The False Imperative of the Border Wall

32.  While the Border Wall has been cast as a necessary or urgent protection of sovereignty, the wall was most of all a barrier to citizenship and inclusion, and is most strongly rooted in a cartographer of fear and exclusion.  It defines limits of civil rights, as such, and a new improvised sort of legality, achieved through a map–or, rather, a profusion of maps.  Although the office of the President does not have authority over who enters the country or not, the remapping of the wall is a new definition of sovereignty, tied not to laws, but to a religion of the nation.  And the repeated performative invocation of the wall needs to be paid attention to–demands attention–for it is a sign that the legal principles of the nation state are in free-fall.  The trick of the cartographical magnification of the nation’s border remains significant in the Trump presidency, as it was in the Trump campaign, and in the Secure Borders project.

The decades-long enactment of a peaceful march was converted into a cause for panic in American media who this year mapped the migrants’ on-foot progress across Mexico as if it were a threat to national security, by mapping the itinerary of families against the conceit of an invisible Border Wall:  and indeed, the photographs of asylum-seekers perched atop an actual “border wall” on the beach in Tijuana, appearing to look past it the United States was seen as a threat to national sovereignty.  Despite the desire of Pueblo sin Fronteras to illuminate refugees’ plight by marches on Easter processions for over a decade, what once foregrounded the lack of power of refugees came to foreground the dangers migrants posed to the far more powerful and larger nation, as if it presented a threat to our national sovereignty–or, at the very least, our standing as a nation.  For as the “MAGA” ideology of the Trump campaign presumed a shift in border policing as a sure sign of national decline, Trump has quickly manufactured the false data that border apprehensions had immediately decreased in “unprecedented” fashion as a result of a Trump presidency to cherry-pick data in misleading ways, the arrival of a “Caravan”–and the projection of future caravans that would carry “illegal” migrants–was mapped to  justify the border’s militarization and suspension of immigration laws.

Rather than according rights to and protect foreigners, the march was so captivating because the wall has come to stand for the profound skewing of rights accorded foreigners or secular principles of pluralistic tolerance in liberal states.  The dominance of a national security agenda above human or legal rights suggests a new notion of the nation and the function of government.  This year, FOX TV has mapped the progress of a “Caravan of Illegal Migrants” almost obsessively as their progress became the latest poster child illustrating lax immigration laws.  Their impending arrival seemed to test the need for a promised border wall.  The caravan of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador crossed the borders of Mexico since 2010 in hopes to draw media attention to migrants’ plights on a global scale.  Organized by Pueblo Sin Fronteras, they sought to foreground the absence of recourse or pity, and the huge dangers of Central Americans face–many migrants brave by secretly boarding trains to journey to the border.

In the face of Trump’s insistent return to a border wall, the public procession became an occasion to illustrate resistance to the anti-migrant stance Trump has promised as a central part of his “America First” platform as a Presidential candidate by which he energized audiences, and of which so many were terrified his election symbolized, so prominently did a Border Wall figure in his spatial imaginary he had promised and so plausible was its creation from a man who styled himself as a builder.  Indeed, if Trump had no political experience, he was known for his ability to build, as well as to promise to open suspiciously easy pathways to personal wealth.  The repeated rhetorical evocation of the wall as a source of national strength was, in a bizarre way, challenged by the increasing panic in reaction to the migrants’ pedestrian pilgrimage for the right, as folks seated in comfortable television studios fed fears of “hordes” or a “caravan of illegal aliens” headed to the border, provoking Trump’s announcement on Twitter that troops would arrive to contain the threat that the undocumented posed, and Trump himself focussed attention as a means to forestall imminent dangers he even refrained from describing that might otherwise enter the country.


