The Logic of the Border


Photo by Guillermo Arias, AFP

By Duncan Riley



Perhaps the most absurd notion that afflicts contemporary discourse on global migration is the idea that borders exist to defend national security. To begin with, national security is itself a vague and ill-defined concept. Theoretically, it refers to the duty of the State to protect the civilian population from acts of violence, yet in reality it paradoxically serves as a justification for the violence of the State, which targets citizen and non-citizen alike. Police harassment of communities of color, illegal mass surveillance, and torture, all are carried out under the banner of national security. Thus, for the vast majority of people, and particularly for people of color, the operations that are supposedly intended to preserve their security actually only subject them to the power of the State, and all the violence which accompanies it. If we desire to discover exactly what national security truly is, then we must go beyond the sophistic explanations of politicians and understand it based upon its actual function in society. And this function, put quite simply, is to defend and augment the wealth and position of those who hold power over society.

The violence which the State uses to maintain national security falls primarily upon the working classes. Factory workers are caught up in immigration raids, youth that face immense discrimination are targeted by “counter-terrorism” stings, and bombs are dropped on farming villages in lands across the sea. All of these acts of aggression do nothing but further empower the political and economic ruling class. The threat of deportation discourages unionization and resistance to exploitative conditions, “counter-terrorism,” to the benefit of the prison-industrial complex, legitimates heightened surveillance and persecution of communities of color, and war overseas provides new resources for the metropole’s economy. State-sanctioned violence is always a profitable game for those who deal it out.

Borders, as perhaps the fundamental component of the national security apparatus, are no exception to this rule. Borders are not natural constructions, products of some mythical urge for an abstract idea of security coded into the human brain. They are unique institutions, a particular method of establishing divisions, regulating movement, and surveillance; inseparable from the modern State and the capitalist order it upholds. It is within this framework alone that the border and its violence can be understood.

The first and most obvious function of the border is to divide. Inherent to the world of the nation-state, the border establishes a clear demarcation of where one state ends and where another begins. But this division is applied not only to states, but to people as well, and as such humanity is divided up into a myriad of petty fiefdoms. Those things which unite humanity, such as the common desire to live a dignified life, are supplanted by “the national interest,” which in reality is nothing more than a mask for the ambitions of the State. The border must thus be understood as the negation of the very idea of humanity, and it is this rejection of any universal human value that forms the most fundamental basis of the State and its repressive apparatus.

If this function of the border at the frontier is obvious, less obvious, but no less real, is the way that the border also divides countries internally. Indeed, an individual’s relationship with the border fundamentally defines their position within society. Those born on one side of the border are automatically granted citizenship and granted the rights that accompany it, whereas immigrants must prove themselves to be worthy of those same rights. And, even when an immigrant does obtain citizenship, the very fact that at some point they crossed the border, that they had not always been a citizen, ensures the continuance of the division in the eyes of the State. Further, if circumstances have left the individual with no option but to enter the country without documents, they are condemned to a precarious existence, living under the threat of deportation, denied access to the most basic social services and civil rights, segregating them from the rest of society. The border is therefore much more than a frontier between states, it is spread throughout the entire social body, tracing lines that separate neighborhood from neighborhood and home from home.

The consequences of this division for society are both manifest and manifold. The legal separation of citizen from non-citizen ultimately justifies discrimination by both State and capital. Though immigrants are, on the most basic level, simply looking for the same thing as all humans, a decent life, they are increasingly presented as outsiders, with interests opposed to those of the rest of the population. Thus, immigrants can be accused of “stealing” jobs and of becoming “public charges,” of driving down economic conditions generally. Equally, immigrants are increasingly (and erroneously) associated with crime and terrorism, a lie which justifies the extreme violence that the State uses against them. For politicians and bosses, rhetoric such as this is meant to atomize the working classes, to prevent unification along class lines against the economic system which is the true cause of misery. But it has another purpose as well, because, as certain groups of people are categorized as less worthy of respect and dignity than others, they can be exploited all the more ruthlessly for the benefit of the ruling class. Undocumented immigrants can be forced to work under horrific conditions for low pay, thousands of people can be thrown into concentration camps along the border run by private prisons, and all the while banks, investors, and corporations find a multitude of ways to cash in on both forms of exploitation. The cruelty of the border serves an end, the chief end of all bourgeois society, profit.

