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The bipartisan attack on immigrants

An interview with Aly Wane

Dana Cloud sat down with immigration justice activist Aly Wane to discuss how Democrats and Republicans, despite differences in rhetoric, have the same border agenda.

Dana Cloud: A few weeks ago, as you know, Biden and Trump both visited the Texas-Mexico border. Biden was selling his immigration bill that Trump encouraged Republicans to vote against. Even though Biden is pushing for more resources for border policing, Trump claimed (in his articulate way) that the U.S. is being overrun by the “Biden migrant crime.” Trump emphasized crimes committed by migrants. My perception is that his rhetoric of monstrosity regarding immigrants has a different tone from Biden’s, but do you think that they are essentially proposing similar controls?

Aly Wane: Yes. I’ve been an activist on this issue since at least the mid-2000s. And I would say that the Republicans have worse rhetoric and oftentimes Democrats have great rhetoric. There were plenty of times during the Obama administration when I would hear a speech that Obama gave on immigration and just be like, yeah, that’s great. Can we just follow through on what you just said? At the end of the day, both parties are law enforcement parties, and whenever there is anything that can even be construed as a crisis, Republicans have the advantage because Democrats do not change the narrative at all.

Their whole thing is, if Republicans talk about a crisis at the border, the Democrats’ first move would usually be, okay, let’s agree on more enforcement. Like, tell us how much more enforcement to add. And the only thing that upsets them is the rhetoric of Republicans. But at the end of the day, what is Biden proposing? Biden is proposing very, very similar things. In fact, the Biden administration has doubled down on some of Trump’s worst excesses in his desperation to get a deal after this last attempt at getting a deal failed, and I want to be clear that from my perspective as an activist, that immigration proposal was the Democrats basically giving everything to the Republicans.

There wasn’t even any kind of negotiation about maybe a path to citizenship for folks with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), for example, which is like the lowest of lowest bars, but even that wasn’t included. And I want to remind folks that Biden recently has been talking about how he wants to pass a deal with Trump.

That’s his whole thing: He’s so desperate to get something going that he’s inviting Trump to the table. The deal that was already rejected was already basically giving everything to the Republicans that they wanted. The only reasons they rejected it were that they wanted to humiliate Biden, number one, and number two, they want to propose something even worse under Trump.

And so when Biden’s inviting Trump to the table in negotiation, what he’s saying is, I’m absolutely willing to cave in even more on immigration. So all that is to say is that, unfortunately, right now Republicans totally own the narrative on immigration.

Democrats are playing on the same narrative field that the Republicans are, which is that right now we’re in the midst of a crisis. Therefore, the logic goes, we need to add more border enforcement. We need to add more drones. We need to add more agents. All of that. There is very little having to do with any kind of relief.

There was going to be some funding for more immigration judges, which would actually get to the problem because the reason why we keep having these crises is that the administrative piece of immigration has just been decimated, that people are caught up in all of these different bottlenecks and have been waiting forever. [Three million cases are pending in immigration courts.]

And that just keeps creating sort of more bottlenecks, which then makes it look visually like, oh, it’s this invasion, it’s this crisis. But the Dems, instead of actually standing up for immigrants and wanting to solve the crisis, which would involve a lot more on the relief side, are saying, yes, yes, things are really bad, so let’s add more money for enforcement.

immigrants hang on a chain-link fence, behind which they are trapped.
Immigrants at the U.S. border in Del Rio. Photo credit: Sandor Csudai.

That’s what the two-party system has been throwing at the issue for years. And I promise you, if they pass even more enforcement, we’re going to be back here in another year, another year and a half, two years, however long, because all it is, is making the crisis worse.

The more enforcement you put into the system, the more you choke off the avenues for people to come legally, the more you’re going to create bottlenecks that are going to create crises. And so it’s this very vicious cycle that keeps happening over and over again with Republicans and Democrats thinking that enforcement is going to solve the issue when more enforcement is actually what is creating all of these so-called crises.

