Review of
Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism (Oakland/Edinburgh/Washington, DC: AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2013)


I first got excited about this book when I saw the title. The term "border imperialism" suggests the only viable framework to analyze the border regimes of today, that is, in the context of colonial and imperial history. My excitement continued when reading the resolute opening sentence: "This book is about undoing borders." (2) Sounds like the kind of book we need.

Undoing Border Imperialism is the sixth release in the Anarchist Interventions series, published by AK Press in collaboration with the Institute of Anarchist Studies and designed by the fabulous folks of the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative. Undoing Border Imperialism is, so far, the series' most comprehensive volume. I'm glad that Harsha Walia – "a South Asian activist, writer, and popular educator" – shares insights on more than 300 pages, as there is plenty for the reader to learn from.

In the first chapter, "What Is Border Imperialism?", Walia explains that the term "encapsulates four overlapping and concurrent structurings", which she summarizes as follows: "first, the mass displacement of impoverished and colonized communities resulting from asymmetrical relations of global power, and the simultaneous securitization of the border against those migrants whom capitalism and empire have displaced; second, the criminalization of migration with severe punishment and discipline of those deemed 'alien' or 'illegal'; third, the entrenchment of a racialized hierarchy of citizenship by arbitrating who legitimately constitutes the nation-state; and fourth, the state-mediated exploitation of migrant labor, akin to conditions of slavery and servitude, by capitalist interests." (5)

In the second chapter, Walia offers a "Cartography of NOII", sketching her work with No One Is Illegal in Canada (both in the NOII-Montreal and NOII-Vancouver (Indigenous Coast Salish territories) groups). The chapter adds concrete organizing experiences to the preceding theoretical reflections.

In the third chapter, "Overgrowing Hegemony: Grassroots Theory", Walia shares more general thoughts on organizing, including many precious ideas on alliance and outreach, reform and revolution, tactics and strategy, structure and leadership.

In the following chapter, the "Waves of Resistance Roundtable", "fifteen voices across race, gender, age, sexuality, and immigration status from different NOII groups" supplement Walia's own observations. (207-208) Although there are certain overlaps with the two previous chapters, the voices provide an even broader impression of NOII work and the potentials as well as the challenges it entails.

In chapter five, "Journeys toward Decolonization", Walia wraps up her account. "Decolonization", she writes, "is a dual form of resistance that is responsive to dismantling current systems of colonial empire and systematic hierarchies, while also prefiguring societies based on equity, mutual aid, and self-determination". (249) Walia emphasizes the importance of concepts such as "healing justice" ("a liberatory care framework that shifts the discourse from self-care to community care", 267), "emotional justice" ("the praxis of understanding and fully experiencing one another with empathy, and sustaining kinship beyond the bounds of capitalism and border imperialism", 268), and "revolutionary love" ("love expands our capacity to engage in emotional and healing justice work by unmasking vulnerabilities while acknowledging our need for one another", 271).

The book includes an introduction by Andrea Smith, an epilogue by Syed Khalid Hussan, and "short narratives from thirteen powerful voices of color" (19) sharing tales about some of border imperialism's most dreadful consequences. All of the texts are beautiful additions to Walia's account and tremendously humbling for those of us whose worst experiences with border regimes consist of paying a few hundred dollars for a visa, being asked nosy questions at border crossings, or, in the worst case, being deported or denied entry to a nation state due to an immigration violation, a criminal record, or political activism – none of which affects relatively comfortable lives based on privileges of racial identity, economic resources, and citizenship, playing key roles in the global order.


Inevitably, I read this book from a European perspective. Although I spent many years on other continents, I grew up in Austria and live in Sweden today. Most of my political organizing experience is tied to European realities.

