As I have maintained (see “Trump on immigration” 2/22/2017), the Left makes a strategic error in defending the rights of immigrants in a form that explicitly or implicitly advocates non-enforcement of immigration laws. Instead, the Left should make specific proposals for more just immigration laws, and it should make clear its commitment to a legal, controlled, and orderly process of international migration, developed and enforced through the cooperation of various nations.
Some have defended the rights of immigrants by noting that the United States has a history of openly receiving immigrants, and that departing from this tradition violates American values. Such an argument, however, ignores fundamental aspects of the history and contemporary reality of the United States and the world-system. Yes, it is the case that following a period of colonization and settlement by people from England, the British Isles, and Northwestern Europe, there occurred, during the period 1865 to 1914, open and legal mass migrations to the United States from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe. However, we should understand the context of these migrations. During that period, the world-economy was expanding, as a result of the peripheralization of vast regions of Asia and Africa; and the United States was ascending, as a result of rapid industrialization, utilizing capital that had been accumulated through trade with the slave region of the Caribbean and the U.S. South. The United States needed workers for its rapidly expanding industrial economy, and it therefore had an open immigration policy.
But the situation today is entirely different. There is a significant illegal international migration, and it is provoked not by the expansion of the economies of the North, but by the collapse of economic and social structures in peripheral and semi-peripheral regions of the world-economy. That such a collapse would occur is entirely predictable, if one understands the structures of the neocolonial world-system, which deepen underdevelopment and poverty in the peripheral and semi-peripheral zones.
In looking at the history of immigration in the United States, we should be aware that the immigration of 1865 to 1914, even though it was a legal and economically necessary migration, provoked hostility from native-born U.S. citizens, because of the ethnic and religious makeup of the immigrants. Such hostility gave rise to a nativist movement and to a curbing of immigration in the 1920s as well as to cultural pressures for the “Americanization” of the immigrants. If in a favorable economic context, a legal migration provoked hostility among a sector of the people, certainly it would be expected that, in today’s uncertain times, an illegal immigration would become a politically exploitable issue. So the issue has to be intelligently addressed by the Left.
A narrative of the Left ought to explain the sources of the uncontrolled international migration in the structures of the neocolonial world-system. And it ought to explain that international migration would be reduced by the transformation of neocolonial structures and the development of a just and sustainable world-system, which among other things, would respect the right of all nations to economic and social development and the right of all persons to have the possibility to earn a decent standard of living in their native lands. To this end, the narrative of the Left should include proposals for North-South cooperation, in which the governments of the North cooperate with the governments and movements of the Third World in developing mutually beneficial trade and in promoting the economic and social development of the Third World.
The Left, however, does not explain to the people the source of the problem of uncontrolled international migration, and even less does it offer a solution. It does not propose a comprehensive project of North-South economic and social cooperation, so that the problem of uncontrolled international migration could be attacked at its source, which would include cooperation among governments to ensure a legal, controlled, orderly and safe process of international migration. The Left acts as though the problem is simply xenophobia, rather than an international situation that is out of control on many levels, with elites behaving in interested and irresponsible ways, all of which is sensed by the people.
In his address to the Congress on February 28, Trump declared that “it is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.” In this declaration he was correct. There is an historic tendency in the Left to indulge in extreme and reckless proposals, with disdain for laws and structures of authority in any form, even those that are legitimate and necessary for social order. But if we observe revolutionary processes in Russia and in the nations and colonies of Asia, Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean for the last 225 years, we see that revolutions involve the taking of power by leaders who have the backing of the people, and that the leaders do not obtain popular support through irresponsible and reckless proposals or behavior. Far from being revolutionary, reckless proposals and behavior are examples of infantile Left-wing radicalism, which Lenin condemned as a significant threat to revolutionary processes (see “The infantile disorder of the Left” 12/19/2016). The Left must recognize that uncontrolled international migration is a social problem that reflects social disorder and insecurity in the migrants’ countries of origin, and it implies a level of social disorder and insecurity in the countries where the migrants arrive, provoking popular concerns in said countries. The Left must intelligently analyze the problem of uncontrolled international migration, and it must formulate politically intelligent proposals that defend the rights of the migrants and that also attend to the social disorder that is both source and consequence of the international migration that exists in the world today.
In defending the rights of the immigrants, the Left is morally right. But its response is politically and analytically weak, not informed by an historical and global analysis that would be the basis for proposed solutions that address the fears and concerns of the people. In contrast to the Left, Trump appears to be acting decisively against the government bureaucracy and in defense of the concerns of the people. On the issue of immigration, the Left has the moral advantage, but Trump has the political upper hand. On this as in other issues, the Left has to reconstruct its formulation.