The case against “The case against open borders”

November 27, 2018

In a recent article in the conservative journal American Affairs, liberal author Angela Nagle argues that leftists should back immigration crackdowns as a way of standing with native-born workers in their own countries. Echoing a theme of Democratic Party leaders, Nagle claims that solidarity activists who support open borders are “useful idiots for big business” because we provide cover for the way capitalism uses immigrant labor to undermine working-class living standards.

Justin Akers Chacón, author of the recently published Radicals in the Barrio, a rich history of the Mexican and Chicano working class in the U.S., provides a response that sets the record straight for the left.

ANGELA NAGLE’S “The Left Case Against Open Borders” is not a perspective from the “left,” and it isn’t a new argument.

It is a liberal appeal to reactionary nationalism that offers nothing constructive to a new generation of people standing in solidarity with migrant workers and refugees, acting against militarized borders, Gestapo-like ICE enforcement, and brutal family separation and deportation.

While Nagle decries some of the crimes of capitalism — such as unprecedented global inequality, wealth transfer from poor to rich nations, imperial plunder of poor countries and the displacement of millions — she draws the backward and fundamentally flawed conclusion that the left’s best response is to join with the far right in blaming immigration for the attacks on working-class living standards.

Protesters in Los Angeles march against Trump’s war on immigrants
Protesters in Los Angeles march against Trump’s war on immigrants (Molly Adams | flickr)

Much of the article reads as a puffed-up opinion piece, without much in the way of examples or substantive evidence, aside from some cherry-picked quotes and decontextualized statistics to make her arguments sound empirical and authoritative. Nagle strings together right-wing tropes, misconceptions, stereotypes and outright falsehoods about immigration and labor history, but peppers them with left-sounding rhetoric to sound like a bona fide radical.

In reality, though, she sounds more similar to Hillary Clinton, that paragon of the globalized neoliberalism that Nagle claims to be trying to oppose.

Last week, Clinton joined with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Italian leader Matteo Renzi on a European “center-left” publicity tour to offer a global alternative to rising right-wing populism. Her solution? Incorporate anti-immigration into the framework of liberalism:

I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame...We are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support...because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.

The Clinton family’s entire political career is testament to the fact that these types of rightward shifts may (or may not) win a few elections, but they cede the ideological ground to the forces of reaction. Just as this right turn of official liberalism against immigration will only validate and legitimize Trumpism, pseudo-left appeals like Nagle’s to incorporate xenophobia into the ranks of the left and the labor movement would also be disastrous.

Under scrutiny, Nagle’s article falls backwards onto the sword of her own twisted logic, revealing her as the “useful idiot” for far-right forces grasping for an intellectual beachhead into the working class.

No Class Analysis

Nagle’s arguments are predicated on several false premises, which reveal the absence of a class analysis, even though she opportunistically backs her argument with select quotes from Karl Marx.

First, she echoes right-wing talking points by implying that working-class people today have the freedom to move across national boundaries without persecution. In fact, open borders only exist for the global ruling classes, which enjoy the right to move freely across borders and invest their capital in all corners of the world. Nowhere in the essay does she advocate for any restrictions on capital, the wealthy or anyone or anything other than workers.

Global capital investment in 2017 was nearly $1.5 trillion, with $671 billion flowing into “developing” countries, and $712 billion pouring into “developed” nations. This free flow of capital is facilitated by trade rules, agreements and treaties that favor the movement of capital while restricting labor.

Of the existing 288 free-trade agreements recorded by the World Trade Organization, only 40 contain provisions that allow for some form of labor migration, typically reserved for highly specialized professions, limited by time and constrained to certain industries. Meanwhile, the global 1 Percent plays by a different set of rules, relying on a set of investor-class visas to bypass the barriers that others face.

Most of the world’s population, especially the working classes and poor, do not have the freedom to cross borders and must take great pains to gain entrance into the economies that employ them. In fact, borders exist almost exclusively for the world’s working classes, with deadly militarized borders facing the Global South.

