What is the value in teaching a comparative borders course? In a moment of intensified border fortification, is it not perhaps more important to address our local/national contexts, in order to focus on the proximate geographies upon which we might be able to exert the most agency? In this piece I will discuss the political and analytical value in teaching about borders comparatively at the current conjuncture in which both right-wing nationalist governments and supposedly more “open” centrist, neoliberal ones are furthering the hardening of material and symbolic national borders. These considerations led to the development of the syllabus for my course, A World of Walls? Dismantling Borders and Building Solidarity for Migrant Justice, included at the end of this piece.
Comparative thinking lies at the core of migrant rights activism, as this perspective allows for the creation of relationships of collaboration and solidarity between people affected by border violence in different parts of the world, and relationships between those affected by border violence and their allies. One example of this is the transnational organizing around freedom of movement that led to the creation of the World Social Forum on Migrations. Its eighth meeting, held in Mexico City in fall 2018,1 included a transnational forum of mothers of disappeared migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and on the US-Mexico border. My course, A World of Walls? Dismantling Borders and Building Solidarity for Migrant Justice, emerges out of similar organizing efforts, albeit at a more local scale. Its current iteration takes inspiration from two courses developed over the last decade in the San Francisco Bay Area, one taught in the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora Studies program at San Francisco State University in fall 2010, and the other—entitled From Palestine to Mexico: Bring Down the Wall—taught as a graduate-student-run DeCal course2 at the University of California, Berkeley in fall 2011. Both courses emerged as part of broader attempts to foster collaboration between Palestine solidarity groups, US-Mexico border activists, and Chicanx student groups. The classes were also connected to the organization of a conference panel on transnational bordering at the 2013 American Association of Geographers meeting that brought together Palestinian and Chicanx scholars to address common questions of border violence and urban surveillance. In brief, A World of Walls not only aims to foster the development of relationships of solidarity between scholars and activists at different sites of fortified borders but was also born out of these efforts.
The grounding of this course in activism informs my pedagogical approach. Examples of this include two exercises that I conduct in the first class in order to underline the connection between the academic content, the lived experiences of people directly affected by border violence, and advocacy for migrant justice. I begin the course with an activity designed to prompt a discussion of power, privilege, and positionality among course participants. Inspired by the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s University Without Walls curriculum,3 I ask students to pair-share information about their family’s or their own journey to their current place of residence (country, or the specific state and region): when they arrived, for what reason, and what their journey was like. Students also visually represent this information on a map that is visible to all and can volunteer to share their story with the larger group. Through this exercise, students begin to forge a sense of commonality through an acknowledgment that stories of differently situated migration are part of everyone’s family history. When the course is taught in a settler-colonial nation-state such as the United States, this exercise is particularly effective in demystifying any assumption that Euro-descendants are “natives” to the country. The second exercise I carry out during the first class session is a discussion about the value of lived knowledge. By this I mean the direct experience of dealing with the violent or exclusionary effects of borders through one’s own migration trajectory, family history, or experience in sponsoring visa applications, for example. This has the objective of centering the lived experience of students who may have more proximity to material and symbolic violence produced by borders. However, it also makes the argument that it is only possible to fully understand the working of contemporary borders by combining academic knowledge with lived experience. Thus it centers qualitative methodologies such as ethnography, but also cultural and artistic production of migrants and refugees as key instruments to understanding bordering processes.
From an analytical perspective, thinking comparatively across borders allows students to denaturalize the borders with which they are familiar and that they have come to take for granted. Studying the colonial history of borders across different geographies, in fact, pushes them to think more critically about the creation and naturalization of the borders with which they have more immediate proximity. This exercise can be particularly effective if the course is taught in a nonsettler-colonial setting, such as southern Europe, where students could analyze their own context alongside settler-colonial borders. In this case, it would be easy for students to see the violence and dispossession that underlie the creation of settler-colonial borders, such as the United States’ southern border with Mexico. Adopting a comparative approach, however, also would also allow students to critically reflect on the colonial histories and processes of racialization that allowed for the naturalization of the Mediterranean border as Europe’s southern boundary. A similar effect also occurs when comparing settler-colonial borders where the process of bordering happened at different moments. For students in the United States, for instance—where the borderline was defined over 150 years ago—studying settler-colonial contexts such as Israel/Palestine—where the 1948 Green Line was defined more recently and is not universally recognized as an official border4—allows them to more clearly see the processes of violence and dispossession that accompanied the creation of the US-Mexico border.
