November 27, 2019
CES: To start us off, we were hoping you could tell us about how you came to your activism in No One Is Illegal [NOII] and if you could speak about your political and activist education—especially what people, texts, and experiences have been critical for you.
HW: Thank you for speaking with me. My entry point into No One Is Illegal was informed by a trajectory that is similar for others engaged in migrant justice organizing: it was both personal and seeing what was unfolding in broader community. I come from a family that has been marked by histories of displacement and trauma, including the 1947 partition through Panjab, which is one of the largest displacements in human history; the imposition of industrial agriculture impacting livelihoods in the Panjab; the counterinsurgency and genocidal violence against Sikhs in India; and the disciplinary migrant worker regimes in the Gulf region. Though that is my family’s history, I myself came to North America—Turtle Island—as an immigrant through fairly privileged terms of engagement with the state. I come from a mixed-class background, including family experiencing landlessness and homelessness but myself have class mobility, access to a postsecondary education, et cetera. But in Canada there was a period of time when I had precarious immigration status and lived under the threat of removal, though not as pronounced compared to what most migrants and refugees experience. All of these together inform my personal experience.
Even so, my entry point into migrant justice work was not purely personal. What I was witnessing after 9/11 in Canada, similar to the US, was mass surveillance, escalated racial profiling, and increased rates of deportation in the context of the war on terror. In Montreal, the founding of NOII was within this climate, and we aimed to indict the war at home as unfolding alongside the war abroad. Of course, imperialist wars abroad and domestic warfare are not new, but NOII grew out of antiwar mobilizing calling for an end to the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan right after 9/11. The political formation of NOII emerged from a number of immigrant community groups already in existence in the 1990s and early 2000s. Such groups were already calling attention to capitalist globalization and imperialism in the Global South and immigrant labor exploitation in the Global North as part of the antiglobalization movement burgeoning prior to 9/11—for example, in the global justice networks against the WTO [World Trade Organization] and FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] in Seattle and Quebec City that formed in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the antiglobalization movement, these groups were explicit in arguing globalization and neoliberalism aren’t new; they are the latest phase of capitalist exploitation and colonial dispossession transpiring for five centuries. After 9/11, these same immigrant groups similarly articulated how we can’t simply call for an end to military occupation abroad but also needed to draw attention to state violence and white supremacy escalating in our neighborhoods and cities. These linkages between global and domestic warfare, carceral governance, and gendered racism hugely influenced my politics.
My political education has been informed by longtime organizers in immigrant community groups such as these. And in general, my political education continues to evolve the more people I am honored to meet and organize alongside, and the more I read and learn about movements across time and space. It is hard to pinpoint a few only, especially as there are so many forms of political education for me: those big “aha” moments alongside the slower, percolating reflections; the seminal texts I respect and cherish and also the oral histories I am gifted with; the people from a different era whose speeches I keep watching like TV reruns and comrades alongside in intimate conversations.
CES: We were so struck by how you describe Undoing Border Imperialism as a humble book reflective of a situated position within a movement. We wanted to ask you about the challenges you’ve encountered in envisioning and enacting solidarities between migrant justice and Indigenous sovereignty movements. Yours is one of the few analyses out there that examines this nexus from the position of actually doing solidarity work. What do you see as a solidaristic potential of “border imperialism”? We noticed, for example, that the Red Nation has also taken up this term.
HW: Thank you for that question. Often people suggest Undoing Border Imperialism is one of the few analyses out there regarding Indigenous and migrant relations, and I believe it’s not. The analysis or work definitely isn’t rare, but perhaps it is not widely captured in written accounts. “Border imperialism,” as articulated by The Red Nation, whom I have immense respect for, is probably less about my authorship of this book than their own work in the borderlands and our relationship-building and alliances as comrades in struggle. And such alliances have a genealogy, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where I am located. For example, there is a history of Chinese Canadian and Indigenous relations, including Indigenous nations sheltering Chinese Canadians during the race riots, Chinese restaurants being some of the few businesses allowing Indigenous people entry during de facto segregation, and intermarriages such as that of the prominent Grant family, traced in the movie All My Father’s Relations . Similarly, there are relations between the Panjabi community and Indigenous nations dating to the founding of the anticolonial Ghadr party, continued in the alliances between, for example, Maoist/Naxalite South Asian groups in the Pacific Northwest and Red Power movement in the 1970s. We see it in terminology like taike, a Panjabi word meaning “my father’s elder brother,” used specifically to refer to Indigenous people that evolved from Panjabi working-class and Indigenous working-class struggles in the lumber mills in the interior of British Columbia. Those are just cursory examples; there are many more. Also, I don’t intend to romanticize those scenarios or erase complicities. We see the latter starkly in historic immigration fights in both the US and Canada, when the Komagata Maru passengers in Canada in 1914 and the Bhagat Singh Thind case in the US in 1923 basically argued against immigration exclusion on the basis of being British subjects (in the case of the Komagata Maru) and being part of the white race and upper caste (in the Thind case), essentially positioning themselves against Indigenous, Black, and Dalit communities as well as anticolonial freedom struggles.
