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No Borders, No Walls: An Interview with John Washington

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A section of the US-Mexico border wall

John Washington authored The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond, a tale of migration, violence, and hope told through Arnovis' story. Washington is an activist involved with No More Deaths, a journalist writing on borders and migration for outlets such as The Nation and The Intercept, and currently working on his second book, The Case for Open Borders. With Harsha Walia and Todd Miller, Washington is imagining a world without borders as a panelist on the Haymarket Books event series, which you can watch here. Follow John Washington on Twitter at @jbwashing.

He is interviewed by Verso's Citlalli Aparicio on immigration policy, the use of fear, and organizing towards open borders.

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What brought you to activism and scholarship on borders and migration?

Before having any conversation about borders and migration it’s important to recognize the immediate and mortal peril that millions of migrants and refugees across the globe are currently suffering. Merely for being born on one or another side of a fictitious, political line, human beings and their immediate needs of security and dignity are dismissed out of hand. Just in the last fifteen years, an estimated 100,000 people are known to have died while trying to cross borders, and those are only the known cases. As you sit or stand wherever you’re sitting or standing, as I write this in my apartment in Brooklyn, tens of thousands of people are currently adrift in the Mediterranean, trekking across the deserts of Arizona or the Sahel, ducking Turkish or EU border guards, languishing in a global archipelago of brutal immigration detention centers and cramped and squalid refugee camps from Australia to Jordan to Connecticut. It is one of the particular, infamous, and insidious cruelties of our time that we relegate millions to suffering, death, and an apartheid-regime only because of where they were born. 

I come from a family of migrants. My mother migrated from Romania with her family as a teenager, and I grew up hearing stories of escape, desperate swims across rivers, hiding in train compartments, and longing for freedom and security. I spent a lot of time in immigrant communities — both documented and not — in Ohio, and, until I came of age politically, I thought that these were stories of the past, I thought that with the seeming settling of the Cold War — which my family nervously celebrated in Ohio as the Romanian Revolution was broadcast in 1989 — the world had moved beyond brutal regimes of border closures and denying people their humanity because of where they were born. But then I grew up and began hearing and, eventually, seeing similar stories of escape, desperation, and denial along the US-Mexico border. To witness such systemic inhumanity and not be outraged and demand an immediate end to the cruelty, is, perhaps, a more revealing question. Why are we all not up in arms that our own families or neighbors are being ripped from their homes, that people have to run medieval-like gauntlets of border walls to live free, find dignity, reunite with family? In the United States, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world is tasked, with little oversight and a long history of violent abuse, with hunting human beings for the mere fact that they were born on the other side of a line. Confronting those questions, especially in light of my family’s past, is what brought me to write about migration. 

In writing Arnovis’ personal story and further exploring the contexts of violence-ridden areas and communities, how did you navigate being both an activist and a journalist? How did those intersections in your life weave into the process of writing this book?

I spent a lot of time with Arnovis and his family, staying in their home and getting to know their daily life and routines. In The Dispossessed I knew it was important to portray their story as accurately and vividly as possible. I also traveled extensively throughout Central America and southern Mexico, and while on other reporting and research trips I’d stopped at migrant shelters and volunteered, during my writing and researching for this book, I focused all of my attention on witnessing — which is a deeply political act.

That’s to say that I don’t think there should be strict a firewall between journalism and activism. You can call out injustice and join colleagues, neighbors, and comrades to push for equality and sustainability on the same day that you remain absolutely committed to the truth, to fact-checking stories and sources, to reaching out for comment from all parties and focusing on the reality at hand and not your own political or personal persuasion. Truth — especially when it is blocked by borders or by apathy — is always political. I sometime think of my work as offering fodder to those in the trenches of advocacy or direct-action. I get down in those trenches sometimes, too, but my primary role as a journalist is to keep those folks fat with facts.

Trying to leave politics completely on the wayside, I believe, empties journalism of the inherently political nature of the art. Do I think Arnovis deserves asylum? Yes. Did I put him in touch with attorneys and advocates who could discuss his case with him? Yes. Did I hope that my book would reveal the ancient radical underpinnings of the practice of asylum and expose the politically expedient wielding of asylum by, among other countries, the United States? Yes. Is that journalism? Yes. Is it political? Of course. Is it activism? I don’t know, but it’s active at least, and I do hope it incites action.

In April, the US announced an official collaborative effort with Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to increase military efforts to curb migration. Is this new? How does this function in connection with Biden’s orders that seem to want to mitigate deportations and detention?

There are more US troops on the border with Mexico than there are in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 3,600 troops are currently deployed within the United States, and there have been repeated calls and deployments from state governors this year. In Arizona and elsewhere, DHS and the US military is recolonizing Indigenous land. We should withdraw troops from Afghanistan, we should withdraw troops from the border, and we withdraw all ICE and CBP shock troops from our cities. 

At the same time the United States is hyper-militarizing US borders, it is outsourcing militarized immigration enforcement to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and elsewhere (including the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Africa), following a pattern of failure and abuse in training foreign militaries to violently oppress and control populations. From the 1950s to 1990s it was the so-called red menace that prompted US foreign policy to prioritize ideology and profit over human rights. Today, it’s less about opposing or promoting an ideology than it is about desperately attempting to safeguard capitalism from human mobility and the building pressures of climate change. I’ve recently reported on ICE not following its own guidelines and executive orders. Friendlier-seeming press conferences and priority enforcement memos from the Biden administration do not disrupt the extreme violence being carried out along the border. Hoping that Biden will solve the immigration crisis by curtailing the worst abuses is hallucinatory Polyannaism. Popping a Tylenol as your car is hurtling over a cliff isn’t a bad idea, but it’s no real fix to your predicament. Rampant inequality and runaway climate crises — and the law enforcement agencies and militaries that remain our go-to response for the consequent mass human displacement — aren’t going to be solved by Biden’s, or any politician’s, toothy smile.

