The Postcolonial Case for Rethinking Borders

The Postcolonial Case for Rethinking Borders

A close look at the experiences of immigrants should lead us to the conclusion that First World nations have no right to exclude Third World migrants, including the unauthorized economic migrants that dominate contemporary political debates.

Border patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana, Mexico (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

The specter of the “illegal immigrant” looms large today in North American and European political consciousness, serving as a justification for the often violent hardening of borders. While there is much disagreement about what counts as lawful, fair, just, and prudent border governance, there is a far-reaching but rarely remarked upon consensus that these nations ultimately have the right to exclude non-nationals. Even many of those who reject explicitly ethno-nationalist border agendas seem to believe that immigration, and in particular unauthorized immigration, is a problem out of control. They describe it as a problem of political strangers—people who originate politically outside of the nation.

For some, the problem is that there are too many of these political strangers. For others, the problem is that the wrong kind of political strangers are seeking national inclusion, either because of their reasons for migrating (because they are “economic migrants” and not political refugees) or because of traits imputed to them (they are criminals, or they are a cultural, religious, or racial threat). Even among humanitarians working against racist and xenophobic politics, there is a careful commitment to framing immigrants as political strangers who, nonetheless, may warrant national admission for moral reasons.

For citizens, or political insiders, enforcement of national borders, including through immigration restrictions, is understood as a legitimate exercise of sovereign self-determination. In the liberal-democratic tradition, the nation-state is constituted by a territorially and politically bounded community. Under international law, the blanket exclusion of economic migrants—those who enter the territory of a foreign state in order to pursue better life outcomes—is within the full right of every nation-state and is subject only to limited constraints. Refugees and others fleeing persecution are subject to more robust protections, and in this regard are an exceptional category under international law. But neither international refugee law, nor those who argue for the expansion of that category to encompass other vulnerable groups, such as those fleeing climate change, have expended much effort to unsettle the category of “political stranger,” pushing instead for humanitarian carve-outs to the current system.

We should reject this consensus. A closer look at the experiences of immigrants should lead us to the conclusion that First World nations have no right to exclude Third World migrants, including the unauthorized economic migrants that dominate contemporary political debates.1 This claim, that countries like the United States have no right to exclude migrants like those from Central America, will seem radical to many. But it is a corollary of the past and present relationship between, on the one hand, powerful nations like the United States, which advance their national interests extraterritorially, and, on the other, the peoples in the Third World that they subordinate. Third and First World peoples are not political strangers. Due to neocolonial and other forms of imperial interconnection, they are bound in a relationship of co-sovereignty that makes Third World peoples political insiders to First World nation-states.

There Are Few Political Strangers to the First World

Over the course of about a century and a half, more than 62 million Europeans migrated from their nations as participants in a colonial project of political and economic domination over the very peoples that Europe and its former settler colonies seek to exclude today. They explored, exploited, conquered, and decimated in the absence of the sorts of strict immigration controls that exist today. These migrants and permanent settlers ensured the flow of human and natural resources overwhelmingly for the benefit of Europe and its settler colonial satellites.

Political theorist Lea Ypi defines colonialism as “a practice that involves both the subjugation of one people to another and the political and economic control of a dependent territory (or parts of it)” in “a political association that denies its members equal and reciprocal terms of cooperation.” European colonial expansion aimed at the economic and political development of metropolitan nation-states and their citizens through the exploitation of colonized territories and peoples. At the core of the colonial project was the explicit and unabashed denial of the sovereignty of Third World peoples and their enforced status as dependents of the First World.

Formal decolonization of Asia and Africa gathered full pace in the mid-twentieth century. This process delivered many things to the Third World; independence and full sovereignty were not among them. There is a rich, multidisciplinary body of scholarship that demonstrates the persistence of neocolonial interdependence sustaining an umbilical connection between the First and the Third World. “[T]he process of decolonization transferred rudimentary political powers to the formerly colonized,” Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui has written about Africa, “but it did not transform the structures of domination—that is, the institutional and cultural contexts of Western hegemony in the global international order on the one hand, and African marginalization within it on the other.” The same is true for many other Third World territories.

