Paulina Ochoa Espejo | Abolish ICE!

By Paulina Ochoa Espejo

Should we abolish borders? Today every country’s borders are unjust, cruel, and rotten. This is true even of open, cooperative borders, like those inside Schengen Europe. They too are unjust, in that their relative openness depends on Frontex (the European border and coast guard agency), which ensures that undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from beyond the EU do not cross the Mediterranean.  Should we jettison the ideology and the institutional mechanisms that allow those border regimes to persist? Should we abolish the state institutions that enforce those border regimes? Yes, we should.

The border control regimes are unjust because they violently enforce discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, and class: in other words, on characteristics that should not be grounds for exclusion from a political order that seeks legitimacy in liberal or democratic values. Their injustice is heightened because they routinely undermine human rights when they deport, imprison, and lead people to their death by ushering them towards dangerous border crossing routes. They are cruel because they willfully produce pain and suffering to enforce this discrimination and send a message to others abroad. Perhaps more importantly, they are rotten, because the borders they police are at core illegitimate: all state borders were established by force or fraud. Despite being inefficient, unjust and cruel, border control regimes subsist because they are profitable to the security agencies, to those who control border prisons, and for politicians that owe their positions to racial animus. 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.

Does this sound too radical? Does it sound like an impossible wish of dewy-eyed activists? Clearly, there are many people who don’t want this to happen and won’t allow it to happen easily. But this resistance should not come from those who see that change is required by legal international commitments, constitutional constraints, or common decency. There are situations in which we have to temper our excitement for revolutionary changes because they can destroy desirable social institutions along with the unjust ones, but this is not one of those. There is no baby in this dirty bathwater. If we dismantled most institutions of border control in the United States, for example, there would not be too much disruption for most of the population. It should not be radical to say, “Abolish ICE!” ICE is a good example of an overgrown public agency that is designed to exacerbate the problems that it is supposed to solve. It turns political problems into existential crises so that it can seem indispensable. ICE’s mission, to identify and apprehend “removable aliens,” seems urgent only when people are classified as such. But this problem could be solved by granting legal status or visas to people who currently lack permission to work or live in the country. That’s a humdrum idea, not a crazy one. Many people (academics, politicians, activists) of many ideological stripes have worked for years in pursuit of it. Their proposals are clear, concrete, feasible. [1]  So, yes, please! Let’s discuss abolishing ICE. Let’s reduce the size of the Border Patrol. Let’s get rid of detention facilities at the border.

But if this is the right thing to do, and if it is feasible, why don’t we see more citizens and politicians pushing for those changes? Why doesn’t this seem realistic? Most citizens, and even scholars, are often too timid when they confront borders; perhaps because most of us have been conditioned to see borders through stories and images of immigration, and because we are primed to contrast those with a parallel story about the legitimacy of rule. We are conditioned to think that any border that is not militarized is an open invitation to more immigrants to come in droves. The metaphor of migration as an all-powerful river makes us imagine that if a country relaxes border security, it would immediately face new surges and floods of migrants. The images of poor brown people concentrated in camps, boats, or caravans trigger a protective reaction (not unlike the one that made people hoard dry beans and toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID lockdowns): “What about public schools, public hospitals, social security? What about jobs and wages? What would unchecked migration do to democracy?”

From this point of view, abolishing border control seems too much and too fast. Most people stop short of supporting radical changes, perhaps because they jump too fast from the images of immigrants ‘flooding” receiving countries, to the idea that what justifies the state is the promise of every country to protect their own—and only, ‘their own’. But the reaction may also be triggered by a different—more complex—line of thought. This one says that we need states to sustain democratic institutions, and to sustain those, we need borders to determine who is in and who is out of the democratic people, and to decide who can vote. So, to have democracy, we need borders. Perhaps for this reason, instead of focusing on abolition or radical reform, most people take a moderate stance. Most border and immigration scholars also hold that we don’t need border abolition, or profound border reform; we only need decent borders regulated by just institutions, and a powerful international human rights regime that takes its cues from the mid 20th century refugee conventions. The international system, after all, rests on the idea of human rights. In their view, we don’t need to abolish borders or border regimes—we only need them to comply with just rules that we already have. So, from this (apparently, very reasonable) perspective, what we need is not to abolish borders, but instead, to make better borders and produce just institutions to achieve a world order where borders are open and nobody needs to migrate. This requires that we concentrate on supporting local democratic institutions, which in turn, should empower their own populations to constitute a cosmopolitan democratic order anchored in international law. For these scholars, this order would guarantee each individual’s rights, and support a well-regulated asylum system for those whose states fail them.  Of course, lawyers and philosophers disagree on what precisely are the legal and moral grounds on which this ideal system rests (Is it state sovereignty and national self-determination? Is it conventional international law and the practice of human rights? Is it political or moral cosmopolitanism?) but in the bottom line, they agree that this well-regulated system is the one we are supposed to have, and we should concentrate our efforts in making institutions try to conform to these ideals.

That is not the right approach to deal with injustice at the border. A human rights approach to the international system legitimacy (just as other forms of global justice and political cosmopolitanism) gives us a universal horizon to what ought to be done, but it also blinds us to concrete injustices that are present here and now. The theoretical gulf between ideal legitimacy and current injustice also explains why most scholars don’t take abolition seriously. The promise of future legitimacy on the basis of human rights (the one that most countries already espouse) helps those who are not personally touched by immigration injustice go on with their lives. The promise is central to the well-scaffolded illusion of legitimacy in liberal states. Although everyone can see that borders are illegitimate because they rest on a colonial history of violence and fraud, people often let that go. They recognize that democracy cannot exist without violence at its inception, but as long as states are propped up by a promise of democratic freedom and equality, many (particularly those who don’t experience the violence of border regimes) are willing to tolerate present injustice in exchange for the future hope that states will fulfill their promise to deliver rights for all. Borders are currently unjust, but many of us put up with them because their legitimacy is part of a future-oriented democratic process to which we are committed. However, for those who are actively harmed by border control bureaucracies and police agencies the future is always too late.

