Conceptualizing Humane Immigration: Recognizing Borders as Violent Tools of Racial Ordering

Harsha Walia problematizes claims that borders and walls keep nations safe, revealing the complex ways in which they actually reify colonial relationships of exploitation.

By Meredith L. Roman

Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, by Harsha Walia. Haymarket Books, 2021. 320p bibl index, 9781642594065 $45.00, 9781642592696 $19.95, 9781642593884 $45.00

Cover of the book Border and Rule

In Border and Rule, Harsha Walia invites readers to imagine a world beyond the violence of borders, the nation-state, and imperial racial citizenship. Walia is a well-respected South Asian writer-activist in the immigrant rights movement who helped establish the Canadian grassroots organization No One Is Illegal. She also previously authored Undoing Border Imperialism (2013), which combines her reflections on building communities of struggle with contributions from movement comrades throughout North America. In this second book, she covers impressive ground, weaving the history and contemporary politics of capitalist extraction, exploitation, carceral immobility, and anti-migrant violence across Europe, North America, Australia, Israel, India, and the oil-rich nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Walia completed the book during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic as many political leaders closed their borders to refugees and racial capitalism rendered even more vulnerable racialized groups around the globe who are overrepresented in the service and care industries yet often lack access to health care, stable housing, and basic worker protections. With great humility, Walia expresses immense gratitude in the acknowledgements to the pantheon of scholar activists, organizers, and land defenders whose research and knowledge she expertly brings together in the pages of this text.

Across four sections, Walia argues that abolishing rather than opening borders is the key to advancing humanity and justice. There is no border crisis, she contends, but genuine “crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change” that fuel mass migration (p. 3). As the structures of global capitalism generate mass displacement, national leaders employ repressive technologies to criminalize and immobilize migrants and refugees. Under these circumstances, impoverished and racialized people possess the right to migrate only if they become disposable migrant laborers who renounce any claim to labor power or any form of citizenship.

The right to freedom of movement is not dictated by notions of universal humanity but is rather constitutive of whiteness.

Indeed, as Walia effectively demonstrates, the right to freedom of movement is not dictated by notions of universal humanity but is rather constitutive of whiteness. For decades, the Berlin Wall symbolized communist regimes’ barbaric repression of an individual’s fundamental human right to freedom of movement. Accordingly, Western observers celebrated the wall’s 1989 collapse as the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy and its guarantee of the basic human right to move freely. Yet, as Walia details, “seventy walls now exist in our barbwired and walled world” (p. 80) and “the EU has already devoted billions of euros to surveillance, patrols, and over one thousand kilometers of walls—the equivalent of six Berlin Walls” (p. 108). Despite their inherent oppressive symbolism, however, these walls are hailed as imperative to protecting the freedom and democracy of the racial capitalist nations that accept their existence—in conjunction with the violent practices of detention, deportation, and the externalization of borders—because they impede the mobility of persons of color. Indeed, Western leaders have reified imperial relationships with countries of the Global South by making aid, development, and trade agreements contingent on developing nations’ cooperation in preventing migrants from even reaching Western nations’ physical borders and agreeing to readmit all individuals whom they expel. Border guards and inhumane detention centers are therefore no longer confined to the geographic boundaries of Europe, Canada, the US, and Australia but have been outsourced to places throughout Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Nauru.

Walia criticizes Western liberal politicians’ advocacy of more humane immigration policies because that position assumes that borders are natural rather than a violent tool of population control and racial ordering with domestic and global ramifications. She illuminates the inextricable connections between anti-immigration policies on the one hand and anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence on the other. As US history makes especially clear, anti-Black laws and the policing of Black mobility provided the foundations for the discriminatory treatment of immigrants, and the construction of the US border facilitated the eradication of Indigenous nations. The multicultural humanitarianism of liberal politicians therefore does not promote justice any more than the anti-refugee xenophobia of far-right nationalists because both coexist with exclusionary racist nation-building practices and neither seeks to identify nor eradicate the forces driving “displacement and colonial-capitalist complicity” (p. 14).

Walia highlights how the intersection of racial, imperial, and class power have feminized poverty, labor, and migration.