Converting images of refugees walking across borders to Trump’s America First lens was not happenstance:  the religious origins of this political procession across borders was all about crossing borders, mobility, and putting the plight of people first; the expression of traversing national borders that had expanded over thirteen years as it had grown to an occasion for international attention was a sign of globalism, and was headed to a collision course with the vision of strong borders that Trump had long campaigned, with the full endorsement of the union of Border Patrol guards.  The notion that the migrants were within their liberties in requesting entry to the United States at a recognized port of entry was obscured by the religion of the nation:  migrants’ rights activists were told they “hate[d] America,” as the arrival of migrants was treated as an attack not only of the nation’s safety but its sovereignty, embodied by conjuring migrants–women, families, children—as an “army” at the border.

The haunting specter of a horde of advancing migrants fit seamlessly with Trump’s media diet of images of migrants threatening European sovereignty or Christianity, triggering the notion of a borderless nation and the dangers of a border without a wall; migrants fleeing crime, gangs, and persecution became seen as themselves posing threats of gang violence, in a bizarre mis-mapping of their own stories and motivations for moving across Mexico on foot in an an orderly procession  Trump had referenced the dangers immigration had posed to national peace of other nations recently.  It recalls and illustrates a new notion of government that Trump’s endless campaign has promoted, and team emptying of a notion of government as following or executing laws:  the role is now of protecting ‘us’ from outsiders, defending citizens who feel abandoned, and locating pride in security –job-security; economic security; personal security–in the defense of our borders.  The site of the border seems, indeed, a site for the sacrifice of those who are the weakest victims of globalization as they seek asylum across the border.  The notion–an early modern conceit, to be sure–of the sacrifice of the lives or salvation of individuals for the good of the city-state or commune is to an extent enacted by the suspension of rights, laws and liberties–and even the presumption of innocence–at the border.

33.  The primacy of the wall as a basis for Homeland Security was in fact already suggested in the “barrier fence” built on the border after 9/11 as a 150-foot corridor parallel to the border, to demand it assume autonomous authority, as a region of policing consuming national resources on its own and staffed by a para-state:  the creation of such a concrete barrier would demand a cost of $25 million/mile to construct, if one combines land buyouts, concrete costs, construction labor and related costs, as of a year ago.  Homeland Security first claimed jurisdiction over a  “highway of surveillance” begun to be built after 9/11, re-defining the border an artifact for the Homeland more than the nation, designed to “deter crossings” and decrease apprehension time of illegal aliens and “potential illegal aliens” (PIA’s) who approach the border outside of a “port of entry” (POE), rather than at the red squares of legal entry, and to allow visibility of approaching “aliens” as if they had no rights:   the boundary Wall built that would be built along the US-Mexico border would stand as a visual guarantee of the absence of those rights.

The plans alone cannot capture the desolate nature of the area of the no-mans land around the wall, and the imposing structures after which it was modeled, fitted with surveillance towers to deny ability for words, casting a shadow over all who approach its monstrosity.

image.pngFAIR, January 2017

image.pngFAIR, January 2017

misrach-wallRichard Misrach, “Border Cantos

Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona (2015)Richard Misrach, from “Border Cantos

We must remember that the wall is indeed pre-legal, an archaic artifact that predates civil society–and has no place in a nation of laws.  Despite Trump’s limited experience with the law, but it is more strongly tied to his disparagement of it.  The cognitive violence of the wall lies not only in the obstruction that it creates on the ground, but the dangerous model it creates for remapping sovereignty, and for creating a sharply uneven access to justice, from immigration courts to the rights we accord others.  If the wall deflects attention from deep-running national problems from homelessness, climate change, credit-card debt, health-care, and widespread economic inequalities, it also offers an impoverished sense of the collective that is designed to demonize and erode the legality of immigrant, who it places against the nation–and definitively outside of it.

