Why Do We Have Borders, Anyway?

Trump's travel ban and the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East raise the question of whether it makes sense to divide the world into neat little packages in the first place.
May 22, 2017, 4:42pm

During arguments in federal appeals court last week, a lawyer representing Hawaii argued that Donald Trump's travel ban for people from certain Muslim-majority countries was simply beyond the pale. "The government has not engaged in mass, dragnet exclusions in the past 50 years," former Obama administration solicitor general Neal Katyal said, referring to the president's (still blocked) ban of a "whole class of people" as "something new and unusual."


It's been looking for some time now like Donald Trump's most notorious policy will make it all the way the US Supreme Court. But even under Barack Obama, the United States was pretty damn inaccessible to a "whole class of people": the world's poor, who often can't afford travel visas and have traditionally been legally and customarily excluded from immigrating. The fact is we live on a planet that has largely come to accept and operate within a system of defined and militarized borders. So even if you abhor his shameless appeals to nativism, Trump's ban (cruelly) reinforces a concept almost everyone you know buys into.

But should they?

Reece Jones, associate Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of the recent book Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, isn't so sure. He thinks getting rid of borders should be your ultimate goal if you believe in human rights for all people—and that recognizing and reckoning with the system of borders itself is essential to dismantling it.

I recently spoke with Reece about how to make sense of debates about the Muslim ban and Trump's proposed wall given the way borders have worked over the centuries, and what it means to be alive when the international border system is at a violent crossroads.

VICE: Why should we be paying attention to borders as a concept right now?
Reece Jones: I've been studying borders for 15 years, and over that time, I've noticed two big trends. The first is the construction of border infrastructure, the deployment of a lot more agents at borders, the construction of walls at borders—the spending of a lot more money on borders. In the 1990s, there were 15 border walls around the world. Today, there's almost 70 of them.


I also noticed this really troubling trend of the dramatic increase of the number of people dying at borders. If you look at the data from the 1980s or 1990s, we're talking about maybe a few hundred deaths per year at borders globally. It just wasn't something that [widely] existed: civilians dying trying to cross a border. By the mid 2000s, that number was 1,500 to 2,000 people dying per year, and of course that number has gone up even more dramatically in the past few years. In 2015, there were more than 5,000 deaths at borders; in 2016, a staggering 7,500 people died or went missing trying to cross a border. That's why I decided to write this book: to think about why are so many people dying at borders and what the connection is between borders and this violence that surrounds them.

Most of us know what some of that violence looks like: military guards at the border, or migrants killed or injured by negligent or abusive smugglers. But in the book, you refer to a much broader conception of what makes borders dangerous.
There are different types of border violence. There's obviously direct violence carried out by border guards, where they kill people trying to pass through border spaces. We see that on the US-Mexico border: There have been something around 35 or 36 people since 2010 killed at the US-Mexico border by the US Border Patrol. The Indian border security force is notorious for killing people at its edges: More than a thousand Bangladeshis have been killed by the India's border security force in the past 15 years. That's a very violent border with direct violence carried out by the border agents.


But borders are also an example of structural violence, of using a system of laws and regulations that deprive other people of opportunities through the imposition of borders. The other ways borders are violent emerge from those structural factors. To me, the act of creating a border is inherently violent. If you draw a line and say, "What's on this side of the line is mine and what's over there is yours," that relies on the threat of violence. If someone violates that and comes into the space that's yours, eventually the only option is to use some sort of force to move them out. It relies on the implicit claim that violence will eventually be enacted to enforce that claim. Border guards are the most obvious iteration of that, but the whole legal system is based on the same sort of logic of implied violence.

The way that most people die crossing a border, however, is not at the hands of a border guard, but instead it's because of all the infrastructure that has been built at borders. Because of the walls and the guards that are there, people are funneled to more dangerous places to cross. Instead of being able to cross from Tijuana to San Diego as many people in the 1950s and 1960s would have done, today those sections of the border are quite closed. So instead, people have been funneled to these much more remote places to cross the border. And indeed that's the strategy of the border patrol: Their documents talk about making it harder to cross the border in order to deter people from crossing. I would read that to say, "We are going to kill some people who try to cross the border by making it really dangerous to cross, with the hope that will convince other people not to make this dangerous trip." That's why there are so many people dying today at borders; that's why, in 2016, despite all of this focus on people on security and even humanitarian policing in the Mediterranean, there were nevertheless the most deaths ever last year.


When and why did the borders we all know begin to emerge in the first place?
We tend to think of borders as if they are these natural things that have always existed. But of course the idea of borders and the idea of having countries is a very recent phenomenon. It's something that's emerged really in just the past few hundred years, and in a lot of the world, the last 50 years or 75 years since World War II. It's really a new and somewhat radical experiment for thinking about the relationship between people and land.

The history of borders and maps are very closely tied to each other. It's not by chance that the system of borders that we have today emerges as cartography advances the ability of people to depict the world at a very large scale, because then it becomes possible to draw lines on maps and to then use those lines to make claims of control over territory. There were, of course, in the distant past, edges to the control of different groups, but they weren't depicted on maps, and they weren't fixed lines in the way that we imagine them today. That system really comes into being in the late 1600s in Europe and is spread around the world through colonialism. As Europe colonizes the rest of the world they change the political systems there to match their system of borders, territory, and sovereignty.

