Guest post by Ulises Moreno-Tabarez, PhD candidate in Human Geography & Urban Studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) and recipient of a LSE PhD Scholarship. His doctoral research examines Latin American festivals and their significance for Latin@ migrants in London. Ulises is on Twitter @MigrantSpecters.

In Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia provides radical tools for both critical analytics and activist interventions. These tools are useful in confronting the various forms of violence that are intimately linked with borders. This violence includes deportations, detentions, raids, fear mongering, and other forms of control and exploitation induced by imperial states. Walia’s own migratory experience is marked by legal precarity, having been inside the innards of ‘deportation centres’. The backbone of her offerings, however, is influenced by her active engagement in migrant justice movements for over a decade.

This work comes at a time when immigrant rights rhetoric is increasingly centred on politics of inclusion, especially in the United States. In the book’s preface, Andrea Smith notes that inclusionary politics are imbued with deadly implications in that they reinforce the saviour-state industrial complex responsible for wars abroad and increasing militarisation of its colonial borders. Smith also notes that these politics fail to question the commodification of land and the ‘logics of the settler state itself’ (p. xiii). In this critical vein, this book joins the ranks of radical scholar-activists who take seriously the object of their critique—the borders enforcing global apartheid. This scholarship includes John Hutnyk’s Beyond Borders, Jenna M. Lloyd, Matt Mitchelson, and Andrew Burridge’s Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis, Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman, and Silvia Posocco’s Queer Necropolitics, and Karma Chávez’s Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities, among others. What sets this volume apart is the longevity of research from which the analytic framework stems (10+ years), the prioritising of Indigenous knowledges, and the direct engagement with three theoretical strands: academic, movement, and experiential theories.

Imbricated in the text are short narratives from thirteen people of colour (primarily women of colour activists and writers) using performative devices to articulate complimentary critiques. In the first chapter, Walia outlines the main principles that make up what she calls border imperialism. The second chapter is a cartography of Walia’s activism with No One Is Illegal (NOII). NOII is a migrant justice movement that ‘mobilizes tangible support for refugees, undocumented migrants, and (im)migrant workers, and prioritizes solidarity with Indigenous communities’ (p. 13). The third and fourth chapters go hand in hand as chapter 3 explores the existing debates on how to build broad based coalitions without compromising agendas and chapter 4 consists of a roundtable with fifteen grassroots NOII organizers unpacking and working through the complexities detailed in the previous chapter. The fifth chapter offers decolonisation as a systematic framework to challenge border imperialism. This review takes up the first and fifth chapters to gauge this book’s contribution to critical border literature.

In Walia’s understanding, border imperialism consists of four interrelated facets that function ‘within the matrix of racialized empire and neoliberal capitalism’ (p. 75). The first highlights displacements and secured borders, a symbiotic couplet whereby western imperial forces displace peoples either through direct occupation (a la Israeli illegal occupation of Palestine) or neoliberal treaties such as the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the concurrent militarization of borders of which Operation Gatekeeper, launched alongside NAFTA, is a perfect example. This is a highly relevant facet since the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP), which some critics characterise as NAFTA on steroids, is slowly creeping up in the global politico-economic scene.

The second facet of border imperialism includes the criminalisation of migrants while the state simultaneously supports and promotes for-profit carceral spaces. The construction of the migrant as criminal and all the associated pejoratives happens through various channels including partisan journalism, political arenas, and popular culture. This strategic deployment of the criminalised migrant figure goes hand in hand with the marketisation of carceral networks. In the United States this includes the privatising of detention centres, which is influenced by prison corporations lobbying for more detention centres as well as border surveillance.

