Freedom to Stay, Freedom to Move: An Interview with Harsha Walia

Photograph by Sameer Al-Doumy

(From Roarmag magazine online and the 2021, 11th paper issue of Roar Magazine)

To create a world where we all have a home, we have to dismantle the border regime — not just borders, but all bordering, all ordering and all exploitative regimes.

Harsha Walia has been involved in anti-colonial and anti-capitalist migrant justice movements for the past two decades. Her first book, Undoing Border Imperialism, offered a movement analysis of the foundational connections between migration, borders and imperialism, with insights into the grassroots organizing her work comes out of. Building on this, her latest work, Border and Rule offers a crucial resource for going beyond nation-based thinking about border regimes around the world and building an internationalist movement for their abolition.

In Border and Rule, Walia avoids comparisons of one border regime or another as “worse” or “better,” focusing on how borders are consistently a “method of capital” involved in seizing and holding territory and in the segmentation of the working class. Capitalism has always depended on the racialized ordering of social groups and the restriction of pools of labor. Border regimes are the institutional form of a racist logic that sees certain lives as more or less valuable, more or less disposable.

She shows how both right-wing and liberal perspectives converge on the idea that we are living through a “migration crisis,” only differing on whether they see this as more of a threat or a tragedy. Rejecting this crisis image as inaccurate and alarmist, Walia frames the current situation as a crisis of displacement and immobility. The true crisis is around why people move — dispossession, war and spiraling ecological destruction — and the mechanisms designed to then keep them out of sight and out of mind.

Grounded in her own experiences in solidarity struggles and the dedicated study of an array of radical thinkers and movements, Border and Rule helps us to grasp the deep links between forms of violence that are too often thought of as separated from each other: the connections between borders and racial citizenship, settler colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy and environmental destruction.

The book pushes for a no border politics that involves imagining and fighting for a genuine alternative to the world in its current shape. This means creating alternatives not only to the besieged visions of the right wing, but also to the already murderous and profitable border regimes as developed under neoliberalism. We need to build confident movements and organizations with the ambition of radically changing this world. Border and Rule is a challenging and aspirational work that urges us to aim for that kind of global solidarity and liberation, and it should be studied closely.

Liam Hough

Liam Hough: In looking at the US-Mexico border, you show how it has always had three functions in “processes of expansion, elimination and enslavement.” Regarding people on the move, on the other hand, you talk about migration as a form of reparations. Could you elaborate on these points please? How unique is the US-Mexico example in terms of how border regimes function?

Harsha Walia: I think the southern US border with Mexico is illustrative in terms of thinking about border formations and also how we think of contemporary social movements. In the US and Canadian context, anti-migrant border controls are often seen as separate from anti-Indigenous and anti-Black genocide. Those forms of violence are often seen as parallel to each other — where the shared connection is systemic racism and white supremacy — but generally migrant justice, Indigenous rights and Black liberation are seen as distinct struggles. Black and Indigenous organizers and scholars such as Audra Simpson, Shannon Speed, Robyn Maynard, Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the Red Nation, however, have repeatedly pointed out that is not the case and highlighted the problems with such an approach.

First, bordering practices are structurally bound up in anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, as well as imperialist expansion. Often, we think of the border as a kind of domestic issue that is separate from global politics. The example of the US-Mexico border, however, is of a border that was formed as a direct result of conquest and the forced annexation of over 525,000 square miles of territory from Mexico. The US seized all of that territory in 1848 after the imposition of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which followed the full-blown military invasion of Mexico. This is the history of numerous nation-state borders: they demarcate territory in ways that are bound up in the workings of empire. The British, the French, the Dutch were literally creating borders wherever they went in the so-called post-colonial era when borders were imposed by these European powers. We often naturalize the existence of borders, which removes them from this entanglement with empire. This is why Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that pervasive liberal rhetoric like “a nation of immigrants” is part of a narrative that erases the violence of conquests and borders upon colonized communities.