For most of the global migrant population, there is no legal route or “open border” to await them. For Hondurans, for example, the U.S. only granted about 4,500 visas per year between 2008 and 2017, with about two-thirds based on family reunification. Over that same period, about 32,000 Hondurans migrated to the U.S. each year.

At the same time, capitalist classes across the globe have increasingly militarized their frontier regions, leading to a massive increase in deaths and disappearances, and giving lie to the phony idea of “open borders.” Since 2000, more than 60,000 migrants worldwide have died or disappeared attempting to cross dangerous borders.

In the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the deadliest crossing zone in the world, at least 8,600 people have died and thousands more disappeared since the early 1990s trying to cross mountains, vast expanses of desert, or bodies of water.

Nagle claims that the global wing of the capitalist class is the fundamental base of support for these “open borders.” In fact, the whole capitalist system has come to rely on the super-exploitation of immigrant labor through criminalization. Ramped-up enforcement has become a means not to stop immigration, but to disenfranchise and subjugate undocumented workers within the bottom tier of a segmented labor economy.

Extensive research shows that there is a correlation between increased immigration enforcement and a relative decline in wages among undocumented workers. A 2010 study documents how prior to the onset of employment-based immigrant criminalization in the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act — in which business owners were required to check Social Security documentation of their employees — wages between citizen and immigrant labor were in relative parity.

In practice, employers were rarely scrutinized or punished for employing undocumented workers, and instead used this “law” to their own advantage, which is how immigration policy is designed. They pushed wages downward by having the ability to reveal those without papers, fired workers who protested, and got rid of those who tried to unionize.

As the study shows, undocumented laborers weren’t driven out of the economy. Rather, wages for undocumented workers as a whole declined in relation to other workers, as this approach was used widely by employers to structure lower-wage tiers within and across whole industries, setting the low-wage standard of “immigrant labor” by the early 1990s.

The declining wage benchmarks for undocumented labor had the further effect of holding all wages down within those same industries.

Ironically, the approach of empowering employers to have more control over their workers to weed out those who are undocumented is the model that Nagle holds up as a success. It is precisely the restriction of immigration and persecution of migrant workers that has allowed employers to divide and weaken organized labor as a whole.

The proliferation of entire industries devoted to secondary immigration enforcement is also a strange characteristic of a supposed “open borders” society.

Over 42,000 people have been held in custody each day throughout fiscal year 2018, the highest rate since 2001. About 70 percent of ICE-administered detention centers are contracted to private, for-profit detention corporations, making immigrant repression a booming business.

Who Is the U.S. Working Class?

A SECOND misrepresentation that Nagle promotes is an ethnocentric and nationalistic mischaracterization of the U.S. working class, one that has allegedly achieved its greatest gains during outbreaks of xenophobic exclusion and reaction. Again, these misrepresentations turn labor history on its head.

The U.S. working class has always been a multinational amalgam, consisting in large part of immigrants who arrive in staggered waves corresponding to world events.

The U.S. in 2018 is as much a reflection of this process as it was a hundred years ago. The difference has been the policies in place regarding immigration, which has corresponded to how immigrant labor fits into patterns of capital accumulation and labor exploitation in each period.

Nagle’s conception of labor is situated in the antiquated idea of the “citizen worker,” an atavism of the old white, nativist, AFL craft worker. The actual U.S. working class is very different. Of the 153 million people employed, an estimated 47 million workers, or about 31 percent, are naturalized citizens, permanent residents, temporary residents and workers, refugees and undocumented workers. An additional large percentage is made up of the children or grandchildren of immigrants, while many other workers have mixed citizenship-status families.

From a demographic standpoint, immigration sustains the “reproduction rate” of the U.S. population, as the fertility rate has precipitously dropped to 1.76 — below the 2.1 threshold necessary for replenishment. Although concentrated in manual labor jobs, foreign-born workers tend to have higher employment rates than U.S.-born workers, showing how their labor is integral to the U.S. economy and made even more profitable--by artificial means--as a result of state repression and subjugation.