DC: Can you speak a little bit more about the content of this bipartisan compromise that Biden has been pushing? I’ve heard it described as cruel and draconian. Did you want to speak to the effects or the consequences for the migrants themselves of these policies?

AW: It’s good to talk about the migrants, who are usually the last people to be considered in this conversation. If you look at the proposals, they want to add numbers to the detention bed mandate, for example, to add the number of people who would be required to be detained. Incarcerated. I’m not sure how many people are aware that there are these detention bed contracts that a lot of private prison corporations sort of sneak into immigration legislation.

A certain number of beds are guaranteed, which obviously creates an entire incentive for the immigration enforcement system to capture as many people as possible. So the bed mandate is one thing. The second thing is basically the decimation of the asylum system. Now, to be clear, the problem with the U.S. asylum system started way before Trump. I still remember in 2014 when international human rights organizations were decrying the U.S. detention system and asylum system under Obama, but that got very little notice.

So the system already started out as very stringent. Trump almost decimated it. And Biden’s way to deal with this crisis is to enshrine some of the ways in which Trump had decimated the current asylum system. There are provisions in this legislation going towards reducing the ability of people to get asylum.

I want to be really clear about this. The asylum system–even back in 2014, this was a system that was very stringent in the sense of having to apply at a certain place and then you have to go through an interview and it’s a long process, usually two years.

It’s a very stringent process. You can go through all of that and still, even back then, not get asylum. Now it’s gotten to a place where, if you are able to get asylum now, you are pretty lucky.

That is contrary to the mainstream narrative, which is that the problem is that our asylum system is too open, somehow too lax, and that too many people are getting through. It’s quite the opposite. So this is very much in line with what I was saying earlier; it’s another one of those things where both parties are actually contributing to the problem by making the asylum system worse.

You’re actually guaranteeing that you’re going to see more bottlenecks at the border, more visuals of immigrants basically pooling at border sites, which is only going to be fodder then for Republicans to turn around and say, look, see, we still have a problem. I guess we need to increase funding for ICE and all of those things.

And the problem, of course, is that the Democrats keep taking the bait, and that’s because they are essentially still very much a law enforcement party. And in fact, today, I was thinking to myself, when was the last time that I felt that there was such a bipartisan agreement on enforcement and immigration?

And I thought, this reminds me of what was happening in the mid-1990s. In the mid-1990s, you had Bill Clinton, who was a president whom Republicans considered to be way too liberal. As a way to overcompensate, he pushed the [1994] crime bill. [The senate version of the bill was originally drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden.] But then he pushed incredibly draconian immigration laws that are at the heart of this detention explosion and this deportation explosion.

Those 1996 laws were really bad. And now when I think about 2024, it’s a similar thing.

You have a Democratic Party president who doesn’t want to be seen as too lax. Therefore, he’s going to push draconian immigration policies, thinking that it will help him. The thing that is different though now is that there is a movement now in a way that there wasn’t back in the 1990s. So I don’t even understand why Biden is regressing to old Democratic Party strategies of just going along with the Republican narrative instead of trying to change it.

I think that over the past 20 years, Democrats have created an atmosphere and a regime where it is easy to pass enforcement issues, but anything having to do with release is seen as too weak or dangerous. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell your readers that the ”War on Terror turbocharged the entire immigration conversation.

So ever since then, any kind of immigration negotiation starts with a “national security concern.” They’re always going to start with more border patrol agents, more ICE agents, more money for prisons.

Until we can decouple those two conversations, that’s where we’re at. And as per usual, the Dems have done next to nothing to even re-educate the public. At best, what they’ve done over the past couple of years is to create a very, very small number of targeted categories of migrants who can maybe, if they jump through about a billion hoops, eventually win legalization.

I feel like the movement has had to just really push them into even that much. I mean, we would not have had even something like DACA, which Obama talked about all the time. I still remember fighting the Obama administration for DACA and how it took two years to convince the Dems that it was a good idea.