My work is part of this legacy of attempting to think through and, more importantly, building relations between communities. The challenges of envisioning and enacting these solidarities, as you mention, are many. First, the challenge of building solidarities between communities that have distinct histories and often languages. Migrant communities are often learning and internalizing false narratives about Indigenous people taught through the settler-colonial system. Second, building solidarity while being attentive to nuances and complicities in, for example, anti-Indigenous racism or antimigrant xenophobia. In my day-to-day organizing, I hear lots of comments directed against Indigenous people by immigrants as well as directed against migrants by Indigenous people. This is, ultimately, the hard work of transforming collective consciousness. Third is the challenge of building solidarity across communities marginalized by state violence while tending to the daily material reality of Indigenous dispossession. Though there is truth to the idea that migrants and Indigenous people may have similar histories of colonialism, it’s also true that not all migrants endured settler-colonialism or that migrants aren’t also beneficiaries of colonial occupations themselves: for example, Indian upper-caste Hindu immigrants are completely bound up in and perpetrators in the violence of caste oppression, anti-Muslim racism, and the occupation of Kashmir. And of course, many migrants materially benefit from Indigenous land dispossession here on Turtle Island through the regime of private property and land ownership.
Fourth, migrants are not a homogenous group of people. Of course, all social groups are heterogenous, but “migrants” really is a broad, state-defined category of people that could include investor-class or middle-class immigrants as well as undocumented people, Black and non-Black people, people across caste hierarchies, Indigenous people who become migrants, et cetera. The task of “migrant” and “Indigenous” solidarity must also tend to those specificities. For example, Secwepemc and St’at’imc land defenders I organize alongside don’t relate to Mayan people who have immigrated/moved here as “migrants,” but as Indigenous relatives. When the Six Nations blockade and land reclamation was happening in 2006, a caravan of racialized diasporic people to the blockade included a group of Palestinian organizers who expressed a distinct relation based on anticolonial resistance, and Palestinian flags were subsequently flown on the land reclamation site. So those kinds of specificities matter in how we think about solidarities between migrant justice and Indigenous sovereignty. The fifth challenge relates to the chronic question of positionality: whether migrants are settlers or not, and how does being, or not being, a settler-migrant impact solidarity with Indigenous nations. I think these debates about whether migrants are settlers or not tend to evade the specificity that question requires, since “migrants” can occupy many different positions within structures of power.
For myself, rather than fixating on terminology, I tend to focus on my responsibilities to the nations whose lands I am on and what I can tangibly offer or bring to be in service to Indigenous struggles as someone who benefits from various kinds of mobility within the settler-capitalist state. Complicity and solidarity are always entangled and not easily compartmentalized, and holding both together is the real challenge. Most of my own learning has come from the practice of engaging with Indigenous struggles and building relationships rather than trying to perfect some kind of analysis before enacting solidarity. For example, when I had my own battles with immigration, Secwpemc elder Wolverine Ignace, a land defender and former political prisoner after the Gustafsen Lake siege, spent hours trying to figure out how his nation could offer me membership or citizenship. His attempts grounded me in my own firm commitment to pledge allegiance to Indigenous law and jurisdiction over settler colonial laws and forms of citizenship. These kinds of grounded relations, and others I try to highlight in the book, inform my practice and thinking through migrant justice and Indigenous solidarity.
CES: Harsha, did you also want to speak to the solidaristic potential of “border imperialism,” your specific coinage?
HW: I’m not attached to the specific coinage, nor do I claim it as my coinage. For me, the solidaristic potential is primarily based in relationships, and less so whether people take up or believe in coinages like “border imperialism.” Not to say it’s not important, but as an organizer, my primary mode of thinking through these kinds of potentials is relational, conversational, and contextual.
