No One Is Illegal: Organizing Beyond Left Nationalism in Fortress North America


One of the key struggles of the current period, one that poses a great challenge to the Left, involves state control of borders and the movement of people.  Canadian and US governments, under the cover provided by September 11, are devising joint agreements around border controls and immigration criteria.  There has even been chilling talk from some authorities about establishing a continental perimeter, a "Fortress North America."  As many commentators have pointed out, these practices are also about strengthening the government's hand in fighting the globalization struggles at a time when many sensed it was beginning to lose its grip.  This is one reason why legislation against activism has gone hand in hand with a clampdown on immigration, on the global mobility of labour. 

Increased policing, imprisonment, calls for harsher sentences and the death penalty as well as detentions, deportations and tighter borders are all signs of a culture of insecurity, crisis and fear. Similarly one might include private security forces, surveillance cameras, "gated communities," and laws that make panhandling illegal.  In this context, where markers of inclusion and exclusion are sought out, it is not surprising that racism plays an important part.

Policies on immigration show clearly the character and power of national states within contemporary processes of capitalist globalization.

A major part of the restructuring strategies of national states across the Global North has been the reorganization of migration policies that legally deny the majority of migrants the status of permanent resident or citizen.  In this way, citizenship and immigration policies play a starring role in the shaping of even more intensified competition within global labour markets.  Through national classification schemes the state is able to determine who is a citizen, a permanent resident, a temporary migrant worker, or an illegal.  This allows the state to offer up a growing and highly competitive (read: vulnerable) workforce of non-citizens to employers (Sharma, 2003).

Racial and economic profiling maintains the system of divide-and-conquer which allows bosses and governments to play off sectors of the working class against each other.  It is part of longstanding practices that drive wages down and prevent opposition movements from forming.  Border controls don’t stop the movement of people, nor are they intended to.  Because migration is a movement for life and for new homes, no border control can block it.

What ideologies of border control actually do in the context of worldwide crises of displacement and homelessness is to make the majority of migrants legally foreign within the nation state.  Most people migrating to Canada now enter without permanent-resident status and come instead as temporary migrant workers or sans papiers.  Restrictive immigration policies, therefore, do not work to restrict the migration of people but to restrict their access to rights, entitlements and much-needed protections once they are living and working within the countries of the Global North (Sharma, 2003).

The unequal distribution of rights ensured by state definitions of citizen, immigrant, refugee or "illegal" serves the interests of capital in several ways.  At the same time these differential categories harm workers across the board.  The limitation of political or legal rights on the basis of birthplace makes people increasingly vulnerable and open to intimidation and extreme exploitation.  Denial of social benefits such as welfare, disability benefits and unemployment benefits creates a precarious workforce that will take on undesirable or dangerous work and be less able to organize for better conditions.  Differential categories of citizenship also serve as markers of difference separating workers.

Migration is primarily the movement of people affected by that exploitation globally.  Poverty and unemployment result from the capitalist structuring of work that sees some work 60-hour weeks while others are left without work.  In reality, the ills of capitalism can only be truly alleviated when those affected by exploitation—employed and unemployed, immigrants and non-immigrants—embrace each other in solidarity.  This will require that organized labour work to overcome the nationalism which has driven much of labour politics in Canada and the US.  Unfortunately, as Nandita Sharma (2003) notes: "Our concerns—highly discriminatory immigration policies, border controls, racist policing, housing, health and employment practices, etc.—rarely appear on the radar, as evidenced by their almost complete absence in the concerns of the nationalist Left."

Left nationalism or neo-Keynesianism, which argues for a return to the social citizenship of the welfare state (prevalent in North America roughly from 1945 until the early ‘80s), has undergone something of a revival in the context of capitalist globalization.  In Canada the perspective of resurgent Left nationalism has been most forcefully articulated theoretically by Gordon Laxer and the venerable Left publication Canadian Dimension.  Politically, Left nationalism has been a central feature of trade unions like the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and union federations like the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL).  Nationalist approaches to globalization actually strengthen the state's claims, when what is needed is a critique of emergent state practices.

This will have to change.  Working class cooperation, especially in this global age of capital movement across all borders, is necessary for a real defence of our neighbours and communities.  Conversely, the strengthening of the state's powers and the tightening of border controls only works to tear apart our communities.  Racial and economic profiling is part of longstanding practices that drive wages down and prevent opposition movements from forming.  As Zarehi (2003) points out, border security, immigration policies, racial profiling and police brutality are effective tools that allow for the exploitation of migrants as a cheap source of labour under capitalism.

