The long-expected announcement, by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, of the end of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA, popularly known as the “Dreamers” program) sees Donald Trump delivering on an election pledge, sort of. No new applications will be accepted from young people who were brought to the country illegally before they reached age 16 for what is a temporary right to live and work or study in the United States legally. But congress has been given six months to come up with legislation that would allow the legal status of those currently benefiting from the program to be extended after their current permissions to stay begin to expire in March 2018. Obama introduced DACA by executive order precisely because the congress refused to pass his “Dream Act” into law.
This time round some leading Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have spoken against ending the program, so the outcome could be different. Trump himself has made statements that some interpret as a sign that even he finds it morally difficult to contemplate expelling people who were brought to the USA as minors by their parents. But I suspect that the unpopularity of the measure has more to do with it and that Trump’s big ego exercises a more powerful influence over what he says than his claims to have a “big heart”. Even some of his core supporters, a minority of Americans, express little enthusiasm for making the lives of these young people even more insecure than they were before, let alone “sending them back” to a country that most of them have never really known as “home”. Nevertheless, the hard core of this constituency is the only group now willing to make the kind of public display that gratifies Trump’s increasingly frustrated desire to be “popular”.
It also now appears that Homeland Security will accept applications for renewal of existing work permits, so the crunch for existing DACA beneficiaries may be delayed longer even if congress does not act. This makes the situation look even more like a fudge on the president’s part. He needed to do something, because his administration faced legal challenges from Republican states, led by Texas, over Obama’s circumvention of congress by using executive orders to create amnesty programs. They gave Trump a deadline of September 5. But he now faces legal challenges from the attorney generals of New York, Washington, DC, and fifteen states, with California expected to join the action soon. Since DACA was never declared unlawful by a court, it is difficult to see how Sessions’s use of unlawfulness as a pretext for ending the program could be lawful. Although some “dreamers” come from Central and South American countries, and South Korea and the Philippines, the overwhelming majority, over 600,000 are Mexican. So this adds another complication to US-Mexico relations.
As things stand, the existing “Dreamers” may be saved in the end. But that misses the point. Their undocumented parents are not safe and other undocumented immigrants will continue to be subject to the intensified campaign of removal that Trump’s earlier executive orders have legitimised. Even leaving aside issues such as the need to shackle deportees, especially older women, and conditions inside detention centres, that campaign has not been a credit to a country that justifies the removal of “illegal aliens” on the principle that the domestic rule of law is paramount. Trump’s own lack of respect for both the rule of law and fundamental international human rights principles could hardly have been more brazenly demonstrated than by his pardoning of Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio.
Since Charlottesville, the weight of evidence that Trump is at heart a racist seems overwhelming, and as many people have pointed out, this was in fact manifest from the beginnings of his career in property development. Those who see him as too psychologically unstable to be fit to govern the world’s most militarily powerful nation probably have a point as well. But the real question is what focusing on the figure of the president himself obscures.
Obama’s own fudge with the “dreamers” program should not distract our attention from his own administration’s dedication to deporting Latinos and breaking up families. The former president’s blackness and personal protests after the fact should not distract us from the routine nature of police killing of poor Afro-Americans and Latinos during his two terms of office. Nor should Obama’s relative reluctance to put “boots on the ground” distract us from the drone killings that became the new normal of US operations in sensitive parts of the world, operations that now have a very long history of making the world a more dangerous place for all of us and of inflicting untold pain, suffering and death on the countries and peoples that they immediately affected. Even without looking at the evolution of patterns of poverty and social inequality in the United States, these facts alone tell us that there are systemic issues deeper than the question of who gets to occupy the White House.
