Strongman on the Border

20.  The relentless open attacks Trump has staged targeted the spirit of the laws, or the freedoms of secular laws.  Both indeed seemed to pale in the face of the religion of the state, and the existence of “legal loopholes” what threatens the integrity of the country and secular state.  (The President’s suggestion that the Pentagon may even pay for the wall seems a practice of clever accounting, design to funnel military budget into the creation of a border wall that Congress denied.)  The increasing urgency attributed to and invested in the border wall as a needed protection in a state of crisis was mapped long before it was built, as if to cause its construction to create a real resolution of the constant worries of a permeable border wall.

Indeed, the “weak border laws” he inherited, Trump argues, have themselves created and generated a crisis that was not of his own making:   Trump has conjured a “migrant caravan” from Honduras, heading to America to claim elusive benefits, without taking asylum in Mexico, because national laws allow it, in his mind, even if without understanding the legal process.  ”Big flows of people trying to take advantage of DACA!” Trump tweeted–even if this misconstrued how DACA addressed only those born in the United States. 

The intent of following the itinerary of the caravan who traveled on foot was to restore and magnify fears of long-conjured threats to enter our porous borders already loosed in the course of the Trump campaign by rhetorically transforming them into an “army of alien invaders.”  The utter absence of any sense of empathy or humanitarian concerns from the spatial imaginary by which we were asked to imagine the transit of Honduras immigrants undercut the assumption of individual rights or human rights, as they were attributed desire to a shrunken pool of jobs, commodities, and employment among American citizens, playing up the image of the threats a porous boundary expose the nation.  Indeed, even a description of the locations of Border Patrol stations and Ports of Entry suggests a map of “gaps” and security breaches, in the spaces that lie between the security of such stations– even though the majority of contraband enters the United States by passenger car traffic or commercial trucks at those stations, in ways that a “wall” would hardly block.


In preserving the image of the need for a boundary wall irrespective of any situation on the ground, Trump seems the cultivation of the wall that had famously helped catapult Trump’s candidacy into the national spotlight, and to validate his political position, is no doubt a spatial imaginary that is particularly dear to him, both as a bullying tactic and as a theatrical evocation of power, even if it is never built.  The notion of building a “new wall” that “will be strong” and as well as being stronger than what was there before was “needed to fill the gaps [that we have at the border] today” traffics in a bizarre cartographic fantasy of a leaky border, an image that Donald Trump did his best to perpetuate on the campaign trail, and whose fantasy seems destined to be a guiding fiction of his Presidency, and a rationale for deploying the National Guard in the face of renewed fears that, despite a decline in border crossings, immediate action is required “to assist the border patrol” to prevent the danger that illegal immigration poses “to the safety of our communities and children.” 

Trump long identified with the Border Wall in the Presidential campaign–and even fantasized it might be named after him, by analogy to the 41,000 miles of interstate proposed in 1956 that became the Eisenhower Highway System, the largest public works project in the nation at that time–and so wanted to pose before the prototypes of a Border Wall.  Even if the project was far from begun, and lacked funds, he wanted to illustrate his commitment to the alternate vision of the nation that he had long campaigned on and continued to give pre-eminence to its construction in our geographic imaginations, or at least in that of his supporters:  just as he now turns to the possibility of military funding of the border wall’s construction in order to smother the fact of its illegality through need, echoing the notion of a state of exception in jurist Carl Schmitt’s political theology.  The wall placed the undocumented immigrant outside, and cast them as an illegal enemy of the nation, whose entrance into the country needed to be prevented as if it were crucial to the future security of the United States.  The Border wall might exist in a bucolic landscape of the future, bound by strips of green grass, bracketing a liminal zone to insulate the United States in a huge number of policed square feet–150 feet wide and 10, 317,120 feet long–“electronically monitored” by unseen observers.

