Strongman on the Border

9.  Sealed into a concrete barrier that lies along the imaginary line that divides Mexico and the United States at the Tijuana crossing suggests the need to come to terms with “porous borders,” and force ourselves to imagine–and remap–the ability to “restore” the borders that once existed, that undergird the notion of their leakiness.

While border-crossing was once encouraged to support the agricultural economy, the assertion of existing borders and their control would be most clearly realized by the creation of the promised border wall.

image.pngDamian Dovarganes/AP

The persuasiveness and pervasiveness of a cartographical imaginary allows the border to be imagined and re-imagined as a stable barrier of the sort that the American president promises to be built.  The border wall–as much as the actual border–has become a primitive classification that defines the nation.  The definition of the Customs and Border Patrol as a rejection of “open borders” policies of Barack Obama and an affirmation of an image of national integrity, albeit by preserving an almost religious relation to the borders that has diminished the nation as one of laws.


Fencing on US-Mexico Border

Trump seems to have internalized the angry obstacle of the border wall he advocated that he identifies with as a way to cathect with his base, even as–as a former DHS staffer noted–he only retains “a rudimentary understanding of what the border is all about and how you secure it.”  By preferring to use the conceit of the border wall as a wedge issue, to divide foreigners from Americans and to appease his crowds by citing names of Hispanic nature and attributing them with violent crimes, as a means to sacrifice these fictional creations as “criminal aliens” to bring the thrilled responses of his audience, as if they were emblematic of the 50,000 undocumented immigrants arrested while or after they crossed the border each of the opening months of 2018.

The demand that DHS Secretary Kiersten Nielsen act to “close the border” and secure the needed funds–without specifying anumber–to complete the border wall–led him to shout “we’re closed!” as if to refuse migrants from arriving in the nation definitively.  As potential migrants–projected at thousands, and numbering over 2,000–prepared for a regular protest march from Central America across the Mexican plateaux, but were rather comically portrayed as the latest criminal threat to appear from across the border–and a test of the “secure borders” that Trump promised, and arrived in the course of and just after public budgetary discussion of the funding of the much ballyhooed Border Wall, way under-budgeted and standing to create the larger ballooning of the federal budget in years, in the name of the defense of the hollowed-out concept of the nation that Trump seeks to defend against imagined dangers of cross-border immigration that have been cast as “illegal,” as he has posed the notion of a “wall” as designed to protect the nation and as a reversal of current immigration policies.   The border wall did not in itself start from any defined fear or danger of immigration:  backing for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 did not derive from borderland events, but from the remapping of national safety by the Homeland Security Department, in the extended aftermath of 9/11, whose haze we are still recovering, created at a remove from the border zone and in Washington D.C.–



–but the Bush administration left incomplete the problems of the costly “virtual fence” that it long promised would control immigration into the country–and to end what it called “illegal” immigration, positing a “Secure Borders Initiative” that never wrestled with immigration problems or failures, but offered an imaginary ideal of outsourcing a comprehensive border plan.   Yet difficulties of contracting fencing construction from such private partners as Boeing, who ran far over its one billion dollar budget, raised multiple questions of the coordination of detention technologies, infrastructure, and new technologies for surveilling and monitoring the border, that seem constructed more in a virtual than an actual space.

The “solutions” Trump promised are often framed in a similar virtual space imagined on Google Maps, but one inflected by the fearsome visualization of border insecurity that anti-immigrant groups have long proposed, and often filter into the mainstream media projections of the wall.  The construction of “fencing” at the start of the Obama administration responded to such heightened fears of vulnerabilities to the nation state that later maps have proliferated, in ways that have cast a shadow across civil liberties in the entire nation.   The image of fencing “under construction” and “planned that promised to fill the relatively small gaps in the border fencing created an illusion of protection and security, which were rhetorically amplified by later administrations in ways that prepared for a “stronger and safer place”–as if this was able to be sealed by straight lines, manicured fencing, and concrete foundations–


–but offered a promise to the nation that was amplified as Mike Pence promised Young America Foundation, insisting that “President Trump has no higher priority than the safety and security of the American people” in a promise for collective action and false populism, in ways that played on the imagination of an unwritten bargain to build a wall to exclude the border crossers who were stigmatized as “outside the law.”

