Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 113: Border and Rule — with Harsha Walia

Speakers: Alex Abahmed, Am Johal, Harsha Walia

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Alex Abahmed  0:01  
Hi, I'm Alex Abahmed With Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. This time on Below the Radar host Am Johal is joined by Harsha Walia, a long time activist and community organizer in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the author of Border and Rule, new from Haymarket books and Fernwood publishing. I hope you enjoy.

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Am Johal  0:27  
Hey there, welcome to Below the Radar. We're really excited to be joined by Harsha Walia, longtime activist here and previously an author. She has a new book coming out Border and Rule with Haymarket books and I believe Fernwood as well. Welcome Harsha.

Harsha Walia  0:43  
Thanks so much for having me. Hi, Am.

Am Johal  0:46  
Hi Harsha, you've done so much incredible grassroots work in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood, you work a lot of solidarity work as well, wondering if we can maybe just start with your previous book on doing border imperialism and sort of where that book came from and how you started on that project.

Harsha Walia  1:05  
The first book that I wrote, which is Undoing Border Imperialism, came really out of a desire to try to document movement practices, and really grappling with the fact that, you know, so much of a theory, of course, importantly, teaches us, you know, the ways to analyze and understand the world and systems, but the ways in which we need to fight them, which is, you know, arguably perhaps a harder task in terms of how do we come together to do that? What are the tactical considerations? What are the strategic considerations? How do we build in our local communities? And then also try to think and coordinate nationally? What does it mean to actually enact anti oppression in practice? All of those kind of more intimate and intricate questions, if you will, were, for me, the primary driving force around Undoing Border Imperialism. So you know, there's the first chapter that kind of theorizes what border imperialism means, from my perspective, but the bulk of the book is, you know, a roundtable with movement organizers, really trying to dissect campaigns and strategies, and those kinds of questions. So it really was much more of a—if I was to generalize—a book intended for movement practice, more so than an analytical framework through which to understand borders. Like, it's somewhat taken for granted that those who were going to be picking up the book were somehow involved in organizing, perhaps in different places and spaces. But you know, were in some way already concerned and acting against the violence of borders. 

Am Johal  2:31  
Show me a border and you can probably show that some kind of violence has been done somewhere, they restrict the flow of people, you see in the toxic forms of populism today, the creation of enemies inside and outside of these borders. But we took a look at these phenomena like passports and these types of things, which really, you know, come out of the late 19th century, early 20th century. There was a time when these things actually didn't exist and I'm wondering sort of in your investigation, with undoing border imperialism, what were some of your takeaways, as the book circulated? And you were getting into conversations with people? What were some of your reflections back after the book was published?

Harsha Walia  3:14  
That's a great question. I don't know that I've quite synthesized that quite yet. But I would say that one of the things that drew me to write the second book was that some of the feedback that I got was that people felt that the first chapter that, you know, really quickly tried to outline some theory around border imperialism felt rushed for people. And this was because frankly, the book had more circulation than I thought it would. Again, I thought it would land mostly in the hands and homes of people who were comrades or you know, organizing in community, perhaps in other movements that intersect with migrant justice, but I think, for example, it was taught in universities, and a kind of 20 page on why borders are violent and suck, didn't quite capture the depth of what people were looking for. So part of but not entirely, what spurred Border and Rule was kind of taking that into account and trying to write something that was more rigorous in interrogating the role of borders and to do so transnationally. You know, I would say that it's probably ended up being just as dense as the first one, to be honest. So maybe it'll need even more work. But that was part of the incentive was some of the feedback on the first book and people seeking out just some more interrogation of the ways you know, those very specific ways that violence is enacted, thorough borders right, and it's not just that borders, cause violence is that they are violence. The violence is not a symptom. It's inherent to the structure of the border. So it was, the second book is an attempt to really get into that question.

Am Johal  4:51  
In terms of your own activism. You've done a lot of work with migrants, people without status, people attempting to be deported by the state. And I'm wondering if you can talk just a little bit about the activism work that you've done on the ground that informs some of the writing in the book as well. 

