Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition

Silky Shah

Haymarket Books (May 7, 2024)

Trade paper • ISBN-13:  9798888900840 • US $19.95 • 5 in x 8 in • 256 pgs.


Drawing from over twenty years of on-the-ground activism, this striking book offers an organizer’s perspective on the fight for immigrant rights, making a bold case for prison abolition.

In the wake of post-9/11 xenophobia, Obama’s record-level deportations, Trump’s immigration policies, and the 2020 uprisings for racial justice, the US remains entrenched in a circular discourse regarding migrant justice. As organizer Silky Shah argues in Unbuilding Walls, we must move beyond building nicer cages or advocating for comprehensive immigration reform; our only hope for creating a liberated society for all, she insists, is abolition.

Unbuilding Walls dives into the last 40 years of US immigration policy and its relationship to mass incarceration, showing how the prison industrial complex and detention enforcement are intertwined systems of repression. Incorporating historical and legal analyses, Shah’s personal experience as an organizer, as well as stories of people, campaigns, organizations, and localities that have resisted detention and deportation, Shah assesses the movement’s strategies, challenges, successes, and shortcomings. She highlights the limitations of reformist tactics, explaining how the “good” vs. “bad” immigrant paradigm has undermined the broader movement for racial justice and advanced fear-mongering around the US-Mexico border. Through challenging criminalization and embracing abolition, immigrant justice advocates have been able to reduce detention and deportations of immigrants in the US. Ultimately, Unbuilding Walls is an expansive and radical intervention in that discourse, bridging the gaps between movements for immigrant rights, racial justice, and prison abolition.


Unbuild Walls provides a crystal clear, readable, story-based account of what the immigration enforcement system is, how the migrant justice movement has been fighting it, and why we must fight to abolish it, not fix it. Based in decades of her front line work to stop imprisonment and deportation of criminalized migrants, stop the opening of new prisons and close existing ones, Silky Shah provides a grounded survey of the complex political terrain on which the fight to abolish border enforcement and imprisonment of all kinds takes place. This book is an essential tool to build abolitionist analysis within the migrant justice movement, and to bring people who are already mobilizing for police and prison abolition into the fight for migrant justice. Anyone interested in social change and in the most pressing questions about social movement tactics needs to read this book.”

Dean Spade, author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next)

“Silky Shah’s excellently crafted book, Unbuild Walls, refreshingly busts through the persistent and predictable debates about border and immigration enforcement. Shah builds off of her years of experience as director of the Detention Watch Network, applying first-hand knowledge of the immigration detention apparatus in the US. Shah details the innards of the enforcement apparatus like no one else can, and the wins that movements have achieved against them. This fast-paced read is well-written, well-researched, often personal and insightful, and is a must for anyone concerned about immigration and connections to struggles for economic and racial justice. Shah offers an insightful solution to immigration detention, not only sharing creative, new ideas, but also a concrete proposal for how to implement an abolitionist perspective to the concurrent degrading and inhumane system of immigration enforcement.”

Todd Miller, author of Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders


Silky Shah has been working as an organizer on issues related to racial and migrant justice for over two decades. Originally from Texas, she began fighting the expansion of immigrant jails on the US-Mexico border in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2009, she joined the staff of Detention Watch Network (DWN), a national coalition building power to abolish immigrant detention in the United States, and now serves as its executive director. In her time at DWN, she has helped transform the organization into a leader in the immigrant rights movement, resulting in significant victories against immigrant detention. Her writing on immigration policy and organizing has been published in Truthout, Teen Vogue, Inquest, and The Forge. She is regularly interviewed by national media outlets including The Washington Post, NPR, and The Nation, and she has appeared on MSNBC. 


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