Do you see the criminalization of migrant aid organizations, such as the one you are part of, No More Deaths, as a growing tactic of repression? Or, will the draconian measures fade with the Biden administration?

I would be shocked, and pleased, if the repression faded completely. Trump was worse in a lot of ways, but DHS is DHS. Agencies, such as the Border Patrol, that train their agents in military-style tactics will continue to treat border crossers who looking for opportunity and asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution — as well as advocates offering respite or basic humanitarian aid — as threats to the nation. The system is set up for abuse, the massive trampling of human rights, and the perpetuation of death and suffering of people forced to “irregularly” cross the border. The occupant of the White House may ease some of the worst excesses, but, again, DHS is DHS.

You often describe the manufacturing and consequences of fear throughout the book. How do you see politics of fear impacting or interacting with a political and social response to climate crisis?

We need to have an honest and open assessment of the motivations of the global border industrial complex — rooted in genocidal conquest and continuing with hyper-capitalist postcolonialism — but that’s not what we’re popularly having. Instead, we see dog-whistling fear politics of “replacement,” economic ills, and “illegality” used to justify draconian immigration policies. Recently, an Axios headline proclaimed that migrants were “targeting the border,” which is not only profoundly stupid and false, but also dangerous. With incoming and ongoing mass disasters provoked by human-induced climate change, racist and xenophobic populists will have plenty of fodder to stoke fears of increased migration. Those fears result in anti-immigrant violence enacted by both state and non-state actors. 

And yet the truth is, unfortunately, that we should all be scared: not of each other, but of the ongoing disaster of inequality regimes and the climate crises. If we don’t realize that we are all in this — as in on this planet — together, and as long as we rely on walls and police batons to respond to climate crises and inequality, then we will have more to fear than perhaps our imaginations have yet to venture. 

Fear, perhaps the most deeply rooted of emotions, has immense political power. It is scarily easy to provoke, and it is a danger often not for what the fear itself portends, but for how it can be wielded. 

The Dispossessed is a book centered around Arnovis’ story - a story of migration, violence, and political and social upheaval. How did you navigate the ethical responsibilities of telling a story that is not your own and outside of your own lived experiences?

I considered my foremost ethical priority, in Arnovis’s case as well as with a few of the other people and sources I worked with in Central America, their immediate safety. Arnovis had received multiple and credible death threats and attempts before and during the period I was spending a lot of time with him. The carelessness and irresponsibility of a few news outlets that reported on his story brought him unwanted attention from the local media, as well as the local gangs. Arnovis and I had many conversations about what he was comfortable sharing with me. He not only actively wanted me to share his story, but convinced me to use his and his daughter’s names. Telling the open and outright truth of his experience was important for him.

A bigger question is whether or not I, or anybody, should have been telling Arnovis’s story, or other stories of threatened and overlooked asylum seekers — among other vulnerable people — in the first place. I think it’s critical to ask this question, and the answer will vary place to place, story to story, person to person. There is a clear danger or extracting a story, posting a sad face and drumming up fleeting sympathy in your readers. While telling and sharing such stories we must also politically implicate the actors and causes that result in such misery and marginalization. 

We are too often left adrift in stories of unexplained and depoliticized violence, and it’s critical that we anchor such violence in root and current causes. This is what I tried to do in my book: look hard at the current and historical sparks to political instability, lack of rule of law, the rise of extreme gang violence, and political corruption. I sought to implicate past and current U.S. policies along with Central American and Mexican state violence, detailing how these actions and policies are having immediate effects on Arnovis — as well as many others — rendering them dangerously marginalized, homeless, and de facto stateless. 
Besides the big picture context, I also tried to let Arnovis lead as much as possible in providing his own personal context. I’m increasingly drawn to the format of oral history — I think it’s an underused tool in journalism, and something I explored at length in a series I did for The Nation, Migrant Voices. I also leaned on it in a number of sections in the book, with Arnovis and others, giving space on the page to their own voices.

What do you think the future holds in terms of borders and migrations? Perhaps both an assessment and a vision. 

And as for a vision… I’m no haruspex, but all signs point to the increasing outsourcing of border enforcement. We already see Central American countries, viciously spurred by the United States, flout international law and begin restricting their citizens from leaving their own countries. (The right to leave your country is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) We’re seeing similar trends between the EU and northern African countries, and I wouldn’t be surprised if bordering were to increasingly happen closer to migrants’ homes, rather than just around the receiving nation’s territorial confines. 

It’s also interesting, and deeply troubling, to see what’s happening with border and immigration surveillance. Mobility is increasingly restricted and monitored in the form of ankle bracelets and apps, not just by the antiquated bulk of a border wall. In other words, the border is individualized, made to order, and the movement of people is policed on a person-by-person basis. 

Despite all of my above answers, I have hope. Envisioning and advocating for open borders is not a thought exercise. Before we get there, as we get there, we will continue to see the excruciating misery and immiseration brought about largely by bordering. Calling out those myriad abuses is not enough. We also need to articulate and work toward a vision of real justice and freedom. That vision, inevitably, includes open borders.