No Prisons No Borders! Canadian Managed Migration Is a Carceral Regime



In June 2016, over 45 men in a maximum-security provincial facility leased out by the federal immigration agency in Canada went on a hunger strike. This was the third hunger strike detainees in this prison had organized since September 2013, when over 191 detainees refused food and water, three of them for over sixty days. The news dominated the national headlines, thousands of people signed petitions, and the Minister responsible for enforcement was persistently confronted in public, often by Indigenous activists.

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“Freedom! End Immigration Detention” Rally at Lindsay Prison, Ontario. / Courtesy of No One Is Illegal (December 2013).

In its immediate aftermath, the Canadian federal government, with the center-right and photogenic Justin Trudeau at the helm, initiated a National Immigration Detention framework, committing CAD$ 138 million (US$ 105 million) to respond to detention concerns. Legislative changes as a result of the framework are expected shortly. Analyzing this framework, released in January 2017, as part of state responses to resistance from behind bars provides apertures through which we can understand the ways in which detention is articulated within the immigration regime and therefore can be dismantled.

I speak about the immigration regime as a carceral system, focusing beyond the detention center, because carceral systems must be examined in continuity. The prison or the detention center, while embodying the obvious node of imprisonment does not exist in isolation. Rather it sits within a web of processes: global displacement, the need for exploitable labor to increase profit, permanent immigration status denial, immigration raids, refusal of services, detention, release, and deportation. Each of the nodes in this web function together, and public pressure at one node can be managed by the state by shifting bodies and force to other points.

Immigration, Colonization and Racisms ///

Canada is one of the few settler-colonies in existence — regions where the invaders never left. As with all these countries, there is little by way of moral legitimacy for the state to determine who comes and goes. In Canada, like in the United States, Israel, and other countries, immigration and colonization have long been interlinked with the Ministry of Immigration, formerly the Ministry of Immigration and Colonization (1917-1936), and later turned into the Ministry of Mines and Resources. Only in 1950 was it given the euphemism Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The settler-colonial regime, which continues to date, was consolidated through mass relocation of settlers to conquer and hold Indigenous territories in which they entered. So while im/migrants were and are seen as a necessary part of the colonial project, perceived as machinery to conquer and hold space, this machinery is seen as neither easily available nor easily controlled. As such, the state requires an apparatus to create, that being the dispossession of migrants from their ancestral homes, and manage.

Chinese workers were brought en masse in the 1880s to build the railroads through unceded Coast Salish Territories (also known as British Columbia). Once the project was completed, the Immigration Act of 1906 was quickly introduced, which solidified into law detentions and deportations, also creating an immigration branch of policing tasked with immigration enforcement. The act was accompanied by a number of exclusionary laws that specifically limited the ability of Chinese workers to live in Canada permanently.

While the Chinese workers were brought in to be part of “opening up the West” and thus could have been in an antagonistic relationship with the Indigenous people whose lands were directly affected by the railroad project, these im/migrants formed alliances around shared oppression and shared work building the railroads. Signifiers of this connection are apparent in the way that the names of places were themselves changed. Sto:lo people mark “Sxwóxwiymelh” as a place where a large number of Chinese railway workers died of the flu. The hills opposite the mouth of the Coquihalla River were named “Lexwpopeleqwith’aim,” which means “always screech owls” but the word has a dual meaning. As documented by Professor Henry Yu (quoted by Justine Hunter, The Globe and Mail, 2015), it is a reference to the ghosts of Chinese workers who are said to haunt the area where many were killed during a blasting accident.

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“Freedom! End Immigration Detention” Rally at Lindsay Prison, Ontario. / Courtesy of No One Is Illegal (December 2013).

The “Anti-Asiatic” riots organized by white settlers (1905-1908) in response to the presence of Chinese migrants were one of the key drivers of the immigration detention and deportation regime that formed in 1906. Similarly, the current iteration of Canada’s immigration detention also came into being after the public organizing and anti-Black racism that broke out after the so-called “Just Desserts” shooting: in July 1994, three Jamaican men were charged with the murder of Georgina “Vivi” Leimonis, killed during a robbery at a Just Desserts café on Davenport Road. One of the men charged, O’Neil Grant, was a permanent resident who had successfully won a stay on his deportation five years prior. Public outcry and panic erupted, further propelled by the racist imagery of migrant Black men killing White women propagated in the mainstream media. The government moved to toughen immigration detention laws, initiating Bill C-44, making it significantly easier for permanent residency status to be revoked for committing a crime and allowing for much longer detention, with greater use of maximum security prisons. “If we can’t get rid of O’Neil Grant, who can we get rid of?” Vivi Leimonis’ brother Tom asked at a rally, despite the lack of evidence of Grant’s involvement in Vivi’s murder. In 1999, O’Neil Grant was acquitted of all charges related to the shootings. Despite this, he was deported from Canada in June 2002 to Jamaica. He was murdered in 2007, as he had feared, when he challenged his deportation.

