Border Externalization as Neocolonialism

Neocolonialism is defined as “the control of less-developed countries by developed countries through indirect means”.[1] Initially, the term was used in the post-World War II era to refer to European policies that maintained control of former colonies in foreign nations, particularly in Africa. One of the first recognized neocolonial acts occurred at the 1957 Paris Summit in which European heads of government, specifically Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, included their overseas territories within the European Economic Community.[2] This inclusion of colonial territories in trade arrangements represented a new form of economic domination that was less direct but just as controlling as prior forms of colonial control.

Neocolonialism has since expanded to include coordinated efforts by former colonial powers, other developed countries, and even corporations to produce and perpetuate colonial forms of exploitation.[3] This broadened definition is largely associated with Cold War era policies, notably the Truman Doctrine, in which the United States government extended its sphere of influence by offering governments sums of money to accept U.S. protection from communism. Other more threatening acts have also been used by the United States to extend neocolonialism, including overthrowing numerous Central American governments through secret military coup d’états in order to institute pro-American regimes.[4]

On a fundamental level, neocolonialism represents exploitation without redress and allows nations to ignore social and political issues by exporting social conflicts.[5] Though evident in many forms and instances, this is perhaps most apparent in immigration policy – specifically through border externalization, in which nations engage with third countries with the explicit aim of preventing and interdicting migrants by creating a buffer-zone through the engaged nation’s external borders. Essentially, border externalization seeks to prevent migrants from entering destination states or migrating entirely, and focuses on apprehending and returning migrants in transit or destination states, even those with a valid legal basis for international protection.[6]

While border externalization is usually discussed in the context of the European Union and African and Middle Eastern migrants, it is also occurring in North America in the United States with Central American migration. Through policies such as the Mérida Initiative and Programa Frontera Sur, the United States has exported its immigration responsibilities by working with Mexico to create an immigration policy that has militarized southern Mexico and the Mexico-Guatemala border in order to prevent Central American migrants from ever reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. Just as with historical forms of neocolonialism, such as supposed protection from communism, border externalization works under the guise of human rights. Although Programa Frontera Sur’s stated goal was “to overcome common challenges related to migration and the respect for human rights”, and “to establish a more modern, efficient, prosperous, and secure border”, the reality has only been a vast increase in deportations enacted by the Mexican government, and a dire effect on the human rights of migrants.[7]

Through neocolonial acts of border externalization, the United States has also negated Mexico’s control over territory, sovereignty, and jurisdiction. For the United States, border externalization has clearly expanded the virtual territory under U.S. control. As such, the United States has been able to increase its jurisdiction and sovereignty by using its power to increase the power it holds over Mexican government initiatives. Even though the United States has virtually no control over the enforcement of such initiatives, this provides its government with a justifiable reason as to why such initiatives fail. While Mexico has not experienced a change in the territory it maintains, the Mexican government has lost both jurisdiction and sovereignty, as by accepting border externalization it must now act in the best interest of the United States.

It is through this lens that border externalization’s true neocolonial form is evident – Programa Frontera Sur allows wealthy and powerful nations like the United States to hand immigration responsibilities to other nations. Not only does doing so provide nations with a political excuse for the failure of immigration control, but it also allows such nations to cultivate and maintain power over their neighbors through the practice of controlling migration. Through the externalization of borders and immigration control, states are able to establish a neocolonial extension of their power.

In a way, the use of neocolonial border externalization by the United States to curb Central American migration is ironic as it was neocolonialism that created the very conditions that such migrants seek to escape. By overthrowing numerous Central American governments, the United States and its secret military coup d’états have had terrible unintended consequences as entire populations have been submerged into grinding poverty and are vulnerable to dictatorship, military rule, and gang violence. Such conditions and experiences are only exacerbated by neocolonial externalization policies that seek to prevent migrants from pursuing a better life.

Recognizing border externalization as neocolonialism is important for two reasons – both to acknowledge the roles of nations in continuing the legacies of colonialism, and to discuss potential solutions. Writing about and discussing such complex and contentious topics is essential towards ending actions that have allowed wealthy and powerful nations to unjustly cultivate and maintain power over their neighbors.

Regarding solutions, rather than continuing border externalization, states must secure their legacies as important political players in the international community by focusing on migrant human rights and securing conditions in origin states. Until such actions are taken, neocolonial immigration policies of border externalization will perpetrate asymmetrical relationships between states that will destabilize nations and fail to protect the millions of migrants in most need of aid.

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[1] Sandra Halperin. “Neocolonialism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. March 23, 2016.

[2] “NATO Update – 1957.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). November 6, 2001.

[3] Halperin, “Neocolonialism.”

[4] Stephen Kinzer. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. New York, NY: Times Books, 2006.

[5] Nkrumah, Kwame. Neo-colonialism: the last stage of imperialism. London: Panaf, 2004.

[6] Jennifer Podkul and Ian Kysel. “Interdiction, Border Externalization, and the Protection of the Human Rights of Migrants.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, October 22, 2015.

