Strongman on the Border

32.  There is a possibility that the border Trump demands assume an autonomous authority, as a region of policing that will expend national resources on its own.  Homeland Security claimed jurisdiction to start building a “highway of surveillance” within a 150-foot corridor that lay parallel to the border shortly after 9/11, defining an artifact for the Homeland more than the nation.   The band along the border set a basis for imagining and mapping the existence of a wall as an artifact, although it was an artifact of fear: for by inserting a military apparatus of policing this newly mapped border zone–a corridor that was waiting for a wall, as it were–which became widely conjured in the range of data visualizations produced by the allegedly non-partisan, but openly anti-immigration, Center for Immigration Study, that suggest the range of criminals that a porous border wall permitted to enter the nation from Mexican territory.  

Longstanding concern about the permeability of the border that Trump administration is obsessed with becomes even more real with the fiction of a “real” wall able to block all “unauthorized” immigrants, and confirm their status as “illegal,” even if it is never to be built:  even if it is illegal as a unilateral construction, the Border Wall has indeed assumed a significant position and status as a marker of the law–as it offers a grounds for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to be asked to “take enforcement action against all removable aliens encountered in the course of their duties” and indeed authorized that immigration officers “may” indiscriminately initiate expedited removal and deportation of all “unauthorized” immigrant, following Trump’s executive orders in refusing to prioritize the arrest, deportation, and removal of aliens who are deemed “illegal” by virtue of their very presence in the country.  

The very states that Trump was so successful in the election seem a negative image of the presence of undocumented immigrants, whose presence the ‘heartland’ has rejected.  But combined with nativist ideas, the sense of a wall has gained a strong mythic character in these places, drawn from the realm of myth rather than law, as if to fabricate a primitive sense of the nation–and echoing the ways that the Englightenment jurist Giambattista Vico described as the role of walls in defining a primitive sense of collective belonging, that precedes the rule of law, intended stigmatize undocumented immigrants as illegally present.  The portrayal by Trump of the sanctuary cities who shelter them as complicit in this illegal behavior underscores the sense that their decisions actively threaten the nation.


And buoyed by a contempt for the law, and indulging in the deep pleasure of boasting grandiose construction projects, Donald Trump was perhaps an ideal messenger for the wall, who embraced it and made it his own, taking it national with special relish not although but because it had no legal grounds at all.

The veritable onslaught of widely produced and disseminated maps seemed to make sense of many of the changes in stagnant wages, unemployment, and taxes, as well as to invoke the specter of terrorism and gang violence, enforcing the idea of the need for a border wall.  The fable of the wall was projected onto the nation as a means to secure safety, and as a needed barrier of impermeability; Trump for his part earl promised the creation of a “real wall”–although what sense any border was ever “real” is unclear–as if to establish a need to treat the border as a threshold of legality, and magnify the danger of border-crossing within the national imaginary, in ways that create a false consensus that places border crossing at the root of threats to jobs, economic security, drug addiction and public health.  The wall materializes even as it magnifies fears of unauthorized immigrants, and serving to condense fears against immigrants, and a magnification the dangers undocumented immigrants pose, but may provide something of a trial balloon of the expanded powers of the state to undermine our legal system.

Immigration. border wall

In casting the wall as an urgent imperative, as if meeting a state of emergency, Trump both adopted and cultivate a notion of the border promoted by Border Security to maintain the border that has warped the notion of sovereignty by a notion of national frontiers that predate civil institutions or the law, but are a restoration of order–although the notion of an authoritarian border wall itself seeks to dismantle a legal process of immigration, and strip US residents of rights.  This may be due to Trump’s limited experience with the law, but it is more strongly tied to his disparagement of it.

The cognitive violence of the wall lies not only in the obstruction that it creates on the ground, but the dangerous model it creates for remapping sovereignty, and for creating a sharply uneven access to justice, from immigration courts to the rights we accord others. If the wall deflects attention from deep-running national problems from homelessness, climate change, credit-card debt, health-care, and widespread economic inequalities, it offers an impoverished sense of the collective that is designed to demonize and erode the legality of immigrant.  Indeed, the promise that “We Will Build the Wall Together” in the fortress-like image of the nation that Trump openly promoted on the campaign trail, the place of the law, or of liberties, were absent from the spatial imaginary he sketched.  The admiration with which Trump regards an image one of his supporters has drawn of the Border Wall as something “we will build . . . together” invokes the collective as a new understanding of the nation, and suggests the image of collective rebirth and regeneration through the project of wall-building that seems launched in the Trump campaign, when it became an open point of collective rallying–based on an imaginary already sketched by the U.S. Border Patrol.