Migration and Labor Management ///

The detention and deportation regime currently in place arose within the context of Chinese railroad worker migration and then reached its current stage amid racist agitation and organized targeting of Jamaicans. Examining the history of these two regions in the decades prior to the moments carceral system creation and concretization is essential for understanding the interplay between dispossession and incarceration. Capitalism requires a constant pool of exploitable workers, who must first be displaced from their homes to enter into conditions of exploitative and alienated work. The Chinese railroad workers came to Canada via the United States, at a time when Imperialist powers had seized vast portions of Chinese territory following the odious Opium War, further impoverishing the people, and forcing mass displacement. Since the 1980s, Jamaica has been under tremendous pressure from the International Monetary Fund to impose “structural adjustment” policies that displaced people from their farms and off the land, to the cities, forcing many to work under conditions of hyper-exploitation in the Global North.

As Mostafa Henaway recently noted, movements of migration need to be understood within the context of dispossession in the South. From 1980 onwards, the Global South has lost $16.3 trillion in capital flight to the Global North. Global South countries have paid $4.2 trillion in interest payments on international debt. This impoverishment of the South (along with war, environmental collapse, social oppressions) creates the conditions for forced migration. To ensure that this pool of migrating labor is disposable and willing to be exploited by profit-maximizing employers first requires denial of permanent immigration status and the continuation of indentured labor relationships. This paves the way for a surveillance, control and fear regime so that these impermanent and unstable people cannot move freely. As a result, there has been massive expansion of temporary work regimes and the formation of borders in a way that furthers the design of undocumented migration. As of 2013, of the estimated 232 million migrants in the world, over 150 million are temporary migrant workers, according to the International Labor Organization. That number is set to increase.

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Total amount of detentions per year in Canada. / Canada Border Services Agency (2017).

Those migrating exist at the intersection of impoverishment, historic exclusion and marginalization on the basis of gender, racialization, sexuality and normative physical and mental “ability.” This is to say that darker, poorer women who often face the worst of the dispossessions rarely migrate north and those that do are often met with the worst of the carceral system. At different nodes in the carceral immigration regime — entry into the country, denial of status, access to services, detention, and then deportation — different groups are more severely identified and excluded over others often because they lack access to the social and economic capital that facilitates the movement of those more privileged.

Regime of Control ///

The detention and deportation global regime emerges within this interlinked system of neo-colonization, imperialism, and capitalism. It does so by rearticulating the underlying logic of the carceral system that is about control, surveillance, and discipline into the terrain of the displaced. This is done primarily by developing a regulatory system which functions on producing and distributing fear. In the detention and deportation regime, the liberal framework of correction, transformation and improvement that is now needed to justify the existence of police and prisons cannot apply. In this narrative, when migrants are imprisoned, it is not for their own betterment, unlike the mythical ‘corrections’ system, rather, it is for the preemptive “protection” of the public.

When announcing the National Immigration Detention Framework in January 2017, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Canada’s immigration police, articulated its purpose “to exercise its responsibility for detentions to the highest possible standards, with mental health and well-being of detainees, as well as the safety and security of Canadians as the primary consideration.” As part of its justification, the agency produced a table outlining the total amount of detentions per year, but then strategically placed this column beside the total number of entries of foreign nationals into Canada each year.