If the border’s existence inherently must create division, its enforcement must lead to the regulation of movement. For centuries, ruling elites have been deeply concerned with the need to supervise and control the movements of the working classes. In 17th century Europe, as peasants increasingly were forced off their lands by the wealthy, states began to pass laws which imposed harsh penalties on these “vagabonds,” with the object of forcing the lower classes to accept miserable play and poor conditions in the workshops that were beginning to emerge at that time.[1] For workers to move from place to place, living an itinerant existence free of direct dependence on a boss, was tantamount to a revolt against the fundamental logic of an economic system that valued workers only insofar as they were constantly productive. The upper classes, terrified by the specter of rebellion that the “vagabond” thus provoked, consequently sought to use law to restrict the movement of the working classes, to compel them to subordinate themselves to a rhythm of labor imposed by the capitalist enterprise’s all-consuming pursuit of profit. Considering this historical context, the modern, controlled border is only the latest technological innovation aiding in the State’s long-standing mission to regulate the movement of labor.

Indeed, in the US, ever since the establishment of the Border Patrol and the solidification of the border in the 1920s, immigration enforcement has long been used by employers to further their own economic interests. Throughout the 20th century, across the Southwest it was common for employers, during times of labor shortage, to exert pressure on the State to ease immigration restrictions and allow Mexican workers to cross the border to augment the labor pool. However, whenever strikes threatened or worker unrest grew, employers would quickly turn around and call on the Border Patrol to deport their own workers.[2] The logic of the border continues to shape social relations, as employers take advantage of workers’ immigration status to dictate their movement. When immigrants are compliant, when they accept their social and economic conditions without protest, they can be allowed to enter the country and to seek work, but the moment they contemplate even the smallest act of rebellion, the violence of the border immediately returns to the fore. This dynamic still continues today, as demonstrated by the recent ICE raid in Mississippi which targeted immigrant workers who had successfully organized against sexual harassment.[3] The border’s regulation of movement is thus always guided by capital’s need for a steady supply of docile low-wage workers to toil in fields, factories, and mines across the country, condemned never to enjoy more than an infinitesimal portion of the immense wealth they produce.

Underlying the border’s ability to divide and regulate is its capacity to surveil. Borders, whether at the actual frontier or at airports or harbors, never allow anyone to cross without first getting to know them. Guards and functionaries ask questions and examine documents, creating a profile of the traveler and committing their personal information into the hands of the State. On top of this, over the past few decades the surveillance apparatus of the border has been significantly strengthened, especially at the US-Mexico border. During the Clinton administration, counter-insurgency doctrines developed by the Pentagon were implemented at the southern border, as typical points of entry were heavily fortified with fences, cameras, and motion sensors to deter unauthorized crossing. These policies, however, do not in fact prevent undocumented immigrants from seeking to cross the border, but instead push them into making dangerous desert crossings, risking their lives in order to reunite with family or find work. But even still the reach of the border’s surveillance extends into the deserts, the border patrol’s surveillance drones and infrared heat sensors tracking migrants movements. The omnipresence of surveillance at the border has caused migrants to adopt a variety of methods, such as wearing dark clothing, that, while doing little to prevent them from being seen, can cause significant bodily harm by increasing body temperature to dangerous levels. The border’s surveillance must be seen then as a form of violence, oppressing migrants through the conditions its very existence imposes upon them.[4]