We Will BuildTrump in North Carolina/; he later signed the sign

The hollow declaration in response to the arrival of asylum-seekers presented itself as a statement about national security and national self-respect, rather than a rebuff that served to empty both the law and violate human rights.  The conceit of a border wall that had been increasingly central in defining nationalist discourse and a concept of the nation had effectively redefined debate about the fate of migrants outside of law:  indeed, the radical simplification of managing the nation is distilled to managing the border, in a major remapping of the functions of government to the nation, based not inclusion but reflected an intransigent refusal to accord rights, or recognize migrants as individuals who demand to be accorded rights, by collectively casting them as enemies of the nation, emphasizing the criminality of border-crossing.

10.  The distorting attention to the border serves to underscore their violation of laws–or the new laws of the nation–even as the wall comes to substitute for the legal rights; the flattening of the concept of rights corresponds to the undue attention to the border.  At the same time as increased numbers of people are traveling across borders, and increasing anxiety about cross-border travel, Trump has come to direct increased attention to border crossing as if to make the border a central referent of public policy, almost as much to create an actual obstruction to cross-border travel.  The widespread if unarticulated concern with a decline of status, now suddenly focussed on the border wall, seems to nag like a scab to which our attention obsessively returns without impulse control, We are plagued with the problems of distortion of a map, caught in the gap between the distortion of a mp and reality:  the border seems both far more of a line rather than as a complex zone of management, and in length runs through several towns, over isolated desert and mountain terrain of greater expanse than we could imagine, even as it might be projected and reduced in scale.

Other maps of the border pose flawed arguments for the need for its construction as if they were urgent and able to be resolved:  as much as raise problems of the gap between diagram and actuality, they chart flows in misguided ways as if they lay in our control to stop.  The urgency the border is presented as a multi-purpose cure for multiple ills–proliferating solutions from the importation of drugs into the country, the rise of fears of violence, the fear of economic decline, suggest that keeping the border open is “rigged” and against the nation’s good.  And as if boiling over with a reaction to the attempt to downplay race in the Age of Obama, the revenge of erecting the “real” Border Wall seeks to control transborder flows, as if this will secure shifting economic status.

The amassing of an expansion of military resources, soldiers, border agents, and surveillance technologies along the border creates its own military-industrial complex, linked to the sprouting of multiple detention centers and even the possibility of mobile courts near the border zones.  The division of the border by administrative zones indeed places it almost outside of the state.  The militarized expansion of the border wall has itself become a means of eroding the administration of justice, both as it replaces the operations of justice in the name of the state, and the right of the state; as such, the border wall complex increasingly seems to  instantiates an almost pre-legal notion of the nation–bound by fixed frontiers–that serve as a basis for replacing the written law.  As much as a rewriting of the law, the effacing of legal rights seems an inverse reflection of the expansion of the border wall in the nation’s spatial imaginary that has been foster in the Trump administration–in ways that allegedly stand as a break from earlier border policies of tolerance, lax enforcement, and lack of love for the country and nation, but seem in fact a heightened continuity of the persecution of migrants and foreigners who deign to cross the border line.

The new policies that are enacted about the wall are not per se legal, but provide new modes of enforcing the border and interacting with and surveilling migrants, stopping them to demand papers or detain them for unrestricted lengths of time, as the backlog of cases for border processing grows, and the expansion of extra-legal rights, as immigration laws are recast as “loopholes” in need of executive review.  In this re-mapping of the nation, Trump and his legal officers have increased the effort Trump promised in his political campaign to turn to massive efforts of building a border barrier that has already cost the US government from $500,000 to up to $16 million has now been argued to cost a mere $8 billion, but probably would reach $25 billion at a minimum–a grandiose public works project that Trump himself noted might be so commensurate with his own sense of grandiosity to merit not only his “planning” but be named after him.  The escalating nature of these costs suggests a financial lack of control–and indeed an unrestrained attempt at grandiosity that echoes Trump’s over-the-top style, and a desire to create the most “solid” and “real” wall that can be imagined–although the construction is perhaps destined to be at base only imaginary and symbolic, and may need not even ever be physically completed.


After loosing the budgetary fight for the border wall, Trump south to keep its image alive when he  travelled to California to visit eight possible “prototypes” of the promised border wall, as if seeking o put the border wall before our yes and place it prominently on national news, even if it did not exist.  By the visit, Trump evoked the need for the Border Wall and confirmed its eventuality.  Before relaxing at a marine base, Trump marveled with reporters at the impending arrival of the “big, beautiful wall” he has long promised the country in real steel and cement, as a sign of renewed vitality and masculinity.  He hoped the several models of walls–even if they were displayed only as individually isolated panels, rather than the final product–might assure his supporters of his intent to keep his promise, and seem to remind the nation of his commitment to a project that has in fact slid to the back burner of the national budget and even of Republican consensus.

