Highsnobiety’s Honors Week is a celebration of the women — particularly the trans and BIPOC women — who have pushed our culture forward. This Women’s History Month, we’ve tapped six guest curators to go deep on the issues they care about and to spotlight their favorite women and nonbinary creators. Today, futurologist and trend forecaster, Ayesha A. Siddiqi interviews activist and writer Harsha Walia about how borders are enforced now and what that means for the future of citizenship.
World leaders, particularly during elections, often invoke the specter of a border crisis. We’re told that the crisis affects those inside each country. But a border is the crisis. Every border implies the violence required to maintain it and our resulting world is organized around categorizing people on either side. Over the 20teens, statelessness has risen across the world, exposing the capriciousness of citizenship and legality of human beings.
Since 2015, over 1,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean sea from Africa into Europe. Governments in the US and the UK regularly revoke the legal status of people of color who were never immigrants, deporting them to places they’ve never been in the Caribbean and South America. Palestinians, Uyghur Chinese, and the people of Assam in India are being told their native homelands are no longer places they have any right to be. Hungary, the barbed wire capital of Europe currently facing a labor shortage, is now allowing some migrants to enter as “guest workers” — a path that tolerates their presence, but does not offer eventual citizenship.
Even for those that make it under official routes, their status becomes precarious in other ways; Fillipino nurses, Carribean nannies, and South Asian and African doctors in the US and UK have died of Covid-19 at rates disproportionate to their non-immigrant peers as a result of workplace exposure. Meanwhile, the rich are buying passports to Austria and the Cayman Islands. For some, borders are always open.
Harsha Walia is the foremost expert on the tension between human rights and border enforcement. Her new book, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, offers a corrective to the narrative that enables governments to treat people like pest control. I spoke with her to discuss what the real crisis at the border is and how we should address it.
Ayesha A. Siddiqi: Let’s start with the origin point for border violence, the guise of security. In your new book, you critique “securitization” as the process by which the border becomes a testing site for surveillance technologies, often forming the baseline of more predictive policing. Could you describe that process further?
Harsha Walia: Yeah, I would say that border violence really occurs in many sites. That's part of the argument I make in Border and Rule — a border is not a single line on a map where border violence occurs. The border is elastic. Border securitization happens inland, too. For example, in the criminal legal system, there's a pipeline for expulsion and deportation. If someone gets picked up by the cops, or even sometimes if you're going to the hospital or your kids are in school, and your immigration status is found out, then that becomes a site of border violence as well.
The surveillance industry is omnipresent. It's at the border with massive security companies making billions of dollars from contracts that test surveillance mechanisms on migrants and refugees. At the US-Mexico border, billions of dollars are sunk into drone surveillance, high-tech software surveillance. That kind of surveillance exists inland, too. In parts of Europe, for example, refugee housing uses facial recognition technology. In Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Board is starting to pilot algorithmic AI decision-making to decide if someone is a refugee or not, and whether they'll get to stay or be deported. Migrants and refugees have become the testing ground for a lot of this kind of surveillance in automated decision-making, in this concept of “smart borders'' in Europe, in facial recognition technology, and drone surveillance. This massive industry is a dystopic testing ground that isn’t only against migrants and refugees, but they certainly are one of the many populations against whom it’s weaponized.
AS: It sounds like the border goes far beyond map lines, because it ends up being inscribed onto people themselves as they move through the world.
HW: Yeah, absolutely. That's one of the things that we often ignore when we think of the border. Outsourcing a border, I think, is becoming one of the primary methods of imperialism. We have countries like Canada, countries like the United States, countries like Australia, we have the EU, all of whom are increasingly outsourcing their border enforcement to third countries. And they're increasingly making aid and trade and development agreements contingent on migration prevention clauses. In Australia, for example, whenever it makes trade and aid agreements with countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru — with whom it has a very nascent history of formal colonialism — those countries are forced to accept outsourced detention centers. Australia now out-sources its [immigrant] detention center to countries like Papua New Guinea and increasingly to Indonesia. In Europe, the EU of course has fortified its borders. The Mediterranean is the deadliest border in the world; it pays Libya and countries throughout the Sahel region — Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia — aka the frontier of border militarization, and all the aid money is going into boots on the ground border enforcement and training.