[7] Presidencia de la República. “Pone En Marcha el Presidente Enrique Peña Nieto el Programa Frontera Sur.” June 7, 2014.


Book Review: Impossible Subjects

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. By Mae Ngai. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004. 377 pp.)

Citizenship and legal entry into the United States are topics that are widely discussed but rarely understood. This is largely due to the narrative of America as a nation of immigrants and the presumption that citizenship and legal entry go hand in hand, with citizenship following legal entry. While focusing on the inclusion of immigrants, this national narrative fails to reveal the contrasting exclusion of immigrants. In fact, while 41 million individuals were granted permanent residency during the postwar era, these instances were far outnumbered by the more than 54 million deportations that also took place throughout this period.[1]

Mae Ngai explores this forgotten history in Impossible Subjects, a meticulously researched and deeply humane account of how lack of access to legal entry forever restricts the ability for migrants to achieve citizenship, consequently creating a permanent sub-caste of illegal aliens with diminishing rights.[2] Central to the book are questions of illegality in immigration and how illegal immigration has become the dominant problem of twentieth century U.S. immigration policy. By weaving together the experiences of Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians in a period that has largely escaped the purview of legal scholarship, Ngai emphasizes the contradiction between those individuals who cross borders and the legal construction of some of those persons as perpetually illegitimate, criminal, and unassimilable. In doing so, Ngai also examines the ways in which the stance that Americans have adopted on immigration has fluxed over time, particularly with economics influencing societal sentiments.

Beginning with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, a policy that established quotas based on an unevenly applied system of national origins, Ngai introduces a system that divided the world into prospective citizens and eternal aliens with “colored races” reimagined as having no country of origin (p. 27). Ironically, it was the increased and unrestricted migration by Filipinos and Mexicans that was key in shifting the racialization of unassailable subjects and illegal aliens.  Thus, Ngai reveals precisely how the “illegal alien” was produced as a new legal and political subject that became synonymous with the racial identity “Mexican” (pg. 71). Asian Americans were also branded as alien, and were relegated to social, political, and legal positions without access both lawful admission and citizenship. Policies such as the Japanese American citizenship renunciation of the 1940s and the Chinese Confession Program of the 1950s framed Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and sought to undermine their political and cultural autonomy; in order to gain approval and to be accepted into U.S. citizenship, Asian Americans had to deny the very foreignness that had been projected onto them (pg. 200).

These problems and notions of race-based immigration were presumed to be eradicated with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, a policy that was hailed as a civil rights victory for allowing the admission of individuals from all nations. Ngai contests this assessment, and considers the implications of lifting national origins quotas while maintaining numerical restrictions (pg. 261). The uniformity of the national origins quota system provided the same per-country quota, regardless of unequal national populations, needs, and histories. It was this uniformity, combined with the maintenance of numerical restrictions, that was truly responsible for the existence of “illegal aliens”. Equally responsible was both administrative enforcement of national immigration restriction and policies that selectively turned illegal immigrants into lawful ones. Essentially, illegal immigration has persisted due to the continued and extended reach of numerical restriction on legal immigration, which in turn created a new class of persons within the United States – “illegal aliens”.

To think of alien citizens as “impossible subjects” and as a “problem that cannot be solved”, as Ngai defines them, is to suggest that such individuals can never be fully assimilated into the American society and nation as a whole (pg. 12). In doing so, Ngai also explores how both citizens and aliens have been “made” and “unmade” with the border between the division between “legal” and “illegal” becoming extremely porous. While Ngai focuses on the cases of Mexicans and Asian Americans, it is easy to theorize how the persistence of the category of alien citizenship can shift depending on U.S. foreign policy. This is particularly true when considering the present-day “war on terror”. As a war with no specific national target and therefore no specific nationals to consider agents of foreign states, the fights against loosely defined “terrorists” has led to Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans being considered enemy “alien citizens”.

Timing and topic render Impossible Subjects topically salient and demands that we be honest about our past by altering our vision of immigration history. While immigration tells us who belongs, Ngai makes evident that as legal categorization shifts over time, the notion of belonging becomes increasingly subjective and historically contingent. What we believe to be hardened borders of citizenship and legal status are, in actuality, extremely tenuous and malleable. It is through this understanding that Ngai puts forth the simple yet radical notion that the sovereign right to determine membership through hardened nationalistic immigration policy needs not be unconditional (pg. 264). Just what policy should take its place, Ngai leaves for others to discuss. Regardless, Impossible Subjects is essential reading for anyone interested in U.S. immigration history and ethnic studies, and it is an important step in enriching our understanding of race, ethnicity, and nation.


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[1] Goodman, Adam. “Nation of Migrants, Historians of Migration.” Journal of American Ethnic History 34, no. 4 (2015): 7-16.

[2] In following Ngai’s terminology, I use the term “illegal alien” not for the purpose of reproducing racist stereotypes. Rather, I do so to use the historically accurate legal term and to locate the historical origins and consequences of the term.