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Impossible Contradictions

When capitalism and nativism find themselves at a crossroads

Last Monday, the Supreme Court voted to allow the Trump administration to make it even more miserable for poor immigrants to live in the United States. In a 5-4 ruling, the court lifted a nationwide injunction, issued by a federal judge in New York, that had temporarily stopped the implementation of a policy change expanding the federal government’s ability to deny even authorized immigrants permanent residency if they use almost any kind of public benefits, like food stamps or Medicaid. (Two other blocks on the policy, from federal judges in Maryland and California, had already been lifted by appeals courts.) A former Trump official previously described the rule change as the “singular obsession” of Stephen Miller. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the new rule could lead to as many as 4.7 million people disenrolling from public programs in the hopes that they might still qualify for green cards or visas.

In the United States, the figure of the “public charge” has existed as long as there have been laws regulating movement in and out of the country. Some of the earliest federal immigration legislation, passed in 1882, drew upon poor laws that had regulated who could and couldn’t live in colonial settlements, as well as the state-level response to Irish famine refugees in the mid-nineteenth century. The second of the two major pieces of federal laws passed in 1882 specifically excluded “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The first had excluded Chinese people altogether.

An amended version of the 1882 immigration law, passed in 1891, also excluded any immigrant “likely to become a public charge.” By 1907, other excludable categories included anarchists and communists, the disabled, sex workers, and unaccompanied children. But at the turn of the century, as several immigration historians noted in a public comment filed after the Trump administration’s rule change was first proposed in 2018, it was “paupers” and those “likely to become a public charge” who accounted for the majority of exclusions and deportations. For decades after this, the definition of “public charge” remained relatively stable, even as public benefits expanded: only those immigrants who received cash benefits from the government, or who had been institutionalized long-term, were considered deportable.

The figure of the “public charge” has existed as long as there have been laws regulating movement in and out of the country.

This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which liberalized U.S. immigration law by removing national origin quotas, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s concurrent expansion of social welfare programs. In fact, it was precisely at this moment, according to Daniel Denvir’s new book, All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It, that the seeds that would eventually bloom into the fetid corpse flower of the Trump administration—and its immigration policy—were beginning to sprout. The book is a brutal rejoinder to those who might still argue, when confronted with Trump’s vulgar cruelty, that “this is not who we are,” or that “this is not normal.” To the contrary, Denvir shows, the immigration enforcement apparatus now wielded by Trump was built up over decades by presidents and legislators, Democrat and Republican alike.

Even as control of the federal government and its policies has shifted back and forth between the parties, each has been subject to greater forces than political affiliation, their choices shaped by the United States’ political economy and an “impossible contradiction” as old as the republic itself: “The nation needed racialized others on the inside but desperately wanted them out at the same time,” Denvir writes. “The inexorable push for territorial expansion and demand for cheap labor, in other words, have always had to contend with the exigencies of white demographic supremacy.” Different factions of the American ruling class have offered different solutions to this “familiar dilemma” at various points in history, balancing their own material interests against that of their class as a whole. But all must operate within the political world bounded by this contradiction.

The roots of contemporary nativism are to be found not only in our country’s earliest moments of xenophobia, but in the reaction against internal migration as well. The Trump era, Denvir suggests, owes as much to middle-class whites’ racist response to the Great Migration and black freedom struggles of the 1950s and 1960s as it does to the nineteenth century Know-Nothings and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Resistance to black movement into previously white neighborhoods, schools, and jobs, he writes, “laid the groundwork for mass incarceration, a system emerging in the 1970s to take a people on the move and fix them in place.” “It also created a model for resisting immigration,” he adds, “a template of white identity politics organized for territorial defense against the fiscal, criminal, and demographic threats posed by racial others.”

Detention and deportation are functions of the same system of mass incarceration that developed in response to militancy and unrest among black and brown workers in the 1960s and 1970s—and as a bulwark of nascent neoliberalism. These policies were mutually reinforcing. Like prison expansion, border policing is “a way for a government that failed to ensure social and economic welfare to use repression as a means to present itself as an energetic protector of the public good,” Denvir argues. “The state didn’t shrink but rather changed, deploying its repressive powers to safeguard the law-abiding, taxpaying citizen from those who broke the citizenship contract through criminality or through receiving stigmatized forms of state aid.”

While All-American Nativism contains plenty of scorn for the “tough on crime” Democrats of the 1990s who dismantled the welfare state as they expanded the police state, Denvir’s contempt for liberal hypocrisy is at its most searing in his account of President Obama’s immigration policies. The passages that deal with Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, the Obama administration’s lawsuit against it, and the concurrent federal enforcement program, Secure Communities, practically shimmer with frustration and rage.