For even if its construction has no place in the body of the law, but in casting it as preventing a “national security risk” the code-word of vigilant border enforcement is easiest to achieve through the militarization of border surveillance–as if the inflated $700 billion military budget could mask and legitimate the costly construction despite its  $25 billion in costs.   Trump’s cryptic tweet, “Build WALL through M!,” suggested a late-night realization of yet another way to conceal budget costs, finding funds in the allotted military budget–since “our Military is again rich!,” despite our own poverty.

Although based on a logic of exclusion, rather than inclusion, the fear of preservation of social and economic integrity underlines the wall, which Trump urges his supporters to embrace as a symbol of the revitalization of the nation he argued his Presidency would bring.   The image of wall-building and the xenophobic ban of dangerous foreigners from entering the country–animated by purposively inhumane metaphors to objectify and demonize immigrants of “anchor babies,” “immigrant hordes” and bad hombres–offered a far more compelling narrative of national identity than was on offer elsewhere, but one that could be countered through the simple construction of an impassible wall.  The narratives of fear and of the need to defend the nation was again incarnated in the “sanctuary cities where you have criminals living,” conjuring a map of danger, yet again, in the hopes to build a stronger and secure border, or to manufacture the desire for one among Americans as a desired in perverse symbol of a receding dream of prosperity, as if the creation of a wall that plugged gaps in border sectors would restore integrity to a damaged American dream, whose promises were not met and no longer passed down among generations.


Seeking to swipe at the Sanctuary Laws adopted and defended by California’s elected officials, to the chagrin of his own Justice Department, Attorney General, and Department of Homeland Security, Trump pedals a different vision of the nation, in which “The border wall is truly our first line of defense.”  Plans for a forty-foot “wall” that will intimidate those who seek to cross at these gaps, and where fencing is broken, running the 1,300-mile-long borderline has not been able to garner funds, and no concrete has been yet poured for the site of the wall, or any concertina wire strung.  The ability of the executive to create the wall was more difficult, perhaps, than Trump had thought, with his limited knowledge of how government functions; he probably didn’t imagine that the justification for building the fence would derive from the Secure Fence Act of 2006, but that he’d be able to wave any laws–from the federal Endangered Species Act to the National Environmental Protection Act, by insisting on the need for a wall to create “necessary and appropriate” security along the border.  The ambitions of the extensive wall around the Rio Grande suggest the supremacy of a wall-building project even over local conditions of its impact on local flooding in the Rio Grande, suggesting the increasing remove of the wall from all local context.


More broadly, the border wall would provoke an ecological disasters in the stewardship of public lands, by slicing through ecosystems, habitat, and ecologically invaluable open spaces where fencing and the expansion of a paved border have already created severe ecological problems for decades.

image.png Sarah Frostenson/2017

Put another way, the fragility of natural areas and national monuments that stand to be affected by its construction, and by the environmental disturbance that its construction creates, include multiple areas whose preservation were once understood as a responsibility of public stewardship–a function that will be effectively evacuated by the insistence on the creation of a border wall.

Border Control Env LawsPew Charitable Trusts/ONEIMAGE/VISUALFARMS

But the creation of the border has proceeded, as Trump knows best, and as he seems to be uncannily working, by creating it as best possible within the spatial imaginary of the nation, and exploiting the place that it already has for many of his constituents by sheer force of his personality and twitter account, as much as the executive office.  The presentation of prototypes for the wall–here presented behind the actual existing wall, as a second line of defense, in January, 2018, designed to meet the “plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border,” or a transmutation of the border to a physical marker unable to be scaled, whose greater height–from eighteen feet to up to thirty feet tall–foregrounded the need to build a “wall” that was unable to be scaled.  For is the wall not only, in some deep metaphorical sense, a site to be rehabilitated as a site of sacrifice of the blood of our enemies, and the blood of its transgressors, as well as a site for the sacrifice of law?   

