U.S. immigration policy: From the wall to electronic monitoring


BAKERSFIELD, Calif.—It is April 27, 2022, and a migrant detainee strike breaks out at the Mesa Verde Immigration Detention Center. And now it is July, and the strikers are still fighting. It is not a hunger strike: Inspired by the wave of strikes and union organizing that is shaking the country, this is a labor strike against the extreme exploitation to which the detainees are subjected in this center that, like many others, the government has given in concession to a private company—none other than the GEO Group, the largest prison and electronic monitoring contractor in the world.[1] The detainees at Mesa Verde work for pay that serves only to disguise the resemblance of these centers to a concentration camp; they  “voluntarily” participate in a work program cleaning the center’s dormitories in unsanitary conditions and in climate-inappropriate, worn, and stained clothing.

The strikers point out the brazenness of their treatment: “[Outside] they won’t let us work because of our immigration status, and here they tell us we can, but they pay us only $1 a day.” They demand a wage in accordance with California labor law ($15 an hour minimum), clean and adequate clothing, properly prepared food, potable water, a doctor, personal hygiene supplies, and dignified treatment.[2] (Read about our solidarity campaign in the second article below.)

Meanwhile, migrants are thronging in record numbers to the southern border of the United States. In May, more than 239,000 attempted to cross the border. Of these, 100,700 were caught and expelled to Mexico, thanks to the provisions of Title 42, which under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID, allows for immediate removals at the border, without trial or the right to seek asylum. Under the guise of curbing the transmission of COVID, the Trump administration installed this public health order. Biden promised to lift the order, but not only is this order still in place but they also increased immediate removals to a total of 1.7 million people under his administration.

As for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, of the promises of legalization he made on the campaign trail, the Biden administration has utterly failed. While the number of deportations of undocumented immigrants already in the country has declined—in 2021 the number dropped to 74,000 from 104,000 in Trump’s last year[3]—the precarious legal, labor, and health status of the remaining millions remains as it was under Trump.

That is to say, with the entry of the Democrats into the White House, not only have we not seen significant improvements for migrants and undocumented immigrants, but the sophistication of the control of migrant workers and the process of privatization and therefore removal from public scrutiny of the system of immigration repression continue to advance. And that is all for the profit of the capitalist class as a whole, and in particular of the contractors specializing in prisons, detention centers, and electronic monitoring that are part of the great industrial-military-prison complex. Under Biden, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to enjoy the honor of presiding over the largest migrant detention system in the world.[4]

A tactical twist

But beneath the apparent inertia, a shift is occurring. Liberals boast that at least Biden stopped construction of the ill-fated border wall. This is true, but why has the administration changed tactics? First, it is important to note that even under Trump the goal was not to shut down the flow of immigrants. That is, the wall was more of a propaganda tool than a real barrier to the entry of migrant workers. And this is because the presence of immigrants, even undocumented ones, favors capitalism by giving the bosses a pool of low-paid workers with which to intimidate native-born workers and the working class as a whole, forcing them to accept worse working conditions and wages.

The reason the capitalist class and its politicians attack migrants is not to keep them out, but so that their oppression facilitates the exploitation of the entire working class, while fomenting racist hatred as a way to divide the class.

Second, the Democratic administration has filled its mouth with fine words about workers and has taken a “humanitarian” turn on migrants. Biden’s Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has stated that his administration is seeking a strategy that fortifies the border in combination with a “secure, orderly and humanitarian” immigration system.” What does this mean? What is being sought is not a decrease in the exploitation of workers and migrants, but rather better control over both. And how? Through a more sophisticated policy of electronic monitoring and privatization of migratory services, which in turn will result in juicy profits for the capitalist allies of the politicians in power. That is to say, far from seeking to open the border, as the defenders of the wall shout, the Democratic government only seeks to systematize and better control the movement of people without altering one iota their exploitation as workers without rights and their racial oppression in the United States.