CES: While you were talking about how you came to your activism, we were struck by the way you connected the post-9/11 migrant justice movement to militarism and warfare. Following on that, could you speak to kinds of shifts that have taken place in NOII strategies since your book was published in 2013? We were thinking about increased detentions, the rise of far-right populism in France, and India, and Japan, the intensification of militarized gatekeeping practices, and the return of fascism. Could you tell us whether and how this has affected your organizing and whether it has led to the possibility for new kinds of solidarities?
HW: There are several ways that organizing has shifted since the writing of the book and also generally shifted since NOII was founded almost twenty years ago. First, the linkages between wars abroad and wars at home have gotten weaker. I think they are analytically present, but the demise of a vibrant antiwar movement, the demobilization under centrist liberal governments, and the shift from boots on the ground to the precision of drone warfare have pushed anti-imperialist politics to the wayside. I think, in general, immigrant rights movements have become fairly domesticated, which is to say immigration is seen as an issue of “domestic” racism requiring domestic policy reform. However, immigration is a race-making regime that is at once domestic and global, where immigration exclusion is part of producing what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the “global idea of race.”
Another shift is an attempt to be reflective and thoughtful about legitimate critiques leveled at migrant justice movements for not tending to the heightened exclusion for Black migrants and refugees who disproportionately face deportation, detention, and criminalization, as well as failing to attend to how the politics of migration is structured through anti-Blackness. A third change is the surge of climate-related displacements around the world. Since 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumber new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. Climate displacement and the existential reality of the habitability of the earth puts migrant justice issues on the map in an increasingly urgent way, especially since the response from most governments is not to recognize climate refugees as refugees and to fortify their borders further in an era of escalating eco-apartheid.
The reality of the far right targeting immigration also places migrant justice politics at the center of responses to combat the rise of the far right. Whether it’s ecofascists blaming immigration and population growth, or welfare nationalists scapegoating migrants for “stealing” jobs and resources, or ethnonationalists like white supremacist, Hindutva, or Zionist forces with fascist ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t, immigrants are portrayed as “invaders” causing “social decay” across far-right parties. But what is just as concerning are some leftist articulations that are equally antimigrant. For example, one of the leftist and labor responses to neoliberal globalization has been “we need to close the border to foreign workers” in order to protect the national working class. This is a racist antimigrant demand to increase enforcement against migrant workers and also a flawed methodology, as it fails to understand the border does not protect labor or the wage floor; it segments labor and lowers the wage floor. Bosses and borders—not migrant workers—suppress wages. The response of the left should not be opposition to “foreign” workers but firm opposition to the role of the state, imperialism, and capitalism in facilitating the exploitation of any and all workers. Similarly, scapegoating migrants for decreased access to public services or longer hospital wait times, et cetera, provides a cover for austerity measures. Or here in Vancouver, the housing crisis is often blamed on either Chinese immigrants flooding the housing market or Asian capital flooding commercial real estate. This formulation completely ignores how domestic laws facilitate any form of capital investment, whether transnational or fully national, into housing and treat land and housing as a speculative commodity rather than a human right. The cause of the housing crisis in Vancouver is not Asian capital or Asian immigrants; it is colonialism that dispossesses Indigenous lands and capitalism that generates private property relations. The rise of the far right forces us to challenge these pernicious and reactionary strands on the left. This should be a wake-up call to leftist formations, especially those on the traditional Keynesian left, to center migrant justice and an analysis of racist nationalism in our movement work.
CES: That was an incredible framing of both right and left organizing and critique of the ways both converge to impede migrant justice work. One thing we were struck by is how, in this moment of heightened displacement, different approaches to organizing are necessary. In particular, we have seen the viral circulation of images of migrant and refugee deaths. What is your take on these images, and how have they impacted the way you organize? Can you also talk about what the frames that have mobilized public awareness of a contemporary “refugee crisis” have enabled and what they have obscured?
HW: I think the “refugee crisis” and “migrant crisis” moment created a number of contradictions for organizers. On the one hand, there is media and public attention to the lived experiences and political struggles of migrants and refugees. On the other hand, the viral circulation of photographs creates a spectacle of tragedy and a consumption of trauma that reinforces, rather than subverts, the status quo. The challenge for organizers is to be cognizant of how such moments maintain inequality and discourses of humanitarianism while attempting to shape the conversation in this opened-up space within the mainstream media. It’s a real conundrum, and a tricky one, especially from the perspective of organizing strategy, which holds cultural critique alongside the necessity for mass mobilization.