21.  Although mandates for “securing our border” are effected by secular law, he has indulged in finding a justification in his religion of the nation; as the Attorney General recently affirmed, following Trump’s own reasoning, indeed, that no nation is in fact a nation without ability to protect its border.  The wall offers the sort of empty patriotic rhetoric that presupposes national defence begins at its southwestern border, but constitutes something of a religion.  At the arrival of a President refusing to meet or address local residents, but preferring to bask among Border Patrol guards who long supported his Presidential run, reinforced the notion that this desire for a photo opportunity was a way of Trump telling the country that he cared about them, more than he seemed to visit local residents:   it fit in with an image of Trump managing the media spotlight, seeking to manufacture national headlines and media buzz that created the image that he was in fact the biggest “fan” of the nation, rather than the executor of its laws.

It seemed no coincidence Trump visited the border after firing his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on his favored faux populist medium of Twitter, as if to reclaim his own vision of the nation, as it replaced Tillerson’s alleged prudence with his own visit of a state that was based on vigilant attention to the protction of its borders, and even a relentless focussing of attention to its borders, as if to distract from the absence of any vision of the nation as a nation, instead of a trade partner, source of mineral wealth and capital, and military behemoth.

If the promise of the wall had got him elected, Trump wanted to assert his experience as a “master-builder” to describe the aesthetic vision of the border wall he argues must be built as a bulwark against immigrants, feigning construction expertise reminding Border Guards that “the [walls] that work the best aren’t necessarily the most expensive.”  The true ugliness of the border wall is hard to imagine, of course, but the undue prominence with which Trump’s relentless attention to the border has tried to normalize a vision of the border as a site that can be sealed must be fathomed to try to grasp the effectiveness of the attention Trump directs to the Southwestern border. It lies not only in its cost, although the expenditure of billions of dollars on a useless wall may bankrupt the state and ruin national credit.  While Trump continued to sell the wall to the nation as a good deal able to “save hundreds of billions of dollars–many, many times what it’s going to cost,” using Trump’s characteristically selective accounting and limited understanding of balances of trade, labor markets, or of benefits of both legal and illegal immigrants to the nation–and he probably knows as much–the human costs are grotesquely forgotten or elided.

Trump seems keen to sell a story to the nation of the bounding of its borders and the protection against global problems, and to provide an opportunity for a broadside against the sanctuary laws that he continued to insist during his visit tied state representatives from Governor Brown to Attorney General Xavier Beccera to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaff as “the best friend of the criminal, . . . smugglers, . . . traffickers, [and] gang members,” criminalizing elected officials of the state by association, and even misleadingly suggesting “the State of California is [in fact] begging us to build walls in certain areas–they don’t tell you that!” as if his own reality was imposed by circumstance, and responded to narrative of national protection and fear that denies non-Americans rights.  The lack of prioritization deportation charges in the new administration effectively rewrites the legal prioritization of criminals meriting deportation, reinstating a clearer separation even among open cases in the name of securing a clearer separation of rights to work as a national need.

While the project for the expansion of Border Fencing proposed in 2014–before Trump’s candidate–was already significant, Trump has, in his fashion, sought to monumentalize the border, recasting it as what would be the largest infrastructure project ever attempted in the United States, even as the image of the Border Wall he promoted as an infrastructure has become clear to run against human rights, international law, and civil law.  Indeed, the discussion of the border–first projected back in 2006 to be limited to certain stretches, while leaving many longer stretches deemed sufficiently obstructed by natural barriers in 2006 to be left unsealed, during the Presidency of George W. Bush, was amplified over social media and the Twitter account of @RealDonaldTrump–as many things are amplified on social media–to the extent that it has almost been naturalized as a part of the border, with the result that the Border Wall seem to have replaced any “natural barriers,” although Trump’s plans seem to have backtracked in more recent public announcements, as he has come to appreciate the limited budged for a project of such huge cost.   (Much as Trump expressed amazement at the size of the government budget after the election, expressing incredulity about its size, he seems never to have contemplated the costs of the Border Wall he promoted until recent months, when he sought funding.)

border-fence-06US-Mexico Border Wall Proposed in 2006

The amplification of the Border on social media is a perfect case of social media’s amplifying power–if a case might just as well be made for the Trump campaign.

