The False Nationalism of the Border Wall

One of Donald Trump’s most significant victories has been to increase the proximity of much of the nation to the border wall he has long planned for the southwestern boundary of the United States.  Even if it is never constructed, the border wall has become a crucial part of the mental furniture of Americans irrespective of their actual geographic location, and a basis for which Trump has sought to define the nation’s relation to the world.  The range of constituencies that united around the need for a border boundary–nationalist; white supremacist; racist; xenophobic; unemployed; economically insecure; fundamentalist–seems daunting to unpack as an assembly.  But if perhaps incompatible with one another, their collective fixation on a geographic site was perhaps most striking as a new form of mental mapping of territory in an age of GPS, when the relevance of boundaries and boundary lines have all but vanished as cartographic markers,  where states geographical positions by point-based data.  Even if it is designed to run across the border wall, the imaginary construction has gained such prominence in Trump’s rhetoric and for his followers to constitute a post-border map.

How can the nation be mapped in an age of global positioning systems–save by rehabilitating the border in a built form?  And what better way to do so than to divide Americans from what can be demonized as a danger to the national safety?  As much as mapping space, even if it runs along the border, the border wall seems a decisively “post-border” map, abstracting the idea of the border and remapping an ideal of the nation by pulling attention from its social coherence to the protection of its edges.  The increased elevation of attention to the southwest border as a site of the entry of renamed “illegals,” whose entrance into the body politic is misleadingly mapped onto crime, drugs, and a desire to work for low wages has directed increasing attention to immigration as a problem–


Migration Policy Institute, Undocumented Immigrants by County and State of Residence, 2010-14


Pew Research, based on data of 2014 (2017)


–that seems to have grown beyond our usual practices of governance.  Indeed, for Trump, the  border wall stands for a new form of governance during the Trump Presidency, from the first direction of attention to the conceit during the Presidential campaign.   Although “immigration reform” was debated for decades, Trump redefined the southwest border as a well-defined focus for national defense more explicitly than previous presidents.  Even though far more non-Mexicans than Mexicans are apprehended at the border, questions of border management increasingly appealed to the American electorate as a problem Trump’s campaign boasted he would resolve:  the questions of the ability of governmental agencies as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol to manage the border are bracketed, as the border wall represents a powerful symbol of a shift in governmental policies.  Rather than focussing on the stories or fates of migrants, or describe the fate of migrants as an “urgent humanitarian situation,” as President Obama, calls for an impulse to build the wall suggests a dramatic new mapping of the nation and of its civil liberties, and the prominence of the executive in determining and guiding border policy.

The wall stands for a broad sacrifice of civil liberties–the consequence of the remapping of borders and borderlands as subject to military authority is almost the inverse of an interactive map which accommodates individual agency.  For in the face of exact mapping of spatial position, the wall offers a retrograde “dumb” map of the nation’s border–and a map generated by the concept of Homeland Security more than nation, or the compulsion to remap Homeland in the Age of Trump, to guard the nation against those seeking to improve their lot.  The definition a “border wall” defines a new relation to space, as it increasingly projects a new relation of the United States to the world, less as a beacon of liberty or a home of freedoms, than a disturbingly hollowed out the ideals of a state.  Affixing a monosyllabic bumper sticker to the metal fencing at the border suggests the deep ties of the new mapping of the border as an impediment to a figure for executive authority–




Although the conceit of the wall is to define a fixed line–the border–rather than a space, the conceit of the stability of that borderline stands as a means to contain the fear of global immigration flows that have grown in recent years since the refugee crisis of 2015–a crisis refracted oddly through trans-border migration in dehumanized images of “transborder flows” increasingly mapped as in need of containment.  The criticisms of immigrants as a national threat comes from a man whose entry into politics was to cast immigrants from Mexico as criminals and “rapists”:  with a poisoned rhetoric of demonization as vicious and insistent as Trump’s attack on the “Central Park Five”–and as bereft as evidence–undocumented immigrants have been identified and earmarked as a principal national threat.  The border wall transforms the border to a site repelling othered subjects by denying their right of entrance; the exclusion shifts a once permeable membrane by classifying migrants who seek to move across the border as alternately criminal, unfamiliar with American laws or ways, poor, needy, and predominantly rural in origin, to arrest the “streams of migrants” who threaten the nation.  