The expansion of the border line into a policed zone creates an area outside state sovereignty, a “safe zone” policed and created by the Border Patrol, seems to seek to bracket rights by isolating the nation from those who would seek to present their cases for immigration or asylum before a court law.  As if to trump borders, the wall extends into each country, effectively creating a space virtually separate administration by US Border Patrol, policed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and funded by DHS, better understood as a “border region” that exists outside of existing maps–and the authority of the U.S. Border Patrol to stop and seize anyone suspected of traveling without papers within a hundred miles of the border as they work to maintain the safety of the United States.  The creation of this new border–an expanded area of control that is administered effectively by the U.S. Border Patrol, who do not respect the civil rights of migrants, allows the possibility of detention or being sent to detention camps by Border Patrol officers, whose officers are stationed some distance from the border, both in federal lands and private lands, to cover the itineraries of migrants’ routes.



34.  The US-Mexico border had historically assumed definition as maintaining economic inequality between neighboring lands.  But the wall became a symbol of deep-set grievances about downward social and economic mobility within the United States, and a promise to prevent an array of ills associated with migrants–an economic drain, criminality, drugs, and foreigners taking advantage of a legal system that allegedly had failed to prioritize American jobs. The impending arrival of the “Caravan” prompted a fear of the breaching of this boundary, and offered immediate evidence of the inability of laws to contain exaggerated flows of migrants seeking residence in the United States, who were unable to be stopped in other ways.  For the Caravan–despite its status as a peaceful procession of protest against the travails of immigration of the disparate and disenfranchised–bizarrely became, in the alchemy of Alt Right rhetoric that views all through a religion of the nation, an illustration of the porous nature of borders that have allowed losses of jobs and status, due to a failure to secure borders.

The Caravan’s progress brilliantly collided with the America First narrative he promoted.  Trump set out his mission to “protect our borders against the ravages of other countries” in his inaugural address, but had adopted a deep sense of economic uncertainty and inequality that the securing of the border would promote, as an illegal way to close the loopholes in existing immigration laws.  The slogan of “Secure Borders” that was so central to the new religion of the nation Trump championed in his candidacy, and the relentless attention he has directed, with the Border Patrol union, to transnational threats that he sought to evoke, and which crude maps and data visualizations had lent so much currency.

Despite the long history of a flow of financial remittances and funds and benefits from the United States to Mexican rural states, revealing beneficial ties  between American cities and residents of Mexican rural states, as Guagnajuato, Jalisco, San Luis Potosi, Michoacón, and Zacatecas,–these ties have been effectively replaced by fearful dehumanized images of transborder cartels and the flow of drugs trafficking, criminality, and human trafficking.  Such oppositions are heightened symbolically by elevating a spatial imaginary of an indelible border line, obscuring the regular migration of economic and political refugees throughMexico from other territories, or distribution of Central Americans and Mexicans in the United States.  The below map reveals just how false it is to drawnthe dichotomy of the border, which only seeks to conceal the actual intensity financial flows between Mexican populations in the United States and Mexican states–based on the long-distance ties between urban communities in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Omaha, Chicago, Seattle, and Indianapolis, connected to southern Mexican states by established channels of finance that are able to bridge thousands of miles.


Formal US-Mexico Remittance Flows in US-Mexico Corridor, 1999-2003/research by Raúl Hernández-Coss, map by Ryan Morris (2007);  data from Mexican consulates in the U.S.

MPI Map Mexcian Born:2003.pngMigration Policy Institute(2003)

For maps–even poor data visualizations–effectively serve to concretize, selectively show, and visually foreground the danger of transnational networks argued to have compromised the United States’ economy and autonomy–and to justify the suspension of legal and civil rights.  The extra-legal basis by which the wall was begun, by waving the environmental protections that would have prevented its initial construction, set an odd if fitting precedent for the illegality of its conceit as a barrier to border crossing and indeed a basis to criminalize and demonize unauthorized cross-border traffic as a sovereign threat.

