The Landscapes of Border Resistance

Immigrant X

The border delineates an imagined terrain — its arbitrary nature is precisely what gives it power.

Interview by
Michelle Chen

During his tour of the border town of Nogales, Arizona, Senator John McCain got to play a real-life maverick on the evening news. As part of a delegation of lawmakers working on immigration reform in Washington, McCain witnessed an immigrant scrambling over an 18-foot fence and getting apprehended by border police. The encounter was instantly distilled into a dramatic tweet. The scene, reproduced on the nightly news loop, painted by McCain seemed almost made for television (indeed, some questioned whether the tweet was an elaborately staged stunt). But the Senator was also channeling a primeval refrain in the American psyche.

As the blistery lower lip of the American Dream, the rim of desert connecting the US and Mexico is where the nation’s deepest Hobbesian nightmares are projected daily, with headlines about “aliens” hopping the fence, traversing the desert, being brutalized by smugglers, and all manner of military-style security interventions — from buzzing surveillance drones to traffic checkpoints to border-patrol campaigns with names like “Gate Keeper” and “Hold the Line” (subtly evoking their infamous Eisenhower-era “Operation Wetback”).

The border-as-battleground lives on in the public imagination as a mash-up of the spaghetti western, Cops and CSI. It’s a final frontier, inscribed in the crawlspace between gritty reality and pure fiction: a construct of legal doctrine and geopolitical convention. It’s undergirded by nativist racial anxieties and both steeled and eroded by commercial forces that alternate between craving the free movement of capital and convulsing with fears of labor competition and unbridled markets.

The border’s fictional valence derives in part from the fact that it is the physical embodiment of a fantastically irrational immigration system. Today, immigration policy is a tangled mess of draconian green cards, family reunification waiting lists, asylum case law, and highly restrictive employment-based visa programs. And for all those who fall outside this thicket of statutes, they are labeled variously as undocumented, unlawful, irregular, or the loaded term of choice on the Right, “illegal.”

The border delineates an imagined geopolitical terrain — its arbitrary nature is precisely what gives it power. Border “security” is a measure of the political establishment’s faith in its ability to control or capitalize on the human osmosis that any artificial boundary is destined to invite. To that end, by 2014, the Obama administration will have presided over two million deportations, by some estimates.

Border security is measured by its power to symbolically cleft America from an increasingly alien and violent outside world, namely the Global South countries that have long served as an offshore repository for Western commercial excesses. The border fence — a ragged, porous barrier strung together by wire and concrete — inscribes the line between citizen and other, them and us. That’s precisely why the immigration restrictions (and border enforcement) has tightened and relaxed over time in accordance with labor market churn and economic cycles, which are in turn often rocked back by the undertow of nativist fears and jingoist racism.

Then again, the border is only as impenetrable as the authorities make it. Many “open borders” activists imagine a world in which those gatekeepers simply stop enforcing the gates, and begin to chip away at them from the inside.

Enter Immigrant X: an alternative universe of fictionalized anti-border renegades, the brainchild of a group of pseudonymous bloggers who operate as an imagined community of grassroots anti-border activists located in an unnamed “Western democracy.” The team includes a saboteur who works for the immigration authorities, along with a network of clandestine border resisters with anarchist leanings. Together they operate an underground railroad that liberates migrants from detention.

Their stories describe sabotaged raids, a network of underground safehouses. In one post, “Raid Interrupted,” the rebels get tipped off in advance of raids and share the intelligence with migrants whom the immigration agents have targeted, and try to spirit them away to a hideout, a friendly squat. In another dispatch, they use their own remote controlled drones to disrupt an enforcement action:

@Immigrant_Z Keep it in position. I crowd is gathering. The border policewoman looks really flustered.
ImmigrantX Wed Mar 06 2013 at 3:52 PM

@Immigrant_Z Take it up. She wants to take a swing at it with a baton.
ImmigrantX Wed Mar 06 2013 at 3:53 PM

@Immigrant_Z The person she stopped has walked off, good one. Get it high, she is pretty close.
ImmigrantX Wed Mar 06 2013 at 3:54 PM

In terse, cinematic prose, the group’s manifesto presents the project as an attempt to imagine a world beyond borders:

  • Your rights as a world citizen are not defined by your race, religion, place of birth, nationality or lack of. They are afforded to you by your existence.
  • Wherever you live on this earth you have the same rights as all those who live in your community not matter how or why you came to this place.
  • A law that is unjust should be disobeyed through ingenuity and creativity not by violence or hurt those we oppose or seek to help.