Significantly, migrants and refugees do not appear in Border and Rule as helpless victims in need of white saviors. Walia successfully balances analysis of the technologies of capitalist state violence with the various forms of resistance that migrants and refugees have employed around the globe despite being among the most marginalized segments of the population. For example, Walia highlights how the intersection of racial, imperial, and class power have feminized poverty, labor, and migration. At the same time, however, she spotlights the fierce struggle that migrant caregivers from the Caribbean and Philippines have spearheaded in Canada to gain access to livable wages, medical care, open work permits that do not make them beholden to one employer, and the right for their families to reside in the country. Walia likewise discusses the forms of resistance that migrant laborers have waged against the kafala bonded labor system in the GCC, including several large strikes in the United Arab Emirates against Arabtec, a leading construction company contracted to build several large-scale projects. She demonstrates that, contrary to Western media representations, the authoritarianism of the kafala system is the product of modern global capitalism and not a primordial feature of Arab culture or Islam.

The author also takes Western media outlets to task for reifying the racialization of migrants by reproducing photographs of individuals’ violent deaths while trying to reach safety across the Mediterranean Sea or Pacific Ocean without documenting the history and contemporary policies of capitalist extraction and exploitation that have made their homelands unlivable and the structures of carceral immobility that necessitate such dangerous forms of migration. By referring to migrants using what Frantz Fanon called in Wretched of the Earth (1961) the zoological terminology of “swarms” invading the civilized lands of the Global North, the mainstream media also obscures the reality that the enemy of the international working class arrives in a limo, not a boat. To be sure, even patronizing liberal welcome culture, Walia stresses, fails to recognize that migrants and refugees are not collecting charity but just reparations for a debt never paid to their homelands, a powerful argument that writers such as Suketu Mehta similarly advance in works such as This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto (CH, Feb’20, 57-1979). The dominant discourse that Western countries are victims of a foreign invasion erases the centuries-long history of eighty million Europeans invading, conquering, plundering, enslaving, and unsettling civilizations throughout the world.

 This text will likely encourage younger students to consider borders from a different perspective, recognizing the violence embedded within borders rather than the people who wish to remove them.

Border and Rule is an indispensable addition to any academic library’s collection and would constitute a critical assigned text in graduate seminars if not upper-level undergraduate courses in a range of disciplines that engage with the history and politics of migration, racial capitalism, imperialism, and far-right nationalism. Instructors of undergraduate courses dealing with modern global politics and world history would do well by their students to integrate the material that Walia presents here into their curricula. Most first- and second-year undergraduate students are likely familiar with the cause of border abolition only from the Disney+ series Falcon and the Winter Soldier in which the fictional “Flag Smashers” constitute the globe’s villains in their violent pursuit of a world without borders. This text will likely encourage younger students to consider borders from a different perspective, recognizing the violence embedded within borders rather than the people who wish to remove them.

Border and Rule has already received an impressive array of accolades from a “who’s who” of leftist scholars, activists, and writers that include giants of insurgent histories such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Paul Gilroy, Mariame Kaba, and Mike Davis. The high esteem in which Walia’s work is held is further evidenced in the book’s foreword and afterword, written by esteemed scholar activists Robin D. G. Kelley, the renowned historian of the Black liberation struggle, and Nick Estes, a prominent young scholar of Indigenous studies and an organizer of the Red Nation.

Walia’s documentation of the racialization of mobility provides important context for understanding the inhumane treatment that refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine faced if they were African students or workers or refugees from Syria or Afghanistan. Though ethnic Ukrainians were welcomed with the privileges of work, residence, and social welfare in bordering countries such as Poland, refugees of color were often impeded in their efforts to even leave Ukraine, sometimes with fatal consequences. As Border and Rule reveals, abolishing borders is essential to dismantling the imperial, capitalist, patriarchal, racial nation-states that erect such fatal impediments to human freedom even in the face of an invading army and create racialized Others who, even if they are Indigenous to the land, are defined as permanent foreigners assaulted with questions about when they will go home. Studies such as Border and Rule serve as an imperative reminder that we must resolve the current crisis of humanity not by criminalizing migrants and refugees or patronizingly welcoming them to “our” nations but by recognizing the unnaturalness of a world of borders and nation-states in which color, class, and caste determine whether an individual enjoys the freedom to move and the freedom to stay.

Summing Up: Essential. General readers through faculty; professionals.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: Law & Society, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Political Science


Meredith L. Roman is associate professor of history at SUNY Brockport, where she also serves as a committee member on the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion. She received her PhD from Michigan State University.