But the border wall stands to create far greater humanitarian dangers by the pseudo-rationality of the “border calculus.”  The image created in 2006 during the administration of President George W. Bush defined thresholds to contain cross-border migration as a rational infrastructure provides perhaps the most telling archetype for the border wall.  And although we don’t like to admit it, given its deep illiberalism, Americans elected Trump because he promised to build a border wall.  The solidity of the proposed border wall conceals its actual nature as a sign of tyranny, once it is presented as a crucial part of a religion of the state by the Trump administration, necessary to defend the homeland and public safety: but the radical incommensurability of the border wall with any actual threat–as with many global right-wing almost reflexive reactions to fears of immigration–lacks clear relation to the very threats which it claims to react, which it abstracts form any sense of a shared administration of borderlands, or a sense of the specificity of their terrain, habitat, or settlement.  


Border Calculus DHS Strategy

Homeland Security Watch/from Testimony of Deborah J. Spero and Gregory Giddens before U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, presented Nov. 15, 2006


Despite the indication of a global context by an orienting compass in the lower right, the border structure seems a microcosm designed to apprehend the “illegal alien” whose criminality is defined prior to charges being brought, and define a space for the Border Patrol Authorities to monitor the borderlands. Rather than to accommodate the needs or stories of migrants seeking to travel across it, the border wall serves to define migrants’ “illegality” as “undocumented aliens” and offer a site for immediate apprehension, staging a conflict between two nations–albeit without an actual declaration of war–and is an artifact of the conceit of the Homeland that emerged after 9/11, with the rise of the Border Patrol Agency to monitor Points of Official Entry into our borders, and the problems of border management that Bush promised to resolve.



border calculus barrier fence in center

Homeland Security Watch/from Testimony of Deborah J. Spero and Gregory Giddens before U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, presented Nov. 15, 2006  (detail)


The border wall conceals itself as a break from politics as usual, because it is a dare or conceit of bravado of such extreme implausibility.  Despite heterogenous boundaries built over the past 12 years in the Bush and Obama administrations on the border, peaking between 2006-8, when 481 miles of fencing were built between Mexicali and El Paso, the vaunting of an “impenetrable” “real” wall would replace them all:  compelling in its linear bluntness, it serves to concretize a response able to contain what seem to be proliferating dangers of immigration flows on which we have lost purchase–and the ability adequately to map in the collective imaginary.  But the promise of the wall has run over actual immigration laws, or any sense of due legal process accorded to all migrants or immigrants, the ethos of the border wall suggests a lack of any ideals of good governance, or any principles of human rights.


1.  For the tool of the wall is a conceit of boundary drawing, affirming collective identity, and rejecting what is cast as contamination, in a throwback to a vision of purity.  “Illegal entry is a crime,” DHS Secretary Nielsen has intoned, suggesting that all asylum seekers as legitimate Ports of Entry will not be prosecuted, but that lack of evidence of a verified familial relationship demands scrutiny, and blames Congressional laws for the splitting of families at the border, arguing that many of the alleged parents in fact pose security risks to the common good, and blame the immigrants “put their [own] children at risk,” and allow them to be exposed to anti-trafficking laws that Trump seeks to enforce.  The blaming of migrants for causing risks to their children, and insistence on a “zero-tolerance policy” of procedural detainment to stop faceless “streams of migrants” threatening to move across the border without the imposition of a wall masks all sense of their individuality or humane reaction to the plight of those who’s seek to move northwards, to better their own fortunes, and wrestle with the presence of the more fortified areas of the border to which most roads and itineraries lead, as this hand-painted map in Tabasco of immigration routes in the Age of Trump reveals.


imageMural map on migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco by Mizar Martín,  indicating migrant routes, train routes, shelters and dangers  October 2017/ Froylán Enciso


If the mural map of possible migrant routes–complete with keys for shelters, and conveying a fluid movement across space on the curved side of the wall of the shelter in Tabasco, traces a sense of fluid movement from Central America, the Border Wall that was recently reinforced by what Trump feared an invasion of Central American migrants Mexican authorities failed to stop, in an unseemly Twitter tirade revealed his unseemly fixation on desires for the border wall, as if it were a safeguard for the nation, even though they were themselves fleeing poverty, violence, persecution, and civil unrest.  The remapping of migrant hopes, in short, were achieved by the evocation of the specter of a border wall, destined to obscure their plight–and leading him to threaten foreign aid to Honduras so necessary to restore regional stability.  The clear-sighted and informative nature of Mizar Martín’s detailed mural showing migrant routes, train tracks, shelters and dangerous places, and noting the nations from which many hopeful migrants originated, suggests a more perceptive regional map than the fortified border Trump projects to the nation, and presents to the world illustrates his administration’s immigration policies and priorities–and which thumbs its nose at immigrants’ experience or plight.