Written from the perspectives of people threatened by immigration law (an asylum seeker separated from her family) or empowered by it (a government agent who likens her shameful complicity in the system with a marriage to a “criminal spouse”), the stories compose an alternative reality designed to expand readers’ vision of what’s possible beyond what passes for the politics today. The group has attracted thousands of twitter followers, though it’s not clear whether all are aware that the project is fiction.

As the legislative reforms to deal with undocumented immigrants are continually watered down and scuttled in legislative chambers around the world, direct intervention from grassroots activists doesn’t seem any less realistic than expecting politicians to fix a system that has benefitted both capital and the state enormously.

Other anti-border web projects range from the practical to the fantastical.

In 2009, a group of tech and art activists known as the Electronic Disturbance Theater launched a pilot for an experimental GPS mapping tool aimed at helping migrants navigate the dangerous desert path and avoid detection by authorities. As the project gained media attention, it got mired in right-wing backlash before it was ever really implemented.

Experimental poet Sesshu Foster took a more nostalgia approach with East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a fictional online scrapbook of an East LA enclave that has been “reinhabited” by undocumented immigrants. Festooned with monochrome illustrations of antique “discarded” public transit cars and grainy vintage neighborhoods, the fantasy rail line shuttles passengers to various “stations” mapped out in morgue photos of a smashed storefront, ramshackle barrios, and a post office transformed overnight into a teeming processing center for Japanese American “enemy aliens.” Traversing time the way migritude transcends nationality, the Dirigible links multiple human habitats under one literary hemisphere.

Beyond dwelling in a fugitive imagination, some activists have used more direct tactics in the analog world to challenge the immigration regime. While many migrants are fearful of even participating in street protests, for fear of exposing themselves to arrest and possibly deportation, some immigrant youth have escalated their anti-deportation activism be plunging head-first into the system.

In recent months, several youth have infiltrated detention centers to report on the dismal conditions and dysfunctional bureaucracy from the inside. There are also real-life analogues to the saboteur approach of Immigrant X. Earlier this year, following the shuttering of a refugee camp in Calais, France, anarchist volunteers were reported to have made “regular trips to France to give would-be migrants sleeping bags, phones, bikes, books, food, and help them to find squats.”

These actions reflect the inspiration of various anti-border initiatives that have sprung up over the past decade in Europe. The NoBorder Network (now inactive) emerged in the early 2000s to advance grassroots anti-border initiatives across the continent, like pressure campaigns against airlines complicit in deportations. Activists have since carried on that ethos with civil resistance campaigns operating inside the European Union (which technically is supposed to allow relatively free transborder mobility) and at the “external borders” between “Fortress Europe” and Global South nations, activists have launched various direct actions like “no border” camps promoting migrant solidarity, and protest flotillas on the Mediterranean in defense of migrants who attempt the perilous sea journey to southern Europe. The grassroots group FrontExplode (a play on the EU border patrol FRONTEX) has staged protests at airports against refugee expulsion flights.

Compared to the monstrous scope of the immigration enforcement regimes around the world, these pro-migrant micro-aggressions may be dismissed as a nuisance by authorities. But if McCain’s live-tweeting of a single border ensnarement can spark a media flurry, the next battlelines in the immigrant justice struggle will be waged on a digital horizon.

I recently spoke with Immigrant X from his location — somewhere in northern Europe — to talk about why social media and the online world might be an ideal arena for envisioning more militant resistance to borders and xenophobia. Though X did not want his actual name disclosed, he did reveal that he has been a humanitarian aid worker for over a decade, working in conflict zones in Africa and South Asia. His partners in the project are one fellow humanitarian worker as well as a third collaborator who “works in the immigration system.”

Michelle Chen

What was the genesis of Immigrant X? How did you come up with the idea?

Immigrant X

For a long time, I wanted to do a project on immigration but could not figure a viable way to do it. Two years ago I had just finished a project using social media that looked at the marketing of international aid;  the argument was that marketing can influence the program decisions of non-governmental organizations (or any organization for that matter). I created an organization and staffed it. It was primarily satirical. People that followed would be caught unaware and then finally click to the fact the organization was not real.  I thought I could do something similar for immigration.

