Anita Yandle | Open Borders, Then Abolish Them

By Anita Yandle

“Empires crumble, capitalism is not inevitable, gender is not biology, whiteness is not immutable, prisons are not inescapable, and borders are not natural law.”[1]

It is not enough to say that there is a crisis at the border.[2] Borders themselves are a crisis. Nor is it enough to say that “the border” is a fixed line, a place demarcating two separate jurisdictions. “The border” permeates countries, so much that nearly two-thirds of people in the United States live in a “border region” that can subject them to Border Patrol policing. Although they impact different peoples and places disparately, neither the pandemic nor climate change know borders. Only people subject themselves to the idea that movement and fundamental human rights can and should be restricted based on lines that states[3] can create,[4] recognize, or disavow[5] at their leisure. It is beyond time to build a world without borders.

This border problem is a symptom of legion broader problems that intersect to create a world of exclusion, othering, and punitivism under the guise of community, sovereignty, and security. As Harsha Walia states,

Anti-migrant xenophobia, immigration enforcement, detention centers, migration controls, and border securitization are ultimately the tentacles of a much-larger ideological monster: the rule of racist, nationalist borders. I align with a leftist politics of no borders, since the borders of today are completely bound up in the violences of dispossession, accumulation, exploitation, and their imbrications with race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. […] Like the regime of private property, borders are not simply lines marking territory; they are the product of, and produce, social relations from which we must emancipate ourselves.[6]

That is to say, to combat both the problems that lead states to believe they require closed borders and the impacts of those closed borders policies, we must tackle and dismantle racial capitalism, among other things, and the very idea that people can (or should) own land.

Abolishing borders will take a world change, certainly[7] — but it is one that is neither unthinkable nor unachievable. In the effort to institute this world change, opening borders is a vital step. However, opening borders alone will not dismantle the many systems that undergird the racial capitalism and policing that uphold the current border-reliant world order. Here, I will not argue for one kind of post-borders world over another (whether that is a Trekkian utopian socialist world order, an anarcho-communist society, or something else altogether) but rather focus on the harms that borders manufacture and visions for a better future.

Some of the (Many) Problems with Borders

The United Nations reports that here are 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide and 272 million international migrants. To put that another way, more people than the entire country of Indonesia (the fourth most populous country in the world) live in a different country from that in which they were born. With that kind of prevalence, one might think that moving countries would be a quick and painless experience — but that is clearly not the case. Instead, even the states with the most resources to share (often especially those states) violently police who can enter the country — often to devastating and fatal consequence.

Paulina Ochoa Espejo discusses the United States’ particularly vicious plan to build a wall along the southern border to keep people out. The goal of a wall was to channel migrants to certain locations and “raise the risk of apprehension to the point that many will consider it futile to attempt illegal entry.”[8] The strategy funnels people toward places that are so dangerous that their deaths or capture will “send a message to other would-be crossers.”[9] If this is the intention, then the government depends on the deaths of migrants to achieve that goal, a clear violation of human rights norms. However, it is not only physical barriers that are human rights crises — all borders are.

Borders are “less about a politics of movement per se and [are] better understood as a key method of imperial state formation, hierarchical social ordering, labor control, and xenophobic nationalism,” writes Harsha Walia.[10] The borders in Africa and the Americas in particular are legacies of imperialism and colonialism, having been drawn according to the desires of Europeans.[11] Today, states use their borders and resulting immigration systems as a tool to subjugate migrants, silence dissent, and solidify poor working conditions.

Walia’s introduction hones in on a particular interest of mine: The use of immigration status as a threat against workers who cannot protest their conditions without fear of deportation or immigration detention.[12] (Notably, immigration detention centers have forced labor — just like prisons — meaning that objecting to poor working conditions may lead to worse ones.[13] As Walia says, “Migrant worker programs are carceral regimes.”[14]) Borders and immigration enforcement, then, uphold the global capitalist regime:

Right-wing demagogues are making rising populist appeals about “foreigners” stealing our jobs, draining our services, ruining our environment, infecting our neighborhoods, and tainting our values. […] Right-wing populist appeals uproot class struggle from capital accumulation and elite control and, instead, overlay it with entitled and exclusionary projections of who rightfully constitutes the nation-state. […] But right-wing nationalism—pitting whites against racialized people, migrant workers against unionized workers, refugees against citizens, the West against the rest—is a ruling-class ideology. It breaks internationalist solidarity, lowers the wage floor for all workers, and maintains extractivism and exclusion in a warming world. Right-wing nationalism purports to defend the working class but is vehemently anticommunist.[15]

As this series has extensively covered in several past sessions, abolition cannot be achieved without dismantling racial capitalism.

