Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The (Re)Construction of Borders After COVID-19: President Trump And the Intention to Suspend Immigration to the United States

As is his habit, around 10 PM on a Monday night, the President of the United States announced an intention to significantly modify, if only on a temporary basis, the administration of the migration policy of the United States.

There were no details given.  But that was enough.  The avalanche of speculation began almost immediately. They were revealing, but mostly of the political, and ideological positions of members of the academic-consultant-influencer complex which drives politics (and politics through law) in the 21st century in the United States.

This post considers this action, not in its technical sense (e.g., can the President actually impose his will through Executive Order, the legalities of implementation, and the conformity of those acts with "policy" embedded in national law and our constitutional order?).  Those technical approaches are the means by which lawyers are capable of understanding and the language they impose on authoritative responses to systemic challenges.  Instead I consider the way in which these actions fit into the larger picture, that is that way that this Presidential intention may point to the longer term consequences for social organization the COVID-19 both reveals and make possible. 

In a recent interview, Will COVID-19 infect the world order?, I was asked to identify the critical areas where the post COVID-19 global order would be different from that which existed before January 2020.  One of the areas I identified was borders.  "Fifth, the discourse of migration, as well as its management, are likely to change.  One of the peculiar consequences of the pandemic, already much noted, has been the way that states, without much resistance, were able to reconstitute their borders for the protection of their populations." (Ibid.).
That, of course, was easy, and hard for any but the blind to miss.  The wrinkle, however, I suggested, was that while borders would be (re)constituted, this was not going to be a reactionary movement.  To think that COVID-19 would propel the world backwards to ancient models already long abandoned was to miss the point of the pandemic. It also misunderstands the nature of the opportunity it presents to governing communities (one gets tired of calling them elites since they may be many things, but hardly elite in its traditional sense of worthiness).   

Instead, COVID-19 would accelerate a movement already discernible to manage borders as a means of rationalizing the continuing and intense global movements of goods, capital, and investment, among the emerging post-global imperial zones. At the same time, it would accelerate the delegation (to states) of a duty to manage their populations  to preserve the stability of these territorial units  so that they might be more efficiently operated in the constitution of global production around the (for the moment) three great imperial centers (the U.S., China, and "Europe"). 
Thus understood, the role of the state—as cogs in transnational orders—emerges more clearly.  Pandemic was precisely the moment with the protection of global production required the state to use its police power and its borders.  But at the same time, the pandemic drew much more clearly the difference between the state as an agent for the protection of the free movement of goods, capital, and investment (even where those might be divided among the big three emerging globalist empires) on the one hand, and the use of the state as the custodian of their respective human capital.  Will COVID-19 infect the world order?
The consequence, of course, is that the metropolis would tend to close its borders to migration (and to its disruption of its internal political and cultural stability) while migration would become a greater problem among and within states that serve as the spokes of emerging systems of global production. The rend result, I might posit, would be a fracture in the discourse of migration--for "hub" or "apex" states in systems of global production, the discourse and practice of migration would be refined to focus on the individual. Their ability to permeate borders would be singular and it is likely to be narrowed as a function of utility. Everywhere else the discourse would speak to the migration of peoples, whose movement would be tolerated and managed, but who would remain apart. These tendencies have already been much in evidence.  Migration and segregation of peoples has become more visible in many parts of the world (though the world's leader communities have chosen a knowing silence); the persistence of the discourse of individual migration on the basis of a narrative of utility remains well established in developed states (along with the discourse of refugee, one of the last vestiges of the guilt of the 1930s though hardly targeted to its victims). 

All of this was conjecture based on a projection forward of present evidence.  I did not expect to see its acceleration manifest quickly.  And I was wrong.  On Monday 20 April 2020, President Trump announced the promulgation of an executive order suspending immigration. Clearly, migration experts will have a field day with this move--and the opposition will be intense. Ultimately it may be decided in the courts, or by Congress in the United States.  The initial mainstream vocalization of that opposition was quickly reported:
"This action is not only an attempt to divert attention away from Trump’s failure to stop the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, but an authoritarian-like move to take advantage of a crisis and advance his anti-immigrant agenda. We must come together to reject his division," tweeted Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"Immigration has nearly stopped and the US has far more cases than any other country. This is just xenophobic scapegoating," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) tweeted.

