• Rania Khalek

What’s behind the nightmare at the border? A bipartisan crisis of imperialism decades in the making

Trump’s not president anymore, yet the horrors at the border continue. Migrant children are still being rounded up and placed in detention. Families are still being separated. And people are still being deported by the thousands. But most liberals have gone back to brunch.

Yes, the cruelty at the border reached new heights under Trump. But now that he’s out of office, too many people are looking away out of partisan interests and the media isn’t giving you the full story.

How did this happen? Why are people picking up and leaving their countries? Why are they being subjected to so much cruelty on their journey no matter which party is in charge? And why so much effort to obfuscate?

There are three root causes of the border nightmare that the media refuses to touch.

First is US imperialism causing people to flee in the first place. Second, the militarized border apparatus is cruel by design to deter people from coming to the US. And third, both parties are responsible -- it’s completely bipartisan, all to make a profit for ruling elites. AND it’s destabilizing the US, making it more right-wing.


Upon being appointed border czar, Vice President Kamala Harris said we “must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek, as the president has described, to come here.”

But our leaders aren’t really addressing the root causes. Otherwise, they’d be rushing to undo decades of interventionist foreign policy in the global south—right-wing coups and the imposition of a neoliberal economic order that steals resources and destabilizes and destroys, all for the profit of a parasitic capitalist elite in the global north. Add to that climate change, to which the US and its allies in the global north have disproportionately contributed, and it’s no wonder people are desperate to escape.

From the way US officials talk about Latin America, you’d think that most migrants were fleeing the countries we demonize and sanction, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

But the majority of migrants at the border are fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti. What do these countries have in common? They all have right-wing neoliberal governments propped up by the US.

They’ve been subjected to US-backed coups, flooded with US weapons and training to militarize their police, endured decades of the US arming fascists to stamp out leftist movements that threaten US interests, have had their resources stolen and been forced to implement a neoliberal economic model through US-controlled financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In other words, they’ve all been destabilized by US imperialism.

According to Roberto Lovato, author of “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas,” the real problem is “US style capitalism that propped up military dictatorships, fascist military dictatorships, that instituted neoliberal policies to enrich US companies and other foreign companies, that has used the militaries of Central America to protect their interests to the point of killing 150,000-200,000 people in Guatemala, mostly indigenous people during the war there in the eighties and before and 80,000 in El Salvador, that has put up military bases in Honduras.”

Lovato told Breakthrough News, “Then you have El Salvador where you have a neo-fascist president of Nayib Bukele. And, you know, the US spends more time talking about, say Venezuela or something, rather than talking about, El Salvador or Honduras or Haiti where, you know, the Clinton legacy lives.”

Haiti has endured several bipartisan US coups all to ensure the country remains weak, poor, and ideal for sweatshops that serve US and Canadian corporations.

The same goes for Honduras, where a US-backed military coup in 2009 deposed democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Today, its US-allied right-wing leader, Juan Orlando Hernandez, is implicated in narco-trafficking while the US nods along in silence.

These are the sorts of leaders the US is trying to impose on Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua though violent regime change schemes backed up by loads of propaganda, an irony that wasn’t lost on Lovato.

“They're trying to make Venezuela to be this narco state. It's not, you know -- if you look at a map of Mexico, in terms of mass grave sites, it's littered with thousands and El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. You look at Venezuela, zero...it seems like the US backed governments are the ones that create the mass graves,” he explained.

It’s this destruction and violence created by US policies that people are fleeing. Both parties enforce it and then our leaders throw up their hands when people show up at the border desperate for safety, and the media papers over the root causes.

“And so you have this pattern that’s erased when you center the story of immigration on immigrants and on the border,” argued Lovato. “It's like the same pattern you see when the issues of poverty are put on the backs of black women and welfare. Bill Clinton did a lot for that. It wasn't just racist Republicans. It was Bill Clinton. So you have this kind of imperial gaze, extending outward and rippling outward into the rest of the continent.”


No one in a position of power ever mentions this, and certainly Democratic leaders don’t, given their party’s complicity, and sometimes leadership, in laying the groundwork for this system of cruelty.

