How border control practices affect Black communities

Rethinking policing and immigration policies for a more just world

18-year old Sudanese refugee, Ahmed, escaped war in Darfur and made the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean sea from Libya to Lampedusa, and then made his way to Calais from where he hoped to reach the United Kingdom and be able to study as an IT engineer (2015).

Photo: © UNHCR/Christophe Vander Eecken

Most discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement has focused on the interactions between Black communities and local law enforcement, but the issues extend to national borders and beyond. University of Toronto doctoral candidate Robyn Maynard says border controls and immigration policies play a central role in the persecution, confinement and surveillance experienced by Black people globally—and shape how we think about Black life in Canada and around the world.

“We’re in the midst of enormous mass displacement due to climate and economic crises,” she says. “Many of these crises disproportionately affect Black people, forcing them to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere, where they come up against border controls that are hostile to Black presence.”

The local and the international are inextricably linked

In her early twenties, Maynard became involved in organizing against the overpolicing of Black communities and in support of the “no borders” movement. Through that work, she came to realize that, in addition to the obvious effects such as higher rates of detention or deportation on entering a country, racially hierarchical border and immigration policies were also affecting Black migrants in ways that often went unseen.

Doctoral candidate and SSHRC Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient Robyn Maynard.

Photo: © Stacy Lee Photography

For example, she says the higher rates of Black drivers getting pulled over and questioned by police raise the likelihood of undocumented Black immigrants being flagged and detained. In many cases, these “random” traffic stops can escalate to deportation, with long-term impacts not just for the individual but for their whole community.

Centring the voices of those most affected

With the support of a SSHRC Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, Maynard’s doctoral dissertation is exploring the historic development of immigration controls and their relationship to the transatlantic slave trade. It also looks at the ways overlapping forms of social, political, gendered and economic marginalization play out in border controls and how they affect the condition of Black people globally. She’s interviewing Black community organizers in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, including some with experience of migration and asylum-seeking, to shed light on their theories and analysis of these issues.

By linking this contemporary work with earlier traditions of Black radicalism, she’s centring Black voices as producers of knowledge, rather than as passive subjects of research—and highlighting the important work they’re doing in identifying the root causes of mass migration.

“The people who are actively fighting against their own detentions and deportations are the authors of some of the strongest analyses looking at why people are leaving their homes in the first place,” says Maynard.

Some of those root causes date back to historical imperialism and slavery, while others are related to ongoing colonialist practices of current governments, including Western-owned mining operations and government-scale lending policies that disadvantage African and Caribbean countries. By recognizing these issues, the migrant crisis and its associated racialized politics can be reframed, shedding light on the real impacts they have on Black individuals and communities.

Reshaping how we see borders

Borders play a significant role in how we see the world and shape our own identities, with implications for citizenship, migration and multiculturalism from a transnational perspective down to the local level. Maynard hopes her work will call attention to some of the harms caused by existing border control practices, offer new insights into the importance of freedom of movement and status for all, and push for an end to the structural causes of mass displacement—for Black people and people of all racial backgrounds.

“The people at the front lines of these issues aren’t just fighting their own detentions and deportations,” she says. “They’re trying to build a more just world for all.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Maynard’s work, visit her website and read “Black life and death across the U.S.-Canada border”, a paper based on her preliminary research on this topic. She is also the 2020 Talent Award winner for the SSHRC Impact Awards.