Law and Border

Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism by harsha walia. chicago: haymarket books. 320 pages. $20.

The cover of Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism

“THERE ARE POLICY CHOICES to be made about who should be an immigrant, and that includes removing folks who don’t qualify under the law,” said Cecilia Muñoz, a member of President Joe Biden’s transition team, and previously the face of President Barack Obama’s harsh immigration-enforcement policies, in a recent interview. She added, “That’s, I think, just the reality of being a nation.”

Muñoz’s comment is true in the same way “all bachelors are unmarried men” is true—analytically, by virtue of the meaning of its constituent terms. When “a nation” is constituted as the nation-state, in the model of the Western state, defined by its borders and the inclusions and exclusions they entail, which are legitimized by “the law,” then determining who is or is not “an immigrant,” and their status as such, is indeed the “reality” of being a nation. Indigenous peoples, decimated and dispossessed by the forging and maintenance of the nation-state, teach us of a different notion of “nation,” without ownership and enclosure; the bordered state, treated as transhistorical, erases this history.

You can’t find evidence to prove an analytic truth to be false. You can, however, seek to challenge the meaning of terms on which analytic truths rely. It’s a trivial thought experiment to imagine a world where etymologies took different turns over time. It’s an ethical imperative to reckon with the entrenched assumptions around borders and migration. There are currently 281 million migrants worldwide, 82.4 million of whom have been forcibly displaced. We do not need to accept as a given the logics by which the modern nation-state asserts its reality.

This is the claim at the heart of Harsha Walia’s powerful book Border and Rule. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes in a foreword to the text, Walia insists on the historical contingency of the state’s categorizations of human life: what is taken to be a political given is instead revealed as a “manifestation of capitalism’s five-hundred-year war on the earth by means of land enclosure, dispossession, occupation, extraction, exploitation, commodification, consumption, destruction, pollution, immiseration, and oppressive forms of governance.” Kelley’s list gives a sense of Walia’s commitment to scope: she rightfully insists that to talk ethically and honestly about borders is to talk about an ordering regime situated in and perpetuating global systems of racial capitalism and colonialism.

In recent years, and for understandable reasons, much of what has counted as progressive discourse on migration has focused on the cruelty enacted by the Trump administration and in the name of Fortress Europe. Intolerable spectacles—like the image of two-year-old Alan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a Turkish beach, or that of Salvadoran father Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his twenty-three-month-old daughter Angie Valeria, lifeless and facedown in the Rio Grande shallows—have provoked calls for Western powers to be kinder and more generous to those seeking refuge. Yet these efforts have also counterposed “innocent” children and asylum seekers to criminalized so-called economic migrants. The system of global apartheid remains intact. When wealthy countries with ample resources choose genocidal policies of deterrence in the name of border “security,” the bar for migrant-justice struggle is set at a subterranean low. Calls to “abolish ICE”—an agency less than twenty years old with a legacy of extraordinary brutality—are considered radical.

Walia’s intervention is to demonstrate, systematically and across geographies, that there is no acceptable legitimation for border rule, unless your interest is in upholding global capital as the sovereign force determining life and livability on the planet. To show how border regimes function is to reveal that there is no good argument for them.

While recent works like John Washington’s The Dispossessed or Patrick Kingsley’s The New Odyssey tell poignant, character-driven stories of borders as violence, Walia explicitly avoids excavating narratives of individual suffering. Her aim is not to provoke sympathy in the reader, who might then call for a kinder system. Rather, Walia, a longtime organizer for migrant justice as well as an established theorist of border logics, offers a mapping of how borders function far beyond state lines, and what they work in service of.

Since at least the late eighteenth century, when Immanuel Kant framed the “right” of a migrant as the right to conditional “hospitality,” the presumed model of ethical migration policy has upheld the state as that which fulfills its obligation by recognizing this right through largesse. Hannah Arendt’s problematization of displacement and statelessness as exempting a person from “the right to have rights”—having lost the recognized standing of a rights-bearing citizen—built on this Enlightenment framework, in which the state remains presupposed. The postwar international order further solidified the subject of the refugee as rights-bearing migrant. Yet within this order, the paradox of universal rights in need of particularized recognition by an authority persists. Crucially, too, the histories of colonialist nations that have produced racialized regimes of displacement are wholly overlooked in favor of a picture of states and migrants that simply exist.