The purpose of this comparison may be to show that few people are impacted, and thus to reduce the criticism the CBSA was facing at the time. It also sheds light on the nefarious logic at play; the border agency believes that all possible non-Canadian citizens are liable to be incarcerated. But are they? The vast majority of foreign nationals are tourists. The rest are foreign workers, temporary foreign workers, and students. These groups have immigration status in the country and so are not liable to be detained. It is primarily undocumented residents that face detention — of which there are about 500,000 in the country. Keeping that in mind, the detention rate is 1.3%. As a comparative, the adult incarceration rate in Canada is 0.9%.The point is not so much who is detained, but that the purpose of immigration detention and deportation regime is to internalize fear. Thus, all foreign nationals are to be seen as potentially detainable by the state, forcing them to live under constant threat. This fear creates a situation in which temporary foreign workers work dangerous, difficult and dirty jobs at minimal pay, getting sicker by the day, rather than walking away and finding alternative employment. It is this distress that allows refugee claimants to submit to being dehumanized, their traumas often minimized or ridiculed at their refugee hearings. It is this dread that limits political engagement by most international students and permanent residents.

For such a comprehensive structure of fear and surveillance to exist, almost the entire citizen population is mobilized to reproduce this carceral regime. School administrators, public health nurses, food bank employees and shelter workers all assess identity documents to deny services on the basis of immigration status and are encouraged to call the police and CBSA to report such sightings. A dedicated snitch line exists for this specific purpose. Armed state apparatuses work in coordination: recent research has shown that transit and municipal police racially profile and “randomly” question individuals about their immigration status, before proceeding to check their information with the CBSA, which has a structure in place to assess for such queries. These so-called status checks are heavily conducted; the Toronto Police Department calls CBSA 100 times a week to do so. As a result, the entire terrain in which undocumented residents and foreign nationals move is a site of possible incarceration, an extension of the carceral system, and almost anyone can be a proxy border guard. Understanding this interconnection between the fear regime and the collective participation of most of the public has spurred waves of organizing grouped under the rubric of Sanctuary City. While themed around the struggle for access to municipal services, the campaigns in Canada have actually focused on sub-municipal services such as schools, shelters, food banks, transit, etc. The focus here is to sever ties between immigration enforcement and the many other sites where residents interact with service providers. Successful campaigns include making schools accessible to undocumented residents in Toronto and cutting ties between transit authority and federal immigration enforcement in Vancouver.

Prison and Resistance ///

Imprisonment for immigration purposes is the realization of the fear regime. The CBSA, among other immigration enforcement agencies, contorts itself to insist that imprisonment is neither correctional not punitive. In its National Immigration Detention Framework, CBSA insists “Immigration detention is not punitive, but exercised under the law (Immigration and Refugee Protection Act or IRPA) under clear parameters to ensure the integrity of the immigration system and to ensure public safety.” The public safety portion here is a clear red herring: immigration detention has nothing to do with criminal charges. Within the state’s logic, if someone has committed a crime, they serve a sentence in a prison, and when that is completed, they are reintegrated into society. There are no public safety provisions within the law. The integrity of the immigration system also seems nonsensical, until the historic context outlined above is considered: it is the integrity of the capitalist and imperialist fear-based system that is being ensured.

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“United Against Detentions” demonstration at Toronto Immigration Holding Centre organized by No One Is Illegal on November 23, 2014.
Photograph by Cherise Seucharan and Samay Cajas.

The machinery of the prison is such that the institution itself is the jailer. Detainees are incarcerated either in provincial prison, staffed by provincial corrections officers, or in privately managed detention centers staffed by private security guards. Not only are these uniformed personnel far removed from the intricacies of the detention and deportation regime, as the CBSA is the jailer, they themselves barely interact with the detainees. In provincial prisons, where one third of detainees are imprisoned and the majority of my organizing experience is, detainees remain in their two-person cells for up to 16 hours a day. At meal times, they are locked into their cells and only then do guards enter, leaving food with one designated detainee, the “server,” who then distributes food through the hatch to every cell. It is very possible that a detainee may not see or meet any jailer for weeks on end. Rather, the doors, buzzers, white walls, faucets, and meal delivery system work as the jailer, institutionalizing the person and producing them as the detainee. In these conditions, the work of being seen and heard, as well as seeing and hearing, becomes critical to recovering humanity and asserting dignity. The node of resistance becomes the prison itself. For example, an imprisoned detainee is only allowed to make a collect phone call to landlines. These collect calls are extremely expensive. As a result, the prison cuts off connections to the outside. In response, volunteers in Toronto with the End Immigration Detention Network staffed a free telephone line that detainees can call. Recordings of these conversations are circulated through and over social and mainstream media. At rallies and demonstrations, detainees call out from the prison and speak directly to those assembled outside. Every few months, activists organize sound demonstrations, playing music and setting off fireworks outside prison walls. Thus, sound and voice, otherwise banned, circulate through prison walls.