For in rehabilitating the building of the wall–and affirming his status as a master builder–he seemed committed to reclaim his place as an architect of a new nation, and to do so by remapping the nation in autocratic ways that affirmed his commitment to the promise of wall-building, rather than legal process, judicial rights of individuals, or even collective decision making.  The specter of the walls that the government planned to create stood as warning signs against immigration, and promises of a future border wall that revealed the urgency of their construction, able to secure a demanded increase in DHS budget, even if it was presented with the massive price tag of $33 billion over a decade–as if this expenditure of public funds were actually worth it.  However gargantuan the request, maps help convince us that it is necessary, and worth it to the future of the nation.  And the continued evocation of the wall–and display of its future creation along the borer–functions perhaps most effectively in the public imagination in a figural sense, as an erasure of all individual stories of migrants, stripping them of opportunities for story-telling so central to human life; and stripping of human identity and a denial of any discourse of or discussion about rights. 

171023-border-wall-prototypes-birds-se-1131p_bd07fd716f91b90febf5c3dcdd071499.focal-1000x500.jpg Arias/AFP/Getty Images

The border wall has become, particularly toxic ways to the nation, as a focus of attention that stands to replace national laws.  The completed wall may primarily exist for most Americans in maps, and is conveniently difficult to view from the US border, but has assumed a disproportionate role within national consciousness and within the diminished sense of the nation that Trump has committed to present to the world, and to used to define national belonging.  The ability of the wall to transfix attention of observers, and to mediate their sense of the experience of migrants who are seeking asylum, even if they are closed off from the American people, but able to be viewed most prominent by the Mexicans in the border-town of Tijuana, has become far more outsized than the individual prototypes of sections which are actually built.

The border wall reflexively appeared as a trigger of panic through which the advance of migrants in the peaceful Caravan de madres centroamericanas, improbably recast in American media as a source of panicked fear of criminal immigration, were recast.  The imaginary of a sealed border led Trump to send the National Guard to the Border, to affirm an illustration of the renewed strength of American borders by both President Trump and the Border Patrol, rather than as revealing the plight of actual refugees.  The summoning of the image of the Border Fence in maps may reveal gaps–


–but has become a symbolic means of sealing off, and allegedly strengthening, the nation, that stands to become perhaps the only major infrastructure spending package that the Trump administration is firmly behind and ready to advocate.

The urging for increased vigilance against the cross-border gang violence, drug trafficking, and human trafficking has distracted the nation, in many ways, from other inequities and inequalities that are only growing across the nation.  Despite the growth of homelessness, opioid addiction, poor health care, gun epidemics, and a lack of environmental protections, the dangers of  and cross-border immigration–based on entirely anecdotal evidence–has been expansively detailed in the State of the Union addresses.

The policies of arresting gang members and targeting migrants as if they are gang members, however, has far from limiting violence, mask the fact that many gang members were born in the United States within the very conditions of marginality that urban poverty and anti-immigrant persecution create–and that ICE may even glorify the very MS-13 groups by bolstering their street cred and notoriety.  The presence of MS-13 gangs was long used as an effective totem for the dangerous presence of immigrants in the nation, despite the origins of street gangs from Los Angeles that spread into other cities with populations having Central American roots or immigrant populations:  the importation of “US-style” gang structures into El Salvador of escalated violence that undermined and stressed local security.

The image of the savage gang member–the “animals” that Trump has described as less than human–are invoked regularly in ways designed to fan up xenophobia around need for border enforcement to detail a mental imaginary of unease about escalating immigration and customs arrests across the nation from Mexico–by analogy to other immigrant gangs–in regard to “transnational” gangs mistakenly elided with drugs and cartels, identifying recent immigrants as violent gang recruits, as if it were possible to externalize violence from the nation or expunge gangs by deportation–even if they are homegrown–

image.pngCenter for Immigration Studies (2015)

11.  The dangerous spatial imaginary that such maps perpetuates erases that the gang was born in the United States.  And recent claims within the Trump administration of a resurgence of gang violence by 10,000 gang members as a result from the adoption of catch and release policies on the border that reprioritized apprehension of criminals has helped demonize all immigrants, as does the description of MS-13 as a financially independent gang working by wire transfers.  (In fact, many gang members are US-born, with Green Cards, with DACA permits, or Temporary Authorization–and the gangs from Central America were constituted by criminals deported to Central America 1996-2002.)  Although MS-13 constitute less than 1% of gang violence in the United States–and often has nothing to do with the border–the violence and clannish nature of the gang and its initiation rituals are described as arriving from across the border, infiltrating American cities from Los Angeles to Washington DC, even if they were born in them, rather than a public safety threat created by the arrival of cliques of non-nationals who “infiltrate Hispanic communities”–rather than being the outcome of marginalization in urban environments where violence is pervasive.  While MS-13 originated as a street gang in Los Angeles, it is depicted as an invasive toxin embedded in Central American immigrants who carry it across the border to “infect” American society.