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“It is a force that transcends both parties,” explains Lovato. “So you want to understand immigration policy in the US, you would do well to turn off MSNBC and Fox because you’re not going to get anywhere. The people in the United States are being played by these, not just these Republican and Democratic parties, but by the media extensions of those parties that have reached a level of absolute propaganda on the issue of immigration.”

“The liberal media is invested in creating this artificial wedge between Trump, fascism and Obama, and now Biden. When in fact, if you look at it at the level of the laws that are consistently maintained then you see the workings of a continuum, it’s bipartisan,” he added.

Democrats aren’t given nearly enough credit for their role in this crisis. Mass militarized immigration detection and detention didn’t even exist in the US until immigration reform under Bill Clinton.

Todd Miller, journalist and author of “Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border Around the World” has documented it. “A good suggestion for anyone watching this is to go to the 1995 State of the Union and look up Bill Clinton, immigration. And it sounds like something Trump would say, really,” he told Breakthrough News.

Indeed Bill Clinton in his 1995 State of the Union address bragged, “our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.”

Miller explained, “to understand what the border is now, it's really essential to understand what Clinton did in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Safeguard, Operation Hold the Line,” referring to the many euphemisms for immigration enforcement and criminalization programs launched during his reign.

Clinton’s infamous immigration reform criminalized illegal border crossings, laying the foundation for the enforcement-incarceration-deportation machine. And it was under Bill Clinton that the US began building a massive border wall with rusty Vietnam-era landing mats that had been used during the 1991 war on Iraq, all in response to anticipated economic displacement of Mexicans following NAFTA, which paradoxically lifted barriers to trade while erecting barriers for the movement of people.

It only expanded from there under Bush and Obama into a system that became more and more draconian, with the border and immigration enforcement budget ballooning from $1.5 billion in 1993 to over $20 billion today.

Then came 9/11 under President George W. Bush, which was a windfall for border militarization. There was the Secure Fence Act, a project to construct hundreds of miles of walls and barrier technology and what they call the virtual wall, all of which continued under the next administration.

“It's like the Democrats pass the baton to the Republicans and you see the bipartisan nature,” Miller observed.

The greatest expansion of border militarization happened under Obama, something he took pride in. In typical Democratic Party fashion, he would often portray his administration’s policies as tougher than those of his Republican counterparts. “We put more border patrol on than anytime in history,” Obama boasted during a 2012 presidential debate.

There’s a reason immigrant rights groups in the US labeled him the “deporter-in-chief.”

The Obama administration expanded detention and prosecution of border crossings to unprecedented levels, separated families – yeah, he did that – and deported more people than any other president in history, possibly more than all other presidents combined. At the time, the Democrats were largely silent because it was their side doing it.

There was barely a peep of outrage as team Obama deported two and a half million people, including tens of thousands of parents of US-born children, who were needlessly separated from their parents indefinitely and turned into orphans.

The expansion of Secure Communities, an immigration enforcement program launched by George W. Bush, was dramatically expanded under Obama and led to tens of thousands of deportations, supposedly of people who had committed crimes. Obama insisted this was meant to deport “gangbangers.”

“If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community -- not after students. Not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families,” Obama said of his policies.

But the overwhelming majority, some two-thirds of the more than 2 million people deported by 2014, had only committed minor infractions, like traffic violations.

The harsh immigration enforcement measures during the Obama years traumatized children, not gangbangers, and created a climate of fear in immigrant communities, even in places where they were supposed to feel safe. They were subjected to ICE raids in their homes and on their way to school.

These practices coincided with the rapid growth of the immigration detention system, heavy militarization of the border fence, and unprecedented growth of the border patrol.

This included the use of private for-profit immigration prisons that cashed in on warehousing fathers, mothers, and children awaiting deportation proceedings in intentionally torturous conditions.

The detention facilities that flourished under Obama were rife with sexual abuse and lack of adequate medical facilities.

Just two years into Obama’s presidency, there were 30,000 documented cases of rape, sexual abuse, beating, and other abuses perpetrated against child and adult migrants in these facilities.

In 2011 alone there were an estimated 5,100 children separated from their families.