Is it any coincidence that the very maps produced by anti-immigrant groups such as Secure Borders, the Center for Immigration Studies, or the anti-immigrant Immigration Reform are disseminated on FOX, as well as on social media, as if to constitute a new reality for many Americans?  The close relations between Trump’s policy and FOX news has been increasingly noted and reported in surprising detail–there are even regular interchanges between Trump and FOX broadcasters on the air and on social media–and claims Trump talks nightly to Sean Hannity before bed, and starts his day with “Morning Joe” at 6 am, as if to immerse himself in FOX; his former Press Secretary steered Trump to watching “Fox & Friend”–rather than other stations–to calm him, but the Presidency appears increasingly consumed by the Filter Bubble of its own.  Hannity has become transformed from a newscaster who still betrays his southern California provenance to “the leader of the outside kitchen cabinet,” according to a White House official and White House staffers sense, an immersion which his recent appointment of FOX-tied figures to two new cabinet portfolios suggests more than a bit of an echo-chamber.  The television shows Trump watches–from “Fox & Friends” to “Hannity”–provide a feed of information to the President in danger of replacing the Presidential Daily Briefing, and provide the very sense of breaking the mold of a politician for political party Trump has come to espoused:  the increasing circularity of a feedback loop that constitutes this “outside the mainstream” politics is both a basis for Trump to consolidate and affirm his status as a break from politics as usual about the border, and the increasing recreation of the very images of the border as a source of danger perpetrated by anti-immigrant groups in misrepresentative data visualizations.  Hannity provided Trump with most of his information for birtherism, charging Obama as an illegitimate President not born in America, Hannity reflected the basis for Trump’s transformation to a candidate, and has the basis for the Republican party to be reborn into defending his own platform.

When we have concentrated a lot on the ecosystem of information among online sources, Facebook ads, and “filter bubbles” in regard to the 2016 election, we do so at a risk of relating it to the the broader information ecosystem.  We may wrongly exclude the very consumer of television news that seems to drive the machine or wag the dog.  While the tide pools of Facebook spawn some bizarre creatures, we neglect at our own considerable peril how the same feeds were bolstered by “real-time” media megaphones of cable television news, which nourished many of the same images of the border and need for a border wall framed by anti-immigration data visualizations.

Cable television now seems granted platform of respectability for, and indeed a platform for representing the non-objective visualizations of cross-border transit that present the need for a border wall as if they were images of apparent objectivity.  Trump was never prepared to cite statistics or sources of the border threat when pressed in the Republican presidential debates, or later–“if I weren’t here, we wouldn’t even be talking about immigration” was the best he could muster during the Republican primaries, to the consternation of his opponents–as if he acknowledged that such data visualizations–visualizations based on Border Patrol statistics that take the border as a simple line, and a basis to measure “illegal” immigration into the country–were the basis for his arguments, and should be accepted as illustrations of a problem, without questioning the data beneath them and the persuasive images they created.

The very visualizations created from Border Patrol and DHS statistics create an obsessive attention to trans-border criminality–and defined or mapped migrants as criminals–but neglect the rest of the nation, manufacturing the criminality at the border by instances of the violation of the law–measuring the amounts of seized drugs, the numbers of apprehensions of folks without proper documents, or the numbers of Border Patrol agents.  The checkpoints of the border that suggested the false continuity of a line waiting to be defended and a wall waiting to be built, with little sense of the inhabitants on the other side, created this threshold of criminality.  Their locations now not only secured the economic advantages in the United States, but demons associated with border flow, from lack of jobs, low wages, to drugs and extreme violence.


usmexicoborderhdimapHuman Development Index on Both Sides of Border:  2009 Human Development Report