Furthermore, any discussion of the U.S. working class today has to extend beyond borders, because multinational corporations employ workers in the U.S. and those in other countries as part of integrated, transnational assembly, production and distribution networks.

In Nicaragua, for instance, over 120,000 garment workers create clothing for major U.S. companies that is transported by U.S. workers to retail outlets, where it is sold by another group of workers. An estimated 600,000 people are employed making auto parts in Mexico, a large share of whom produce car components as part of a supply chain linking them to GM, Chrysler and Ford workers in Detroit and other parts of the U.S.

These workers are employed by the same corporations as workers in the U.S., but divided by borders and subject to more intensive (and U.S.-abetted) degrees of labor repression in their home countries, typically underwritten by U.S. “security” policy.

Another one of Nagle’s false premises is that most workers see immigrants as a threat to their livelihoods. “Whether [solidarity activists] like it or not,” she writes, “radically transformative levels of mass migration are unpopular across every section of society and throughout the world. And the people among whom it is unpopular, the citizenry, have the right to vote.”

Nagle fails to provide evidence for her claim, which doesn't hold up under a basic investigation. One-and-a-half years into the Trump administration and amid a new resurgence of white nationalism, a June 2018 Gallup poll shows the resilience of a pro-immigrant majority in the U.S. : Only 29 percent of those polled feel that the current level of immigration into the U.S. should be reduced, while 39 percent believe current levels are beneficial and 28 percent believe it should be increased.

This 67 percent of the population supporting current or increased levels of immigration reflects a large segment of working-class opinion, far beyond the narrow strata of Nagle’s “open borders”-pushing globalist elites. The rate of those supporting more immigration has actually increased since Trump and the right wing have controlled the federal government.

There are certainly anti-immigrant political forces on the march. But they are not being led from the ranks of the working class.

Immigrant Exclusion: The History of Labor’s Failures

Right-wing labor populism has always has always been present as a reactionary current in the working class, even when draped in pseudo-left rhetoric. There is a long and cyclical history of the ruling class parties (and their intellectual popularizers) whipping up xenophobia and racism against immigrants at times of increased labor struggle, economic crisis and social and political polarization.

The diffusion of anti-immigrant racism and xenophobia to divide workers along racial and national lines, and to deflect or demobilize class struggle, is as old as the class struggle itself.

Each epoch of left-labor support for immigration restriction has failed the working class miserably. Conversely, the greatest gains of organized labor have occurred when the left has had its greatest influence within the working class, and when workers make the greatest strides.

Nagle gets this history horribly wrong. She holds up late-19th century exclusion of Chinese workers and the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) collaboration with the Border Patrol as two examples of the successful utilization of immigration restriction in the service of union-building:

From the first law restricting immigration in 1882 to Cesar Chavez and the famously multiethnic United Farm Workers protesting against employers’ use and encouragement of illegal migration in 1969, trade unions have often opposed mass migration. They saw the deliberate importation of illegal, low-wage workers as weakening labor’s bargaining power and as a form of exploitation. There is no getting around the fact that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced.

But these are two examples of unqualified failure.

Nagle conflates immigration with strikebreaking, which was not the source of defeat for labor in the 1870s or the 1970s. She fails to provide any historical context for the strikes, examples of how immigration was relevant, or outcomes to what happened; she just expects us to accept that immigrants played some kind of negative role.

In both cases, a turn towards anti-immigrant racism or a strategy of restriction contributed to major setbacks.

In 1877, a profound capitalist crisis mired the U.S. in economic depression. In the fast-growing rail industry, the bosses used the opportunity to cut wages across the industry, provoking a strike of over 700,000 workers. One of the central demands was for union recognition.

Because of police and company repression, when workers fought back, the strike took on an insurrectionary character, with pitched battles between strikers and their supporters against police and company guards across 13 states. The strike was violently suppressed after President Rutherford Hayes deployed thousands of heavily armed federal troops.

