Professor Paulina Ochoa Espejo Discusses "On Borders"
The associate professor of political science describes the research behind her new book, which explores the political theory behind borders.
Aidan York: Can you describe what your book is about?
Paulina Ochoa Espejo: My book tries to answer three questions: When are borders justified? Who has a right to control them? And where should they be drawn? Most people think that borders are justified when they separate nations, but I disagree with that view. In the book I argue that we should not see territories as if they were pieces of property that belong to an identity group, instead we should think about territory in terms of our environment.
AY: Was there any influence from today’s current events, such as the pandemic, that inspired such a book on identity and borders?
POE: No! Your question made me laugh... This kind of book takes a long time to write. The pandemic started in March 2020, and I have been writing this book at least since March 2010! I am sad that many of the problems that inspired me to write it—violations of the human rights of migrants, and the rise of border walls—are still as relevant as they were 10 years ago, but I am happy that my ideas are useful to think about new challenges, like the pandemic.
AY: Did you encounter any particular challenges or unexpected research difficulties when writing On Borders?
POE: Oh yes! There was not a lot written on this topic when I started researching... You will probably think that is crazy, but borders have been neglected in political theory. When most people in the U.S. think about borders, they think exclusively about immigration, but borders and immigration are not the same! You may be a migrant and have no experience whatsoever of the border and the conflicts that occur there, for example. For most people in the U.S., thinking about borders is the same as thinking about the boundaries of identity, but that view blinds them to the fact that where we live and what we do there can be more important than who we are. This is particularly important when you think about migrants’ rights and deportation, and when you think about the environmental aspects of borders.
AY: What would you say is the most impactful thing you've learned from working on the book?
POE: Many people think that it would be a good idea to get rid of borders altogether, since the current effects of borders can be very bad (they coerce people, they separate families, they create violence). But one of the important things I learned while writing this book is that borders can be very useful to promote justice, equality, and legitimacy. For example, we can make sure that within a given jurisdiction everybody is treated equally! Borders don't have to be closed, but it is useful to know where a territory starts and another ends when it comes to counting people in a census, or giving voting rights. The problems come when people think that borders' main role is to separate populations, as if territories were desert islands that separate peoples into "us" and "them."
AY: What do you believe is the most important lesson your book teaches?
POE: That borders are not only about identity, territorial borders are about places and the environment that all human beings share in common.