Open The Borders!

Nandita Sharma interviewed by Cynthia Wright

Since the 1990s, massive setbacks in immigrant rights in the US have produced a new generation of tough and creative activists. Clustered in groups like the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Desis Rising Up and Moving, and around the publication Color/lines - to name only a few - they represent a total break with the politics of the US melting pot. Here in Canada, such formations have few parallels, although renewed organizing - around non-status people in Montreal and Toronto, or at the G8 protests in Ottawa where "No One is Illegal" was a key slogan - is slowly beginning to break new ground.

Nandita Sharma is among a small number of activists who are re-thinking and re-framing immigration scholarship and organizing in Canada. An activist/academic, she is a key founder of the Vancouver group, Open the Borders! ( In the aftermath of 911, Nandita was among those who produced several issues of the free tabloid, Alarm! Against War and Racism. She is co-editor (with Bridget Anderson and myself) of a planned anthology of new scholarship and activist writing on immigration politics.

In March, 2002 Open the Borders! co-sponsored an international conference focused on immigration, borders and displacement. In this interview, Nandita discusses the conference and prospects for future organizing.

CW: Nandita, along with the Open the Borders! group in Vancouver, you recently organized a conference of activists and academic/activists, Unsettling Imagi(nations): Towards Re-configuring B/orders. Can you talk about why you wanted to do this conference and what political context it came out of?

NSh: This conference was designed to help build a radical, grassroots movement calling for Open Borders in North America by bringing together people working actively for social justice for (im)migrants in their local communities. The conference was intentionally transnational so that we could all learn from much more active and radical movements in Europe, the US, Mexico, South America, Africa and Asia, especially from those who were already active within established No Border-networks in Europe and Latin America.

We felt an urgent need for this because we believed that the call for 'fairer immigration policies' was not enough as it did not adequately respond to either the lived reality of most migrants or the reality of the Canadian government's increasingly restrictive and racist policies. The Canadian state imposes border controls not to keep people out of the country but to make the vast majority of those who come to Canada incredibly vulnerable in the labour market, in access to housing and other basic needs, by having them classified as either 'illegals' or as temporary, 'migrant workers'. This is not an accidental feature of immigration policies but is one of its major purposes.

For instance, the 'fairest' application of existing policies will still allow the government to deny status for the majority of the world's migrants simply because the criteria for who is eligible for landed immigrant status is so incredibly narrow that hardly anyone can meet it. The category of 'refugee' is a good example of this. It is so narrowly defined that it fails to validate the violence that people face from being displaced by war, mega-development projects, the growing reach of capitalist social relations and so on. Saying that people need 'fair refugee hearings' is necessary but it is not enough for even the 'fairest' hearings still deny refugee status to most of the world's displaced people simply because of the way the system is organized. The case of the 599 people arriving by boat from China to BC in the summer of 1999 is a good example of how this worked. Most were deported and labeled 'bogus refugee claimants' by the government and corporate media!

Our conference was designed to bring together people actively working for justice for (im)migrants so that together, and from the basis of our actual experiences, we could strengthen those demands that would actually result in real, progressive change for (im)migrants. We wanted to begin from the standpoint of those who are displaced and on the move to focus our attention only on those strategies that would work towards ensuring the ability for everyone to both Stay and Move. The goal of this conference was to 'mainstream' the demand for Open Borders by having as broad a group of people (artists, activists and academics) working towards this goal.

CW: The conference was very clear on two key issues: aboriginal rights and displacement (whether of aboriginal people or, for example, African-descended peoples in Colombia). Aboriginal rights and im/migrant rights are often talked about separately (at best), even by people deeply committed to both. The conference challenged this in a real way: can you talk more about these links?

NSh: We believed that in order to advance a radical politics on Open Borders we also had to address the realities of diverse people's displacement. It is in the shared experience of displacement and forced migrations that Indigenous peoples' and (im)migrants' lives meet. We believe that not only (im)migrants but also Indigenous peoples have been negatively affected by the power granted to national states to determine membership and impose national state boundaries and power on our communities. For instance, many Indigenous communities are divided by national borderlines and people are not able to move freely because of border controls

We have both been affected by practices of colonialism that tried to destroy (often succeeding) our self-determined ways of organizing our societies. Many times, Indigenous peoples and those (im)migrating onto their lands have been displaced by the same sets of practices: the 'clearing' of lands by militaries and developers, the forced imposition of mega-development projects like hydro-electric dams, and other capitalist operations, such as mining, forestry and commercial agriculture. We wanted to emphasize our shared experiences so that together we could be stronger in opposing both practices of displacement as well as restrictions on people's mobility.

Moreover, migration (although it is rarely called this), is something that many Indigenous communities have had to deal with. Indigenous peoples, like (im)migrants, have also been forced to create new homes.

