Borders Are Open for Profit, but Not for People
In a Q&A, prolific author and professor Justin Akers Chacón discusses his new book where he breaks down free trade agreements and argues why the U.S.-Mexico border should be opened for people.
People who cross the border are always intensely scrutinized. But money, capital, and commodities seem to flow seamlessly across the dividing line. Indeed, we don’t hear much about the long-term dynamics of opening borders to corporate power and capital investment, and very little about the “repatriation of profit,” as the San Diego–based author, professor, and labor unionist Justin Akers Chacón puts in the following interview. In Akers Chacón’s new book, The Border Crossed Us: The Case for Opening the U.S.-Mexico Border, he takes on the conundrum of the free movement of capital versus the restriction of people. Akers Chacón is a professor of Chicana/o history at San Diego City College and the author of two other books No One is Illegal (with Mike Davis) and Radicals in the Barrio.
The Border Chronicle was able to catch up with Akers Chacón and ask him some questions about his new book and its analysis of the U.S.-Mexico border. As he notes, the “free trade” system in North America depends on disempowering and criminalizing labor, an effect created by border enforcement. The way out of this? Cross-border and international solidarity among working people, he argues. Read on to find out more!
One of the provocative things that The Border Crossed Us does is turn a well-trodden border narrative on its head. Almost always, discussions of the border center on people crossing it, not corporate power, which can cross borders without a problem. Border Patrols and ICE detention are designed for border crossers, not corporations. Do you think this is something important for the general public to understand?
It is imperative that the population understand what I call the “bordering of capitalism.” The elimination of national borders and boundaries for the free movement of capital investments and the repatriation of profit (through misnamed and misrepresented “free trade agreements,” or FTAs) is a major factor in understanding the origins of the social crises we are experiencing today.
For example, inequality and poverty have skyrocketed for working-class populations in the “investor” countries as a result of significant capital outflows enabled by capital mobility across borders. Banks and investment companies move large amounts of money across the globe in speculative endeavors to make quick profits, shield their wealth from taxation, and otherwise engage in the normalized casino capitalism that has fueled the Great Recession and contributed to the ongoing pandemic crisis since early 2020. Manufacturing, retail, and other industries have moved investments and whole operations across the border to avoid, weaken, or break unions in their home countries, and to pursue more repressed and exploitable labor in other countries.
Meanwhile, vast profits are accrued across borders through these processes, and they are repatriated at the same time that these investors and companies work in league to keep wages low and oppose social policy reform, all the while extracting huge sums of public money in the myriad forms of government bailouts.
Concurrently, free and unfettered capital mobility explains how working-class populations are displaced and induced into out-migration in those countries whose economies become subordinated and even colonized by foreign investment as a result.
The labor, land, and natural resources across the border are rapaciously exploited for profit for shareholders, with little or no remuneration to the vast majority of the population in those countries. As the wealth generated flows into few hands and is expatriated from their local economies, capital/profit mobility amounts to a “negative” income from large segments of the poor and working-class population, who experience declining access to work and increased exploitation for less pay in their own country.
This can explain how global displacement and migration has increased exponentially in tandem with the implementation of free trade agreements. This system can work only if labor mobility is criminalized and workers are deprived of basic rights if they try to cross the border in search of work. Undocumented workers deprived of basic rights associated with citizenship provide another form of superexploitable labor.
The whole concept of the “free market” is thrown out of the window by the ideologues of capitalism when it comes to workers and their labor. The unequal power relationship embedded in FTAs—and the sharing out of the spoils among the ruling capitalist classes on both sides of the border—ensures compliance and continuity, even as this process produces one social and economic crisis after the next for most people on both sides of the border.
Analysts often distinguish between “economic migrants” and “refugees.” What is your take on this distinction?
In what I call the North American model of bordered capitalism, the distinctions between economic migrants and refugees have been diminished—especially as they have been overlapped by the militarization of the region under the aegis of the war on drugs. Instead of stopping drugs, the full-spectrum mobilization of war materials has instead created militarized borders and expanded armed enforcement agencies of the state into all aspects of society, agencies that persecute and regulate displaced peoples.
