Politics / February 15, 2024

Democrats Are Helping Make the US Border Look More and More Like Gaza

The party is embracing the idea of the border as a bulwark against a savage horde. As it happens, that’s exactly how Israel talks about Gaza.

Dylan Saba
Border patrol officers take security measures as migrants trying to cross the Mexico-United States border to seek humanitarian asylum cut through razor wire despite high security measures in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on January 31, 2024.
Border patrol officers watch migrants trying to cross the Mexico-United States border to seek humanitarian asylum in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on January 31, 2024. (Christian Torres / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Tempting as it might be to view Israel’s brutal campaign of elimination in Gaza as a failure of humanity to transcend the 20th century—a century marked, nearly from start to finish, by genocide—the war may well end up being the first defining conflict of the 21st. Israel, in both its foundational identity and its occupation of Palestine, is often framed as one of the last lingering artifacts of a bygone colonial age. But what we are witnessing in Gaza—a resource-deprived, stateless population pushed to the absolute limits of desperation in a violent confrontation with an advanced military power intent on excluding as many noncitizens as possible—is as likely to be a vision into the future as a reminder of the past.

The conditions that Israel’s 17-year siege has imposed on the people of the Gaza Strip, many of whom are already refugees from previous rounds of Israeli aggression and expansion, will become much more common in the large swaths of the world at risk of severe ecological degradation. Climate-induced food and water insecurity, disease, and unemployment are expected to displace hundreds of millions of people in the coming decades. These refugees will be forced to seek entry into developed states increasingly mired, like Israel, in ethno-nationalism and other forms of jingoism.

Chief among those wealthy countries sinking further into this sort of nationalist frenzy is the United States. Last week, Senate Democrats strongly indicated that the liberal wing of the American political establishment is woefully unprepared to face the future that the US—as both the world’s biggest imperial power and a leading architect of the climate crisis—has helped create. In an attempt to score a win ahead of this year’s federal election, Democrats proposed a piece of legislation that is, in effect, a laundry list of hard-line anti-immigrant policies demanded by Donald Trump and his supporters in Congress. In so doing, they conceded the right-wing framing that an increase in immigrants and asylum seekers at the southern border—already a real phenomenon—represents a “crisis” that requires a series of punitive solutions.

This marks a shift in tone and policy from the Trump years, when Democrats rhetorically placed themselves in opposition to the xenophobia of the White House and tended to downplay the idea of rising immigration pressures. It also reflects an even deeper conception of the border as a bulwark against the savage hordes that would destroy life as we know it if we let our guard down. As it happens, that is exactly how the Israeli government talks about Gaza (and like Gaza is how the American right is beginning to talk about the border).

Even in the short term, the Democrats’ turn is a huge mistake; as Adam Johnson and Kate Aronoff argued forcefully in separate pieces last week, going head-to-head with the right over border toughness is a losing battle, since Democrats will have a hard time beating the Republicans at their own game (racism). But more importantly, there is no indication that deterrence can counteract the long-term economic, political, and ecological forces animating population flows. Even if it were sensible policy, there is no way to shut down the border that is not itself a time bomb for political violence. Thus, by taking the hard-line approach—or, to put it another way, by embracing the Gaza model—Democrats risk losing elections, while harming national well-being where and when they do take power.

The task for the Democrats, or whoever takes up their mantle, is to offer a political vision fit for this century: one in which the US works to ameliorate the political and ecological harms it has contributed to beyond its borders, while promoting a program of domestic provision within them. Instead of allowing the fear of racialized masses to function as a libidinal release valve for a population haunted by its past and insecure about its future, the Democrats must demonstrate that jobs, housing, and healthcare need not be the subject of cutthroat competition.

This, of course, would require unlearning the austerity logic that has predominated in the party at least since the Clinton administration. But anything less means trying to fight the forces of reaction with a hollowed-out shell of social democracy that is neither persuasive against the right nor particularly appealing on its own terms.

The Democrats we have, however, can’t see past the ends of their noses. Last week’s proposed legislation was purportedly a gambit to lure congressional Republicans into supporting military aid to Ukraine and Israel. Fortunately, it failed: Trump, not wanting to grant Biden a “win” in an election year, pulled his support and his party fell in line, voting the bill down. (This week, the Senate passed a standalone aid bill for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, though it faces challenging odds in the House.) The Democrats then tried to turn the failure against the Republicans, lambasting them in the press for being weak on the border.

This cheap posturing comes with a very heavy hidden cost: Having assented to right-wing demands—increased ICE detention capacity, more severe asylum requirements, a border “shut down” provision—Democrats will have a much more difficult time opposing such policies in future legislation, effectively lurching the Overton window on immigration policy sharply to the right.

Even worse, that they made such an offer in part to secure an additional $14 billion in funding for Israel’s war effort reveals an implicit commitment to the racist ideology explicitly expounded by the right. The emerging bipartisan consensus on both fronts is that security threats from beyond the frontier are inherent features of the border itself, rather than political contingencies—a military logic that privileges brute force over diplomacy and nationalism over egalitarianism.

If this comparison sounds dramatic, given that we are not at war with Mexico, consider that the possibility may not be so far-fetched: Trump apparently wanted to attack Mexico during his first term, and there is growing right-wing support for a ground invasion. By endorsing border militancy and backing full-tilt Israel’s brutality in Gaza, Democrats are preparing themselves to acquiesce in the event that such a war does materialize in a second Trump term.

Even if it doesn’t—say, for instance, if Biden manages to squeak out a win despite his abysmal reelection campaign effort, or if he is replaced as a nominee—adopting a fortress mentality about our borders is a woeful form of preparation for a future in which medium-term migration pressures will only go in one direction, from the Global South to the North.

Democrats and their electoral strategists may contend that they are merely offering policies that reflect existing preferences. But as the British cultural theorist Stuart Hall astutely observed, “Politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them.”

Insofar as a xenophobic majority exists, it has been constructed by generations of politicians who have turned to nationalist expansion, both territorial and economic, as a salve for the internal contradictions of our polity. But as all the climate data is indicating, a century-plus of expansion has run up against some hard ecological limits, and we will need to construct a new relation to the world. And if history has taught us anything, it is that there is no level of repression capable of extinguishing the desire for self-determination and a better life. That is true whether we are talking about people impeded by militarized borders created from the American colonization of Mexican land or ones created from the Israeli colonization of Palestinian land.

The Gaza model is the wrong path, but it is the one we are presently on. Colombian president Gustavo Petro recognized as much at the UN COP28 climate summit in December, calling the genocide in Gaza a “rehearsal of the future” and condemning the “anti-immigration behaviors of rich countries.” He pointed out that present levels of carbon consumption in the North are fueling future shortages of essential resources, such as fresh water, in the South. Absent a drastic curtailment of that consumption, which few anticipate, mass migrations are inevitable. That reality mixed with the hard-line anti-immigrant attitudes currently being cultivated on both sides of the aisle is a recipe for many more Gazas. At present, the Democrats seem fully committed to proving Petro correct. For our future and that of our children, it is imperative that we find a way out.

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Dylan Saba

Dylan Saba is a civil rights attorney and writer. He lives in Queens, New York.

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