It was that same year that both Democratic and Republic and Parties incorporated an anti-Chinese plank into their election platforms. At a time in which rail workers were organizing nationally, the ruling parties, acting on behalf of the railroad tycoons, attacked the small number of Chinese rail workers, some of whom had previously participated in their own strike for equal pay and working conditions.

The concerted denunciation of the “Yellow Peril” at our shores and the subsequent rallying for restrictions on Chinese labor were used to deflect class anger away from the railroad bosses and the failing capitalist system, and to prevent unionization by dividing the work groups by race and nationality.

In the aftermath of the railroad strike, a San Francisco-based right-wing labor populist named Denis Kearny launched the California Workingman’s Party. This populist party combined opposition to capitalism and immigration, which was posited then, as it is now, as a ploy by the capitalists to undermine unionization.

Combining anti-capitalist and anti-Chinese rhetoric, the party grew to become the second-largest in the state. At its height, it became less opposed to the capitalist class and more virulent in its opposition to the Chinese. According to one historical account:

Kearney then began agitating for a new state constitution, which was approved by the voters in 1879. Workingmen delegates comprised the largest voting bloc (one-third) at the constitutional convention. A Committee on the Chinese was established to draft anti-Chinese provisions for the proposed constitution.

The committee recommended that all Chinese immigration to the state be banned and that Chinese residents in California be left essentially unprotected by the laws of the state — denied access to the courts, to suffrage, to public employment, to state licenses, to property purchases, and other restrictions...

The Chinese were deemed a presence inimical to the welfare of the state, and the legislature was directed to use its authority to deter their immigration and settlement. The final document barred the Chinese from employment by corporations or the government and denied them the right to vote. It also gave localities the authority to expel or segregate the Chinese.

During this period, there were anti-Chinese pogroms carried out by lynch mobs, and other acts of terror to further marginalize Chinese workers. In 1882, Congress banned most forms of Chinese migration, which was then extended to all Asians by 1917.

By 1906, the American Federation of Labor and even sections of the fledgling Socialist Party had embraced opposition to Chinese immigration as official policy, wrongfully believing that their complicity would curry favor with employers who would be more accepting of “citizen unions.”

The opposite occurred. With organized labor now dividing itself against Asian labor, the employers redoubled their efforts to break the AFL by maintaining a fervent commitment to the anti-union “open shop” across the country. Right-wing populism contributed to a profound weakening of the labor movement, inflicting setbacks that prevented the unification of a multinational, multiethnic and multiracial working class.

The union movement remained weakened and sclerotic until the period of the First World War, when the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World revitalized labor organizing through industrial unionism, internationalism, cross-border solidarity and the active organization of migrants, immigrants, women and people of color.

Nagle also points to how the United Farm Workers collaborated with the Border Patrol to deter and detain undocumented workers when they were used to cross picket lines, insinuating that this helped grow the union. This assertion is also historically inaccurate.

The success of the UFW was predicated on several factors: multinational unity between Mexican and Filpino farmworkers, the incorporation of socialists into the ranks of the union as organizers and a painstaking organizing strategy, initially built from the bottom up, which welded together a broad base of support from an array of organizations, including unions, religious groups and student organizations.

Militant strike strategy was combined with far-reaching solidarity boycotts, marches and protests, as well as a multitude of other tactics of disruption. These collaborative campaigns broke the resolve of powerful grower alliances and forced them to the negotiating table.

After compelling the grower-aligned Democratic Party of California and then-Gov. Jerry Brown to sign the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which guaranteed collective bargaining rights for farmworkers in the state, the UFW under Chavez’s leadership changed strategy. The union moved away from class struggle, instead becoming a campaigning vehicle for the Democratic Party.

The drift into the Democratic Party represented a significant break with labor radicalism and the very structure and function of the union. Chavez centralized control, purged the union of its left-wing leadership and sought to use its relation to the Democratic Party as a legislative route to future growth. Organizers now spent more time campaigning for Democrats than building up farmworker-led locals.

