Strongman on the Border

13.   The unduly weighted focus on the border wall has the unsurprising effect of flattening the perspective–or rights–of the individual, as they are set against the commanding logic that asserts the national boundary as the law.  The logic of maps that insist on the need of vigilance to the border seem a game of attentiveness and attention that call into being the necessity of a continuous wall.  By transforming a site of transit passage to a blocked passage, the official declaration summoned an image of the port of entry choking with arrivals and in desperate need of policing.   The alternate reality that the public response to the arrival of the yearly march of asylum seekers was not created for Trump’s twitter followers, but for several thousands of immigrants seeking asylum, even if fewer than a tenth–under 200– arrived at the border to apply for entry into the United States–so effectively has the Trump administration continued to escalate pressure on Mexico’s government to crack down on migrant routes in southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Tabasco, inderdicting migrants from Central America, and helping the Mexican government shutter their southern border.

image.pngJesuit Migrant Service–pink lines explain shortest route to border, echoed by red signs below from Migrant Shelter wall in Palenque, in Southern Mexico


image.pngNew U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, November 9, 2016  © 2016 Reuters  

la-fg-migrants-caravan-closer-border-pictures-020L.A. Times

For in an age when the building of the Border Wall stands for a new sense of spatial vigilance to “crossing” the frontier, and indeed incarnates a steely sense of national vigilance against all border crossing, evident in the expanding number of border patrol guards, construction of border wall prototypes, and constant attention to the background radiation of the border that has been diffused on social media and in television news over the past decade by anti-immigration groups.   Trump has repeatedly asserted, in an ungrounded tautology, “a nation without borders is not a nation,” intransigently affirming the need to “build a wall, to keep the damn drugs out”–even as most drugs enter the nation through sanctioned border crossings, but spun his own limited geographic sense–and the limited ability to sense threats to the nation, by a rhetorical facility in adopting anti-migrant fears:  proclaiming dangers that lie across the border s posing the greatest threats to public safety, and a world where “open borders . . . have drugs and gangs” to cross the border, as “dangerous criminals are fleeing the country and seeking refuge into the United States”–as if to project his own limited sense of geographic threats to the nation, dynamics of drug trafficking and gang violence.


In ways that are by no means only rhetorical, but conceal their deep continuity with earlier policy toward the borders begun in the Presidency of George W. Bush, Trump has escalated the nation’s sense of dangers that face the nation just outside its border.  He has insisted that “open borders . . . have allowed drugs and gangs” into the country, conjuring an imminent “immigrant gang plague” as if to create a new narrative for the nation, and circularly arguing that new immigrants will be recruited by gangs.  Migrants from Central America are routinely described as a “totally different kind of person” from earlier generations of immigrants, “with a chip on their shoulders toward the United States . . . which they blame for the political and economic failures of their home countries,” asserting the need for expedited removals by conjuring suffering “at the hands of gangs, cartels and violent criminals.”

image.pngBorder Patrol agent Veronica Martinez watches over border wall separating U.S. and Mexico near Sunland Park, N.M. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albaquerque Journal)

In contrast with the rhetoric of “crime prevention,” the annual progress of the Caravan echoed passage of migrants across Mexico from Central America were imagined to violate the defense of a national border that had gained increased prominence in the geographical imaginary as a since the Department of Homeland Security was charged to “plan, design and construct a physical wall on the border” as a high priority.   Even if it does not exist, the creation of a border wall exists as a conceptual creation and artifact, inserted in so many maps and visualizations over the last two years that it has become something of an altar for the nation, was able to cast a shadow over their progress, and indeed over the banners, signs, and slogans that migrants hopefully held during their northward procession.  For rather than serving to protest against the inhumane conditions of cross-border travel, and the many victims created by attempted passage into the United States, the prominence of the wall overshadowed  the individual stories of migrants, all the more easy to erase, perhaps, by the spectacle of their arrival–following routes long recognized as along a “migrant corridor,” seemed to map a collective fear–


