Immigrants don't owe us a thing

Episode 30 with Leah Cowan: Should we abolish borders?

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

A good immigrant is expected to be grateful – grateful to fortune for forging a path to “a better life” and grateful most of all to the nation that welcomed them in her bosom. The trope of unthreatening immigration coverage? The smiling faces of new citizens at a naturalization ceremony, expressing humility and gratitude under their new flag. It’s sincere, I’m sure. It’s also less confronting for us natural-born citizens of wealthy nations than this other truth: It’s the least we could do. We owe them.

That’s the position my guest this week defends. Leah Cowan is the former politics editor at gal-dem, an activist and an author covering immigration. She just published Border Nation: A Story of Migration with Pluto Press. Borders, she says – or rather the “border regime,” the political and security apparatus that enforces borders and restricts migration – are an extension of the colonial project. They serve to keep out people whose work and natural resources built the wealth of the rich nations they now aspire to join. “They're just returning to the scene of the crime almost,” she tells me. Sorry, she adds, “if that's maybe too radical a framing for a Tuesday.”


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It’s radical but also hard to argue against when you’re sitting in London, the hub of an empire that at one point or another invaded or strong-armed 90% of the planet. That statistic, which Cowan cites in her book, comes from Stuart Laycock’s 2012 book “All the Countries We've Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To,” ironically not an anti-colonial author. The methodology is willfully broad. Point is, Britain was never shy about reaching beyond its shores. Its success was never that of a “small island” alone between the Channel and the North Sea, but of a global network of trade, force and influence.

From that perspective, immigrants from the global South to former imperialist powers do not owe us gratitude or any further contribution than other members of the community. Citizenship need not be earned through heroics. It is reparation. As A. Sivanandan famously coined, “we are here because you were there.”

Explore these ideas with Leah Cowan on the podcast this week. And also, should borders be abolished? Why is immigration enforcement so invisible to non-immigrants? Is the border a fence or a fog?

As always, you can listen to the episode or read a full transcript on the website.

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If you’re into arcane publishing debates, you might have heard of some controversies surrounding Substack. I have a pretty chill opinion about it, which is that the product is for me increasingly showing its limitations and I disagree with some of their strategic directions, which have favored their brand over the brands of individual publishers. But businesses gotta do what businesses gotta do for their own growth and I do not begrudge them that. They do them, I do me. It’s a story as old as tech that you often need to distance yourself from early adopters to reach the next circle of users. I am grateful for the space Substack has opened up for indie publishers. I expressed as much to The Observer when asked, which propelled me into a culture war I have no interest in joining. I had already made up my mind to move Borderline to a new tech stack and bring together what has been a messy pile-on of podcast + Substack newsletter + Squarespace site + LinkedIn newsletter + Patreon +++ … into a single destination. That’ll be happening over the next few weeks, along with a relaunch that will offer a lot more value for your membership and should set me up with a more sustainable business. The move should be entirely transparent to you, practically and financially for those who are paying members. I’ll be reaching out individually to the handful of Patreon supporters, as that’ll be shutting down. That also means no membership marketing until we’re at our new destination, so enjoy the silence ;) Welcome nonetheless to new members Nicole Stephens and Bérengère Parmly.  Thank you all for reading, listening, supporting and sharing your stories. I can’t wait to show you the new Borderline!


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Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.