12/13 | Open Borders


Professors Seyla Benhabib, Joseph Carens, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Bernard E. Harcourt

read and discuss

The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights” by Seyla Benhabib

The Ethics of Immigration (chapter 11) by Joseph Carens

On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, and the Rights of Place by Paulina Ochoa Espejo (excerpt)

Borders and Rule (excerpt) by Harsha Walia

Thursday April 15, 2021

Columbia University


Border control regimes—like the beams that crumble when you try to drive a screw into them—are rotten and cannot be fixed, but they stand because of all the institutional and economic structures around them act like a scaffold. These border regimes should come down.

— Paulina Ochoa Espejo, “Abolish ICE!”

In Border and Rule, just published this month, Harsha Walia connects the struggle over borders to the broader abolitionist efforts to dismantle the carceral state. Walia traces the problems we conventionally associate with the current immigration crises to the long history of conquest, expropriation, and extraction that has characterized American and, more generally, Western politics. “The borders of today,” Walia writes, “are completely bound up in the violences of dispossession, accumulation, exploitation, and their imbrications with race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability.” Walia urges us to rethink the crisis at our borders today: not to conceive of the problem as one caused by refugees crossing borders or taking to the seas, but instead to understand the problem as an economic and political crisis.

In a similar way, in her article titled “The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention?,” Seyla Benhabib calls on us to analyze and understand how we, in the West, participate in these harrowing experiences of migrations. She too urges us to take responsibility for our actions and politics. We must ask ourselves, Benhabib emphasizes, “what responsibilities do we bear toward those who knock on our doors?” We must search for “the roots of the ethical responsibilities we bear toward each other resulting from the economic and political systems we are situated in.”

Walia, Benhabib, and Paulina Ochoa Espejo highlight the deep interconnections between US border policy—not just under the last administration, but also those of Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Biden—and the enforcement of domestic order. Benhabib emphasizes the punitive turn in immigration enforcement, or what is called crimmigration, already under Democratic administrations, and the tendency since 9/11 toward a counterrevolutionary paradigm both at the border and in the heartland. Ochoa Espejo traces the influence of identitarian politics on border enforcement and policing. Walia highlights the deep interconnection between the counterrevolutionary forces that today govern domestically and those used to police the U.S.-Mexico border.

The resulting injustices feel tantamount to the injustice of feudalism. In his classic argument for open borders in his 2013 book, The Ethics of Immigration, Joseph Carens in fact compares global citizenship today to feudalism: where one is born today, fortuitously, determines one’s place in the social and racial hierarchy of the world. “To be born a citizen of a rich state in Europe or North America is like being born into the nobility. To be born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is like being born into the peasantry in the Middle Ages.” The result is fundamentally unjust.

As to where this all leads us, though, there is little consensus even among border skeptics and opponents.

For a long time now, Carens has been carrying the brief for open borders. All forms of social order are human-made, he argues, and if we start, rightly, from the assumption that all humans are of equal moral worth, then there is no good moral justification for closed borders and limits on mobility.

Harsha Walia embraces a politics of no borders. This entails a revolutionary politics that would eliminate private property regimes and the carceral state, and reimagine a new world. For Walia, it is a revolutionary project that calls for worldmaking.

For Seyla Benhabib, the problem is not the existence of borders, but the way we now patrol them. Benhabib develops a theory of cosmopolitan interdependence: cosmopolitan, in the sense that mobility and movement across borders should be understood as a normal part of being human, which gives rise to the need for forms of reciprocity and interdependence between citizens and nations.

Although sympathetic to a no borders politics, Paulina Ochoa Espejo proposes a paradigm shift in the way we think about borders and immigration: instead of thinking about sovereignty and borders through the lens of a people or identity, Ochoa Espejo argues that we should think of borders in terms of place and place-specific obligations—where the notion of place is not limited to location, but includes the environment, social relations, and cultural meaning.

Meanwhile, as I write and as we think, a record number of unaccompanied children and teenagers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are attempting to enter the United States to seek refuge, resulting in record numbers of apprehensions likely to exceed anything we have seen over the past two decades. In February 2021 alone, the U.S. Border Patrol detained about 100,000 persons at the US-Mexico border. In the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis enters its tenth year and continues unabated, with 6.6 million Syrians living as refugees and another 6.7 million people displaced within Syria. In South America, the Venezuelan crisis has pushed about 4 million Venezuelans out of the country as refugees; in Africa, about 2.2 million people from South Sudan are displaced as refugees abroad. Across the world at end of year 2019, there were almost 80 million people displaced from their homes, 26 million of whom are living as refugees abroad—and 40% of those persons were children under the age of 18. And the Mediterranean Sea has now become a graveyard, with deaths of persons trying to emigrate by boat reaching over 5,000 in 2016 alone.

What then do we do about borders today? Should we abolish borders? Do we abolish ICE and the policing of borders? Do we open our borders? Or adopt cosmopolitan interdependence? Or reimagine sovereignty entirely through a place-specific perspective? These are some of the questions we turn to in Abolition Democracy 12/13 with an extraordinary panel of brilliant critical thinkers.

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 12/13!