The reorganization of the UFW as an auxiliary for the Democratic Party pushed the union into a precipitous decline. No further significant legislation favoring protection of the union or protections for farmworkers saw the light of day. Growers gained the upper hand without having to face further mass mobilization and the union relied more on desperate, top-down strategies to try and win the declining number of strikes it had the capacity to conduct.

It was only after this transition that Chavez adopted a policy of calling the Border Patrol when undocumented workers crossed picket lines. But this practice backfired, as most farmworkers had familial and other social ties to undocumented populations and resented collaboration with la migra.

Those without papers who did cross picket lines to work, as well as later waves of migrants working in agriculture, distrusted the union thereafter. By the early 1990s, the UFW had become irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of agricultural workers, becoming a shell of what it once was, and it has failed to recover ever since.

Immigrant Inclusion: The History of Labor’s Gains

On the other hand, where the labor movement has embraced immigrant inclusion, there is a different story to be told.

In Nagle’s telling, immigrants are at best ignorant victims incapable of any kind of collective organizing. “[W]orkers from economies devastated by U.S. agriculture will continue to be invited in with the promise of work, in order to be cheaply and illegally exploited,” she warns. “Lacking full legal rights, these noncitizens will be impossible to unionize and will be kept in constant fear of being arrested and criminalized.”

It is precisely the role that immigrant labor has played as part of the U.S. labor movement that has led the capitalist parties to curtail their access to citizenship and democratic rights. In the caricature of labor created by Nagle, immigrants are outside the sphere of unions, and as such, pose an existential threat.

So while she feigns sympathy for the displacement of immigrant workers by neoliberal trade agreements such as NAFTA, she deprives them of any agency in challenging the conditions of exploitation, rendering them hapless victims whose incapacity for self-advocacy reduces them to a threat to those who do resist capitalist exploitation.

In fact, immigrant workers have revitalized an otherwise moribund labor movement in the last three decades, providing the most militant action and class-conscious challenge to capital.

With the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, the Reagan administration traded amnesty for the first significant shift toward workplace-based enforcement.

The 2.5 million people who were legalized went on to join labor unions in droves, establishing a new vanguard of immigrant organizers, campaigns and organizing drives, and assuring that the most vital sections of the union movement have been those that organized immigrants.

This surge in immigrant-led union organizing led to a substantial rise in wages. According to a study by the Department of Labor, real wages of workers naturalized through the amnesty program increased by an average of 15 percent within five years, which also led to wage increases for other workers in the same industries.

This militancy and pro-union orientation of the undocumented working class led the AFL-CIO to reverse its longstanding anti-immigrant policies in 2000, and commit resources and support to organizing the undocumented. The federation led the Immigrant Freedom Rides for full legalization in 2003.

In 2005, right-wing forces united to push for the recriminalization of the undocumented with the passage of the Sensenbrenner-King bill, which contained extreme policy proposals like making it a felony to be undocumented. This and a raft of other anti-immigrant bills were explicitly designed to prevent the sociopolitical integration of immigrants — and more importantly — their proclivity to organize once legalized.

In response to Sensenbrenner, mass mobilizations involving at least 3 million people took place in over 100 cities between March and May of 2006, culminating in school and workplace walkouts, mass marches and rallies for a new amnesty. The Sensenbrenner bill was killed, and the Democrats were swept into office in 2006 and 2008 in a mass repudiation of the Republicans.

The potential for a new legalization, promised by the incoming Obama administration and the congressional Democratic majority, carried with it the potential for another mass surge of legalized immigrants pouring into labor unions.

Instead, the Democratic Party abandoned legalization and became the executors of the most intensive campaign of immigrant repression and deportation to date.

A Caricature of the Left

NAGLE IGNORES labor history, treats immigrants as if they aren’t part of the working class, and blames them for the decline of unions.

She then criticizes the left for supposedly ignoring the working class she mischaracterizes — and she again makes the baseless assertion that “the destruction and abandonment of labor politics [by the left] means that, at present, immigration issues can only play out within the framework of a culture war, fought entirely on moral grounds.”