Further, the formation of the US-Mexico border in the 1840s and 1850s is bound up in Indigenous genocide and anti-Black controls. When the US forcibly annexed territory from Mexico, sovereign Indigenous nations — including the Comanche, Apache, Seri, Coahuilteca and Kiowa — were forcibly assimilated into the US nation-state. This is, in fact, the entire history of settler citizenship in places like the US, Canada and Australia. Immigration and citizenship were weapons to further the genocidal elimination of Indigenous political and social formations. The Dawes Act and the Indian Citizenship Act in the US basically imposed US citizenship on Indigenous peoples, and a condition of this violent assimilation was that Indigenous peoples had to agree to live on individual plots of land that were carved from the US government’s confiscation and partitioning of their tribal lands.

Around the same time as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed. This allowed slaveholders to kidnap and capture Black people they claimed had escaped. After the 1848 annexation, slave owners also formed militias to patrol the US–Mexico border to prevent Black people from escaping to Mexico. Some of the earliest bordering practices at the US-Mexico border were not only to keep migrants out but were also to control enslaved Black people and keep them in. Contemporary immigration enforcement draws heavily from this foundational terror of anti-Black violence, particularly the regulation of Black movement. Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi write in their book BlackLife: Post-BLM and the Struggle for Freedom that “Movements that we now call migration are founded in anti-blackness, taking their logic from transatlantic slavery.”

A final point is that today migrants are also, of course, Indigenous and Black people (importantly, not mutually exclusive). So, in our thinking about who is a migrant and who is a refugee, it is very important that we do not erase the experiences and often disproportionate violence against Indigenous and Black migrants and refugees. A large proportion of Central American and Mexican migrants and refugees to the US are Indigenous; a huge number of migrants and refugees trapped in Mexico are from Haiti and from the African continent, many of whom now organize through the Assembly of African Migrants; and the historic and contemporary material relations and roots of anti-Blackness form the basis of today’s murderous European border policies — as described in the expansive formulation of the “Black Mediterranean.” And here, returning full circle to the first point, so much of this migration is a result of ongoing colonialism and imperial displacement, underwritten by anti-Indigenous and anti-Black violence: whether military occupations, land thefts, resource extraction, capitalist trade agreements, labor exploitation or climate change.

As Stuart Hall put it, “Migration is increasingly the joker in the globalization pack.” As such, we can understand migration as both an act of individual self-determination and as an expression of decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

Your analysis is rooted in the theorization of racial capitalism, which has become a more prevalent term thanks to many disparate struggles of the past few years. You stress that this perspective sees racism as both “a manipulative tactic of divide-and-conquer and the basis of material social relations.” Could you give a summary of how you interpret and use this framework and how it should challenge and deepen leftist understandings of capitalism?

The framing of racial capitalism that I draw on is rooted in the works of Cedric Robinson, Neville Alexander, Robin D.G. Kelley, Angela Davis and the larger Black Marxist tradition. Cedric Robinson theorized the linkage between racial expropriation and capitalism as racial capitalism — so as to make clear that the social construction and the real differentiation of race is not a secondary outcome of capitalism, but rather that racism is constitutive of capitalism.

What is crucial here is that the racial expropriation of land, labor and life itself is innate to capitalism. Capitalism actually relies on, requires and reproduces racial hierarchies. In that sense, there can be no anti-capitalism that is not also anti-racist and there can be no anti-racism that is not also anti-capitalist. Contrary to the claims of liberal market orthodoxy — and the core assumptions of much of the left, past and present — capitalism does not produce a universal relation of waged labor. Racism is a material structure that is foundational to labor exploitation, to conquest, to territorial expansion, to dispossession, to enslavement, to corporate ownership, to surveillance, to bordering regimes — really to the entire maintenance of the so-called Global North vis-à-vis the Global South.

These are necessary understandings to move us away from the constant debates about whether race or class is more important, or whether race is simply identity and class is material. The forefront of global class struggles are struggles against racial capitalism and its various tentacles: whether it’s migrant domestic workers leading struggles as workers, as feminists and as migrants; struggles against police because they are the enforcers of racial capitalism; struggles against gentrification and evictions led by low income communities of color; or strikes against Amazon, Uber and the whole gig economy — while seemingly disparate, these are all fundamentally part of the fight against racial capitalism.

