A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

Trump’s Changes to Refugee Policy: Nativist Biopower

A Foucauldian analysis of Trump’s refugee policy.

by Steve TammelleoJune 19, 2018

By putting an end to the temporary protected status of thousands of U.S. residents, the Trump administration has implemented draconian changes to U.S. refugee policy. In 1990, Congress created temporary protected status (TPS) to offer refugees of natural disasters or armed conflict permission to live and work in the U.S. In the last year, the Trump administration informed roughly 400,000 U.S. residents from six different countries (El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan) that their TPS would end in eighteen months.

For the two largest groups, Hondurans and Salvadorans, the end of their TPS is a surprising change. In 1999, the Clinton administration granted TPS to Hondurans after a hurricane devastated their country. Under the rules of the program, every eighteen months, the government had to decide to either offer the Hondurans an extension or to end their TPS. During the sixteen years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, the Hondurans were granted an extension every eighteen months. In opposition to a policy initiated by Clinton and continued by Bush and Obama, on May 4th, the Trump administration announced the end of TPS for 86,000 Hondurans who have been living in the U.S. for eighteen years. They were notified that they had eighteen months to acquire legal residency or leave the country. Similarly, on January 8th, the Trump administration informed 200,000 Salvadorans who had been living in the country since 2001 that their TPS would end in eighteen months.

How are we to make sense of such dramatic changes to U.S. refugee policy? Why would the Trump administration undercut the legal status of economically productive, long-term U.S. residents, many of whom have children that are U.S. citizens? The work of philosopher Michel Foucault may help us to answer these questions.

For Foucault, one of the defining features of modernity is the emergence of biopower: a form of power that aims to shape populations both by suppressing undesirable elements and creating the conditions under which desirable elements can flourish. As immigration policy allows desirable migrants to enter while blocking undesirable migrants, immigration policy is a form of biopower. Foucault establishes a distinction between two types of biopower: neoliberal biopower and nativist biopower. Neoliberal biopower attempts to shape populations to promote economic growth. Nativist biopower, by contrast, attempts to maintain the racial purity of a population.

The border and trade policies of Clinton, Bush, and Obama are best understood as neoliberal forms of biopower. By creating conditions of mass unemployment in which unproductive Mexican agricultural workers would be forced to seek employment in export factories, the North American Free Trade Agreement signed by Clinton in 1994 aimed to increase economic output. Similarly, tough border policies, initiated by Clinton and continued by Bush and Obama, functioned to improve the U.S. economy by allowing desirable migrants to cross while blocking undesirable migrants. As crossing the U.S. border has changed from a 4 hour walk to a 50+ mile trek, only healthy, young, and physically-fit migrants are able to make the crossing. Thus, the U.S. economy receives exactly the workers it needs, while the old, overweight, or physically disabled are prevented from crossing. The neoliberal trade and border policies of Clinton, Bush, and Obama have produced horrible consequences for some of the most vulnerable members of Mexican society. For the last fifteen years, 350-400 migrants have died every year while trying to cross the border. As cartels have taken over the business of smuggling migrants, tens of thousands of migrants have been held for ransom and hundreds of migrants have been sold into modern slavery. Yet, in terms of their purpose, the overriding aim of these neoliberal policies is to promote economic growth.

In addition to neoliberal biopower, Foucault also examines nativist biopower. For Foucault, nativist biopower is concerned with “a eugenic ordering of society” and “protecting the purity of blood”.[1] Unlike neoliberal biopower, nativist biopower does not concern itself with economic consequences, nativist biopower aims to maintain the racial purity of the U.S. population. Donald Trump’s nativism is on full display in his public statements on immigration. Trump has repeatedly described Latin American immigrants as rapists, criminals, and drug dealers. He has encouraged policy makers to block immigrants from “shithole” countries. In opposing Haitian immigration, Trump asserted that Haitians “all have AIDS”. On the basis of his rhetoric, it is reasonable to expect nativism to play a central role in Trump’s refugee policy.

Let us return to the the case of the 200,000 Salvadorans who are the single largest group to have their temporary protected status ended by the Trump administration. According to El Salvador’s Foreign Ministry, 95 percent of the Salvadorans are employed or own their own business. After living in the United States for seventeen years, the Salvadorans with TPS have an estimated 190,000 children who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens. Thus, the recent decision threatens to divide tens of thousands of families with one or both parents threatened with deportation but with children that have lived their entire lives in the U.S. and are legally entitled to stay. The TPS decision also threatens serious damage to the El Salvadoran economy. According to the World Bank, Salvadorans living in the U.S. send more than $4.5 billion a year to their relatives back home, a contribution equal to seventeen percent of El Salvador’s annual GDP. The Salvadorans who return to El Salvador will have few opportunities to find work in an impoverished country with a high unemployment rate. In addition, they will likely be victimized by El Salvador’s vicious gangs who will view them as easy targets for extortion.

Ending the TPS of the 200,000 Salvadorans does not produce economic benefits. In fact, it imposes economic costs on both the U.S. and El Salvador. With their concern for economic outcomes, the neoliberal administrations of Bush and Obama had no reason to revoke the Salvadorans’ TPS. With Trump, the motivation is not about economics, it is about nativism. Hundreds of thousands of long term residents are being confronted with a terrible choice: to either leave the country they have lived in for nearly two decades or to live underground as undocumented immigrants. Why is this happening? The Trump administration wants to maintain the racial purity of the U.S. population.

  1. Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 149-150.