High-tech frontier

Given this need to control the migratory flow but without slowing it down, the physical wall was a very expensive and above all inflexible instrument. Trump inherited from Barak Obama and George Bush some 650 miles of wall, to which he added 576 miles at a cost of $11 billion.[5] But the Democrats have redirected state resources to a much more sophisticated migrant control project, better aligned with their political-economic alliance with the sectors of Yankee capitalism linked to high technology.

Instead of the “racist”[6] physical wall and the embarrassing detention centers, the Democrats and their friends in Silicon Valley and the computer industry are creating one of the world’s most extensive systems of surveillance and collection of biometric and personal data on migrants and their allies for repressive purposes. A computer system that they will eventually use to “humanely” and “intelligently” repress migrants and their allies out of the public eye, as repressive vigilante operations have always operated in our countries.

Public budgets for migration have been increasing for decades—a more than 2000% increase in the last three decades. By 2022, Biden has requested more than $56 billion for the Department of Homeland Security on which the Migra depends, or a 5% increase over 2021. These funding increases have increased the Migra’s physical detention capacity at the border from 13,000 people per day in 2021 to 18,000 per day today, thanks to the hiring of more agents and the use of electronic territory surveillance equipment.

But what is notable in this budget is the reduction in the budget for politically embarrassing detention centers.[7] Under Trump, 40 new detention centers were erected, the vast majority to be run by the GEO Group or its competitor, CoreCivic.[8] The Biden administration said it wanted to eliminate 9000 beds for migrant detainees in the infamous centers, which has been greeted with praise among liberals. But the purpose does not appear to be the elimination of these centers, but rather their coordinated use with more sophisticated screening systems.

Through a program innocuously called “Alternatives to Detention” (ATD), migrants could enter the territory and even integrate into various communities, but under constant surveillance through electronic traps, telephone monitoring, facial and voice recognition of the migrant and his or her acquaintances and relatives, home inspections, and GPS tracking through SmartLINK systems.[9] The number of migrants being monitored in this way is steadily increasing—until recently, more than 200,000, double the number of the previous year, all well funded by the federal government to the tune of more than $440 million in just one budget round on Capitol Hill.[10] Democrats could even go so far as to close detention centers without for a second stopping repression and surveillance, only less visibly and with extraordinary profits for the surveillance and data-collection industries.

Almost all of these remote surveillance and detention functions are now done not by immigration personnel, but by private companies such as those mentioned above, and therefore even more out of public view. The budget is then largely used to pay for large Alternatives to Detention contracts with this business sector.

Despite the benevolent, humanitarian, and very technocratic discourse with which the government talks about these systems, there is nothing benevolent about them, since they mean the total surveillance of the lives of people and their families. It must be taken into account that since 2001, when taking advantage of the patriotic wave after the attack on the twin towers, the regime embarked on the massive collection of data under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the immigration agency has increased its collection of fingerprint data from 10 million to 212 million people, while the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology systems used by the immigration agency collects biometric identification data that will soon include people’s DNA.[11] In the face of an upsurge in class struggle, from monitoring only migrants, the government will easily move to repressive monitoring of all workers, oppressed people, and youth.

Who pays and who benefits from this spending? Those who pay are the workers in the United States, including the undocumented themselves, who every week sacrifice part of their income in taxes with which the government subsidizes the capitalists through its budget. And those who benefit are the companies that run the private detention centers and those that manufacture and provide the infrastructure now used by the migrants in place of these centers and for the more sophisticated control with drones and other high-tech equipment at the border. And, of course, the employer class as a whole, which thus arms itself with the personal data of millions of workers for deeper surveillance.

It is partly in this way, with a view to the assembly of this increasingly vigilant and controlling apparatus of migrant movements (and in the future, of workers in general), that Biden’s position of ending the policy of immediate detention that enabled the Title 42 order is understood. While he did not succeed in lifting the Title 42 order, Biden’s plan was and is to replace the rapid return system with one that allows for controlled entry of people but with simultaneous multi-billion-dollar “smart” border enforcement and electronic monitoring of migrants.