Walia refuses this discourse entirely. Instead, she builds on her previous theorizing of “border imperialism” to call for a historical reckoning: “Analyzing the border as part of historic and contemporary imperial relations, hence the term ‘border imperialism,’ forces a shift from notions of charity and humanitarianism to restitution, reparations, and responsibility.” This analysis underlines how disgraceful it is that Western states permit so remarkably few displaced people to enter and live freely—despite the displacement for which colonial and neocolonial powers are responsible. Counter to paranoiac claims of Western politicians and media, the overwhelming majority of displaced people, as Walia points out, are internally displaced or in refugee camps near their countries of origin. More profoundly, Walia’s reorientation forces us to question the legitimacy of bordering regimes tout court, and apply an abolitionist approach to migrant-justice struggles.

Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 2019. U.N. Women/Allison Joyce/Flickr
Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, July 2019. U.N. Women/Allison Joyce/Flickr

Border and Rule covers an enormous amount of ground, quite literally—India, Australia, the US, Europe, and elsewhere. With reference to numerous scholars including Saidiya Hartman and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Walia addresses how “the US–Mexico border must be understood not only as a racist weapon to exclude migrants and refugees, but as foundationally organized through, and hence inseparable from, imperialist expansion, Indigenous elimination, and anti-Black enslavement.” Striking, if unsurprising, facts abound, and Walia scrupulously corrects received narratives about who is benefiting from the current order. “The largest nationality of visa overstays in the US in 2017,” she writes, “was not a Latin American one—even though Latinx migrants and refugees constitute the vast majority of detainees—but actually ninety-two thousand Canadians.”

This is not simply a book about borders and immigration enforcement, but bordering systems, the interlocking power structures that produce mass migration and the mass inability to move. Looking to Bangladesh and the continent of Africa, Walia explores methods of bordering that render millions displaced and immobile by means of free-trade zones, land enclosures, debts, and privatization.

A compelling comparison is drawn between the kafala system in Gulf countries, which binds migrant workers to their sponsoring employers in a way that is justly criticized as an indentured-labor relation, and the similar yet oft-praised Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Walia, who is Canadian, undresses the myth that liberal Canada offers a desirable model for migrant-worker policies, writing that “while the degrees of abuse may differ between the kafala and the TFWP, their structures and racial logics are similar.” The point—that liberal Western states uphold apartheid systems in service of capital, to produce disposable laborers—is hammered home through numerous examples. The idea, espoused by even some so-called leftists, that we should keep out foreign workers, rather than fight the capital-nation-state nexus that ensures (racialized) labor segmentation and austerity, betrays a failure to understand both capitalism and the state. Walia is having none of it.

Border and Rule is a useful tool for those of us seeking deeply researched, evidence-based arguments with which to counter liberal defenses of immigration systems that are exclusionary but “not-as-bad-as-Trump.” And Walia devastates the claims made by numerous purported leftists, such as Germany’s Aufstehen movement, that nationalism and limited immigration are necessary challenges to capitalism. “The border,” she writes, “cannot work against globalized capital because the border is itself a ‘method for capital.’” A border, rather than a line in the sand, “is a bundle of relations and mode of governance acting as a spatial fix for capital to segment labor and buffer against the retrenchment of universal social programs.” Lesser theorists who embrace borders from the left should take note: Walia’s analysis renders it impossible for a reader to detach the operations of capitalism from the structures of nationalism, revealing that efforts to see global capitalism as existing outside a racial regime are shortsighted at best.

Walia’s concluding call for “a no borders politics,” which aligns with a legacy of abolitionist struggle, could be dismissed as utopian. Yet it is historically myopic, not to mention an act of Indigenous erasure, to insist that a demos must be demarcated by a logic of exclusion and scarcity rather than by nourished interdependence. The philosopher Wendy Brown has argued that democracies must be bounded in the sense that if “we” are to rule as the people, we must have a constitutive sense of who and what that “we” will be. She rejects, however, that this “we” must be constituted by the brutal demarcations of nationality, race, gender, or class. It is urgent that we imagine otherwise. Walia invites us to do so. “Empires crumble,” she writes, “capitalism is not inevitable, gender is not biology, whiteness is not immutable, prisons are not inescapable, and borders are not natural law.”

Natasha Lennard is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso, 2019).