AS: I like that you use the word displaced people. That's the word I feel most comfortable using, because it names the active process — something that happened to or was done to someone rather than defining them through their status. Should we be wary of how words immigrant, migrant, and refugee are used, particularly when they're used by the state? Because even the term “refugee” is a category often determined by the state to legitimize some immigration over others, and its use varies across governments depending on what types of violence the state is willing to recognize.
HW: Absolutely. When the state uses and fluctuates between categories like immigrant, migrant, and refugee, there's often a different intention and violence, creating categories of who's deserving, who's undeserving. It creates a hierarchy of state selection of immigrants that are largely class privileged with formal educational background. There's a long political history to these kinds of differentiation that really go back to the Cold War era. In the United States, refugees who were seen as fleeing Castro's Cuba, for example, or Vietnamese rescued at sea fleeing the communist regime in Vietnam, were welcomed. And their depictions were very much where the US was the savior. In contrast, migrants and refugees who were fleeing US-backed dictatorships, particularly in Haiti, were all detained and called bogus refugees and migrants. Those discrepancies are important. That said, I tend to use migrants and refugees together because a lot of people use those terms to identify themselves. So I think it does depend on who's using the language and for what purpose.
AS: Speaking to the question of language and the ideology it can contain, I wanted to ask you about the development of citizenship as a luxury commodity. I've seen it called “investment migration” — which is the official term for the ability to buy a passport. When I first encountered it, I felt the term is to refugees what “expat” is to immigrants — terms generated to casually make race and class distinctions. I wanted your thoughts on the phenomenon particularly during the pandemic, which, according to agencies that serve these people, doubled the rate of inquiries into purchasing passports.
HW: Yeah, it's such a good question. I feel “investment programs” for citizenship really make clear what citizenship is. It's an arbitrary privilege. People tend to grasp onto the racial underpinnings of citizenship; this idea of us and them and the scapegoating of migrants as foreigners is so entrenched across the world. And yet we have these kinds of programs that make it clear that citizenship is completely arbitrary, it's based on accident of birth and capital. That's why I think it's not actually a contradiction.
A lot of times, people point out the contradiction that capital moves so freely across borders and people don't, and I'm like, well, that's not actually true. There is a lot of movement across borders. If you have an American passport you have mobility across the planet, generally speaking; visa-free access to most countries in the world. So it's not really true that people can't move. It's that people who represent capital absolutely can move in various forms, whether that's investor-based citizenship, whether that's high skilled visa programs, whether that’s tourism, whatever it is.
AS: I love that you said that, because I think many of the people who read this interview will be people who have secure status within the nation they're in. What you've just said calls on all of us to recognize and situate ourselves within this paradigm and then think of how we may be valuable to the state or recognized as capital, and how we can extend solidarity to those further away from that position. How we can be more deliberate about where our awareness and allegiance lies.
I wanted to ask you more about this flow of labor and capital across borders, because immigration patterns often reveal who makes up the domestic labor class in certain countries. You have desis in the Arab Gulf base, Malaysians in East Asia, South Americans in the US. Is it fair to describe immigration as an extractive economy?
HW: We tend to think of an extractive economy in the context of resource extraction, but not in terms of immigration or labor, so it's a good question. If we see the extractive economy as central to contemporary racial capitalism then absolutely, yes. I think labor migration is, in the same way that outsourcing a border is, one of the primary pillars of imperialism today. With increasing flows of capital, there is a need for labor to be cheapened across borders. Then it is extractive because contemporary immigration really is just indentureship 2.0, right? People are tied to an employer.
In Border and Rule, I argue that these are carceral regimes. It's not only that people are indentured to an employer. It's not just the conditions of labor. The totality of life is constrained. In many of these kinds of labor regimes — which are legal, state-sanctioned regimes — it's not about one bad employer. The whole program is a state-sanctioned indentureship that allows employers to confiscate identity documents, that allows employers to literally cage people in their homes. A report about domestic workers in Lebanon, who are primarily Filipina, Indonesian, and Ethiopian, all talked about their employer’s home as a prison. That's what the report was titled. It's not an overstatement or a false analogy to speak of these labor migration programs as carceral.
AS:The carceral nature of it, does that then link movements against border violence to the abolitionist movement?
