In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Customs and Border Protection officers have begun wearing protective gear as they interact with passengers. Photo credit: Glenn Fawcett via Wikimedia Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the significance of borders. While much attention has been paid to debates surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall,” the current crisis reveals that governments seeking to restrict mobility rely only partly (and increasingly rarely) on brick and mortar. Instead, one of the most remarkable developments of recent years is that the border itself has become a moving barrier, an unmoored legal construct. The fixed black lines in world atlases do not always coincide with bordering functions that may potentially take place anywhere in the world. The border has broken free of the map; it may extend well beyond the edge of a territory or well into its interior. The unmooring of state power from any fixed geographical marker has created a new paradigm: the shifting border.

When it comes to regulating mobility and access, the location of the border has been shifting for decades. This is part of a strategy that strives, as official government policy documents explain, to “push the border out” as far away from the actual territorial border as possible. This concept, enthusiastically embraced by governments worldwide, involves screening people “at the source” or origin of their journey — not the destination — and then again at every possible checkpoint along the way. The traditional static border is thus reimagined as the last point of encounter, not the first. Responses to the global pandemic have accelerated this trend.

Continue reading the full essay “Borders in the Time of COVID-19” at Ethics & International Affairs online. Ethics & International Affairs is the quarterly peer-reviewed journal of the Carnegie Council, published by Cambridge University Press. You can access the latest issue of the journal here.

Ayelet Shachar is the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, and a professor of law and political science at the University of Toronto. Shachar is the author of The Shifting Border: Legal cartographies of migration and mobility.