We are repeatedly presented with the idea of a “migration crisis” or “border crisis.” You reject these terms, arguing that the reality is a crisis of displacement and immobility — a position that would echo the claims of people on the move everywhere. Could you elaborate on this please? How does this focus on displacement and immobility also go beyond simply reframing how we think about crossing state borders, say in relation to gentrification?

I, alongside others, reframe the term “migration crisis” for a number of reasons. I think 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, further, when we say “migration” crisis, we tend to assume that most people are actually able to move in the search for safety — when in fact most people are immobilized. Jennifer Hyndman and Wenona Giles note that less than 1 percent of refugees living in camps around the world find a permanent home. People are not able to move because border controls are deadly and people are being contained at border sites, in refugee camps, through interdiction, pushbacks, restrictive visa requirements and smart borders etc. So, I think reframing the migration crisis as a displacement and immobility crisis illuminates that most migrants are forcibly displaced and systematically immobilized. Displacement and immobility, then — not free movement — is the reality of racial imperial management in our contemporary era.

Second, language such as “migrant crisis” or “refugee crisis” is a pretext to shore up further border securitization and repressive practices of detention and deportation. Images and language of swarms, floods, caravans or invaders all depict and villainize migrants and refugees as the cause of a “border crisis.” Whenever the state claims a crisis, its responses end up in service to the state and reconfigurations of state power. Perhaps most ironically and offensively, the migration crisis is declared a new crisis with Western countries positioned as its primary victims, even though for four centuries nearly 80 million Europeans became settler-colonists across the Americas and Oceania, while four million indentured laborers from Asia were scattered across the globe and the transatlantic slave trade kidnapped and enslaved 15 million Africans. Colonialism, genocide, slavery and indentureship are not only completely erased as continuities of violence in current invocations of a “migration crisis” — they are also the very conditions of possibility for Western notions of bordered sovereignty.

Finally — and this is more semantics but important nonetheless — is that questioning who is considered a “migrant” within the narrative of “migration crisis” blows open the lid on global asymmetries of power. We never talk about business travelers, expats, diplomats, vacationers etc. as migrants. Even though there are millions of people on the move today, including people Columbusing all around the world on luxury yachts, people hopping on airplanes in first-class every week, people with investor class immigrant visas, that kind of movement is not surveilled, scapegoated, scrutinized or considered problematic. In fact, under our system of colonialism and capitalism, that kind of movement — representing power and dominant race, class, caste, settler status in the empire — is actually celebrated and sought after.

Gentrifiers, for example, are the new colonial pioneers, usurping land and property and building gated communities enforced through policing. So, when we say, “migration crisis,” we are not actually talking about all kinds of movement or anyone on the move. In fact, embedded in the language of “migration crisis” is the anti-Black idea of a certain kind of inherently undesirable movement: the unregulated, ungovernable movement of predominantly racialized poor and oppressed peoples. When the state and mainstream media invokes a “migration crisis,” it is not all movement or any and all people crossing borders that they have in mind. Rather, it is specifically displaced and immobilized people on the Other side of whiteness and capital and empire who are being dehumanized, who are being contained and who are being surveilled and captured by carceral systems and borders.

Another key side to your work has been to present today’s bordering practices and the management of migration as more centrally involved in imperialist expansion. Could you discuss this in terms of what is specifically new compared to classic dynamics of imperialism and how they have been understood? You critique a lot of ingrained ideas around migration and borders; how has your own thinking changed in recent years?

I think my ideas have changed in lots of ways, including many of the ways named above. Specifically, in relationship to the dynamics of imperialism that you ask about, I think we need to pay more attention to how the outsourcing of border controls is increasingly a method of maintaining imperial superpower in the world, especially for the US, Canada, Israel, India, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and western and central EU countries.

As we know, imperialism is a root cause of global migration, but now the management of global migration and the outsourcing of border controls is also becoming a means of preserving imperial relations. US, 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 expelled deportees. This becomes part of the 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.

