The False Imperative of the Border Wall

The border wall presents itself as a defensive structure, but is first and foremost about the preservation of sovereign bounds in an era when sovereignty is increasingly less and less clearly defined.  The concept of sovereignty has not been eroded.  But the proposed border wall has diminished our sense of a nation that undermine national values and legal precedent or liberal jurisprudence.  

Crafted as an attempt to command respect by building an imposing structure, its theater is far more driven by its position in domestic policy than global relations.  For in ways that naturalize steepening inequalities of household income, literacy, labor laws, air pollution, water sanitation, and health, and separate areas of highest growth of household income from Mexico, the proposed border wall naturalizes these steep divides by the urgency it suddenly occupies for the White House:  in the way that all maps appeal to the imagination by assuring an intelligent mastery over space, border walls serves to transform fantasy to geographic reality, and preserve a sacred idea of the nation and its purity that rebuts globalization.  But in denying the abilities of cross-border movement, rights to asylum, protection, or an inclusive notion of citizenship, the wall trumpets the centrality of defensive structures to our notion of the nation, appropriately locating the largest collective project of infrastructure on the nation’s edges, in an open denial of rights to the stateless or disenfranchised.   The structure would map a logic of exclusion, even if it casts and promotes itself primarily as a benefit to the nation in a peculiarly affectless monumentalism of neo-fascist origin.

John Berger, shortly before his passing, identified the dangerous growth of walls as anonymous and faceless forms of the state as constituting a defining social divide, replacing fissures of class but running deeper than class in separating the voiced and the voiceless in a globalized world.  Building on his ambitious concern to document migrant workers’ stories and their destinies in his attempt to restore that identity by attending to the stories of unseen workers marginalized in Europe of the 1970s, Berger alerted readers to the rise of wall-building in the first decade of the new millennium as a broad phenomenon of excluding people from wealthier nations as a denying abilities for empathy and humanity.  Berger returned in newly troubled ways to the fault lines that were created by the phenomenon of wall building, from 2003 and throughout his final writings, as cause of a cri de coeur against their denial of humanity and moves for pre-emptive disenfranchisement.  So much seems epitomized by the denial of asylum policies by which border walls deny possibilities of cross-border transit far more explicit than Berger had mapped as a remaking of landscape and individual fate.  

Even if the proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico remains unlikely to be completed, it stands as a monument to the exclusion of the stateless, rooted not in global policies but as a fault-line in our nation and ideal of inclusion.  For the wall is negative monument to citizenship and national belonging, rooted not in the celebration of unity or togetherness but the protection of an allegedly pure nation:  as a dreadful marker of the purported purity of the nation, it has become a means to promote a new religion of the nation.  Despite the brash assertiveness of the border wall, it must be placed in the context of Berger’s plans to pen a “project about the migrant workers of Europe” and “the voices of the eleven million migrant workers in Europe and of the forty or so million that are their families, mostly left behind in towns and villages but dependent on [their] wages”  whose destiny Berger directed attention.  The project, undertaken after winning the Booker Prize, indeed defines a model of intellectual engagement and reporting that attends precisely to the emergence of a new sense of statelessness and globalization that the wall is promised to stand as a national response.

The proposed border wall denies such impact by insisting on its own urgency to every American.  The US-Mexico Border Wall was so intently and mind-numbingly propounded on FOX-TV’s cartoonish maps to convince many Americans it is already an actuality in our nation’s geography, as well as a necessity, in ways that a cartoonist would best perceive as a pretense–the construction of a “border wall” has gained realism although it lacks any legal precedent as a definition or assertion of territoriality, or any grounds in actual engineering practice.  The image of a tall wall,  impeding any scaling or underground tunneling both by its height and extension six feet underground would necessitate seizing some 5,000 parcels to span a complete 2,000 miles.  It would exist as an act of sovereign power and will, a performative exercise that would erode our definition of liberty by lending currency to the most corrosive sorts of oppositional thought.  Without any international authority, the border wall was promised to “block” all crossings it defines as “illegal” before the fact, and become a presence for a satellite belt of detention centers and makeshift federal prisons that housed those apprehended migrants waiting to be deported:  the absence of rights extended to  these migrants  would only affirm a carceral archipelago that would remap the relation of individual and state.    

border detentionUS Detention and Visitation Map/Freedom for Immigrants.  Blue tears denote ICE-Operated centers; red county-operated jails; black privately operated facilities; purple sites enjoy visitation rights; see also Center for Immigration Studies (2013)/interactive map viewer.  Such a shadow network would increasingly restrict rights of visitation and remove most migrants from any access to legal representation or legal aid.