A crowd of protesters, mostly women. In the foreground, a Black woman in a navy shirt and sunglasses. Behind her, a serious looking woman with curly brown hair holds a multi-colored sign reading I may be a dreamer, but you're giving me nightmares.
DACA protest at Columbus Circle in New York. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

And now DACA is on the chopping block, which a lot of us were warning about in terms of that being a strategy. And all the Dems are left with is another one of those defensive postures, like, well, Republicans are talking about how there’s a crisis. And poll numbers maybe don’t look so great right now, so let’s not even try to change the public’s mind on this.

Let’s just do what we always do, which is to agree on more enforcement, thinking that it will appease Republicans. This is why I was so confident about this last deal not passing. It was terrible and awful, actually based on the politics of the Republican Party.

The Republicans didn’t even ask for it. It just reminds me of the Democratic Party tactic of starting just like, all right, we’ll give you like the bulk of what you want, like, are we good? And every time they do that, of course, the Republicans are like, yeah, we want more. Because they’re not idiots.

DC: Let’s return to the asylum point for a second, because when I was watching that State of the Union response from the Republicans, Senator Katie Britt invoked that story of the person who was being sex trafficked by the cartels. Apparently, Republicans think that story was great for their cause, and I guess it was, to the extent that people don’t understand it, but how does that even make any sense, because the problem is that that woman needed to have asylum, and she wasn’t going to get asylum.

What are your thoughts on that?

AW: There’s been a follow-up: The woman whose story was told came out and said, I don’t know what she was talking about. That’s not at all what I was trying to convey. First of all, this story did not happen under Biden; it happened a long time ago. And she herself was an advocate for victims of trafficking. The solution is actually more ability for people to have access to asylum, not less.

And she was clear that she was offended by the way her story was used. She said this was one of the reasons why she didn’t work with politicians one-on-one all that much, because she often felt that her story was used as a political football, as opposed to wanting to help the people that she wanted to help. That’s par for the course. They will use these stories to scaremonger and then hope that no one’s gonna do any research on it to find out what the true story actually was.

DC: We talked about Biden’s use of the word “illegal,” which he backtracked on. What do you think about his attempt to salvage something after that?

AW: You should really pay very little attention to what politicians say; you should almost exclusively pay attention to what politicians do.

To  a certain degree, I appreciate him saying, okay, I should have used “undocumented” instead of “illegal,” but to me, what really matters is policy, so it doesn’t really matter whether you call people “undocumented” or “illegal.” It’s what you actually do with these people. I want to be clear–there’s clearly a difference between the sort of open hostility of someone like Trump and Biden, who is just basically a typical Democratic Party person who just does not want to be outflanked as too soft on immigration.

So to me, it barely even registered in the conversation. You know, one of the activists that I’ve worked with in the past is Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out as documented a while back. I think he was on the Time Magazine cover, much more of a mainstream sort of activist than I am, but he wrote a pretty good piece, where he talked about how people are focusing on the term illegal, but it’s not as important as the actual policy.

He had been one of the key activists who had been fighting editorial boards to get them to stop using the term illegal. So even that was a political battle, but even as a prominent activist who had worked on this issue, it was just like, yeah, whatever.

We want action. I couldn’t care less what you call us. Just, you know, do right by us. That’s all that matters.

DC: I thought it was kind of gross that Biden in his State of the Union speech even mentioned the murder of the Georgia graduate student Laken Riley and played up that story about her having been [allegedly] murdered by an undocumented person, as if that single tragic case proves something about the entire system of immigration.

AW: I wasn’t surprised. I mean, maybe it’s one of the reasons why I veered into depression rather than anger, because so much of what I’m seeing, it’s just like, yep, could have called it. It’s his instinct; he’s looking at the poll numbers. They’re not looking great on immigration and he’s faced with two options.

The hard thing would be to make a forceful case for immigration. But the easy thing to do as a politician is to say, we’re not looking great, so I should tell everyone how tough I am on this, especially since Democrats have done such a terrible job of describing the scope of the crisis.