In the US, Customs and Border Protection has trained 15,000 border agents from 100 different countries. Journalist and author Todd Miller writes in his book Empire of Borders, “Close your eyes and point to any landmass on a world map, and your finger will probably find a country that is building up its borders in some way with Washington’s assistance.” All the horrors that unfolded under Trump’s Remain in Mexico protocols, and now under Biden, are a result of border outsourcing. The US funds immigration enforcement in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to stop migrants and refugees well before they even reach the US-Mexico border.

Europe has similarly constructed an entire fortress around itself that extends far beyond its borders. Countries across the Sahel region in Africa are especially pressured to accept outsourcing of EU borders, and the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa diverts billions of euros earmarked for aid to twenty-six African countries into surveillance and military equipment to prevent refugees from leaving the continent. Frontex is expanding its patrols and interceptions in the Mediterranean — already the world’s deadliest border — as well as drone surveillance. Most EU development, trade and aid agreements now force African countries to implement border checkpoints and migration prevention campaigns, such as anti-smuggling and interdiction operations.

What we can take from all this is two things: first, that borders are not fixed lines simply demarcating territory. They are productive regimes firmly embedded in global imperialism, and border controls exist far beyond the territorial border itself. Second, we have to understand the critical role of immigration-related diplomacy in terms of current global relations. Immigration diplomacy through the soft power of aid agreements — or in some cases, outright threats of trade war — compels countries across Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Oceania to accept outsourced migration controls. All of this globalizes the violence of borders, further cementing imperial and colonial relations.

Could you talk more about the various nationalist pitfalls that you critique on the left? While the border regime is basically there to segment the working class — and is a barrier to working class power — arguments for stronger migration controls and hostility towards migrant workers have a long history within much of the broad left itself. How should we try to counter this tendency and build more meaningful solidarity?

The growing global reliance on migrant workers demonstrates both the centrality of bordering regimes to racial capitalism, as well as the failures of the left nationalist position.

To begin with, two points of clarification. Firstly, what I mean by migrant workers is not all people who migrate for work but, rather, those workers under state-sanctioned programs of temporary migrant work. Low-wage and temporary migrant workers are tied — I would say indentured — to one employer by contracts and visas. They are subjected to dangerous working conditions, forced labor and wage theft, and are denied access to labor protections, social services and full immigration status.

And secondly, what I mean by the left nationalist position is not oppressed peoples’ struggles for national liberation, but specifically the widely held position that the form of the nation-state can guard against the ills of globalized neoliberal capitalism. This left nationalist position maintains that the state has been captured by multinational corporations and has withered away under capitalist globalization.

In the case of migrant workers, their distinct ordering of legal-but-deportable labor generates structural hierarchies between racialized migrant workers and citizen workers, and further affixes race to citizenship. This is not a question of just bad employers — though, of course, there are many bad employers — but of bordering regimes that facilitate the segmentation of certain workers as migrant workers. There is an entire class of workers, who are suddenly in a different position in both the labor force and in the nation-state. Even though they are our neighbors and in the same workforce as us, they have completely different rights and entitlements.

How does this happen? Through the border. Migration has been controlled by borders in order to both create an imperial racial regime of terror, as discussed earlier, as well as produce pliable labor segmented by nationality and race. The border acts as a spatial fix for capitalism and is a key pillar of both globalized racial capitalism and racist citizenship. Capitalism requires labor to be constantly segmented and differentiated — whether across race, gender, ability, caste or citizenship. These stratifications cheapen labor, because there is no such thing as “cheap labor” — the conditions of capitalism and other forms of manufactured vulnerability create cheapened labor. Lack of full and permanent immigration status is key to creating pools of hyper-exploitable, cheapened labor. “Migrant workers” is just a euphemism for Third World workers, and jobs like farm work, domestic work and service work that cannot be outsourced are being insourced. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same capitalist coin: deliberately deflated labor and political power.

