A Peculiar Institution

Today’s post is, to put it lightly, a long one. We’re cresting 4,000 words, and to make it easier for you, if you’ve got a real good handle on the DHS immigration memos already, go ahead and skip down to Part Two.

If not, keep reading, and you’ll get the whole story, from the deeper implications of the memos straight through to how they might, or maybe definitely probably will, create a new system of prison-based forced migrant labor in the USA.


Part One: Let’s Take a Longer Look at Those Memos

Like I said on Monday, the two memos from John Kelly—our new head of the Department of Homeland Security—were the most important thing to come out of last week. They spell out how DHS will go about implementing Trump’s immigration policy as outlined in his executive orders and elsewhere.

I gave a detailed run-through of the two documents on Monday, but the unifying theme was that DHS wants to massively expand the numbers and categories of migrants targeted for apprehension. It’s pretty well-known that President Obama deported more immigrants than any previous occupant of the Oval Office, but after the record-high for deportations in 2013, his administration shifted focus. They began deporting undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes after arriving in the US, almost but not entirely to the exclusion of migrants who had just crossed over and then quietly worked away at building a life here. Obama went further with DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed undocumented migrants who arrived as children to obtain work permits and to obtain protection against deportation.

The two memos from John Kelly aim to end that situation. They state that “the Department will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” and they redefine the priority category for deportation to include migrants “charged with any criminal offense,…[who]have committed acts which constitute a chargeable offense…or, [who], in the judgement of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk…”

Important things to note there. Here in the US, we determine if somebody has committed a crime through a trial in a court of law. That’s why “charged with” or “suspected of” a crime is not the same as “convicted of” a crime. These memos aim to make migrants guilty until proven innocent. They also expand the list of crimes which make immigrants a deportation priority to include the initial border crossing, making the other provisions perhaps redundant and marking out every single one of more than 11 million undocumented migrants for deportation.

Now, DHS has gotten on the phone with journalists to, quoting the Washington Post, “avert what [they] called a ‘sense of panic’ among immigrant communities” in the wake of Kelly’s memos. The official from DHS in question continued, “We do not have the personnel, time, or resources to go into communities and round up people and do all kinds of mass throwing folks on buses. That’s entirely a figment of folks’ imagination. This is not intended to produce mass roundups, mass deportations.”

That all reads like a snow-job to me. First, the text of the memos themselves encourage mass roundups—opening up all immigrants for deport, calling for 15,000 new CBP and BP officers[1], and allowing DHS to aggressively deputize state and local law enforcement to act as immigration officers, a tactic that has worked much more as a dragnet than a considered tool in the past.

Second, the DHS officials did so under the cover of anonymity. There’s no guarantee that these guys have any idea what’s coming out of the Trump-Bannon-Kelly axis, and unless somebody’s willing to go on the record, there’s not even any telling whether this was an intentional leak to quell fears. It’s a lot of assurances without, well, a lot of assurance. And third, we’ve got that other memo that spitballed about calling in 100,000 national guardsmen to help with massive roundups.  The White House walked that memo back and disavowed the plan, but whether or not that exact strategy gets implemented, it’s indicative of the kind of sweeping measures that currently hold currency in the Trump Administration.

Which is to say, the insane kind

And there are two other measures in the memos that may be even more troubling, even though they appear, at first, to be working at cross-purposes: immediate deportation to Mexico and the construction of more long-term holding facilities. They call for migrants, rather than being deported to their home countries—as they currently are—to be dumped across the border in Mexico instead. Leave aside for now that there’s no way to do that without Mexican cooperation, and this plan wouldn’t have gotten that even in the rosy days of W Bush and Vicente Fox. There is no worse way to deal with the problem from either our or the migrants’ perspectives. Huge swathes of Mexico, like the bit I’m in, are safe, and in some parts almost indistinguishable from the US. The north, especially near the border, is not like that.

Many of the migrants that cross over to the US are fleeing the same gangs and cartels that run the border areas, and many are shanghai’d into service once they’ve made the harrowing journey through the rest of Mexico. The Mexican government, along with coalitions of churches and other private organizations, can barely handle the number of migrants passing through now. Dumping tens or hundreds of thousands of deportees across the border would get huge numbers of them murdered, further destabilize the north of Mexico, and exacerbate the cartel problem that these memos are supposed to be working towards fixing.

Given that since the 1980s, US policy has been to militarize and destabilize its southern neighbors rather than deal with problems of domestic drug consumption, though, a plan that would ignore real solutions and make all of our crises worse would be pretty much par for the course.