With Immigrant X I wanted to flip this idea on its head. Start with an organization that clearly states that it is not real and let people wonder if there is more behind the façade that is real or could be real. The intention is to provide content that is very believable and engaging. So not just to be a website of an activist group, but to honestly look at the people behind the group itself. The site and Twitter characters are an environment to tell a story with a beginning a middle and an end. I also knew that this project was quite big and wanted to include other people to make it work.

The social media presence is something very alive to write fiction in. There is an immediate reaction and engagement with an audience (many who don’t know they are an audience). I think social media gets people to engage with ideas in a different way. It is more a one on one conversation with the writer who may have to justify or modify the story in real time. It is not just writing in fact but often a sort of performance.

Michelle Chen

Your project seems to intrigue many because it creates an imaginary space in which people can envision an immigrant-led insurgent movement tha goes far beyond the reform rhetoric in many countries. Why do you think it’s necessary to push those boundaries?

Immigrant X

I think you have a really key point in your question. The Immigrant X characters see no hope of reform. They see that direct action, which is non-violent and disrupts the immigration system, is the only moral and viable choice they have. Through civil disobedience they try to give “illegal immigrants” the chance to have the freedoms that should be normal. I wanted Immigrant X to present an alternative world that could be debated and maybe made a possibility one day.

The debate on immigration I personally feel has gone backwards. What was once impossible to say is now possible in public. This change has been swift in the last fifteen years. Racially charged and intolerant rhetoric has always been a part of public discourse but popular far right political parties are now the mainstream in most European countries and so this intolerant discourse is now commonly in the mainstream media. I think there are some organisations that want to push these boundaries but they are under resourced and small. That is why Immigrant X is described as faction. Groups are doing similar things to Immigrant X, actively resisting (but for a limited time usually). We describe what could be real but would be very difficult to tell if it weren’t fiction. That is what I hope that Immigrant X can open up a bit of a different discussion.

Michelle Chen

Your site could be seen as misleading or trivializing the issue by some activists who can’t or won’t engage in the kinds of radical actions you describe in your stories. What do you say to people who might not see the point of using fictional narratives to think about other ways of resisting the system?

Immigrant X

Yes, this is the big danger for us that we are seen as hoax or trivialising the efforts of activists who are taking substantial risks. Endangering their own security and often victimized by law enforcement or harassed and are marginalised in their communities. The other danger is that we are seen to be promoting a new dangerous form of activism. The story, as it moves along, will show the implications of this form of activism.

To me the point of using a fictional narrative is to explore the issues related to direct action that is character based. The costs and benefits are explored through the characters with an audience who can think along with the writers. That it is an organic process is the main justification I see.

Michelle Chen

You state your location only as a “Western democracy.” Why is it important that your narrative is not tied to a specific place or government?

Immigrant X

The location of a “Western democracy” was used so that it would be more difficult to target our group by the police or intelligence services. That we are clearly describing actions in theoretical locations is safer. The issues surrounding immigration and the form of resistance we describe are transnational. It could be Australia, Canada, US, France, Sweden, etc. Since the 1990s, western governments have learnt from each other and have put in place increasingly stricter measures to control migration across borders. At the same time it has become increasing more dangerous and the creation of extra-territorial borders creates another platform for abuse and extortion.

The Netherlands is considering at present the use of more administrative deportations without due process (or for all intents and purposes the chance of due process). Detention centres are being built with private contractors. So the immigration industrial complex has a global reach. This does impact policy. I narrative by governments is being written on immigration where human rights seem of little concern as well. There are also counter forces at work in all countries with different arms of government treating immigrants differently (some humanely, some not). Counter forces where local civic entities have different policies from one town/city to another area are a common theme.

The US is big and maybe has similarities to Europe as a whole. “Illegal immigration” supply routes are primarily through North Africa through southern Europe. Policies in Italy are have become harsher and administrative deportations have become the norm (as on your southern border). At the same time as in Italy, French immigrant groups have become more vocal and have taken stands in the last few years against oppressive labor conditions (similar to US and have copied the “day without immigrants” strikes). Many issues are local but many are certainly transnational. Border enforcement agencies also have similar propaganda machines it seems. Stories about criminal aliens safely sent home and whatnot.

So I thought that being an organization without location would give us more room to move. It also would be possible to land somewhere if it were really necessary for the story.