The rhythm of the prison, its synchronization, is done through meals. These meals, served at the same time, as prison and guard, enter the prisoner’s body three times a day, metabolizing within, and reshaping the structure of the imprisoned body itself, molding the detainee into a non-person. Repeatedly, the primary tactic used by immigration detainees is a hunger strike — refusing the food and thus, the prison itself. Accompanying the hunger strike in June 2016 was the demand for a meeting with the Minister of Public Safety, responsible for migrant incarceration. This call immediately re-shapes the relationship between the prison and the imprisoned. In refusing the prison through a hunger strike, and calling for a meeting with the Minister, detainees are insisting that they see the real prison guard: the Minister, not the prison.

The hunger strike’s clearest support came from an Indigenous people’s encampment in Regina that organized pickets and demonstrations against the Minister of Public Safety. Established in April of 2016 following a string of youth suicides, the Colonialism No More camp in Regina, Saskatchewan was a four month encampment outside the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada offices. The Member of Parliament representing Regina was Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale who is responsible for immigration detention. When news of the hunger strike reached the Indigenous campers, they quickly mobilized to confront Minister Goodale’s public appearances. This forced the Minister to come to the encampment — which he had thus far refused to do — where the issues of immigration detention was repeatedly raised. Soon after these protest actions, detainee leaders were released and some were deported. Under promises to have their demands met, the detainees ended the hunger strike. Soon after, the National Immigration Detention framework was announced.

What is most telling in the new framework is that it is essentially a prison expansion program. CAD$ 138 million will be assigned largely to build “better prisons,” while the key detainee demands, that is a limit on indefinite detention, an end to maximum security imprisonment, and an overhaul of the judicial review process are all ignored. It will also be accompanied by so-called Alternatives to Detention (ATD), which are in fact expansions of the detention and deportation regime. ATDs are detention practices such as ankle bracelets, mandatory in-person check-ins and the use of probation officers. Taking place outside of prison, these expansions further the layer of control outside prison walls. The details of the project’s ATD framework have also not been revealed while a request for proposals for the building of new detention centers has already been announced.

The first requirement for the new detention centers to be built as outlined in this framework is “efficient but effective minimization of guard presence.” This is a continuation of the logic already underway with so many aspects of the space serving as the prison guard. Thus the logic of the detention centres is one where dispossessed people, denied immigration status, refused services and then incarcerated, are transformed into detainees. This continues the internalization of the fear regime that is the immigration system.

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Photograph by Cherise Seucharan and Samay Cajas.

The state’s response is clearly one of management. Detainees are released, promising statements are made about the wellbeing of detainees, and all the while the carceral system is expanded. Much of the mainstream media reported on the announcement as an improvement to the system, rather than an expansion of it. Yet, neither the detainees nor their supporters are fooled. For one, public pressure at the node of detention has created partial reforms — overall length of detention has fallen since the hunger strike of June 2016. The government has been forced to accept that the current system of immigration detention is untenable and made some initial reforms. The work of shutting down detention centers and stopping the construction of new ones is a much longer struggle. The work ahead is also much broader. The carceral fear regime of immigration, through its project of dispossession, temporary status and service denial continues apace globally and must be challenged and stopped at all its junctures. Canada has just committed to tripling its military budget, expanded its sale of weapons to the United States and Saudi Arabia, increased the percentage of temporary migrants over permanent ones, and has continued the previous government’s strict limited access to citizenship policies.

This is not a hopeless position. Dismantling the immigration regime will happen brick by brick. It requires building transnational solidarities. It will, and is already happening globally through a myriad of different points of resistance. The continued existence and flourishing of migrants within states, particularly undocumented migrants, challenges the fear regime at its core. The persistent and inspiring resistance of detainees who make up the most excluded within a Global North state while imprisoned are the sparks that will create the fire. Strengthening the relationships between dispossessed peoples from elsewhere and Indigenous peoples in so-called Canada is crucial work and is happening.

It is by understanding the logic and systematic nature of this carceral regime, rooted in capitalism and imperialism, and the dispossessions produced by race and patriarchy leading to labor essential for elites in the Global North and Global South, by looking at the specific ways in which fear is produced to manage migrants while coercing much of the public into this project and centering the struggles of racialized and Indigenous people that we can truly win.