Somewhere, near or far from you, they are at work. They run safe-houses for African migrants in the great cities of the European Union. They forge passports for Syrian refugees. They sound the alarm in American border towns minutes before immigration enforcement comes knocking on doors.
Perhaps they do not exist. But they could exist. And that, by itself, is a powerful thought.
Immigrant X is a loose collective of internet artists who write online about a fictional group of radicals fighting for a borderless world. Some of the interconnected stories they tell are outlandish, but their website is plausible enough that a good number of readers and at least one tabloid are convinced they are real.
Working in an ambiguous “Western democracy,” Immigrant X’s fictional activists have at various points claimed to have dug a tunnel into a migrant detention center, used a drone to disrupt an immigration raid, and designed a mobile app that warns undocumented people of the movements of the border patrol.
In the course of their activism, they say, they have narrowly escaped arrest, gotten into heated debates over the efficiency of a given tactic, and fallen in love with each other. And, for the pleasure and education of their more than 10,000 followers, they have tweeted and blogged throughout the whole thing.
The fiction of Immigrant X is native to the internet. It takes many different forms—from frenetic live-tweeting of events that did not actually take place to meditative essays on the injustices of the immigration system.
At times, the line between fiction and hoax appears to blur. Some people who downloaded the group’s “Stop and Search” app from Google Play were disappointed to learn that the software does not actually work.
But that is missing the point, Immigrant X founder Rob Simpson told BuzzFeed. The point of the website is not to tell readers what’s happening, but push them to question the limits of what’s possible.
“You could actually do this,” he said. “It wouldn’t take that much development to make the app functional, maybe 300 hours.”
Born in Australia but based in the Netherlands, Simpson only recently admitted to being behind Immigrant X. In early interviews, like the one he gave to Jacobin last year, he declined to be identified. His name first appeared in connection with Immigrant X in this Dazed article.
Part of Simpson’s desire for anonymity was meant to retain the organization’s mystery, but he was also concerned that law enforcement officials would take the website a little too seriously. A lot of the activism portrayed in Immigrant X is, to put it bluntly, illegal, and Simpson still prefers to keep the name of his employer — a humanitarian organization with international reach — out of any discussion of his side project.
Other members of the collective are even more cautious. One of them works “within the immigration system” and declined to be interviewed out of concerns that she could lose her job. A number of characters in Immigrant X have at various times worked as rogue elements within immigration enforcement agencies.
The members of Immigrant X believe most citizens of Western democracies, like these rogue agents, occupy a place of moral ambiguity, which the writers describe in some of their best pieces. In one, they compare Western governments to a “violent, criminal spouse” to whom the citizens are married:
I can’t believe in the permanence of borders or sovereignty. I can’t see the logic behind the idea that the brutality of fencing off one part of humanity can save our communities, keep us wealthy and safe. I see it as a slow death of reason, a descent into a corrupted, criminal logic. Collectively, we are contriving a thousand lies to support our criminal spouse, the government, all for our peace of mind. We lie because we like the nice house and holidays this deranged spouse offers us, and because we know it has a violent and dangerous demeanor.
Somewhere close or on the other side of the world
Unlike most of the debates on migration issues, which tend to focus on one particular region, Immigrant X is a truly global organization. This is not only because the writers keep the settings of the stories ambiguous, but because its members are scattered around the world, communicating with each other across time zones on Twitter and Skype.
One of the international members of the collective goes by the pseudonym “Tamar Lane.” Lane, who told BuzzFeed his occupation is “ghostwriter,” lives “somewhere in the Middle East” and works with Syrian refugees. Given the climate of internet censorship that lingers over the country where he is based, he asked that his exact location not be disclosed.
Lane is in charge of one of the blogs on the Immigrant X website. Written in the first person, the blog follows the life of a Syrian migrant called Salam. A highly educated professional athlete, Salam flees Aleppo after the outbreak of the civil war and moves to Lebanon, where he faces mistrust from the local government.
The blog is still in its early stages, but Lane — a British national with roots in the Middle East— told BuzzFeed that he expects the storyline to develop into an exploration of the legal and physical obstacles faced by people trying to leave Syria.
“The idea is to eventually start exposing all the tricks these immigrants have to use to escape Syria,” Lane said. “There are so many ways to get a fake passport or forge a visa. The borders are so militarized, it’s almost impossible to cross them.”
The juxtaposition of Salam’s story with the rest of the website raises interesting questions for the citizens of Western democracies. After all, the situations in Lampedusa and in Arizona may have more in common with that of the Syrian/Lebanese border than one would be inclined to admit.
According to Simpson, the narratives of Immigrant X are inspired by events in the real world. Radical activist organizations routinely break the law to help undocumented immigrants, whether by providing them with safe-houses or helping them get access to false documents. In the UK, for example, a group has developed a real-life Stop and Search app (it doesn’t warn migrants of upcoming raids, but provides information about their rights as well as tools to document the event).
“This is a reality,” Simpson said when asked if he was aware of the existence of organizations similar to the one portrayed in Immigrant X. “There are real-life organizations that participate in this form of resistance against the immigration system. They are just not tweeting about it.”
Fiction, then, becomes a way to document the actions and experiences of people living underground without exposing them to legal persecution. Simpson is emphatic when he says that he is “not a journalist,” and is wary that any story that presented itself as anything other than fiction could attract unwanted attention to people who are working in the margins.
The adventures of radical activists are not the only real-life stories that feed into the Immigrant X website. Simpson, Lane, and other members of the group frequently write about their own significant, sometimes life-changing encounters with migrants.
“Salam is a real person,” Lane said. “He is my friend. I’m just putting his experiences into words. And I also have my own experiences traveling through militarized borders, getting detained, and getting interrogated for hours.”
Of course, the fact that the writers of Immigrant X are telling the fictionalized stories of marginalized people, sometimes even adopting their voices, is bound to raise questions on whether they are appropriating others’ narratives. In a sense, that may be part of the project which, in Simpson’s words, wants to “start a conversation.”