Natascha Elena Uhlmann
Art by Paul Chan
1. The Costliest Fruit
Guatemala, 1953. The United Fruit Company—you may know them as Chiquita Bananas—is uneasy. Guatemala’s president, Jacobo Árbenz is implementing broad reforms benefiting Guatemala’s poor. Among the reforms is an expanded right to vote, the right for workers to unionize, and, most worryingly from United Fruit’s perspective, an agrarian reform law that would grant Guatemala’s poverty-stricken farmers small plots of unused land. Agrarian reform was desperately needed; at the time the reforms were enacted, just 2 percent of the population controlled 72 percent of Guatemala’s arable land. While starvation and malnutrition plagued the country, less than 12 percent of arable land was being put to use. Land redistribution was not only a moral imperative but a practical necessity; the state needed to expand agricultural production to feed its many hungry mouths.
Decree 900, as it was known, redistributed massive unused land holdings to Guatemala’s poorest inhabitants, typically indigenous groups that had been sentenced to poverty and exclusion since the days of conquest. Though landowners were duly compensated for the expropriation of their untilled land, the mere prospect of redistribution sent Guatemala’s wealthy elite into a moral panic. As thousands of poverty-stricken Guatemalans starved, the elite proclaimed that the reforms would destroy Guatemala’s economy. As the United Fruit Company wiped out forests across the continent, they declared that the reforms would have grave environmental consequences. Their fear-mongering failed to resonate with those systematically excluded from Guatemala’s bounty.
At the time of the reform, the United Fruit Company owned nearly half of Guatemala’s land. With an eye toward maximizing profits, they left vast tracts of land uncultivated—as much as 85 percent of the company’s acreage was left idle. Even so, the prospect of redistribution was inconceivable to the UFC. While Decree 900 offered compensation for land seized by the government, the land’s worth was determined by the value listed on property tax statements. When the administration set out to pay $627,572 for expropriated land—per the UFC’s own declared taxable value—the UFC insisted that the land was in fact worth twenty times as much.
On June 18, 1954, US-trained forces invaded Guatemala, led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. Though, with only five hundred men in total, they were massively outnumbered, the mere fact of US support made defeat inevitable in the eyes of the Guatemalan army. Knowing the United States would invade with the smallest of pretexts, those within the army ranks began to call for Árbenz to resign. Árbenz stepped down and lived out his life in exile. In October of the same year, all political parties were banned from running for election. Castillo Armas ran unopposed, winning with a reported 99 percent of the vote. It is hard to lose an election when your opponents know they will be slaughtered.
Castillo Armas wasted no time in eliminating perceived threats to his power. Within days of his ascent, he had over two thousand suspected radicals arrested. Acting on the advice of the CIA, Castillo Armas also created the National Committee of Defense Against Communism, a shadowy police force with unchecked powers to detain and deport. Before long, one-tenth of Guatemala’s adult population appeared on a list of suspected communists. Those charged had no right to an appeal.
What followed was a conflict that claimed two hundred thousand lives. To call it a civil war would imply some sort of symmetrical aggression. This was a slaughter. The brutality of state repression can hardly be overstated—as many as fifty thousand civilians were “disappeared,” and 93 percent of documented human rights violations were attributed to police and military forces. Indigenous Mayas were slaughtered wholesale, burned alive, or impaled in front of their families. Military forces slashed open the wombs of pregnant women and threw their children into mass graves. State terror escalated dramatically under dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. Though the conflict spanned thirty-six years, 81 percent of human rights violations— including extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, and sexual violence—took place in a five-year span during his reign. Under Ríos Montt, death squads patrolled poor rural areas with impunity, and soldiers forced women into sexual slavery.
A UN truth commission report found that US support was essential to the Guatemalan terror campaign. Trained by US forces, with full US knowledge and consent, the Guatemalan military tortured, executed, and “disappeared” thousands. Entire Maya villages were razed, their inhabitants slaughtered, all to deny guerrillas a hiding place. In the midst of the bloodshed, President Reagan would assert that Ríos Montt was “a man of great integrity” and “totally dedicated to democracy.”
