‘Borderlines: The Edges of US Capitalism, Immigration, and Democracy’ by Daniel Melo reviewed by Conrad Hamilton

Reviewed by Conrad Hamilton

About the reviewer

Conrad Hamilton is a PhD graduate from University of Paris 8. He works on the relation between …

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Once, the world was haunted by the spectre of communism. But since the détournement of Maoism in Dengist China, and the spectacular collapse of the USSR, things have changed. Today big capital penetrates into the pores of virtually every inlet on the planet. In the West this has led to the extensive outsourcing of jobs – as well as the devaluation of labour, with wide job availabilities only persisting in low-paying fields that can neither be cheaply automated nor exported abroad.

In this context the foreigner plays a paradoxical dual role. On one hand, their spectre – brutish, job-grubbing, possibly fanatical – is used as a scapegoat for the actions of capital, both within and without the West. Can’t get a job? It’s the foreigner who took it! Job doesn’t exist? It’s still the foreigner who took it! On the other, migrants are still needed by capitalists. For it’s their presence that partly keeps the value of labour as low as it is.

Today, then, we’re haunted by the spectre of the immigrant. It’s this apparition which Daniel Melo attempts to map in his new book, Borderlines: The Edges of U.S. Capitalism, Immigration, and Democracy. As the titles implies, the basic goal of the book is to relate pressing questions of U.S. immigration policy to capitalism – and in particular to the ‘hidden abode of production’ explored by Marx. This not an easy task. Marx wrote little on immigration; when he did, he concluded that immigrants – specifically, the Irish – would drive down English wages pending a revolution in their country. As few progressive revolutions seem to be in the making, Melo is thus forced to balance precariously between acknowledging the utility of migrants to capital and eschewing the sort of anti-immigration sentiments expressed by dissident Marxists like Angela Nagle.

Borderlines is, appropriately, straddled by its own border. The first half deals with the relationship between migration and the reproduction of capitalism. The second deals with the way state power demarcates, often arbitrarily, between ‘citizen’ and ‘migrant.’ Both of these are influenced by Marx’s critique of political economy. The latter part’s focus on the enforcement of immigration law however sees Melo pivoting towards another influence: Giorgio Agamben – and in particular, his conception of sovereign power as necessitating the reduction of individuals to ‘bare life’; or as Melo puts it: ‘beings who we recognize as living, but who are devoid of any rights, any access to a true democratic voice, stripped of a life worth living.’ (50)

The foreboding title of book’s foremost chapter – ‘An Introduction to Efficient Dehumanization’– hints at what’s to come. It also redoubles as an introduction to efficient literary stylisation, with Melo – an attorney with experience in immigration law – debuting a format he repeats throughout: basically starting with a harrowing account of someone trapped in the pincers of the U.S. immigration system, then building an argument atop it. The inaugural anecdote is that of ‘Sara,’ a former client of Melo’s who, after suffering abuse at the hands of her husband, narrowly won her asylum case after a ‘withering cross-examination’ in which she recounted the brutal acts she suffered ‘in minute detail’ (1). As it turns out, she would be one of the last women to benefit from this act of judicial generosity. For a year later, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions tossed out the precedential case that allowed women such as Sara to obtain asylum. Melo’s question then is a straightforward one: ‘Why is the system like this? Why would a judge cross-examine an abused woman for hours about her torment? Why would protection be here today and gone tomorrow?’ (2)

The answer is an uncomfortable one. The United States was founded, as is well-known, upon immigration. But as Melo points out, the need to render capital subservient to labour in a nation comprised largely of unsettled territory meant that these migrants were often systemically deprived of equal recognition. The horrors of slavery are, of course, widely remarked upon. Less remarked upon is that of the 600,000 Europeans who came to the colonies from 1650 to 1780, the majority were classified as ‘imported white servants’ with a legal standing equivalent to slaves (only in 1790 were all ‘free white persons’ permitted the right to naturalise); or that of the 2 million ‘Mexicans’ deported in the early twentieth century from the U.S. during the establishment of its ‘prison-industrial complex,’ (12) 1.2 million of which were in fact U.S. citizens. What this points to is, as Kenan Malik points out, is the fact that race is a product of ‘class antagonism and inequality’ (18) – the classification of Mexicans as ‘non-white,’ for instance, issues from the deprivation of their land after the Mexican-American War, as well as the need of agricultural contractors to maintain a supply of cheap labour (which is not to say skin colour plays no role in this social designation).

