Immigrant Justice and the Right Wing’s Eliminationist Agenda: A Q&A with Hamid Khan

Los Angeles March for Immigrant Rights, 2017. Photo: Molly Adams via Flickr.

Hamid Khan, a coordinator with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition—as well as a Political Research Associates board member—has long been active in the immigrants’ rights debate, having immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in 1979. As a board member of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, as well as a founder and former Executive Director of the South Asian Network, Khan helped organize grassroots movements to address discrimination and injustice.

As the Trump administration has increasingly sought to bring immigration and refugee issues into a broader right-wing eliminationist agenda, Khan spoke with The Public Eye about the broader lens progressives must use in thinking about immigration policy, the Right, and our own culpability.

PE: How should we think about the current attacks on immigration and refugee issues?

Khan: The way I look at things is that everything that is going on currently shouldn’t be seen as a moment in a time but rather a continuation of history. The assault on immigrants and migrant communities has been going on forever, though it has taken on different shades and different variations over time—whether through legislation, executive action, or emergency actions. We have to go back and look at the structural shifts in how the integration of migration has been managed—how it moved from states getting involved to then becoming the purview of the federal government, with the departments of Interior and Labor, and then Justice, and now the Department of Homeland Security.

Within that the question is who has been the immigrant? When we mostly saw immigrants of European descent, the intent of U.S. immigration policy was to facilitate people’s transition into day-to-day life in the U.S. and give them status so they can have a documented presence here. But as we move forward in time, and we see demographic shifts happening, there’s a marked shift to enforcement.

We can’t have a conversation about immigration policies in the United States without a sense of race, and what it meant at different times. I think the other piece in policymaking is the constant creation of the other—how the face of the other is culturally, politically, economically, and structurally created, and how that creates narratives that justify their treatment. For example we talk about the face of “the savage native,” and how that social construct justified the genocide, displacement, and occupation of the land of Native Americans. We talk about the face of “the criminal Black,” and how that justified various laws, racism, and demonization. More recently, there’s the face of “the immigrant Latino” and “the terrorist Muslim.” So the face of the other and “the enemy,” and who we demonize, is a very important part of how policy has been created for how people should be dealt with. The idea of the immigrant as a threat to national security has been going on through the history of the United States.

How has the Right deployed that narrative?

I think the bigger question is what happened to our fight, what happened to the resistance, and what happened to our organizing? Decades ago, moving across borders was very much a normal, routine thing. But then we saw the first direct assault in 1986, in IRCA (the Immigration Reform and Control Act), where our fight accepted compromises, particularly the employer sanctions, which prohibited employers from knowingly hiring people who weren’t authorized to work in the U.S. When employer sanctions happened, we not only gave up a lot of room and made a huge accommodation in the fight, but we opened up another world of how enforcement would move very methodically as well. Additionally, organized labor was very much against immigration, so there has to be very critical analysis of the labor movement.

Ten years later, in the IIRAIRA (the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act), we saw another huge enforcement piece, where people were deportable even if they had green cards. Other forms of enforcement happening in 1996 also played a role, from the effects of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which brought in and incorporated secret evidence laws); to legislation like the Welfare Reform Law, which wasn’t just about cutting back on unemployment benefits or eligibility standards, but also used the immigrant to demonize a larger community; as well as the crime bills of the early ‘90s, which allocated billions of dollars in funding for prisons and to hire 100,000 new law enforcement officers on the street. So I think we have to be constantly mindful of how deeply intersectional race and enforcement are.

When we when we talk about Trump and the current lens, the playbook has been there for the longest time. What has happened is that the playbook has now allowed more blatant race- and racism-driven policies to be incorporated. Up until Bush’s time, there was this coded language of national security and public safety. Now it is more or less “America First,” which uses barely-coded language to refer to a White minority government as demographics are changing. So I think it’s gone from something that was more coded to being very open.

How do we see this in the discussion of DACA?

When we look at DACA, we need to look through various lenses as well. From an organizing and resistance point of view, DACA is the result of a constant watering down and failure in our movements, particularly the immigrant rights movement, which became a very monitored and controlled process of adjustment of status that is very temporary in nature. On the other hand, this has been a tremendous model that young people have been building for what direct organizing and resistance would look like.

While people speak about a pathway to citizenship, the intention was very clear at that time that this was a compromise that the Right and White supremacy is going to make. On one hand, in a very insidious way, it was the Right showing its charitable side—“Oh, if you have children…”—but at the same time, it was very clear that very few among the undocumented community could use it as a pathway to citizenship. Also, these are all temporary measures, because they have to be renegotiated and the eligibility has to be proven every two or three years as it’s renewed, so it’s not a permanent fix. So there is no permanency in this thing, it is not a green card, it doesn’t give legal status. It just is a temporary adjustment of status where you can work and travel but then it could be taken away at any moment.

So I think number one, the failure in our movement is that this is what we were finally pushed to. Secondly, it’s a very clever and insidious way to deal with immigration: that on the structural side, the most this does is become a pathway to citizenship for maybe 10-15 percent of the immigrant population.

But culturally it did even more. It is used to continue the demonization and assigning of criminality to the elders, who are said to have trafficked their little children through no fault of their own. So the criminality and the demonization and the adult population still very much remains. And then to claim that as a benevolent act. So I think we need to really look at it much more deeply, not just on the surface, but structurally what is going on beneath the surface and culturally and politically as well.

There’s clearly a lot of culpability on our side. What about the role of the Right?

The Right has always been more blatant. Strom Thurmond, the senator from South Carolina, was always until his death, a proponent of biased, racist institutions. So when Trump speaks about it, and Steve Bannon goes to Europe and says we should speak about the dangers of immigration loudly and clearly, well he’s just carrying on the tradition that’s been there for the longest time. I think this again shows our own failure that we’re suddenly surprised—as if we were expecting something different. So we’re all of a sudden surprised that, because we went into this slumber, just assuming the Obama years were a sign of progress. If anything, the Obama years should be seen as how what was being granted temporarily is now being lost as well. One can argue that under Trump, the image of benevolence on the Right is lost. I think the role of the Right all along has been preserving and sustaining White supremacy.