This is one reason that "no one is illegal" and anti-borders movements can be so threatening to capital.  These movements can be the beginnings of a social re-composition that resists the capitalist terms of inclusion and exclusion and which threatens to draw together the insecured with the secured sections of the working class.  In this context organizations that draw together unemployed workers, homeless people, Natives, immigrants and refugees, students and teachers offer a particularly grave concern for local agents of capitalist security.

Here I will discuss some of the projects and perspectives that have emerged from recent, and still developing movements.  I approach this discussion from the perspective of a rank-and-file union activist working in Toronto and involved in these projects.

Building Bridges in Our Communities

Among the groups that have determined not to allow these anti-immigrant practices to continue and intensify is the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).  OCAP has been at the forefront of developing new, creative and effective ways of dealing with government agencies which target for mistreatment those who are deemed to be vulnerable.  One of the most successful practices pioneered by OCAP is "direct action casework."  Unlike more hierarchical "client/caregiver" forms of casework, direct action casework directly involves the people facing injustice, allowing them to determine what course of action to take.  Unlike more passive forms of casework, direct action casework goes directly to the source of injustice, whether a welfare office, landlord or Immigration office, mobilizing large numbers of community members (neighbours, students, unionists, activists) to get whatever is needed.  Over the years, this approach has been highly successful, winning such tangible benefits as welfare and disability checks, wheelchairs, rent refunds and even stays of deportation.  In three years OCAP has successfully supported over 50 families with immigration work.

Another important development has been the work of the anti-war opposition targeting the racist anti-immigrant attacks that have played such a crucial part in the Canadian state's drive for war. 

The "no one is illegal" campaign in Toronto made its debut with a sizeable contingent in the great antiwar mobilization of Feb. 15, 2003.  A broad coalition of immigrant defence, anti-poverty, socialist and labour organizations is beginning to articulate a visible resistance to the state's racist attempts to divide the working class locally and internationally.  This is especially important given that the Federal Minister responsible for the government's newly established office of "public safety and security" has identified as his primary initiative the creation of "an Australian-style detention system."  As a growing underclass of migrant and refugee labour, including many people who have already fled imperialist-backed wars, faces increased exploitation and criminalization in Canada, the necessity of the "no one is illegal" and ongoing anti-war and anti-occupation campaigns coming together will be crucial.

These efforts of the growing "no one is illegal" campaign are building solidarity with immigrants and refugees, indigenous communities, unionists and anti-poverty activists against the attacks on vast sectors of the working class, which, under the veil of security, create miserable insecurity within our communities.  As the situations facing immigrants and refugees become worse and worse and as xenophobia becomes the basis for social policy, the need to develop creative and effective means of struggle becomes more and more pressing.

Rank-and-file Flying Squads and Border Struggles

One particularly effective means of struggle has been pioneered by rank-and-file union members recently in actions against deportations.  This example, drawn from labour movement histories is the "flying squad," a rapid response network of rank-and-file unionists that can mobilize members to take part in direct actions to defend people facing attacks from bosses, landlords or governments.  Little more than an active phone tree that any member can initiate, the flying squads offer a mobile defence force and support network.

In early September, 2001, OCAP along with allies in Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903 flying squad went directly to Pearson International Airport to demand an end to threats of deportation against three families.  Leaflets were given to passengers alerting them to the situation, and a visit was paid to the Immigration Canada deportation office in the basement of Terminal One.  OCAP demanded and received a meeting with the airport's Immigration management and gave a deadline of the end of the business day for management to issue stays of removal in all three instances.  All three deportations were eventually cancelled.  This unusual result, in which the removal dates were cancelled prior to a Federal Court challenge, testifies to the powers of direct action.

It must also be stressed that the presence of the flying squad was crucial to the success of this action.  The flying squad, a decentralized group of rank-and-file activists on-call to support strikes, demonstrations or casework actions, demonstrates how labour organizations can step out of traditional concerns with the workplace to act in a broadened defence of working class interests.  The expansion of union flying squads, with autonomy from union bureaucracies, could provide a substantial response to the state's efforts to isolate immigrants and refugees from the larger community.  CUPE 3903 has also formed an Anti-Racism Working Group and an Anti-Poverty Working Group to work hand-in-hand with OCAP on actions or cases.  The emboldened aggressiveness of Immigration Canada after September 11 makes such actions in defence of vulnerable people much more pressing.