For example, one of the things that people have been talking about a lot recently is migrants being bused to cities like New York and Chicago. Now, a lot of these migrants are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are different from undocumented people. Asylum seekers have gone through a legal process.

As they continue going through the process, they should have access to the legal right to work. That’s international law. That’s not partisan politics. But even that’s becoming an issue, because Republicans are saying, there are migrants at the border and we just bused them up there. And now they’re draining your resources. See how it feels?

A sophisticated way to start to push back on that would be to start to make the legal distinction between asylum seekers and undocumented people, because these are not people who just showed up. These are people going through a process. Technically, these people have internationally protected rights, the legal right to work, but the mainstream media and the Democrats haven’t made that distinction and allowed Republicans to capture the issue and charge Biden with allowing these people to work as if that’s an aberration.

I’ve been an activist on this issue for years. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I would get all of these nuances. If I were just receiving all of this negative media coverage about migrants being bused left and right and a “crisis” at the border, I wouldn’t have time as a regular U.S. citizen to figure out what’s really going on here. No, people just get their news and they have a sense that there’s a crisis. And because the Dems have done such a poor job of explaining the crisis, right now the ball is totally in the Republicans’ corner.

So they’re stuck in this defensive crouch of like, please take as many of our enforcement concessions as possible. Save our hides, in their mind, by taking more enforcement concessions from us.

Now, who’s conspicuously absent from that circle of concern? Migrants themselves, and so that, that’s how you get someone like the mayor of New York Eric Adams, who’s been coming out and saying things that sound really xenophobic to me, but couching it the terms of, we’re trying to do our best, but all of these migrants are just overrunning our services.

For a Democratic party politician, that’s the easy route.

DC: It’s interesting that you just mentioned Eric Adams, because it was going to be my next question to ask about the context of the greater security state/tough-on-crime discourse. Are these things connected to you?

AW: As a Black migrant, as part of a cohort of Black migrants, we are at this kind of painful intersection of the “regular” law enforcement system and the immigration enforcement system.

It’s all the same carceral logic. It has not escaped me that Eric Adams, as a former cop, sees everything from an enforcement perspective. But this is why I said earlier on in this conversation that one of the things that often observers miss about this conversation is that both parties are essentially law enforcement parties.

I want to repeat that. Both parties are law enforcement parties. While I, for example, am someone who’s a leftist and I’m interested in the abolitionist conversation, both in regular law enforcement and in immigration, I know that that is far from where the Democratic Party is in terms of its concerns.

As someone who did some organizing within the Movement for Black Lives, I remember that I was excited to see that the conversation around abolition was starting to pick up steam and that it was becoming a more popular conversation, but I immediately thought to myself, yeah, but the Dems are not going to do anything about it.

They’re going to give us a couple of slogans and murals, paintings, and dashikis or whatever. But when it comes to police budgets, that shit is not touched. Whether you’re talking about the law enforcement conversation or the immigration conversation, it’s the same conversation. You’re ultimately talking about who’s deserving and who’s undeserving. And the undeserving category keeps getting wider when it comes to both immigration and law enforcement in general.

There’s a corporate aspect to this. The private prison corporation conversation is very important. It’s a through line in these issues.

They’ve made a lot of money incarcerating Black and Brown citizens under the so-called war on drugs. Once the war on terror sort of exploded, those very same private corporations were the ones who helped write anti-immigrant legislation that would actually end up lining up their own pockets.

This is how you get to the whole recent conversation around bed mandates in detention centers, for example. So the two things in my mind are tied, crime and immigration. And there is a kind of purity politics there, and by purity politics, I mean in terms of symptoms of rising fascism.

You know, whenever you have larger and larger categories of who’s seen as undeserving, as diseased to the body politic, to be extricated, pushed out, that usually is a sign that we’re getting close to fascist territory.

And so, to me, it makes total sense that there are rising concerns around crime and the border crisis. The thing that’s fascinating to me is that if you look at the numbers, both crises, if you even want to call them that, have been greatly, greatly exaggerated.