The other measure that the memos describe is the construction and expansion of detention facilities for migrants. Right now, when migrants are apprehended, if they don’t meet the existing criteria for immediate deportation, they’re given a date for an immigration hearing and released into the US. The immigration system is backed up by five to ten years, depending, so most of these released migrants are better than half-a-decade into their new life in the States, and don’t risk deportation by showing up for a hearing.

The policy outlined in the memos aims to change that system, what’s become known as “catch-and-release.” Their main focus is on the expansion of “detention facilities and capacities at or near the border to the greatest extent practicable.” Trump’s talked repeatedly about ending Obama era catch-and-release, and it looks like the plan is to hold these people, hundreds of thousands per year, in indefinite detention, until whenever the court system catches up with them. Because even if judge hiring ramps up, and the memos pay lip service to that idea, we’ve got a multi-year backlog, and any attempt to expedite the process, especially coming from the Trump Administration, is more than likely going to double the problems immigrants have with obtaining representation or basic legal rights in immigration court.

At the same time, the call for 15,000 new officers brings its own concerns. First is that the cost will be massive, upwards of $2 billion, in a plan that, apart from the $20 billion wall, will cost $13 billion a year. What’s as concerning is that DHS has proven itself time and again to be totally incapable of competently expanding the CBP and the Border Patrol.  When efforts to make similarly massive but-smaller-than-15,000-man expansions under GW Bush couldn’t find enough recruits, DHS slackened entry requirements, and the result, according to Politico, has been that “the agency remains beset by…endemic and systemic corruption” more than a decade out.

What does that boil down to? The Border Patrol is the deadliest police force in the United States, and the virtual sovereignty it exercises in a 100-mile strip along our borders means that many or most of its fatal shootings go uninvestigated.  Again from Politico, “from May 2005 to 2012, one CBP officer or agent was arrested almost every single day for crimes that ranged from DUI and domestic violence to drug smuggling and rape.” Politico notes that even though the numbers have dropped off, more than 500 officers and agents were arrested in 2014 and 2015. CBP has itself admitted that during those hiring surges, they even took on members of the same cartels they were supposed to be fighting.

In response, the Obama administration mandated extra security checks during the hiring process, including a polygraph test. These are measures that the Trump administration is trying to eliminate as it expands the ranks of the CBP and BP.

Add to all of that, again from Politico, that the Border Patrol “stands as America’s most militarized police force, armed over the past decade by billions of dollars in surplus Pentagon hardware, from Predator drones and aerostat blimps that once patrolled Afghanistan to helicopters, boats, armored vehicles, and weapons.” The Border Patrol is very much interested in using that ordinance, and when higher-ups instituted an award to recognize officers who de-escalated situations without using deadly force last year, the BP union called it “despicable,” and said that the prize would “get Border Agents killed.”

This whole post is kind of a whirlwind of horrible news, but reflect on that for a second. An award, a simple recognition that congratulated officers for speaking instead of shooting, was, to these folks, on its face despicable.

And finally, before we move on, the CBP union is wildly pro-Trump. It was the first and maybe the only national union to endorse the current president, and it did so despite a widespread understanding in the federal government that it’s out of line for federal employees to lobby for one or another national candidate’s election. Trump has paid back that loyalty in glowing praise for the CBP and, apparently, these memos from Kelly.


Part Two: What Does All This Mean?

The first thing to realize about these memos is that they do nothing to solve our immigration problem. While they call for all available funding to be put towards the construction of a physical wall on the border, even the Border Patrol is on record as saying that a way is the last thing they need.

Ask CBP, Border Patrol or local officials in [the] Rio Grande Valley what they need and virtually no one says they need a wall or more fences. Instead, they all point to the need for basic infrastructure—like roads—and better technology. “Border security is simple: There’s the detection piece and the response piece. You have to be able to see the traffic crossing the border and then respond to those places,” says Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla. “We still have gaps in technology. We have some awesome technology from DOD reuse. Those are an interim solution; that’s a stopgap measure. … The first thing we need in South Texas is a formidable tech plan to be able to detect traffic.”

New highways and access roads are, predictably, not in the memos. And if you read any well-reported account of the BP’s work on the border, what becomes obvious is what they really need are more clerks, judges, and immigration advocates to process migrants through the system. Further, the real solution would be a total overhaul of the immigration bureaucracy, which would be actual immigration reform, and for that reason appears no-where in the memos.

The one problem with immigration that the plan outlined in these memos could conceivably solve has to do with depressed wages. Every other argument about undocumented immigrants being a drag on the economy is bunk, and you don’t even have to refer to studies or articles in the New York Times to figure it out. Undocumented migrants, goes the anti-immigrant argument, take away more money from the system—in public services, in free education, etc—than they contribute, since they pay no taxes.