We Will Build.png

As it was from the iconography of the badge of the border guard and the geographic imaginary that the U.S. Border Patrol seek to promote on the US-Mexico Border–


Actual Border Patrol Insignia


Fencing on US-Mexico Border

33.  As a candidate, Trump promoted the return to the project of wall building as a primal image of the nation.  The very image provided the basis for his sense of executive actions.  The violence of the building of the wall that he has promised his audiences at every opportunity during the election provided a basis for dividing the nation that was itself without clear legality or precedent in international law, but was built under the different authority of a need that he mandated.  

But having been launched in the “state of emergency” after September 11, 2001, The creation of these boundaries however create a particularly warped image of state that he promised he could create for the nation, in which the executive could bend the law:  for when Trump declared with incredulous self-confidence that “A nation without borders is not a nation,” he proposed a new idea of the nation, as much as describing the borders of the United States, that obscured his own lack of political experience or familiarity with government or civil institutions.  With a used car salesman’s confidence and cockiness, he boasted of the ease of binding the nation with a wall able to obscure what the civil institutions that long defined the the nation were, promoting paint a new image of sovereignty with confidence of the need to replace the existing political status quo.  

In reclaiming a boundary that had long existed his own invention and celebrating it as his own unique executive relation to the nation–foregrounding its construction in his campaign in ways that distracted from national problems from economic inequality to homelessness to poor education and opportunity, as a way to describe the nation’s sovereignty and to reach out to his voters, and for voters to understand his candidacy.  Why do you think we got 11 million to 12 million people in this country [illegally] now?” Homan asked White House reporters, raising the specter of increased numbers of unauthorized entrants into the United States as if they were a cause for incarceration.  

“Because there has been this notion that if you get by the Border Patrol, if you get in the United States, if you have a US citizen kid, then no one is looking for you. But those days are over,” Trump’s spokesman then intone, suggesting the benefits of collective surveillance of border crossing that the executive branch seeks to make its flagship project to institute.  While it is tempting to see the roll-out of this spatial imaginary as having been orchestrated by the Reality TV Star turned presidential candidate, the figure of the border–a “proposed fence” or indeed a “border wall”–was already long introduced into the public imagination.  The false objectivity of such maps introduced the need for the Border Wall long before Trump appeared on the scene, and the agitation for the enforcement of the border through legal means developed during the Presidency of George W Bush, and became a mandate that Barack Obama, if trained in constitutional law, had limited ability to stop.


The need to protect the border became exploited and used as something of launching point into politics by Donald Trump, who foregrounded the problem of the US-Mexican boundary from his entry into the Presidential campaign in 2016–and the need to create or build The Wall.  While this was by no means the first time that Trump had toyed with such a candidacy, or had imagined himself as a public figure of political stature, the figure of a border wall became one that he seems to have felt met his skills and reputation as a builder–“this is something I know how to do”–and that met the needs of the nation, and justified the new identity that he claimed in political life.  

To launch his candidacy, it is not surprising that Trump seized so readily on an idea that long simmered in the unconscious of the nation  through the maps diffused on social media and in legal contexts by administrative offices like ICE–Immigration and Customs Enforcement–or the U.S. Border Patrol, that existed on the margins of civil law and indeed the state.   The actual work of collating and assembling statistics of apprehensions, border crossing, seized contraband (drugs and arms) or statistics on the apprehension of convicted criminals over the past decade have helped create “infographics” widely diffused by the ostensibly non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies–an organization whose very name openly claimed the objectivity of a map, which is to say masked its own political agenda.  And this objectivity is an objectivity that has been able to circulate widely and wildly on social media, providing a place in the mental imaginary for the danger of the border that has been able to cathect as a figure for those who want to see a rebirth and regeneration of the nation.  The symbol of the wall–girding the nation–has hence become a central part of the mental imaginary for many, unable to be dislodged from their spatial imaginary of what a nation is, and how a nation best protects its citizens and states.

The remove of the wall from the law–and of the increasingly militarized border from the norms of civil society–may have made it attractive both as lying on the margins of the law, as an increasingly militarized space, and as offering the basis for a religion of the nation.   Candidate Trump did not need conceal his lack of experience with public policy decisions or civil law.  But in place of politics, or the law, he directed attention to the need to preserve national borders to validate the outlandish idea of girding the nation with a protective wall able to vacate or distract from questions of his political credibility among much of the electorate.   But the graphics that his promise promoted–and which circulated widely in newspapers and online–created a sense of a mental geography of vulnerability to outside streams of migrants, and seemed an illustration of the rationale of the worsening status that many Americans so acutely felt.  The promise of connecting the ‘gaps’ between existing border barriers seemed a necessary and immediate end, more important than the guaranteeing of individual rights or consensus of international law.