The fact that the abuses of the immigration system spring not from simple malevolence but from the exigencies of capitalism helps explain why they persist. Over the past several decades, the politics of immigration have increasingly become codified in post-racial language, with legislation that singles out particular ethnicities being jettisoned. But as the passage of the PATRIOT Act in 2002 and the kicking off of the reign of terror of ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) suggest, this period has hardly been a heyday for the primarily black and brown people from abroad seeking to live and work in the U.S. In the present as in the past, the causes must be sought in the economy. American Agribusiness, while unambiguously dependent on undocumented migrant labour, has consistently opposed legislation that would create a naturalised workforce. This might have something to do with the cost: an increase in wages of ‘40 percent or more’ (26) (‘or more,’ it would seem, because naturalised workers would be able to organise themselves without fearing deportation). Nor is egregious exploitation of this sort confined to low-skill sectors. Companies that use the H-1B ‘non-immigrant’ visas to import STEM workers often pay them – there’s that number again – 40 percent less than the average wage for their fields. This results in bizarre situations wherein a company like Microsoft will lobby for the expansion of the H-1B program to fill labour shortages – all the while simultaneously laying off thousands of workers.

That immigrant labour forms the backbone of several key American industries, and that naturalisation remains elusive even for those who’ve resided in the U.S. for years, suggests that the distinction between ‘immigrant’ and ‘citizen’ is often nebulous. It’s for this reason that in the second half of Borderlines, Melo turns his attention to the cruelly arbitrary way this division is reproduced. Illegal Mexican border crossings, Melo notes, declined after 2007-08 due to the widespread unemployment caused by the Great Recession. Paradoxically however these economic setbacks only strengthened the scapegoating of immigrants, so that by 2012 a migrant was ten times more likely to be killed than one crossing ten years before. This non sequitur use of excessive force is depressingly characteristic. The infamy of ICE owes in large part to their collapsing of the difference between terrorism and illegal migration, so that high-grade military equipment is used to track the cell phone calls of ‘illegals’ who’ve never even committed a minor offence. A similar indiscrimination is apparent in the way they often target those who’ve taken tangible steps to sort out their naturalisation status. Waiting for a u-visa to assist in a criminal prosecution against a neighbor who raped you? ICE doesn’t care: the moment you provide your personal information to any branch of the U.S. government, you’re game for deportation (a fate that befell many of those duped into Obama’s DACA Act after it was cancelled by the Trump administration).

Given the dehumanisation of illegal migrants, one might be forgiven for asking why they don’t just do things the ‘right way.’ Why don’t they just wait their turn, like everyone else? But as Melo points out, the notion of the U.S. as a nation that’s accessible to foreigners provided they take the right steps amounts to a ‘pervasive myth.’ (78) Those seeking to enter the U.S. legally are bottlenecked into one of three categories – ‘employment,’ ‘family’ or ‘humanitarian relief.’ (79) Employers aren’t seriously interested in sponsoring green cards due to the costs it incurs as well as the very nature of their use of it, which involves the exploitation of precarious labour that would cease being precarious were it naturalised. In 2014, for instance, the two largest H-1B recipients ‘sponsored 0 and 1 percent of their workers’ (30) respectively. Family sponsorship is hardly easier. ‘Spouses, parents, and minor children of US citizens’ can be naturalised in a timely fashion. But the sponsorship of family members who fall outside these narrow confines is near-impossible, with the average ‘wait for a visa for a Mexican sibling’ being ‘now over 20 years.’ (79) And if you’re seeking asylum, you’d better hope you come from a communist country that the U.S. has a vested interest in making look bad.

