The future of the left since 1884

Goodbye to borders

A world without borders might seem like an impossible feat, but it is the only way to truly protect the rights and liberties of working people, argues Nandita Sharma.


Long read

Have you noticed that the only time governments acknowledge the needs of working people is when they are bashing immigrants for all our worries and woes? Around the world, politicians seem to only talk about how important it is to protect people’s access to jobs and social benefits when they are putting in place ever-stricter immigration controls. It is more than just a little bit galling that the same governments dismantling people’s economic and social security then go on to assure us that it is their concern over their citizens’ welfare that leads them to promote anti-immigrant policies.

Although we are encouraged to view immigration controls as something which protects workers, it is far more realistic to see immigration controls as protecting capital and upholding governments that put profit above all else.

The separations created between citizens and migrants gives capital an enormous tool to cheapen the cost of hiring labour and weaken the working class. Immigration controls are also of enormous political benefit to nation states looking for easy scapegoats to explain away policies – like austerity – that fail working people but enrich capital. The tragedy of our times is that citizens are more likely to rise up against working immigrants than they are to rise up against capital or the state.

It is time that working people reject the divisions created by distinctions of nationality and fight for a world without borders. For our own survival, we must address the dangerous escalation of anti-immigrant policies head on. Our collective failure to do so will only strengthen capital against workers and further embolden far right demagogues who use our hopes and dreams for a better future against us. I offer my top three reasons why a ‘no borders’ political position is the one that best serves working people, citizens and migrants alike.

1. Because immigration controls don’t actually stop people from immigrating

Nation-states portray their immigration controls as some-thing that will actually stop people from moving. Nothing could be further from the truth – and not because we haven’t yet built high enough walls or x-rayed enough lorries. The most fundamental reason immigration controls don’t work is that human beings have always moved when they need to. They’ve done so for a whole host of reasons: fleeing harm or scarcity, searching for peace and prosperity, being with those they care about, or for just sheer adventure.

This is in stark contrast to states and the ruling classes that have historically moved their militaries to loot, conquer, and rule over those they encounter. Indeed, the very category of ‘immigrant’ is a state invention rooted in colonial activities. The category of ‘immigrant’ was only invented once the category of ‘slave’ was abolished. In 1835, the year the British Empire ended slavery, planters and the imperial state were each worried that ending slavery would also end the enormous profits flowing from the colonies, so sought alternative ways to commandeer and control a new workforce. The ‘solution’ they offered was immigration controls. First imposed upon a newly recruited workforce of so-called coolie labour, initial controls required ‘coolie workers’ to show contracts of indenture to newly minted emigration agents in British India and to new immigration agents in the colonies they were headed to work. Without these contracts, they would be denied permission to move. These contracts thus represent the first set of “papers” states required people to have to enter their territories. From the start, immigration controls have been a way for states to suppress the power of workers to the benefit of capital.

Immigration controls were then – and are now – far less interested in stopping people from moving than in restricting their rights once they are within the state’s territories. Immigration controls certainly do have lethal outcomes  – tens of thousands of people have died trying to cross national borders in the past decade alone and millions more waste away in refugee camps which are temporary in name only. Yet, what immigration controls primarily allow states to do is to subordinate migrating people within national societies. Today, fewer people are given a status that comes with some rights – such as ‘permanent resident’ or ‘refugee’ – while more and more people have unlawful or temporary status which leaves them with little choice but to take jobs that offer significantly less pay and far more dangerous conditions.

This leads me to the second reason to abolish national borders: namely, that immigration controls are bad for workers, citizens and migrants alike.

2. Because borders don’t work for workers but work brilliantly for capital

While we are told that immigration controls curtail competition for jobs, in actuality they create more competition in the labour market. Immigration controls, because they legislate differential wage rates and levels of power for citizens than for migrants, are a major tool in the arsenal of capital and states. State revenues increase as migrants pay taxes of all sorts but are ineligible for many state services. Capital enjoys both the bounty of paying immigrant workers less in wages and facing less pressure to improve wages or working conditions.

There are very few studies on the immigration wage gap between citizens and migrants with varying statuses. However, one United States-based study found that in 2000 there was an 18.4 per cent wage gap between men with US citizenship and men with US permanent residency status and that this gap was double what it had been in 1980. Another study, comparing the wages of Mexican-Americans (who already receive far lower wages than average white Americans) and Mexican nationals working without legal papers found a whopping 78 per cent wage gap in 2007. Undocumented immigration status – the fast-est rising status given to migrants – is a significant factor in dramatically lowering one’s wages. This outcome is wholly a result of ever more severe immigration restrictions.

Now, some will say that a wholesale end to immigration will remove this power from employers and the state. There are two main limitations to such an approach however. First, despite the nationalist story that “the nation is a community of equals”, we know very well that subordinating immigrants is not the only way employers create a precarious workforce: Long before the existence of immigration controls, capitalists used sexist, racist, ageist, and ableist divisions to cheapen and weaken the labour of subordinated groups, and they still do. Secondly, it is immigration controls which weaken the working class, not immigrant workers. And it is the nationalism of workers that ensures that an anti-immigrant politics works against their own needs and works so brilliantly for capital and states.

This leads me to my third reason for supporting a no borders political position: the call for ever more restrictive immigration controls is leading us towards a police state.

3. Because immigration controls lead to a police state

A worldwide system of national immigration controls has been in place for about 75 or so years, since the end of the second world war when both the former colonies and former metropoles of Empires became separate nation states. Since that time, nationalist demagogues trot out anti-immigrant politics as they vie for working people’s votes. They tell us that curtailing or ending immigration is a simple legislative exercise: decree it and it will happen. This is a political lie.

The reality of the human need – and desire – to move cannot be curtailed without a police state. Tragically, we are living in the midst of such a reality being put into place. European Union member nation states have broken what was considered a fundamental law of the sea by refusing to rescue migrants. The United States has engaged in a premeditated policy of family separation and erected what many Jewish organisations and survivors of Japanese internment camps call concentration camps. Children as young as a few months old are imprisoned there without adequate food, water, clothing, beds, medical care or even soap. Everywhere, nation-states demand greater deportation powers to raid workplaces, schools, and homes in search of those without immigration papers. Armed vigilantes roam the borders and streets of nation-states ready to take immigration law into their own hands and execute migrants. This – and more – is the result of the growing demand to enforce a fantasy of national control over human movement. Without a concerted effort to renounce anti-immigrant politics, we are doomed to more of the same, particularly as the destructive forces of the impending capitalist climate catastrophe reveals its full force and more people move for their lives.

To imagine that a police state stops at the harassment, expulsion or even extermination of those considered as ‘foreign contagions’ to the national body politic is to ignore the violent history of fascism. Those categorized as ‘foreigners’ are not the last to face fascist attacks. Or to put it another way, many people long accustomed to being members of the nation can be declared to be ‘foreigners’ and have their citizenship stripped away. Already, retainment of citizenship has already been significantly weakened in the UK, as we have seen predominantly with the Windrush scandal.

A fundamental principle of organising to win is to have a clear-headed view of reality. A world without national border controls better suits the lived reality of our times. Human mobility is not going to end because some nationalists want it to. But the rights and liberties we take for granted just might. We can harness immigration to working people’s advantage by refusing to allow capital and states to use nationality or immigration statuses to divide us from one another. Were we to do so, we would undermine the age old strategy of creating false enemies while letting the real ones rule.

Photo: David Grandmougin on Unsplash

Nandita Sharma

Nandita Sharma is a professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her research focuses on the intersection of immigration policies, migrant labour, nationalism and racism.

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