Pulling Down the World’s Walls: A Conversation With Harsha Walia

Pulling Down the World’s Walls: A Conversation With Harsha Walia

Pulling Down the World’s Walls: A Conversation With Harsha Walia

The Nation talked to the author and activist about her new book, Border and Rule, and what a border-free globe might look like.


The border is not a place. Whether we are talking about the US-Mexico border, the Dominican Republic–Haitian border, the Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan, or the scores of other militarized, fortified, patrolled, or even electrified borders throughout the world, these demarcations function neither as simple geographic markers nor as geopolitical organizing tools. They don’t even really function as barriers, as walls are easily breached, climbed over, dug under, or—through visa overstays or by levying an asylum claim—avoided altogether. “The border,” as author Harsha Walia puts it in her new book, Border and Rule, “is less about a politics of movement per se and is better understood as a key method of imperial state formation, hierarchical social ordering, labor control, and xenophobic nationalism.”

Sites of so much violence, contention, media frenzy, and fanaticism, the walls and all the dog-whistling rhetoric do not, in the end, protect or preserve. What borders do, Walia suggests, is theatrically deflect attention from whatever rot, hatred, or suffering is happening between the walls themselves, obscuring the source of a political shake-up. Walls, and immigration enforcement more generally, also make it easier for politicians to scapegoat migrants for all of the wants and woes of the native populace. And as barriers—whether physical or legal—they serve to mark limits to both empathy and solidarity.

Border and Rule is a wide-ranging analysis of the origins of borders and how US foreign policy violently uproots millions across the globe; it also touches on the destabilizing ills of capitalism, the hyper-exploitation of temporary workers (“state-sanctioned programs of indentured work”), and the rise of the anti-immigrant far right. It is a damning indictment not only of borders but also of the current global order.

A longtime activist with the No One Is Illegal, a grassroots migrant justice group based in Canada, Walia has been a vocal and mobilizing force in pro-migrant, abolitionist circles for well over a decade.

“If only facts could change the world”—as a friend sighingly put it to me in discussing Walia’s book—Border and Rule could undo a lot of current suffering. And while the world’s many walls may not be pulled down soon, Walia’s project clearly aims to do exactly that. We spoke by phone in early March, discussing borders and what she imagines for a post-border world. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—John Washington

John Washington: How did you come to this work, and what has kept you putting so much time and intensive thought into it over the years?

Harsha Walia: I come from a family that has dealt with the legacy of one of the bloodiest human displacements in history, which is the partition [between India and Pakistan in 1947]. My grandfather fought in the independence struggle against the British Raj. He would talk about that, but his stories would stop at a particular time period, around the partition. There was deep silence, deep trauma. I returned to those experiences after being politicized. It’s only in hindsight when you start to make sense of the world around you that those individual experiences make sense in a continuum of violence. And you shed the shame and the guilt around that.

Experiencing and observing the heightened machinery of detention and deportation, and how there was a synergy between the war at home and the war abroad, and that that was underwritten by racial capitalism and empire… We can’t think about immigration as a solely domestic issue.

I’ve stayed involved because there really is no turning back for any of us who are involved in different movements. You just continue to learn. The people that I meet continue to inspire me. A lot of my thinking and theorizing derives from the principle “no one is illegal.” Refusing the distinction between good and bad immigrants really came from being in relationships with people who were criminalized and who were in the so-called category of bad immigrants.

JW: How has your understanding of this field changed?

HW: My previous book, 2013’s Undoing Border Imperialism, was a study of organizing, thinking through strategies and tactics and coalitional work and some of the messiness of social movement organizing. What has evolved and expanded for me is the need to look at border regimes with the specificity of their local context, while looking at their similarities across transnational regimes. Being in Canada, there’s a lot of focus on the US as the kind of site and originator of many forms of state violence. In Canada, whenever regressive immigration policy is passed, the immediate response to condemning it is, “This is an American-style policy.” What that erases is Canada’s own role in perfecting many forms of state violence, but also it provincializes North America without looking at border regimes around the world.