But imagine for just a moment the actual finances of an actual undocumented family. If they’re working in the fields, their income bracket is low enough that if they were citizens, they wouldn’t be paying federal income taxes in the first place. Which is the situation that many self-described contributors to the system who voted for Trump are in themselves.

Maybe we should start using the phrase ‘white “working” class’

If an undocumented migrant manages to get a social security number for work, then they’re paying the payroll and social security taxes that go to fund any programs they manage to obtain with that number. And for the undocumented who don’t obtain false social security cards, they’re still paying all the taxes that a citizen in their income bracket would pay. Sales taxes when they buy, property taxes in their rent, unless you believe good-hearted shopkeeps and landlords are exempting them.

If all that stuff is bunk, one thing is not, and that’s the problem of depressed wages. If you have a class of people that for whatever reason can be hired for a substantially lower wage than everybody else, then everybody’s wages suffer. It’s the reason that wage-labor in the slave-owning south was so much worse paid than factor work in the North before the Civil War and it’s the reason that farm labor is so poorly paid right now—who’s going to shell out for a citizen at the federal minimum when you can get away with paying an undocumented migrant much less.

Leave aside that it’s the employers who are at fault for paying an illegal wage and not the migrant for taking it. This is an actual problem. And even though it’s been well-documented that US citizens won’t take farm work even at the federal minimum, if all farm-working migrants were paid a legal wage, there would be a knock-on effect raising, however much or little—and it might be very little, according to a writer from the goddamned Cato Institute—the wages of workers in the lower and middle classes across the board.

For the whole history of the immigration debate, the issue has been that depressed wages affect the GOP’s base, the people that elected Trump, negatively. But they affect the GOP’s elite, including Trump, positively.

Farm owners, factory owners, everyone in a position to contract underpaid undocumented workers, benefits from a situation in which they have a huge pool of labor without legal protections, to which they have to provide no benefits, and whom they can pay a much-less-than-living wage. This is why Trump keeps getting caught with undocumented workers on the payroll: it’s an opportunity that’s too good to pass up.

It’s also the reason why Republican efforts at immigration reform so often focus on big, brutal buildups at the border without solving the problem of having a massive, underpaid, under-protected labor pool in the US. Flashy security on the Rio Bravo keeps the base satisfied that the men in power are taking a “strong” stance on immigration while those same policy-making elites and their donors continue to benefit from the use of undocumented labor.

So I don’t think it’s too far out of left field to imagine that this isn’t the first-ever Republican plan that would comprehensively solve the problem of depressed wages. The very elements of the memos that might for the first time actually remove migrant labor from fields and factories all across the US—making all migrants a priority for immediate detention and deportation—are the same elements that could, and might, allow GOP elites to continue reaping the benefits of migrant labor.

It’s going to take a second to unpack that. Previous state-based efforts to really throw out migrants have actually worked. Alabama passed a series of super-harsh immigration laws in 2010-2011 with the idea that immigrants would “self-deport” to escape the new regime. The migrants indeed left and Alabama’s crops rotted on the vine for a season. The GOP’s base was happy, fired up about the migrants leaving, and the GOP’s ownership class, which actually runs the party, was very unhappy about their financial losses. So the GOP repealed the laws.

I don’t think it’s inconceivable that the national GOP has learned from its mistakes in those experiments and that these memos are set to do what all previous Republican immigration reform has done—placate the base and perpetuate the problems that benefit the GOP’s ownership class. And they’ll do it through detentions.

The memos state clearly that they want to halt catch and release and keep both caught-on-the-border and caught-in-the-interior migrants detained until their court dates. That might seem reasonable to you as a law and order measure. Why release criminals who’ll probably never show up in court? The logic only breaks down when you remember that their court dates are five or more years in the future, and that they’ll have to spend that half-decade in indefinite detention. What’s more, they’ll spend that time, in all likelihood, in private prison facilities.

Only the best. Top of the line. Bigly.

Obama’s Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates last year issued new rules aiming to draw down the use of private prisons in the US. That’s because private prisons, which were in 2013 housing 15% of the federal prison population and more than 62,000 inmates countrywide, have been shown time and again to be expensive for taxpayers, bad for prisoners and prison guards, and incredibly profitable for the GOP stockholders and owners of private prison corporations and for the lobbyists and donors in that industry who contribute massively to the GOP. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s new AG, just reversed Yates’ decision, saying that drawing down on private prisons “impaired the Bureau [of Corrections’] ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” And since about two-thirds of our current migrant detainees are in private, for-profit facilities, we can put two and two together and figure out that at the very least, two thirds of new facilities will be private, too.