Years before the reforms, Árbenz famously proclaimed: “All the riches of Guatemala are not as important as the life, the freedom, the dignity, the health and the happiness of the most humble of its people. How wrong we would be if—mistaking the means for the end—we were to set financial stability and economic growth as the supreme goals of our policy, sacrificing to them the well being of our masses.”
We are here because you were there.
2. The Deporter in Chief
“Yes We Can!”
President Obama closed out his presidency with the words that came to define his campaign. The phrase galvanized supporters, appearing on campaign posters and repeated at many a campaign stop. It carried a special resonance for Latino voters; a loose translation of labor activist Dolores Huerta’s “Sí, se puede,” it spoke to the dreams and aspirations of millions for a better world. Through this rallying cry, Obama came to signify hope. Huerta’s words, after all, meant redefining what was possible: a radical promise of change. To some, he was change itself.
To others, he was the deporter in chief.
Under Obama, deportations reached record highs. More than 2.8 million immigrants were deported during his tenure—more than under any administration before him. Immigration enforcement funding reached $18 billion in fiscal year 2012, a sum that dwarfed spending on the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, and ATF combined. The administration touted a focus on “Felons, not families,” further conflating immigrants with a threat to the nation’s security, yet you could be deported for minor offenses such as jumping a turnstile, street vending, or, in a shameless display of circular logic, entering the country itself. In one particularly shocking case, a grandmother of four was detained by ICE and accused of gang involvement on the word of one officer alone. This narrative of the deserving immigrant bases worth on proximity to whiteness, on the ability and willingness to be exploited by capital.
Obama’s willingness to employ the good immigrant–bad immigrant dichotomy set the stage for Trump’s wholesale denigration of immigrants. While embracing the DREAMers, undocumented youths who arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen, Obama made major concessions to the xenophobic demands of the Right. Appealing to the innocence of undocumented youths, who “came here through no fault of their own,” while ramping up enforcement against migrants with minor convictions creates a false dichotomy between those who deserve our solidarity and those who do not. Obama readily accepted a narrative that privileges certain immigrants and throws the rest under the bus.
Defenders argue the surge in immigration enforcement was rooted in a change in how deportations are measured. They’re closer to the truth than they think. Where previous administrations favored a policy of “catch and release,” the Obama administration moved toward formal deportation proceedings that further criminalized migrants. Through a process known as “expedited removal,” migrants caught near the border zone could now be removed without a hearing and face marks on their permanent immigration records. In one fell swoop, migrants faced significantly harsher penalties—those with a previous deportation were a top enforcement priority for ICE—and were summarily deprived of basic screening processes. The bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom found that “in 15 percent of observed cases when an arriving alien expressed a fear of return to the inspector, the alien was not referred [to a credible fear interview] by an asylum officer.” In the 2013 fiscal year, nearly half of all deportations were conducted without due process.
“The Trump administration has elevated the worst impulses of our immigration system. But there is danger in seeing Trump’s cruelty as a wholly new phenomenon. A system that assumes nefarious intent on the part of immigrants significantly predates Trump and his ilk.”
3. Arming Abusers
As the news spread of Donald Trump’s electoral victory, fear and disbelief stretched across the country. One man, however, was ecstatic. Under Trump, he would finally be able to do his job uninterrupted: Thomas Homan, then director of ICE, said he’s “taking the handcuffs off.”
Since its inception, ICE has terrorized communities and torn families apart with gusto. But Trump’s ascension represents something wholly different. In the first eight months of his presidency, ICE arrests skyrocketed by 42 percent. Courthouse arrests—despite their chilling effect on public safety— jumped a shocking 1,700 percent. As Obama-era deportation priorities are cast aside, the agency can work more efficiently and sow terror throughout the process. ICE is emboldened like never before, and no one is safe: veterans, cancer patients, and grandmothers have been ordered to be deported under the new administration.