Melo’s thesis in Borderlines is a strong one: that the U.S. isn’t interested in expelling or integrating migrant labourers. For either course of action would deprive capitalists of the substantial gains associable with a commanding a large, disempowered labour force. According to one estimate cited in the book, a potential GDP ‘drop of 1.6 trillion over 20 years’ (88) would be the outcome were mass deportations resorted to. Yet Melo gets tangled up when he attempts to produce a positive solution to this impasse. Efforts to reform the U.S. immigration system, Melo notes, have failed decisively. Given the way that the exclusion of migrants seems to be an inexorable feature of the nation-state system, how does one get beyond it? Do they resort to Marx, who eschewed writing recipes for the ‘cook-shops of the future’ even as he deployed the proletariat as a deus ex machina requisite to reach it? Or do they resort to Agamben, whose account of history as the scheming of sovereigns doesn’t even permit the proletariat to pass to heaven through the eye of a pinhole? Crucial questions could be posed here, such as how the proletariat can organise in solidarity with migrants under post-Fordist capitalism. Or how, in light of his moronic conspiracy-mongering over COVID, Agamben’s work can be rethought so as to lend itself to what Panagiotis Sotiris has termed a ‘biopolitics from below.’ (Sotiris 2020) But Melo eschews these intellectually steep paths, opting for a more legalistic approach. What we need, he tells us, is to pursue Rainer Forst’s notion of the ‘right to justification,’ according to which ‘each person may not demand for herself what she denies to others.’ (97) On this basis, inequality between citizens and immigrants would have to be abolished because the ‘dividing line’ between them is ‘neither reciprocal nor general—those that are born “into” citizenship have no more earned their place than those born outside of it.’ (98) Wait—run that one by again. So Americans should recognise the right of people over the world to enjoy their standard of living because they didn’t earn it? How would that work? If the line separating Americans from non-Americans was abolished, the immediate result would be a tremendous depreciation in the value of the labour-power of the former. So if we presuppose anything resembling the continuance of existing social relations, there’s no reason to pursue it – it’s not a programme for a real movement, but an abstract ideal. But then it’s not clear realism is what Forst is going for. As he states, realistic ‘does not mean within the reach of practical politics; rather, it means in touch with reality.’ (106) Ignored by this is that reality isn’t just a tidy truism. It’s a product of practical politics. If this is the best pro-immigrant Marxists like Melo can muster, expect the anti side to be on the ascent in the coming years.

There’s another serious issue with Borderlines. As any punctilious reviewer knows the phrase ‘whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun’ can be easily reformatted as a guideline for their vocation: whenever one hears the cyclic repetition of the word ‘injustice,’ reach for Google. True to form, Melo’s righteous polemic is, basic veracity aside, a little slack with the facts. Just as Obama promoted immigration reform, the author breathlessly informs us, ‘his administration deported 2.5 million—more people than the sum deported by all of the twentieth century’s presidents.’ (93) This would be a shocking statistic if it were true. Unsurprisingly, it’s not. Under the Obama administration, the turning away of would-be migrants at the border was reclassified, so that these cases could be lumped in with the removing of individuals with a court order. Given that this shift in tallying was implemented strategically, so as to burnish Obama’s image as the ‘deporter in chief,’ it’s ironic that Melo would uncritically echo it as a criticism in a book that purports to offer up the unvarnished truth of the U.S. immigration system. Similarly, in the thirteenth chapter, Melo argues for integration on the grounds that ‘the number of Muslim-Americans who believe that society should accept homosexuality has doubled from 27 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2017,’ essentially closing the gap ‘between them and the rest of the US population.’ (104) Unmentioned by Melo here is that the Pew survey he cites shows an eleven point gap between American Muslims and the general population, 63 percent of whom support the acceptance of homosexuality – not a small difference statistically. Of course, you know how it goes: if one or two of these embellishments can be found, more surely exist. And this is not to discuss the points in the book where Melo’s argumentation is woefully inadequate, such as when he acknowledges the complexity of debates surrounding the causes of terrorism but then glibly explains it away as a consequence of relative deprivation in the following paragraph.

Moments such as these may push the reader’s patience over the borderline. But to fault Melo for too much for his periodic lapses into facility would be to belie the basic strength of the book. At 144 pages including prelims and endnotes, Borderlines is practically a précis. As such it’s remarkably efficient, compressing a highly readable Marxian account of the structure and genesis of U.S. immigration policy into that space, and still finding time to get confused about how to fix it. ‘The foreigner,’ wrote famed Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt in 1934, always ‘wants to have the timetable in order to know when and where he can get on and get off.’ (Schmitt 2013: 135-136) One imagines Borderlines will prove useful for those foreign to its subject, particularly if they want a timetable for when they can get off.

24 August 2021

References

  • Schmitt, Carl 2013 National Socialist Legal Thought The Third Reich Sourcebook Anson Rabinbach and Sander L. Gilman (eds.), Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Sotiris, Panagiotis 2020 Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible? Critical Legal Thinking 14 March https://criticallegalthinking.com/2020/03/14/against-agamben-is-a-democratic-biopolitics-possible

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