This commentary is by Ashley Smith of Burlington, a socialist writer and activist. He writes for various publications including Spectre, Tempest, Truthout, Jacobin, and New Politics.
Immigrant rights activists in Vermont were overjoyed to see Donald Trump defeated. Many of us had high expectations that Joe Biden’s new administration would not only reverse Trump’s racist and xenophobic policies but would also pass sweeping new legislation in the interests of immigrants.
Despite a few moves in the right direction, Biden is presiding over what looks like anti-immigrant business as usual. It is time for Vermont to stop its collaboration with Biden’s maintenance of the border regime, block the proposed construction of new surveillance towers on the Vermont-Quebec border, and shut down the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s law enforcement support center in Williston.
While Biden has repealed some of the worst of the previous administration’s executive orders, he has at best restored the unjust status that prevailed under Obama. And his much-heralded immigration bill is compromised by onerous conditions for legalization, continued criminalization of migration, and increased border securitization with his proposal for a new high-tech virtual wall.
Even that bill seems dead on arrival. The Trumpite Republican Party and right-wing Democrats have made clear that they will oppose it in its current form, guaranteeing that either it will be made worse with more concessions to anti-immigrant politicians, or be broken up into smaller bills that meet the demands of big corporations and sell out migrants and their rights.
As these parliamentary maneuvers unfold, Biden is enforcing the border regime just as aggressively as he did in the Obama administration. We cannot forget that Biden was the “Vice Deporter in Chief,” aiding and abetting the deportation of 5 million people, the most of any government in U.S. history.
He has kept the border closed to new migrants using the pretext of the pandemic, deported over 26,000 people in his first month in office, and jailed thousands of children in detention facilities. In one of his administration’s most obscene acts to date, it expelled hundreds of Black migrants to Haiti, Cameroon and several other African countries during February’s Black History Month.
Activists have no choice but to redouble our struggle in the streets and workplaces to fight for immigrant rights across the country. Here in Vermont, we have a central role to play in this movement. We must support Migrant Justice’s campaigns to include all undocumented people in state benefits and protections, bar collaboration between the police and ICE, and pressure Hannaford to join the Milk with Dignity program that ensures better wages and conditions for farmworkers.
In addition, we must shut down the ICE facility in Williston. Its website boasts “the center is a single national point of contact that provides timely immigration status, identity information and real-time assistance to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies on aliens suspected, arrested or convicted of criminal activity. The center protects and defends the United States by sharing timely and relevant ICE information with our law enforcement partners around the world.”
As such, the facility is central to Washington’s racist system of mass incarceration and empire of borders. It has the gall to celebrate that in 2019 it received 1.61 million biometric and biographic inquiries from law enforcement agencies; managed 323,000 criminal warrants from ICE; confirmed 4,870 National Crime Information Center matches; and responded to 108,000 calls from police across the country.
These activities violate the spirit of the state’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, and the letter of similar policies passed in Winooski, Burlington, Hartford, Richmond and many other towns. They bar collaboration between ICE and the police in tracking, detaining, and deporting undocumented migrants. This facility, which was brought to our state by Sen. Patrick Leahy, has one sole purpose — to coordinate such collaboration.
We also must prevent our state from approving Customs and Border Protection’s plan to build eight camera sites and surveillance towers, some as high as 120 feet, in the towns of Derby, Franklin, Highgate, Richford, Troy, and two locations in Champlain, New York. These would play a key role in Biden’s proposed virtual border wall and would be directly plugged into the ICE facility in Williston.
As the ACLU of Vermont declared, “CBP’s proposed surveillance towers would accelerate the gradual militarization of our region and threaten the privacy, civil liberties, and safety of countless local residents. … Anyone who doubts the impact that surveillance towers would have on Vermont communities can look to the other border regions where similar towers — accompanied by Border Patrol checkpoints, roving patrol stops, surveillance drones, and other increasingly intrusive measures — have profoundly deteriorated the quality of life and resulted in widespread abuses to the point where these communities are virtually unrecognizable. Vermonters should not allow the federal government to do the same thing to our communities under the false pretense of ‘border security.’”
Vermont must stop the construction of a Big Brother border regime in our state. Instead, we should build on victories in cities and towns that bar collaboration between police and ICE and close Williston’s ICE facility. And we must demand that Biden immediately abandon his plan for a virtual border wall, end all deportation, free all those jailed in detention centers, especially children, and unconditionally legalize all migrants.