The state has not withered away under neoliberalism. While austerity certainly means a weakened public sector, the financial and carceral systems of the state that guarantee capital flows and social control of people have expanded. 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. It is necessary to understand how important migrant workers are to racial capitalism because it shows us that the border actually works in the interest of capital and not against it.

And this is precisely why left nationalists are wrong. They have a misdirected approach — which is also a racist approach — calling for us to “shut down the border” to migrant workers. In this formulation, migrant workers are essentially scab workers who are lowering the wage floor and stealing jobs from citizens. Migrant workers do not suppress wages; bosses and borders do. Free capital requires immobilized labor, which the border produces. Also, for migrants to be successfully pitted against workers in this way presupposes that migrants are not also workers participating in and leading class struggles. So, we see how this kind of purportedly “left” nationalism actually dovetails perfectly with right-wing and bourgeois nationalism by increasing immigration enforcement, reproducing the logic of scarcity and scapegoating that austerity depends on. This blunts class consciousness and maintains the international division of labor upon which capitalism relies.

This is where it is very important for left movements to take up the call for status for all workers, as put forward by migrant worker organizations. This means that all migrant workers should have immigration status, right to collectively organize and unionize, full rights to labor protections and full health and safety protections. The only way to fight back against the cheapening of labor is to engage in an internationalist fight against racist citizenship and racial capitalism. That is to say, we need to fight for immigration status, labor protections and living wages for all workers — and to make the divisions created by the border obsolete.

These points around imperialism and nationalist protectionism converge very specifically today in relation to climate change. With the ecological crisis deepening, how should we view initiatives like the “Green New Deal,” which seem to center Global North solutions to an emergency that is experienced disproportionately in the Global South? How should we approach an internationalist struggle against border imperialism in the context of ecological catastrophe?

Not all, but a lot of Green New Deal initiatives are focused at the site of the Western nation-state. These programs of expanding new “green” jobs, expanding the public sector and lowering emissions are basically green programs of welfare state redistribution in the Global North. They generally outright fail to take responsibility for the massive extraction of imperialism — or imagine us ending capitalism. They fail to address climate debt and the reparations owed to those countries in the Global South that are most vulnerable to climate disasters, despite being the least responsible for climate change.

Without a transnational and global justice approach, a Green New Deal maintains colonialism and existing inequalities in a warming world. A global Green New Deal geared toward decarbonizing would necessarily require global demilitarization, decarceration and decolonization. Especially with the rise of eco-fascist tendencies among the far-right and liberal state responses of securitizing borders to climate refugees, it is imperative to have an internationalist response to climate change that advocates for a no border politics.

Border and Rule finishes with a section focused on building movements, advocating a leftist no border politics that is implicitly abolitionist, anti-colonial and internationalist. There you present the simple but challenging vision of a world that is capable of being a home to everyone. Could you talk about this and to what degree you think the basis of such a world already exists?

I would say for myself — and, if I may, for the comrades and the organizations that I have been alongside, since this is a collective struggle — a no border politics is expansive. 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 two freedoms may seem contradictory, but actually they are necessary corollaries. The crux of a no border politics is nestled in the broader politics of home. How do we create a world where we all have a home? Where we can all claim home, where we are all at home in our bodies, where the earth is cared for as a home, where non-human beings have a home? Thinking of home is not a sentimental matter — at the edge of climate catastrophe, it really is a pressing political issue.

Many people think of a no border politics as just opening the border but the world stays as is, which then inevitably raises claims like, “Oh, if you got rid of the border then everyone will come here,” or, “There’ll be a brain drain in the Global South.” But a no border politics is not only about opening the border. Thinking with organizations like Les Gilets Noirs, Mijente, No One Is Illegal, the Sans Papiers movement, opening the border is not 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 border 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. We need to fundamentally change this world: no more military occupations, prisons, police, borders, drone wars, sweatshops, corporations or banks. This is all part of the revolutionary horizon that we need.

Harsha Walia is an activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, Palestinian liberation and anti-imperialist movements, including No One is Illegal and Women’s Memorial March Committee. She is the author of Undoing Border Imperialism (2013) and Border and Rule (2021). 

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