Harsha Walia  5:08  
Yeah, I mean, for me the writing and the theory is completely informed by organizing. And, you know, I guess the foundational idea of no one is illegal, which is a movement group that I was involved in for many, many years. You know, that idea of no human being is illegal, which, as a theoretical framework, you know, really speaks back against the idea of human beings being criminalized and illegalized by the state. That really comes from the practice, and the relationships of fighting alongside so many people who were deemed illegal by the state, right, and seeing the very cruel and arbitrary ways in which some people get to stay, are given status, are deemed, you know, model minorities or have, you know, large bank accounts, don't have criminal records, like all of the ways in which status accrues not as a coincidence, but as a function of state and social hierarchies versus those who are deemed disposable, right? And so that is something that really stood out to me as fundamentally unfair. And I think that's true for most people who start to develop more, quote, unquote, radical ideas, right, as you just truly see the impact on people in your lives. And you just deal with, you know, the kind of death by 1000 cuts of bureaucracies of the Canadian state. You start to see and feel that frustration and anger. And the other thing that really stood out to me, which both of my books try to kind of tackle, is that is really to conjoin, you know, race and class in the question of migration. 

And, of course, we know, you know, that racial capitalism is the underlying force, right? As Robin Kelley and Cedric Robinson, and so many others have taught us that there is no capitalism that is not racial. There is no anti-racism that is not anti-capitalist. And I think what sometimes happens in migrant justice struggles, or people who are thinking about immigration is a series of different things that I think really undermines that analysis of racial capitalism, right? One is that we tend to really domesticate immigration, like we think about it just as, you know, a national issue, right? So the debate becomes about conservatives, for example, being really explicit and overt, in their anti-migrant or their racist agenda, or their Islamophobia, for example, and their kind of vitriol. On the flip side, the debate isn't constrained by liberals and even most social democrats, which is more about quotas, right? Like, oh, but we need immigrants like they build our economy. Here's the numbers, right, here's the numbers that we need. So it really kind of domesticates the question of immigration, rather than placing it in kind of a global context. The second thing that happens in these debates, which I've already kind of touched on, is that people will start to then fight for immigrants and refugees, but only some of them, right, only the ones who fit the category of desirable. The third angle is that a lot of migrant justice work can focus on the ways in which state violence is racist, right? So that a deportation and a detention is racist, and it's a racist regime, because it disproportionately targets racialized people, Black and brown people, and even more so heightened in the post 911 climate. The fourth kind of ways in which I think migrant justice work gets framed, is by focusing on the ways in which capital flows, right, which is that it's not that the border is completely shut down to people, because migrant workers, for example, are being exploited, right, the temporary foreign worker program is really the archetype of managed model migration, which is not to say all the borders are close to all racialized people. It's just that it's open to capital interests. And so I think all of those four ways are a part of our analysis. 

But I think what's missing is the ways in which they're actually connected to each other, that they're not separate, kind of, analytical frameworks, and especially if we're thinking about racial capitalism that we have to think about, especially those latter two questions of how does detention and deportation actually exist alongside capital accumulation? Right? That the state cannot actually function in a way in which people are actually not coming in. Canada does actually need immigrants and refugees. And it does actually need migrant workers. It just needs them to be beholden to the state and capital interests, right? And so, for me a lot of the work around organizing, really was seeing these kind of contradictions, right, like, on the one hand, here, we are fighting deportations and detentions but 10s of 1000s of sometimes the very same people who have been detained and deported are now coming back as migrant workers. Right, like, that on the face of it can seem like hypocrisy, but the more we think about that, the more like “oh, that's not a contradiction. That's the intention of this kind of state apparatus.” So just being part of organizing helps to open my eyes to the ways in which I needed to expand my thinking about the ways in which these systems work.

Am Johal  10:14  
Yeah, in the past three or four years, probably the period in which you were working on the book, there certainly has been a rise in authoritarian populism and certainly the use of borders made even more explicit than perhaps it was before, whether it's Modi in India, Erdoğan [in Turkey], Bolsonaro [in Brazil], from all of the people that's in the air, in the sense of building on what were already practices in place by previous regimes, but maybe not as explicitly in public. I'm wondering how you read into the particularly racist orientation of the uses of these border practices, particularly in the last few years?

