Strongman on the Border

26.  The wall was of course a purely unilateral creation and imposition, unlawfully declared only by one nation to define an international boundary line.  But it is manufactured by the crudest of data visualizations, often crafted by data provided by Border Patrol.  Is this a proper way to remap a nation?

President Trump has repeatedly refused to meet with Mexico’s President, lest he disrupt the narrative that Mexico’s government would pay the twenty-five billion dollars for “the wall”–a promise often repeated to great applause at rallies, but never an agreement.  As President, Trump is alternately petulant and a bully about such resistance–“If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that,” Trump said shortly after inauguration, promoting the conceit of the wall as a basis to steer diplomacy, as if boxed in by any resistance to the narrative he created about the need for a border wall and the small probability that it will ever be built, but needing to ensure the survival of its poetic conceit within public debate.  Losing his temper with President Nieto for not complying with his vision of a wall subsidized by Mexico, never on the table, Trump kept alive the vision of a needed wall along the border to fulfills a narrative of leadership Trump sold to the nation during the 2016 election, and needs to illustrate his own strength.  The wall is a wall is a wall, and has become a surrogate the increasingly tribal organization of the United States.

Trump’s cultivation of a mythological narrative of border protection indeed serves and demands a religion of the nation.  For the construction of the border wall becomes a vehicle to affirm the sacred character of the nation, and demands a sacralization the border, not only as part of the nation but as its weakest point, to be conducted at the expense of its laws, redefining the border as a space not of legality–but of the breaking of the law, and denying legal rights, much at is characterized by the Border Patrol as the site of disrepecting the law and mapped as the site of illegality, both of “illegal” immigration, of transportation of drugs like marijuana and amphetamines, as well as heroin, and as the site of border-crossings that are undermining the social body.  And the conceptual redefinition of the border as a space needing to be controlled, monitored, and strengthened has come to over-ride notions of legality as it is fetishized as a religion of the nation.

The mythic notion of the border wall that won so much support from the Border Patrol during the Presidential campaign that propelled Trump to Washington, D.C., was nowhere more powerfully created than in maps that trumpeted the gaps in the border wall, while conveniently concealing the areas in which those gaps lay.

marijuana at border with mexicoBorder Patrol Data/Center for Immigration Studies (screenshot)

The image of the permeability of the border’s permeability mapped in a pornography of border separation, and of border breaching, is almost seems an image of the fear that borders might disappear from the map, or from a map that does not differentiate space with sufficient clarity.  The data points of the bubble chart derive from drugs seized by Border Patrol officers over the course of a year provides a very poor metric of geolocation; but they serve to “create” the spatial definition of the porous border as  seizures map an image of permeability and poor policing of goods entering the nation; yet they proffer a deeply suspect circular logic for viewing the “border” as the hotspot of drug traffic that migrants carry and that a wall would serve to stop:  the largest number of trans-border drug transport derives from criminalized drugs sequestered in cars, trucks, or shipments of products, not be translated to what a Border Wall would prevent from entering the United States:  although they are powerful to create a visceral visual jolt of the imagined prophylactic effect of a wall from such an incoming traffic, they map the problem that they do nothing to address, and foreground the danger of transport with no relative measure of how these million and a half pounds of marijuana might relate to the amount in the United States, or even the amount grown in California’s central valley:  to be sure, heroin and opiates are the current foci of fear, but the measurement of drugs seized provide a poor proxy or argument for the wall’s need to build a wall, as any cross border traffic is likely to be concentrated at the checkpoints located on cross-border roads.

27.  The sense of foregrounding the border as a site of illegality is effective its erasure of the personal.  Any vignettes that confirm this sense of illegality garner nationwide attention in the news.  The cause célbre of the death of a border agent one hundred miles east of El Paso on the US-Mexico border crystallized debate on the need for a wall in the early days of the Trump administration, as it was seized upon as the compelling rationale for constructing a border wall that would prevent future cross-border attacks on American citizens.  

The construction of a case of murder by an “illegal” immigrant concretized fears of cross-border violence, and stood as a compelling stand-in for the attempt that Trump had made to attribute the national responsibility of all Mexico for the allegedly criminal behavior of border-crossing without documentation–as if this justified the payment by Mexico, a separate sovereign state, for the expenses of a border wall that would prevent its citizens from “criminally” entering the United States.  (When I watched televised coming attractions for a Spanish-language movie of Beatrix Potter’s relatively innocent “Peter Rabbit” in a Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood this January, which ran, just after a feature on migrant workers apprehended in large trucks as I was eating huevos, the venturing into the borders of Mr McGregor’s garden took on a pointed resonance, accentuated by Spanish-speaking hosts wearing rabbit ears working to promote the film.  

