Their courageous caravan needs our solidarity

October 31, 2018

Danny Katch and Khury Petersen-Smith argue that socialists need to challenge the right’s xenophobia with a commitment to internationalism and solidarity across borders.

TWO WEEKS ago, 160 people came together to form a migrant caravan to travel north toward the U.S. They were in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city that has been sensationalized by some news reports as the “murder capital of the world.”

On the journey since, they’ve been joined by other asylum seekers — first by the hundreds, then by the thousands — looking for safety in numbers against the many police and criminal forces arrayed against them.

But there’s no shelter from the torrent of lies and hatred being directed at them from the world’s most powerful office.

The homicide rate in San Pedro Sula until recently topped 100 per 100,000 people — which means that one in 50 residents could expect to be murdered over the next 20 years.

Hondurans have long suffered from extensive poverty, but in recent years, they have been overwhelmed by horrific violence from gangs and the corrupt police and military forces of right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has won two elections marked by widespread fraud, approved of by the U.S., under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Thousands of migrants from Central America continue their journey north
Thousands of migrants from Central America continue their journey north

Trump casts Honduras and other Central American countries as nations of “criminals,” but the U.S. bears overwhelming responsibility for the violence in the region. The U.S. government’s own policies of criminalization and deportation helped create the gangs in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador. And years of “free trade” policies of privatization, austerity and ever-more-exploitative jobs — driven by Corporate America — have created the economic desperation that serves as the backdrop for Central America’s social crisis.

None of these or any other actual facts about the people in the migrant caravan have been mentioned by Donald Trump during his rants about criminals and terrorists marching on the border.

For the past month, Trump has been on a cross-country trek of his own — to rile up the forces of white supremacy in the lead-up to the midterm elections. His speeches not only deny the realities behind the caravan, but they encourage his followers — typical politicians have supporters; Trump and cult leaders have followers — to question whether the caravan is even real.

“I’m positive he’s the one behind [the caravan],” one attendee at a recent Trump rally, Alicia Hooten, told the New York Times — the “he” being billionaire investor George Soros, who is become the subject of numerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Hooten added that the caravan “looks a tad staged,” and that “all these people are being paid off.”

WE ALREADY know that Trumpism has an authoritarian understanding of reality, where the facts come second to what he claims is good for America.

But there is an ugly truth that anyone opposed to Trumpism must acknowledge: The Democratic Party’s midterm strategy has also been to ignore those same facts — to avoid talking about immigration, and instead “pivot to more fruitful issues for Democrats like health care and taxation,” as the New York Times recently put it.

We can draw two clear conclusions from this latest migrant caravan from Central America and the nativist panic whipped up in response.

First, in the face of growing repression from both the U.S. and Mexico, Central Americans will continue to bravely organize themselves into caravans that assert their right to live lives free of unbearable violence and poverty.

Second, Trump and the xenophobic right will continue to “win” on the issue of migration and use it to further their authoritarian project — this time, for example, by sending more than 5,000 soldiers to the Southern border and proposing to end birthright citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment — unless they are confronted with a real challenge.

And that’s precisely what the Democrats won’t do.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran a presidential campaign that avoided “controversial” issues like equality for trans people and treatment for migrants that respects their dignity — even though these are concerns that are important to progressives.

Thanks to the Wikileaks hack of Democratic e-mails, we know that the Democrats actually hoped that Trump would get the nomination — and that the prospect of a bombastic bigot in the White House would be enough to secure a progressive vote for Clinton.

With the progressive vote in the bag, the strategy went, Clinton could orient her campaign to more conservative voters who were on the fence. Clinton infamously didn’t campaign in Democratic Party strongholds — or what she thought were Democratic strongholds — and was quiet on social issues so as not to alienate “undecided” voters.

We know how that story ended. But instead of concluding that their party’s brilliant strategy was a colossal failure that helped put Trump in the White House, the Democrats are doing exactly the same thing ahead of the midterm elections this year.

FOR THE Democrats, the migrant caravan upsets their plans of focusing on issues like defending or expanding Medicare and ignoring questions like anti-immigrant racism and other forms of bigotry — the very questions that are agitating its progressive voters.

But there is another reason why the Central American caravan is inconvenient for Democrats: their own record on immigration. Barack Obama, after all, deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history.

And Honduras, where the latest caravan began, was rocked by a coup in 2009 that the Obama administration supported. The right-wing government that resulted from the coup — which unleashed a new wave of violence and repression — was legitimized by Hillary Clinton while she was Obama’s Secretary of State.

Clinton, of course, is as mainstream a Democrat as they come. But even Bernie Sanders, her left-wing opponent in the 2016 presidential campaign, has again and again opposed loosening immigration restrictions — which he frames as a defense of “American jobs.”

So the Democratic Party, from one wing to the other, has been mostly quiet about the caravan, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi actually saying that immigration is a distraction from health care, the issue that “Americans care about.”