That is why we have to adjust our struggles. Many migrant and undocumented rights organizations have been fighting for the closure of detention centers, among other things. We must continue to demand this. We must unreservedly support the action of migrant strikers like those at Mesa Verde, pushing our unions to show material and political solidarity with them, raising funds to support them, demanding their unrestricted release.

But this is clearly not enough, given the multiplication of tactics on the part of the government. To combat the efforts of the bosses and their state to better control the working class and its most vulnerable sector, the migrants, it is imperative that the U.S. labor movement militate against this expansion of surveillance and repression against migrants in general and embrace the struggle of migrants and undocumented immigrants as its own. The currently fragmented movement fighting for the rights of migrants and undocumented immigrants, for its part, must overcome this fragmentation and unify independently of the Democrats and the NGOs that stifle its militancy in useless lobbying campaigns in order to launch an effective defense against repression and monitoring of migrants and for the conquest of full rights, seeking the support of native workers and unions, not Democratic politicians.

Workers’ Voice / La Voz de los Trabajadores fights not only for full rights for the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country, but also for the abolition of the Migra and the opening of the border. The borders only benefit the capitalists—not the workers. And that is also why we demand the immediate and unconditional right to citizenship for each of the 11 million undocumented and the rest of the immigrants in this country. Only with equality among all workers and joint struggle will we prevent the capitalists from dividing our class and using us against each other.

Solidarity with the Mesa Verde detainees and strikers!

The strike by migrant detainees at Mesa Verde, launched on April 27, is the second to break out at this private detention center, which is run for profit by the GEO Group corporation (see main article). Exploited and mistreated, Mesa Verde’s migrants must clean the facilities in deplorable hygienic conditions and are paid $1 per day. Workers’ Voice / La Voz de los Trabajadores supports the demands of these workers and calls on all social organizations, unions and individuals to show material and political solidarity with the strike by raising funds, passing resolutions demanding the fulfillment of the strikers’ demands, and organizing or supporting demonstrations of support. Help us spread the word and support the demands of the strikers:

  1. Dignified treatment for all detainees
  2. Wage increase for detained migrant workers to $15 per hour
  3. Change of bed linen, towels, clothing and footwear appropriate to the climate and activity and in good condition.
  4. Good quality personal hygiene items
  5. Quality food, in adequate portions and with fresh and clean fruits, hot water at all meals.
  6. Drinking water throughout the center
  7. In-person visitation rights and free virtual tours
  8. Hiring of a residential and dedicated physician for the center, referral service to specialists; solar blocking in the summer.

To make donations, please send your contribution to https://gofund.me/fb8d96f0. Our organization will deliver the amount to the strikers. Contact us to participate in the solidarity campaign via litcilavoz@gmail.com.


[1] https://investigate.afsc.org/company/geo-group

[2] https://www.pangealegal.org/news-and-updates/2022/6/7/l4s5d0en0wgtkysr5cfqsc3w40773c

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/03/11/ice-report-deporations-arrests/

[4] https://immigrantjustice.org/issues/immigration-detention-enforcement

[5] https://www.npr.org/2020/01/19/797319968/-11-billion-and-counting-trumps-border-wall-would-be-the-world-s-most-costly

[6] Calificación usada por una legisladora demócrata Nina Lowey en 2021 para ensalzar la propuesta presupuestal demócrata, que prohibió financiar el muro y dotar en vez su alternativa “moderna” e “inteligente”. https://www.tni.org/en/article/walls-are-dumb-but-president-bidens-smart-border-is-even-worse

[7] https://www.boundless.com/blog/biden-requests-56-7-billion-dhs-2023-budget/

[8] https://thesoutherneronline.com/87106/comment/biden-administration-should-end-the-use-of-privately-owned-ice-facilities/

[9] https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/issues/alternatives

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/25/us/politics/biden-immigration-detention-beds.htmlhttps://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/678/

[11] https://www.tni.org/en/article/walls-are-dumb-but-president-bidens-smart-border-is-even-worse

Photo: Migrants deported from the U.S. walk toward Mexico at Paso del Norte international border bridge, Jan. 29, 2021. (Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

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