On 1 May 2006, the United States was shaken by the biggest strikes and demonstrations in the history of the country. The US Congress was debating a law that would criminalise a key section of the working class – 11 million undocumented, mostly Spanish-speaking, migrants.

In response, immigrants’ rights groups called a one-day strike: “a day without an immigrant”. Colossal crowds, estimated in the millions, choked streets in city after city as key industries ground to a halt. The proposed law was quickly dropped after this rare, but impressive, example of the power of mass working class action.

Borders are bizarre and arbitrary things, to be drawn and redrawn by the rich and the powerful at their own convenience, to grab assets and divide peoples.

One common slogan on the placards and banners on this day without an immigrant was: “We didn’t cross the border: the border crossed us”. It’s a powerful slogan, as well as historic fact. A large part of today’s US, including California, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, had a Spanish-speaking population for many centuries before the territory was seized from Mexico in the brutal war of 1846-48.

Fortress Australia

The slogan could be raised with similar justification by those living on both sides of the most brutally policed border of modern Australia. For many hundreds of years, people, ships, trade and language have moved back and forth across the Timor and Arafura seas to Australia’s north. This is even more the case for the Torres Strait, where the northernmost “Australian” island is just a few hundred metres off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

Yet, borders are claimed to be fundamental, almost eternal. When politicians proclaim that their first duty is to keep “our” borders secure, they make it sound like a sacred duty. In fact, borders are bizarre and arbitrary things, to be drawn and redrawn by the rich and the powerful at their own convenience, to grab assets and divide peoples – basically, as a means of social control.

Borders reflect colonial land grabs and post-colonial carve-ups, designed to divide people and resources for easier imperial plunder. They can be drawn by the powerful for one reason, and redrawn to suit another purpose. Christmas Island, for instance, was transferred by Britain from Singapore to Australia in 1958 to serve as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in a strategic zone.

In 2001, however, the Howard government ramped up its campaign of fear against asylum seekers for the 2001 election. Christmas Island was excised from Australia’s “migration zone”. For the purposes of the Migration Act, someone who landed on the island, supposedly “Australian soil”, was actually not in Australia.

In 2012, the Labor government of Julia Gillard completed the manoeuvre by removing the whole of mainland Australia from the Australian migration zone. From this point, a government official could, with a perfectly straight face, tell any asylum seeker standing on Bondi Beach or at Uluru that they were not, technically speaking, in Australia at all.

Of course, all this chicanery with borders doesn’t apply to the people who the system is set up to serve: the rich. Just $5 million will buy you a Significant Investor Visa to Australia – migration zone and all. And bosses use the 457 visa system to privatise the border. The power to get people across the border is outsourced to individual bosses, who then pick and choose who can cross depending on who will serve their purposes, supervised only by the “light touch regulation” of the Department of Immigration. In this case, the border is exactly as flexible as the capitalists require.

Profit is never accosted at the border

The idea that the border crosses “us”, the global working class, and does all of us harm, is also true.

For instance, the border crosses us every day on construction sites, where some bosses – if they can get away with it – employ people to do exactly the same work, on the same sites, on three different wage rates: one for permanent residents or citizens; one for working visa holders; and the lowest rate for those without a valid work visa. Of course, this practice means downward pressure on the wages of every construction worker.

The use of work visas to divide workers is a large and growing problem. Of the working class in Australia today, somewhere around 10 percent are subjected to some sort of discrimination due to their visa status: 90,000 on oppressive 457 visas, 120,000 working holiday visa holders, 300,000 on student visas and half a million New Zealanders who are deprived of any right to social security, despite spending most of their life working and paying tax in Australia.

What’s true on a Melbourne construction site is true for the working class as a whole: dividing us up according to national borders and giving us different rights is one way our rulers keep us divided and fragmented.

In the wake of the “day without an immigrant”, I heard Nativo Lopez, one of the many organisers of the protests, address a socialist conference in the US. All workers, he pointed out, create value – surplus value, or profit, to be specific. But it tells us something fundamental about the system we live in that that value, that profit, produced by the worker, is regarded as indispensable in a way that doesn’t apply to the worker whose labour produces it.

As Nativo Lopez said, the value created by the worker “is never denigrated, maligned, or declared as illegal. It is never accosted, arrested, interrogated, judged, or deported. Value never dies attempting to cross the desert … That which is produced by all workers – value – is embraced, valued, and appropriated by capital, but the workers themselves are maligned and denigrated …

“We must say that our … cause is international and that our class is one – the international working class which knows no borders, and declare that the only thing that is illegal are the parasites who exploit workers, which society can do without.”