What I mean when I say “The border is a lie”

I typically tweet at least once a week that ‘the border is a lie.’ Some readers may intuit what I mean by this statement, others may be less clear on its meaning. Since I have heard from some of the latter, I wanted to provide clarification. I explain below that first, it is meant literally, in that the border is imaginary, and second, that it is meant to indict the border as a purveyor of lies, in that it legitimizes a violent caste system based on mythology. 

The border is literally a lie:

The line separating two given states is an imaginary one, and we do our grasp on reality a service by regularly reminding ourselves of that. The border also holds itself out as the place where two nations cleave, but it is lying here too because those nations, like the fictional line that separates them, are also imaginary. I explain more below about why this is so.

The border is a purveyor of lies:

The border is the purveyor of lies in our minds, on paper and in the physical world. 

First, in our mind, the border reifies and reaffirms nationalism. Nationalism is the delusion that people can and should be taxonomized and then segregated by territory or culture or ethnicity. This notion is both fictional and ultimately racializing (as well as historically recent). It is fictional because the notion of nationality is both overinclusive and underinclusive. Nationality is overinclusive in that it asserts a monolithic population where there is none. While culture is real, there are no clean lines demarcating one culture from another. Rather, traditions blur into one another, and no group of people, no matter how allegedly monolithic, is without its own internal diversity (for example, a New Yorker might imagine a shared ‘american’ identity with a Dallasite, but may in reality share nothing in common with respect to politics, culture, values or even language). Nationality is also underinclusive in that people may share culture, values or other traits across borders that they do not share with members of their own ‘nation’ (for example, a New York City progressive may share more in common with a Torontonian progressive than they would with a conservative Dallasite). Ultimately, nationalism’s project of territory-based or culture-based taxonmization and apartheid of people is impossible mythology. But worse than impossible, it is also destructive. Nationalism, because it asserts that this taxonomization and segregation is desirable, also racializes people, otherizing different languages, skin tones, etc. into silos that we come to believe erroneously have biological or other bases in nature. Nationalism builds and reifies an ‘us’ and ‘them’ caste system, or racial caste systems, in our mind.

Second, this lie is not just in our minds, it is also written into our law. Nationalism’s caste delusion is reflected on paper in naturalization and immigration law. These written laws protect and enshrine the ‘us’ and ‘them’ case system by according rights to ‘us’ and taking rights away from ‘them.’ Like all caste systems, these laws exist to preserve power for some at the cost of others’ rights. Citizenship and immigration laws build a legal fortress around the privilege of some at the expense of other’s dignity and humanity. The law lies to us when it insists that this legal arrangement is natural, inevitable, and ancient; in a word, that it is self-evident. It is none of these things; but caste systems purvey these lies to discourage challenges against themselves. They need lies to discourage challenges because they are, on their face, obviously anti-democratic in their hostility toward principles of liberty and equality. We have been so conditioned to see the world as a quilt of nation states fixed by nature, that we don’t even have the framework to question it or imagine alternatives. By claiming to be natural and inevitable, these laws prevent us from interrogating them and never need to justify themselves. Only lies can sustain citizenship and immigration law because these written rules are, on their face, the opposite of democracy.

Finally, the lies written into law are made real in the physical world with violence. The violence of deportation, concentration camps and policing are where the rubber lies hit the real road, so to speak. The border is the physical site where the ideas of nationalism and the written words of law physically subtract rights from some to protect the power and privilege of others. The physical borders are pregnant with the delusions of nationalism and the lies protected by law. Their authority is used to justify and legitimize the physical violence that borders carry out. The border is the situs where the lies in our minds and the lies in our law mature into real atrocity. That is why we say “the border is a lie,” in order to denounce not just this violence, but the delusional presumptions and erroneous legal conclusions that license its brutality.

When we say ‘the border is a lie,’ we are rejecting all of those institutions discussed above which are oppositional to anti-racist democracy. We are demanding that the anti-democratic and racist nature of nationalism, citizenship law and borders is not self-evident, that it is both challengeable and replaceable, and that the notion that it is ancient is ahistorical. We are stating our refusal to consent to these institutions, expressing our commitment to their abolition, and demanding that they be replaced with new systems of democratic, anti-racist political and civic inclusion. To say the border is a lie is to spit truth in the face of power.

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Steven Sacco is a practicing immigration attorney in New York City and sits on the board of the Free Migration Project. Sacco is interested in challenging the borders from human rights, radical democratic and critical race theory perspectives.

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