The False Imperative of the Border Wall

34. The geographically marginal place of demands arrived from the political margins of the border, long voiced in Texas and along the southwestern border, have moved to a central place in the Trump campaign and Presidency and Republican platform:  the position of the U.S. Border Patrol has been elevated from being first voiced at its boundaries into the platform of a political party:  recent analysis based on the data from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) have revealed he migration of concerns about cross-border immigration and the presence of “illegals” in the United States to the common topic of GOP candidates’ campaigns–elevating what was not even among the top ten issues in 2014 into a primary way for candidates to cathect with constituents, and indeed to map national priorities.  As even moderate senators like Susan Collins of Maine announce public support of the Border Wall as a basis for a coherent program on immigration, and opposition to rethinking family separation as a policy, there seems little political position outside the support of the wall within what has been presented as an “immigration solution”–barely concealing its deeply racist and ethnocentric origins of celebrating white nationalism in the false guise of “race realism.”  The wide remapping of areas of governance and governmentality in coded sacred terms–both in the sanctifying wall of the nation, and in the recognition of Israel’s capital in Jerusalem–suggest a terrifying resurgence of the symbolics of geography at the same time as the evacuation of authority of the paper map.

The elevation of concerns about cross-border migration to a mantra have grown, as the cry has been identified with job loss, in symbolically effective terms.  For the wall is a prominent part of the promise that Trump made to the nation during his campaign, with little thought to its impact on the nation or for refiguring the place of America in the world.  Did FOX help move an issue that had originated along the border to a central platform of a national political party?  Conviction that the presence of “illegals” in the nation is the greatest problem, despite evidence to the contrary, has become a basis for partisan affiliation, even among non-border states:  ross-border immigration, granting of legal status to DREAMers, and the existance of Sanctuary Cities refusing to cooperate with Immigration  and Customs Enforcement or sharing data on arrests have become blurred.   Among a large and largely rural share of the electorate, the blanket term of “immigration;” prominent GOP consultants argue they “don’t see immigration going away soon” from national debate, so preeminent has it become.  The prominence of this constellation of issues–or soundbites–are nowhere better concretized than in the construction of a border wall, which links them, even if not pertaining to all, as a symbol of national resistance to earlier immigration policies, and seems akin to a new religion and confession of national allegiance–far from the border itself.

Troy Balderson.pngTroy Balderson for Congress/OH12

The concentration of national attention on the border as a promise has created an increasingly insular and isolationist mentality, to be sure, and has devalued the nation.  Emphasis on the border also serves an alarmist tendency, in ways that demands counter-acting, that acts to mask the routes, stories, and identities of migrants, insisting on focusing attention on the transgressive activity of border crossing and the need for greater apprehension of migrants who move along or across the US-Mexico border, and the false conflation of the construction of a border wall–shortened to “the wall,” in Balderson’s political ad to Ohioans and in much cable news–as an objective response to geographical realities.

This is important to remember, and insist upon.  For promoting the border wall as a means to curtail an overly porous frontier from attracting criminalized migrants–and serves to call for redrawing the border barrier within the nation’s own space, with less attention to the continued existence of the laws that define the nation-state:  the border zone is presented as a site of apprehension, as the stories of migrants are reduced to nameless data provided by Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection to materialize the border as a fixed frontier, rather than a permeable zone, casting it as a line  whose fences and gates need to be replaced rather than as organized on a mountainous topography whose border is partly defined by the Rio Grande.

The imagination of the border is suggested in the roughly 30 new facilities whose construction is planed in a leaked internal DHS memo that will be able to jail, at capacity, more than 70,000 individuals each day, expanding the existing network of detention that constitutes something of a shadow state, housing migrants accused of breaking the law without access to legal counsel or representation, since no immigrants are accorded constitutional rights that are accorded to other criminal defendants, and those in remote geographical locations unlikely to have contact with non-profit legal representation.  Curtailing access to justice or legal rights is a primary aim of building a promised Border Wall.  A wall would ensure caseloads do not reach American courts–already with a backlog standing at 572,608, according to the Immigration Court Backlog Tool; failure to prioritize border violations would demand massive increases of detention facilities, assigning judges to detention facilities to try detainees lacking legal representation, or try them by video links.