I think the frame of “refugee crisis” is largely a state- and media-generated response. I don’t know that it emerges from any movements. And I think that is not a coincidence because the language of crisis meant that the crisis was somehow being experienced by states and not people. Borders were being “swarmed,” “flooded,” “invaded,” and so states responded by further militarizing and fortifying their borders. The “surge” of unaccompanied minors at the US–Mexico border meant family detention centers were reopened and the National Guard was deployed to the border. The “crisis” in the Mediterranean resulted in the EU [European Union] building more walls, forcing non-EU countries to sign more readmission agreements, and NATO warships were deployed to the Aegean Sea. Europe somehow became the victim, defending itself from the crisis of refugees, rather than a colonial power complicit in both creating migrants and constricting migration. The fluctuation between refugee crisis and migrant crisis was also revealing, in that refugee crisis was intended to invoke some sympathy whereas migrant crisis was a turn toward delegitimizing migrants as “bogus” and “not real” refugees. There was an attempt to distinguish who was moving for “legitimate” reasons versus who was undeserving—an attempt to parse out people’s experience into deserving or undeserving, bogus or real.
The other frame that was mobilized was “refugees welcome,” which was a kind of civil society response, especially in Germany in 2015, where thousands of people went to train stations to welcome refugees and to host refugees in their homes, et cetera. These are important moments of solidarity that we can’t underestimate, even as we critique them, because they created a material shift in consciousness and generated real social relations. At the same time, the liberal discourse of hospitality, benevolence, and welcome evades necessary structural critique. It is not enough to “welcome” refugees if we don’t discuss how refugees come to be because of global power dynamics of capitalism, militarism, and imperialism. Colonialism, genocide, enslavement, and indentureship are suddenly erased as the condition of possibility of Europe itself. Also, a politics of charity is vertical, as Eduardo Galeano reminds us. Charity is variable, and empathy can quickly evaporate, as we also saw happen in Germany shortly after the “refugees welcome” moment.
CES: It is striking that neoconservatives are also insistent, when their own borders are not the issue—for example, in the case of the United States with regard to the China–North Korea border—that those who cross over are not economic migrants but instead are refugees sur place. This is an example of neoconservatives transforming migrants into refugees, rather than the other way around. Related to this is the anticommunism of the original concept of the refugee. The concept of the refugee has historically been inextricable from the notion of national security and, in the case of the United States, the imperialist mandate to police the globe and racially patrol its borders. We recall the legal Cold War definition of the refugee in the US context as a European subject that was supposedly fleeing communism during an era when the United States was waging brutal anticommunist wars of intervention in Asia that killed and displaced millions for whom there was no broad open-door policy. Even as the concept of refugees implies an obligation to receive, it prompts fortified gatekeeping. How do you approach the fraught category of the refugee in organizing? What are its political values and limitations?
HW: I approach the category of “refugee” based on how people self-identify. My guiding principle as an organizer is referring to people how they refer to themselves, whether that is “refugee” or “migrant,” and especially trying to be aware of why people make those choices. I am less concerned with which terminology to use (I tend to use both together) than about refusing hierarchies and dichotomies between “refugee” and “migrant.” And there absolutely is a history to the category of refugee. The 1951 Refugee Convention comes from the aftermath of the Holocaust and European states responding to mass violence and displacement within Europe, while explicitly refusing to deal with mass displacements and genocidal warfare created by empire. The limited definition of a refugee as someone fleeing “persecution” arises from this context of containing the violence of empire, which then continues into the Cold War era, especially the 1970s and 1980s. During the height of the Cold War, refugees perceived as fleeing communist regimes in Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia were declared refugees and welcomed by the US. This was especially stark in the case of white, wealthy, anti-Castro Cubans. However, Haitian, Guatemalan, and El Salvadoran refugees fleeing deadly US destabilization and counterinsurgencies had extremely low refugee acceptance rates, and Haitians were explicitly called “migrants” and not “refugees.” The mass detention of Haitians in the 1980s and 1990s, including at Guantanamo, laid the ground for the US’s current carceral detention regime and securitization of migration which, as Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz have argued, was a specifically anti-Black and anticommunist response. Looking at these kinds of trends together across time and space, it becomes clear that the politics of migration is completely bound up in imperial geopolitics.