Harsha Walia  10:52  
Yeah, I mean, I think exactly, as you said, you know, the rise of specifically racist national populism, really, you know, and it converges with a lot of kinds of right wing rhetoric, you know, there's the overt, white supremacist, racist, Hindutva, Zionist kind of rhetoric and dangerous violence, we also have the kind of law and order kind of populism, you know, here, I'm thinking about the Philippines, Duterte, and Bolsonaro, too, with the kind of really hyper law-and-order, you know, “just kill them all.” And, you know, these all kind of converge, of course, in Europe are very heightened anti-Muslim, racist nationalism, right in every corner, including in, you know, the much lauded Nordic countries. And so, I think, really, for me, an important rule, one of the things that I try to look at is the ways in which the anti-migrant agenda is really one of the linchpins of the right? Like, no matter where, no matter what country, or what social context, we're looking at, an anti migrant agenda is so central to creating that idea of us and them. Right, even though the idea of us and them may look different in each context, and who was the outsider? Who's undesirable? There'll be nuances to that and there will be differences to that, depending on of course, you know, where we are, and you know, the racial class, caste lines and more. But one thing that there is significant synergy around is the construction of the migrant as the foreigner as the undesirable. And in that way, I think borders play a key role both in the kind of discursive idea of undesirables, whose bodies upon which mass violence and genocide is sanctioned, and also bolsters the state apparatus, right, because then more money is thrown into policing and border militarization. 

And I think on top of all of that, I think the one thing that's additionally concerning, is the rise of eco-fascism. And the ways in which, you know, it's gone from, like, outright climate denial—which was never real, right? That was always a tactic, but it's gone. It's publicly shifted from outright climate denial to like, now that kind of apocalyptic, “oh my god, right, we have to save ourselves, the planets burning, the waters are swelling, and we have to save ourselves from now the swarm of climate refugees.” And so the kind of convergence of all of that I think, is now escalated with eco fascism, and the militarization of borders. And if you look at Australia, Australia has always fortified its borders, right? It has some of the worst, some of the most entrenched policies of indefinite detention and outsourcing right thinking here Homero detention center, Christmas Island, what's happening in Papua New Guinea, Nauru, just horrific conditions of outsourcing and indefinite detention. And now we have the Australian Defence Forces say, “Oh, well, we need to increase our border patrols because now we're worried about climate refugees from other islands, right, from smaller islands in Oceania.” So all of this, I think, converges in a particularly scary way. And I think I would argue that anti migrant xenophobia is a central and core pillar to the rise of the right?

Am Johal  14:12  
In the US context where people like Trump tried to draw divisions with their political adversaries around a wall. Like there is a kind of stoked up support, they're trying to build around it. But even if we go back to Obama era policies, that was already policing and border control and expansion happening from the time of George W. Bush, etc. And so I'm wondering also, in your reading of how this authoritarian populace not just whipped up a frenzy of the outsider coming in but also kind of built a kind of whipped up domestic support around these policies. 

Harsha Walia  14:52  
Yeah, and I think you know, what's really interesting about you know—“interesting” isn't the word but you know, for lack of a better word—but as you pointed out, you know, Trump’s fixation with the wall… I don't think it you know, some say that it's largely symbolic, right? But it's not largely symbolic because of course, walls have huge symbolism and that symbolism results in material consequences. And you know, that's why the wall is a symbol, right, because it's the symbol at the border, it's a fortification at the border. You know, the fact that he's even shortly after he lost the election, though he never admitted it or conceded that he traveled to the border. And those gestures mean something at the same time. And that's how I think the right drums up that kind of support, right, the "Make America Great Again," the symbolism of the wall, the kind of constant vitriol that Trump and others kind of spew in the American context. 