Having ceded the ground to the Republicans, Trump and the right wing have hammered away about how the caravan is a dangerous “threat to our sovereignty.” In the first few days of the journey, media coverage was dominated by Trump’s friends on conservative news shows, while liberal media outlets aligned with the Democratic Party, like MSNBC, focused on the midterm elections.

This is all the more reason why the left needs to project solidarity with migrants — and to build concrete support, with migrant communities here and the caravan itself.

IS IT possible to turn the anti-immigrant tide through solidarity and struggle? We have an example from just a dozen years ago that it is.

In the face of legislation proposed by House Republicans that would have criminalized all undocumented immigrants, millions of immigrants took to the streets in 2006. The mega-marches were more than mass demonstrations — they represented a nationwide general strike that shut down factories, agricultural fields and other workplaces.

This tidal wave of resistance completely shifted the national discussion about immigration and ultimately stopped the Republican-sponsored legislation.

Four years later, when Republicans in Arizona proposed a state law requiring that immigrants carry documentation and empowering local police to investigate immigration status, activists in the state and beyond mobilized to resist it.

The legislation ultimately passed, but not without a fight — and the resistance continued afterward to curb the effects of SB 1070, with big protests in Arizona, solidarity demonstrations around the country and a movement to boycott Arizona businesses and sports teams.

These memories may have grown distant after eight years of steady attacks on immigrants by the Obama administration, and now Trump’s full frontal assault. But these struggles are recent examples of immigrants and their supporters mobilizing popular power to shift the political conversation, assert migrants’ humanity — and slow or stop the reactionaries.

The immigrant rights resistance has had powerful mobilizations even after Trump took the White House.

Within days of his taking office, spontaneous protests at airports around the country drew thousands of people to resist Trump’s racist travel ban and welcome arriving migrants. The administration’s first attempt at the Muslim ban was stopped in the courts as a result.

This past summer, an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity with migrant families emerged in response to Trump’s cruel “family separation” policy at the border.

These waves of protest point to the possibilities of building a resistance to challenge the U.S. government’s anti-immigrant racism — even under Trump.

In fact, when Trump targeted the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for undocumented young people, opinion polls showed that nearly 90 percent of people polled supported DACA recipients. While the Democrats used the fate of young immigrants as a bargaining chip and ultimately sold them out, the overwhelming popular support for DACA recipients in the population underlines the potential to involve millions of people in a movement to challenge Trump’s policies and politics.

Even during the Obama years, when mainstream immigrant rights organizations largely demobilized on the understanding that they had a “friend” in the White House, resistance persisted. It was largely led by young undocumented activists, who fearlessly confronted ICE and other federal agencies, coining the powerful slogan “undocumented and unafraid.” A mass movement that builds on this heroic resistance is past due.

TRUMP REPRSENTS a dangerous threat of open white supremacy that is unprecedented in recent U.S. history. But it’s important to recognize that politicians across the mainstream spectrum share a narrow imperial mindset that is incapable of viewing world events through any lens other than domestic politics.

Trump grotesquely distorts the migrant caravan to suit the nativist conspiracy theories fueling Republican midterm campaigns. But the Democrats just wish the tired, poor, huddled masses would simply go away — at least until after the midterms.

The emerging socialist left in this country has to be founded on an internationalism that makes no apologies for the fact that participants in the migrant caravan didn’t time their decisions to risk their lives with the U.S. election cycle.

Our politics can’t take a lead from the daily briefings of center-left think tanks, but rather from the daily decisions made by parents in San Pedro Sula taking their kids to elementary school, knowing that one child in every two classes will be violently murdered before their 25th birthday.

According to the conventional wisdom of the mainstream media, even though most Americans oppose his xenophobia, Trump’s immigrant-bashing remains a “potent line of attack” — because his followers care more about opposing immigrants than his opponents do about supporting them.

It’s unclear whether the results of the midterm elections will prove this right, but there’s a sobering element of truth in this analysis. Xenophobia is central to the Trumpified Republican Party in a way that internationalism has not yet been central to our anti-Trump resistance.

It’s urgent for socialists to work to change this, regardless of whether organizing for refugees and against deportations brings us as much initial success as activism in other arenas. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because xenophobia is central to growing right wing that threatens us all.

We can start by organizing rallies, meetings and material support for the caravan, and using that work to build lasting connections with organizations supporting migrants in Central America and Mexico. Then we have to figure out how to turn the broad opposition to Trump’s xenophobia into mobilizations of the size of the Women’s Marches.

And we have to build a socialist left within this wider movement which understands that true freedom means a world without borders — and that the fate of working people in the U.S. is tied to that of working people in the countries that the U.S. has long oppressed.

Our side should be talking twice as much as the bigots about the brave children, mothers, fathers, LGBT people and others who make up the migrant caravan. After all, for Trump and Fox News, they are merely pawns. But for our side, they are family.

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