There are other points of obvious connection: Indigenous peoples, like (im)migrants, have been negatively effected by the power of national states to determine membership criteria and to define membership so as to further the narrow interests of ruling elites. National 'citizenship' rights for Indigenous peoples has always meant having to relinquish self-determinacy and pledge allegiance to a colonizing power. That is why so many have refused them. For (im)migrants, 'citizenship' rights are equally problematic. They are highly racialized and gendered so that even those people of colour who gain them are not recognized as equal members of society. Of course, the world over, most people migrating are denied citizenship rights altogether. Citizenship rights, and their denial, then, are a very powerful mechanism in the hands of national states to bolster their own power (and the power of employers and landlords) at the expense of Indigenous peoples and those of us who can be declared to be the 'foreigners' and 'enemy-aliens' within, most specifically people from the Global South, especially women of colour.

We wanted to build connections between the movements for Indigenous self-determination and land and the movements struggling for justice for (im)migrants. Of course, we recognized that there would be many tensions, perhaps even contradictions, in trying to forge such alliances. And these did indeed surface. We will need many more chances to meet and talk and share experiences and strategies. Yet, the hope remains that we can put an end to the typical 'divide-and-rule' politics played by the state - and, unfortunately, even by many in our own communities - and bring together Indigenous peoples fighting to regain their lands and self-determinacy and (im)migrants who have also lost their self-determinacy. At the end of the two days, the shared feeling was that some important lines of dialogue were established and that equally important as the call to Open the Borders! was a call to End Displacement!

CW: The conference was international in focus and, despite real funding limitations, included activists from all over. Can you sketch the issues that appear once you organize in this fashion? Most discussions are on so-called "migrant-receiving" nations in the North. But what does the issue of im/migration look like within the context of, say, Africa or Asia?

NSh: We did indeed have some serious funding limitations as well as the fact that the Canadian government refused visitors' visas to some of the people who we had confirmed funding for! While we were able to get some people to Vancouver (which is where the conference was held) from Bolivia, Mexico, Europe, the US and across Canada, some of the ways that we were able to get around these problems was to recognize the wealth of knowledge of both Indigenous peoples living in what is now called 'British Columbia' and people from the world over who are currently living in or near to Vancouver.

As a result, we were able to learn from people who have first-hand experience of Indigenous peoples experiencing violence from the Canadian state, people fleeing violence (of all sorts, not just that recognized by the United Nations or the Canadian government!) in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia, in North America and Europe.

While there is a tendency, as you rightly point out, to focus on the policies and practices of national states in the Global North and their dealings with (im)migrants, one way that the conference did work to avoid such a one-way focus was to give as much emphasis on dealing with issues of displacement as with issues of (im)migration. Hence, in the discussions of how Afro-descendants in Colombia were persecuted by the state, paramilitary and capitalist forces and how this resulted in their displacement, the discussion on how water privatization in Bolivia led to people's displacement, the discussion on how the Sun Peaks Resort project was displacing Indigenous peoples in British Columbia, attention was also paid to how people often responded to their displacement by moving to seemingly safer locations (moving to other, often urban, sites within the state or moving across nationalized borders). By giving space to people to talk about various migration routes and strategies (within the Global South and North and to the North) we were able to have a discussion about the militarization of US, UK and Canadian immigration policies in such a way that brought together, in a concrete way, the practices that displace people and some of the immigration regimes they have to deal with when trying to move.

Still, we urgently need to find better (and less expensive!) ways to bring people together in dialogue! Probably the best way is to have strong links within and across nationalized borders amongst locally-organized, grassroots organizations. However, in Canada, we are not yet at the point where we have very many strong groups actively working to organize strong resistance against displacement and national immigration regimes. Until we do (and perhaps even afterwards), we will need to meet directly with those in better organized networks.

CW: What strategies emerged from the conference? What are the prospects for a transnational immigrant rights movement? Are there particular groups that you admire?

NSh: This conference, despite our best efforts and much hope, was not able to formulate a transnational strategy or campaign for an End to Displacement and for Open Borders. However, it was widely recognized that we do need to continue to work together so that we can soon arrive at that point. Currently, groups based in southern California are trying to put on the next Open the Borders! conference in Berkeley.

