See Darshan Vigneswaran’s most recent contribution to Society & Space here: The Contours of Disorder: Crime Maps and Territorial Policing in South Africa

We can’t routinely comply with immigration controls while claiming solidarity with unauthorized migrants. If we’re genuinely opposed to and abhorred at what’s going on right now, we should demonstrate this through civil disobedience. If significant numbers of people refuse to comply with these laws, this would not only reduce their efficacy but also compel governments to fully explore precisely how violent they can be. Getting yourself deported might be the best way of supporting your undocumented friends.

Lets start by establishing a basic and—I should hope—shared premise. Immigration controls are inherently unjust. Passports and visas divide us into those who belong and can stay and those who do not, and can not. These distinctions are not based on who you love or what you know but on the ‘lottery of birth’, vagaries of power politics and—most importantly—the consistent effort by a long line of governments to shape populations to match their specific racial, class or religious ideals. The fact that many politicians – and one in particular – are now more explicitly defending these prejudices with near naked racism or xenophobia should only be alerting us to the fact that the primary outcome of immigration and border control policies has always been to spatially entrench unjust inequalities between the peoples of the world. Sure, there are times when these injustices might help to secure my personal safety, wealth and health, but they are not the only or most effective way of doing so. Even if they were, that does not make them right.

For many years now, unauthorized migrants have been tackling this injustice head on, through a veritable torrent of civil disobedience. The relative success of this campaign has not been based on unity or numbers, but on the consistent exploitation of their opponents’ greatest weakness. Most advanced liberal democratic states possess ample resources and technology to locate, arrest, detain and deport unauthorized entries and residents. However, they are loath to systematically and publicly deploy brute force against unarmed or demonstrably non-threatening people. When migrants cross borders illegally the state must use drones, guns and militia against them. When they refuse to report their presence, governments must invade their homes, and seize their bodies—including those of their children. When they refuse orders to leave, officials must imprison and forcibly evict them. When deportees return, the cycle of violent confrontation begins afresh. By disobeying the law, unauthorized migrants have not simply raised the costs of immigration enforcement, they have consistently challenged governments into open combat with ‘innocents’, and in doing so, have often compelled many to relent – or at least to stop short of the measures required to achieve full control. Now clearly, some governments back down quicker than others, and no-one knows precisely how resolute an ego-maniacal zealot will be when he has his mind set on getting rid of millions of people. But unauthorized migrants have nonetheless been successfully playing this game of chicken with the state and zealots for decades.

Meanwhile, the rest of us—authorized residents and migrants—have been actively undermining their campaign. What? But haven’t we been doing everything within our power to change this system? Voting left. Volunteering support. Writing critically. Advocating for change. And we haven’t been reporting our compatriots to the INS. That may be true, but at the same time we’ve been actively enhancing the efficacy and legitimacy of state control through our routine compliance with immigration procedures and laws. Whenever we seek the authorization of our state to leave, dutifully report our presence to a border official, identify ourselves when asked and leave when we are expected to do so, we bolster governments’ capacity for control. There are two sides to this point. On the one hand, the state only has the knowledge and resources to locate, detect, arrest and detain large numbers of unauthorized migrants because most entrants and residents offer up our bodies for inspection, identification and policing. If we did not, it would become exceedingly difficult to separate the unauthorized from the authorized; and the finite resources for policing the former would be unduly wasted on sifting through the latter. More importantly, when we routinely submit to immigration enforcement procedures and orders we help the state to legitimize immigration control procedures by giving these violent practices a veneer of orderly and peaceful process. While our unauthorized colleagues are mutilating their fingers, jumping over barbed wire fences, dying at sea and having their bodies seized, bound and forcibly relocated, we are—at least whenever we cross an international border to take up a new job, attend a conference, or go to the beach—creating a parallel spectacle, of willing submission to a judicious sovereign. Standing in line. Posing for the camera. Truthfully answering questions to the best of our ability. This performance helps perpetuate the myth that those who do the right thing and respect the law will receive just treatment. But we all know that this is not the basic principle of this system, or a realistic expectation for the vast majority of people who—if given the chance—would be settling nicely into that window seat at the back of the cabin as I write.

Our repeated—near habitual—efforts to undermine campaigns of civil disobedience against immigration control processes is made all the more galling by our significantly reduced vulnerability to bodily harm. We possess the very documents, legal and consular representation, connection to domestic constituencies, and—lets face it—phenotypical characteristics—which guarantee protection from the more brutal forms of immigration enforcement processes and which our unauthorized colleagues lack.

So why don’t we refuse to hand over our passport to an official on arrival? Why don’t we outstay our welcome and refuse to assist the state to send us home? And once we’ve done this, why don’t we wait to see what sort of violence is enacted in response, and prepare to broadcast this to the world? Sure, there will be costs involved for all of us. Moving and shaking is what we do, and the moment that we stand still and assume the position so long adopted by those whom we purport to support—in that unadorned padded back room, out of sight at JFK—we risk job opportunities, lose face and enter a more uncertain world, where we don’t know precisely how long this petty border official will be keeping us from our family and friends. But isn’t that precisely what we need to go through to demonstrate solidarity with those who have no choice but to be in such a state?

 

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Darshan Vigneswaran is the Co-Director of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies at the University of Amsterdam and an Editor at Society and Space. His research explores how the states’ claims to territory are reconfigured in response to changing patterns of human mobility. He is the author of Territory, Migration and the Evolution of the International System (2013) and hosts the Monday Morning Meetings on Migration podcast.