The Trump administration has had its share of conspicuous villains. But some work more quietly in the shadows. Take L. Francis Cissna, head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Under Trump, Cissna has overseen the establishment of a “denaturalization task force,” a team of investigators setting out to strip immigrants of citizenship granted under “false pretenses.” Though the announcement was cloaked in the language of protecting the American people, the practice makes us all less safe: allowing an agency to make broad assessments of moral character sets a precedent no citizen would wish to be subjected to. Cissna didn’t stop there: under his watch, the administration announced a new rule stating that immigrants who legally used public benefits would be denied green cards, forcing millions of poor immigrants to turn down desperately needed assistance.
Under Trump, the nature of enforcement changed radically. Where his more ambitious plans—such as the Muslim ban or eliminating domestic abuse as a protected category for asylum—were promptly challenged, a few more insidious changes took hold. The administration came to favor a policy known as “attrition through enforcement,” whereby conditions for immigrants become so inhumane that some choose to self-deport. Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state, laid it out: “Illegal aliens are rational decision makers. If the risks of detention or involuntary removal go up, and the probability of being able to obtain unauthorized employment goes down, then at some point, the only rational decision is to return home.” Perversely, then, even Trump’s failed stunts still yield the desired effect: fostering a climate of fear.
As part of that strategy, the administration has employed an unyielding ideological campaign against migrants seeking safety. In May 2018, the White House published an article titled: “What You Need to Know about the Violent Animals of MS-13.” In a memo of fewer than five hundred words, the administration used the word “animals” ten times. The intent is clear: to conflate Salvadoran asylum seekers with the very gangs that terrorize them into fleeing. Of course, no mention is made of US culpability in creating and fueling the gang crisis in Central America. By the time activists and journalists point this out, the damage has been done: all immigrants are now suspect.
The Democratic Party, for its part, has offered little in the way of resistance. Time and time again they have capitulated to Republican demands, even where victory lay within reach. The problem is simple: ultimately the Democrats don’t differ as much from Republicans as we might like to think. The Democrats have accepted wholesale the Republican framing of an immigration “crisis” and readily accept the need for increased enforcement in the name of safety. Sure, they may decry the GOP’s more barbaric impulses—such as SB1070 and Trump’s posturing for a wall—but their outrage means little when they have presided over some of the most extreme border militarization in our nation’s history.
There are, of course, exceptions: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a historic election, campaigning on the promise to abolish ICE. In a landslide victory, she unseated an opponent who had represented the district since 1999. Her success has inspired a wave of challengers targeting contested seats from the left, prompting comfortable Democratic incumbents in New York State to engage with more progressive policy demands. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib also made history in 2019 as the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Their campaigns, too, centered the demand to abolish ICE. These victories demonstrate a desire for a true progressive agenda.
The Trump administration has elevated the worst impulses of our immigration system. But there is danger in seeing Trump’s cruelty as a wholly new phenomenon. A system that assumes nefarious intent on the part of immigrants significantly predates Trump and his ilk.
4. Don’t Wait Until We’re Martyrs
What is the outcome of this bipartisan hostility? A blood-stained journey. Even as fewer take off on the migrant trail, border deaths are up. I spoke with Justine, a volunteer with the immigrant advocacy group No More Deaths. The group distributes water throughout the arid Sonoran Desert to prevent migrant deaths along the border. Earlier this year, they drew attention to the Border Patrol’s systematic destruction of water drops left for migrants. Within hours, footage of Border Patrol agents emptying water jugs had drawn over two hundred thousand views. That same day, Border Patrol agents arrested Scott Warren, a college instructor and No More Deaths volunteer, on charges of harboring migrants. He faces two decades in prison if convicted.
