Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Border Crossing, Rights Struggles, and Social Transformation



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Nancy A. Wonders and Lynn C. Jones. Nancy and Lynn are Professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University.  Dr. Wonders’ has published extensively on the criminology of borders and mobility; the relationship between social inequality, difference, and justice; and the development of effective strategies to create sustainable and just communities. Dr. Jones’ research and publications focus on gender, victimization, and justice policy, with particular emphasis on those most vulnerable in society, as well as cause lawyers, social movements, and social change. This is the second post of the Border Criminologies’ themed series ‘The Changing Dynamics of Transnational Borders and Boundaries’, organised by Cristina Fernandez Bessa and Giulia Fabini. 

There is an urgent need to become more future-oriented and change-focused within the field of border criminology. Scholars working within the criminology of mobility have done an excellent job of detailing the sources of global migration and the growth of external and internal border control, including the rise of securitization, deportation, and detention (e.g. Aas and Bosworth; Pickering and Weber; Pickering and Ham). Existing research has provided ample evidence that contemporary border reconstruction projects, which include efforts to fortify physical borders, foster cultural and rhetorical borders, and de-territorialize borders, tend to increase harm rather than reducing it, in the most extreme cases resulting in what Weber and Pickering call ‘death at the global frontier.’ While research on these dynamics remains critically important, it is crucial to simultaneously pursue research that examines and fosters potentialities for challenging contemporary border projects and creating profound social change to protect the human rights and human security of border crossers. 

Our current work draws heavily on our previous research on social inequality and difference. As emphasized in our chapters in Investigating Difference, there is a long history of state-initiated difference projects that serve to socially construct binaries between those who have privilege and those who do not. We see many commonalities between the social construction of gender, race, class, and other differences and contemporary efforts to construct a sharp distinction between citizenship and irregularity. The goal of this binary is to de-humanize, criminalize, and marginalize those who do not enjoy citizenship privileges; it is a strategy for ‘doing borders’ that seeks to preserve the rights of the relatively few who still have them in a globalized world where meaningful rights have become increasingly scarce for everyone.

To counter this difference project and ‘undo borders,’ it is essential to develop alternative framings of citizenship that shift power away from nation-states and legal frames and toward ordinary people. Drawing on ideas initially formulated for ‘Rethinking Border Control for a Globalizing World’, an innovative thought experiment about borders led by Leanne Weber, our current theoretical work and research considers how borders can – and are – being transformed from below by border crossers and citizen allies. As scholars and teachers of social inequality, we are keenly aware that rights are rarely given; instead, they are typically obtained through conflict and struggle. Indeed, many of the most significant social movements historically began with what were initially perceived as individual and collective acts of resistance and disruption.

Every single day, all around the world, border crossers are challenging and changing borders simply by crossing them. Rather than framing border crossers as either criminals or victims, we wish to recognize migrants as active agents in transforming borders. They participate politically by organizing protests, creating legal challenges, pressing for legislation, staging hunger strikes, and exercising rights even when they have not been formally given (see Ataç, Rygiel & Stierl;  Inda; Topak). Importantly, many citizens around the world also challenge the divide between citizenship and irregularity when they treat as citizens those without formal citizenship status, as is occurring with the creation of welcoming and sanctuary cities in many countries (Bauder). As Frances Fox Piven emphasizes, ‘social life is cooperative life, and in principle, all people who make contributions to these systems of cooperation have potential power over others who depend on them. This kind of power is not concentrated at the top but is potentially widespread.’ It is our view that the local scale is crucially important for challenging the diverse forms of bordering that have accompanied neoliberal globalization, as detailed by Mezzadra and Neilson in their exemplary book Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. In workplaces, schools, hospitals, police departments, and neighborhoods, ordinary people have tremendous power to help protect the human rights and human security of everyone. Local resistance to rights restrictions is pivotal for creating transformations in normative understandings of migrants. As we have learned from other rights struggles - including struggles for racial, gender, and sexual equality - local-level actions can play a key role in creating a normative foundation for broader social, legal, and policy changes to expand rights and protections for everyone. 

It’s important to recognize that local demands for rights are not uncomplicated.  They can sometimes heighten conflict between social groups, as occurred to some extent in the U.S. between those advocating for ‘Dreamers’ and those seeking comprehensive immigration reform (Fatahali).  Local action can also result in significant pushback and repression from the nation-state, as is evident with the U.S. government’s effort to legally challenge and punish municipalities and states that claim the ‘sanctuary’ designation.  At the same time, social conflict and the punitive actions of nation-states can also work to facilitate legal scrutiny of rights claims in the courts, sometimes to the advantage of those seeking expanded protections for migrants (Phillips). Indeed, it is within the context of such on-going struggles that significant social change is most likely to occur.

Our view that border crossers are important contemporary change agents is a logical extension of the theoretical point that: ‘borders are not only geographically constituted, but are socially constructed via the performance of various state actors in an elaborate dance with ordinary people who seek freedom of movement and identification’ (Wonders). The concept of ‘border performativity’ recognizes that bordering is a socially constructed process – and, importantly – it also emphasizes that processes of bordering can be transformed and changed. The Pew Research Center contends that if all international migrants were put together in one place, they would constitute the world’s fifth largest nation. Given the current scale and projected growth of contemporary migration, it is evident to us that border crossers are no longer just engaged in a ‘dance’; rather, they are creating entirely new choreographies that are transforming life on the planet, requiring us to rethink the very meaning of migration, citizenship, and social change in a globalized world.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Wonders, N. A. and Jones L. C. (2018) Border Crossing, Rights Struggles, and Social Transformation. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/06/border-crossing (Accessed [date]).

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