But I think something that you said is really important, because you know, now that we're in a post Trump era of the Biden administration, which harkens back to the Obama administration, which harkens back to the Clinton administration, it's so important to realize the ways in which those very same administrations actually laid the groundwork for Trump, right? And one of the things that we know happened is when photographs were being circulated about children in cages under the Trump era, it came to light that actually some of those photographs were actually from the Obama era, who first legalized child separation. And we know that Obama was called “Deporter-in-Chief” because he authorized more deportations than any previous US President. 

One of the things that I am most thoughtful about in the current era of border enforcement, is that actually the border is not the wall, which is what makes Trump's symbolism of the wall that much more insidious and scary, because the US itself has declared that its southern border is not the US-Mexico border. I mean, it is, in the very legal strict sense of the word, but that border enforcement in the US but not limited to the US, that includes Canada, it includes, you know, most European countries that includes Australia and others is that they've externalized their border, they've outsourced border enforcement to Mexico, right? The “remain in Mexico” protocols, where the Mexican officials are being given money to basically disallow people and migrants to come to the US-Mexico border. The enforcement in Guatemala and Honduras were similarly border agents, they're being given money. In Europe, we see that the, you know, Fortress Europe is not fortified at the borders of Europe itself. It's in the West Sahel. It's in Libya, you know, in Australia, again, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Thailand. And I think this is really, really important. Because not only are states externalizing the border, like the border can exist anywhere. But also that it's becoming this kind of immigration diplomacy, which is, you know, we'll give you money if you keep migrants and refugees out. It really is. And this is something central to what I argue in Border and Rule, it's becoming an increasingly important pillar of how Imperial relations are being maintained around the world, right? Like in Europe, one of the key features of trade and aid agreements now with Western African and Northern African countries, one of the key features of trade and aid agreements, is deportation prevention, right? And so that's also true in Australia, one of the key features of trade and aid agreements with poor countries in the Pacific region and in the Oceana is that those countries have to increase their internal border enforcement, right? To make sure people can't leave, don't get on boats, etc. 

So I think that's something that we haven't paid enough attention to, like we've tended to focus on, you know, border fortification at the US-Mexico border, or at the Canada US border with Safe Third Country Agreement, for example, or Fortress Europe, as Fortress Europe. But I would argue and others have argued to that border externalization really is the new model and largely championed, returning to your point, not by people like Trump, who still rely on the symbolism of the border itself, but by Democrats and Liberals who are looking to kind of externalize to absolve themselves of responsibility, who don't want the kind of crisis at the border type scenarios, right, the right feeds on those kinds of crisis at the border. Liberals don't want that, they want to avoid that they want to seem progressive. So they externalize that violence, and that's increasingly a pillar of border enforcement and control. And again, as I argue, I think it's a key method of imperialism by continuing to, you know, really just hold countries hostage.

Am Johal  19:45  
Yeah. Besides Fortress Europe, I've heard the term lifeboat of Britain, which is another one that runs climate refugees. You have the phenomenon of the way it gets amped up from a nationalist point of view. The Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan where the militaries have a ceremony basically, every day. I remember living in Haifa, when the wall was being built into Palestinian territory, and the way that it used symbolically to build up a right wing narrative that actually grew over time, the beginning when the wall was being built, there was not as much domestic support for it, but it got amped up politically as a physical manifestation. Wondering if you can speak a little bit to new trends that you see a nation states partaking in, in terms of practices, besides the physical manifestations of law, of course, borders are regulated through passports and other regulatory regimes in pieces. And what do you see as worrying trends on that front?

Harsha Walia  20:42  
Yeah. I'd say the two largest ones are ones which I have already talked about, which is border externalization. Right, which is the border as this kind of magical line that extends far beyond the border itself, and increasingly using the externalization model to actually place the border outside of the actual jurisdiction of the state itself. So whether that's, you know, maritime interception. So if we're looking off the coast of Florida, the US Coast Guard plays a central role in intercepting boats coming from the Caribbean, particularly from Haiti. And again, you know, that receives less attention than, say, interceptions at the US-Mexico border itself, even though maritime interdictions have always been a key feature and actually built up the internal detention regime, right? 