Border imperialism’s third facet consists of racialised hierarchies embedded in nationalist and imperialist deployments and enforcements of citizenship and belonging. These deployments have material and violent consequences, as seen in the in the 2011 massacre in Norway and the Oak Creek, Wisconsin shooting. Racialised notions of inclusion and exclusion are historically entrenched (see the history of slavery, segregation, internment camps, and the more recent war on drugs) and have been exacerbated since 9/11. Racialisation carries a genderised component whereby the ‘civilising’ of the other is masked as feminist solidarity; Walia, quoting Spivak, notes this amounts to “white men saving brown women from brown men’ (p. 64). This facet might be improved by keeping it radically open to various subjectivities (human and non-human) that can be interpolated into nation-state co-opted politics of identities. The authors of Queer Necropolitics, and Queer Migration Rhetoric do this kind of work in that they broaden this race/gender-based critique to include queer subjectivities (e.g., reject the ‘gays need saving from homophobic brown men’ narratives that justify imperialist-colonialist violence).

The fourth facet of border imperialism includes state-mediated exploitation of migrant labour by continually denying legal citizenship. Walia looks at the United States and Canada where despite the stark differences in the number of undocumented migrants there are similarities in their migration legal frameworks, especially when talking about the difficulty if not impossibility of working towards permanent or full residency legal status. These state imposed restrictions work to maintain a disposable labour pool subject to exploitation and exclusion from multiple locations including landlords, employers, as well as intra- and inter-community networks. Walia’s critique is an indictment of the state’s buttressing and entrenchment of racist capitalism’s commodification of labour.

After detailing her experiences with NOII and collectively teasing out contemporary debates in migrant justice movements (which can easily be cross-applied to other social justice movements), Walia turns to offer her understanding of decolonisation as a paradigm not only to challenge border imperialism but also to incite structural change in activism and social relations. Decolonisation, argues Walia, is ‘rooted in dismantling the structures of border imperialism, settler colonialism, empire, capitalism, and oppression, while also being a generative praxis that creates the condition to grow and recenter alternatives to our current socioeconomic system’ (p. 18-19). Decolonisation requires a fundamental and critical reorientation to capitalist settler-states that perpetuate actively histories of forced displacements, subjugation, and exploitation of Indigenous peoples and lands. This calls for a prioritisation of Indigenous self-determination without replicating the ‘include to exclude’ logic settler-states adopt to co-opt and exploit bodies. In practical terms, for Walia, this has meant direct involvement in ongoing support for grassroots Indigenous peoples on various social and environmental justice movements. From these experiences, Walia highlights a specific kind of worldview that privileges ‘living well’ as opposed to ‘living more’. The difference herein is profound in that this teaching goes against practices of competition, commodification, and domination in capitalist and colonial systems. The focus on living well germinates ethics of ‘interdependency and respect among all living things’ (p. 255). These are only a few of the key take-away points, which are derived from Walia’s extensive research and experience in various forms of border activism.

The same chapter, however, does open grounds for the critique that decolonisation answers for problems that are not included in the four facets of border imperialism. For instance, the third facet of border imperialism, as I pointed out, is limited in that it only includes a race/gender critique and not other state co-opted subjectivities. Decolonisation, however, as a pre-figurative framework, does address various forms of violence before they take place. This is because, as Walia succinctly points out, decolonisation ‘requires us to reimagine and reconfigure our communities based on shared ideals and visions’ (p. 256). But if decolonisation is to be conceived in this way, then 'border imperialism' must be imagined equally as a machine composed of morphing technologies.

Undoing Border Imperialism might be best characterised as Anzaldúaesque, after Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera, because of its writing qualities (i.e., weaving prose, poetry, and academic styles of writing as rigorous and aesthetic forms of critique). Because of its collaborative and coalitional endeavours without compromising the centrality of the critique, Walia offers a tour de force that compliments Anzaldúa’s work immensely. Future works might benefit from questioning how well this critique, along with its model of colonisation and decolonisation, works in different geopolitical contexts such as China, where the same facets of border imperialism can be applied to the intra-national rural to urban migrations. Overall, this book offers flexible tools that are grounded in a comprehensive and localised praxis designed to tackle border imperialism in all the spatial and aspatial iterations.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Moreno-Tabarez U (2014) Book Review: Undoing Border Imperialism. Available at: (accessed [date]).