I really wanted to expand and build on an internationalist and transnational view to how border enforcement works, and to actually look at sites other than the United States as perfecting models of violence. I think it’s important to look at the ways the US borrows and builds on templates of violence that are imported.

We often think of migrant justice issues as separate from or at best parallel to Black and Indigenous struggles for decolonization and abolition. What I wanted to do is look at the historic formation of the border as completely bound up in anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and expansionist imperialism. That’s necessary because I think it can be instructive and inform our current moment in how we think about solidarity, how we think of struggles not just as parallel and interconnected but as constituted through each other.

JW: I understand the critique you present in the book of trying to veer away from something like a utilitarian argument on behalf of migrants—that they add to the economy or don’t deplete the welfare state—or absolving migrants of implications that they are cheats or criminals, and that doing so succumbs to the logic of bordering. But don’t we have to do some of that practical work of setting the record straight, disabusing people of erroneous and racist ideas, even as we also try to break through the system itself?

HW: I don’t think they are necessarily always contradictory. Particularly as an organizer, there’s always the balance of holding the deeper systemic critique while tending to the specifics of someone’s story. Inasmuch as I think it’s important to reject the politics of innocence, I’ve worked with and supported a lot of people who say, “I’m innocent. I haven’t committed a crime. Migrating is not a crime.” I think it’s absolutely possible to hold those pieces together. The necessity of pushing back against those logics is that if we only maintain the narrative of innocence or we succumb to the commodification of immigrants by equating them with the economy, then we have to be attentive to how that can bolster the system.

I think it’s important to highlight the ways migrants contribute to the economy and then very clearly and vociferously refuse the commodification of migrants, because that has been the history of migration, to use migrants as labor. If we look at the history of indentureship, with our current-day bracero program, this is increasingly the template of what migrants are supposed to become: disposable commodities. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t stand up and support the idea that immigrant rights are workers’ rights, or don’t support immigrant workers in class struggle. Tactically, we can deconstruct myths without upholding them.

JW: You write, “Scenes of border death maintain structures of racial violence and, as statistics of deaths pile up, we evade an interrogation of the source of this violence shaped through imperial, racialized, and spatialized control.” How do we understand the human consequences, especially for those people not on the ground and only reading about borders from afar?

HW: When you’re fighting alongside someone or supporting someone who is facing deportation, it’s very much about conveying someone’s story and fighting back against the dehumanization. To be able to talk about them in the fullness of who they are, the fact that their voice and their story needs to be told on their own terms. I think that is absolutely the case. And the reason that Border and Rule is structural is because I’ve spent so long trying to fight and being involved in migrant justice struggles where so much of my day-to-day is about individual stories. And not to flatten them, because they’re all fighting detention or deportation, because everyone has their own story and their own journey and that deserves to be told.

But we’re also inundated in the individual stories at the expense of the structural. For me, that’s why I chose to emphasize the structural. I think it is a gap, especially in thinking about the border. Whereas if we are rigorously thinking about other things, like war or imperialism, it’s possible to do reporting on war zones in a way that humanizes people and also talks about the war as a structural phenomenon, implicating power. But we don’t see that as much around migrant justice reporting.

With border deaths especially so, because those deaths are made to be so passive, which is why I call them border killings. I think there needs to be a much stronger pushback to telling the stories of those who have been killed because of border controls, more strongly implicating the state as well.

JW: Why do you think you don’t see as much of a structural critique with border and immigration reporting?

HW: The story of migration and the ways in which mainstream migrant rights organizing has worked have been so focused on the story of humanizing people because there is such a deference to border regimes. People need to prove why they have the right to be here.

JW: You write about how border enforcement is one system in the larger regime of racial capitalism. Do you think that there is something unique in border and immigration issues that can be used to critique the system? If you look at far-right movements across the globe, for example, the thing they have most in common is an anti-immigrant agenda. Is there something we can harness in border and immigration discussions to go after the larger system?

HW: The border is increasingly becoming one of the most critical sites of struggle. By that I mean, it’s so important to understand what’s happening at the border to migrants and refugees and in terms of immigration enforcement, but it’s something that is so much larger. Increasingly, a number of struggles are, at their core, going to engage with their relationship to the border. I don’t think we can fight capitalism or have a global anti-imperialist struggle without looking at how central labor migration is to the continued exploitation and extraction of capital.

