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Summary Article: Border Controls from Immigration and Asylum from 1900 to Present

All states claim the sovereign authority to control who and what crosses their territorial borders. In order to monitor and regulate border crossers and to distinguish between citizens and noncitizens, states have over time created an expansive system of surveillance and identification involving passports, ID cards, and so on. Indeed, a border-control apparatus is a core attribute of what defines a modern state, and the right to refuse entry to noncitizens is a basic principle of international law. State restrictions on exit have historically also been of great importance, but with the spread of liberal democratic forms of government, freedom of exit has become the norm. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Iron Curtain brought to an end the twentieth century’s most famous state efforts to restrict exit. Cross-national population flows have increased in recent decades, however, the practical reality is that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not mobile and face formidable state-imposed obstacles to crossing national borders. These obstacles include restrictions against freedom of entry that limit, for example, global labor migration. Even though global labor migration involves about 120 million people, this figure represents only about 2.3 percent of the world’s population.

Border patrol agent Alan Marshall stands high atop a signal tower shining a searchlight into freight cars and grain gondolas as a slow-moving freight train pulls into Niagara, New York, on January 21, 2002, from Canada. Since the events of September 11, trains are searched coming and going along this route for any suspicious items coming into the United States as well as for possible terrorists trying to escape the country. Border patrol agents have been brought up from the southern border to help with increased security measures on the northern border. (UPI)

A popular view is that border controls are becoming outmoded in an age of “globalization,” with some commentators even suggesting the idea of an emergent “borderless world.” Greater economic integration and interdependence, it is often assumed, necessarily leads to a relaxation of state restrictions over cross-border flows. However, rather than simply eroding in the face of growing transnational pressures, the border regulatory apparatus of the state in many places is being recrafted and redeployed through ambitious and innovative attempts to regulate the transnational movement of people. This includes an infusion of more border-control personnel, the development of more sophisticated inspection technologies and more forgery-resistant border-crossing documents, reliance on carrier sanctions to encourage transport companies to self-police, and greater harmonization of visa policies and asylum laws.

The effort to tighten border controls is especially evident where advanced industrialized and less developed countries meet, such as the southern border of the United States and the eastern and southern borders of the European Union. Although there has been a general trend toward stricter controls over cross-border population flows in both places, there has been considerable variation in the particular form of such controls, reflecting distinct regional political and institutional contexts. Whereas border controls in the United States reflect a unilateral reassertion of national sovereignty, in Europe they represent a multilateral “pooling” of sovereignty. This has taken the most concrete form through the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which calls for the abolition of internal EU border inspections within “Schengenland” and at the same time a harmonization and tightening of external border inspections. What were once viewed exclusively as national borders and national controls have now become part of a new European space of free movement insulated by a hardened external border. EU border controls must therefore be understood within the broader institutional framework and process of European integration. Also, U.S. controls are largely concentrated along the southern border, whereas EU controls extend more deeply into society. In many European countries, this includes the use of national identity cards and more extensive regulation and monitoring of the workplace. EU controls also reach further outward than in the U.S. case: Neighboring countries to the east increasingly cooperate with Western European immigration-control objectives as part of the price of future formal incorporation into the European Union.

Though border controls take different forms in the United States and the European Union, border enforcement officials in both places nevertheless face the same basic conundrum: how to turn their borders into more secure barriers while also assuring that they remain business-friendly bridges. Today’s borders are expected to serve as filters that “weed out” undesirable flows while also encouraging desirable ones. Mounting domestic political pressure has necessitated that U.S. and EU leaders signal their commitment to stricter border controls and project at least the appearance of securing their borders. Economic realities, however, necessarily limit the degree to which they can truly seal their borders. Balancing the policy objectives of simultaneously facilitating ever-increasing cross-border economic exchange and enforcing border controls will continue to be an inherently cumbersome and politically sensitive task in an increasingly integrated world.

See also: Berlin Wall; Carrier Sanctions; European Union; Passports; Schengen Agreement; Visas

References and further reading:
  • Anderson, Malcolm. 1996. Frontiers: Territory and State Formation in the Modern World. Cambridge: Polity.
  • Andreas, Peter, and Snyder, Timothy, eds. 2000. The Wall around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in North America and Europe. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Torpey, John. 2000. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Peter Andreas
    Copyright © 2005 by Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen

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