–and turned into a story that was increasingly about the absent Border Wall and the “weak” or “non-existent” immigration laws Trump claimed attracted them to the US-Mexico Border, and into the United States.  Even as the migrants moving on foot sought dispel the image of the dead bodies of attempted migrants that tired to travel by train, in cargo cars or on the roofs of cabins, in an attempt to pass the walls topped by razor wire or concertina wire coiled atop, military style, improvised border walls–


–the attempt at affirming the possibility of transborder transit despite the deadly nature of smuggling routes, fatal journeys, accentuated and placed into relief by the construction a border wall beyond the 700 miles of current fencing, begun decades ago in the 1990s, the demand to create impassible fencing will expand the number of migrants found dead at the border in the past 20 years–between 7,000 and as many as 10,000. or far greater than American combatants in Iraq, even as net migration stands at historic lows.

The image of the border wall–much of it already decorated with crosses, noting names and ages of those killed crossing the border near Tijuana, but the shadows of the changes in border policy has now created a “crisis” of Central Americans who’s itinerary is described as a “struggle to reach the U.S.,” and rather than being welcomed, are mapped as if they were sovereign threats demanding a military response–reflecting the increasing militarization of the US-Mexico border as a wall.  The creation of threats of transborder violence, national decline, and economic downward mobility that the wall is asserted to prevent have been long systematically enlarged, accentuated and dramatized through mapping, more than any other media, tying the border wall to the continuity of the integrity, safety, and national coherence, echoing the imaginary charge of monies flowing south across the border with NAFTA, drugs and gangs as MS-13 entering the country through porous borders, and economic migration.  But the mythic status of the wall as a defense of the nation not only perverts the notion of the nation, but immigration law, as the very laws allowing the border to exist not as an solid line and demanding a physical wall to prevent crossing–as if this were the role or purpose of a border.


Is it any surprise that the border, as it has been transformed to a site of military enforcement, has been transformed into a site of migrants’ death–a number that has only increased in 2017-18, even as attempted border crossings fell–

image.pngMigrant Death Mapping/Humane Borders


Border Deaths, 2016-17

The insistent undermining of a discourse on law or the collective rights of migrants is emphasized by the painting of their arrival as a threat to national sovereignty, as if their transborder progress was by extension invested with the force of challenging the supervision of our borders and the safety of our nation.  The tweet storm Trump issued created a ripple of alarm that rebounded across the country in social media as if it were an en masse migration surely contributed to Trump’s off-beat characterization of deported migrants as animals–“We have people coming into this country, or trying to come in–and we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country,” began Trump, before reflecting with disturbing vagueness in a direct address, “you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are–these aren’t people, they’re animals“–in response to questions of the access that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would have to criminal databases in California.

The question of the ability of sheriffs to forward criminal records to ICE has been repeatedly cast by Trump as a problem of protecting the nation, and encouraged him to question local authorities who have encouraged and defended Sanctuary Cities as undermining national security.  But in asserting the importance of tracking such “animals” provided a metaphor far more dehumanizing than “criminals,” and disturbingly removed the question of immigration from laws and their enforcement, in ways that elided the violent crimes of MS-13 whose violence Trump has detailed so often as a specter haunting the nation.  The “security” that the Border wall would allow against the entrance of “savage gangs pouring into our most vulnerable communities” seek to seal the “open borders that have allowed drugs and gangs” into our country due to a “lawless immigration system,” showing the arrival of drugs as marijuana, methamphetamines, and heroin as existential threats, swimming upstream like salmon on smuggling routes run by foreign gangs and criminal networks.  