National states and international institutions scaffold the rotten beams of border control with the promise of future justice—but the structure may not be sturdy enough. Borders may not be able to withstand the pressure of what is coming their way. The floods we are talking about are not even the metaphorical floods of people, but the very real floods of climate change, and other distortions of the natural environment that shove the precariousness of borders in the face of the international state system and the economic order that it sustains. ICE, CBP and a border wall cannot isolate the United States from the effects of climate change; Frontex cannot keep the Saharan wind out of Europe. Thinking that borders can be reduced to migration, and thinking that asylum is the paradigm of just migration, is a very narrow view to make sense of the transnational connections that cross-cut the international system of states. Thinking that borders are the same thing as migration in time of climate change is burying one’s head in the sand.

Neither the hope of cosmopolitan justice, nor the real history of state-based democratic legitimacy (and its borders) are adequate to make sense of the political changes required to sustain political orders and individual needs today. Isolationism and state sovereignty fail individuals, but universal human rights sustained by international bureaucracies are also too abstract and too distant to the everyday experience of individuals caught in border violence. State institutions find it too easy to defer responsibility for violence towards them. Given that international law comes top-down—that it must go through state institutions to reach individuals– states find it easy to disavow their general obligations to all people and concentrate on their special obligations to their citizens instead. Countries that acknowledge a general systemic responsibility, but won’t cooperate actively and often stall in collective action mires. If the model of universal legal equality has to be filtered through states’ special obligations to ‘their own’, it will reproduce the current vices of borders, and universal human rights will remain an unreachable horizon. We need a better story to justify borders and orient action; we need new solid beams for the international edifice.

Creating this new framework is a job for abolitionist politics. As in all such politics, an important part of the plan is epistemological. Abolition is action (the negative action of bringing down an unjust institution), but it is also a challenge to the actors’ political imagination to create something new. So, just as the point of prison abolition is not just to abolish prisons, but to have the kind of society where imprisoning people is not the preferred solution to every problem, and prisons are not truly needed,[2]  so too, here the point is not to abolish all borders, but rather to abolish the framework of thought where dividing people into “us” and “them” is the only ground of democracy. Abolition politics can prevent the waste of good wood to scaffold the rotten beams.

A border abolitionist framework makes us look at the world differently. Why on earth do we think that immigration is a problem? Who is it a problem for? As far as I can tell, immigration is actually a solution to many personal and collective problems. From the closed-borders perspective, a migrant caravan from Honduras is a problem because it puts costs on the agencies in charge of preventing mobility in Guatemala, Mexico and the US. But what if the question were: how do we make sure that every person in the globe has access to clean water in times of climate change? How do we make sure that every person’s skill matches the demand for it? Then migration may be the solution, not the problem. Abolitionist work towards just borders should not be displaced to the abstract universalism of international institutions, but the concrete work of acting to changing a framework so that everyone can meet their basic needs wherever they happen to be.

In On Borders: Territory, Legitimacy, and the Rights of Place I do not take an explicit stance on debates over prison abolition or abolition democracy or cosmopolitanism or global justice. Instead, I offer a framework that allow us to drop the “us”/”them” outlook without always deferring to a utopian horizon. The international system of states imagines the world as if it were divided in self-contained units: different colors in a map. I call this “the desert island model” of territorial rights and borders. On Borders offers an alternative to the theoretical outlook that pervades thought about borders and immigration in political theory—here the big change comes from focusing on place, rather than identity. Instead of thinking of countries as desert islands that belong to just one people, I use the “watershed model” which establishes borders by focusing on places and the relations we establish with them as we relate to others. The book gives a new theoretical framework grounded in realistic and concrete practices and places; it focuses on already existing institutions. Rather than legal utopian pipe dreams, a place’s concrete features offer political alternatives based on organizations and activities that are already taking place. The new framework acknowledges that borders are not just a problem for migrants (or that migrants are a problem), instead it highlights why borders are a problem now; and how they could become a solution for every single one of us.

Abolition of migrant criminalization and violent border regimes is not a pipe dream. It is not a pipe dream to accept international asylum commitments, reunite families, provide essential services including access to clean water, cooperate with neighbors to support trans-border conservation. The real fantasy that we should be worried about, is the idea that we could have an international political order where every well-defined people inhabit a well-delimited territory where they are sovereign and independent from others: a candy color-coded world where every people has the right and the power to control their own borders without painful remainders. Instead, we can concentrate on connections across real, concrete, places (like Tapachula, Nogales, Morningside Heights), places where real people already share resources and have grassroots organizations ready to cooperate.


[1] There are many. For two recent clear, concrete proposals see:  Elizabeth F. Cohen, Illegal, New York, Basic Books, 2020; César Cuahutémoc García Hernández, “It is Still Time to Abolish Ice”, The Nation, Feb 26, 2021.

[2] In Abolition Democracy, Angela Davis tells us that if we think about abolishing the death penalty, we should not immediately think that the only alternative is life without parole. Instead, we should think of different social institutions that render the death penalty, and even prisons, obsolete. (Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture,  Eduardo Mendieta, ed. Seven Stories Press, 2005, p.92)

Bernard Harcourt