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At the end of March, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) launched an online book club to read Undoing Border Imperialism by Harsha Walia, a writer and activist most well-known for her involvement in the migrant justice movement, No One Is Illegal (NOII). PPF is a network of peacemakers within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) working to be part of God’s nonviolent work of love, peace and justice in the world. After three weeks of working at home amidst the pandemic, I decided to join the book club with the hopes of learning more about migrant justice and having cross-border conversations as a Canadian in a mostly American group.

Each week, we gathered on Zoom to grapple with Walia’s invitation to reconsider the world of borders that we live in, both the borders between nation states and the borders of prejudice we take for granted in our own hearts and minds that we use to decide who is “in” and who is “out.” Walia uses academic theory alongside the experiences of over twenty other activists, organizers and writers to illustrate the violence that arises from these borders—particularly violence targeted at Indigenous Peoples and people of colour—and tell stories of effective resistance.

Throughout the book, Walia repeatedly questions the categories of “worthy migrants” and “unworthy migrants,” and affirms that all people should have access to what they need for well-being. She also offers a complex analysis of who and what purpose borders serve. While there’s a tendency to think of borders between states and citizenship as always having existed, Walia reminds readers of how recent of an invention these borders are and how they came to be. For example, the border between what is now Canada and the United States is a little over 200 years old and the border that partitioned Pakistan—where part of Walia’s family is from—from India was only imposed in 1947. These are just two examples of borders drawn by colonizers, a process that tends to exclude, displace and disenfranchise the peoples who were already living in a territory. Keeping these histories in mind, Walia demonstrates throughout her book the necessity of factoring solidarity with Indigenous Peoples into migrant justice advocacy.

A further part of her analysis is acknowledging the ways that capitalism and imperialism both create the push factors that cause people to migrate and set up conditions that make it seem logical to criminalize migration. For example, the conditions of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) stopped Mexico from subsidizing corn production while the United States could continue such subsidies. In response, there was an increase in demand for cheaper American corn in Mexico and a resulting crash in corn farming opportunities. This directly influenced the number of farm workers seeking work across the border, who are met with hostility—if they can even enter the U.S.A.—because they are seen to be “stealing jobs.” Mexican migrants are disproportionately incarcerated.

Although Undoing Border Imperialism is not written specifically for a Christian audience, the aspects of it that resonated most were the values underlying NOII’s work and how those values align with my understandings of the justice work I feel called to as a Christian. NOII’s work is centred around challenging unjust social and economic structures by engaging with the hope of building a world where all human lives are valued and have access to what they need for survival and well-being. The way they go about this through both direct support work and speaking out against discriminatory policies reminds me of Jesus’ ministry which involved both community-level relationship building and challenging oppressive structures. For Jesus, it wasn’t enough just to feed the hungry without questioning why they don’t have enough food, nor was it enough to only preach about the unjust systems without forming relationships with those who were hungry.

As we shared together in the book club about what resonated and challenged us, we were able to help each other engage with the content—especially the challenges—more deeply than we likely would have on our own. While the questions and lessons that Harsha Walia offers are important at any time, there was also a sense among us that reading them together during a pandemic carried a different weight. For many organizations and churches, COVID-19 has brought up very real questions about what they need to change in order to better serve their communities and the world. Forming a group in your church to read a book like Undoing Border Imperialism can help facilitate conversations about courageous ideas for the future.

If you are interested in setting up a book club and want advice about getting started, contact Justice Ministries