The rabbit ears hardly concealed the militarized nature of the film adaptation of how Mr. MacGregor’s garden was depicted in the bucolic English countryside, filled with C.G.I. stuffed animals, who are in this “sequel” to the Beatrix Potter series forced to confront a modernized MacGregor who is so obsessessed with hostility to the animals pillaging from the bounteous garden to install an electrified fence to keep them out–until the animals cunningly react, in the pitched battle between animals and farmer’s heirs that provides the dramatic core of the film, to parry the firm line draw between the fertile family farm and animal intruders, rewiring its current to the doorknob of the new Mr. McGregor’s house.  Was the danger that the electrified wire about Mr. McGregor’s garden illustrates–before which Miss Tiggy Winkle stood with raised hand–not only a metaphor for the border fencing that agricultural workers regularly crossed in my Anglo head?   As I watched the screen while eating eggs and balanced the Spanish-language voice-over with the woman selling tamales in the restaurant’s corner, it was hard to say where reality ended, and if this was a playful vision of arrival or a vision of  the trauma of family separation all too often been at the actual US-Mexico border, as children are routinely separated from their imprisoned parents.

PEter Rabbit McGregor.png

The image of families being torn apart at the border–the new policy of the Attorney General is advocating–is more than disquieting.  In a nation now haunted by border security, is it any coincidence that even the Pixar family entertainment Coco adopts in tongue in cheek fashion the image of cranial recognition tools to screen spirits from the land of the dead who return to their family altars in Mexico during Dia de los Muertes, transposing the augmented technologies of border surveillance to the afterlife, in a direct reference to the technologies of the border wall that stand to sever family ties across actual national border lines?

Border Fear Miguel.pngPIXAR, “Coco”

In a scene rich with irony and comedic inversion, the site of the border is unsurprisingly about to become a site of family separation in the film, as Miguel is temporarily busted for being alive–when only the dead whose photographs are hanging in family altars are allowed to visit the living, asked by a skeletal border guard if he had anything to declare, and try to conceal the “living” Miguel from the suspicious skeleton in Border Agent attire–his dead relatives shocked as Miguel reveals his actual identity to the border guard of the afterlife, as his image does not register in the mock-facial ID registration apparatus that the Border Agent employs to screen those who seek to rejoin their families on the other side.  Miguel seeks to appease the guard through his charm offensive, but his skeletal ancestors realize that they stand to be nabbed at the border in a crucial scene of the cartoon film, the ridiculous nature of the fantasy-border somehow trying to mask its actual cruelty.

Miguel happy.pngPIXAR, “Coco”

The dashed hopes of Miguel to sneak across seem to prefigure the adoption of a policy of separation of the families of undocumented immigrants who try to cross the southern border of the United States, as a means to discourage families from undertaking the journey by actively separating families.  The version of “facial recognition” technologies used in the unloving skeletons who patrol the border between living and dead on the Dra de Muertos or Day of the Dead to check images of the once-living in the repositories of their databanks–with mixed results–in the by-now accepted vigilance of Border Patrol Agent–who stands looking dispassionately at the results of a monitor that suspiciously approximates facial recognition software.



–who seek to screen each “border crosser” against the photographs displayed in family altars that they somehow have possession of in their comprehensive image banks, if they do so now in order to keep families together rather than apart.

The border guard charged to ensure by processing the return of spirits to Mexico on the Dia de Muertos, exploits, even if it tries to subvert, the ubiquity of border-surveillance and the administrative processing of the living from the dead at transit points imbued with bureaucratic routine, in ways that scarily suggest the presence of such digital scans in the name of security that occur in routinized fashion on  borders in our own culture.   That families are kept apart in the name of maintaining a needed social order is made evident in watching the failed attempt to one Hector, who seeks to be remembered by his family, evade the vigilant skeleton who serves as the border the agents on the cempasúchil bridge that separates the living and dead, in a scene that openly recalls the impersonal bureaucracy of immigration processing offices along our own southwestern border.


Is it an echo of the very extent to which the surveillance of a border that aims to suspends individual rights cuts against the very laws of the nation that it has migrated to become a new archetype in children’s family films?

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, immigration, mapping the US-Mexican border, undocumented migrants

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