There is more that unions could do.  In the Netherlands, pilots can refuse, as a health and safety issue, to transport people who have been deported.  This is something which should be implemented in airline unions in North America.  Instead of refusing to attend the Pearson action, as they did, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), which represents many airline workers, could have used the opportunity to discuss the issue with their members as a first step in actively pursuing such a policy.

A New Underground Railroad?

The emerging circumstances of increased repression mean that unions and social movements must develop much more thorough and advanced strategies for support.  Labour needs to organize outside of the limited confines of collective bargaining and the workplace to build networks of class-wide support.  This must include support for unemployed workers, poor people, injured workers, immigrants and refugees, among others.  In effect these networks should form the basis for a new underground railroad which can secure safe travel across borders for people seeking to flee economic exploitation or political repression. As in the original underground railroad, this new network must be ready to operate outside of legal authorities.  While community organizations can be expected to play a part in this, only organized labour has the resources to make this an effective and ongoing practice.  Labour can help to provide transportation, safehouses and even employment, all of which will be necessary.

To a significant extent, this has begun to happen as part of the networks that have emerged to help US soldiers who oppose the war in Iraq find safe passage to Canada.  In addition to transportation and safe houses, strong community support networks have developed to help resisters and their families.  This provides a key to organizing that might be extended more broadly.

Of course labour must work fundamentally against the statist categories of citizenship, which arbitrarily grant workers differential political and legal rights.  As long as these citizenship categories exist bosses will continue to use "illegal" labour for their own purposes.  As long as there are vulnerable and hyper-exploitable categories of workers, capital will be able to use these differences against workers.  Illegal workers will still be subject to harsher working conditions at lower pay without social benefits.  Legal precariousness will always be a mechanism for exploiting those workers who find themselves in such a situtation.  Thus labour must not stop at helping the movement of illegal workers but must fundamentally work to abolish those practices which make anyone illegal.  As the movements have stated: "No One Is Illegal."


Socialists and anarchists have long maintained that people have the right to live, work and travel wherever they choose and to associate with whomever they choose.  As internationalists, or perhaps more accurately transnationalists, we actively oppose national borders, which serve to divide and segregate people.  It is important to remember that this view was central to the international labour movement at the time of capitalist liberalism a century ago.  It is time for labour to remember this vital part of its history.

More recently, transnationalists have argued that this perspective must be grounded in a respect for Indigenous self-determination and struggles against colonial states which have worked to exclude and eliminate native peoples over centuries of occupation.  Along with No Borders movements, the most powerful challenge to the legitimacy of national states currently comes from Indigenous peoples' movements (Sharma 2002, p. 25).  Movements against borders in settler societies like Canada and the US must always address how statist appeals extend the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism.  Left nationalist approaches have little to offer Indigenous struggles for self-determination and land.  As Sharma (2002, p. 24) notes, national states "exist in profound opposition to the self-determination of Indigenous people foremost."  Indeed Indigenous communities have long rejected strategies that rest on identifications of Canadian or US citizenship.  Through such challenges these movements also fundamentally contest the legitimacy of capitalism.  Overall, what is needed is an honest and sustained discussion on how to embark on a process of decolonization.  While this is still an emerging project for most Left groups, Indigenous communities in Tyendinaga, Akwesasne and Kahnesetake have worked to build alliances with organizations like OCAP against the colonial Canadian state.

Anti-capitalist organizations must take up the challenge of borders at local and global levels.  As Sharma (2003) suggests: "The Left needs to soundly reject nationalist endeavours on the grounds that the oppression and exploitation of Indigenous peoples, people of colour, queers and other Others occurs precisely because they are constructed as falling outside of the nation.  What is needed in the place of Left nationalism is an honest and sustained debate on how to embark on a project of decolonization."  Those of us who are rank-and-file unionists must take up the challenge in a serious way, drawing on OCAP's example but extending it radically.  The old labour standard, "An Injury to One is an Injury to All" must be a driving principle once more.


Sharma, Nandita (2002) "Open the Borders: Resist Nationalism, An Interview with Nandita Sharma," New Socialist, 38: 24-25

——. 2003. "No Borders Movements and the Rejection of Left Nationalism." Canadian Dimension. May/June Zerehi, S (2003) "The Racist War at Home," New Socialist, 41: 21-23