In our world of climate emergencies, expanding extinctions, and rising support for fascism, we need one another more than ever. Yet we (by which I mean all beings on our shared planet) remain separated. Not only are humans still placed at the top of the hierarchy of life, but we Homo sapiens continue to be divided by typologies of “nations,” “races,” and “genders” which are still largely accepted. Our adherence to these imposed identities does the dirty work of nation-states and global capitalism, which together reinforce these artificially constructed boundaries. Vicious hierarchies and hatreds are rife, keeping us aligned with those whom we believe are “like us” while turning us against others. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the continued — indeed increasing — support around the world for nationalism.
Nationalism is central to the maintenance — and expansion — of border control regimes. Defense of laws denying freedom of mobility across national territorial borders animate large swaths of those defined as the nation-state’s “citizens.” Anti-migrant politics is sold as an effective response to experiences of impoverishment, expropriation, and exploitation. Instead of seeing these as the business of the ruling class and of states, nationalists retain their faith in the cross-class fantasy of “national unity” and demand the defense of “national territory.” Across the left-right political spectrum, continued valorization of nationalism narrows our political vision and precludes the possibility of building global solidarity among all exploited beings.
No Borders movements challenge this deadly state of affairs in a number of ways. A No Borders analysis exposes how all states, regardless of which form they take (e.g., monastic, monarchical, imperial, or, today, national), try to limit people’s freedom to move. Immobility is crucial to states’ efforts to expropriate land, exploit labor, and secure territories, all in the name of sovereignty. Ruling class relations are institutionalized by holding both “citizens” and “non-citizens” captive to state power. No Borders movements, on the other hand, demand the freedom to move and the freedom to stay (i.e., to not be dispossessed), twin demands which undercut the ruling class-state nexus. In this sense, the demand for No Borders is not a policy recommendation looking to fix the existing system. Instead, by recognizing that no immigration policy can be considered “fair” or “just,” the demand for No Borders is revolutionary. A No Borders politics understands that all immigration policies, no matter how liberal, restrict mobility to most people on our planet. In doing so, they harm us all by sustaining — and legitimizing — capitalist markets and state sovereignty over our common land, water, and air.
National Border Controls Are Ideological
All states attempt to curtail people’s freedom of mobility, but not always in the same ways. Prior to the advent of the national form of state power, which started fitfully in the mid-nineteenth century and became the hegemonic form of state power only after the end of World War Two, states were mostly concerned with preventing people from leaving state territory. Monastic, monarchical, and imperial states, for example, all pinned their success upon having as many people within their territories as possible — paying taxes, laboring, and soldiering. They were thus intent on both preventing people’s escape from state territory and moving more people into it. Imperial states attempted to expand their territories to encompass more and more people, and they often mobilized large numbers of people into their territories to work, mostly as unfree labor. In the era of European imperialism, imperial states actively moved people by the millions from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia across vast expanses in order to amass wealth and sustain their power.
The formation of nation-states changed this. In contrast to imperial efforts to control people’s exit from state territories (while facilitating movement in), nation-states were concerned from the beginning with regulating and restricting people’s entrance into state territory. Starting in the mid- to late nineteenth century in the Americas, states nationalized their sovereignties through the enactment of consistently racist immigration policies. Citizenship and immigration controls produced and normalized a racism in which spatial and political separations and segregations were seen as natural, establishing a worldwide binary between “nationals” with citizenship rights and “migrants” without.
By the 1960s, when both former colonies and former metropoles of empires became sovereign nation-states with their own immigration controls, we entered what I call the Postcolonial New World Order. Immigration controls proliferated as the movement of individuals across state borders was increasingly restricted. Capital, on the other hand, no longer limited by the boundaries (and militaries) of imperial states, was freer than ever to prowl the globe. Capitalists were further empowered to negotiate new terms with ostensibly “independent” nation-states that nevertheless remained capital-dependent and firmly reliant on the financial power of the most powerful nation-states. The Postcolonial New World Order was tragically mistaken for “decolonization,” thus making it appear as perfectly legitimate to those who held onto nationalist myths of liberation.
Nation-states portray their immigration controls as protections that can actually stop people from entering their territories altogether, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are several reasons for this, but it is not because state forces haven’t yet built high enough walls, x-rayed enough vehicles, or torpedoed enough boats carrying migrants. The most fundamental reason immigration controls do not work is that human beings have always moved, throughout the entire 200,000 years of our history as a species, despite all obstacles. We have done so for a host of reasons: fleeing harm or scarcity, searching for peace and prosperity, being with those we care about, or for sheer adventure.
While migration is nothing new, the state category of “migrant” (and its subsets), is fairly recent. It is a state invention rooted in colonial activities and very much engaged with another state category, the “slave.” Indeed, the category of “immigrant” was invented only once the category of “slave” was abolished. When the British Empire outlawed slavery in 1835, planters and imperial officials worried that the end of slave labor relations would jeopardize their profits, and sought new techniques to commandeer and control the colonial workforce. Their “solution” was immigration controls, first imposed in 1835 upon a newly recruited workforce of so-called “coolie” labor transported from the British colony of India to the British colony of Mauritius. These initial immigration controls required “coolies” to have and to show contracts of indenture in order to migrate. This assured that planters would retain a great deal of control and discipline over the lives and labor of this new workforce. From the start, immigration controls have been a way for states to suppress the power of workers by regulating their mobility.
