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Organizing for Migrant Justice and Self-Determination

Fuse Magazine
Date Published: 
October 22, 2007

Over the past several years, groups and movements have coalesced around themes like “No One is Illegal,” “Solidarity Across Borders,” and “Open the Borders.” In their day-to-day work of organizing with and for migrants, such groups are working against increasingly restrictive immigration policies, the heightened detention and deportation of migrants and the repressive national security apparatus that discriminates against racialized migrants, for example through the use of Security Certificates.

At the same time, such movements are deeply connected to global movements resisting further expansion of the capitalist system and wars and occupations for example throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine that are the root causes of people’s migration and displacement in the 21st century. Finally, the integrated focus on the relationship that exists between the colonization of diverse indigenous people and the subjugation of migrants portrayed as “not belonging” in Canada, has enabled such movements to make the connections between the dispossession of people from their lands and livelihoods from the global South and the encroachment onto indigenous lands throughout the Americas. Always alert to the danger of trivializing the serious differences that have come to form between groups, there is, at the same time, a recognition that without attempts to work against the idea, for example, that the social justice demands of indigenous people and migrants are inherently at odds with one another, we will contribute to the propping up of a global system that ensures our mutual destruction.

A conversation with Mostafah Henaway, Nandita Sharma, Jaggi Singh, Harsha Walia, and Rafeef Ziadah.


Harsha: I think the migrant justice movement as it has evolved over the past few years has really been able to push a radical analysis on migration and has challenged the traditional dichotomy of ‘legitimate’ versus ‘illegitimate’ migrants. The very name “No One Is Illegal” is very powerful and rejects any reformist approaches to ‘improving’ Canadian immigration policies. Such movements have been able to articulate an analysis that challenges the power of the state to construct categories that control peoples right to self-determination and links local and global issues of migration, race, nationalism, capitalism and imperialism. However, we still continue the struggle to build a more comprehensive movement on the ground because we are fighting a system that has been successful in dividing, isolating, and individualizing the struggle for immigrants, refugees and non-status communities. This often gets internalized as the “model minority” syndrome, where migrants themselves internalize ideas of who is “worthy” and who is “unworthy.”

Mostafah: One of the major ongoing debates in the migrant justice movement is the issue of casework, which is the constant need for tangible support work- including legal defence- for individuals and families going through the immigration or refugee process. There is a clear understanding that the professional immigrant and refugee service industry and infrastructure has contributed to channeling migrant’s experiences into victimization and dependency. So instead, we try to do support work in a way that is part of a larger political context of organizing and helps build larger cultures of resistance. Direct casework is necessary in order to support those who are affected by the repressive policies of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and to build a movement that is rooted in people’s lives, but it is an ongoing struggle to ensure that it does not become simply about service provision and that those directly affected are constantly involved in empowering themselves through the process.

Nandita: I think the relationships being established and work being done by No Borders movements are full of great potential but they also continue to be highly tenuous. There is much excitement as we recognize our deep relationships with one another across the borders of 'race’ and ‘nation’, for instance as migrants groups act in solidarity with indigenous struggles. At the same time there is much hesitation to let go of exclusive and divisive identities since these are so tied up with what it means to access power. For example, ideas of being “at home” are still very much racialized or nationalized. That is, many people continue to think that everyone has some “natural homeland” and that this, and only this, is where they “belong.” This is tied up with the current world order where only 'nations' are seen as having any right to 'self-determination” but such notions are, ultimately, hostile to people's migration. Unfortunately, such an anti-migrants politics is not only part of the Right but also, in many case, part of thinking of the most radical parts of the Left.