The defense of the border, by now a central pillar of the religion of the nation, became the implicit sub-text, as the migrants became a test-case of the ability to prevent border-crossing that Trump has so successfully remapping and demonized–and done exploiting the intentionally distorting alarmist maps of “Secure Borders,” the “Center for Immigration Studies,” “Immigration Reform” or other anti-immigration groups to underscore border-crossing as a threat to national safety whose online presence has rapidly grown over the past decade, as a drum-beat against official White House policy.  For as much as he claims to have changed border policy–and instituted a new sense of vigilance in border protection–the continuity of these claims with earlier projects of wall-building are striking.

image.pngSan Diego Reader



Indeed, while the costs of the putative “wall”‘s construction remain unknown to most Americans, in a clever slight of hand, as the cost has never been fully calculated and been provided with multiple figures–underlined, often, with the idea that Mexico will “pay for it,” in a bit of fantastically slippery accounting, typical of the current occupant of the office of the President, the ever-ballooning costs of its construction are hastily balanced by alarmist declarations of the vulnerabilities of the nation state and public menaces that the investing of authority in a “real” wall would prevent or curtail:  in ways that has intentionally created an increasingly distorted relation of migrants to the law, and provided Plans for its construction proceed, and seem destined to endlessly and perpetually proceed, suspending laws of environmental protection (over thirty), ecological concerns, and historical protection, in a grand project to remap the nation’s safety and remove the border zone from the law in order to obstruct cross-border transit.   And so the inflated fear of the most recent arrival of the Caravan de madres centroamericanas became an improbably lightning rod to affirm the strength and reach of American borders above their individual stories.

You won’t have a name/when you ride the big airplane,” Woody Guthrie penned in 1948 about the transportation of migrant field workers by the U.S. Immigration Service to a processing center in Deportee; and “all they will call you is deportees.”   The suggestion of the lack of any proper name suggests more than a stripping of identity.  The same man who wrote so bitingly of “just how much Racial Hate” his landlord, “Old Man Trump . . . in the bloodpot of human hearts,” fomented, was similarly struck by the inhumanity of a newspaper article on an airplane crash in the Los Gatos canyon carrying seasonal workers in the Central Valley.   Their status  as “deportee”–and the refusal or disinterest of its author to name any as an individual–is almost in an eery premonition of the silence of the wall.  

The absence of naming of the twenty-eight passengers whose plane crashed in Los Gatos canyon near Coalinga reveals strong continuities to deaths on the border today:   in normalizing deportation as policy, targeting unauthorized migrants into the United States as illegal, migrants are dehumanized as the Mexican workers who died as they were flown in a government chartered airplane from Oakland CA to a Deportation Center in El Centro, CA while working in the temporary worker bracero program who were being returned to their homes in Mexico, lest they seek to become residents of the nation.  Although their names have been recently identified and published, the absence of their naming–surviving on in Guthrie’s song, as it was sung by Pete Seeger, whose lives were commemorated in the state capitol in Sacramento seventy years after their deaths.

Woody Guthrie’s moving poem–later set to music as an anthem–saw the absence of naming the dead as expressing the erosion of humanity and justice, even for men and women with no criminal cases associated with them.  The  wall-building project and executive actions that mandate expedited deportation, and calls for a deportation force stake out a similarly inhumane reaction to the pressures of globalization, leaving many nameless dead in its wake.  


image.pngKay Fochtmann/Creative Commons

Patrolling of borders ceases to serve to constrain economic movement or contain economic realities than to affirm oppositions across what was previously understood as lived space in maps, and silence those on the other side.  Once fluid borders are invested them with assumed legal authority that lacks actual precedent in the law–emptying individual rights, liberty, and law.  And as the construction of the wall along the border is cast as a question of border management–in ways that mirror the managerial rhetoric of business models that discount best practices–it obscures the human costs and individual stories, warping our perceptions of the control over space and shift the relation of the individual to the law in terrifying ways that stand to erode civil rights and individual rights, and dehumanize the migrant by suspending rights in order to increase apprehensions beside the border.