IMG_5747_mappano72-1220x763Mural map at migrant shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco, México/Tamara Skubovius


The painted mural traces a hopeful identity whose reproduction traces an image of hope.   As if in contrast to these maps, the invocation of a border wall seeks to obscure migrants’ identity, silence their stories, and to turn a cold shoulder to the extent to which povertyviolence, corrupt local police and increasing gang wars send increased numbers of Central Americans to seek safety north across the border, seeking to escape unmitigated civil unrest, and leading to the remapping of routes to a site of future hope and greater tranquility.  The sense of hope of a j0urney across the border has led similar painted mural maps to affirm the ability of migrating to the more welcoming cities of the United States–Tuscon, San Antonio, Houston–and casa de migrantes lying north of the border.





The authoritarianism of the border seems to remap the hopeful itineraries of migration, and erase all traces of future migration, as it turns a cold shoulder toward the fate or circumstances of migrants and refugees, and seeming to foreclose their requests for asylum or possibility of hope.

For the border wall denies legal options to migrants, blocking possibilities of undocumented immigration that have been so widely demonized.  The border wall would replace the inadequacy of immigration courts to process immigration cases, whose current build-up only seems to expand an unwieldy network of unsupervised detention camps.  The wall promises a resolution of the problems of migrants entering United States with children for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has evoked the authority of the still unbuilt wall as a salvific narrative for the nation, whose alternative is lawlessness:  “If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness,” Sessions argues, we won’t face these terrible choices,” alluding to policies of separating children from their parents at the border, or of detaining the over 10,000 children held in border camps apart from their parents.  His colleague Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of the Department of Homeland, shifts blame from her own policies by asking to “pass legislation to close legal loopholes that are being exploited to gain entry into our country.”  But the lack of a clear policy of responsible governance at the border raises deep questions about the suitability of the governance policies of the border wall, and its remapping of the nation:  the unsupervised conditions of a detention apparatus that include a Brownsville center housing nearly 1,500 children, converted from a Walmart Supercenter, where many are revealed to be drugged with sedatives and powerful psychotropic drugs, anti-psychotics and anti-depressants to render them docile, raises questions about how it serves the nation, or how policies of family separation at the border justly expands the power of the state over the individual, separating families detained in unsupervised ways for having violating the law by crossing the border, as they are informed, once they are charged with illegal entry of the nation they sought to take refuge in.




The border wall illustrates a new definition of the presence of executive authority on the border.  So much is reflected in the expansion of camps of detention for future deportation, responding to the false threats of immigration evoked on the campaign trail.  The current flooding of immigration courts with  children seized by U.S. Border Patrol–evoking the fears of the arrival of migrants–reflects how immigration forms the majority of federal criminal prosecutions, bloating courtrooms in southwestern Texas with double the caseloads of previous months, and results form the lack of prioritizing immigration arrests and a failure to acknowledge immigrant narratives.  The promise of a border wall elevates border-crossing from a misdemeanor, emphasizing its criminality, and amassing border police and immigration authorities to process migrants as criminals.  It provide a means of dehumanizing the migrant.  

The invocation of the wall neglects our own national needs and divide the body politic, even as they disrupt the notion of a nation guided by a body of laws.  It accompanies the increased deportation of individuals without any discretion, and the cuts in foreign aid to Central American nations to police or respond to rises in organized crime under the pressure of stricter border enforcement.  For the construction of the border wall ignores actual infrastructures of education, public transportation, and open access that America most needs.  The demonization of border-crossing as a solution to multiple problems oddly recuperates a demonizing rhetoric that was effectively deployed by Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, to lend a sense of objectification to the foreign immigrant.  The recent statement by President Trump described the need for a border wall to prevent “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country”–an image that echoes fascist treatment of the migrant as a bacillus, reminiscent of the portrayal of the migration of Jewry to Europe and the rest of the world to parasitical rats, who Nazi propaganda films described as carrying crime, gangsterism, and shady financial transactions to the greater world as they cross the boundaries of national border lines.  The huge purchase that the promise of a border wall has gained, and the values that it incarnates may be surprising, and the origins of such a demonization of border-crossing suggest an affinity that is beyond disquieting.