In addition to helping students denaturalize the borders with which they are familiar, thinking comparatively across borders also allows them to theorize the global nature of border fortification in a way that empowers them to take action for migrant justice. The course argues, in fact, that we should not understand single instances of bordering as manifestations of a global process, situated “up above,” and thus difficult to challenge and contest. Instead, it highlights the grounded sites in which a global process of bordering is forged, and in which it is thus possible to intervene. In order to make this argument, the course pays particular attention to the distinct political and economic conditions under which popular support for border fortification emerges in each of the borders studied. Thus students begin to understand that in order to successfully intervene in the public debate around bordering, it is important to have site-specific knowledge about the actors that support border fortification, and the context in which this support emerged. They also learn, however, that these distinct sites are connected by networks of expertise (such as security consultants) and transnational political organizing (such as collaborations between right-wing nationalist movements in different sites) that often lead to very similar strategies of border fortification being adopted throughout the world. This analytical approach allows students to clearly identify both transnational networks of actors and the site-specific processes through which the current worldwide proliferation of borders came to be and to subsequently think in concrete terms about possible avenues of intervention in order to advocate for migrant rights.
A World of Walls? Dismantling Borders and Building Solidarity for Migrant Justice is designed as a twelve-week course that meets for weekly three-hour sessions. In its current iteration, it is an interdisciplinary social science course appropriate for the advanced undergraduate level. With modifications, it could be adapted into either an introductory undergraduate course or a graduate seminar. The course’s content is divided into three thematic units. The first unit addresses broad questions about the current global nature of border fortification and critically analyzes the processes that led to the current securitization of borders, such as the roles of colonialism and nationalism, as well as the relationship between bordering and labor exploitation. In addition, it investigates the nature of violence produced by borders. The second section of the course analyzes the working of contemporary borders and, consequently, what the best methods are for analyzing these borders. It explores the potential of ethnographic, forensic, and cartographic methods as well as document analysis to analyze the hardening and externalization of land and sea borders, in addition to the networks of expertise that connect different sites of bordering. Finally, the third unit of the course focuses on the denaturalization of borders. It starts by analyzing the fraught issue of “smuggling,” and how this term is sometimes used to criminalize migrant solidarity movements. This unit then moves to a broader conceptual discussion about some of the theoretical premises through which we might begin to question borders. It counterpoises a cosmopolitan and “third space” approach that questions borders by emphasizing the hybrid nature of borderlands, with a decolonial approach that foregrounds material and epistemic decolonization as means through which to question the naturalness of nation-states enclosed by borders. By the end of the course, students are well equipped with a solid understanding of the working of contemporary borders, the conceptual tools to question the naturalness of borders, and concrete examples of initiatives that support migrant justice.
Ilaria Giglioli is assistant professor of geography and international studies at New College of Florida. Her research is focused on migration, bordering, and coloniality at the Mediterranean border.
Francois Soulard, “The 8th World Social Forum on Migrations—Mexico 2018,” 8th World Social Forum on Migrations, October 26, 2017, https://fsmm2018.org/8th-world-social-forum-migrations-mexico-2018/?lang=en.
DeCal courses are officially recognized student-run courses taken on a pass/fail basis. The origin of this program is in the early sixties’ free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley.
Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), accessed September 26, 2019, https://floridaimmigrant.org/.
I refer to the 1948 Green Line as a border not to reify its status as such, but because it functions in a similar manner to many other sites of walled borders. Its status as an international border depends on the “two-state solution” envisaged by the 1992 Oslo Accords between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which would have divided Historic Palestine between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This arrangement, however, is contested by Palestinian rights advocates who support a “one-state solution”—that is, a fully democratic and representative state in all parts of Historic Palestine. It has also been essentially undermined by ongoing projects of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, which are situated east of the Green Line but are politically incorporated and infrastructurally connected to the Israeli state.