Why Open Borders Is Not Quite Enough

Borders are a violent extension of the carceral,[16] imperialist[17] state. “Borders have guards and the guards have guns,” Joseph Carens writes.[18] Sovereignty includes the inherent power to admit or exclude people.[19] It is through the existence of ports of entry that states can determine citizenship and participation in society. Perhaps, then, opening borders to all migrants and removing the most obviously violent parts of border regulation — detention centers, armed guards, and violations of human rights principles such as non-refoulement — would solve many problems. This is certainly true, but it is not enough.

Opening borders will help, but there must also be global justice. As Walia states, “Border crises are, therefore, not merely domestic issues to be managed through policy reform. They must, instead, be placed within globalized asymmetries of power—inscribed by race, caste, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and nationality—creating migration and constricting mobility.”[20] Opening borders may let people in, but it does not tackle the root causes of displacement, nor does it ensure people can arrive at their destination safely — or that their final destination even is a safe one. Instead, it will perpetuate an asymmetry of movement where freedom to move is limited to the privileged few.

This is not to argue against open borders; instead, open borders are a step on the way to abolishing borders (and indeed, the states that control them.) Carens explains an argument against open borders as saying, “What global justice requires is a massive transfer of resources from rich states to poor states and a transformation of the international economic order, not open borders.”[21] To argue for global justice, however, is not to argue against open borders (although surely some people believe in an either-or situation.) Imagine having open borders without global justice: If states can hoard wealth so that migrants do not have the resources to cross into their territory even if they want, that is violence. If the climate crisis raises the waters so high as to inundate whole nations while those that produce the most greenhouse gases remain relatively untouched, that is violence. If states can determine the civil rights of those in its jurisdiction, such as who may vote, and any of those rights are denied to immigrants, that is violence.[22] If a state declares they have open borders but in order to get there, people must risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea, that is violence. When advocating for open borders, one also assumes that the receiving country recognizes human rights; but does a climate refugee with few resources have much of an option of where to relocate? One could easily imagine winding up under a regime that has open borders but does not recognize, for example, the social, economic, and cultural rights that one’s own home country might have had.[23] Global inequality and Western imperialism mean that open borders will only help those who are lucky enough to the have the ability and resources to relocate. Open borders will alleviate many issues and save numerous lives, but abolishing them through abolishing even having countries is the solution to the violence borders create.

Abolishing borders and states is not the clear goal to everyone, for plenty of reasons. As Paulina Ochoa Espejo writes, a no-borders politic “means rejecting exclusive territorial jurisdictions; when they go, so does the modern territorial state.”[24] Ochoa Espejo does not necessarily reject borders, but rather the identity-based justifications that “often ratchet up violence and solidify historical injustices.” Instead, she proposes a “watershed model” of borders that takes a more place-based and ecological approach to recognizing borders. Seyla Benhabib similarly does not reject borders outright, saying, “This is not a plea for a world without borders, because democracies require jurisdictional boundaries.”[25] Focusing heavily on the abdication from and violations of international human rights obligations, she highlights the inherent cruelty in the current border regime.[26] Modern territorial states are fundamental to the international law system; if rejecting borders means rejecting modern territorial states, there would be a clear concern about how to achieve human rights.

The current international law structure is reliant on the existence of states and their choice to (and ability to) recognize basic human rights. Therefore, a human rights advocate must recognize and work within the established system of overlapping and intersecting jurisdictions and  borders that are the only current way to achieve basic rights, such as the freedom of movement. Indeed, many of the human rights at play in the discussion of borders are reliant on borders and states existing — the principle of non-refoulement, the right to asylum, and the freedom from denaturalization, among others. However, borders are only violent because states are. Border policing, violence, and regulation is a symptom of state control intersecting with racism, surveillance, and performative politics. Instead of following a path of advocating for the realization of human rights by accepting the inevitability of borders, one can advocate for basic protections and the full realization of rights while trying to build a different, better system. Indeed, this is one of the tenets of abolitionist theory, although what constitute reformist-reforms versus abolitionist-reforms may be more opaque at this level. Improving lives immediately is not incompatible with building a better world free from the mechanisms we may use now to do so.

Future Visions

Open borders will take time to establish and abolishing borders even longer. Right now, open borders may not even seem like a feasible policy. But as Carens said, we should still argue for them: “The feudal system was once deeply entrenched. So was the institution of slavery. For a long time, there was no real hope of changing those social systems. Yet criticism was still appropriate. If we don’t ask fundamental questions about the justice or injustice of our social arrangements, we wind up legitimating what should only be endured.”[27] So, yes, I do advocate for a move to the politics of the commons that, as Ochoa Espejo notes, many no-borders activists do.[28]

To end the reliance on borders and territorial states, we must begin to tackle racism, carcerality, imperialism, the climate crisis, gendered and racialized labor, and the many other elements tied into global capitalism that lead to forced migration and the exploitation of migrant labor. Indeed, as Walia says, “We need to urgently jettison regimes of private property, reject dispossessive forces of colonialism, forsake extractive labor markets, and abolish carceral regimes.”[29] This may seem a daunting task, especially with the rise of authoritarianism.[30] However, it is not only possible, but necessary. We do not need walls, prisons, cages, or borders. Each of these is inextricably tied to the others and to dismantle any of them, we must dismantle them all.