The Justice Department confirmed in its graphics that the illegal transportation of heroin alone across the border indeed “comes from he southern border,” as Trump put it, based on U.S. Customs and Border Protection seizures of drugs, as drug flows to Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas diffused the entire nation.

image.pngU.S. National Drug Assessment, Dept. Justice (2012)

The slippage between undocumented immigrants, gang members, immigrant targeting and border enforcement and deportation was perpetuated in the media.  The slippage in categories served to blur real and perceived criminality, dehumanizing migrants to monitor the border, served to place a religion of the border above the status of migration or the law.  Trump exploited fears far beyond M-13 members in US jails by shifting to those “coming into the country, or trying come in,” ratcheting up dehumanizing language and border policy in debate on sanctuary cities, sharing of criminal database sharing with ICE, and management of trans-border immigration outside of the laws.  For as Trump has placed the border above and outside the law—as if in a space where laws are suspended, and the violation of international law ignored given the need of the border wall as a policed zone outside of the legal frameworks of the nation but a monitored zone–

–the status of migrants as they approached the wall was itself undermined, as they were converted from humans into an advancing onslaught, themselves not subject to laws–and not respecting them–and undermining any legal protections they are accorded.  The act of insisting on the border has become a means of suspending human rights around the border–and indeed of illustrating the need to suspend human rights.

Did the progression of migrants encourage the conflation between caravans, animals, and immigration, in ways that removed the question and fear from the categories of legal or illegal, terms adopted for documented and undocumented in anti-migrant discourse?  The spectacle of the migrants, long followed on television as they walked with backpacks, cel phones, banners, signs, and a reduced number of possessions across the highways and into Mexico City and then further north did not follow the established route of the so-called “Migrant Corridor,” but prompted the President to enjoin the state of Mexico to turn them back, lest they face an end to free trade.

migrant_journey_map.jpgMigrant Corridor (2012)

Back in 2012, when a group of Jesuit priests sought to empathize with the plight of Central American migrants by accompanying them on their transborder route, by following the established migrant route, the Border Wall did not exist in such concrete terms.  It did not hold nearly so prominent place in the geographic imaginary–nor was it so easily tied to national sovereignty for so many.

Repeatedly mis-mapping the southern border as the limit of national sovereignty has disproportionately cast the border as threats to the nation’s integrity and safety–even though but 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. This year, in swift response to the imminent arrival of the movement of populations across Mexico seeking refuge from persecution in their countries, the panic and refusal even to entertain admission at the US-Mexico border turned into a story less about people–or individuals who left their homes–than about the strength of our border and the need to protect it:  if the conceit that “A Huge Caravan of Central Americans is Headed For the US, and No One in Mexico Dares to Stop Them” quite bizarrely seemed to convert a plea for global attention to the plight of those fleeing gang violence, discrimination, or lack of work into a threat to the United States.

Is it a coincidence that the aggregate mapping of migrants from south of the Border strips them of any individuality, and already erased their stories?  Indeed, the arrival of a group seeking asylum at a port of entry along the border led the President to abuse the powers of his office by predicting the arrival of a “drastic surge” of illegal migrants that parallels one of criminality along the southwestern border, even if the numbers of those who cross the border illegally–or attempted to do so–remains at historic lows.  But the arrival of the migrants who were headed to the border seemed to present the need of the defense of the and its securing as a matter of immediate urgency, and to insist on the present need for a border wall with urgency.

The missing Border Wall became acutely felt as a matter of urgency, even if the Border Wall had not been created, and was absent for the budget for FY 2018, as if to compensate fro the actual absence from a desired the mental geography of the nation that the President has sen as an extension of his executive privilege and authority.  At the same time, the border that had become metastisized into a “wall” in the public imaginary in large part due to the spread of maps that projected its construction, the image of migrants actually moving upward along sections of the wall after they were not allowed admittance, under the eyes of border guards.  The wall was also, to be sure, seen as a jail, keeping migrants who sought asylum on one side of the border, excluding immigrants who had travelled on foot in search for refuge from a society that persecuted them and from which they had sought asylum.

la-fg-migrants-caravan-closer-border-pictures-020.jpgL.A. Times

As if it were a phantom limb, the President of the United States turned the nation’s attention to the overlooked borderline, generated by insistence at Presidential rallies as a promise to the nation, the return of the image of the wall, whose unwieldly cost had excluded it from the FY18 budget, the border wall became a primal scene of the nation, as it had been so effectively tied to fears of an erosion of economic prestige, economic well-being, and even of national decline.

