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How Can We Combine Direct Support Work with Political Analysis?

Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, and mother. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2009) (winner of the 2009 PASS Award) and the co-editor of Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements (PM Press, 2012).
Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2013), 321 pages, $16.00, paperback.

One December day in 2007, two thousand people showed up at Vancouver’s International Airport. Unlike other days, these particular people had not come to catch a flight; they were there to stop a person from boarding one. Laibar Singh, a paralyzed refugee from India, was facing deportation. On the day he was to leave, those two thousand people, mostly Punjabi elders and aunties, shut down the international terminal, causing the cancellation of dozens of flights. They formed a protective circle around Singh for hours, finally forcing immigration enforcement to back down.

“This historic blockade in December 2007 is the only documented time in recent North American history that the violence of deportation has been prevented through the power of a mass mobilization and direct action,” wrote Harsha Walia, one of the organizers responsible for this mass mobilization and the author and editor of Undoing Border Imperialism. Walia is a longtime organizer with No One Is Illegal (NOII), a decentralized network of groups across Canada that works with refugees, undocumented migrants, and migrant workers. At the same time, NOII also offers a systemic critique of border imperialism. This combination “stands in contrast to more mainstream immigrant rights movements that ignore the centrality of empire and capitalism to the violence of displacement, migration and border controls” (110). Walia combines her own analyses, experiences, and writings with poems and short essays by other migrant justice organizers as well as a roundtable discussion with various organizers with NOII.

The stopping of Singh’s deportation is just one example of migrant rights organizing documented in Undoing Border Imperialism, the latest in the Anarchist Intervention series, a collaboration between AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies. But beyond being a list of visible victories, the book also examines the behind-the-scenes organizing that enabled this and other successes while placing immigration and deportation in a broader political context. Moving away from the popular rhetoric that blames and punishes migrants or forces them to assimilate, the concept of “border imperialism” examines and analyzes the processes of displacement and migration. It situates border imperialism within several larger issues:

  1. The free flow of capitalism that creates displacements while simultaneously securing Western borders against the very people who capitalism and empire have displaced;
  2. The process of criminalizing migrants by constructing them as deviants and illegals. In addition, this criminalization profits companies that receive contracts for border militarization and migrant detention;
  3. The entrenchment of a racialized national and imperial identity;
  4. The legal denial of permanent residency to a growing number of migrants to ensure an exploitable, marginalized, and expendable pool of labor.

In other words, “Border imperialism can be understood as creating and reproducing global mass displacements and the conditions necessary for the legalized precarity of migrants, which are inscribed by the racialized and gendered violence of empire as well as capitalist segregation and differential segmentation of labor” (75). While Undoing Border Imperialism focuses on migrant rights and anti-deportation efforts in Canada, these topics are just as relevant to those organizing within the United States, where immigrant rights issues continue to fuel debates and activism.

Undoing Border Imperialism is not just academic discourse. Drawing on both her own and others’ experiences with NOII, Walia explores how groups—particularly those engaging in support campaigns—can remain politicized and maintain a principled message while also working with groups and individuals who may not share their full analysis. This is a challenge confronting other groups that engage in a radical transformative framework while also seeking to make concrete changes in oppressive systems.

Walia links NOII’s direct support with the larger anti-oppression framework, stating:

Direct support is premised on the notion that supporting people in fighting for their most basic needs, especially to live in safety, is necessary to advancing the struggle. Second, the practice of anti-oppression encourages people with privilege to take on tangible responsibilities in ensuring a more dignified survival for those without full immigration status. Even though many of us, as racialized immigrants, come with our own histories of border imperialism, we recognize we must offer support to those migrants who are currently caught within the system’s tentacles. The third tenet is to mobilize on the basis of solidarity, not charity, which means that support is mobilized alongside rather than on behalf of people. (103)

One example is that of Solidarity City, a culmination of campaigns which resulted in the city of Toronto declaring that all city-operated spaces would be accessible to migrants regardless of status. But Solidarity City did not happen overnight. Rather, it was the outcome of nine years of migrant rights campaigns, including the Education Not Deportation and Shelter Sanctuary Status campaigns.