For the case for the need of the border to the national integrity of the United States was actively elaborated and expanded upon in social media, in ways not limited to the account of @RealDonaldTrump, as maps that foregrounded the need for the border stopped addressing the construction of the fencing whose funding of $1.2 billion to finance over 700 miles was signed by the Secure Fence Act.  Donald Trump bristles at the very notion of a “fence,” although Texans might feel that the Border Wall so far constructed resembles one, as Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector have firmly asserted “It’s very much a wall,” and that his replacement project not only upgrades the fencing that continued to be funded and built during the Bush and Obama administration is indeed constructed out of bollard fencing, and will be officially called a “wall,” so strong is the desire to incarnate the mantra that animated Trump’s rallies and has grown so large in the spatial imaginary of his supporters.  Berger devoted particular attention to the inhumanity of borders and border crossings in his life.  Berger earlier noted soon after 9/11 an erosion of civil society in the spread of border barriers and wall-building created by states with an end to security surveillance as misbegotten responses to the pressures of globalization:  in his “history of the Wall, walls served not only to constrain movement but define and bind distinct economic realities.

22.  The prominent role of the Border Wall functions in the public imagination derives more from the erasure of all individual stories of migrants, I would argue, and the criminalization of immigration.  For the function of the wall seems to be to erase the voices of all migrants who confront it, or seek asylum across it, and to mute the very practices of story-telling that are so central to human life.  This point is taken from the late John Berger, who wrote well about walls and wall-building; in a different if closely related context, Berger observed the role of wall-building in Jerusalem and the Gaza strip as functioning to strip human identity from those who lived across it, and create a denial of any discourse they might begin ad to quell discussion about their rights through its very existence alone.  In a striking essay on border-making and walls form 2002, Berger early linked the act of unilateral wall-making as a sign of the erosion of civil society in the direct aftermath of 9/11; the essay was included in Hold Everything Dear, a book written in hopes to process the events 9/11 and its aftermath, a keen meditation on the sense of losses to civil society that emerged as a consequence of the War on Terror, and the attack on civil society that began soon after that emerged due to the pressures, he argued, of globalization.  

For globalization, Berger argued, had effectively redrawn social divisions and the building of walls come to replace class as a primary front line dividing society, and indeed become the most important line that existed between rich and poor.   His final book was perhaps the most bitterly removed, but in it he returned to questions of the possibility of free speech in a globalized world that reprised his examination of the importance of stories and story-telling as forms of active resistance  long ago when he worked int eh early 1970’s with photographer Jean Mohr to interview migrant workers in Europe, a work he funded after winning the medal, The Seventh Man:  the telling of stories that were migrants’ available sources of comfort were silenced or denied by walls, constructions whose mute finality were aggressive silencing that stripped individuality from those on their other side.

Berger focussed on the construction of the massive walls of the West Bank–which provided a model for Trump’s wall–not only as a response to the pressures of globalization but the front line of divides between rich and poor, acting not only as geographic divides but to constrain movement between two economic realities.  Berger feared the effects of wall-building that have increasingly come to define us all, and described them as presenting a stark choice:  conformism with wall-building activity or opposition to it.  But where does opposition lie?   He saw the prime danger of “the essential activity of the building of walls—walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missive barrages, frontier controls, and opaque media” as producing not only a new border, but an “emptying of language—the mouthing of words which no longer mean anything” that the false objectivity of many border maps and their simplifying legends have reinforced, by naturalizing their structures and illustrating their need.  

The current disenfranchisement and processing of migrants is an illustration of this denial of a collective voice, or even of an individual voice, able to be processed without any individual attention or respect.  The demand that those fleeing their countries, fearful for their lives, present “papers” to be processed by U.S. Border Guards suggested the distortion of the optic from which immigration and the status of refugees has come to be viewed from one side of the wall, even if the border wall is not yet built as a “caravan” including women, children, transgender, and others has finally arrived in Tijuana, only to be held at bay, as if chattel, before even calling them ‘animals’ in a term Trump later defended as limited to MS-13 gangs.


