desert or at sea.
In Ireland, where I’m writing from, a hotel intended for use by asylum seekers in the town of Moville was recently set on fire. In response, hundreds turned out to a meeting called by Fáilte [welcome] Inishowen in a show of solidarity and to discuss how to support the asylum seekers once they arrive in the town.
In San Diego, protesters gathered at the border last week in support of the refugees and calling for ‘respect for the right of asylum for all members of the Central American Exodus’.
It is actions like these that can beat back the normalisation of the anti-immigrant position and defeat the racist right.