In 2006, precipitated by immigrant officials’ removal of two undocumented children from a Toronto school, NOII-Toronto focused on building the Education Not Deportation campaign. Drawing on the previous two years of advocating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policies within various municipal and governmental bodies, NOII called on the Toronto District School Board to welcome all students, regardless of status, and defend schools from immigration enforcement.1 They were joined by parents, teachers, other migrant justice activists, and educators, including the largest teachers’ union in Ontario. Flooded with these demands, the school board passed a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy stipulating that all students under the age of eighteen had a right to access education without fear of detention or deportation.

Recognizing that the passing of a policy is only the first step, organizers then shifted their focus to ensure that every local school was informed about the policy as well as how to meaningfully implement it. In 2010, the school board not only provided appropriate trainings to teachers and school staff, but also provided over five hundred schools with educational posters about the policy.

In 2008, NOII initiated the Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign to prevent immigration officials from entering Toronto’s women’s shelters. Over 120 groups signed onto the campaign’s main demands—ensuring that anti-violence services are accessible to undocumented survivors without the threat of detention or deportation, and barring immigration officials from entering or waiting outside these centers. The campaign revealed divisions within the women’s movement. NOII-Toronto organizer Farrah Miranda recalled resistance among senior management in a number of women’s shelters. “We were told that if undocumented women found that certain spaces were accessible to them, they would show up in larger numbers at their gates” (115). She noted that their comments echoed xenophobic claims that immigrants come to western countries simply to avail themselves of the country’s social services.

The resistance of certain shelter staff and management notwithstanding, the Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign won a substantial victory in 2010 when the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) was pressured into issuing a directive that enforcement officers would not enter women’s shelters or spaces for those experiencing violence. In addition, CBSA could not make inquiries of staff or other shelter residents about the identity and legal status of any women seeking these services. The victory, however, was short-lived; in 2011, a new CBSA policy authorized enforcement officers to enter anti-violence centers.

The organizing and victories, however short-lived some may have been, laid the groundwork for 2013, when the city itself declared that all city-operated spaces were accessible to undocumented migrants, making Toronto the first Sanctuary City where city services were accessible to all. Reflects NOII-Toronto’s Fariah Chowhury, “Solidarity City is a way of organizing as well as a goal. It is a way to get access to services for non-status people right now, and to involve people in the control and organization of the places they work, live, and receive education, health care and basic services” (116–17).

Undoing Border Imperialism also includes a roundtable discussion with fifteen organizers from the various NOII groups across Canada. Each shares a different perspective and set of experiences in linking the concrete migrant rights and anti-deportation work with building sustainable grassroots campaigns that continue to challenge borders and capitalism. Organizers share experiences in resisting state injustices while, at the same time, challenging individual behaviors that are sexist, homophobic, or oppressive. Alex Mah of NOII-Vancouver recounted doing support for a male refugee who was being sponsored by his female partner, who revealed that she was experiencing physical violence at his hands. “At her request and based on our own beliefs, we did not withdraw support, which would have placed both partners in a further precarious situation,” Mah recalled. “Instead, we worked to establish a supportive circle around the woman, engaged the man in conversations about violence against women, and continued to work with the male refugee in his struggle for legal status” (227).

Undoing Border Imperialism is not just for those doing migrant justice work. The lessons learned from organizers in the various NOII groups can be applied to those involved in any form of social justice organizing. “On many days, fighting against border imperialism is like swimming in glue or grieving against gravity,” Walia reflects. “But I remember all the battles we have won and the shifting terrain for migrant justice movements that has centered the voices of immigrant, refugee and nonstatus communities within broader movements” (145). Undoing Border Imperialism is a valuable resource in both recording these victories and providing blueprints for strategies moving forward.


  1. The described Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy refers to immigration policy, not the more famous U.S. military policy. According to Walia, over thirty U.S. municipalities have been pressured to adopt this policy, which prohibits municipal employees from asking or sharing information about immigration status when providing city services.
2014, Volume 65, Issue 10 (March)
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