There are periods where that system starts to break down. That can be most obviously visualized with Germany in the 1930s. So after World War II, the idea of the United Nations is to create what is essentially a global clearinghouse to systematically establish the borders of all of the countries around the world. When a state joins the UN, they have to agree to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all the other member states: It essentially forces all countries to respect each other's borders. After WWII and after the period of decolonization that followed through the 1970s, borders have been really quite fixed.


Primarily, a system of borders is a system for controlling resources, it's a system for controlling people, and it's particularly a system for excluding other people from access to those resources. It protects some sort of privileges that have accrued in a particular place—whether that's control of the resources, wealth, or a set of cultural or political practices in that place—and it excludes other people from the ability to have access to it.

But some things can still move freely in this system. Labor is trapped, people are trapped, but money isn't. What's that got to do with the rise of populist types in the West like Trump?
The current system is what we term "globalization," but globalization is really only for capital. I's for consumer goods; it's for the wealthy to be able to move freely around the world. Consumer goods and corporations very easily cross borders. As corporations are accessing lower wage labor in other places around the world to make quite expansive profits, there's the need to contain labor, because if people have the opportunity to move to another place where there are higher wages, they would do that, and indeed millions of people are doing that right now. So border restrictions are about precisely that: containing labor and keeping people who would otherwise move to a place with higher wages in a poorer place in order to suppress wages there and to maintain that pool of low-wage, low-skill labor.


It's bad for workers on both ends of it: Workers in other places are trapped where they are, have no other option but to take a really low wage job with often really poor conditions. It's bad for workers in the US and Europe as well because the jobs they used to have that had been protected by labor unions, had pensions, had healthcare, had relatively high wages—those jobs have disappeared as manufacturing jobs have moved abroad.

In some ways, Trump's political moment is a reaction against this exact problem. My suggestion would be to open up movement for people and allow labor to move freely around the world, which would stabilize wages and would remove the incentives for companies to move jobs to other places. The huge advantages built in the current system for corporations would be undermined if labor could move freely. Of course, Trump's solution is the opposite: It's to contain both labor and capital. He's trying to close borders to trade and put limits on the ability of corporations to move across borders. So it's seeing the same problem but suggesting the exact opposite solution.

Watch our chat with a Vermont mayor trying to welcome refugees from Syria.

What does resistance to that border regime realistically look like? What are the roles for migrants and non-migrants?
I have a passport, and I travel, and in the process, I submit to this whole system that I'm critical of, and it's definitely a bit of a conundrum. There are millions of people on the move right now who are contained by these rules of citizenship, by borders and walls and the security apparatus, but nevertheless are ignoring it and deciding to go ahead and move anyway, using their feet to protest the unjust system of immigration control that we have. So in a lot of ways they are the real activists who are questioning and raising concern about the system of using borders to protect privileges and perpetuate inequality.

There are, of course, a lot of other people doing things as well. There are organizations like No One is Illegal that provide help for people without documents and assist with legal aid. There are "No Borders" activists who also do things to facilitate people on the move. There's a number of apps for smartphones that help people with information on how to access safe passage. There's the Watch the Med project in the Mediterranean that's a number that people can call if they're in distress. There are people providing sanctuary for people who don't have documents. All of these are steps to question the legitimacy of the current rules that we have limiting the movement of other people.


Do you see the mainstream consensus starting to be challenged at all, with a shift toward questioning borders? Is that one way to look at the uproar against Trump's travel ban?
I was definitely heartened by the protests that rose up in response to Trump's Muslim ban and wall plans. In some ways, it's interesting to me that people are so riled up about this Muslim ban, for example, but they seem to be OK with all these other sorts of movement restrictions. What does this ban really do? It restricts the entrance of some elite people from these six or seven countries who were in the past able to get visas to come to the US. If you look at many of these countries, the rejection rates on visas to the US were already more than 50 percent. And the people who were even able to apply for those visas were [often] the elite. So the poor of these countries were already [effectively] banned from coming to the US.

Still, it's an issue that not that many people were talking about ten years ago. I think that the global discussion has really changed dramatically since 2006, when all of those senators voted for that original wall on the border. And my guess is that if that vote were to be held again today that none of them would vote for it even in the more limited form that they thought they were voting for at the time.

My hope is that now people have been awoken to the exclusion that happens at borders that they will start to question more of the restrictions that happen in these places. I think you see that happening. People are talking about the problems with borders. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said last year that "borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians." It's not like he's some obscure guy saying that.

But given the reactionary sentiment around the world, the sort of retreat by some major Western democracies, aren't borders as indelible as ever in human culture?
These systems are always changing. Two hundred years from now, the people who are alive at that time are not going to be living in the world of states we have today. It's going to change. For me, it's going to change upward. We're going to have some sort of a system that can address a lot of these global issues that have emerged. The idea of these separate countries with absolute sovereignty over territory is an idea that's waning at the moment. And there are certainly reactions against it waning—and you see that with the nationalist fervor in a number of countries. But just because people are afraid of that change does not mean that change is not going to come.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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