The promise of a border wall was treated as a backdrop of a Presidential campaign; it served as a campaign promise able to repurpose all other infrastructure investments and redefine America’s political geography, has increasingly run against reality, and an atavistic defense of the nation.  The militarized border wall seems to seek to change the relation of the individual to the law in ways that Franz Kafka might well have recognized, as a web of opaque restrictions and proscriptions of a removed governmental authority, organized as if at whim, placing migrants in a landscape of unreason where all are subject to individual suspicion and judgement; the landscape empties words like individual rights, liberty, and law of content as they are subsumed in border management–that mirrors a managerial rhetoric and minimize best practices.  

The monolithic structure of the proposed border, which descends foreign to its environment, an alien structure in an apparently barren land, incarnates the alien and illegal.  The border wall is not a novelty:  if it promises to affirm the border, it recycles border protections and restrictive immigration policies in the United States reflected both ethnic and racial discrimination they effectively normalized–in ways since broadly rejected as morally and ethically repugnant.  The symbolic prominence of the border wall rehabilitates openly discriminatory policies–captured by the rise of racial profiling by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the interior of the nation, and the detention and deportation practices at the border.  The wall helps sacralize the territory as the nation, creating a nceptual map protecting a simulacrum of nation against “illegal” border entry, and naturalizing restriction of migrants’ legal status and rights, proposing to cement the criminalization of the very notion of border-crossing.  

Fence:Wall Trump

For a President with pronounced boundary issues, the proposed border wall has become a stage on which he seeks to reorient America’s relations to the world, even if it does not exist and may not be built, but occupies a central position of attention.  The proposed violates international law as a form of immigration control; it defines a boundary about not a nation, but a curtailing of long recognized international rights and unprecedented militarization of the southwestern border at a time when we are openly not at war, targeting the specter of the “illegality” of an undocumented migrant, as if they were unlawful enemy combatants–confusing the very notion of legality by conflating it with the legal fiction of borders as national boundaries by circumscribing rights at the border, and effectively promoting an insularity withdrawing from international law as if it was readily assemblable fiction–without any actual impact on human lives–and, at $9,999,999,999,999.99, but a sliver of the $25 billion of its estimated cost, requiring only an Allen key to connect its pressboard panels.


Would the proposed wall offer any better of a defense?   It serves to affirm a primitive opposition in our minds, quite alien to the national laws we have inherited, which it seems to replace with a triumphalist structure.  But is the wall not far more of a readymade show of pride, rather than an effective border policy?    We are in danger of accepting this new definition of border security as a part of the nation–a notion of the nation directly tied to the imperative of protecting a “homeland” than to a body of laws.  For it bears repeating that the proposed  wall has been planned to be constructed as a defense of the modern construction of the “homeland,” and that its creation has a genealogy different and distinct from nationalism or the nation.  

Although the actual incredible elasticity of the proposed border wall, whose costs, construction, materials, and presence have changed so repeatedly to remove it from engineering feat to a figural status–serves as a wall against global mobility and a specter of globalization, more than against an actual threat, but is repeatedly described as securing national interests, serves jump-starting the sacrality of the nation not by bounding its actual extent, but affirming the right to keep migrants out of the region, and removed from chances of employment or the protection of civil rights.  The increasingly transactional nature of politics that has led Trump to entertain funding the proposed border wall by replacing the immigration lottery with the selling of U.S. citizenship at a million a pop to wealthy foreigners debases and devalues national ideals by treating them as able to be auctioned on a “free” market to the highest bidder in ridiculous if not obscene neoliberal terms.

