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Borders and Capitalism: How Rich Countries Impose Their Economic Will on the World

This op-ed argues that borders are a cornerstone of capitalism,

This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

The migrant crisis is deadly. In less than a year, six children between the ages of two and 16 died in Border Patrol custody. Between January 2021 and July 2022, more than 1,000 people died along the US-Mexico border. Last summer, 53 migrants — who had hoped to start new lives in the US — died in Texas, trapped in a sweltering tractor trailer. 

Still, the US government, no matter who’s in charge, has continued to crack down on migration. From the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump’s Muslim Ban, the US has a long history of vilifying migrants. Former president Trump condemned those coming to this country as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and “animals.” As I write this, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas is even considering invoking state war powers to curb migration at the southern border. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has urged him to do so, arguing, “We’re under attack, like at Pearl Harbor.” 

Why is migration such a threat to the government? Why do we pour so much money and so many resources into militarizing our borders? Further to that point, why do borders exist in the first place

The answer is not, in my view, because borders are natural or necessary. There is nothing inherently real about borders. They are drawn arbitrarily by humans, often those who do not understand the histories and needs of the places and peoples they are dividing. Empires making careless pencil strokes across the map have produced global conflicts that fester to this day. 

I suggest that borders exist largely to maintain social order. They form sharp boundaries between the Global South and North, between “us” and “them.” As Canadian author and organizer Harsha Walia put it, “Borders maintain a massive system of global apartheid.” 

Borders are a cornerstone of capitalism. They serve capital in two key ways: First, they limit mobility, shackling people in the Global South and preserving global wealth disparities; second, when governments decide who is permitted to cross a border, they prioritize “professionals” who will contribute the most to their economy. The work visa, a common pathway of migration, is predicated on an applicant’s gainful employment.

Growing up as an immigrant, I bought into the capitalist notion that we had to “earn” our place by proving our worth to the nation. My family is here on the EB-1 green card, or the “extraordinary ability” green card. We received it because my father, a physician, was able to demonstrate his material value to the US. This made him the ideal “model minority” immigrant. When I meet people who oppose migration, they often add a caveat to their rants with, “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re one of the good ones.” 

But that logic reduces human worth to labor, to a capacity to contribute to the workforce. As novelist Sarah Thankam Mathews described it, “This is what it means, to come here as an immigrant. You are here on sufferance. You are a form of currency, not a person.” 

Migrants who don’t fit into the model minority stereotype, such as undocumented people, actually make enormous contributions to the economy — to the extent that the US could not function without undocumented labor. But even if we set that rebuttal aside, the fact remains, the concept of migrant “deservingness” is itself a construct of capitalism. The basic idea is that if you don’t exist to serve the US economy, you don’t deserve to live here. (Of course, this is somewhat of a catch-22, because another argument against migration is that immigrants “are taking our jobs.” The paradox exposes how hollow the anti-migrant stance is to start with.) The needs of capital dictate and regulate mobility. 

For some people, however, borders are always permeable. Walia noted that borders are not drawn to keep out everyone, just “those who represent a certain kind of inherently undesirable movement: the unregulated, ungovernable movement of predominantly Black, Indigenous, and racialized poor and oppressed peoples.” 

People in the Global South face what Walia has described as a “crisis of immobility.” But if you have a US passport, you can buy a plane ticket to almost anywhere in Europe right now, on a whim. But I can’t, with my Indian passport, and neither can most people living in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East

Rewind a few centuries: You’ll see that an assumed freedom of movement legitimized European colonizers who arrived in unknown lands and claimed those lands as their own. Why were they not asked for visas? Why were they able to claim their entrances were legitimate, while migrants at the southern border are today condemned? 

Contemporary migration is often a response to precarious conditions created by those very colonizers. Colonialism ravaged the world. Imperial powers invadedlooted, and exploited every country across the globe, except for five, according to Vox. Many of these countries never recovered. Some remain colonized. In Walia’s words: “Migration is an accounting for global violence. It’s not a coincidence that the vast number of people who are migrants and refugees in the world today are Black and brown people from poor countries that have been made poor because of centuries of imperialism, of empire, of exploitation, and deliberate underdevelopment.”

Colonialism underpins migration in ways that extend beyond the economy, although poverty is a major driving factor. For instance, colonial powers implemented anti-LGBTQ+ laws in countries across the Global South where there had been rich legacies of gender and sexual diversity. Thousands of queer and trans migrants leave their country of origin due to the brutal impact of these colonial laws and laws modeled after them. 

Despite being partly responsible for the conditions that trigger migration, Western powers have made few attempts to aid the countries they have exploited. Instead of providing reparations or returning stolen art and artifacts, they crack down on migration. The strategy of scapegoating migrants for the failures of the nation-state benefits capitalism: It perpetuates global inequities

These inequities could be mitigated through migration. Walia has considered open borders “a form of reparations.” Similarly, legal scholar E. Tendayi Achiume has asserted that “Third World persons are entitled to a form of First World citizenship as a matter of corrective, distributive justice.” 

But, unsurprisingly, Western powers have not opened their borders. It would not be in their interest to help the countries they have harmed. They don’t want to allow migrants in without clear, economic-value incentives. If they did, who would work in sweatshops in the Global South? 

Maybe you’re on board with the idea that migration shouldn’t be regulated by capitalism, but you’re not sure about the alternatives. How could we possibly accommodate open migration? Could we afford it? 

The short answer is yes. These common concerns are rooted in the capitalist myth of scarcity: the idea that there isn’t enough to go around, that some people will have to suffer for others to thrive. In reality, however, the world’s billionaires hold more wealth than 60% of the globe, according to a 2020 Oxfam report. In 2021, America’s richest people gained $6.5 trillion in wealth. That’s more than the US government spent on pandemic stimulus money. 

Speaking of federal resources, Biden’s 2024 budget allocates almost $25 billion to US Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an “increase of almost $800 million over the 2023 enacted level.” If targeting migrants were no longer a government priority, that money could be diverted and invested in communities. 

The question, then, is not whether we have the financial resources, because we do; the question is who has access to those resources. Walia has contended that the migrant crisis doesn’t actually exist, but is rather “a crisis of globalized asymmetries of capital and power.” 

The fatalities of migrants expose borders for always being sites of violence. The very act of drawing a border is a bloody one — it splinters people, cultures, and histories. In writer and editor Ayesha Siddiqi’s words, “Every border implies the violence of its maintenance.” 

The migrant crisis isn’t going anywhere. It will only get worse. As climate-related catastrophes surge, more and more people will have to leave their homes. In recent years, around 21.6 million people have been displaced from their homes annually due to climate-related disasters. The Institute for Economics and Peace projects that over 1.2 billion people could become “climate refugees” by 2050. 

Urgently, we need to imagine better, more humane forms of migration and mobility, beyond the constraints of capitalism. We need to imagine a world where we take erasers to the map instead of pencils, where we blur borders instead of militarizing them. After all, as Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano put it, “The world was born yearning to be a home for everyone.” 

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