Immigration is one of those divisive issues that is easier to conceive of in the abstract, often a moniker for a party’s platform we will inevitably vote for or against, and incites or assuages feelings of anger or guilt. Over the last three years, there has been an ideological back-and-forth over putting “kids in cages,” separating children from families, and forced sterilizations and hysterectomies. These stories, horrifying in both their truth and what we try to ignore, are mediated through our “usual” public discourse and social media feeds where dissecting the problem at hand is painfully simple at such a distance.
Since withdrawing from Afghanistan, the U.S. has had to reenter the refugee resettlement discussion. Last fall it was projected that 95,000 refugees will be relocated by the end of this year. By February 15th, Michigan is expected to be home to over 1,600 Afghan refugees, 36% of which will have been relocated to the southeastern part of the state.
Detroit, which is known as a “welcoming city” has had a long history with immigration and the neighboring city Dearborn has the largest Lebanese-American population in the nation, with roughly 42% of its total population being Arab.
Newly elected Detroit City Council Member, Gabriela Santiago-Romero has had a history of advocating for Detroit to become a “sanctuary city” in order to offer local protections to refugees and immigrants.
Recently, however, Detroit has fallen into the national spotlight of immigration anxieties which have reignited anti-immigration fervors.
Just this past week, the story of Issam Bazzi has made headlines. A Lebanese-born Venezuelan, Bazzi was detained at the U.S.-Mexico border this past November while trying to cross the Rio Grande. Issam Bazzi is also on the FBI’s Terrorism Watchlist. According to the Deadline Detroit article, ICE released Bazzi against the FBI’s recommendations to hold him in custody due to “highly derogatory information.” Bazzi is also reported to be a flight risk. ICE’s reasoning for releasing Bazzi was based on his susceptibility to COVID-19 due to being overweight; nevertheless, he is reported as having ties with an “unspecified terrorist group.”
When faced with such reports, notions of a “sanctuary city” of course welcome impossible fears of fully open borders and the constant flow of others - a weird, mixed metaphor for both the mobilization of capital, the true destroyer of worlds.
Is this story so cut-and-dry? Did a terrorist slip into our midst or is it a matter of someone seeking asylum? If it’s some sort of fear-mongering posture, why is it so important? Is this simply ideology-at-work, and if so - what’s the urgency?
First of all, we need to understand how this ideology gets its strength - its authority.
As Todd Bensman argues, Bazzi’s “release to the Detroit area reveal[s] a national security threat embedded in this new Venezuelan traffic not previously considered. It is a threat with which U.S. homeland security will be challenged to contend, competently, due to the mass migration crisis.” Former chief of international terrorism operations of the FBI, Andrew Arena, claims this to be a “kinder, gentler approach” to border security, adding that “[i]t doesn't make a whole lot of sense.”
Such arguments capture the “normal” anxiety of every American immediately after the World Trade Center bombings of September 11th, 2001. Not so surprisingly, such anxieties have not waned much in the last twenty years and the U.S.-Mexico border quickly became the concerned point of entry for terrorists.
According to the Center of Immigration Studies, “[u]nder Biden Policies, ICE removals have plummeted to a fraction of normal levels.” If we are considering “normal” levels of deportations, then we are already caught in the deadlock of ideology rather than a political issue we can directly address. Such a headline even begets its own contradiction: wouldn’t lower levels of deportations mean ICE is working properly? If such a question is completely sidestepped, the obvious concern is how should ICE be functioning? A state apparatus such as ICE functioning at “normal” levels constantly ought to leave no one feeling comfortable, and yet it does.
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, this covers the entire state of Michigan. Far from patrolling borders, CBP and ICE are both further extensions of policing forces and the justification for the militarization of such forces.
Also, the “new Venezuelan traffic” is of specific concern because of the country’s alleged ties to Iran, and this narrative of Venezuela’s involvement ties right back into the concerns over Russia and China as tensions in the “new Cold War” continue to escalate. It should be even less surprising that, much like Bush’s “axis of evil,” there is already a presupposed politics of the immigrant - one that’s always-already aligned against American interests.
At a time of perpetually renewed crises, the state itself has been shown as ineffective and impotent. Unable to mask a failing system’s weaknesses during a pandemic leaves few options in order to maintain a level of authority: either undercut the power of the “external” threat (e.g. “coronavirus is the new normal just like the seasonal flu”) or partially align with the threat itself (e.g. “symptoms are mild, those with comorbidities are the only people at risk”) - the approach which is all-too-specific to Issam Bazzi’s release for being “overweight.”
As the accepted fantasy of the United States can no longer be upheld in light of its (most recent) failures, the fantasy itself must be “rebuilt” - or, more accurately, repositioned with new support: the old “threats” to liberal democracy are no longer enough, we need to reimagine a threat that both hates our way of life and can enjoy its stay here in America. In this case, that very threat is Bazzi being protected from COVID-19 and staying in a quiet suburban home.
Second, we need to understand who is being addressed by this ideology.
Locating the ideology-at-work within the topic of immigration does not lessen or minimize the actual misery of those attempting to enter or live in the U.S. The problem, rather, is how such misery has been elevated into the place of ideology; and, likewise, how this ideology is so tempting for those hearing it.
What has solidified the status of “immigration” as a problem of ideology is not the work of one administration over the other, but precisely in the double meaning of Kamala Harris’s words last summer addressed to Guatemalans: telling them “do not come” to the United States, while expressing the administration’s desire “to help [them] find hope at home.” It’s very easy to dismiss these words as completely false, but the truth resides in the fact that Guatemalans were not the addressees of these words at all - Americans were. These words were about both Guatemalans (and all possible immigrants) and Americans insofar as Americans were assured there was “hope at home” for them and no intruding other to offset such hope.
Third, we need to understand what this ideology is meant to hide - what makes it more palatable than any potential truth, even when we are aware of that very truth.
America is once again facing a labor shortage. Not only is the shortage imminent, but it's also projected into the upcoming generations as deaths have exceeded birth rates in several states. Generally, when such threats to the labor force become clear, anti-abortion legislation gains more ground as well; or, as Jenny Brown sums up in her work Without Apology, “as capitalism returns, so do demands for higher birth rates.”
What’s more is that, those who peddle anti-immigration sentiments know very well the dependency our economy has on immigration and cheap labor - after all, undocumented workers are paid much less than “legal” citizens.
In a recent article from Crain’s Detroit Business, a call-to-action urged readers for more “participation” in the labor market, calling out hospitality jobs specifically. Immigrants make up 22% of the hospitality industry nationwide. It is these very “menial” jobs that are left by the U.S. working class and occupied by immigrants and refugees.
Going back to the anxieties after 9/11, today it’s not only some “outside” threat coming to harm us, but also to take over (and thus cheapen) labor in several industries. Such threats call for stronger state apparatuses, not only to protect us from them but to keep us at such a distance that their misery never spills over into ours.
The traumatic reality of capitalism continues to come home to roost, and state power continues to garner strength in these moments. It almost seems that when we are in need of infrastructural and systematic changes the most, fears of the figure of the “immigrant” are reignited, thus closing the circle: the final passage to complete the logic here is that the “immigrant” is responsible for/eating up the resources of this failing state. “Immigration” is the “pandemic” we’re used to - the one we can make sense of and know how to “fix.” Pointing to any one of these facts is, of course, not enough - not enough to show the arbitrariness of state authority. The ideological fantasy doesn’t succumb to its own inconsistencies - argue with someone long enough and this becomes painfully clear. What makes this arbitrary authority unbearable is when we “trust”
Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based out of Detroit. He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.