The proliferation of territorial divides have taken part in the activity of wall building, by separating the wall and boundary from lived space and refusing respect for the humanity of those on one side of the wall, by removing them from a field of ethical judgement and respect, by reducing their very identities and humanity.  Indeed, the new space of the border proves not only by denying the stories of those seeking asylum, but to isolate the immigrant, often removing them from legal rights, access to legal representation, to divide immigrants from their families and children from parents, to compel disorienting walks through the desert out of cell tower reach and without any signs of orientation, and to make immigrants feel the ever-present compelling monolithic authority of the state that it expresses, and to realize their own small stature in comparison:  as the President has used the megaphone of his office to bemoan how countries “send us their worst,” shifting the stories of those seeking asylum from their own mouths, he has worked to create a new landscape of uncertainty for the migrant around the wall.  

Much as the archipelago of detainment camps creates a space where those detained are stripped of legal rights and which actively works to reduce and disorient inmates, providing an unrecognizable setting stripped of familiar signs and incarcerating them without adequate bedding, shelter, food, or interpreters, the disorienting nature of the border setting suggests a deep erosion of civil society where the immigrant is stripped of language, rights, and family, and often even stripped of a context for making meaning.   The disorienting nature of the wall robs the migrant of their identity as a candidate for asylum, by robbing them from the respect they should be accorded as a person, as if disarming them of identity at the moment they confront its imposing structure, and reminding them of the absence of interest in their stories.


23.  The opacity of many visualizations of the divides that walls define are deftly and effectively perpetuated in maps to create clear territorial oppositions, reinstating borders that were once fluid by investing them with inflexible legal authority–or bestowing a new legal authority in them that trumps the actual law and requires no legal precedent or justification.  This is achieved through an emptying of words about individual rights, liberty, and law.  For maps convey the issues once cast in terms of border management–a euphemism for the euphemism of border protection–in ways that mirror the managerial rhetoric of business but minimize judgement best practices.  Such maps work by reframing boundaries as question of national security can be inserted into the patrolling of borders, obscuring individual stories and warp our perceptions of the control over space, and even changing the relation of the individual to the law.  

The terrifying continuation of wall-building activity create a landscape of unreason that leaves all subject to an individual suspicion, and precludes clear judgement or social interaction.  The wall-building activity sanctions the apprehension of immigrants and affirmed their criminality–converting immigration to “crimmigration”–and justifies the construction of a massive archipelago of detention camps of flimsy or inadequate legal authority or recourse to the law, now largely crowded along the border, but extending across most all of our major cities–and poised to extend to the nation’s interior as well.  The fixity of such the wall as an imagined line was defined during the 1990s, when border fencing was built by the US government converted and transformed what had long been a complex border zone, stripping it of its historicity and revising it as central to the health of the state and economic well-being.  The wall was first imagined to prevent economic migrants from seeking higher wages north of the border, as a result of globalization, in an attempt to maintain and effectively “naturalize” the increasingly steep inequalities of globalization, is of course a relatively recent idea.  

The sudden persuasive power that the project of wall-builtin has gained as a national threat obscures a failure to process refugees seeking new homes where they can better their conditions, and the changes in the ground beneath undocumented migrants’ feet–now robbed of a clear sense of place, stripped of rights, privacy, and possibilities of work, in an environment where they lack safety, and almost as endangered as the famous highway sign on an interstate near San Diego suggests in its dehumanization of the vulnerable migrant, cast as a substitutable worker or potential target of an oncoming car, carrying a potentially stray shoeless child in their wake.

Sign Warning of Illegal Immigrants Crossing RoadCorbis, 2004


The purported humanism of the sign conceals its dehumanization, or the economic dehumanization of the migrant, forced by circumstances to flee in hopes of better work across the border.  Stripped of identity, names, and status, the classic image of the migrants traveling across the highway by foot, exposing themselves to threats of death, stood in for the precarity of immigration and economic migration:  and the illegal position of the migrant searching for jobs, who has lost any sense of being able to control his or her own itineraries, and are forced to cross freeways by circumstance.