“For folks who have never traveled through the Sonoran Desert, it is crucial to understand that it is physically impossible for a human being to carry enough water to hike on foot through the corridors most migrants pass through from the border into the United States,” notes Justine.
“In the summer,” Justine explained, “temperatures in southern Arizona and northern Mexico easily reach 115 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the winter, temperatures can drop below freezing. This is where Clinton’s policy of Prevention through Deterrence comes into play: in the mid-1990s, urban areas were walled off, checkpoints were added strategically along major roads and routes, and there was a sharp increase in agents patrolling the border. Where deaths along the border were previously low, numbers quickly multiplied. The goal of Prevention through Deterrence was to push those crossing without papers into the most dangerous parts of the desert so as to avoid detection. The US government knew people would die, and argued that this would deter other crossers. But with nearly eighty-five hundred remains recovered since the mid-1990s in the Sonoran Desert (and that is just remains found—we have to estimate the numbers are much higher, given the rapid rate of decomposition in such extreme conditions), Prevention through Deterrence has only served to make the desert a weapon of Border Patrol. So long as the root causes of forced migration remain unaddressed, people will continue to risk their lives crossing in search of safety. To die in the desert, as so many have, is a painful, slow, lonely, and blistering death, that no one should suffer through.”
Prevention through Deterrence has forced migrants ever deeper into desolate terrain. As No More Deaths highlights in their Disappeared report, the Border Patrol’s very indicators of success for the program are violent to their core. They include “fee increases by smugglers,” “possible increases in complaints,” and “more violence at attempted entries.” Border Patrol cannot feign ignorance of the death and dispossession they have wrought. It’s built into the plan.
The Border Patrol itself claims that some six thousand migrants have died crossing into the United States since the 1990s. However, evidence suggests the agency drastically undercounts the number of border deaths. Even if they were operating in good faith—that’s giving a lot of credit to an agency whose benchmarks for success involve hastening preventable deaths—tracking death in the desert is a tall order. In 2014, a group of anthropologists set out to investigate bodily decomposition patterns in the Sonoran Desert. They dressed pig carcasses in the sort of clothes worn by migrants, alongside personal effects like wallets and identification, and left them in the desert. Within five days, animal scavengers had approached the corpse. Two days later, a domestic dog was found chewing on the corpse’s ruptured intestines. Within weeks, most of the bones had been scattered across the desert. Within two months, the academics conclude, “skeletal regions most useful for forensic identification are unlikely to be well preserved.” After this point, DNA analysis is necessary to identify the remains. So neatly is the Border Patrol’s complicity swept through the sands.
Sandra, an undocumented migrant now seeking asylum on the East Coast, knows the pain of the deterrence policy firsthand. “[Border Patrol agents] scattered us, had us running in different directions. We were terrified. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I needed to.” She reflects a moment. “My nephew, he crossed two months ago. We still haven’t heard from him.”
As the border becomes increasingly militarized, migrants are pushed deeper into arid and inaccessible terrain. There, they face deadly weather extremes and dehydration—and that’s if they’re lucky. Extortion by narcos is increasingly common. Stories of rape along the migrant trail are so common that some bring birth control on the journey. The United States has effectively created a human trafficking industry.
5. When Survival Is a Crime
I spoke to Geoff Kagan Trenchard, a lawyer and immigration activist from New York, about the consequences of how we—even the best intentioned of us—conceive of immigration. For Trenchard, we won’t get anywhere until we reassess the very way we approach the debate.“Doctrinally, immigration law is an administrative concept; legally, it’s governed under the administrative procedure act, like the IRS. But culturally, immigration is treated like a capital crime.
“This was really codified after 9/11, when the immigrant/ terrorist analogy was hyped up to pass the Patriot Act, but you see the tenor throughout our whole history as a nation. The first immigration law in the United States specifically mentions the rights of white men. Immigration has always been tied to the maintenance of white supremacy the same way the prison system is.”