Notes

[1] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 112 (2021).

[2] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 111 (2021), (“Language such as ‘migrant crisis,’ and the often-corresponding ‘migrant invasion,’ is a pretext to shore up further border securitization and repressive practices of detention and deportation. Such representations depict migrants and refugees as the cause of an imagined crisis at the border, when, in fact, mass migration is the outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change.”).

[3] I use states in this post in the international sense, meaning the governments of countries.

[4] Paulina Ochoa Espejo, On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, & The Rights of Places, 98 (2020), (discussing the carving up of Africa and the Americas during the height of colonialism without any respect to indigenous peoples).

[5] See, e.g., Seyla Benhabib, The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights, Jus Cogens, 14 (2020), (explaining the phenomenon of “a thousand little Guantánamos,” meaning places where states act without respect to their international or domestic obligations by declaring them separate, including the declaration of airports as international zones and the example that Australia “excised” the Christmas Islands, Ashmore Reef, and Cocos Islands so as to avoid rights obligations to asylum seekers in those territories).

[6] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 111 (2021).

[7] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 111 (2021), (“A meaningful no borders politics requires an end to forced displacement caused by the brutalities of conquest, the voraciousness of capital, and the wreckages of climate change. We must wage resistance to displacement and immobility in all its forms: drone warfare, military occupations, policing agencies, mass incarceration, reservations, ghettos, gentrification, capitalist trade agreements, special economic zones, sweatshops, land grabs, resource extraction, and temporary labor programs. Dismantling borders requires that we abandon capitalism, which has only given us the merciless expropriation of land and exploitation of labor.”).

[8] Paulina Ochoa Espejo, On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, & The Rights of Places, 281 (2020), (quoting the Border Control Strategic Plan).

[9] Paulina Ochoa Espejo, On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, & The Rights of Places, 281 (2020).

[10] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 14 (2021).

[11] Paulina Ochoa Espejo, On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, & The Rights of Places, 98 (2020).

[12] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 16, 18 (2021).

[13] See, e.g., Anita Sinha, Slavery by Another Name: “Voluntary” Immigrant Detainee Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment, 11 Stan. J.C.R. & C.L. 1 (2015).

[14] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 16 (2021).

[15] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule, 17 (2021).

[16] As Walia mentions in her Haymarket Books interview, in the United States during slavery, the border was also meant to keep enslaved people in — a literal prison. Haymarket Books, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, YouTube (2021), https://www.haymarketbooks.org/blogs/276-border-and-rule-global-migration-capitalism-and-racist-nationalism.

[17] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 16 (2021), (“Most ironic, the migration crisis is declared a new crisis with Western countries positioned as its victims, even though for four centuries nearly eighty 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 fifteen million Africans. Colonialism, genocide, slavery, and indentureship are not only conveniently erased as continuities of violence in current invocations of a migration crisis, but are also the very conditions of possibility for the West’s preciously guarded imperial sovereignty.”).

[18] Joseph H. Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, 225 (2013).

[19] Joseph H. Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, 225 (2013).

[20] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 15 (2021).

[21] Joseph H. Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, 223 (2013).

[22] Cf. Joseph H. Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, 242 (2013), (“[T]he right to vote is legitimately restricted to people with ongoing ties to the society whose laws they help to shape.”).

[23] Just as Benhabib expressly pleas for the strengthening of the 1951 Refugee Convention, consider this a plea for the United States to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among other treaties. Seyla Benhabib, The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights, Jus Cogens, 22 (2020).

[24] Paulina Ochoa Espejo, On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, & The Rights of Places, 148 (2020).

[25] Seyla Benhabib, The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights, Jus Cogens, 20 (2020).

[26] Seyla Benhabib, The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights, Jus Cogens, 17 (2020).

[27] Gary Gutting & Joseph Carens, When Immigrants Lose Their Human Rights, NY Times (Nov. 25, 2014), https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/25/should-immigrants-lose-their-human-rights/.

[28] Paulina Ochoa Espejo, On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, & The Rights of Places, 148 (2020).

[29] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and Racist Nationalism, 111 (2021).

[30] Seyla Benhabib, The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights, Jus Cogens, 21 (2020), (“[…] the tide of history seems to be flowing in quite the opposite direction from interdependent sovereignty toward reimaginings of national autarchy and megalomaniacal visions of self-sufficiency”).

Fonda Shen

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