12.  The growth in the contorted spatial imaginary of the border wall and its urgency to the nation served to normalize long-term human rights violations along the southwestern border–the criminalization of immigration; deployment of military force; apprehension and incarceration; and the endangering of border residents and immigrants alike.   Figuratively mapping a Port of Entry as a blocked passage echoed the prominent place safeguarding the border in anti-immigrant has occupied in political rhetoric, by remapping the border as a suspension of individual rights, imagining the checkpoints and Ports of Entry as outposts of judicial authority.  The authority of Border Patrol stations already extends  within 25 miles of the southwestern border, extending into private land,–and even veering across the border–with authority beyond other law enforcement agents.


Already, U.S. Border Patrol has authority within a broad “border zone,” invested with authority to stop and search passengers on busses, trains, and cars to look for passengers for questioning and search them for papers within 100 miles from borders, creating a new landscape of constitutional rights that ACLU was quick to map as a “Constitution-Free Zone” where Border Patrol agents have a new degree of rights–noting that in fact two thirds of American residents, at a time when the most live on the coasts, live within a hundred miles of borders–when “borders” are construed as encircling the entire continental U.S., as if to reflect and literalize the insignia worn by US Border Patrol and displayed on their offices, cars, and uniforms.



Actual Border Patrol Insignia

The longstanding local border control groups who have challenged national immigration authorities, arguing that the expanse of cartels across the Texas border made it “ground zero” in the spread of cartels’ expanse in to the United States, and arguing that Washington D.C. lacked local knowledge of ground conditions, as President Obama ridiculed the extent of border protections that Texans demanded.

Border Checkpoints.png

The current fear of the specter of Transnational Criminal Organizations that the White House has foregrounded from “cartels that have spread throughout the nation, threatening the safety of the United States and its citizens” who “commit brutal murders, rapes, and other barbaric acts”–defining an image of the migrant criminality that informed Trump’s later quip, “‘These aren’t people–these are animals!“–as playing to the core, evident in bearing down on the slur by tweeting out to defend just how many “Americans have fallen victim to the unthinkable violence of MS-13’s animals,” effectively normalizing the dehumanization of all immigrants crossing the border, stripping legal rights of all immigrants who are involved with criminal justice, if not to strip them of human dignity; even if he claims to “gangs coming in” by evoking the border as a site of passage.

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 7.36.49 PM.png

Indeed, if all mapping does important work by defining networks of relevance, and directing our attention toward them, media maps of the border tacitly direct our attention to the absent Border Wall through their attention to and demonization of trans-border traffic that it classifies as “unauthorized” and demanding increased vigilant supervision and control.  For the border wall that is being objectified and spatialize in political discourse has become a basis for inspecting papers of immigrants in universities, cities, and traffic stops, prioritizing “unauthorized” border crossers, expanding detention facilities along the border, and expanding agents charged charged with immigration enforcement across the border that undermines civil rights and turns attention from actual threats:   as if in a shell game for the nation, the wall conceals advancing income inequality, the deterioration of collective bargaining rights and worker safety conditions, environmental risks, public health, and a ballooning deficit which at the same time cuts back benefits.

The growth of attention to the transborder threat performs a major operation of mass distraction:  with the bloated prosecution of border crossing–already standing at over half of all federal criminal prosecutions with “entry of alien” and “reentry of alien” the vast majority of charges brought in 2016, wildly surpassing drug trafficking or carrying firearms–has already been heightened with the hiring of more border patrol agents, technologies of border protection, and an expansion of incarceration in detention centers, but is nowhere more emphasized than in the rhetorical prominence Trump has given a “physical wall” as a marker of the nation and a centerpiece of the region of the nation.  The imaginary expansion of the wall as a site of blockage, preventing border crossing, has caused a confusion in political debate, clouding the “legality” of migration, the authority to defend the border, and the existence of rights of asylum, in ways that undermine democratic principles in the name of affirming an apparently absolute state sovereignty.  Moreover, the re-expansion of the category of “illegals” is not performative rhetoric for his base–by reaffirming the dehumanization of immigrants and increasing immigration arrests in cities–of individuals alleged to be members of the MS-13 gang with criminal records. The claims that justify augmenting immigration agents’ authorities over migrants on the border, in ways that endanger all migrant’s collective rights–and undermine the very possibility of asserting their collective rights.

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

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