Not only were children separated from parents, some were adopted by American families and their biological parents were deported and denied any claims to their own children.

Then there was the incident where the Obama administration sent a US Air Force plane to broadcast a warning to Haitians not to come to the US after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. The warning blared, "If you do that, we'll all have even worse problems. Because, I'll be honest with you: If you think you will reach the US and all the doors will be wide open to you, that's not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”

So the US meddles in your country, launches coups so they can keep the minimum wage down, and forces you into a sweatshop economy and then when a natural disaster destroys the little bit of infrastructure that your neoliberal dictatorship allowed, they warn you not to escape, or else. How very...American.

The horrors during the Obama years seemed to reach their peak in 2014 when thousands of unaccompanied Central American children were apprehended crossing into the US and placed in detention.

Some of those children were then handed over to human traffickers where they were sexually abused, starved, or forced into slave labor.

The treatment of migrants under Trump was even more depraved for sure, but he shared the same policy goal as his predecessors and his successor: to discourage people from crossing the border. It’s deterrence through cruelty. More on that in a bit.

“And so by the time Trump gets into office, it's, it's, there's a $20 billion budget. He's got all this stuff, he's got every single possible thing at his disposal [so] that he could do all that he did in the last four years. It was all there,” said Todd Miller. “He had a border patrol that was 21,000 armed agents. He had all these walls already. It's so much technology...He could separate families.”

During the Trump administration, as babies were being ripped from the arms of their parents, suddenly Democratic leadership forgot their contribution to the ensuing nightmare. Hillary Clinton, for example, lamented that “every human being with a sense of compassion and decency, should be outraged.”

This compassion and decency was completely absent in 2014 when Clinton advocated for the deportation of tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American kids who sought asylum in the US. Back then, when her party was in charge, she argued, “We have to send a clear message, just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay.”

Some of those children were sent back and murdered as a result.

Clinton’s hypocrisy was not lost on former congressional candidate Sema Hernandez. “This concept of ‘we’ll just send them back home,’ which is something that Hillary Clinton said, ‘we’re gonna send the kids back home.’ What home do you send them back to? What home do you send them back to when the United States backed a coup that destabilized their country and placed economic sanctions on them? We don’t talk about that,” Hernandez told Breakthrough News.

In fact, one third of the children Clinton wanted to send back were fleeing Honduras, where she had helped legitimize the 2009 coup as Obama’s secretary of state, plunging Honduras into record-setting violence that sent those children fleeing for their lives in the first place.

And under Biden it’s continuing in the same nightmarish direction, but the partisan liberal outrage is gone, even as Biden, like Obama before him, reminds Haitians, who are currently protesting their leader, a US-backed dictator, not to come to the US.

Sema Hernandez contextualized these bipartisan policies, arguing, “This didn’t just happen under Trump. This happened under Bush, under Bush, under Clinton, under Obama, under Trump, and perpetuated again under Biden. And Biden was a key person in perpetuating these wars because he was in office for 47 years before he took a break and ran for president.”

“Biden and the people he has appointed have a history in actually meddling in other countries and backing the coups that ended up killing a lot of the indigenous leaders there like Berta Caceras. She was killed by a US military coup,” Heranandez added.

During Trump’s presidency, Rachel Maddow famously cried over children being separated from their parents. Under Biden, families are still being separated and deported despite the change in administration. Where are Rachel Maddow’s crocodile tears now?

Biden has been immediately deporting Central American adults and children without letting them first apply for asylum. But we’re supposed to be okay with it because the signs in front of the detention camps say bienvenidos, right?

And families are still being separated under Biden, just in a different way. Trump used Covid-19 as a pretext to seal the border to asylum seekers in March 2020, which created tent cities of migrants in Mexico waiting to get into the US. Biden has kept this policy in place with the exception of unaccompanied minors, which is what led to the massive uptick in thousands of children crossing the border and being placed in the same overflow facilities that Trump used. Under Title 42, entering the country as a family gets you immediately deported. So parents are making a desperate decision to send their kids across the border for a chance at asylum.

The Biden administration, perhaps realizing that US-backed right-wing regimes have failed to stabilize the region, is even considering bribing desperate migrants to stop them from trying to escape.