CES: Is there something about the category of refugee that marks those subjects that enter into sites like the United States and Canada, in a lingering way, as politically suspect? Insofar as the act of national hospitality is also a securitized process, doesn’t it mark even those who are understood as “friendly” as being politically suspect?
HW: Yes, definitely. One of the ways I see this manifest is in the situation of refugees who are legally deemed to be Convention refugees yet face immigration hearings on whether they are admissible to Canada or not based on precisely the same grounds they were granted refugee status. For example, many leftist and communist Iranians are readily accepted as Convention refugees into Canada because they are portrayed by Canadian adjudicators as fleeing a reactionary, Islamist, and despotic regime in Iran. They all have very harrowing experiences of being persecuted and repressed in Iran, but Canada’s motivation to accept them is because doing so fits into a warmongering narrative against Iran. But even though they are accepted as Convention refugees, so many of them then face admissibility hearings precisely because the leftist, communist, revolutionary affiliations that caused them to be targeted by the Iranian government are also seen as suspect and grounds for deportation by Canada. In the past two decades, we’ve supported a significant number of refugees in situations like this, where they are accepted as refugees, but then their affiliations to groups or parties such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP], World Sikh Organization [WSO], Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front [FMLN], et cetera, mean they are marked as security threats.
CES: Anti-imperialism is central to NOII’s political mission. How have you organized against imperial foreign policy from within the belly of the beast, so to speak? And what strategies, in your estimation, have been most effective? “We are here because you are there” is one slogan that appears at migrant justice rallies and protests as a salvo against imperial amnesia. Although education about the cause and effect of foreign policy is necessary, can you speak about the imaginative direct-action approaches you have taken to deimperialize Canada’s often lockstep relationship with US foreign policy?
HW: It’s hard to say what direct-action approaches or strategies have been most effective, especially from within migrant justice movements. I think the “We are here because you are there” or “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” slogans in the US or the mobilizing of Les Gilets Noir in France, when they say, “If we are here, it is because France colonized our countries,” are powerful and necessary articulations. NOII strives to articulate a similar politics and to refuse to be contained by discussions about policy reform and domestic quotas, et cetera. In Canada, that can be an uphill battle because Canada imagines itself as a peacekeeping country, even though it championed, among other things, the UN Responsibility to Protect [R2P] doctrine, which is basically international humanitarian imperialism.
The other reality is that 99 percent of the work of NOII, where I am based, is direct support work. As an all-volunteer-run collective, whenever someone contacts us about facing detention or deportation, we try to support them as best we can. The people we are supporting and in community with frequently link the reasons for their migration to imperialist foreign policy, whether it’s the violence of post-9/11 military occupations or the violence of Canadian mining companies. Seventy-five percent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada. I remember once when two cousins from Honduras told us their uncle was assassinated by paramilitary security forces employed by a Canadian mining company. They left Honduras because they felt they were also going to be targeted for their opposition to this mine. However, there was no way they would be accepted as refugees in Canada if they told a judge they were fleeing violence inflicted by Canada! Support work poses some real challenges because you are up against a legal system that forces you to manage and constrain these kinds of realities.
CES: We wanted to ask one last question: Could you speak about prefiguration as an anticapitalist practice—as a form of organizing that is steeped in organizational relationality and communal care?
HW: Prefiguration is the idea we have to build our movement cultures and our leftist institutions in the model of the world we are seeking to create. For me, prefiguration is primarily an organizing ethic stemming from feminist and trans and disability justice communities of care. The entire logic of capitalism and colonialism, in addition to being extractive and exploitative, is to break communal ways of living, to sever ties to the land especially for Indigenous communities, to foreclose kinship as a political process and instead generate competitive, individualistic, atomized ways of relating to one another. Prefiguration, then, is a communal ethic: everything that I think and say comes not from me as one individual organizer or writer but as one person in a constellation of comrades and mentors. We need movements and societies to move from competition to interdependence because there is absolutely no liberation in isolation. Right now, our interdependence is completely structured through violence. The clothes that I wear are dependent on someone else producing them through an extractive and exploitative regime of commodity production. Of course, that is not the interdependence I am talking about, and egalitarian interdependence is hard because we can’t magically escape the power of hierarchies. But it is an attempt to center abundance and care, to refuse scarcity, to affirm that the ways we are with each other matter and that the processes and relations we generate are as central to the revolution as the revolution itself.
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territories. She is the author of the upcoming Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism.