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Eve's Review

Incarcerating Innocents -- Migrants in the U.S.

Blood Red Lines

Brendan O'Connor

Haymarket Books, 323 pages




Eve Ottenberg

Parallels between U.S. abuse of Hispanic migrants and that of Jews in the very early Nazi years are deeply creepy. They were even creepier when Trump was president. That's because he was happy to demonize this Central American and Mexican minority, to deploy the full power of the state against it and to unleash police – ICE and BP – against this population with a ferocity that even the very obtuse could see resembled the Gestapo's. For the millions of people who live in this country but have no civil rights – the undocumented, or "illegals" as right-wing demagogues tellingly refer to them – the Trump years were a nightmare. Had he won reelection, who can doubt that things would have got much worse?


So while it's fine to breathe a sigh of relief, the profoundly sick social structures that cage immigrants in second-class status and in detention camps remain in place. As long as they do, another racist fanatic who roars to power will find the machinery to persecute this group right at his fingertips. And the chances of another reactionary firebrand attaining the presidency are not slim: fascism flourishes after capitalism's crises, with Trump's ascent rooted in the 2008 financial crash. If Biden doesn't significantly expand the social welfare state, who knows what we'll get as a result of the 2020 collapse? It could be another Trump but worse – a competent fascist who can make the trains run on time, not a buffoon.


Meanwhile, how to stop government from stigmatizing the Latinx minority? Because while Biden renounces the most egregious cruelties, like family separation at the border, tons of people remain locked up for what's barely a misdemeanor, the equivalent of driving without a license, namely entering the country without papers. Biden has not shuttered detention centers, and he will likely keep the cap on the number of refugees to be admitted. While ICE and BP might not currently drive tanks through the streets of sanctuary cities, they still receive far more money than the FBI or the DEA. Their sole purpose is to surveil, detain and arrest a minority population that has no rights, and as long as millions of people have no rights, any claim that the U.S. is a free democracy is laughable. This same status quo prevailed in Germany at the start of Nazi rule, when the first laws were passed persecuting Jews.


How did we reach this abysmal state? The answer, simply, is nativism. But of course, how that became a potent mainstream poison is a complicated story, one told by Brendan O'Connor in his new book, Blood Red Lines. O'Connor clarifies the looming catastrophe, quoting Hannah Arendt on how the "denial of the right to have rights" was the precondition "for the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi Reich. 'A condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged.'"


It is not such a huge step from yanking an infant from its mother's arms forever, or sterilizing a young woman, to killing people. And remember, Trump shrieked that we needed the military at the border. Already, right-wing militias patrolling the southern frontier, armed with semi-automatic weapons, are not around for the aid and comfort of desperate migrants. Kindness has also been criminalized. Those who leave water bottles along desert routes, or who give weary migrants a lift to a way-station, or who provide medical care – they have found themselves in court, facing stiff prison sentences. How U.S. law tangled up like this is a wretched tale, and the anti-migrant snarl has ugly roots. But this country now shamelessly boasts a fearsome legal apparatus that dehumanizes a helpless population. Anyone who watched videos of unaccompanied three-year-olds under questioning in court during the Trump years could not help but conclude the U.S. was complicit in profound evil.


"It became clear to me," O'Connor writes of his encounters with the alt-right, "that these people were fascists…deeply, terrifyingly sincere political actors trying to make their way toward a world where anyone who did not fit into their vision of strength, beauty or worth was eliminated. Nothing would make them happier, I realized, than to see me and my friends dead." These same people got their hands on power for four years; they want to do so again. They thirst for power. Don't mistake their being sidelined for inactivity – the radical right still mobilizes.


Our immigration machinery, O'Connor writes, "is a bureaucratic behemoth that carries the genocidal mania of the settler past into the present." Biden has done nothing to dismantle that machinery, to cripple that behemoth. Don't expect him to. His administration belongs to the Clinton, Bush and Obama family tree. And altogether those three presidents deported 27 million people. They tossed plenty in what's euphemistically called detention, too. But we might as well be honest and call it by its name: prison, or, in some instances, concentration camps.


The other salient adversity here is that undocumented migrants form a helpless and vulnerable strata of the working class. Business lures them north for their cheap labor and for their powerlessness due to being "deportable." The threat of ICE means they can't organize in unions. These immigrants also provide grist for the carceral state mill. So fascist and capitalist policies intertwine with regard to migrants, which is why O'Connor sees the only possibly successful response to be a joint one – labor and antifascists must team up. "One of the functions of fascism, when capitalism is in crisis," he writes, "is the destruction of workers' movements that might genuinely challenge the system."


Blood Red Lines traces the right-wing movements and actions of prominent reactionaries like John Taunton and Peter Thiel, which have propelled us to the current precipice. Yes, labor and antifascists should unite. But a sledgehammer needs to be taken to the legalistic, bureaucratic monster threatening the millions of people whom it has declared have no rights. Though it's unlikely, Biden could still distinguish himself from his predecessors by handicapping that monster and affirming civil rights for migrants – before they lose the right to life. Because that is where we are headed. That is the abyss that yawns before us. And those that think it can't happen here haven't been paying attention.

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