Undoing Border Imperialism

By Harsha Walia
AK Press, November 30, 2012, $16.00

Harsha Walia is a migrant justice activist trained in law, who is involved with the Vancouver chapter of No One Is Illegal (NOII), and in Undoing Border Imperialism she offers a unique blend of handbook and textbook. Walia combines academic discourse on border imperialism — drawing on feminist studies, Marxist analysis, critical race theory and post structuralism — with strategies for anti-oppression movements, the latter based on her analysis of the chronology and shape of NOII.

She also gives us 13 short narratives by migrants of colour, and these pieces — variously tender, thoughtful, angry — serve to humanize a theory-heavy narrative for those of us readers who aren’t active in or well-informed about these movements. 

Walia states that borders, both physical and conceptual, are the outcome of an unfair global capitalist system, which, in collusion with imperialism and colonialism, causes global displacement and migration.

Walia uses the example that under NAFTA, subsidized U.S. corn was sold cheaply in Mexico, and “1.5 million [Mexican] farmers who lost their farms migrated to the United States to work in low wage sectors.” She quotes Australian scholar McKenzie Wark: “Migration is globalization from below. If the overdeveloped world refuses to trade with the underdeveloped world on fair terms, to forgive debt, to lift trade barriers against food and basic manufactured goods, then there can only be an increase in the flow of people.”

Walia says that borders are “the nexus of most systems of oppression,” and the book is filled with examples supporting her contention. Some are explicit, such as the case of Indigenous communities across Turtle Island who have been separated as a result of a colonially imposed Canada-U.S. border.

Other instances must be unraveled to understand hidden causalities, and the author’s analysis is spot-on. For instance, Walia states that in order to justify the incarceration of undocumented migrants or asylum seekers “the state has to allege some kind of criminal or illegal act. Within common discourses, the victim of this criminal act is the state, and the alleged assault is on its borders.”

Border imperialism is characterized by the criminalization and racialization of migrants, thus justifying the State-sponsored exploitation and commodification of their labor. Of note here is the hypocrisy of immigration laws that criminalize migrants for transgressing borders while simultaneously legalizing the colonial occupation of Indigenous lands. 

Also notable — the term “illegals” is usually seen as referring to poor migrants of colour, even though many white tourists illegally overstay after their visas expire.

Walia goes on to analyze the cartography of the NOII movement, and calls upon the expertise of 15 other NOII organizers in a roundtable for insights into the nature and organization of social movement strategies.

One of the most interesting issues here is the method by which such movements negotiate conflicts and alliances.

Let’s take a hypothetical case this reviewer put to herself: should NOII support an individual struggling against deportation, who happens to be a raging homophobe? Hmm….no. Yes. Um…I don’t know? Well, the round table’s solution involves a delicate balancing act, where support isn’t withdrawn but the person is still held accountable for harmful views. Bravo! No one said the NOII’s task was easy.

Another question explored in depth in this section is the positioning of migrants of colour in settler colonialism, and alliances between immigrant and indigenous communities.

The round table’s responses to the latter makes for one of the most positive, heartening parts of this book, wherein the solidarity between the communities is recounted in inspiring detail. The last chapter Journeys towards Decolonization asks us to examine how we might be (unconsciously) complicit in structural injustice — and to challenge the same in order to achieve a society based on equality and self-determination.

The biggest strength of this book — the marriage of discourse and practice — is, in a sense, also its weakness when it comes to readability; rare will be the layperson who finds all sections of equal interest.

I was most taken with Walia’s analysis of the framework of border imperialism; other, more action-oriented folk may find the account of NOII’s victories and strategies more to their liking than pages of theory.

But even if you aren’t sympathetic to Walia’s views, you should read this book to understand the scope and depth of the issue of migrant justice. The statistics alone are breathtaking.

There are one billion migrants around the world, 740 million of whom are migrant workers. While the mainstream media would have us believe that the U.S. and Canada are under siege, less than five per cent of the world’s migrants and refugees come to North America. Fourty-five per cent of forcibly displaced people are less than 18 years old. Canada detains approximately 9,000 to 15,000 migrants every year — one-third of whom are imprisoned.

In sum, Undoing Border Imperialism shows that the situation has never been more urgent — and then tells us how we can bring about change. Read this!

Niranjana Iyer is a freelance writer from Canada/California.

Niranjana Iyer

Niranjana Iyer

Niranjana Iyer is a freelance writer and book reviewer based in Ontario. She blogs at Brown Paper (