And when it comes to temporary labor migration in particular, I think this is so crucial, because so many on the left think that the ways in which we will fight back against the globalizing effect of capital is to have a nationalist response—that is, well, [if] capital moves freely across borders and people don’t, well, then we need to shut the border to capital. But this ignores how increasingly borders are the spatial fix to capitalism. Capitalism requires segmented labor, and bordering regimes multiply the segmentation.

Similarly, it’s impossible to fight back against the rise of the right, it’s impossible to fight back against the current era of capitalism, it’s impossible to fight back against the current era of imperialism without seeing how migration is such a central pillar to all three of them in our era. The border is central to all of those systems.

JW: What’s your vision for the border? Let’s take the US-Mexico border as an example. I assume you would bulldoze the actual border wall, but then what? Would there be any checks, or absolute freedom of movement?

HW: I advocate for no borders. But what I think is important and instructive here, and I’ll riff off of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore and Mariame Kaba, who say, “When we’re talking about no prisons, we’re not only talking about getting rid of the physical infrastructure of the prison; it’s about altering the fundamental conditions that give rise to prisons.” For me that is fundamentally what a no-borders politics is. It’s not only getting rid of the border and then maintaining all of the social and state violences that gives rise to forced displacement. For me, a no-borders politics has two key corollaries, which is the freedom to stay and the freedom to move. Which means that people shouldn’t be forcibly displaced, and people should be free to move.

That means that if there is no border between the United States and Mexico, the social conditions that give rise to the differentiation between what is the United States and Mexico would also evaporate. One of the greatest panics about getting rid of the border is that everyone would rush to come here, but that is assuming the condition of global apartheid, which is that one part of the world gets to reap and create wealth that has been built on exploitation—like imperialism, enslavement, and settler colonialism—while the rest of the world is supposed to remain in abject poverty and subjugation. And so the panic if there is no border assumes that those conditions will remain. Whereas, when I’m thinking of a no-border politics, it necessarily is part of a larger project and vision of eradicating those relations of dominance. It’s about eradicating the social organization of difference, about eradicating capitalism such that the division between the so-called North and South effectively collapses.

JW: Underpinning those conditions is the nation-state, which is built on this racial capitalist system, so it seems like a quick series of dominos that would fall. So you undo the borders and logically you undo the modern nation state?

HW: Absolutely. And we’re undoing capitalism. If we don’t have borders to maintain the global segmentation of labor, what would it mean to live in a world where the wage floor is the same around the world? And I don’t mean everyone is paid the same, but the wage floor, where if you are producing something in the so-called Global South it’s not seen as a cheapened labor force.

JW: Who do you feel you need to convince with this book?

HW: I am hoping that what this book can be in service to is an internationalist view and a commitment to internationalism. I have been concerned with the lack of care for internationalist politics. And even issues like the Green New Deal, even those kinds of efforts that really domesticate justice. I am committed to doing work in service to a transnational and internationalist view, and just seeing how fundamentally connected the border is to issues of racial capital, to issues of empire, to other anti-racist struggles. It’s not just about cause and effect, but really deeply interconnected and constitutive of each other. I don’t think we can have an anti-war movement that isn’t connected with migration. I don’t think we can have an anti-capitalist movement that doesn’t tend with migration. I’m hoping the book can break some of that siloing effect.

JW: What practical steps can people take?

HW: You don’t have to be organizing day in, day out to dismantle the border, to see how border issues are connected to whatever issue it is you’re working on, and that to me, returning to why I hope this book is useful, is that folks see migration and displacement as central to all social struggles and all movements, and think about incorporating it in a meaningful way with an understanding of how it works, to all different struggles.

If you’re fighting free trade agreements, migration is a key part of that fight. If you’re fighting against drone warfare and imperialism, migrants are the human face and the human consequences of our foreign policies. If you’re an abolitionist, it’s completely congruent to demand an end to cops and prisons and borders at the same time.

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