But putting migrants in private detention only solves half the problem. The GOP has for years or even decades made mandatory prison labor a priority. A story that came out years ago and got little national traction illustrates that strategy. A lobbying group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, was really big back in 2011 and 2012.

ALEC was paid by Walmart and most of the private prison industry and a huge number of America’s largest corporations as it lobbied for stuff as varied as the Stand Your Ground laws that got Trayvon Martin killed in Florida and the deregulation of the energy industry. But maybe their most ambitious plans had to do with prison labor. ALEC sponsored a slate of drug-related law-and-order bills in the South, including large mandatory minimums for small amounts of marijuana, all designed to swell the southern prison population. At the same time, ALEC lobbied for mandatory prison labor laws and for laws which allowed private corporations to make use of prison labor at the expense of the state. That is, the state pays for the upkeep of the prisoner and the corporation pays as little as nothing for the use of their labor. And who else made use of that new, nearly free labor pool in the south but Walmart and other corporations paying into ALEC.

I realize how crazy that sounds, and how much it resembles the Bilderberg Group, Illuminati, lizard-man swill that comes out of Alex Jones’ Infowars. The difference is that all this stuff actually happened and is a matter of public record.

So I think it’s not just possible but probable that the eventual endgame of these two memos, if everything goes right, is to create a new braceros program, not by contracting legal, seasonal migration from Mexico, but by turning interned undocumented migrants into forced prison laborers.

And that might in some sense still sound reasonable to you. If people are going to come into this country illegally, then they deserve to be put into the system, even if that means detention. With these memos out now, they know the risks. And once they’re there, it only makes sense that they work to earn their keep.

The problem crops up when you look at where the money’s going. Right now it costs the taxpayer between $127 and $161 per day to keep a migrant in detention. That money will be going not to state employees but directly to private companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group. The migrants, in turn, will get loaned out to farms and factories for even less money than undocumented migrants are now being paid, further benefitting the ownership class.

Everybody in the GOP elite wins, and the GOP’s base, the masses who elected Trump in large part specifically to deal with the immigration problem are now stuck with an even worse version of depressed wages. Farm and factory owners will now be legally employing undocumented labor at an even lower cost than before.

Crazy, sure. But the prison industrial complex is maybe second only to our military industrial complex in its lobbying power, nationwide influence, and the degree to which it’s shielded from the public eye. Likewise, the rest of the memos are set up to support just this kind of plan. They establish the VOICE, Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, office, a new force tasked not with stopping migrant crime, but publicizing it. It’s a propaganda office aimed squarely at Latin Americans; given that migrants commit many fewer crimes than citizens, its only value is as agitprop meant to inflame racial animosity.

Likewise, while an ill-considered expansion of the nation’s most militarized and least accountable police force—an expansion likely to fill its ranks, like previous ones, with the kind of white supremacist, self-appointed border-militiamen frothing at the mouth to kill an immigrant—a police force that is, more than the military, the FBI, the intelligence agencies, or the national guard, personally loyal to Trump, doesn’t do a lot or anything to ameliorate the problems of immigration.

It does, however, go a long way towards creating a kind of private army that’s not just willing but gung-ho to follow any GOP immigration plan to the letter, the more brutal the better.

Like I pointed out in the episodes about Guatemalan government oppression in the 1960s and 1970s, oppressive regimes aren’t often or ever the result of a single mastermind or a determined cabal who bring about the overthrow of democracy. They are instead the result of a slow creep of antidemocratic institutions and decisions. The buildup of circumstances reaches a point at which the man or men in power can take that last, fatal step.

We’ve got a helluva lot of buildup of circumstances in the US, and not just recently. We’ve got a standing army that until the end of WWII was totally unprecedented in US history. We’ve got a massive security state with few restrictions against spying on or mudering American citizens. We’ve got a Supreme Court that has been eroding our protections against the state and corporations for decades. We’ve got a Republican base, almost half the country, which is unwilling to listen to anyone except mouthpieces at Fox News, and worse, Breitbart and Infowars. And in this particular case, we’ve got a huge amount of unhidden and vociferous racism from that same mass of people directed towards the border, set to be inflamed and manipulated by the new VOICE office.

I don’t think Donald Trump came into the presidential race with any grand authoritarian plans. But now that he and Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus are in the Oval, they have a lot of tools and a lot of opportunity, and these memos may be just the opening salvo in what could become a fight for our actual freedom.

Or, you know, maybe it’s nothing.

It’s easier to keep believing that.


[1] Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol are different entities under DHS. CBP controls the ports and airports, while the Border Patrol mans all territory within 100 miles of a border.

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