Surveillance does not only occur at points of entry; it and its violence extend along all the fault lines the border creates throughout society. Often times, this extended surveillance of immigrants is labeled as “counter-terrorism.” Despite the fact that most terrorism in the United States is perpetrated by white men, recent federal “anti-radicalization” programs in Minnesota have proved to be tools for the surveillance of the Somali refugee community specifically.[5] Further, these programs were themselves spurred by the selective targeting of the Somali community by the police, with the entrapment of Somali youth by undercover officers and informants ultimately resulting in the conviction of nine young Somali men on terrorism charges, after what effectively amounted to a show trial.[6] Aggressive policing tactics and the State’s other efforts to gather information on immigrant communities continue the border’s surveillance function almost continuously, forcing immigrants to live in an almost panoptic environment. And it is this surveillance, this unending collection and organization of immigrants’ personal information, that makes the border’s function as a divider and regulator possible.

Ultimately then, the border is not a mere security barrier, but a particular technology of power which State and capital both use to increase their control over immigrants and their labor. The divisions that the border sows promote exploitation and discrimination, while its regulation of movement ensures that the behavior of workers conforms as closely as possible to the dictates of capital. Meanwhile, beneath these processes operates an ever-present surveillance, helping to fine-tune and optimize capitalist society’s repressive apparatus, directing it against the any potential threat. Considering all this, the unmitigated humanitarian disaster that presently unfolds across the United States is the ultimate consequence of the logic of the border. If children who come to this country seeking safety die of neglect in concentration camps, and if special police units, armed with tanks and assault rifles, are deployed to the streets of major cities to assist in immigration raids, it is because the border, by its very nature, necessitates this violence in order to perpetuate itself.[7] The border and its armed guardians hover over society, another murderous institution that, just like the army, the prison, and the factory, consumes human bodies and transforms them into yet more wealth and power for the capitalist class.

However, if the quest for power in capitalist society is unending, it must eventually crash against its limits in the rebellion of the oppressed. If capitalists and politicians must unceasingly seek to divide, regulate, and control the global working class, it is because they can never smother the instinctive desire for a decent life that unites humanity in the struggle for a better world. Immigrants were key participants in the 1886 strikes for the eight-hour workday that resulted in the Haymarket massacre and the elevation of May 1st as International Worker’s Day. Across the early 20th century, Mexican, Italian, and Japanese workers struggled together in the fields and mines of the Southwest against the discrimination and injustice they faced in the workplace on a daily basis. And today as well, immigrants still play an active and militant role in labor struggles, as the Summer 2019 strike organized by Somali Amazon workers in Minnesota demonstrates. No matter how immense the repressive might at the disposal of the powerful may be, any act of rebellion, no matter how small it may seem, confronts the ruling class with a cry for justice that batons and bullets can never silence. Rebellion, for a brief shining moment, cuts through all the excuses, apologies, and moral equivocations that power cloaks itself in, and reveals the existence of an inherent value, a dignity common to all human beings that demands respect. And it is with this value, born amidst the unlimited energy of revolt, that the workers of the world will eventually put an end to all anathemas, driving the border, at long last, off the map and into the dusty pages of history.



[1] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, (New York: Autonomedia, 2014), 82.

[2] Justin Akers Chacón, Radicals in the Barrio: Magonistas, Socialists, Wobblies, and Communists in the Mexican American Working Class, (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018), 374-375.

[3] Zack Ford, “ICE Raids Followed a Massive Sexual Harassment Settlement at Mississippi Plants,” (ThinkProgress, August 8, 2019.

[4] Jason De León, “‘Better to Be Hot than Caught’: Excavating the Conflicting Roles of Migrant Material Culture,” (American Anthropologist 114, no. 3 (2012): 477–95., 479-82; 492.

[5] Amanda Sperber, “Somalis in Minnesota Question Counter-Extremism Program Targeted at Muslims,” (The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 14, 2015.

[6] Ramla Bile, and Nekessa Opoti, “Parallels Between the Central Park 5 and the Minnesota ‘ISIS Trials.’” (ubuntu. ubuntu, September 12, 2019.

[7] Caitlin Dickerson, and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “Border Patrol Will Deploy Elite Tactical Agents to Sanctuary Cities.” (The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2020, Accessed 16 Feb. 2020.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s