Immigration controls have lethal outcomes, and these are intensifying along with the intensification of such controls. Tens of thousands of people have died trying to cross national borders in the past decade alone, and many more waste away in refugee camps which are temporary in name only. However, the primary work done by immigration controls is to allow nation states to legally subordinate people within their territories. Across the planet, fewer and fewer people moving across national borders are granted a status that comes with any rights (e.g., “permanent resident” or “refugee”), while more and more are left with little choice but to take jobs that offer significantly less pay and far more dangerous conditions simply because of the status the state imposes upon them.
Workers with citizenship of the nation-state in which they work are generally paid more and have more rights than those made into “migrants.” One recent U.S.-based study found that in 2000, an 18.4 percent wage gap existed between U.S.-born men and “immigrant men” (i.e., U.S. permanent residents), and that this gap was double what it had been in 1980. A recent study comparing the wages of U.S. nationals identified as Mexican American with Mexican nationals working as undocumented migrants in the U.S. found that the wage gap between them had jumped from 11 percent in 1970 to a whopping 78 percent in 2007. Together, the national binary between “citizens” and “migrants” results in a nationalization of the capitalist wage. The barriers erected against free movement and the simultaneous denial of workplace or political rights to a growing number of people categorized as migrants have made one’s nationality the single most consequential factor in predicting how well and how long one lives. This “citizenship premium,” as Branko Milanovic calls it, depends on border controls. Capital enjoys both the bounty of paying migrants less in wages and facing less labor pressure to improve wages or working conditions. At the same time, state revenues increase as migrants pay taxes of all sorts but are made ineligible for many state services.
Tragically, anti-migrant politics are not only the purview of the wealthy and powerful. They are supported — and increasingly so — by those who are exploited within the relations of ruling. Nationalism (of all political stripes) normalizes anti-migrant politics. For example, many people believe that immigration controls will protect them from competition for jobs precisely because they believe that jobs (at least the “good” ones) belong to citizen-workers (and, increasingly, only to those seen as “native” to the “nation.”). This is in part what makes citizenship a “possessive investment” (to borrow George Lipsitz’s 1995 phrase regarding whiteness). The tragedy is that exploited citizen-workers end up supporting their own exploitation. Within a capitalism that is global in operation, anti-migrant politics only intensify competition in nationalized labor markets, since immigration controls do the work of cheapening labor precisely by confining “migrants” to a subordinate class of deportable non-citizen workers without rights to defend against exploitation. Meanwhile, capitalists and states continue employing time-tested tactics of division (“race,” “sex,” “gender,” age, and more) to cheapen and weaken the labor power of “citizens.” Even people long accustomed to being citizens of a nation can find this privileged category to be precarious, as citizenship can be stripped from them by reclassification as “foreigners.”
Global Apartheid By Nation-States
A worldwide system of national immigration controls has been in place for about seventy-five years. Over that period, immigration controls have intensified and nationalisms have hardened. Increasingly, nationalist demagogues tell us that they must act to severely curtail or even completely end immigration. They speak as if this could be accomplished with a simple legislative decree, but this is a political lie. People continue to move, even as European Union member states break a fundamental law of the sea by refusing to rescue migrants. People are moving even as the United States separates children from caregivers and erects what many Jewish organizations and survivors of Japanese internment camps call concentration camps, where children as young as a few months old are imprisoned without adequate food, water, clothing, beds, medical care, or even soap. People are moving even as nation-states everywhere demand greater deportation powers to raid workplaces, schools, and homes in search of those without the proper immigration papers. People are moving even as armed vigilantes roam the borders and streets of nation-states ready to take immigration law into their own hands and harm (or even kill) migrants. These actions and more — including the increasing reclassification of certain citizens as “foreigners,” who are juridically turned into “migrants” — are the result of the growing nationalism which demands enforcement of the fantasy of national control over human movement. Yet people continue moving — and even more are expected to do so as the destructive forces of the capitalist climate catastrophe are unleashed.
Human mobility is not going to end because ever more vociferous and violent nationalists want it to. But the rights and liberties we take for granted can indeed end. By refusing to allow nationality or immigration status divide us from one another, we can undermine capital’s age-old strategy of creating false enemies while our real enemies rule over us.
End of Expulsions, End of Exclusions
A world without national border controls better reflects the lived reality of our times. Today, No Borders movements are at the forefront of efforts to forge new bonds of solidarity between people, form new subjectivities free from the violence of nationalisms, racisms, and patriarchies, enact new forms of production and political organization that reject class and state rule, and engage in new practices that contravene the separations demanded by power. A growing number of people are refusing to go along with nation-state demands to leave people adrift on the seas or trapped within camps. People are identifying with those on the move, rejecting the pejorative of “foreigner,” recognizing the integral relationship that exists between liberty and mobility, and insisting on a shared planet without expulsions, exclusion, or the extinction of life.
Nandita Sharma is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and is most recently the author of Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Duke University Press, 2020).