"This is Trump broadcasting to the world that he is seeing erosion in his base from massively fumbling the pandemic response," tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama aide, in a message that was shared by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). (Trump says he will sign executive order temporarily suspending immigration into US)
The supporters, of course, echoed the author of the Tweet: ""22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last month because of the China virus. Let’s help them get back to work before we import more foreigners to compete for their jobs," tweeted Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) * * * Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) praised Trump for putting 'American citizens first.'" (Ibid.). Administrative officials, howebver, were quick to bring the action back under the shadow of the pandemic: "“This is not about immigration,” Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said earlier this month, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Right now this is purely about infectious disease and public health.”" (Trump Says He'll Suspend All Immigration Into The United States Amid Coronavirus Pandemic)

What is likely clear is that administrative officials will scramble to implement a broad stroke policy through a series of measures that will each invite substantial opposition through the administrative process and in resort to the courts.  All will ensure that this Tweet will produce a quite significant discursive territory in the run up to the 2020 Presidential election in the United States. It is in this sense, as discourse, that the Tweet--and the subsequent actions by those favoring and opposing the implementation of its principles--becomes a more substantial consequence of COVID-19 and its accelerator effect  (Will COVID-19 infect the world order?). It it is this sense, as well, that the anticipated Executive Order moves beyond politics (as important and contentious at it may be in these times in which the fractured ruling (e.g., influencer and managerial) classes play at revolution using the techniques of this century and this place. Almost inadvertently these lower case politics are actually producing the outlines of a transformation of Politics as the framing principles around which the American social order will be (re)built in a post-COVID-19 world. 

And yet, what the COVID-19 pandemic adds, beyond its accelerator effect, is  to highlight the well known fracture in the discourse of migration.  At the center of the pre-CoVID-19 narrative was the individual, one vested with an autonomous agency to determine not just a need to migrate (whether individually or within communities that might retain their cohesion irrespective of the territory in which they might settle) but also the end point of migration--the state of intended settlement. This narrative is not just well known, but its discursive power and imagery has captured the national imagination in the United States since 1945.

At the margins of that narrative was another--this was a narrative at the center of which was the border. The gaze of that narrative shifted from the moving element (the individual migrant) to the space (the border) over which that moving element would have to pass.  This narrative, centering borders and de-centering individual migrants became more powerful (in the sense, at least, that it was now embraced by those with power)  with the election of Donald Trump.  It is proclaimed on the White House Website Section devoted to "Immigration":
The United States must adopt an immigration system that serves the national interest. To restore the rule of law and secure our border, President Trump is committed to constructing a border wall and ensuring the swift removal of unlawful entrants. To protect American workers, the President supports ending chain migration, eliminating the Visa Lottery, and moving the country to a merit-based entry system. These reforms will advance the safety and prosperity of all Americans while helping new citizens assimilate and flourish. (White House Website; Issues; Immigration).
Enter COVID-19. It lends itself to an acceleration of the possibility of centered borders and de-centering the individual in the management of people within the territorial borders of a state. It makes visible and plausible the use of borders not just to reconstitute containers for the rationalization of physically separable communities, but also of using the borders to better manage the value of those communities  by managing inputs and outflows.  It also produces a means (without any judgment of the possibilities of its success) by which the intersections at the heart of the narrative of migraiton and borders can be recast:
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said in a statement that the president "is committed to protecting the health and economic well-being of American citizens as we face unprecedented times.""As President Trump has said, 'Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers,' " she said. "At a time when Americans are looking to get back to work, action is necessary."(Trump Says He'll 'Temporarily Suspend Immigration' Over Coronavirus Fears)

Here one sees the rationalization of the movements of individuals and peoples in a way that is similar to the way that other factors in the production of economic activity.  One of the ironies of COID-19, then, is to challenge globalization but it produced a perverse trajectory. It effect is perverse in the sense that while those who viewed globalization with suspicion and longed for stronger national responses (especially in the areas of human rights, sustainability  and the development of legal frameworks consistent with the normative principles they would advance) have gotten national responses that challenge the normative agendas around which the challenge to globalization were built.      

COVID-19 provides the space within which the contradiction between a willingness to management the movement of people within a state and between states and the narrative of a borderless migratory environment in which states serve as a sort of cafeteria line of possible migration choices. It opens the door to the movement of the narrative of migration from the individual moving across borders to a focus on the border itself. And it is transforming that discourse from the migration of the needy to the needs of the state in its internal obligations and its external responsibilities within hub and spoke based systems of global production. Indeed, that reshaping of production also reshapes the immediacy of individual based migration narratives in a critically important way. It suggests that while an individual, in a a world of borders, might well still be an object of migration, it is no longer clear that the individual ought to be able to decide for herself just where to migrate. That is, that just as the emerging global economic order is transforming production, rationalizing it within a hub and spoke framework, the placement of migration within it will also be rationalized. People will be able to migrate, to be sure; peoples less so. Individuals migrating will migrate toward those centers of production in need of labor as a factor in local production. To those ends individuals may be directed away from some places (usually the metropolis) and redirected elsewhere.

And all of this from a Tweet. But as we have also come to understand, global society has now moved in two directions.  The intelligentsia tends to write longer and longer explanations of  shorter and shorter policy diktats. That is the most interesting irony of the times in which we live. 

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