14.  The orientation to the border creates a deep-set confusion of place and nation, in which the proximity of the southwestern border to the entire nation is mapped in a set of misleading flows, currents, and quasi-military invasions or infiltrations across the border.  The prominence of the border as a site for criminal entry has been prepared in the cartographical imaginary of immigration enforcement long before Trump, but as a discourse of the nation was co-opted by Trump’s campaign and presidency in particularly disarming that functions outside of the law.

ICE border enforcement has helped to generate a worldview of American territory under attack, in need of better reinforcement, and as defending the hierarchy of racial privilege, by framing the need for a border wall in terms protecting property, health, and the economy:  the border wall is mapped as a needed investment in protecting public resources, in a bizarre view of the nation, based on the need for protection against alien aggression.  ICE has mapped, in its “Secure Communities” initiatives, a disproportionate number of removals that stand to guarantee local safety near to the border.  Maps of the number of “apprehensions” of gang-members across America from 2005-14 foregrounded the apprehension of members of transnational crime organizations as if they attest to the danger of a poorly secured border–

ICE 2014 arrests gangs--ms13?Center for Immigration Studies Map: 2005-2014 ICE Gang Arrests of 4,000 MS-13 members and 30,000 nationwide/Jessica Vaughan

–in ways that were reproduced on television news to accentuate national vulnerability, as Trump himself told the nation soon after his inauguration that “people are really, really, scared,” after issuing an executive order that increased the ability of Immigration Authorities to expedite deportation–

ICE RAIDSFOX News, “ICE RAIDS”; February 11, 2017

–and to suggest needed national protection to preserve “communities” at risk of cross-border violence in the “Secure Communities Removals” effort from 2008-15, to suggest a broad problem that seems to have begun from the porous borer; we’re invited to view such communities as Immigration Enforcement Activty Hubs by the allegedly non-partisan “Center for Immigration Studies”–a prominent anti-immigrant group.

Secure Communiies Removal.pngICE “Secure Communities” Removals, 2005-15 (2017)/Bryan Griffith, Jessica Vaughan

Parallel, similarly crude, Google Maps of “criminal alien releases” against Detention Center in the continental United States invite citizens to map their own proximity to the release of “criminal aliens” convicted of murder from prisons and detention centers in relation to their residence, rhetorically effective way to make the defense of the border compelling to map readers, alarming viewers who can witness the failure of the very technologies of surveillance, monitoring and policing  ICE desires.

Detntion houses:Releases.pngFreed Convicted Murderers who are Criminal Aliens by ZIP codes (2013; 2014 map)

The number of apprehensions concentrated along the border regions to foreground the border as a site of collective concern and a testimony to the need for vigilance, as if to call attention to the security dangers posed along the border.  The latest numbers of ICE “apprehensions” of Gang Members in the most notorious of transnational criminal organizations, MS-13, some 4,000 members of which were arrested, of whom 92% were deemed “illegal aliens” further help constitute the border as a liminal site of illegality and criminality, as if to prove compelling need to control the cross-border flow of individual “aliens” by empowering additional government agents, enhanced ICE tactics of confronting immigrants outside courts of law in four states–including California, Arizona, and Texas–and accentuate the remove of migrants from justice.  Indeed, multiple stories or cartographically employed narratives created a story map of the extent of raids and detentions across the United States, suggesting an actively working and engaged apparatus of deportation that would be slowed by laws and the legal process, but was in need of being accelerated to maintain public safety of American citizens.

Raid Narratives.png

Despite the hopes that the “Dreamer” Act of President Obama would be retained by Trump, Trump has in fact continued to rail against illegality in ways that reassert the investment of meaning of the border as a line of legality, independent of the actual circumstance of people whose parents have crossed it and are in the country, and independent of their own individual rights.  President Obama’s historical declaration that the “temporary relief from deportation” for children who were granted stays from being deported by President Obama that the stay “may be revoked at any time” this April created further insecurity and panic among immigrant communities.  Yet of the almost 6.2 million undocumented migrants living in the US are removed from their communities, and from civic life, by an emphasis on their criminality, coloring them so often–unlike this elegant OSM interactive map, as targets of deportation or as standing in violation of the law, in order to convince the viewer that they are threats to public safety that demand full attention, by presenting an image of a United states that no longer appears familiar–and whose territory is not continuous–but inhabited by “unauthorized Immigrant Population . . . from Mexico” needing to be supervised.

