When delirious crowds tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989, many hallucinated that a millennium of borderless freedom was at hand. Globalization was supposed to inaugurate an era of unprecedented physical and virtual electronic mobility.
Instead neoliberal capitalism has promptly built the greatest barrier to free movement in history. This Great Wall of Capital, which separates a few dozen rich countries from the earth’s poor majority, completely dwarfs the old Iron Curtain. It girds half the earth, cordons off at least 12,000 kilometers of terrestrial borderline, and is incomparably more deadly to desperate trespassers.
Unlike China’s Great Wall, the new wall is only partially visible from space. Although it includes traditional ramparts (the Mexican border of the United States) and barbed-wire-fenced minefields (between Greece and Turkey), much of globalized immigration enforcement today takes place at sea or in the air. Moreover borders are now digital as well as geographical.
Take, for example, Fortress Europe, where an integrated data system (upgrading the existing Strasbourg-based Schengen network) with the sinister acronym of PROSECUR will become the foundation for a common system of border patrol, enforced by the newly authorized European Border Guards Corps.
The European Union (EU), moreover, has already spent hundreds of millions of Euros beefing up the so-called “Electronic Curtain” along its expanded Eastern borders as well as fine-tuning the Surveillance System for the Straits that is supposed to keep Africa on its side of Gibraltar.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently asked his fellow EU leaders to extend white Europe’s border defenses into the heart of the Third World. He proposed so-called ‘protection zones’ in key conflict areas of Africa and Asia where potential refugees could be quarantined in deadly squalor for years.
His obvious model is Australia, where rightwing Prime Minister John Howard has declared open war on wretched Kurdish, Afghan and Timorese refugees. After last year’s wave of riots and hunger strikes by immigrants indefinitely detained in desert hell-holes like Woomera in South Australia, Howard used the navy to intercept ships carrying refugees in international waters and intern them in even more nightmarish camps on Nauru or malarial Manus Island off Papua New Guinea. Blair, according to the Guardian, has similarly explored the possibility of using the Royal Navy to interdict refugee smugglers in the Mediterranean and the RAF to deport immigrants back to their homelands.
If border enforcement has now moved far offshore, it has also come into many front yards. Residents in the US Southwest have long endured the long traffic jams at ‘second border’ checkpoints far away from the actual line. Now stop-and-search operations, pioneered in Germany, are becoming common in the interior of the EU.
As result, even notional boundaries between border enforcement and domestic policing, or between immigration policy and the “war on terrorism,” are rapidly disappearing. “Noborder” activists in Europe have long warned that Orwellian data systems used to track down and deport non-EU aliens will inevitably be turned against local anti-globalization movements as well.
In the United States, trade unions and Latino groups similarly regard with fear and loathing Republican proposals to train up to one million local police and sheriffs as immigration enforcers. (Pilot programs have already been authorized by Congress in Alabama and Florida.)
Meanwhile the human toll from the new world (b)order grows inexorably. According to human rights groups, nearly 4,000 immigrants and refugees have died at the gates of Europe since 1993: drowned at sea, blown up in minefields, or suffocated in freight containers. Hundreds, perhaps thousands more, have perished in desperate attempts to cross the Sahara desert simply to reach Europe’s borders. The American Friends Service Committee, which monitors the carnage along the US-Mexican border, estimates that a similar number of immigrants (3,000-5,000) have died over the last decade in the furnace-hot deserts of the Southwest.
In the context of so much inhumanity, the White House’s recent proposal — dramatically announced on the eve of the Summit of the Americas — to offer temporary guest-worker status to undocumented immigrants and others might seem a gesture of compassion in contrast to the heartlessness of Europe or the near fascism of Australia.
In fact, as immigrant rights and labor groups have quickly pointed out, it is an initiative that combines sublime cynicism with ruthless political calculation. The Bush proposal, which resembles the infamous Bracero program of the early 1950s, would legalize a subcaste of low-wage labor without providing a mechanism for the estimated 5 to 7 million undocumented workers already in the United States to achieve permanent residence or citizenship.
Toilers without votes or permanent domicile, of course, represent a Republican utopia. The Bush plan would provide WalMart and MacDonalds with a stable, almost infinite supply of indentured labor. It would also throw a lifeline to neoliberalism south of the border. The decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement, even many former supporters now admit, has proven a cruel hoax, destroying as many jobs as it has created.
Indeed the Mexican economy has shed jobs four years in a row and the future employment outlook has been described in the business press as ‘horrendous. The White House neo-bracero proposal offers Mexican President Vicente Fox and his successors a crucial economic safety-valve for rural producers displaced by American corn imports.
It also provides Bush with an issue to woo the swing-vote Latinos in the Southwest next November. Karl Rove (the president’s grey eminence) undoubtedly calculates that the proposal will sow wonderful disarray and conflict amongst unions and liberal Latinos.
Finally — and this is truly sinister serendipity — the offer of temporary legality would act as irresistible bait to draw undocumented workers into the open where the Department of Homeland Security can identify, tag and monitor them. Far from opening a crack in the Great Wall, it heals a breach, and ensures an even more systematic and intrusive policing of human inequality.