The flat data visualizations that this post will consider purport to orient viewers to the presence of migrants  cast as “illegally” present in the United States.  They seek to demonize the figure of the refugee and undocumented migrant–cast as an “illegal alien” who transgressed the law.  The blanket term of investing illegality of a criminal in those who illegally cross the boundary itself serves to erase individual histories by tallying them as standing in violation of the law–and to empty language of the law. Undocumented immigrants were mapped long before Trump’s election onto criminality:   the expansion of the Department of Homeland Security as the largest national law enforcement agency, fueled by the expansion of mass incarceration across the nation from the mid-1980s, has been fed by stark images of a “war on crime,” and aggressive drug prosecution, on which the targeting of the migrant builds.  

For the wall, transcending the rights of any non-Americans, has been sold to the American public as a reassuring emblem that is able to restore a broad failure of governability of the nation, which continued over successive administrations, across political parties, and is in need of repair.  The restorative nature of the Border Wall within a narrative of national decline is clear; the place of the Wall within the religion of the state is both collectively affirming, and a source of deep satisfaction for the new level of security and protection it can afford not only against a globalized world–the original intent was to keep pools of workers separate–but against an agglomeration of specters that actually haunt the nation, including trans-national crime, drugs, the spread of firearms, unemployment, the economy and of course gang violence, each of which theme has been tied to the wall and its urgency in the present moment.   The narrative of a permeable being a problem no party in Washington was able to resolve, that hurt the nation, suggests a deeper failure to respect a religion of the state.

The fear of a sustained lack of a clear border maintained by Washington, which has followed secular law, threaten to undo the god-given promise of prosperity in America.  ”How do you think we got 11 to 12 million [illegal immigrants] in our nation right now?” asked Trump incredulously during the campaign, whipping up fear through inflated figures the reinforced a sense of stacking cards in an unequal playing field.  How many undocumented immigrants need to be stopped from entering the country or apprehended to render it sufficiently safe and secure?   Their number, cited rhetorically without a basis, rose to 30-34 million or higher by midsummer, as he returned to the Texas border in Laredo to pitch his case again, more than doubling the number he had cited as yet another case of public deception–“I don’t think the 11 million — which is a number you have been hearing for many many years, I’ve been hearing that number for five years — I don’t think that is an accurate number anymore,” to affirm an even “bigger”  the threat from immigration, for which he refused to cite his source.

The immeasurable nature of ‘illegal’ immigration was itself a theme of the campaign that disoriented the electorate that became an illustration for the unmanageable–and indeed perhaps ungraspable–nature of the presence of immigrants in the nation even in an era of big data.  Trump’s absurd hypertrophic doubling of the tally served to suggest “Our government has no idea,” in his largest campaign speech on immigration, painting a problem truly out of control–by asserting the irresponsibility of government policies about immigration, by eliding demographic nuances of using census data and legal immigration to count border crossings of unregistered immigrants.  When scoffing at the accuracy of using the census to count undocumented immigrants, Trump cited Anne Coulter’s Adios America, which uses the number of money wires to Mexico as a surrogate for projecting the presence of undocumented immigration.

But the shifting of numbers was treated as a grounds to grow fear, more than to supply statistics, and banked on the innumeracy of its audiences, and their readiness to be afraid.  His referfence to having “seen it written in various newspapers” as presenting common wisdom, and reinforced his appeal as a political outsider, without qualms at introducing a “deportation force” to deport undocumented immigrants, as he asserted in November 2015.  The Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton quickly called the notion  “inhumane and un-American,” to gain higher ground, but without traction.  The illegality imputed to cross-border immigration has allowed Trump to assert the legal right to defend “our” borders by creating the wall, The wall assumed rhetorical power in Trump’s public speeches not only as a boundary, but a physical structure that provided prophylactic sealing the country against a foreign bacillus, in the hate-filled rhetoric of fascism–and when FOX’s Tucker Carlson argued that “President Trump said something that every single person in America agrees with,” white-washing the hatred behind them, or how his colleague Jesse Waters suggests that the “forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar,” the “strong talk” does not only puncture political correctness but disgracefully sets America at odd with ethics as well as the world.

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

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