Imperial Reckoning

The political experience of many Third World citizens is quasi-sovereignty: self-determination pursued haltingly and under constraints imposed by First World nation-states and their international institutions and transnational corporations, in collaboration with Third World political elites unaccountable to their people. As one Zimbabwean migrant in the United Kingdom explained to sociologist Dominic Pasura, the many who risk life and limb to access First World nations do not understand themselves as political strangers:

This country [the UK] takes responsibility [for] why we are here. It’s because of colonialism. The British people oppressed us; they took our land and made us live on infertile land. We were made captives in our own land. . . . People grew up under oppression and it became even worse when we attained our independence as our economic situation deteriorated. It’s our turn to come to this country. God is making an equation that somebody who used to gain might also, even though not suffering, serve somebody.

Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 following a bloody war against British metropolitan and settler-colonial domination. At that time, 6,000 white commercial farmers owned 42 percent of the land in the country, including the most arable and ecologically favorable areas, secured under colonial legislation that dispossessed the black majority of all but the most resource-starved territory in the country. Most of the white farmers fought hard to prevent Zimbabwean independence. Given the oppressive nature of this racialized agrarian structure, it is unsurprising that land reform was a fundamental concern of Zimbabwe’s anticolonial liberation movement. Yet the Lancaster House Agreement, which led to the establishment of the Republic of Zimbabwe, diminished any early prospects for meaningful land reform. The agreement between the Zimbabwean liberation movement and the British government required Zimbabwe to guarantee the existing property rights of white Rhodesians after independence. Then, during the 1990s, Zimbabwe—like many other Third World countries—was forced to undergo IMF and World Bank reforms intended to liberalize its economy, opening it up to global capital and commodity markets while the government was required to implement aggressive austerity measures at great social cost.

As late as 2000, Zimbabwe’s colonial land legacy remained in good health, in part due to an ineffectual approach by the Zimbabwean government. Research by Sam Moyo showed that in 2000, over 6 million black Zimbabweans lived in unfertile, drought-prone regions, while 4,500 mostly white, large-scale farmers dominated the country’s predominantly agrarian economy. The power-hungry, corrupt regime of Robert Mugabe pursued a brutal land-reform program that resulted in seizure of white-owned farms but failed to meet the needs of the country’s citizens, leading to the displacement of Zimbabweans of all races fleeing political repression and economic hardship. Today, Zimbabwe is ostensibly under different political leadership but remains economically crippled. The country owes about $1.4 billion to the World Bank and $322 million to European investment banks—debts so large that the IMF and other international creditors will not lend the country any more money. It is difficult to imagine a future reentry of Zimbabwe into the global economy that would not keep the interests of Zimbabwean nationals second to the interests and beneficiaries of global capital.

What does sovereignty mean to a nation like Zimbabwe? And to what “nation,” or other vehicle of collective self-determination, does the so-called illegal immigrant who has fled to the UK belong? Because of their quasi-sovereign status—their past and continuing relationship of imperial subordination to the First World—places like Zimbabwe should not be considered alien to nation-states like the UK. Border regimes that sustain the illegality of de-colonial or de-imperial migrants—those who move in search of a better life driven in whole or in part by informal colonial or imperial subordination—are fundamentally unjust regimes.

