Not a Border Crisis: Harsha Walia on Why It’s Time for a New Political Project

In the national conversation on borders, meaningful discussions about alternatives—including open borders, no borders, or demilitarization—are often deemed impractical and not given the consideration they deserve. This is one of the reasons that today we speak with author, scholar, and activist Harsha Walia, who wrote at the end of her 2021 paradigm-shifting book Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, “A no borders politics is not abstract, it is grounded in material and lived impacts of our world, scarred by warfare and warming.” Harsha is also the author of Undoing Border Imperialism.

In today’s interview Harsha reframes the border and shows that bordering is not simply a wall but an expansive, omnipresent regime, one that is connected to capitalism and colonialism and that has racist roots. In this sense, she points out three things to keep an eye on with regard to the Joe Biden administration, and argues for the importance of a no borders political project. As she writes in Border and Rule, “Like the regime of private property, borders are not simply lines marking territory; they are the product of and produce social relations that we must emancipate ourselves from.”

We owe Harsha a great deal of gratitude since she answered these questions under much duress, surrounded by floods and mudslides after torrential, record-breaking rains drenched her home in British Columbia, Canada.

What is “border security”? What does it actually do? Do you think that the way it’s framed obscures what it actually is and impedes any real discussion about it, particularly in the mainstream political or media sphere?

The framing of “border security” positions the border as a victim who is being violated and trespassed by “illegal” migrants and refugees, thus justifying the relentless militarization of the border. Discourses of “border crisis” and “migrant crisis” shore up further border securitization and repressive practices of detention and deportation. Images and language of swarms, floods, caravans, and invaders all depict and villainize migrants and refugees as the cause of a “border crisis.” Whenever that state claims that there is a crisis, its responses end up serving the state and reconfigurations of state power.

Such framings obscure the actual crisis, which is not a crisis of the border but one that is due to the border.

The global migration crisis is more accurately described as a crisis of displacement and immobility. The emphasis on “displacement” forces us to interrogate the root causes of conquest, capitalism, and climate change that are the real culprits and drivers of displacement. And the emphasis on “immobility” highlights the reality that most people on the move in search of safety are actually unable to do so. Despite the constant border panics blasted in mainstream media, 95 percent of forcibly displaced people remain internally displaced or in refugee camps in neighboring countries due to an ever-expanding matrix of border controls and securitized borders. Displacement and immobility, not actual free movement, are the reality of racial imperial management in our era.

In this sense, borders are carceral regimes at the nexus of the local and the global, operating as sites of containment and social control. We know that borders are porous—monetized for some, yet militarized for those who represent a certain kind of inherently undesirable movement: the unregulated, ungovernable movement of predominantly Black, Indigenous, and racialized poor and oppressed peoples. When the state and mainstream media invoke a “border crisis,” it is not to end imperial drone warfare or fossil fuel extraction across borders, but rather it is an attack on displaced and immobilized people on the Other side of whiteness and capital and empire.

Perhaps most ironically and offensively, the “migration crisis” is declared a new crisis in which Western countries are positioned as its primary victims, even though for four centuries nearly 80 million Europeans became settler-colonists across the Americas and Oceania, while 4 million indentured laborers from Asia were scattered across the globe, and the transatlantic slave trade kidnapped and enslaved 15 million Africans. Thus, in current invocations of a “migration crisis,” colonialism, genocide, slavery, and indentureship are erased as continuities of violence, even though they are the very conditions of possibility for Western notions of bordered sovereignty and border security.

When it comes to borders, what do you think people should be discussing?

I think we need to be thinking about bordering regimes rather than the symbol of the border itself. Borders are not fixed lines simply demarcating territory. Borders are productive regimes firmly embedded in systems of power, and border controls exist far beyond the territorial border itself. I would argue that the border is less about a politics of movement per se and is better understood as a key method of imperial state formation, hierarchical social ordering, labor control, and xenophobic nationalism. It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern conception of the nation-state and its entanglements with colonialism and capitalism. This means there really is no argument for “anti-colonial” borders (not to be confused with actual Indigenous sovereignty) as we currently know it.

In the United States the Biden administration has made clear since his inauguration that it intends to distance itself, at least rhetorically, from Trump, yet the border machine churns on. What would you suggest to people who are interested in immigrant and border justice (or justice in general) as a way forward?

I want to suggest three things to pay attention to.

First, while former president Donald Trump’s overtly malicious policies garnered international condemnation, cruel policies of immigration enforcement are a central pillar of Democrats’ governance. The rhetoric of “productive” and “legal” immigrants, with the simultaneous demonization of “criminal” and “illegal” immigrants, has been the cornerstone of the party’s immigration platform for three decades. Under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, an entire immigration enforcement apparatus bent on expanding detention and deportation, criminalizing migration through prosecutions, militarizing the border, and imperialist outsourcing of border enforcement has been cemented. We are already seeing this and can expect this to continue under the Biden administration.