The images compiled by ICE executive Drora B. Schiro, who worked for Janet Napolitano, then incoming Homeland Security Director  (2009-13), to compile Immigration and Detention Overview and Recommendations (October, 2009) for the former Governor of Arizona, seeking to clarify what would be the best use of “extensive exercise performing removal functions” of ICE,–including detention strategies and better oversight of then-expanding detention operations.  The maps accompanied what was the first broad review of detention practices, and sought to foreground fairly fictitious manufactured “spatial density analyses” of the “demand” and “supply” of detention–as if to represent an economics of detaining immigrants, rather than a legal question, in terms of supply and demand, and to treat the question of immigration as a static question that could be projected on a single, stable base map.  Law was effectively bracketed in this analysis–as in the language of detention–as the civil rights of immigrants or status of immigrants as individuals, rather than targets of apprehension, was ignored.

 The “fuzz” that dominated the border–a sort of “cartographic haze” that invested objectivity in the border but blurred the very question of human identity of immigrants or those seeking asylum from other nations–and obscured any clarity on the issue or their plight, as well as about border policing.  The set of maps instead focussed attention on the apparatus of detention on the border, as if it offered a source of meaning, rather than the problems of addressing human needs.  The magic of the map is its objectivity with which it invests the border as a site of leeching danger–and a site for national attention–that was later incorporated or transferred into a new imaginary of the nation.  The absurdly objective positing of a “spatial density analysis” suggests a spatial disposition of need, despite the ridiculously large scale of the graphic of the entire country, and reveals a bleeding across the actual border as displayed in a heat map, so as to suggest that the border no longer existed as a line.  The distribution of a “heat map” of the numbers of apprehensions in ICE field offices–where immigrants are found and apprehended by ICE officers–against the dispersion throughout the nation of detention centers, seems to displace the national map.  The base map is no longer is divided by states, but by the sectors that are administered by ICE offices, as if border patrolling displaces the actual nation–providing an image of how ICE saw the nation, and how ICE officers faced the question of immigration through their own administrative practices, rather than through the national framing of immigration law, about the time that Barack Obama first became President.  And the very displacement of legal options, rights, and guarantees in a ballooning “demand for detention” that now covers what seems two thirds of the United States, or at least the lower 48, and shows a landscape with circumscribed legal rights.

Detention Demand FY 2009.pngSchriro (October 2009)

The border seems already imagined as a site of a lack  of rights.  The hot-red areas around the sites where the wall would be constructed–as if to match the implied “danger” sites–allegedly revealed with objective precision the scale of the “needs” that it would meet, or the objectively illustrated “demand for detention” it would respond and allegedly help to mitigate, ostensibly by limiting or curtailing the number of arrests and detained.

Detention Demand versus Capacity FY 2009.pngSchriro (October 2009)

For ICE, the border exists as a place where law needs to be suspended because of the high rates of arrests, excessive need for deportation, and demand for detention–and the false objectivity of maps as the above both place the border outside of civil society and as a different space, one in in need of something like a military rule to facilitate and accommodate the increased demands for deportations that occur at ICE offices.  These spaces are not spaces where civil law will be important, or individual rights regarded, but where the efficiency of deportation and detention operations demand to be promoted, in the eyes of many who read the map as an objective record of the status quo.  Trump has championed unilaterally building a concrete boundary wall on the southwestern border of the United States as if it were his own invention.  

34.  Trump has worked to cement the tie between border and sovereignty, even as it has begun to vanish in our GPS systems.  He repeatedly alerts his audiences to need to guard vigilantly against the threats to national security and sovereignty, as if to obscure the repeated mapping and remapping of the border as a national threat to national sovereignty that tie protection of the border to national security, and a threat urgently demanding national attention.  The rising numbers of immigrant apprehensions by US Border Patrol in recent years had increased the sense of alarm and illegality of all immigration–criminalizing immigration and immigrants–as the US Senate promised not to grant Green Cards to the undocumented, an actual issue on the table back in 2012, until the “flow” had been reduced to a trickle, and the space of the border, by extension, has been fully restored to a site of relative order.

While neither side provided terms helpful in empathically regarding the immigrant as a person, the range of “info”-graphics produced to describe immigration by Border Patrol sector reduced them to numbers, in particularly unhelpful ways, and it was difficult to provide or create an image of the numbers who were processed by criminal courts, so strong was the connotation of criminality and, by extension, “illegality” that they created.
Immigrant apprehensions.png


Repeatedly mapping the southern border as a limit of sovereignty disproportionately cast the border as central to the nation’s integrity and safety–though only four states border Mexico–by demonizing its other side–as does the emphasis on the urgency of its protection.  Without confronting the complexity of questions of cross-border migration or the economic benefits migration allowed an American economy increasingly reliant on immigrant workers to fill seasonal and low-skilled jobs–in ways that sustain its agricultural productivity and exports when few others work on farms–or the economic benefits to the nation of immigration–the proposed wall suggests a tyrannical relation to space.  By demonizing the immigrant. In a minority majority country, Trump’s repeated invocation of the project of building a border wall at rallies as a place to voice frustration and mutually recognize a common experience and bond–embodied in the ritualized chant ”Build that wall!”–affirming the status of many who have not experienced social mobility in a grandiose project separating “us” from “them.”

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

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