The idea of detention as part of immigration enforcement is very new. It's only been really since the 80s, and corresponds with the rise in the prison industrial complex. So those kinds of externalizations, again, you know... In Europe, the externalization, like, literally into the African continent. And we see those kinds of horror stories of what's happening in Libya, funded entirely by the EU. You know, again, in Australia, and Canada also is deeply involved in externalizing. Its borders, the Safe Third Country Agreement is one key part of that by just literally disallowing people to enter Canada. I do think externalization is a key method that is very worrying, and again, really implicates the entire world, into the violence of border enforcement largely perpetuated by countries of the West and their allies, including Israel and India. And with horrific consequences, right, and with zero accountability. 

The part that I think is layered on top of that, that's very concerning, is the increasing technological aspects of border enforcement, that doesn't require, you know, physical presence to enforce the border. It relies on incredibly dystopian surveillance capitalism, you know, drones on top of the Mediterranean… You know, Erik Prince, who is one of the mercenary founders of Blackwater, you know, of Iraq War infamy and the occupation of Afghanistan infamy, one of his new proposals that he's been trying to pitch around is to enter into public-private partnership with the EU, to militarize the Mediterranean. Right? And so these kinds of, you know, surveillance, hyper surveillance, the EU has the smart border system where, you know, the borders are fortified, but you never actually see a border agent, you just have, you know, these smart cards that allow you to go through, facial recognition technology, there are some places in the world were in refugee camps now, which are already, you know, internal sites of carceral containment for refugees to ensure that refugees are just barely taken care of, but can leave no further. They're starting to implement and pilot these programs of facial recognition technology, which are really creepy and dystopian. So all of these kinds of things—in Canada too, the Immigration and Refugee Board has toyed with the idea of algorithmic decision making, when it comes to determining if refugees are real refugees or not. So all of these kinds of ways in which you know, borders are being externalized. And then also now this layer of technological surveillance, and of course, there's the state and capital’s investment in technological surveillance and surveillance capitalism—the convergence of all of those is deadly, it's completely deadly. And it just means that the whole world is going to be fortified in ways that we have just never seen before.

Am Johal  24:28  
Thanks so much for that Harsha. You also work as the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. I'm wondering if you can mention one or two things that you guys are working on there.

Harsha Walia  24:39  
Sure. I mean, the BC Civil Liberties Association is a busy place far busier than I realized when I joined and, you know, there's just a lot of incredible work going on all the time with my co-workers and an incredible team. I'll say that some of the key things that we're working on is policing. The BCCLA has long been concerned with issues of policing and you know, everything related to policing, policing accountability, police power, police violence, police abuses, all of that. That's one thing that we're working on, we are increasingly thoughtful about the kind of creep of technological surveillance and its impact on privacy rights and the disproportionate impact on racialized communities. We know that, for example, algorithmic policing, and facial recognition technology in its very algorithm is overwhelmingly biased against Black people. And so that's another thing that we're concerned about. But really, there's so much right privacy rights, democratic rights at any given time, the BCCLA is in court on 20 to 30 cases. So there's a lot of moving pieces, but I'm, you know, really excited for the possibility of having such a huge mandate, because it means that we see the intersections of lots of different issues, which is rare, right, for good reason. A lot of Nonprofits and Charities tend to focus on a particular issue, which again, is important, the BCCLA has such a wide mandate on civil liberties and human rights for all that it means that we're just tackling so many different issues, which is overwhelming and also exciting.

Am Johal  26:16  
Thank you so much for the work that you do, and congratulations on the book Border and Rule. It's out this February 2021. I really encourage all of you out there listening to go out and get a copy and these are definitely emerging trends and thank you so much Harsha for taking the time to join us on Below the Radar. 

Harsha Walia  26:34  
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you.

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Alex Abahmed  26:37  
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Harsha Walia. Head to the links in the show notes to find copies of Border and Rule as well as some of the other initiatives covered in this episode. Thanks again and see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
March 30, 2021

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