Often people talk about border politics, and it’s like symbolic politics because they have very little to do with actually fixing a problem. The border has become a kind of sociological boogeyman, just this idea that there’s danger there.

We need to figure out what the problem is and fix it. But instead of actually fixing it, which would mean the types of solutions that would actually include relief and letting people through. It’s easier to just sell fear and keep adding more law enforcement, so that in some hypothetical future, we might be safe. But it is literally like watching an addict or something like that. You know, you could give them as much enforcement as you want. It’s not going to solve the problem, but it plays well in terms of short-term politics. And that’s where Republicans have the advantage.

A massive crowd holding signs demanding justice for immigrants. There are American and Mexican flags.
Immigrant rights march, May Day, 2006 in Los Angeles. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

DC: That’s interesting, what you said about purity politics and proto-fascism or fascism. Since the pandemic, there has been a lot of fear-mongering about Chinese migration. And then there’s the rivalry between the United States and China as part of the context. Do you have any thoughts on that?

AW: The incidents of assault against our Asian kinfolk here were very real. I had a bunch of Asian organizer friends who were not feeling really safe. Conversations about Chinese migrants are connected to both imperial politics and the immigration issue. It’s citizenship politics writ large.

In the U.S., citizenship politics are white identity politics. Even now in 2024, when people think about who is a U. S. citizen, people think of a straight white person. I have connections with folks who are in Asian immigrant advocacy groups who are wonderful and radical. They’ve been U.S. citizens their entire lives, they’re in their forties and fifties–and to this day, people still ask them where they’re from.

They’re still seen as foreign, which tells you that the conversation around immigration is necessarily a conversation about race. And this is where those of us who are at that intersection of blackness and immigration come in. As an undocumented Black person, I don’t have any illusions that, if I were to become a U. S. citizen today, that would keep me safe. I’m looking around at my Black citizen kinfolk, and they’re not exactly taken care of by the state or cared for by the state.

They’re being gunned down left and right by law enforcement. Yes, there’s a conversation about empire and imperialism, which is really clear, but there’s also obviously the basic conversation around white supremacy and how it operates in the imaginary around citizenship.

This is one of the many ironies of President Obama becoming the first Black president and then ending up deporting people at record rates. Even though he was president for eight years, people still wondered whether he was an American.

DC:  I am wondering whether you can connect the horrific unfolding of the border “crisis” to the horrific genocide unfolding  in Gaza. Are you seeing any links between the way that the United States is treating immigrants and how Israel is treating Palestinians?

AW: There are some thematic connections. I don’t want to make the connection too strong because I don’t want to minimize the horror Palestinians are going through right now.

I feel like I’ve had a pretty high tolerance for things over the years. This is something that is very, very hard to deal with.

That being said, if you delve into some of the rhetoric around immigrants and the rhetoric around Palestinians, it’s all tied to the larger problem of nationalism. Nationalism implies citizenship. Citizenship implies inclusion versus exclusion. It implies people who are desirable versus people who are undesirable. It implies the conversation around security and who is seen as human and who is seen as non-human. There are some parallels. Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. often get trained in Israel. There’s a lot of sharing around surveillance technology between folks who work in the IDF versus folks who work in ICE and CBP.

That technology has been used by those agencies for years. So there’s a sort of corporate connection there in terms of who profits from that misery. The themes around dispossession, land, who belongs, all of those things are very, very clear in terms of what migrants go through and what Palestinians go through.

But I don’t want to be glib. We’re talking about immense misery in either case.

In both cases, we have to bring it back to the Democratic Party strategy.

One of the major reasons why Biden wanted this deal where he gave everything to Republicans on immigration was to secure more funding for Ukraine and Israel, right? So that was one of the things that was the most depressing these past couple of weeks: realizing that one of the major reasons that the Biden administration was pushing this awful deal was to increase its ability to immiserate the lives of Palestinians.

Many people in a dark room lay on the floor, slouched against walls, sleeping men, women, and children. Some children are walking around.
Asylum seekers at the border. Photo credit: Sandor Csudai.