If the Army Corps of Engineers began to construct border fences, under the authority of the George H.W. Bush’s Attorney General, from 1990, first building fence on a stretch of just fourteen miles of the border near San Diego in 1993 that was ten feet in height, the imagined continuity of the border as a line has been perpetuated in two-dimensional maps.  The fence near San Diego was expanded by US Border Patrol themselves to 14 miles of triple-layered fencingin 1996, waiving all environmental and conservation laws that would apply.  For maps and data visualizations of sloppy but powerful design have helped to trump the laws, and indeed served to create a fantasy of stopping trans-border traffic, quite alienated from the practice of preventing border crossing or the physical topography of the region.  The trick of creating a need for a border wall is indeed easily achieved by a map–or by a set of maps, repeatedly circulating in social media.  The cartographical magnification of the nation’s border remains significant, as it foregrounds the danger of transnational networks argued to have compromised the United States’ economy and public safety.

35.  The very “gaps” announced to exist along the border proclaimed the dangers an “open border” that, for lack of an effective blockade, create a sense of a porous nation and unprotected boundary–shifting attention from questions of homelessness, urban blight, poverty, poor education, low employment, and poor health care, in the guise of creating greater transparency on our border problems in compelling ways.  The focus on the map alone, in a blanched out landscape of light shades of grey, suggest that it is the only thing that is worth noting,–that our attention should be directed there alone, as it is the story that is waiting to happen.  How many stories are able to be told about this map of incomplete border barriers?

Complexes of Walls.pngComplexes legend wall.pngUSA Today/Interactive Map of Border Current Wall’s Existing Barriers ©Mapbox ©OSM

The compelling images of criminality along the same divide, mapped here in homicides, reveal a clear two distinct socioeconomic worlds that desperately need to be kept separate lest the difficulties on one side of the wall breach into the other, creating a sense of cultural contamination similar to the transmission of bacillus or quarantine–as seems illustrated by the leeching over the border at one point.

Homicide rates US-Mexican border

The imagined gaps between patrol checkpoints and in the materials of the limited fencing and vehicular obstructions along the existing border, and an increasingly existential relation to them, only inspires immediate panic about territorialities and being in the world–the very sense of panic that generates demand for a border wall.

Heterogeneous FenceComplexes legend wallUSA Today Interactive Border Map, ©OSM and ©Mapbox

The attention to the border, and the stories that it compels, even in skeletal form, stripped of life–and indeed because of single-minded focus on its extent and its gaps, rather than its lived reality, inevitably suggest suspending questions of legality, given the dire need to protect the nation–and to maintain its integrity.  This is the ultimate lie of the map, but the justification that it creates for a separate legal regime of the border, and the deep justification for preventing the border’s illicit breach.

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.  Indeed, the creation of the wall seems to trigger an ever-expanding discourse of illegality–from its initial construction in variance with environmental mandates and precepts of conservation, to its accusations of the illegality of border crossing, to the illegality of apprehension of unauthorized immigrants.

At the same time, emphasis on the border serves an alarmist tendency to mask the routes, stories, and identities of migrants, insisting on focusing attention on the transgressive activity of border crossing.  Such an emphasis promotes the border barrier to curtail an overly porous frontier from attracting immigrants who are criminalized–and serves to call for redrawing the border barrier within the nation’s own space, with less attention to the continued existence of the laws that define the nation-state:  the border zone is presented as a site of apprehension, as the stories of migrants are reduced to nameless data provided by Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection to materialize the border as a fixed frontier, rather than a permeable zone, casting it as a line  whose fences and gates need to be replaced rather than as organized on a mountainous topography whose border is partly defined by the Rio Grande.