Rafeef: I believe the same definition of settlers applies to both Turtle Island and Palestine. In Palestine/Israel, anyone who espouses the ideology of Zionism and identifies with the project of Zionism is a settler. There is a tiny minority of Israelis who are anti-Zionist and I do not see them as settlers as they are with us in the fight. There are also migrant workers, for example North African Jews and Arab Jews, brought into Israel to work in specific industries. Unfortunately, they too have internalized the Zionist ideology and despite their second-class status in Israel, they believe themselves to be one level above the Palestinians. Settlement is not only physical occupation; it is also an ideology. Therefore you could have people who are physically on the land who are not settlers, while also having settlers who are not physically on the land, for example Zionists in New York who fund the physical settlement and occupation of Palestine. In terms of Turtle Island, the same logic applies. Immigrants or others who come from backgrounds of oppression and occupation do not absolve themselves of being settlers. Immigrants are settlers, especially as immigrants rise with class mobility. However, immigrants who decide to fight for indigenous self-determination free themselves of being settlers. It is horrible for Palestinians to imagine ourselves as being settlers; therefore it is even more important for us to commit ourselves to fighting for the liberation of Turtle Island.

Nandita: To me, not all those who live on occupied lands can or should be considered colonizers (which is really what is meant when people are called “settlers”). To suggest that anyone who migrates is a colonizer is a perverse logic that has embedded within it a deep hostility to the whole process of human migration. The process of colonization (in which the term “settler” colonist was developed) refers to a specific kind of relationship in which some people attempt to destroy previously existing societies in order gain privileged access to land, resources and labour. We must recognize that not all migrants do this and that most migrants today, including many indigenous people, are caught up in a vicious circle of displacement and migration. If we see the entire process of capitalist globalization as a form of colonization, it is hard to imagine a single place in the world today that is not occupied territory. To say that people should not move to places that are occupied would in fact be an argument that people shouldn't move. For example in Hawaii there is one part of the anti-occupation Hawaiian sovereignty movement that calls for a Hawaiian governing body (that is a national state in all but name) that would issue passports and implement border controls. Such practices are very dangerous as they are not at all transformative and only change who rules rather than eliminating the colonial practice of a group of elites ruling over others. To me, that kind of movement is not going to get us anywhere.

Rafeef: I do not believe anyone claims ownership over land. Capitalism is a political and economic system that has created the framework private property ownership and ideas about entitlement to land. I believe in the philosophy of ‘indigenism’ in which no one owns the land; instead, everybody shares it. And certainly such a philosophy is not about ownership or entitlement; rather it is a radically anti-capitalist idea about living with respect with one another and with the land. An ultimate goal for me is to have the liberation of a Palestine that is not exclusionary and where your rights are not based on religion and ethnicity. This is in contrast to the Zionist Eurocentric project where Zionism claims a fascist and exclusionary identity.

Jaggi: I believe active struggle against colonialism- and for indigenous sovereignty and self-determination- is the main point here. Settlement is as much an ideology as a practice, and the only way to escape complicity with settlement is active opposition to it. I do organize on the basis of a vision for no borders and free movement. But, I have never heard of an indigenous theory of decolonization that is about expulsion — expulsion of a corporate mine perhaps — but never of people who migrate to achieve dignity in their lives. The Mohawk Two Row Wampum, which represents the idea of natives and non-natives traveling side-by-side in mutual respect, provides us with one example of a basis for understanding a relationship of respectful and just coexistence between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. “Decolonization” — understood as the active practice of self-determination against colonialism and neo-colonialism by non-natives — is something we need to actively be thinking about and taking responsibility for. That only happens in the context of on-the-ground, day-to-day organizing, and creating and cultivating the spaces where we can begin dialogues and discussions as natives and non-natives, within a shared terrain of struggle.

Nandita: We must deal with the fundamental issue of colonialism and recognize that after 1492, the relationship between people and place is crucial; is there a connection that is timeless that allows no room for migration? The concept of who is indigenous to a land needs to be rethought. For example indigenous people are displaced and become migrants too, for example 25% of migrants from Mexico are indigenous. So to me those dichotomies of indigenous/migrant and displacement/homeland are false. People need to see themselves as part of the whole world that they live in and we need to forge new identities that are transformative in breaking down the structures that oppress us, while also challenging ourselves about who we see ourselves in the struggle with. All people have an inherent relationship to land; the question becomes which land. The divisions are not between indigenous and migrants; rather the divisions are between different ideas of what to do with land. There are indigenous capitalists who want to follow the project of economic development and private indigenous ownership, and there are those who believe in the values of common use. The vision I support is this non-industrial model of common use and self-sufficiency. So we need to shift the debate from who has the entitlement to do something with the land to what do you want to do with the land.

