Undocumented International: Introduction



Sans Papiers Im Media Funambulist
Picketing of the Third collective of Sans-Papiers in Paris in August 1997. / Photo by Gérard Vidal, archives of Agence IM’média.

Welcome to the 51st issue of The Funambulist, which is also the second issue we are publishing in anglophone and francophone versions. In French, the term “marronnier” (chestnut tree) designates a topic that regularly appears—in a neither surprising nor risky way—in print publications. A quick glance at this issue could perhaps trigger a sense as such, a somewhat dull familiarity in leftist magazines and journals. The border, its egregiousness, its crossing, and the subsequent intense precariousness lived within hostile societies, be it Fortress Europe, Britain, North America, or Australia… Questions around the practice of hosting, of welcoming, of supporting… Debates around whether the appropriate name for those who live through this structural violence should be “migrant,” “refugee,” “exile,” etc. All these sound too familiar and are not prioritized for discussion in the following pages. 

This issue, on the contrary, is determined to look at the spaces of the border regime well beyond the border itself (on both of its sides), while simultaneously looking at what the border crosses rather than at the people who cross it. It is dedicated to centering undocumented people’s autonomous political organizing beyond their interactions with the documented population (including Global North anti-racist activists who, for many, are born with a citizenship their parents or grandparents did not have). And finally, this issue deliberately favors a discourse that distinguishes between undocumented/documented (without essentializing one or the other) from an often-assumed opposition between migration and Indigeneity, or even an automatic association between being undocumented and migration, as we will detail further.

The spaces of the border regime ///

Throughout this issue, the use of “border regime” is deliberate. It forces us to think of the border not as a line on a map, but rather, as a system that conditions most aspects of societies that have either implemented it or are complicit in its implementation. Spaces of the border regime extend from the cruel cells of a detention center, to the kitchen at the back of a restaurant; from the office of an abusive public servant who may or may not stamp a piece of paper, to the emergency room of a hospital that may or may not ask for identification; from the crowded bedroom of an expensive yet shitty hostel, to the dust of a potentially lethal construction site; from an office’s dirty bathrooms “that aren’t gonna clean themselves,” to the seat of a bicycle in a rainy European street because Uber’s gotta eat… The border regime is present in the sound of knocking at the door by an unannounced guest, in the tears for loved ones whose funerals “back home” are unattainable, in the furtive vision of a police car in one’s rear view mirror… 

The spaces of the border regime are not only present on one side of the border. As Harsha Walia describes in our conversation in this issue, border policing is externalized by fortress states to other states (Mexico, Libya, Morocco, Niger, Serbia…), which often enters into the economization of lives, implied by border policies for their own political calculus (Turkey and Belarus in particular). This externalization of the border regime is indissociable from the geopolitical balance of power created by colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism. 

Our insistence on the spaces of the border regime, beyond the space of the border itself, is not to say that the often-deadly crossing of the line—through the abysses of the Mediterranean or the Mozambique Channel, the arid lands of the Sonoran or Sinai deserts or the wetlands of Belarus, Bengal or Pas-de-Calais—does not constitute the most egregious forms of violence towards people. But rather, that this regime extends well beyond the act of crossing. Or that sometimes, it does not even involve any crossing, as we’ll see further. 

Importantly, it’s not just the people who cross the border, the border also crosses the people. It crosses through historical relatives like in Ayiti (or Papua), where a wall now deepens the Hispaniola colonial project in its separation of Haitians and Dominicians, as we are reminded by Lauda Virginia Vargas. It crosses the Comoros archipelago by separating the three independent islands from Mayotte, sustaining a French occupation that creates undocumented people in their own country, and engineering a massive vulnerability to death in their passage between an island to another, as described by Maëva Amir. On the North American continent, the infamous militarized wall that separates the United States of America from the United Mexican States also crosses thousands of kilometers of Indigenous land. In October 2023, I documented partially the wall’s materiality from El Paso–Ciudad Juárez (roughly its central point) to San Diego–Tijuana. When I drove along the border for hours, not seeing any breaches into it, an actual understanding (not merely a vague theory) of the continental dimension of the Wall was triggered… In other words, it is this militarized architecture that splits an entire continent into two parts. 

As I have often argued in these pages, architecture has a propensity to materialize political regimes that control bodies: if architecture is indeed the discipline that organizes bodies in space, it is never more proficient than when its function is to prevent access, from one side of its walls to certain groups of people. Nothing is easier for architecture than to embody the militarized extrusion of a settler colonial line traced on a map. It is so easy to understand this architectural embodiment, so much so that it can become a three-word slogan for the US presidential campaign of a proto-fascist candidate: “Build. That. Wall.” The Wall itself did not wait for this candidate to actually become president in 2016, for it to be built—my first encounter with it was during a visit to its most western materialization, built during Bush’s US administration, on the beach separating Tijuana from San Diego. 

