On January 19, then Department of Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas was asked what he would do about the migrant caravan of mostly Hondurans headed for the US southern border. He responded that the United States would respect the law on asylum. According to Mayorkas, if people were found to qualify “under the law to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly. If they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won’t.”
About two weeks later, nearly 8,000 people crossed the border from Honduras into Guatemala. Some were heading to Mexico, but most wanted to seek safety in the US. Many of the people in the caravan reported that they were headed north in the devastating aftermath of two successive category four hurricanes that hit Honduras and Nicaragua in November 2020. Upon arrival to Guatemala, the caravan was almost immediately broken up by US-trained military and police that forced them, sometimes violently, from the highway.
Since 9/11 the US has made a concerted effort to extend its borders abroad by training police and military and transferring resources to other countries. For the last ten years, there has been a special emphasis on Central America, seeking to stop refugees from even getting close to the US border. If, however, the refugees manage to pass these militarized road blocks and reach the US border, only a fraction of them will be likely to receive protection.
The number of successful asylum cases in the US, even before Trump, was notoriously low. Nor is there as yet any climate-related status for those displaced by environmental devastation. As Mayorkas would imply soon after being ratified by the Senate, the people in the caravan were not going to qualify. Not qualifying meant they would be blocked at the US border.
Joe Biden has come to office suggesting that he will mark a bold new path on immigration. Within the first three weeks, he has issued 10 executive orders relating to immigration and border policies and a proposal for legislative reform. This includes strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, rescinding the “Muslim ban,” halting the construction of the border wall and a deportation moratorium. They are all a result of years of significant public pressure, particularly from immigrant rights organizations that also played a key role in turning the vote in critical states such as Arizona and Georgia.
But it also important to look at what he has not done. He has not committed to dismantling the existing wall, including the 650 miles and barriers that he had voted for in 2006. He has also pivoted, like many in the Democratic Party, to advocate for investing in technological forms of border control, saying: “I’m going to make sure that we have border protection, but it’s going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.” His policy platform says his administration would invest in better technology including “cameras, sensors, large-scale X-ray machines and fixed towers.”
He has show no sign of wanting to end the 1994 “Prevention through deterrence” strategy, adopted under a Clinton administration, that massively expanded the deployment walls, agents and technologies and is designed to force people to cross into the US through desolate, dangerous areas. It is a policy that has been deadly in impact, leading to 8,000 reported deaths between 1998 and 2019 and many more that are never recorded.
Biden has not expressed support for decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings in contrast to other Democratic rivals for the presidency. He has committed, though, to work in partnership with Canada and Mexico, which will “translate to greater security for all our countries.” In terms of Mexico, this means the continuation of the US border externalization programs that accelerated during the Obama administration.
As a result, people who head north from Central America will travel through the border and incarceration apparatus that extends from Guatemala through Mexico and the US, an apparatus developed and manufactured by a phalanx of powerful arms and security companies. Perhaps Northrop Grumman will help border officials track facial recognition data as it develops CBP’s newest biometric system. Maybe Lockheed Martin-manufactured P-3 Orion planes will track people moving along the coastlines. Perhaps Deloitte, from CBP’s National Tracking Center in Northern Virginia, will play a part in vetting people who attempt to fly to the United States. And, if they are arrested by the border guards, perhaps CoreCivic will incarcerate them as they face expulsion from the country.
In short, as TNI’s new report — Biden’s Border – The industry, the Democrats and the 2020 elections — details all these companies have a strong interest in ensuring that the United States continues to fortify its borders.
This corporate complex wields its influence in a number of ways, including campaign contributions to key politicians, presidential candidates and members of strategic legislative committees. Many of these companies have large lobbying budgets they can use to apply pressure during crucial debates on legislation concerning the US–Mexico border and immigration, including the appropriations process.
The report shows that 13 key border contractors gave more than $40 million during the 2020 electoral cycle to the two parties through individual donations and their Political Action Committees (PACs). Noticeably, the Democrats received more contributions overall from the big border contractors than the Republicans (55 percent versus 45 percent), despite Trump being renowned for his fierce advocacy of border militarization. It suggests an intention by the industry to prevent any roll-back of border policies that were worth an incredible $55.1 billion to border security corporations between 2008 and 2020.
So, while the Joe Biden administration seems committed to end Trump’s racist hostility toward non-citizens and asylum-seekers, there is little evidence as yet, that Biden will dismantle the country’s very violent, discriminatory and carceral foundations. Biden and the Democratic Party’s historical record and their ties to the border industry suggest that the corporate complex will continue to benefit from a profitable border and immigration system already in a long pattern of growth.
There is nothing to suggest that Biden has any intention to remove these corporations’ privileged place in Washington, or their access to powerful policy-makers and key committees — in fact, their representatives were in the DHS transition team, and DHS secretary Mayorkas has had direct relationships with some of them as a lawyer and consultant in the private sector. The incessant corporate lobbying on many fronts cultivates this fusion of government and business, as does the “revolving door” between private security corporations and DHS agencies. This nefarious circuit of power, profit and influence needs the fullest of reckonings.
It is critical to understand this. The bipartisan border industrial complex is a much bigger impediment to a humane response to immigration than Trump was — but it is also what helped create Trump. His rhetoric, and the conservative stance in general, on border and immigration enforcement, insist on the lack of bipartisan consensus about a “secure border.” In reality, the opposite is true. The centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 campaign was the construction of a border wall, which had already long existed. Effectively, Trump was more of a manifestation than a creator of a world of draconian immigration and border policies. He was then sustained by them, and ratcheted them up further. But it is mistaken to think that removing Donald Trump will bring an end to the horrors of the border and immigration.
Nevertheless, the political change in the 2020 elections — given the COVID-19 pandemic and the historic achievements of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and now the results of the election — offer a ripe moment for the Democrats, with the full power of the government, to examine and even change course on border and immigration issues. Given that the Democratic establishment has adopted an anti-wall posture for the last four years, there is an opening to change direction if movements and activists within and outside the Democrat Party are able to seize it.
Still, the obstacles are immense, especially as border and immigration budgets have grown by 6,000 percent since 1980. Corporate interests, which have hugely profited from an ever-expanding militarized border and repression, will not give up that lucrative market without a fight.
The constant push for more border walls, more technologies, more incarceration, more criminalization is in a holding pattern, stuck in a corporate dynamic with a doctrine of constant growth. It is time to expose the contractors, lobbyists, campaign contributions, influence on policy-makers, and ultimately the profits made by the border industrial complex. The “business as usual” border regime will inflict acute suffering on millions of human beings. Just as tobacco firms have finally been removed from forums on health, and oil corporations from forums on the environment — albeit after decades of campaigning on these issues — arms and security corporations should no longer play a part in forums and policy-making bodies on migration issues.
Some Democrats have shown a willingness to refuse corporate funds from sectors such as fossil fuels in response to pressure from the climate justice movement or from police unions because of pressure from Black Lives Matter. A concerted effort by Democrats to break with the arms and security industry could go a long way to changing policy in Washington — 2021 is the time to do it.