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Borders as Weapons of the State


In Tacoma, Washington, immigrant detainees held in the Northwest Detention Center are on hunger strike. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are attempting to intimidate, and threatening to force feed, them.

When I talk to many Americans about this hunger strike, many lack sympathy with the detainees. They brand immigrants as “illegals” and use this as an excuse to ignore violations of their human rights.  Human beings cannot be “illegal.” To refer to them as such dehumanizes migrants through a toxic and racist ideology.  A person’s actions may be harmful, or even criminal. But what is criminal about migrating? All undocumented immigrants have done is travel to a new country to live, work, support their families and engage in peaceful commerce and association with people. That’s no crime. Properly understood, migration is part of what makes a free society flourish. Moreover, the majority of immigrants held in detention centers have not been convicted of any crime.

Meanwhile, those who detain and repress immigrants engage in a litany of violent crimes enabled through state authority. Take their plot to force feed the hunger strikers, for example. Force feeding is widely considered torture and has been deemed cruel and inhumane by organizations including International Red Cross, the World Medical Association and the United Nations. By definition, force feeding hunger strikers involves brutally and painfully violating their bodily autonomy in order to suppress their political speech.

But the criminality of the immigration detention system doesn’t end there. Immigrant detainees are held indefinitely in supposedly “civil proceedings.” They are not charged with crimes nor are their rights to legal representation honored. As of 2010, 84% of detained immigrants were not represented by a lawyer. This is not justice. It is due-process-free kidnapping under the color of law.

This detention without charges, trial, or representation often occurs for profit. The Northwest Detention Center, where the hunger strikers are held, is operated in “privatized” fashion by GEO Group. Like other prison profiteers such as Corrections Corporation of America and the Management and Training Corporation, GEO Group extracts obscene profits from government for locking human beings in cages. Rather than providing goods and services people want to buy, prison profiteers engage in state violence in exchange for money plundered from the people through coercive taxation.

Throughout the world, governments use borders as an excuse to violate rights and engage in criminal violence. For example, the Canadian state cages immigrants indefinitely simply for being immigrants. They frequently hold these detainees in solitary confinement, which is internationally recognized as a form of torture.

Meanwhile, the Israeli state has been sending African refugees to a massive prison camp. These refugees are subjected to violence and rampant discrimination motivated by a climate of paranoid racism in which Africans are feared as “infiltrators” that may undermine the Jewish demographics of Israel.

States throughout the world kidnap, cage, torture, and deport migrants and refugees, but the brutality of immigration restrictions doesn’t end there. Borders trap people under oppressive governments, preventing them from fleeing violent atrocities. For example, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender refugees flee the Russian state’s homophobic repression only to find themselves ensnared in the coercive clutches of immigration bureaucracies.

Similarly, the crisis in Ukraine is exacerbated by immigration restrictions, which trap Ukrainians in the crossfire of the conflict. As Sheldon Richman recently put it,

“Ukrainians who want to get out of their dicey neighborhood, whether permanently or temporarily, should be free to move to the United States. Look at it this way: How dare we Americans confine Ukrainians to a condition they might desperately wish to escape?”

Immigrants are often smeared with accusations of criminality. But the real crimes in immigration policy are perpetrated by states. States kidnap, torture, and plunder in order to enforce lines drawn on maps. And in doing so, they enable other states to brutally repress trapped subjects. All states are criminal enterprises, and borders are among their most dangerous weapons.

Nathan Goodman is the Lysander Spooner Research Scholar in Abolitionist Studies at the Center for a Stateless Society ( He blogs at Dissenting Leftist.

Nathan Goodman is the Lysander Spooner Research Scholar in Abolitionist Studies at the Center for a Stateless Society ( He blogs at Dissenting Leftist.

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