It would not, of course, be appropriate for a British commentator to criticise the inhumanity of US deportation programs without recognising that the United Kingdom’s track record is hardly anything to be proud of. The repeated abuse that vulnerable people who have committed no crime have suffered at the hands of agents of G4S reflects more general problems in the transnational private security sector. The industry behind border surveillance technologies and administration of detention centres has become a powerful political lobby in Europe as well as the United States. What politicians add to problems that arise from the private sector’s giving priority to profit maximisation and cost cutting over providing more appropriate forms of “care” to those placed in their charge is an environment that promotes cruel and inhumane attitudes within state agencies themselves. These are just as visible in the British Home Office and consular offices as they are in ICE and Homeland Security in the United States. In this sense, the peculiar, and many would argue irrational, obsessions of a Theresa May or Donald Trump over questions of immigration perhaps does make a difference, but they are scarcely the only actors responsible for encouraging their citizens to misrecognise immigration as the cause of their insecurities and economic problems, whilst deflecting public attention from the way that their own countries’ global economic and geo-political strategies lie at the heart of the movement of people from the global South to the global North.
The global role of the United States since the Roosevelt era has not exactly been that of a “shining city on the hill”. The fact that Trump’s actions have provoked continuous appeals to the justice system as well as the mobilisation of large numbers of ordinary citizens who find their present government repugnant does indicate that the rule of law is not an irrelevance and that a critical public culture still flourishes within the framework of American democracy. That Trump finds it necessary to attack both judges and mainstream newspapers like the New York Times reinforces that point. Yet the question of who really rules in the United States remains as central today as it did in the time of C. Wright Mills and other critical social scientists who accepted the desirability of liberal democracy but tried to look behind the veil. In today’s ever more unequal United States, it seems harder to be optimistic about really changing things than ever (and getting rid of Trump by impeachment would have virtually zero significance with Mike Pence stepping up to the plate).
From the perspective of Latin American politics, it is probably more instructive to look at the Pentagon’s current maps of “security challenges” in the region and at the role of the conservative foundations and think tanks, whose active promotion of right-wing politics south of the Rio Grande is ever more apparent. Federal tax dollars do assist the work of these “non-governmental” organisations and networks, and they are, of course, also significant in driving right-wing politics within the United States itself. But the effectiveness of US soft power and US participation in the militarisation of security by Latin American governments also gains considerable support from the eagerness of the region’s own elites and oligarchies to collaborate.
This is particularly apparent in the case of the current government of Mexico. Despite Trump’s provocations, the Peña Nieto administration remains almost completely supine. Mexican citizens in the United States living under the shadow of deportation do not have a great deal to look forward to in their putative homeland because most Mexicans already there do not have a great many reasons to be cheerful. There is one sector, electronic call centres, in which the language skills of younger people brought up in the United States are an asset, but existing programs for the repatriated hardly begin to offer opportunities equal to those available in the north. Undocumented migrants in the United States have always had some anxieties, and young people who returned to Mexico with parents who wanted to retire to the nice house that they had built in their original home town always had difficulties adapting (many simply went back). But the current situation is far worse in terms of the impact of the threat of deportation on everyday life and the now very large numbers of families that have been split up because of the deportation of parents.
The “Dreamers” are now in limbo (unless the courts overturn Trump’s decision) but there is a much bigger problem here. The United States cannot make itself a country of white folk. Its slave past and annexation of half of independent Mexico’s national territory guarantee that. What it could do is end the systematic, structured discrimination embedded in the life-chance annihilating mass incarceration of poorer Afro-Americans and Latinos and a range of conditions that make many Latinos who are US citizens or legal immigrants feel second class. An alternative would be for Mexico to re-join “Latin” America and for the whole south to create societies into which people might be eager to immigrate rather than societies from which people want to emigrate. Brazil did that, for a time, but now the pattern is one of moving back towards emigration. The USA itself has a significant share of the responsibility for all this. Door closing on immigration might have some impact on political situations in the south, but it remains to be seen whether any of these will be positive.
Trump’s accession to power makes what is structurally wrong with American society more visible than ever, and that exposes the thinness of the alternatives offered by the Democrats and “liberal establishment” forces that his campaign defeated. Efforts by citizens and some politicians to push in the opposite direction are particularly admirable in a climate of mounting authoritarianism, but the magnitude of the task of transforming the underlying structures of social and political power of this declining empire seems more daunting than ever.