There’s also an incentive for Biden to continue to militarize the border.

Todd Miller analyzed the 2020 presidential campaign contributions from the border industrial complex and was surprised by his findings. “I thought it would be more like 50-50. That’s what I thought it would be, like 50-50. And it came out to be three to one in favor of Biden to Trump,” he said.


In the meantime, the Biden administration has tried to pacify the left by appointing Latinos to oversee these policies. Alejandro Mayorkas was celebrated as the first Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security. But the deportation apparatus has continued under him unabated. And what’s left out of this celebration of his identity is that he’s from an white anti-communist Cuban family who owned a steel-wool factory under the US-backed dictator Batista and fled after Castro came to power, like many wealthy Cubans who wanted to continue hoarding their wealth.

Roberto Lovato calls this “intersectional empire. A perspective on empire that recognizes the way that empire deploys race and gender and the new identity politics against those who would fight empire.”

Then there’s Ricardo Zuniga, appointed by Biden as Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle, meaning Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. According to Lovato, Zuniga comes from an ultra-fascist Honduran family. His grandfather was “a US-backed neo-fascist Honduran general who murdered on US orders.” More importantly Zuniga served as a national security advisor to Obama. “On the plus side, in the normalization of relations with Cuba, but on the minus side, from the continental perspective, he was involved in all manner of these stabilization programs in Venezuela and all across the Americas,” explained Lovato.

The US destroys a country and then tortures its victims by blocking their movement to safety with a sadistic obstacle course that might kill them. And if they manage to survive the trek, they’re subjected to detainment, torture, and potential separation from their loved ones.

This brings us back to the role of the US in destabilizing South American countries. It amounts to a policy of hit and run. The US destroys a country and then tortures its victims by blocking their movement to safety with a sadistic obstacle course that might kill them. And if they manage to survive the trek, they’re subjected to detainment, torture, and potential separation from their loved ones. Any discussion of the migration crisis that doesn’t take US foreign policy and bipartisan border militarization into account is incomplete and disingenuous. Because the cruelty and death is by design.


And that brings us to the 1994 Border Patrol Manual, which lays out this strategy of “prevention through deterrence.” The idea is to deter migration by making it so difficult and the apprehension rate so high “to the point that many will consider it futile to continue to attempt illegal entry.” Part of the strategy includes enforcing a border infrastructure that pushes migrants into what the manual calls “more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement” to “increase the “cost” to illegal entrants sufficiently to deter entry.”

This is why the border apparatus is built to force migrants into harsher and more remote areas of the desert that maximizes the suffering and number of deaths, or “more hostile terrain” as the manual calls it. The desert can be extremely hot in the day and then reach sub-freezing temperatures at night. And it’s easy to get lost, especially when the border patrol flies their helicopters low to the ground above migrants, forcing them to scatter from the dust and causing many to end up lost in the desert for days, sometimes even weeks. Dozens of bodies are discovered every year littered across these areas, and those are just the ones that are found.

“I’ve met one person who was in the desert for 26 days, it's a miracle, truly a miracle that they survived. They ended up drinking water out of a puddle,” Todd Miller recalled. “That's why a lot of activists say that's by design. And so that would be the deterrent in this kind of infliction of suffering, the weaponization of the desert. People coming out of the desert unhealthy, completely traumatized.”

Humanitarian volunteers with No More Deaths are regularly harassed for leaving water around the Arizona desert. Border Patrol agents have been filmed proudly destroying and dumping the water the activists leave out to prevent people from dying of thirst.

Some volunteers have even been fined and criminally charged for their efforts to provide water to migrants.

Roberto Lovato described his experience: “I've been to the deserts. I've seen the children and mothers, skeletonized, leathery skeletons with remains of their faces. I've seen the little femur bones in the plastic bags of the Pima County, Arizona medical examiner’s office.”

He continued, “I’ve seen the toll that the policies from Clinton to the present have taken on Central American people and Mexican and other migrants. And it's been nothing short of devastating, mass murderous, impoverishing on an epic scale. But instead of getting an epic debate about these issues that we deserve, we’re entertained by this back and forth between the Democrats and Republicans,‘at least we're not Trump’ kind of bullshit.”