Undoing Border Imperialism reveals some differences in the focus of migrant justice movements between North America and Europe. For example, the connections between indigenous and migrant struggles are less prominent here (although they are far from irrelevant, particularly in the Nordic countries with the injustices suffered by the Sami people), while acute European problems such as anti-Semitism and anti-Ziganism are entirely absent from Walia's account. (In fact, I have to admit to a feeling of slight discomfort when in a book investigating racialization, persecution, and forced migration, Jewishness is only ever mentioned in connection with Zionism and the Israeli settler state, even if I understand that historical circumstances create different sensibilities in different parts of the world.) In general, however, the conditions described by Walia mirror those of Europe, where migration has arguably been the single most contested political issue during the last twenty years. In Europe as well, "borders are the nexus of most systems of oppression" (9), which manifests itself in various ways: ever stricter immigrations laws (increasingly adapted to neoliberal needs of a flexible and precarious workforce), a wide network of camps and detention centers, the militarization of Europe's outer borders (including cynical demands of North African governments to act as preemptive guards), and the rise of right-wing anti-immigration parties spewing nationalistic and racist propaganda. Particularly dramatic events drawing strong media attention, such as boats with hundreds of migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean, only mark the tip of the iceberg. The "Fortress Europe" causes a daily human tragedy of unspeakable proportions, for the most part unfolding underneath the radar of public attention. It is a tragedy that strongly confirms Walia's declaration that "the reality of most of migration today reveals the unequal relations between rich and poor, between North and South, between whiteness and its others." (39)

This makes the issue of migration also a major one in European activist circles. Arguably, some of the most inspiring of Europe's younger social movements have sprung up around it. Many of the groups involved, such as European chapters of No One Is Illegal (in Sweden, Ingen människa är illegal), radical and direct action-based anti-deportation initiatives (in Sweden, for example, Aktion mot deportation), and grassroots movements supporting and hiding undocumented migrants, are strongly committed to radical antiimperialist, and often anarchist, politics.

For a long time, one of the biggest problems of migrant justice work in Europe has been its charitable dimension and the dominance of white European activists. Gradually, this has been undermined by migrants occupying more central roles and organizing autonomously. Numerous migrant-led marches, occupations, hunger strikes, and other powerful actions attest to this. While these developments have caused much controversy and confusion within the migrant justice movement, particularly in recent years, they have been necessary for the movement to embark on the path of decolonization outlined by Walia: "Undoing the physical and conceptual orderings of border imperialism requires a fundamental reorientation of ourselves, our movements, and our communities to think and act with intentionality, creativity, militancy, humility, and above all, a deep sense of responsibility and reciprocity." (249)


I recently talked to a friend about how at least one critical remark in a review is practically a must if you don't want to appear unengaged or, even worse, engaged only in nepotism. With a book like this, however, it's not that easy. Just about the only sentence I disagree with is the assertion that "border imperialism is a useful analytic framework for organizing migrant justice movements in North America" (38) – I consider it a useful analytic framework pretty much anywhere; most definitely in Europe.

However, there was indeed something in the book I was wondering about. It concerns the organizing dynamics of Canada's NOII groups. For example, Walia speaks of an "intentional concept of antiauthoritarian and group-centered structure and leadership" employed by NOII-Vancouver (Indigenous Coast Salish territories). This includes "active consensus", "sharing tasks", roles that are being "rotated", "proactive steps to share skills and knowledge in order to build collective power", and all participants being "leaders in different ways". (197-199) There is no doubt that this sounds fantastic, yet I can't help wondering how Canada's NOII groups have been able to implement all this without, apparently, serious internal strife. It seems that pretty much all of the projects I have been involved with over the last 25 years had similar ambitions but failed miserably, either dissolving or cutting so many corners that, in the end, the ambitions were but lofty ideals with no foundation in reality. In other words, I would have liked to read more about how NOII activists in Canada manage to avoid this: either they have a secret they must share, or there should be another roundtable discussion addressing some of the problems they've encountered along the way, allowing us others to learn even more (and feel a little less inept).

There was something else I was wondering about, but it is even less of a critique, rather an illustration of what I regard as one of the main challenges for contemporary antiauthoritarian and anarchist (or anarchist-inspired) organizing: our actions are so determined by the confines of the nation state and capital that much of what we do remains reduced to, essentially, liberal politics with an edge. There is no doubt that NOII groups in Canada, and many similar groups around the world targeting systematic oppression, exploitation, and discrimination, are guided by radical ideas and principles – but that part is the edge, it is not what defines the struggles. The struggles themselves remain within the boundaries of the system, fully occupied with trying to diminish its disastrous effects. It is a focus that comes naturally if nothing less than people's lives is at stake, and it is work that needs to be done; but it does not threaten the system. However, there is hope, as many of Walia's examples demonstrate: implementing and expressing radical ideas and principles in our organizing efforts today strengthens the potential for revolutionary action in the future, should a historical moment arise when this will indeed be a possibility again.


Undoing Border Imperialism is an enormously valuable resource for migrant justice organizing, and much more than that, namely, a handbook for social justice organizing in general, no matter one's field or focus. It is a wonderful book through and through.

Gabriel Kuhn

(December 2013)