HW: Yeah, absolutely. I think the calls to abolish the border are also calls that are abolitionist in nature. Those movements don’t focus on “good” immigrants and “bad” immigrants in the same way that abolition calls us to turn away from focusing on whether someone is innocent or not. Criminality and illegality are both political constructions, and that requires us to dismantle state violence. For me, no-border politics is an abolitionist vision because it calls on us to dismantle borders as a site of violence that reproduces oppression and violence, and also calls on us to dismantle the conditions that allow for borders to exist.
AS: Among those conditions is war, which both maintains borders and causes displacement. Are there other forces that you feel are important to identify right now, that are behind modern displacement?
HW: There are over 600 free trade agreements on the planet. Free trade agreements are basically a device of privatization and extraction that decimate local economies and decimate non-capitalist economies. Communal land holdings are basically disallowed via free trade agreements. The primary drivers of forced displacement are the triad of climate change, capitalism and conquest: ecological devastation largely driven by Western induced climate change; ongoing wars and occupation, including the arms trade; and the ravages of global capital that is forcing more and more lands to open up to capital extraction, which leads to indebted farmers and indigenous people being forced off their land.
However, I think what has changed is the power of social movement to really force a more radical understanding of migrant justice. We're starting to see the idea of “no human being is illegal,” or “open the borders,” or “no borders” really move from the fringe to the center in tandem with abolitionist politics and in conversation with abolitionist politics. Especially with the leadership of Black migrant refugee organizations like Black Alliance for Just Immigration in the US, for example, moving toward refusing immigration reforms that are compromises that throw some people under the bus.
Immigration is not just a local phenomenon, it’s deeply connected to global forces, of capital, and imperialism, and why people move.
AS: Where do you identify the most urgent points of intervention that need to be made in this process?
HW: I'd say the most urgent intervention really is a call for no borders and to question the legitimacy of borders. But again, not just the border on the map, but borders as a regime that is deeply embedded and inseparable from imperialism and capitalism and racial stratification on this planet. I think it's really important that we don't see migrant justice organizing as siloed from other movements. Migrants are the human face of all of these forces and ills in the world. So I think we need to think about it more extensively and with an international lens.
AS: I think what you're saying could strike people as very abstract, but it actually can be applied on a quite granular level. The best places to make that intervention is in our daily interactions and how we see people — how we treat them and what kind of treatment we view as an acceptable cost of a certain social order.
HW: There is this tendency towards thinking, like, “I don't have a problem with racialized people, I just had a problem with illegals,” right? But we see statistically that, for example, in the United States, the largest nationality of people who are technically “illegal,” those who have overstayed their visas, are actually Canadians. Yet we don’t have stories of white Canadians in detention. In Canada, in the province I’m in, one of the largest populations of people who have overstayed or are working illegally are Australians in the ski resort industry.
Who we think of as the outsider has very little to do with your actual legal status. It has to do with how you’re perceived. How we view people on the street. The seemingly mundane, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from.” Who gets positioned as the stranger and who gets recognized as different or an outsider is deeply racialized, and has nothing to do with legality even though we're told it's about law and order, which is why I think it's so important to interrogate.
AS: How has Covid empowered the state to increase border control and the resulting violence?
HW: Throughout the pandemic, almost 60 countries have completely shut their borders to people seeking safety. There are so many examples. In Malta, a boat that was sending distress calls because it was filling up with the water; the government said that they couldn't let them in because of Covid and then dozens of people died. In the Mediterranean, we’re continuously hearing stories of EU countries that are refusing refuge under the guise of the pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted the seeming contradiction — the border is closed to asylum seekers, to refugees, to people seeking safety, but the border remains open to labor migration.
In the United States, agricultural workers who are coming in on H2A visas, those processes are being expedited to ensure that the food supply chain is not affected during the pandemic. So even though almost all other immigration and refugee processing has been shut down, H2A visas are just being churned out.
On the flip side, borders also remain open to deportations. Every country, though they're claiming all our borders closed, has no problem continuing to deport people out of their countries. In the early days of the pandemic, in April, around this time last year, the Guatemalan government estimated that approximately 20 percent of all Coronavirus cases in Guatemala actually came from people deported from the United States. The pandemic really exacerbates bordering regimes — to securitize and close the borders [while serving] capitalist interest and cheapened labor supply and deportation. The border is not closed to governments trying to expel people.