The danger and in their obsessive attention to the policing of the border line as if it were a membrane of national identity nourished within U.S. Border Patrol was prepared by television news, in a sense, before it became a platform of the Trump campaign.  If Trump had seen the concept promoted on FOX, and other news sources, it assumed a reality in his own mind, as well and gained a prominence that he and his constituents shared–so that they understood exactly what he was describing, even if the rest of the nation didn’t, when he announced it as a platform of his campaign.  When Trump tweeted to affirm his trust in the border wall on Twitter–“The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it”–he claimed a sense of paternity for the border wall, having raised the issue on August 5, 2014, in all caps, while I celebrated my birthday–“SECURE THE BORDER!  BUILD A WALL!” in the vaguest of imperatives that seemed to have launched a movement, and which he defended a year later as “very easy” since “I’m a builder,” and comparing the covering of 1,900 miles of the border as a synch after building ninety-five stories tall, as it sounds good.  Trump’s persuasive assertion of a wall of increasing elasticity of thirty-five, forty or fifty feet or more has served as a vehicle for bullying Mexico’s president, those considering immigration, drug cartels, and a megaphone to address his constituents.  It need never be built, as it seems so valuable a bullying device that draws strength from is mutability and its invocation, as if it constituted a cult object more than an actual project.  The nation has been transformed into a collective of cargo cults, awaiting for the long-announced wall to arrive.

The projection of the border wall has been encouraged outside the normal form of government bureaucracy and revision, but has been rolled out to Americans as a fetish for the nation and a basis for public safety, leading it to assume considerable weight in a new national imaginary.  Former and current White House staffers noted that in recent months, Sean Hannity and his show jointly fill a “void” created by the departure of Steve Bannon from Trump’s inner circle in the White House.  The presidency has been a means for Trump, it seems, to have direct access to the FOX talking heads that have echoed in his own head for so long–and the dramatic increase of the number of cable news personalities this March, when the arrival of John Bolton, frequent FOX commentator, former “Fox & Friends” co-host Heather Nauert as acting undersecretary in the U.S> State Department, and her co-worker as Secretary of Veteran Affairs, with former cable commentator Larry Kudlow as Economic Advisor  creates an odd sounding board indeed.   Hannity’s prominence in the shadows may well explain the increased growth of the border wall in Trump’s imaginary, the source of Hannity’s words on television–and Hannity was the source of birtherism–may be seen as the organ that feeds the mental imaginary we attribute to Trumpism, but offered the very mental furniture of which Trumpism is built.

The  confluence between Trump’s own voracious TV-watching habits –and the credence Trump gives the authority of ratings and the screen–suggests a sense of moral relativism and indeed a broad relativism that shifts meanings for its audience.  Such unprecedented relativism may explains the appeal Trump perceived of affirming the creation of a border wall–which he first described as a “real wall”–of the sort that anti-immigrant groups had demanded to fix the problems proposed, and created visualizations about border crossings in order to promote, that were later translated into concrete prototypes.  Indeed, the conceit of the wall has triggered an ever-expanding discourse of illegality–from its initial construction in variance with environmental mandates and precepts of conservation, to the illegality of border crossing and apprehension of allegedly “illegal” immigrants.  The circularity that stations purporting to present “news” has created in identifying, powerfully symbolizing, and calling attention to the border as a site of danger in need of national attention and neglected by national politicians was born at the edge of the nation–among anti-immigrant groups in states that share a border with Mexico–but their powerful info-graphics migrated from Texas to online images to cable news to the White House, as they have come to represent the very needs that established politicians have neglected.

image.pngApril 4, 2018

The same network early listed Trump’s prime agenda as President on the eve of his inauguration by FOX, or the first of the multiple sound bites that provided energy to the Trump campaign–simplified terms that suggest little coherent program, and at times read more like crossword puzzle clues, designed to suggest a broader coherence with


When Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci–who lived through fascism–saw the veneer of political respectability that fascism lent to  what were once marginal political demands, he could not have predicted the popularity of a construction as the border wall.  But it is difficult to see a more adept promoter of political veneer than the promoter of as many facades as Donald J. Trump, who is ever eager to adopt fascist rhetoric as another facade: Trump has has placed his name–and literally written it in gold–on more facades of buildings than one can count to invest them with elegant respectability, using tax shelters, accounting tricks, and financial shell games to promote his appeal.  The promotion of a new veneer of political normalcy on programs that were less for the nation than shifted priorities from legal protections.

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Filed under border wall, globalization, human rights, immigration, US-Mexico Border

One response to “The False Imperative of the Border Wall

  1. Pingback: Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View? | Musings on Maps

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