When Obama’s Justice Department sued Arizona in 2010 over the controversial immigration law—which, among other things, required immigrants to carry documentation of their legal status with them at all times and encouraged police to engage in racial profiling—they did so not on the grounds that it violated civil rights. Instead, the suit contended that the state was overstepping its bounds by involving itself in immigration enforcement: that was the federal government’s sovereign responsibility, not Arizona’s. (The Supreme Court agreed: in 2012, it struck down much of SB 1070, which was dismantled further following a settlement with civil rights groups in 2016.) “The problem,” Denvir writes, “was that SB 1070—declared odious by Obama and a broad swath of mainstream opinion—substantively resembled Obama’s policies, so much so that they argued that federal policies made the Arizona law redundant.”

Secure Communities was SB 1070’s federal counterpart. A Bush-era program that facilitated coordination between state and local police and federal immigration enforcement agencies, it had been significantly expanded under the Obama administration. By 2013, Secure Communities was responsible for the majority of deportations from the interior of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people were deported thanks to this program, ostensibly in the interest of reducing crime. But as opposition to the program mounted, activists, energized by years of assaults on immigrants’ civil rights, were able to point to data showing that Secure Communities did not do anything to reduce crime at all. In fact, they argued, it was of a piece with the very same Arizona legislation that Obama had once declared would “threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.”

For some time, the Obama administration tried to have it both ways: claiming the Constitutional right to police the nation’s borders and the interior through a rapidly militarizing immigration enforcement apparatus, while courting the support of organizations like the National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS) to guide its comprehensive immigration reform. In the administration’s view, the one proceeded from the other: comprehensive immigration reform, they thought, would not be politically possible without increased immigration enforcement. But this is not how things went. As with the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which Denvir argues “became a down payment for a law that would never materialize,” the Obama administration’s border enforcement policies supplanted comprehensive reform, rather than leading to it.

As deepening Republican intransigence made reform increasingly unlikely, the Obama administration deprioritized the legislative approach. In 2012, Obama enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) through executive order, foregrounding the innocence of youth, and he ended the Secure Communities program in 2014, pledging to prioritize the detention and deportation of “felons, not families.” But this, too, proved to be myopic at best: “Protecting some immigrants by demonizing others,” Denvir argues, “is a strategy that sows the seeds of its own opposition.” When Donald Trump took office, he relieved ICE of its enforcement priorities and brought back the Secure Communities program—despite new data that showed, yet again, that there was no link between crime and immigration, or, more importantly, between deploying harsh enforcement measures and dropping crime rates.

If businesses needed migrant labor more than they needed corporate welfare, they might abandon the party.

Now, as the Supreme Court weighs the future of DACA, ICE is preparing to remove those covered by the program. Between this, assaults on the asylum system and temporary protected status for refugees, Trump’s stated desire to target birthright citizenship, and the public charge rule, it is abundantly clear that this administration’s immigrant enforcement agenda is not really about “bad hombres” or “hardened criminals” at all, but an ethnonationalist drive toward securing, as a certain saying goes, a future for white children.

Still, Denvir argues, even Trump is not able to escape “impossible contradiction” posed by the herrenvolk republic: his most draconian and violent policies are still circumscribed by the interests of capital. “Business wants the undocumented to be legalized and guest workers who provide the benefits of undocumented labor without the risk,” Denvir suggests. (Trump himself has signaled his agreement by relaxing rules for temporary agricultural workers.) Luckily for the Republican Party, however, capitalists’ self-interested desire for legalization “doesn’t rival priorities like tax cuts and deregulation.” If it did, or if businesses needed migrant labor more than they needed corporate welfare, they might abandon the party. It is for this reason, as much as Trump’s own ineptitude as a leader, that he has been unable to enact truly sweeping legislative changes that would transform immigration to the United States for years after he leaves office, relying instead on executive power. “There is no majority constituency today for enacting such legislation—nor any viable institutional vehicle for it,” Denvir argues. “Whatever opportunity existed to leverage a white-greivance-fueled presidency toward a full nativist program has faded even as the right clings to power thanks to the system’s profoundly anti-democratic features.”

In this way, there is an undercurrent of optimism that runs through All-American Nativism—or, if not quite optimism, a certain faith that no significant fraction of the capitalist class will break ranks to join openly with the nativist right, catalyzing its transformation into a more coherently fascist movement. Denvir even goes so far as to compare Trump’s victory to a supernova: “a big, terrifying explosion marking the end, not the beginning of a political cycle.” But as scientists learned not long after the 2016 election, sometimes what appears to be a supernova turns out to have been a supermassive black hole, ripping apart a dying star.