Harsha: The crucial idea around the identification of oneself as a ‘settler’ is a way to acknowledge and take deep responsibility as a person on a occupied land and to understand how we all, regardless of our oppressed backgrounds, do benefit in various ways from this process of colonization. This awareness leads itself to the necessity of engaging in a struggle of decolonization, acting in tangible solidarity with indigenous peoples, and building greater awareness within and across communities. However, I also think we need to delink the idea of migration from settler-colonialism, which is a capitalist and colonial ideology. We have been conditioned to believe that all those who migrate are settler-colonialists because the migration of the “discoverers” is celebrated by a colonial education system. Although the distances and frequency with which people migrate has rapidly expanded; people have always moved, traded, and connected with each other without being colonizers. Therefore, we need to expand on a radical praxis that acknowledges the inherent claims to land and territory that diverse communities hold, while maintaining an ethics of anti-segregation as cultures are constantly refounding themselves. This does not suggest a simple call for ‘unity’ across our differences — in particular those that are rooted in systems of power and privilege — but to struggle from our specific locations while building genuine alliances with each other. This requires us to exercise our sovereignties differently, to think of our identities as a place of connection rather than exclusion, and to radically reconfigure our kinship and solidarities based on shared experiences and visions. In terms of the relationships between immigrant and indigenous communities, I think we have a shared experience of racism and colonization. However, I would be cautious in over-simplifying the relationship. Certainly comments such as “our struggles are the same/ equal” are patronizing and deny the current violent reality the genocide of indigenous people that is distinct from the colonial agendas we have fled in the South or are facing as migrants in the North.

Jaggi: I also want to note that the presumed link between diverse communities is not natural. The term “people of colour” is too generalized (as most folks who use it admit). It lumps migrants from diverse backgrounds, with descendants of slaves, with indigenous peoples, in a really crude way. Again, it's through on-the-ground organizing that meaningful alliances are created, as well as meaningful “identities” that flow from struggles, rather than being abstracted onto them.


Mostafah: Migration is an extension of foreign policy. Most people in the world today migrate because their right and their ability to remain in their homes is being violated by Western imperialist governments. The further South that the Northern governments outposts extend into, the further North the Southern migrants enter. The borders between the so-called First World and the so-called Third World have shifted rapidly, and the First World is equally becoming a space for fighting national liberation struggles in the South as the South itself is. An extension of the right to remain in your home in Algeria, Palestine, or Iran is your right to remain in your home in Montreal and fight your deportation.

Nandita: National liberation does not produce liberation and if we continue to romanticize that, we are setting up future generations. People are not coming to grips with how things changed with 1492. One of those things is human migration and the ways in which the encounters of people have intensified. Yet many of us are behaving as if we are living in a world where continents are separate or that it is desirable for them to be separate. For me, unless we are able to acknowledge the impossibility and undesirability of that, we cannot move forward. For example, do we want to live in a world where someone like me can only claim rights to use the land in a place where I was born (India) but where I do not live or have significant ties to? Such arguments basically get boiled down to a right-wing politics of “everybody go home,” where home becomes a static idea, which is contrary to human reality.

Harsha: I do not think the struggle for the right to remain and the struggle for the right to migrate are contradictory; I think they are the paramount struggles we face globally today. The reality is that we struggle for a world in which no one is forced to migrate against their will, and also for a world in which people are able to move freely. The reality of migration today is that millions are forced to migrate due to colonial, capitalist, and oppressive forces. However even without these forces, people should have the right to migrate and I think we need to challenge the assertion that people are only able to migrate if they are ‘forced’ to do so. In the ideal anti-capitalist world that I wish to live in, the borders between fighting in the homeland/ fighting in exile disappear as the idea of ownership and entitlements to different spaces is eradicated.

