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Book review: Against Borders: The case for abolition by Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke De Noronha

Imagine a scene. Prime Minister Liz Truss finds herself reading Free Movement blog tomorrow, sees the terrible harm her and her predecessors have been causing to documented and undocumented non-British citizens and decides to get rid of Britain’s borders. All of them. Those at port as well as those operating internally, like right to rent or right to work checks.

Borders are so central to conventional notions of how countries work, so for many this is a difficult prospect to imagine. But what would “no borders” actually look like? This is what Against Borders: The case for abolition by Gracie Mae Bradley and Luke De Noronha poses as its starting point.

Sensible immigration lawyers are likely to scoff at the idea. For starters they’d all be out of work. The harm caused to people by borders, they might say, is because of bad immigration laws, and what we need are more good immigration laws. But even good immigration laws require enforcement, surveillance, and even the possibility of incarcerating those that breach them. So good immigration laws would still cause some people harm. Is there a person or type of person who we are OK with causing harm to? Some more scoffing from the lawyers.

Border abolition

Against Borders is a useful introduction to the deep structures that keep borders in place, and that stop us from imagining a world without them. Its starting point, recruited from the prison abolitionism of Black feminist thinkers like Angela Davies and Mariame Kaba, is one that doesn’t revolve around laws and statehood. Indeed, abolitionism’s starting point is arguably the harm caused to communities by laws and legal powers. That some laws – particularly those that have serious consequences when broken – will always operate unequally, targeting some communities and not others, is key to understanding abolitionist thought.

The authors pull no punches as they investigate the ways in which borders cause more harm than they prevent and perpetuate many of society’s ills. By looking at how borders work, as well as how they are justified by governments and those who want to maintain them, the authors try to help us imagine a world in which borders are rooted out from under us.

The deep roots of borders

Borders don’t just simply mean immigration laws. The authors contend that the laws themselves conceal deeper roots. It’s no coincidence that the often-racialised groups who experience the sharp edge of borders are largely the same as those from economically poorer or formerly colonised parts of the world. Discussions around borders must engage with colonialism, which created many of the first borders to start with.

The authors raise an important point about the impossibility of “non-racist” borders. Immigration control is enforced explicitly on grounds of nationality and poverty, but apparently not on grounds of race. Immigration is (apparently) neutral and non-discriminatory. Indeed it’s not even possible to discriminate against someone in Britain on grounds of their immigration status. But Against Borders shows how racism has been baked into Britain’s borders from the outset, to the extent that racism is “buried alive” in other inequalities – poverty, nationality, and immigration status.

The practical problems of policing borders

There are many practical problems with borders that the authors highlight. For starters, borders are pretty ineffective at controlling the movement of people. The many billions pumped into border security, surveillance and incarceration actually do little to stop people on the move, only making life more inhospitable for people when they arrive.

Just as worrying as ineffective borders, is accurate border policing. In recent years governments have introduced frightening new automated technologies, drones and AI border guards for instance, to ensure maximum exclusion.

While it’s no doubt right to ensure errors don’t occur and that the wrong people aren’t subjected to borders, for the authors, accurate border policing is not the right answer. If we look at the Windrush scandal, much of the outrage was because the Home Office subjected the wrong people to the hostile environment. Because the Home Office had lost the landing cards, some people said the fault was down to under-documentation. This frames the issue as one of an accurate immigration enforcement policy. But an abolitionist perspective like the one in Against Borders holds that no one should be subject to this sort of degrading treatment in the first place.

Is “accurate” border surveillance the answer?

Another example is facial recognition software, which was found to be unlawful a few years back because of the high potential for discriminatory errors in its operation. The authors hold that a perfectly accurate invasion of our privacy might not be the answer and no one should be subjected to such invasive technology in the first place.

But surveillance is already part and parcel of many migrants’ lives; the most intimate parts of people’s lives are prized open for the Home Office or Tribunal to see, and everything from WhatsApp messages, photos, and DNA tests, will be scrutinised to see if they are authentic. Biometric information is taken and stored, and some people are even tracked 24/7 with GPS tags. It can’t be right, the authors hold, for us to tolerate this all in the name of “fair” immigration control.

Non-reformist reforms

So how do we get to a borderless world? The authors pay attention to the obstacles and propose throughout the book a series of “non-reformist reform”: a toolkit for proposing practical and realisable changes that build the way towards more radical goals.

Some demands for reform, the authors say, actually maintain the status quo. For example, some reformists might argue GPS tagging is a good alternative to immigration detention. A move away from immigration detention is no doubt a positive thing, but the tags are also invasive and demeaning, and in any case don’t deal with the underlying reasons many of us call for an end to immigration detention in the first place (that coercive powers shouldn’t be used against people because of their immigration status).

A non-reformist suggestion would be one that doesn’t take the confinement and surveillance of the detention estate from the removal centre and into a person’s own home. Better yet, the authors ask, why not do away with reporting obligations altogether?

Another example is the demand for stronger rights and better services for citizens, at the exclusion of non-citizens. Ignoring migrant communities, intentionally or otherwise, creates entitlement to those rights and resources. It also does nothing to challenge the longstanding racist notion that migrants threaten people’s access to services. Indeed, the aim of the hostile environment was to take these rights away from migrants in the first place. A non-reformist reform would be to permit all people to access essential services irrespective of status, challenging the logic that resources are scarce in the first place.

We might have more success by framing our demands for change in a non-reformist way that challenges the mainstream logics underpinning the immigration “debate” — that migration can be harmful, or that immigration enforcement just needs the right tools — than an approach that attempts to restrain (but ultimately panders to) racist and nationalist sentiments. Simply by looking back just at the last ten years of politics in the UK, we can see how spectacularly this second approach has failed, and political parties of all stripes are competing in a race to the bottom.

Joining the dots

Some might think that Against Borders sits uneasily against the backdrop of the wider migrant rights sector. Lawyers and NGOs simply don’t have time for all this lofty thinking. The authors, both from the sector, recognise the difficulty for practitioners to take radical thinking seriously precisely because the NGOs, charities, legal aid lawyers, and activists are all, to some extent, siloed from one another. Indeed, it’s hard to join the dots when your focus is on such a specific issue at the behest of the Legal Aid Agency or funders for example. 

By attempting to join the dots, though, maybe we can recognise that there is no one group with a privileged perspective of how borders work. Those who experience them often don’t know the law and those who know the law rarely experience them. A key challenge, the authors say, is getting everyone to see the wider picture. Otherwise we are never really tackling the problems (right to rent checks, the Rwanda removals, invasive surveillance, the wider hostile environment, etc.) at their roots.

No borders is a direct challenge to state sovereignty itself. This doesn’t mean open borders, like the Schengen Area. A no borders world is all or nothing.

This will rub a lot of people the wrong way. It’s hard to see beyond a world stage of nationalist governments intent on building more borders. But Against Borders is clear about one thing: just because it’s difficult to imagine a borderless world doesn’t mean reducing the daily harm that borders cause to millions of people is any less of an urgent issue. All suggestions should be on the table.

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Larry Lock

Larry Lock

Larry works at Bhatt Murphy Solicitors. He previously managed the Prisons Project at Bail for Immigration Detainees, and was a senior caseworker in the immigration department at Wilson Solicitors LLP.