As long as our immigration policy turns a blind eye to history, immigrants will be terrorized in the shadows. Decades of US intervention and pillage have spurred migration across the globe. What does the United States owe to those impacted by our violent legacy?
Well-meaning analysts like to argue that immigration benefits the US economy: “They do the jobs we don’t want to do!” While this is certainly true, it ultimately misses the point. The moment we assess a person’s worth by their economic contribution, we uphold the binary between the deserving and the worthless. Rather than seeking to expand who fits in the first category, it would be better to abolish this dichotomy altogether. Those impacted by US violence deserve not just our scraps, but a seat at the table.
“I think a lot about how if you were to walk into any bar and say ‘I just came from bankruptcy court,’ you would likely get a free drink from the bartender. There could be a Blue Lives Matter flag behind the bar, or a Black Lives Matter flag, and either way, you are getting at least a heavy pour,” Trenchard continues.
“You could even tell the bartender, ‘It was completely my fault. I worked off the books for a long time, I got divorced, I bought a boat for no reason,’ and the bartender would still be sympathetic, no matter their political identification.
“So why does immigration elicit such a different reaction in the Blue Lives Matter bar? It’s the same level of legal infraction. It’s dealt with in an administrative court. But immigration is seen as an affront to an imagined racial/national identity. Specifically, American whiteness.”
"So, what does abolition mean? It means asserting that no human being is illegal. That migration is not a crime, but as enduring as human history itself. That we will not collaborate with an immoral agency."
"So, what does abolition mean? It means asserting that no human being is illegal. That migration is not a crime, but as enduring as human history itself. That we will not collaborate with an immoral agency."
6. Toward Freedom
“¡La lucha obrera no tiene frontera!”
The workers’ struggle has no borders!
When the news of Trump’s family separation policy broke, the outrage was immediate. Photos of immigrant children in cramped cages prompted anger and criticism across the nation.
The only problem?
Those photos dated back to the Obama administration.
Abolish ICE is more than a slogan. The agency’s attacks on immigrant communities increase each day in scope and terror, whatever party is in charge. Unconstitutional searches. Sexual violence. Wanton abuse. ICE cruelty has shown us that no reforms or oversight will fix this. What is there to salvage in an agency that exists solely to hunt, detain, and terrorize immigrants?
It is a lofty goal, and that reform is the only means of change in our lifetime. But we must dare to dream bigger. Comprehensive immigration reform has meant minor concessions to some at a great cost for the many. It has meant upholding the binary “good” and “bad” immigrants, where goodness is always conditional and easily revoked. It means being held to a standard of scrutiny that no US citizen could bear. Immigration reform has won us filthy detention centers and agents that operate in the shadows. We can, and must, do better.
So, what does abolition mean?
It means asserting that no human being is illegal. That migration is not a crime, but as enduring as human history itself. That we will not collaborate with an immoral agency.
What would it look like if the border were staffed with social workers ready to engage with the complex process of trauma, instead of with heavily militarized agents predisposed to see migrants as an invading, hostile force?
What would it look like if the United States acknowledged its role in inciting violence and hunger across the globe for generations? If it committed to righting these historical wrongs by way of reparations and cancellation of foreign debt? If we were to cast aside detached assessments of what is realistic and instead stand strong in refusing to accept this state of affairs?
Abolishing ICE alone won’t undo centuries of repressive immigration laws. It won’t fix racialized “tough on crime” policies that aggressively criminalize communities of color. It won’t do away with CBP, whose bloodlust for terrorizing those without a voice has gained them notoriety around the globe. The work cannot and must not stop at dismantling the agency. But it would be an important start.
It comes down to this: What sort of world do we want to live in? One where capital moves more freely than people, where immigrants are hunted and criminalized? Or one that recognizes human movement as not only an inevitability but a basic human right?
Abolishing an agency that hunts, assaults, and terrorizes human beings is not radical. Allowing it to continue is.
Excerpted from Abolish ICE (OR Books, 2019) with permission of the author and publisher.