Established in 1848, when the 27-year-old United Mexican States had to relinquish 55% of its colonized territory to the 72-year-old United States of America, the border follows the Rio Grande in its eastern part and a seemingly-arbitrary trace, characterized by the colonial straight line on its western half. Although the current imbalance in geopolitical power (particularly illustrated by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement) makes it hard to paint both settler colonies with the same brush, this differentiation is not particularly significant for Indigenous nations, whose lands were split into two parts. This is the case of the Kumeyaay, the Cocopah, the Tohono O’odham, and the Chiricahua nations.

The photos shown in this introduction should therefore not be read as the unfortunate militarization of a somewhat legitimate border between two somewhat legitimate nation states, but rather as the architectural split of Indigenous lands and their ecosystems. 

Map Us Mexico Border Funambulist
Documentation of the US-Mexico militarized border crossing through Indigenous land. Please note that the six Indigenous nations shown on the map were chosen for their relationship with the border and are in no way exhaustive to the region. / Map (using native-land.ca as reference) and photos by Léopold Lambert (2014–2023).

The Undocumented autonomous struggle ///

Two pitfalls are worth describing when addressing this topic. The first one is the essentialization of the undocumented person as a receptacle for documented people’s help. Of course, the many (more or less politicized) initiatives by documented people—to provide shelter, food, cell phone chargers, or even to cross the borderlands—should be celebrated and supported. Yet, those acts need to be understood for what they are: not as charitable help for inapt bodies, but rather, humble contributions to dismantling the violent border regime. The visuality of people incapacitated by this violence (fatigue, injuries, overload of baggage, exhaustion, mourning, anger…) has penetrated so thoroughly our imaginaries that it has uniformized the trajectory through which one becomes undocumented. It has stripped the undocumented person from any sort of political agency, turning it into a subject of apolitical benevolence or aversion. Like all essentializing processes, it also considers this figure without time and mutability. These presumptions can somewhat conceptualize the possibility of someone undocumented acquiring an administrative right to remain where they live, yet can still fail to see the reversibility of this decision—as we have seen with the 2018 Windrush scandal in Britain for instance. Importantly, these essentializations do not fundamentally challenge the very foundations of this regime, which either grants or refuses to grant such a “right” depending on its own interests. 

The other pitfall has to do with how some of our antiracist struggles are formulated, where a nomenclature related to the concept of “rights” or the legal/illegal framework are often used. In doing so, the subject we create, who is implied to benefit from our antiracist efforts, is a citizen. An obvious incarnation of this can be found in the use of the denomination “African American” when engaging with the Black struggle for liberation in the United States. As all civil rights struggles have fought against various legal forms of subcitizenry, it is of course understandable how this designation of a group of people came to be, and judging it from our contemporary times may not be such a productive position to take. Yet, insisting on this framing of “African American” fails to integrate the close-to-five million Black people in the US who are not citizens, particularly those of them who are undocumented or live with a revocable status.

More generally, the current generation of activists organizing against structural racism in the Global North tends to be primarily composed of people who are citizens of the state under which they live. This results sometimes in the dissociation of the struggle for visa-precarious foreigners and more particularly, for undocumented people. Of course, this dissociation is not always deliberate, but it partially results from the political framework through which we conceptualize our struggles. This does not necessarily mean that the undocumented struggle is weakened by such a dissociation; its autonomy from the “white left” has necessitated some strong actions, and its autonomization from citizen-led anti-racist struggles has allowed it to deploy an agenda specific to the political conditions through which undocumented people live. Yet, it can still be regrettable that political battles with so much commonality between their political imaginaries, aspirations, adversaries, and often, their diasporic belonging, do not always manage to put such a commonality to mutual benefit.

Gilets Noirs Abib Funambulist
Occupation of the French Pantheon in Paris by the Gilets Noirs and La Chapelle Debout on July 12, 2019. / Photo by Lahcène Abib.

The political autonomy of the undocumented struggle allows for strong gestures, like the month and a half-long occupation of St. Bernard Church in Paris’s Goutte d’Or neighborhood in 1996, as Mogniss H. Abdallah recounts, or more recently, the short yet spectacular occupation of the French Pantheon in Paris by the activists of the Gilets Noirs and La Chapelle Debout on July 12, 2019. As I had described at length in my introduction to our 25th issue, Self-Defense (Sep-Oct 2019), this event had left a strong impact on me, having witnessed the vicious racist violence deployed by the French police after the evacuation of the monument. But beyond the suppression, the vision that preceded it, with hundreds of undocumented people (most of whom were Black African) occupying the national(ist) mausoleum of the “nation’s great men,” carried a powerfully evocative reclaiming of the symbols and spaces built to delineate the national from the foreign. 