The US-Mexico border apparatus is just one of many layers that extend far outside of the US. The US border patrol trains and equips border police to implement similar policies in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to prevent the movement of migrants even before they get to the US border, and in the case of Haiti, they equip and train the Dominicans to stop the movement of Haitians.

Biden has maintained this policy.

And this system is now global, employed at borders throughout Europe, across Africa and the Middle East to prevent the flow of people fleeing imperialist policies that devastate their economies and physical safety from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq to Eritrea and Libya.

A similar strategy of death by design has followed, with most land borders from Africa and the Middle East sealed off from Europe, forcing refugees to use the Mediterranean, where boats regularly capsize and dozens, sometimes hundreds, drown.


This raises the question: Why? Why go to all this trouble to make crossing borders so deadly?

Todd Miller believes the purpose is to maintain the stability of global capitalism.

“So the border system, it keeps stability. It keeps the stability of businesses, just [the] stability of status quo, stability of rich getting richer, poor getting poor[er], the stability of people being displaced by climate, but not really affecting the who, the halls of power, it divides and conquers. And it keeps the world just kind of in the same place, which as many have noted is on the route to disaster. This thing's going to break at the seam,” he argued.

And there’s so much money to be made throughout the imperialism-migration-detention-deportation pipeline. Money for the immigration detention industry, the border militarization industry, and the resource extraction industry that profits off of destabilizing these countries.

That’s why the indigenous Honduran child in private immigrant detention, isolated from his family after nearly dying of thirst in the desert? That had to happen so US capitalists could use his people’s land for resource extraction and then profit off of his imprisonment before sending him back to the nightmare he fled.

On top of killing people, this crisis of migration is empowering the far right in the global north. It’s created a kind of blowback in the US and Europe. Decades of people fleeing north to safety has fueled nativism and xenophobia in an era of austerity, all of which is helped along by the right-wing media machine that then blames “the other” for the domestic consequences of neoliberal decay at home rather than the real culprit: A capitalist system that steals resources and promotes destabilization and war and the climate change that has resulted from it.

Roberto Lovato places a great deal of blame on the media. “People need to do their homework, find alternative sources for what their government has done to these peoples that have been rendered faceless by Fox and MSNBC. Central Americans don't have a voice in their own stories. All you see in those stories, and you can check it yourself, is two dimensional images of pain and soundbites of suffering. So first thing that needs to happen is an acknowledgement of the failure of the economic, military, and media systems to tell us what's really going on,” he told Breakthrough.

“And then that could be followed by a formal apology from the government of the United States, to the people of Central America for decades of support for some of the most murderous, vicious, monstrous, fascist military dictatorships, and militaries in the hemisphere. And for the policies that have enriched the few, the global few at the expense of the peoples, you know, and their taxes and their tax base and their land and their water, that's now being distressed,” he added.

Sema Hernandez implored people to understand the actual root causes. “The children and families are coming here because of the wars that we are waging in their countries. And we need to stop these wars,” she said. “Wars are what’s causing these little children to be in cages, which is what you guys are crying about. So if this is something that you want to solve, then let’s stop it at the source. Let’s stop funding these wars. Let’s stop giving blank checks to the Pentagon. Let’s stop expanding the military bases and destabilizing other countries, let’s stop leading these proxy wars in other countries and let’s focus on diplomacy, let’s focus on actual trade policies that benefit not just our country but other countries in a trade that doesn’t involve bloodshed.”

This attitude of protecting white capitalist America from the “barbarians” waiting to storm its frontiers is part of our national DNA.

Lovato doesn’t believe this will be possible without “dismantling US style capitalism.” Until that happens the US will maintain an attitude of “it's better to just put up a border and forget everything than to deal with all this stuff,” he said.

This attitude of protecting white capitalist America from the “barbarians” waiting to storm its frontiers is part of our national DNA. America’s ruling founders feared the natives whose lands and resources they stole just as America’s ruling elites today fear the natives of the global south who are expendable, who they must keep in poverty to maintain their exorbitant wealth. This fear unites Republicans and Democrats alike, standing guard with their fences and rifles to protect a dying system.