Of course, much work continues to happen between such transnational gatherings and I think that there is great hope for a transnational movement for justice. I think by focusing on displacement as well as migration, we have made better connections for those opposing national and corporate practices in a number of areas (the so-called 'anti-globalization' movement) with the movements for immigrants' rights. This is visible in the subsequent writings of many of the participants of the Open the Borders! conference as well as in how opposition to international bodies, like the G8, have been organized in the past year. For instance, one of the two days of protest in Ottawa against the G8 this last June was held under the revolutionary banner of No One is Illegal. Even more radical was the explicit recognition of the organizers that this included Indigenous peoples along with (im)migrants. Organizing a major anti-capitalist event under this banner would not have been possible in past years as "immigration issues" were seen as only occupying the attention of a small group of activists, mostly people of colour. It was rarely, if ever, seen as an essential part of the problem of global capitalism. That it was seen as a pivotal part of the struggle this year is a testament to the growing strength of the transnational movement struggling for justice for Indigenous peoples and (im)migrants. It is also a testament to the growing recognition of the strength of analysis and strategy that Indigenous activists and activists of colour bring to radical movements within the 'Left' in Canada. I believe that we radical non-whites are re-shaping the agenda of the 'Left'. While many continue to ignore the reality of our lives, how this reality positions us quite uniquely within processes of 'globalization', and how it leads to a radically different assessment of what the problem is, I think that the effectiveness of our work is causing some to finally recognize that the entire movement needs our energy, our intelligence and our radical-ness to realize justice.

I have a great deal of respect for the organizers of the No One is Illegal protest in Ottawa against the G8. Of course, the banner of 'No One is Illegal' is borrowed from another movement that is tremendously inspiring: the Sans Papier movement in France and its allied No Borders-networks across Europe, in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and even England. I have also heard of a group in Bangladesh called No Passports that also seems to be moving in this direction, although it has so far proven difficult to get a hold of them. The recent demonstration in Montreal to oppose the deportation of over 1,000 people from Algeria by the Canadian government is a clear heir to the radical No Borders! movements.

The No-Borders networks established in Australia engaged in direct action civil disobedience are also radicalizing the immigrants' rights agenda and offering the rest of us a model to aspire to. In Canada, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty have done much excellent and difficult work in directly and actively resisting people's deportation orders. Their Direct Action Immigration Case Work has motivated like-minded groups in Montreal and Toronto to actively incorporate justice for (im)migrants as part of their anti-capitalist work.

CW: Many people active in immigrant rights campaigns have felt that im/migration is still not effectively integrated into anti-globalization strategies (especially in North America) or within left formations generally. Do you agree? What are some ways out?

NSh: This is partly because 'globalization' has not been adequately seen to be leading to displacement. Therefore, migration is not generally seen as one of the major consequences of 'globalization', despite the fact that currently more people are engaged in international movement than at any other point in human history. Over 150 million people are thought to be crossing nationalized borders every year - that is 1.5 billion people every decade. This number represents a doubling of international migration from the mid-1980s and it is expected to once again double in the next decade.

Another reason that the 'anti-globalization' movement has largely ignored the issues of displacement and (im)migration is that much of this movement has complained about the loss of power of the national state. The power of corporations is thought by many to have weakened the national state. I don't subscribe to this view. Just because national states have generally moved to withdraw or weaken social welfare provisions and moved to ensure greater mobility for capital investments does not mean that the state has lost power. The power to withdraw such services is not any less than the power to grants them.

The perpetual state of war that we are forced to live in is one indicator of the continued power of national states. Another obvious one is the increasing restrictive immigration policies imposed by national states the world over. But perhaps the greatest indicator is a national state that is thoroughly complicit in the poverty, ongoing oppression and continued subordinated status of Indigenous peoples and people of colour in Canada (and any minoritized group in any national state).

Yet, because the experiences of the biggest beneficiaries of the post-WWII state have been centred as the 'norm' within the 'anti-globalization' movement, the experiences of Indigenous peoples, (im)migrants and people of colour in general have been broadly ignored. If our experiences were to be considered, then you would be hard pressed to argue for a declining national state apparatus. It is our land and bodies that are being bombed, our bodies and minds that are being wasted in refugee and detention camps, our bodies that are inscribed as 'illegal' and forced to work as undocumented, thoroughly unprotected workers, our bodies that are indentured to employers through state immigration policies that make us 'migrant workers'.

This deadly combination of nationalism, ignoring the lived experiences of Indigenous people and people of colour leads to a situation where the 'anti-globalization' movement does not acknowledge the significance of displacement and immigration to the operation of global capitalism or the power of the No Borders activists to the broader struggle for social justice. I've been told that issues of (im)migration are seriously marginal to the discussions at Porte Allegre for instance.

How can we turn this around? Well the one thing for sure is that we have to turn it around for any anti-capitalist struggle to be successful. I am heartened by the enthusiastic adoption of No Borders discourse within those parts of the anti-capitalist movement where there are more Indigenous people and people of colour active. These tend to be the most radical in their vision as well. I am also glad to see the union movement take up a few of the issues of 'migrant workers' as evident in the establishment of a migrant workers centre in Leamington, Ontario. However, while there are some points of optimism, the nationalist response to globalization continues to dominate. We can turn this around through more radical demands and strategies aimed not only at de-legitimating and harming capitalist enterprises and international bodies that further their ventures but also at the national states that organize global capitalism. I believe that the support for Indigenous self-determination and lands, the demand for an end to practices that displace people and the call for Open Borders is our best hope for a transformation - and not merely a reformation - of existing power structures.