Second, not only is imperialism a cause of migration but also the management of global migration and the outsourcing of border controls is becoming a means of preserving imperial relations. U.S., Australian, and European subordination of Central America, Oceania, Africa, and the Middle East compels countries in these regions to accept external border checkpoints, offshore detention, migration-prevention campaigns, and the expelling of deportees as conditions of trade and aid agreements. It is countries in the Global South, including Libya, Mali, Mexico, Nauru, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Turkey, and Sudan, that have become the new frontiers of border militarization.

The U.S. specifically, as you’ve written about extensively, Todd, trains border agents from over 100 different countries. All the horrors unfolding under Trump’s Remain in Mexico protocols, and now under Biden, is a result of border outsourcing. Shortly after the U.S. launched the Mexico-Guatemala-Belize Border Region Program, for example, Homeland Security officials declared that “the Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border,” thus solidifying this new frontier of U.S. border militarization. This means the border doesn’t exist only at the site of the southern border. While Biden can claim he won’t build Trump’s border wall, he is effectively creating a fortress far beyond the site of the border itself to stop migrants and refugees well before they even reach the U.S.-Mexico border. This kind of immigration diplomacy with other countries compels countries across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Oceania to accept outsourced migration controls—all of which cements imperial relations, maintains our colonial presence, and globalizes the violence of borders.

Third, we need to understand how central migrant work is to racial capitalism. Immigration enforcement is not only about the racial terror of outright exclusion but also about producing pliable labor. Borders are not intended to exclude all people or to deport all people, but to create conditions of deportability, which in turn increases social and labor precarity. Neoliberal centrists like Biden have no problem saying they will “let more people in” because what they actually mean is migrant workers without full and permanent immigration status who are legal-but-deportable labor.

Lack of full and permanent immigration status is key to creating pools of hyperexploitable, cheapened labor. “Migrant workers” is a euphemism for third world workers, and jobs like farmwork, domestic work, and service work that cannot be outsourced are being insourced through migrant work. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same capitalist coin: deliberately deflated labor and political power. There is an entire class of workers who, even though they are living and laboring alongside us, are suddenly stratified differently in both the labor force and in the nation-state. Capitalism requires labor to be constantly segmented and differentiated—whether across race, gender, ability, caste, citizenship, etc.—and the border acts as a spatial fix for capitalism. This means that we have to be able to take on the fight not only to end all detentions and deportations but to also fight for full and permanent immigration status, labor protections, and living wages for all.

In the United States the term open borders is stigmatized while a no borders project is nowhere in the conversation (at least in the mainstream, establishment sense). What do you make of this? What is the difference between open borders and no borders, and do you believe that there is a practical political project to follow?

I think an open borders or no borders project is not as present in the conversation because of the stronghold of liberalism. Liberalism has meant that most discussions about immigration are domesticated and pigeonholed into seemingly technocratic questions of visa types, quotas, and legality, or at best hollow multicultural platitudes like “we are all immigrants.” This has removed immigration from the plane of global politics and from an analysis and accounting of asymmetries of power—of capitalism, white supremacy, class, and imperialism.

More radical migrant justice movements do not fall into liberal traps. They refuse to endorse categories of desirable or undesirable migrants, reject assimilation as the price of citizenship, and challenge state borders as legitimate institutions of governance. As Stuart Hall put it, “Migration is increasingly the joker in the globalization pack.” Or as many movements articulate, “We are here because you are there,” thus articulating migration as both an act of individual self-determination and as an expression of decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

That said, I think there is a difference between an open borders and a no borders politics. In the former, the world stays configured the way it currently is, except borders are opened up. This inevitably raises questions like “Oh, but then everyone will come here” or “There will be a brain drain from the Global South,” etc. But a no borders politics is not just about opening up the border. Opening the border isn’t enough if we still have mass inequality and social differentiation. A no borders politics is more expansive than the site of the border itself. A no borders politics is about dismantling all bordering, all ordering, and all exploitative regimes.

We have to dismantle all the systems that uphold a system of apartheid that even allows the Global North to exist in relation to the Global South, or the conditions of the South within the North. We have to eradicate this asymmetrical reality of who is displaced and who is forced to move and under what conditions. It includes the freedom to stay and the freedom to move, meaning that no one should be forcibly displaced from their homes and lands, and that people should have the freedom to move with safety and dignity. Those may seem contradictory, but they are actually necessary corollaries. For me, the practical project to achieving no borders is through interconnected and revolutionary organizing: to end all detentions and deportations, demanding full immigration status for all migrants, demilitarization, abolishing prisons and police, dismantling capitalism, and collective liberation for all. I fundamentally don’t believe that the current deathscape of incrementalism is somehow more “practical” than radical transformation. And as Eduardo Galeano reminds us, “The world was born yearning to be a home for everyone”—that is precisely the practical political project to follow.

This interview first appeared on The Border Chronicle.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.