In reality, the radical U.S. left, including the immigrant left, has played an instrumental role in facilitating the growth and militancy of unions in various ways. This includes building left currents in the labor movement to incorporate immigrants and other marginalized populations into the ranks and opposing imperialist policies abroad that are harmful to workers in other countries.

Currently, the left is at the forefront of opposing the bipartisan repressive apparatus used against immigrants — the biggest obstacle to rebuilding a vibrant and militant labor movement in the current period.

At best, Nagle has a confused or misguided understanding of what the “left” is in the U.S. At worst, she is purposely smearing and belittling it in order to prop up an otherwise weak argument.

She doesn’t seem to understand the distinctions between liberalism, “progressivism” and anti-capitalism — making it hard to pinpoint the substance of her criticisms. Nor is she clear about who supports the globalist project of “open borders,” characterizing them at one point as the “libertarian left” and at another as the “upper-middle class.”

To give her argument weight, she cites support from none other than Karl Marx, “whose position on immigration would get him banished from the modern left,” according to Nagle. She claims that Marx “expressed a highly critical view of the effects of the migration that occurred in the nineteenth century.”

Rather than elaborate on this major point, she quotes extensively and misleadingly from a famous 1870 letter in which Marx argued that because of Irish displacement and forced migration to England:

[e]very industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life.

Nagle uses this statement to illustrate Marx’s supposed anti-immigration stance, even though she includes his next sentence, which argues something very different:

In relation to the Irish worker [an English worker regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself... This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.

Marx, unlike Nagle, is not celebrating or accommodating anti-immigrant sentiment. He is making the case that that the bigotry, racism and chauvinism of the English working class have to be overcome! And not by immigration restriction, as Nagle would have us believe, but by the left actively organizing inside the working class to overcome nationalist prejudices and forge solidarity — as he explains only a few sentences later:

Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realize that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.

Far from being unwelcome on today’s left, Marx would be with us organizing solidarity with Syrian refugees, rallying for those in exodus from Honduras and other Central American countries to be let in, and arguing within the union halls that all undocumented workers need to be organized.

Nagle then moves on to shaming the left for not opposing the conditions that cause migration. “Progressives should focus on addressing the systemic exploitation at the root of mass migration,” she writes, “rather than retreating to a shallow moralism that legitimates these exploitative forces.”

It is statements like this that make one question whether she has ever been around the left. Socialists, anarchists and communists have a long and consistent history of opposing U.S. military and economic intervention abroad, from active support and participation in the Mexican Revolution 100 years ago through building opposition to the U.S.-aided overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.

The radical left has also played a leading role in struggles against the institutions of corporate globalization that promote the neoliberal orthodoxies and trade frameworks that Nagle claims to deplore.

The 1999 “Battle of Seattle” against the World Trade Organization played a momentous role in raising public opposition to corporate greed internationally. Since then, the U.S. left has built mass mobilizations that defeated the Free Trade Area of the Americas and contributed to the undoing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

Left groups building solidarity with Central Americans afflicted by repressive regimes led to a broad-based sanctuary movement that helped thousands of Central Americans escape brutal U.S.-supported military dictatorships by providing safe haven for refugees fleeing conflict zones who were denied asylum by the U.S. government.

Activists have since extended the sanctuary concept to push for policies that prevent local or statewide government and law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal immigration agents in their pursuit of deportable populations.

This solidarity movement has long linked human rights activities to campaigns against U.S. funding for repressive regimes.

Since 1990, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) has protested U.S. military training of Latin American military personnel with long histories of human rights abuses. Several iterations of the school have been closed due to the persistent opposition, public education campaigns, and annual high-profile protests at military sites.

So while Nagle claims that advocacy of “open borders” — i.e., immigrant rights and freedom of movement — is a “new phenomenon...that runs counter to the history of the organized left in fundamental ways,” in fact, this internationalism is embedded in the very DNA of the U.S. radical left over most of its history.