I feel sick to my stomach about it. I know that there are calculations to be made about 2024, but on a personal level, and I’ve spoken to a lot of other immigration activists, people are pretty angry at Biden right now, feeling like they’re not sure if they have what it takes to push for Biden in 2024. It was hard enough to do it in 2020.

DC: So what, in your view, should we activists and the readers of Tempest and your people and my people, what should we be doing now?

AW: I always go back to what’s happening at the grassroots. Wherever you are, I’m sure there is a local activist group that is doing work that’s important for migrants. I would certainly emphasize doing any anti-deportation work or any work that would support immigrants.

That may not be straightforwardly political, but that might be helping migrants get access to basic resources, food, clothing, and health care. All of those things matter. This is what I’m thinking about as I’m trying to create this workshop for Black migrants.

There’s the immigration political conversation happening here, and that’s important, but that’s not as important as your survival. Right now, what immigrants need are allies that help them with basic survival. Also, it’s important to make spaces where they can push back on the negative rhetoric. I would just emphasize the local for people.

DC: And so what about you? Like, what is your relationship to the electoral process and the Democrats?

AW: I’m still fully undocumented. The whole voting thing is really interesting to me because as an activist for years, I’ve been telling people don’t take your access to vote for granted precisely because I can’t vote.

On a personal level with this election, it’s literally the first time that I asked myself, if I could vote, would I vote for Biden? Even if it were a state where it mattered, I don’t think I could. I’ve tried as much as possible to stay away from just being like one- or two-issue voters, but it’s Palestine. I’ve gone back to therapy because it has wrecked my soul and it is disgusting to me that Democratic Party politicians are making this out to be just an electoral inconvenience.

Children are being slaughtered as they are trying to access international food aid. And we’re being asked to look past that. No. Biden is absolutely complicit in genocide right now. That makes it much, much harder to make the case for the lesser evil.

DC: What would you say to readers who may be worried about Trump’s alignment with the far-right?

AW: I do believe that a Trump presidency would be worse. But Palestine is a major red line. I was surprised at how well the uncommitted campaign has gone in Michigan. The numbers were much larger than I thought they would be. At first, Biden and his team were like, well, it’s just a couple of Arabs and Muslims, I guess, we don’t need to worry about it.

Then they looked at the numbers, they were like, well, maybe it’s Arabs and Muslims and young people. They’re trying to convince themselves that it’s okay. I think they’re looking at a potential iceberg.

I don’t know any pro-Palestinian activists who looked at Biden’s plan for aid to Gaza and said, yes, he nailed it. No, it has infuriated more people, because, as you probably know, the issue is not the resources, the issue is access to resources.

And Israel right now is making it very hard for those resources to be accessed. What are we talking about here at this point? It’s strictly for the consumption of voters that had very little to do actually caring about Palestinians.

We should say to Biden, just tell Israelis right now to let the food in or we’re cutting off at least your military aid. The fact is that Biden can’t even cross that bottom line. At the end of the day, he’s ideologically committed to this genocide.

DC: Is there anything else you would want to say about any of these issues before we wrap up?

AW: All I want to do is send love to activists and organizers. I know it’s hard. We’ve been immigration activists for ten, fifteen years or more. Sometimes folks wonder, what is even the point?

We keep having to fight the Democrats on this. Like with Republicans, it’s always clear. We understand where Republicans stand. But it’s just that every time there’s even the slightest ripple in the water for Democrats, the first group of people that they throw under the bus is migrants. I want to send some love to those folks and remind them to find support in their own communities, and not so much sustenance in the political system which we just can’t count on.

Featured image credit: Donna Burton: modified by Tempest.

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Aly Wane and Dana Cloud View All

Aly Wane is a Syracuse-based immigration activist who serves on the board of the Immigrant Justice Network and Freedom University.

Dana Cloud is a scholar of communication and critical cultural studies and movements for social justice currently teaching at California State University, Fullerton. She is a member of the California Faculty Association and Tempest.