Unauthorized Immigrant Pop in US from Mexico.png

Unauthorized PopMigration Policy Institute: Unauthorized Migrants in City/State/County Levels

Such data visuaizations never or rarely map the increasingly dangerous terrain that this created for immigrant communities, or the violence to those communities such raids seemed to normalize.  But they suggest the basis for mapping locations of immigrants that could be used to justify such raids. One must go behind the map, however, to the remap the violence on a necessarily uneven legal terrain in order to maintain the peace.   

The rise of ICE arrests and raids have been recently generated and documented in clickable form by Migramap, self-styled “Latino rebel hackers,” which invert this logic of mapping danger and cartography of fear by giving prominence to the risks that immigrants face from ICE officials.


Raid NarrativesICE arrests/Migramap/Latino Rebels (2017)

The dissemination of such maps, and the sense of vigilance toward the border that they promote, may go some way in describing the particular intransigence of the anti-immigrant positions, and indeed the intransigence of border enforcement, in the objective value that they accord to the border and the benefits of a “real” border wall before one is built or exists.

The map conveys in interactive form the expanding network of federal oversight of local law and presence in urban communities across America reflects the ideal of border enforcement materialized in the boundary wall Trump promised the electorate, and descends from the logic for mass imprisonment, but for the physical expansion of a network of incarceration.  The powers of federal apprehension, detention and deportation, augmented expanding the conceit of the authority sanctioned by notion of a boundary wall, even if unbuilt, is a call for its construction through the proliferation of a separated carceral system that maps directly onto and extends the spate of prison-building and hyper-incarceration in what what sociologist Loïc Wacquant called a “politics of resentment toward [an underclass] deemed undeserving and unruly” and that fed the greatest “carceral boom in world history” unrelated to actual trends of criminality.  The access to counsel for which former California Attorney General Kamala Harris has called for detained foreigners held by Immigration Authorities at recognized border ports of entry provides an attempt to restore the access to lawyers that border apprehensions similarly deny.

In ways that reflect how sociologist Loic Wacquant argued that increased social stratification of the nation in the post-civil rights era facilitated the growth of “gargantuan penal state” that led to a targeted “hyperincarceration of African American men from the imploding ghetto,” did the social stratification of the United States encourage this othering of the migrant as crossing from the southwestern border and disturbing economic rights?   Wacquant argued that delayed reaction to the civil rights movement led to a targeting of marginalized populations by a new strategy of engaging the perimeter.  The engagement of the border at our national perimeter seems an even more explosive case of the mis-mapping of social ills:  By 2010, the promise to build a wall along the southwestern boundary of the United States has expanded a parallel network of detention centers, that curtail the civil rights and diminish the opportunities for legal representation of a new underclass of immigrants facing deportation, concentrated around the border but creating a shadow-network of incarceration without rights in detention centers, asserted to be justified by links to drug-trafficking, criminality, gang warfare, and the usurpation of public benefits, targeting the undocumented.  

It is striking that while Wacquant identified was promoted by then-New York City Mayor (and more recently Trump spokesperson) Rudy Guiliani, the former prosecutor made New York a laboratory and a direct precursor for the policies of “tough on crime” that filled jails and are encouraged by Jeff Sessions; the very “zero-tolerance policies” advocated and introduced by New York City’s then-mayor Giuliani–a Trump advisor and friend have been adopted by the Attorney General as the basis for replacing the nation’s border.  And whereas Giuliani, as mayor of a once-liberal city, gauged his policies in response to a fear of crime neither proportional or reflecting urban criminality to increase the number of jail admissions, creating social disruption and dividing families in the inner city as a result, we might imagine what the end-result of the policy of increasing border policing in the name of national safety.  

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

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