This historical ignorance extends to Nagle’s understanding of the U.S. labor movement. “[I]n the days of strong trade unions,” she writes, “they were also able to use their power to mount campaigns of international solidarity with workers’ movements around the world. Unions raised the wages of millions of nonwhite members, while deunionization today is estimated to cost Black American men $50 a week.”

Nagle doesn’t seem to see the irony that she is harkening back to the period when many of the strongest unions were led or heavily influenced by Communist Party (CP) members and other radicals in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The years between 1937 and 1946 saw the largest strike wave in U.S. history and coincided with CP-led campaigns in the working class against racism, xenophobia and sexism.

As I write about in Radicals in the Barrio, immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean were concentrated in 11 CIO-affiliated unions created over this period, while women and people of color joined the labor movement in the hundreds of thousands, the greatest gains in labor’s history.

Left-Right Unity against Immigration?

AT TIMES in the essay, Nagle runs out of convoluted pronouncements and imprecise historical references, and falls back on the common litany of right-wing fallacies. For example:

With “no human is illegal!” as the protest chant goes, the left is implicitly accepting the moral case for no borders or sovereign nations at all. But what implications will unlimited migration have for projects like universal public health care and education, or a federal jobs guarantee? And how will progressives convincingly explain these goals to the public?


[M]igration increasingly presents a crisis that is fundamental to democracy.

In other words, immigrants are "taking our jobs, living off our welfare system and threatening our way of life". In passages like these, Nagle seems to shed any pretense of speaking for the left.

In fact, the essay as a whole reveals a deep-seated contempt for the left she professes to be part of, while also divulging a willful ignorance of labor history and left-wing political thought. To accomplish the ambitious task of selling right-wing ideas to the left, Nagle combines a nationalist critique of capitalism with a condemnation of the left and opposition to immigration, using language hardly discernible from that of the far right.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that such an article would be welcomed at a right-wing publication. The essay was written for a journal named American Affairs, a small start-up publication launched in 2016 to provide “intellectual support” for Trump’s project of nationalism, although editor Julius Krein has since distanced himself from Trump’s overt racism.

The point of convergence between Nagle and Krein is their self-professed disdain for “Reaganism” and the trajectory of free-market capitalism, which has benefitted a class of “globalists” at the expense of the nation-state. They both reject “neoliberalism,” albeit for different reasons.

Krein is attempting to position his journal as a voice for the section of capital that laments the decline of the U.S. economy relative to its competitors, and the emergence of destabilizing social inequality and its attendant political polarization. He is attempting to stake out a nationalist ideological position within the Republican Party, calling for a “strong state,” protectionism, reindustrialization and infrastructural investment.

For Nagle, the “Reagan Revolution” of neoliberalism has ushered in the ascendancy of a cabal of global capitalists who place profit above national interests. The most significant result of globalism — according to her argument — is that these neoliberals have leveraged “open borders” and immigrant labor to undermine the standard of living for U.S. workers by decimating labor unions.

This characterization of bad neoliberals versus implicitly good national capital allows for some theoretical overlap with the right, from neo-conservative protectionists such as Krein to far-right bigots who view “Jewish globalists” such as their bogeyman George Soros as the biggest threat to the nation.

Separating the agents of globalization from national capitalist interests, therefore, requires an active state which protects the interests of the nation — through which Nagle frames her call for excluding immigrants. As she states, “most people need — and want — a coherent, sovereign political body to defend their rights as citizens.”

While taking different routes, both Klein and Nagle argue in favor of a nationalism that puts “America first.” In the context of the rise of the far right internationally and Trumpism nationally, Nagle’s line of argument does not represent an innovative left-wing analysis, but rather a liberal accommodation to racism and xenophobia.

Nagle claims that the left has “painted itself into a corner” with an anti-borders politics that leads to us offering no concrete proposals other than tailing neoliberal policies.

But there are obvious demands — for those who are willing to look — being made by the left every day. We are for dismantling the immigration-enforcement complex, from the border wall to ICE to the detention industry — the same violent, destructive and divisive force for which Angela Nagle is attempting to provide intellectual cover with some false claims and a phony left accent.

Further Reading

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