Similarly, we can think of how the Australian detention center of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea was reclaimed in 2017 by 600 of its detainees, who were pronounced “guilty” of wanting to reach the shores of Australia—in the case of our contributor, Imran Mohammad, it was due to fleeing Myanmar’s genocide of Rohingyas. In this case, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s concept of “organized abandonment” (mobilized in this issue by Helen Brewer and Loraine Masiya Mponela in their contribution about Britain’s Hostile Environment Policy) could hardly be more literal. Following the ruling of the PNG Supreme Court on the illegality of Australia’s detention center, the Australian government closed the latter on November 1, 2017. They left the 600 detainees to their own fates, as they had refused to relocate to another facility that would merely continue their incarceration. For the days that followed, a community of struggle reclaimed the infrastructure of the detention center, reversing the violence of the carceral walls to defend themselves from potential attackers, and organizing a communal life amidst great precariousness. 

Manus Funambulist
Thirty-ninth day of silent protest of detainees in the Australian detention camp of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. / Photo by Imran Mohammad (2017).

On false oppositions ///

Any person with social media circles that promote Indigenous struggles in North America has surely witnessed the circulation of a meme, which includes the photo of Ndendahe Apache leader Geronimo along with three other armed Indigenous men. The message is not always formulated the same way, but its variations present the four men as “The original border patrol,” “Homeland Security fighting terrorism since 1492,” “Ask a Native American about the effects of uncontrolled immigration,” or “Illegal aliens have been a problem in the United States. Ask any Native American.” Of course, these memes are meant to be interpreted humorously, insisting on how absurd it is for the US settler colony to implement brutal policies against immigration, when European settlers can too be perceived as immigrants on Indigenous land. 

Beyond the disgraceful conflation of First Nations’ defense of their land with the settler colonial’s border regime, these memes display the quintessential form of opposing the figure of the Indigenous with that of the migrant. This opposition is built upon associating Indigenous people with sedentism, and migrant people with movement. This sedentism however, is a result of settler colonialism that forced Indigenous nations into increasingly small territories designated as “reservations” (i.e. areas of unwanted land by the settlers). It is important to resituate the nexus of property and sedentism as one of the main features of settler colonialism, and to assert that regular movement from one geography to another is in no way contradictory with Indigeneity, which—let’s not forget—is an identity category also forged in the relationship with settler colonialism, not a essentialized identity. Refusing Indigeneity as inherently related to sedentism helps us frame the undocumented struggle within settler colonies as also involving Indigenous struggles at the continental scale.

Indeed, rather than systematically assuming that the millions of people living in the US who once crossed the southern border (or were crossed by it) have commonality through a language or a geographical origin, it can be politically productive to distinguish them through their relationship (or lack thereof) with continental Indigeneity. This requires us to read the border regime’s enduring violence as part of the European settler colonial continuum and, in doing so, we are able to realize that a significant amount of people made undocumented in the US are more indigenous to the place than European settlers are. This is not to say the concept of Latinidad, being forged in the US, isn’t as productive. But instead, multiplying the framings through which we interpret our political reality can help us to not stagnate in paradigms that can ultimately be co-opted. These ideas are beautifully at work in Floridalma Boj Lopez’s text “Naming, a Coming Home” for our 41st issue Decentering the US (May-June 2022), and in Kaiya Aboagye’s work theorizing Bla(c)k Indigeneity within the context of Australia. 

Assam Funambulist
Group of people blocking a train in Guwahati, Assam on February 7, 2019, as part of a protest against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act. / Photo by Hafiz Ahmed.

Yet another important framing of this issue involves refusing the automatic association of undocumentedness with movement. Close to four million Muslims in the Indian state of Assam have experienced this, when they were stripped of their Indian citizenship in July 2018 following the Narendra Modi administration’s reform of the National Register of Citizens, which aimed to consolidate Hindutva in the country. A few hundred kilometers east, the Myanmar junta had similarly stripped over 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas from their citizenship in 1982, leading to the 2016 genocide still unfolding today. In her text, Lauda Virginia Vargas also describes how 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent (i.e. people whose parents merely traveled a few dozen kilometers east) were similarly stripped of their citizenship by the Dominican state in 2013. The refusal to automatically associate migration with the political structures that created undocumented status is crucial, as it insists on the state’s ability to revoke the administrative status of groups of foreigners or citizens. Documentation is never an end in itself, but only a respite in the larger struggle against the border regime. 

The term “undocumented” (vs. “exile,” “refugee,” “migrant”) bypasses questions of displacement or exile. Instead, it insists on the structural conditions engineered by the border regime and the ways through which people are attributed a status by it. For a while, I hesitated using the French term “Sans-Papiers” instead of “Undocumented” for the title of this issue. In the end, I ruled against it, feeling many Anglophone readers might not recognize this name. My sentiment about it nonetheless, was to both honor the Sans-Papiers movement in France. Due to the history of the struggle associated with this name, it triggers in many people’s minds an imaginary of fierceness, autonomy, and admiration. With these three qualities in mind, I wish you a good read. ■