Conceptualizing Border Reconstruction

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Some 86 million migrant workers – about half of all migrants and refugees – are employed in the global economy. Half are women and most are largely excluded from the protections of international labor standards and the benefits of national labor and social laws. These workers are essential to national economies, but their presence requires states to engage in the reconstruction of borders.

Nancy Wonders (2007) suggests that neo-liberalism requires the reconstruction of borders. She argues that this happens in three ways:

  • Physical reconstruction: using law enforcement and the military in an attempt to close geographically defined sovereign borders to those deemed undesirable;
  • Rhetorical reconstruction: state institutions use racist and classist language to create fear and enhance policies of social exclusion; and,
  • Deterritorializing reconstruction: facilitating the flow of capital, information, goods and low-paid labor to facilitate capital accumulation.

Of course a central contradiction of reconstructing borders is the facilitation of transnational crime. Border reconstruction facilitates transnational crimes of global accommodation committed by corporations seeking weaker regulations, lower labor costs and new markets. It also facilitates transnational crimes of global accumulation by transnational corporations and nation-states seeking control over natural resources and licit and illicit sources of investment capital (i.e. money laundering by international banks) (Wonders, 2007).

In late modernity capitalist economies become more frenzied in their desire to produce and reproduce capital. A result of this is that populations become more mobile, less stable and increasingly undefined by sovereign borders. The very nature of capital accumulation creates a contradiction with the notions of state sovereignty and legitimacy (Michalowski, 2007). Nation-states have to simultaneously construct borders to accumulate capital accumulation and to protect state legitimacy. Central to both of these contradictory goals is the creation of a socially excluded, marginalized population that provides both cheap, unregulated labor and a target of xenophobia and socially constructed fear.

Restrictive immigration policies and militarized enforcement patterns serve both objectives. Intense enforcement, militarized border policing and symbolic walls reinforce the concept of legitimacy by playing to xenophobic fears about crimes, and  jobs, etc. But, at the same time these mobile populations are segregated into inexpensive sources of labor and productive sources of illicit transnational capital (i.e. drug and human trafficking). The state achieves some of its goals by a posture of strong enforcement while at the same time achieving its primary goal which is the enhancement of capital accumulation both legal and illegal. Undocumented workers are an exploitable, criminalized class; and money, the most fungible of all commodities flows without restriction.

Marginalized immigrants are subjected to disciplinary strategies that ensure cross-border flows of labor and a group of vulnerable exploitable workers. Once in the labor force they are subjected to control, surveillance and enforcement protocols that denies them government benefits, restricts their access to, and use of, public space, and subjects them to the threat of arrest which denies them any means to protest low-wages and illegal working conditions (McDowell and Wonders, 2009-2010).

In the end however, the contradictions of capitalist accumulation create more and more crises which the state has great difficulty in managing. The neoliberal state fails in its promise to provide a viable economic future for both undocumented works and its own working class. The state fails to secure its borders and the rhetorical flourishes used to justify border enforcement merely accentuate that failure. And finally the state loses legitimacy. The movement of transnational capital without interference makes a mockery of border sovereignty as does the movement of exploitable labor across those same borders. Border reconstruction results from a basic contradiction of international capitalism and creates many more contradictions in its wake.

Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


McDowell, M. and N. Wonders. 2009-2010. Keeping Migrants in Their Place: Technologies of Control and Racialized Public Space in Arizona. Social Justice 36, 2.

Michalowski, R. 2007. Border Militarization and Migrant Suffering: A Case of Transnational Social Injury. Social Justice 34, 2.

Wonders, N. 2007. Globalization, Border Reconstruction Projects, and Transnational Crime. Social Justice 34, 2.

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