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Linking Capitalism and Immigration: A Q&A with Migrant Justice Activist Harsha Walia

It's no secret that despite sounding the rhetoric of comprehensive immigration reform, the Obama administration has deported nearly two million people.

Rather than wait for politicians and policy makers to act on their behalf, the people and families most affected by immigration and detention policies have been organizing for reform. In March, 150 people participated in Bring Them Home, a series of mass border crossings illustrating the devastation that deportation has on families. At the same time, people in immigrant detention centers in Texas and Washington State launched hunger strikes to protest their detentions and conditions inside these privately run centers. In her recent book Undoing Border Imperialism, migrant rights organizer Harsha Walia looks at how capitalism, violence, and the global economy push displacement and migration.

VICTORIA LAW: What pushed you to write this book?  

HARSHA WALIA: After being approached by Institute for Anarchist Studies and AK Press with the idea, it took me almost six months to decide to write the book. I was really tentative because I tend not to spend too much time on writing. I find that we are so seeped in an individualistic culture, and writing unfortunately further perpetuates that dynamic with authors become public figures. But at the same time, from a movement-based perspective, there is so much knowledge to share that doesn’t often travel beyond our internal networks. So after much thought and conversation with others, I very intentionally decided to write a different kind of book, which I think is one of the strengths of the book. The book is collaborative—from the roundtable with grassroots organizers discussing social movement challenges, to the narratives and stories and poetry of struggle from frontline activists and writers of color. So what ultimately compelled me to write the book was to focus on a book that, rather than abstracting ideas onto movements, would concretely and tangibly be in the service of movements by imparting movement-based knowledge from the ground up, and also to write a book that highlighted and lifted up the diversity of collective struggle.

What is border imperialism? How is this different from the concept of immigrant rights? How does this challenge media & pop culture representations of migration? the cover of undoing border imperialism

The immigration debate focuses on whether Western governments should accept more or less immigrants, whether migrants are being treated fairly or not, and how well immigrants are integrating or assimilating. 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 capitalism, colonial empire, state building, and hierarchies of oppression. This means that we can start to talk about displacement and migration not as random individual acts but as reflections of the globally unequal relations between rich and poor, between North and South, between whiteness and its others. Border imperialism is a far more systemic and expansive analysis that focuses on the violence of colonial displacements, capital circulations, labor stratifications in the global economy, and structural hierarchies of race, class, gender, ability, and citizenship status, rather than victim-blaming discourses that place the burden of 'worthiness' on migrants themselves.  

Undoing Border Imperialism isn't just theory, but it's also not just a recital of experiences either. Can you talk about how you and the group No One Is Illegal combine direct support work while also pushing the larger political analysis

Direct support work is a daily aspect of No One is Illegal’s community organizing, and encompasses the practical advocacy needed to defend migrants from detention, deportation, immigration enforcement raids, and other forms of control and exploitation. This form of organizing is premised on the notion that supporting people in fighting for their most basic needs, especially to fight detention and deportation, is necessary in advancing the overall struggle for migrant justice. It is definitely a challenge to combine the daily survival-based and crisis-mode organizing of support work with broader political organizing. The main way this comes together is that support work is part of—rather than separate from—a political process of consciousness-raising and movement building within migrant communities. The aim of support work is ultimately to empower migrants to lead their own struggle, on the basis of solidarity, not charity. Direct support and broader political organizing are mutually reinforcing: the former helps ground our work in migrant communities and strengthen our relationships, while the latter ensures that individual direct support victories won through leveraging the state are used to widen the cracks within the system rather than to legitimize it.   

What have been some of the challenges? Can you talk about a time that you (either individually or collectively) have worked to get through some of these challenges? 

There are so many challenges in community organizing! It’s one thing to theorize concepts like oppression, accountability, strategy, solidarity, etcetera and to prescribe what’s "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong" about each, but it is entirely something else to enact and embody those principles in our actual organizing and relationships on a daily basis. It’s messy and often contradictory and complicated and affects us personally in deep, often triggering and traumatic, ways.

One example I share in the book was when we were working with an incarcerated stateless refugee facing indefinite detention. Doing support work was difficult as he was extremely misogynist. However, this man had also been in jail for years and we had a responsibility on the outside to organize a campaign for his freedom. After many discussions, the resolution we reached was that the men in No One Is Illegal would step up to liaise with the detainee. I remained actively involved in the campaign because I felt that I, as someone not behind bars, had a responsibility to support him, but drew my boundaries at not engaging with him in person.

In this situation, instead of having different forms of oppression actively undermine each other—as so often happens—this was a learning experience of how it is possible to engage in anti-oppression work meaningfully: challenging privilege while still being responsible allies. Being cognizant of anti-oppression as a fluid, rather than inflexible, analysis helps us move beyond unhealthy cycles of shame, guilt, and stagnation. We all know how anti-oppression analysis can become rigid and these dead-end debates about who is more oppressed. But in this case, we had much more productive dialogue, and framework to keep in mind throughout future organizing efforts, about how oppression, which is relational and contextual and requires the difficult task of actually building relationships of trust and accountability rather than abstracting some perfected theory, is specifically manifesting. 

Your book draws on experiences of migrant justice organizing in Canada. What can people organizing in the U.S. learn from your book? 

Though this book draws on the histories and experiences of migrant justice movements in Canada, there is a universality to the two main parts of the book. The analytical framework of border imperialism I believe applies to migrant justice movements across North America—and perhaps even beyond—in terms of critically thinking about how we orient migrant justice movements within the context of settler-colonialism locally and capitalism and empire globally. This is a conversation that is absolutely relevant in the US context as organizers are debating the limitations of the DREAM Act, for example. The other part of the book, which elaborates on social movement practices such as strategies, tactics, anti-oppression, group structure, leadership, decolonization, internal dynamics, and healing justice I think are critical and necessary conversations that are happening across movements and across borders and I hope this book can add to those reflections.

Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.


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