Along these lines, it has also engineered into existence a form of narco-capitalism through the growth and cartelization of drug and crime gangs (with further merging of cartels and syndicates into state and capitalist enterprise). Processes and transaction of economic displacement increasingly coincide and overlap with the targeting and victimization of communities caught in the crosshairs of the drug war or by corrupted agents of the state. It is not a coincidence that the big defense industries that profit from the war on drugs have shifted significant investment into the production of migration-enforcement technologies.
The U.S. state has never recognized or acknowledged displaced peoples as “economic migrants” in the era of FTAs, and most recently it has even revoked the right of asylum seekers fleeing for safety and shelter.
Going forward in 2022, what should people keep an eye out for?
Since the elections of 2018 of 2020, we have seen the Democratic Party co-opt and play and demobilize the mass social movements for immigrant rights by promising reform—only to then betray those promises once in office and continue to fund and support the criminalization and repression of migrants and refugees. For example, in the book I document how many congressional and presidential aspirants reflected the demands of protest movements and promised to “abolish ICE,” stop border wall expansion, close the detention centers, halt deportations, and legalize the undocumented. Now that they control the executive and legislative branches, where they have the power to enact their promises, they have changed their rhetoric and quietly walked back reform while maintaining and even increasing funding for the migrant-repressive agencies of the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2022 we will need to redouble our efforts to build protest movements and campaigns to close detention camps and oppose deportation, and we will need to work to get labor unions to step up and support and integrate undocumented workers and defend them from state repression. Our power to dismantle the apparatus of the migra-state, to pull the rug out from under the rising and emboldened Far Right, and to rebuild and unite a labor movement that supports and advances the cause for all working people, we cannot rely on the Democratic Party.
The fact that once in power both political parties subordinate the needs of most people to the interests of capital and the investor’s “right” to extract profits means we will need to sharpen our understanding of how the system actually works for the very few only—and build mobilization in the streets and workplaces to conduct and coordinate action on such a scale to force the whole political establishment to make concessions where they otherwise wouldn’t by their own choice.
Can you make the case, as you do in The Border Crossed Us, for opening the U.S.-Mexico border and explain why you think it would be a way forward?
The U.S.-Mexico border is already open for capital, for most people in the U.S., and for a significant population of Mexicans and others to the South who have money and power. In fact, the U.S.-Mexico border is the most crossed in the world, with less than 1 percent of crossings by displaced migrants and refugees that have been predetermined to be “illegal,” since they lack the means to cross legally. In the book, I go into detail about the contradictions of the border and how it has been constructed in the social imaginary as a zone of crime and conflict. This fuels the politics of anti-immigration and justifies the perpetual growth of ICE and the Border Patrol—and with it the terror and violence of enforcement.
As I document in the book, border enforcement represses and regulates labor power, which can be legally constructed as undocumented and noncitizen to lower the wage threshold inside the U.S. labor market. This phenomenon also coincides with the growth and expansion of transnational capitalism through FTAs, as the pursuit of greater profits leads investors to seek out and take advantage of the cheapest and most exploitable labor.
Despite the dominance of the political actors responsible for FTAs and border enforcement, and the entrenchment of policies that “normalize” transnational labor exploitation, changes at the molecular level produced by this restructuring of the capitalist system have produced unintended consequences.
In the book, I describe several cases in which workers within and across borders have become aligned in various ways. Workers are producing the same products across supply and production chains that crisscross the border; they increasingly work for the same transnational corporations and investment firms; and migrant worker networks have learned to coordinate support and action across borders in the same industries. In other words, sections of the working classes are being drawn together with an emerging consciousness of collective interest. This is creating the conditions for the recognition of common cause, opportunities for collective action, the recognition of the need for transborder unionization (real international unionization), and standing together to prevent capitalists from dividing them against each other in order to increase the exploitation of all.
While still in its formative stages, the North American model of capitalism is creating the conditions for the internationalization of class organization and struggle. This is already happening, and it has the potential to undermine the reason for and existence of the border wall, the vast and expanding enforcement regime that flows from it, and the whole exploitative system that it rests on.