The language of need and urgency of the “security of the Wall on the Southern Border,” tweeted our Twitterer-in-Chief in all caps style concealing its circular logic in 2018, calling for preserving “the safety and security of our country,” as he cast the tragic seekers of asylum who traversed Mexico on foot as a poster child for the Border Wall.  But the group of women and children and a young man who were initially admitted to the United States and recognized as fleeing violence may erase the stories of the hundreds who made the voyage, or who await seek to make the case for sanctuary.  All of a sudden, in Trump’s rhetoric as amplified on the alt Right news, the notion of a single, symbolic “Caravan” multiplied fearsomely into Caravans of immigrants poised to cross the border, counter-suggestions of caravans of deportation that would be the most fitting response, and images of forced migration across borders that bizarrely seemed to multiply the landless condition of refugee in a bitter anti-humanitarian language of disenfranchisement and a stripping of rights.  The recent metaphorical extension of the border wall to the chain-link fences of confinement of apprehended undocumented immigrants–“walls built from chain-link fences”–takes the wall as a “legal” alternative to mute the of the cage-like structures where immigrants are detained before their cases are heard–including  nearly 2,000 kids were separated from their parents and held in juvenile detention centers in only a period of six weeks.

The stripping of rights begins with the attack on existing immigration laws as insufficient.  President Trump has laughed repeated accusations over social media that removed transborder immigration from questions of legality:  rather, in promoting fears of threats to sovereignty by a porous border, above the actual stories of individual migrants or numbers of cross-border traffic, migrants are depersonalized and departicularized as threats to sovereignty and status, and mapped as sources of fear.  In deploying National Guards to the border, based on the same spatial imaginary of responding to a national threat through “strong action today,” he attacked the “weak border laws” he had inherited, which encourage the arrival of thousands of Centtal Americans he described as “flowing into our country illegally,” exploiting our unproductive immigration laws:  if the laws allowed what expanded to a “caravan” of over a thousand Central Americans, magnified on the loudspeaker of Fox News and factorially multiplied in Trump’s imagination, to cross the southwestern border, as if that was where they were headed.

The border wall he promised would replace the vagaries of immigration laws that he, as chief executive, could not defend, and which his own Attorney General disdained as so corrosive of the nation and he defined as dangerous to public safety.  The complex imaginary of a border that was not protected, and laws which offered “loopholes” for undocumented border-crossers to escape detection, or gain temporary asylum into the nation, used language that stripped immigrants of identity, liberty, or rights by expanding the ability of National Guards to be deployed to assist the border patrol “by guarding our border with our military,” in efforts to surveill and deport to satisfy, as if this were not already previous practice despite the rejection of $25 Billion in funds to create a promised ‘border wall’ on which Trump had campaigned.  Deploying National Guards to the border, he undid the “weak border laws” he inherited, as if the laws themselves allow the overturning of the sacred compact with the state.  National Guardsmen  deployed to assist border patrol “by guarding our border with our military” to surveil and deport compensate for the congressional rejection of $25 Billion in funds to create a promised ‘border wall’ on which Trump had campaigned, despite the refusal of elected representatives and despite a lack of due process. By showcasing the border’s loose protection, maps conjure the arrival of migrant as breaking laws by entering American society without due legal process or procedure.

This has become a grounds to strip those already disenfranchised of their rights.


The on-foot travel of this Caravan was followed at considerable expense all week, with high revenues for advertisers, by more American newscasters and photographers than the caravan itself ended up being upon its arrival at San Ysidro.   The event created international effects, as Mexican authorities were urged to work to offer asylum to many, and national guard soldiers sent to guard the southwestern border, as their arrival was used to orchestrate a push for the urgency of border-building, or at least invoke the need in performative terms on social media.

The group of migrants have become something of a poster-child and cautionary exemplar for those who might consider migration in the future, however, or a tipping point in the immigration system that Donald Trump famously continues to rail against on social media in a gambit to boost his own retrograde border policies or increase their popular support.  The fears of arriving migrants at the border–and at what stands as a border wall–has indeed provided an advertisement for the expansion of the border wall, even if any migrants are processed duly for asylum, and make an exemplar of the hopeful migrants to discourage the scope of the imitation of this annual attempt of thousands to travel on foot though Mexico from Honduras, to seek asylum there, even as they were retained on the Mexican side of the border, under the pretext of a lack of adequate personal documentation.  Even as protestors have scaled the wall as Border Agents have acted to halt the advance of migrants, they show the fear of the permeable “open borders” on which Trump has campaigned against, and that the Border Wall would resolve.



1 Comment

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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