As Kwame Nkrumah and others discerned at the dawns of their nations’ formal independence, they remained quasi-sovereign: politically and economically subordinate to First World nation-states and corporations, and to the postwar international economic and financial institutions they dominate. Today, for example, the revenue of the largest energy and mineral transnational corporations based in the First World eclipse the revenues of the Third World nations from which they extract resources, as they have done since the colonial era. As a more general matter, international legal scholars such as Antony Anghie have unpacked the complex ways in which international legal doctrine, and international financial and economic institutions, advance First World nations’ interests at the expense of those of the Third World, while stymieing equality-enhancing or reparatory reform. The structural subordination of the Third World as a whole to the First World as a whole should negate the right of any First World country to exclude any Third World person, whether or not that specific country colonized the country of nationality of that specific person. The benefits to the First World of neocolonial subordination—and its ethical implications—go far beyond discrete bilateral relations between former colonial powers and the nations they colonized.

Neocolonial empire is not the only form of informal empire that binds nations across vast territories. U.S. informal imperial intervention in parts of the world it never formally colonized has created similar relationships to subordinated nation-states. As one Honduran migrant told an AP reporter last fall, “Thousands more people are going to continue coming because the United States is a government that sticks its hands into Central American governments.”

A recent New York Times article titled, “The U.S. Immigration System May Have Reached a Breaking Point,” described a put-upon U.S. government struggling to cope, administratively and otherwise, with a sharp increase in Central American migration. But the only real point of connection the article presented between U.S. foreign policy and Central America migration was U.S. foreign aid to Honduras. This failure to note decades of political, economic, and military intervention is endemic to mainstream liberal immigration discourse in the United States, in which concerns for the humanitarian conditions and political problems affecting these migrants cannot go so far as to question their status as political strangers.

An exception to the trend, Joseph Nevins’s short essay “How US Policy in Honduras Set the Stage for Today’s Migration,” recounts a long history of U.S. intervention that exemplifies the sort of imperial interconnection that I have argued renders the right to exclude non-nationals unethical. U.S. projection of political and economic power on Honduras dates back to the 1890s, when U.S.-backed banana companies first located there. Historian Walter LaFeber notes that in this period, the Caribbean coast “became a foreign-controlled enclave that systematically swung the whole of Honduras into a one-crop economy whose wealth was carried off to New Orleans, New York, and later Boston.” By 1914, when banana corporations owned close to a million acres of Honduras’s most arable land, U.S. companies began moving into mining and banking. What Jason Colby has called “corporate colonialism” was pursued in tandem with direct U.S. political and military intervention in that country. Decades later, the Reagan administration further pushed the militarization of Honduras, using it as a base to interfere with and curtail regional developments that did not align with U.S. interests. His administration also played a major role in economically restructuring Honduras to make it more amenable to global capital, disrupting traditional forms of farming that had served as safety nets to some in Honduras.

Such historical relationships, persisting in various forms to the present day, raise serious questions regarding the appropriate laws, policies, and norms that should govern claims to admission and inclusion of those who move from the Third World to the First. Citizens in Third World countries in which First World countries intervene should not be considered political strangers; they are political siblings or cousins, with rights that should include entry and inclusion through migration. This is not a cosmopolitan argument for open borders, but a distributive justice argument rooted in particular political and economic relations with long histories. It is an argument for sovereign responsibility for the unequal relations forged by sovereign intervention.

In sum, nation-state borders, in their current form, cannot humanely, justly, or even efficiently accommodate the depth of transnational interconnection that characterizes our world. The global migration crisis is one of a fundamental mismatch between legal and policy frameworks predicated on the fiction of the independence and autonomy of all nations in the international order, and a world of deep interconnection. The “illegals” much reviled in First World national immigration discourse are the harbingers of an imperial reckoning that cannot be delayed for much longer, even in the United States.

Tendayi Achiume is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

A version of this work previously appeared in the Stanford Law Review at 71 STAN. L. REV. (forthcoming 2019).

1 I use “First World” to refer to the former colonial powers of Western Europe, as well as the British settler colonial nations of Australia and North America. “Third World” refers to the peoples and territories that Europe colonized between the second half of the eighteenth century and the twentieth. While some view these terms as offensive or anachronistic, they are analytically significant for the imperial histories and politics they invoke.

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