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Review: Undoing Border Imperialism

by Dawn Paley

Review: Undoing Border Imperialism

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This review was originally posted by Upside Down World.

Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia, introduction by Andrea Smith. AK Press, 2013.

Anyone who has been involved in activism in any of Canada’s largest cities has probably worked with Harsha Walia at some point along the way. An organizing powerhouse who is active across issues and with a lengthy list of groups, Walia is also a writer and regular public speaker. Somehow, amidst a flurry of events and other work, she found the time to grace us with her first book, Undoing Border Imperialism, which came out with Oakland’s AK Press in the fall. In more ways than one, the book is a true manifestation of theory meeting practice, taking strength from Walia’s varied and extensive readings, from her personal life experiences, and from over a decade of movement organizing in Canada.

“Undoing border imperialism would mean a freer society for everyone since borders are the nexus of most systems of oppression,” writes Walia. “Rather than conceiving of immigration as a domestic policy issue to be managed by the state, the lens of border imperialism focuses the conversation on the systemic structuring of global displacement and migration through and in collusion with capitalism, colonial empire, state building, and hierarchies of oppression.”

Walia carefully outlines her theory of border imperialism, but she doesn’t stop there the way an academic or journalist might. Instead, she dedicates the bulk of the text to reflection and to proposals around what makes for meaningful activism in this context. Undoing Border Imperialism lays out a compelling definition of the concept of border imperialism, and then takes readers through concrete experiences of how it can be challenged and dismantled.

“Border imperialism is a useful analytic framework for organizing migrant justice movements in North America. It takes us away from an analysis that blames and punishes migrants, or one that forces migrants to assimilate and establish their individual worth,” she writes. Vancouver-based Walia plays an ambitious role as both author and curator of Undoing Border Imperialism. She contributes the tight and sometimes dense analysis that builds the concept of border imperialism and grassroots organizing theory. These sections are interspersed by poetry and short stories from primarily women of color writers and activists based in Canada and the United States. Undoing Border Imperialism concludes with a written round table discussion that Walia calls the heart of the book.

Walia describes border imperialism as emerging from a confluence of four central practices spearheaded by nation states and accompanied by ongoing processes of capitalist accumulation. The first is capitalism and empire, which underpin the entire system, followed by the criminalization of migrants, the production of racialized, sexist and imperialist national identities, and the denial of legal permanent residency and citizenship to migrants.
Undoing Border Imperialism is focused on the experiences of those who are displaced because they are impoverished by the expansion of neoliberal capitalism, by wars and invasions, and because of the climate crisis. This displacement can result in people and groups crossing state borders, but it does not need to in order for it to fit within the category of border imperialism. “The world over, Indigenous communities are at the forefront of resisting dispossession while facing the brunt of displacement, particularly from rural areas into urban centers,” writes Walia.
She points out that the conditions that lead to the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands to the city are essentially the same conditions that push people (who are also sometimes Indigenous) to migrate across state borders.

One of the strengths of Walia’s analysis is the way that she steps back and captures the big picture, providing readers with an accessible systemic analysis. “Border controls are used to deter those for who migration is the only option to the plundering of their communities and economies due to the free license granted to capital and militaries,” she writes. She makes it clear that the same states that control and criminalize migration are in part responsible for the movement of millions of people who migrate for security or economic reasons.

Undoing Border Imperialism effectively challenges conventional wisdom and clichés, like the idea that the state is shrinking under neoliberal capitalism. “Contrary to the suggestion by some analysts that the Western state’s jurisdiction is withering under the power of multinational corporations, I would contend that the state is not eroding under transnational capitalist globalization. The state, along with its forms of governance including through border imperialism, is evolving to continue to meet the needs of capitalist expansion through more flexible means of governance and accumulation,” writes Walia. Though in some areas like the provision of social services there is little doubt that the role of states has generally receded, borders embody current sites for the expansion of state power, with thousands of kilometers of walls, growing armies of border police, and an increasingly intrusive surveillance apparatus.

Part of the control of migration documented in the book is a growing prison-industrial complex where migrants are detained. According to Walia, these detentions serve to reinforce white supremacy and the dominant order as well as generate revenues for private prison owners and contractors. “Within mainstream narratives, criminals are never imagined as politicians, bankers, corporate criminals or war criminals, but as a racialized class of people living in poverty,” she writes.

The prison system is but one form of state violence against racialized migrants and Indigenous people. “The material structures of the Western state have killed, tortured, occupied, raped, incarcerated, sterilized, interned, occupied, raped, incarcerated, robbed land from, pillaged, introduced drugs and alcohol into, stolen children from, sanctioned vigilante violence on, denied public services to, and facilitated capital’s hyper-expolitation of racialized communities,” writes Walia.

Ongoing attacks by nation-states on these communities take place domestically throughout much of the world, as well as internationally by nation states who are able to project their power outwards. “These lived experiences of otherness are shaped by imaginings about who is entitled to protection from the nation-state because they represent the national identity, and who faces violence by the nation-state because their bodies are deemed not to belong.” These same logics, Walia argues, are projected outwards by imperialist nations. “The logic of racism and inferiority that drives Western imperial wars is inextricably connected to the logic of racism and exclusion within the West.”

“Within border imperialism, the state-capital nexus relies on the apartheid nature of citizenship status to expand a pool of disposable migrant and undocumented labor that lowers the wage floor for capitalist interests without disturbing the normative whiteness of the nation-state.” Walia notes that the migrant laborer population of Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirate) hovers around 40 per cent, these workers are rarely granted citizenship.

“An analysis of border imperialism encapsulates a dual critique of Western state building within global empire: the role of Western imperialism in dispossessing communities in order to secure land and resources for state and capitalist interests, as well as the deliberately limited inclusion of migrant bodies into Western states through processes of criminalization and racialization that justify the commodification of their labor,” writes Walia.

She refers to the West throughout the book “not only to denote the geographic site of the global North (that is, Europe, Australia and North America) but also to reference the dominance of Western political, economic and social formations and ideologies that have led to the foundation of other settler-colonial states such as Israel, and that are increasingly adopted by neoliberal states in Latin America, Africa and Asia.”

Delineating between the so-called West and the rest of the world is no small task, and the emphasis on the culpability of Western states may absolve some responsibility for displacement of Indigenous peoples, peasants and the urban poor from local (non-Western) governments. There are few (if any) nation-states in the world that do not, in some way, repress or limit the movements of migrants or facilitate displacement to clear the way for industrial or energy projects. Nor are Western states the only ones guilty of limiting inclusion based on race and/or citizenship. Rather, these elements are embedded within state-building worldwide.

Following her analysis of border imperialism, Walia walks readers through the creation and organization of No One is Illegal groups in Canada over the past 12 years, highlighting successes in preventing deportations and in carrying out support work with migrants, Indigenous land defenders, and other directly impacted communities. In linking anti-colonial struggles to migrant justice organizing, Walia suggests that decolonization is a key process in collectively undoing the damage done by border imperialism. “Since border imperialism and its constituent processes of capitalism and colonialism have psychologically dispossessed as well as structurally divided us, decolonization is an assertion of our intrinsic self-determining beauty and humanity,” she writes.

Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is one that is identified by longtime activist and writer Andrea Smith in the introduction. “…Harsha asks us to look at how anti-immigrant xenophobia, white supremacy, and settler colonialism are mutually reinforcing in ways that actually prevent us from seeing how these logics are fully connected,” writes Smith.

Undoing Border Imperialism is an important title that deserves to be on everyone's reading list, filled as it is with compact and readable theory and movement organizing gems from the front lines of migrant justice and Indigenous solidarity organizing in Canada.

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