Others Wnadered.png

 image.pngNazi Propoganda Film showing the migration of the Jews from the Euphrates to Egypt, Europe and the greater world (1940)


If such a visual rhetoric of border-crossing is seen as disrupting a “natural” order, the deployment of the border wall to “make America great again” advances a similar naturalization of the nation and naturalization of the “homeland.”  The border wall is compelling in its linear bluntness of containing cross-border flows of migrants–but all the more bizarre in that it is planned along one of the most traversed borders in the world.   But the border wall has helped Americans concretize a response to a global problem, pretending to contain proliferating dangers of immigration flows on which so many have lost purchase, it erases the stories of the migrants themselves, and seeks to subject them to the state.  Is the border wall enough to give the nation a bearing on numerous problems of immigration that Trump–who seems more eager to announce the crises of national consequence than any recent President, as if he thrives off of crisis without concern for the national psyche or well-being–seems set to evoke?  

More to the point, perhaps, the border wall is an illustration of a new form of governmentality over the individual migrant, and the entry into the nation:  it provides a form to address the complex of immigration and immigration reform that Trump has promised as a way to keep immigrants out, and echoes the carceral state to which it is so closely tied, far more than the border-fencing that was begun back in 1997.   And so, turning away attention from true  effects of the wall on migrants, Trump celebrates the wall as a reform of laws, or a replacement for law; a response of executive power; and a means of not reviewing or hearing the stories of individual migrants or acknowledging their voices.


Fence:Wall Trump


The proliferating crises of globalization and population have been narrowed and refracted from a global point of view to the point of view of only one nation–in a new iteration of America First.  But the conceit of the border wall on which Trump was elected rests on a distortion that it affirms a place–or line–in relation to a global crisis to which it offers less of a realistic response than a retrograde complication. The southwestern border was first defined a site that required monitoring in the Nixon era, and the United States has long struggled to accommodate the different topographical problems of varied terrain, broad rivers, and existing laws and habitat of the region, the simplistic and univocal nature of a single, uniform wall Trump proposed–“a great great wall”–as if to distinguish it from China’s Great Wall as an illustration of state power.  But unlike the Great Wall, the border wall is a structure of governmentality that defines state power over the subject of the individual migrant.  Rather than define a “place,” or even the space of the border, the brilliance of the wall as a conceit is that it abstracts the border from humanity.

Building a border wall is not a simple project: few earlier Presidents would imagine such an immensity.  Its construction along 2,000 miles of borderlands would call for a massive amount of poured concrete, shipped across huge spaces, many workmen, and much labor, and would be projected to necessitate an increase of border patrol agents, and a 50% growth of immigration officers to guard it.  The border wall would make the entire border region a site of military management; it would obscure and deny legal rights in the country, collectively define migrants as criminals. For the border wall creates prison bars through which to view all lands south if the ‘border’ and the new governance of the region. The combined presence on the borderlands of the Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who plan to build tent cities designed for 1-5,000 in Texas for unaccompanied children crossing the border, to be run by Health and Human Services, as at the Tornillo Port of Entry, near El Paso, a U.S. Border Protection facility.  They define a new space of governmentality–removed from courts or representation, and removed from any court system or representation.

The border wall maps out a surrogate for a notion of governmentality and government practices–and the relation of the individual to governance–in ways so absurd that it is only apt that they have concretized around practices of separating children from their families, and placing them in separate facilities, as the wall suggests one of the most rudimentary means of population control for those who face it, even as it stands, apart from its context, as a floating signifier of national power.  Despite its immensity and the challenges posed by its engineering, the border wall exists in the mental imaginary, as well, defined against an unnamed individual subject–as much as to divide space, it creates a new legal space for individuals, and indeed for all who migrants it groups in a collective.

For the notion of the wall along the border seeks to materialize a permanent divide that obscures the relation of the wall to the individuals who cross the border annually, and to shift attention from the migrants to the criminality of migrants in ways that erase their stories in a definitive fashion.  Even if it is not built–or not completed–the success of its construction in a collective mental geography effectively criminalizes all migrants–both undocumented and not.



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Filed under border wall, immigration, nationalism, Trumpism, US-Mexico Border

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