Rafeef: In the context of Palestine and Palestinian refugees, I see no conflict between demanding the right of return for Palestinian refugees to their homes before the 1948 Al-Nakba, while at the same time demanding that the Canadian state not deport Palestinian refugees. There were, for example, some Arab community leaders in Canada who were trying to suggest that Palestinian refugees should “stay” in Palestine and fight for Al-Awda (right of return) and that the struggle against deportation of Palestinian refugees in Canada was undermining the struggle in Palestine. I believe, however, that the underlying motivation amongst the people making those arguments was a desire to maintain their privilege and an unwillingness to confront the Canadian’s state’s ongoing practices of deportation.

Jaggi: Yes, in that example, the seeming contradiction is just for those who are removed from the situation. There is no contradiction whatsoever between both asserting the right of people to move, and at the same time asserting the right for people to not be forcibly displaced from their homelands. It's a false debate, imposed by people with a superficial understanding of what it means to be a migrant. Free movement, and the right not to be displaced, are two essential elements to the assertion of collective and individual self-determination. That's exactly the premise from which the day-to-day organizing work of groups like No One Is Illegal comes from, and why activists in such groups see no contradiction between engaging in indigenous solidarity work while fighting deportations and repressive border regimes.


Rafeef: I want us to imagine a struggle that is more united and less sectarian. All over the world people are calling for our solidarity and I wish more people understood the absolute necessity of political engagement and struggle. We need more people to commit to the work of daily organizing and to build a base of meaningful organizing. I think we also need to critically think about the difference between political work and simple sloganeering and constantly question the effectiveness of what we are doing and whether it is grounded in the lived realities of people.

Mostafah: I feel that sometimes our analysis is comprehensive and all encompassing, but in reality and in practice, we need to build stronger connections between diverse issues and movements. People need to come to terms with the reality that the borders of national liberation and of the global South really do extend out to North America. An effective movement must profoundly shift how we negotiate the borders that separate us and prevent us from making meaningful connections in the fight for a more just society.

Nandita: Our greatest challenge is to build a strong, grassroots movement demanding free mobility within the context of a world where people are not continuously displaced by the daily practices of global capitalist wars, plunder, and destruction of our environment. This is tied to the way we think about our relationships with one another and our self-identities. Our most effective models to disrupt these systems are those that are attentive to changing both the way we think and identify and to changing the dominant structures of our world.

Harsha: I think we face various challenges- to build more sustainable movements, more effective movements, more nurturing movements, more transformative movements, more comprehensive movements, more anti-oppressive movements, more community-rooted movements, more creative movements, more relevant movements, more emancipatory movements, more disruptive movements. But I do believe that the only way to come closer to achieving any of these is to actually engage in the struggle for liberation and freedom and to actively participate in the collective organizing to build the movements that we desire and demand.

- Mostafah Henaway is a second generation Egyptian who has been involved with Toronto Taxi Drivers Association, Solidarity Across Borders Montreal, Block the Empire Montreal, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid,

- Nandita Sharma is an activist scholar who is part of a loose network of no borders groups that challenge the legitimacy of national border controls with their regimes of citizenship and also work to ensure that everyone has the ability to both “stay” and to “move” as they so desire.

- Jaggi Singh is writer, activist, and anarchist living and organizing in Montreal. He is a no borders, anti-capitalist, immigrant and indigenous solidarity organizer involved in a wide range of movements.

- Harsha Walia is a South Asian organizer and writer currently based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She is involved in migrant justice organizing, feminist and anti-racist collectives, South Asian community organizing, indigenous solidarity, and anti-imperialist networks.

- Rafeef Ziadah is a 3rd generation Palestinian refugee who lost her parents in the 1982 Massacre at the Shatilla Refugee Camp. She is member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid and Sumoud: A Palestinian Political Prisoner Solidarity Group, and a political science student in Toronto.