As such, it sets a global precedent for remapping national boundaries by a nativist agenda championed by the Trump administration, who had made the wall a totem and marker of the new sort of “governmentality” they would create.  Despite Trump’s nonchalance about Vladimir Putin’s assaults on the basis of America’s sovereignty in democratic elections, Trump has turned the other eye to Russia and cast the border wall as a basis for augmented national security.   The perception that the border wall is rooted in the perspective from which it is viewed, depending not only on which side of the border you stand, or the legal status from which one views it as a sign of inclusion or exclusion, but from how the government claims to define the legality of immigration and of migrants.  The creation of the border as a stage for performative pronouncements serves to make it almost impossible to erase, even before it has been built.   The proposed construction so outweighs any existing structures in the nation that is serves as a screen to embellish expansive fantasies of power–te Clarence, Illinois-based Resolution Security Services firm offers a wall that includes a thirty-foot berm and echoes the Great Wall of China, a reference point Trump has often employed, trumpeted as a response to a clash of civilizations of Huntingtonian proportions, in a bid that responding to the manufactured crisis by serving as a “symbol of the defense of the American nation and culture, just as [the Roman Empire’s] monumental wall defended the limits of the Western civilization”–as if in response to a crisis in defining those limits.

image.pngCrisis Resolution Security Services

Replacing the intentionally permeable membrane of the nation, long designed to encourage transit in response to a shifting labor market between two countries, the redefinition of the border as a militarized space without laws or liberties as a new frontier against “illegal aliens” is a monument to redefine legality, converting the border zone to something like a front of war, and on the scale of a perpetual war for the nation.  Unlike the border wall that Anna Tereza Fernandez  repainted in order to compel that it disappear back in 2012, when the border seemed to recede from the public imagination–

image.pngAna Teresa Fernandez, “Erasing the Border,” (2012)

–the border wall that is promised to prevent immigrants from entering from Mexican territory is less a ruin ready for repainting than an obstruction that does not invite or offer possibilities for future dialogue:  it pushes back against discussion.  

2.  Whereas the original border was framed as a collaboration between Mexican and American governments to deal with indigenous peoples, specifically in terms of trans-border raiding in the border zone, the project for the border wall is an attempt to define the prerogative of an American government define cross-border relations.

As much as the resolve immigration issues, it posits a boundary beyond which no rights for migrants exist–leading to numerous public pledges attesting to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers across  the globe, as well as in the restriction of refugees seeking asylum.  Much as many different refugees were stigmatized as detainees by the 1996 Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, as Thi Buy so eloquently graphically illustrated, in response to fears of crime and terrorist activity, making detention mandatory for the undocumented, the proposed border wall would transform the immigrant who enters the nation to an enemy needing to be detained–as if militarizing the border transforms the immigrant not only into an “illegal” but to a “unlawful combatant” who is able to be detained, and “conducting operations with the laws and customs of war,” by their presence on the wrong side of the wall.

As a ploy and publicity stunt attempting to jumpstart a religion of a sacred nation, separate from foreigners, the border wall connotes a gated community of purity, whose symbolic strength may undermine our secular identity.  For the false imperative of the border wall stands to undermined our established and inherited notions of national inclusiveness as a secular state, by affirming the brutality of the border as if it were a sign of strength.  Although the construction of such a border wall lacks legal precedent, it offers a radically new precedent to describe our homeland, it does so by one of the most archaic forms or pre-legal–divisions, substituting written legal norms and conventions between nations with a mute concrete structure, whose construction is extra-legal in origin.  For the proposed border wall is presented and advanced as a mapping of nation designed to replace the “bad laws” or “terrible laws” that Trump has demeaned every chance he has.   The very language of legal discrediting that Trump enjoys established the need for the border wall, which transformed territories long exploited and treated as a porous space of migration, but has been recast as a necessary line of national defense. 

The inordinate attention Trump has directed to the border wall as a negative space cordons off the space of the border as off-limits to our attention or from oversight or scrutiny.  Indeed, management of the space of the border falls to organizations that are an extension of the executive branch, from the U.S. Border Patrol to the National Guard, agencies that are disturbingly removed from legal oversight and circumscribing any rights of those who seek to cross or plead cases of asylum.  The goal of its construction along the border is of course one of foreclosing the hope of migrants seeking asylum, work, or to flee violence.  In what seems a sort of perverse art object or project, the display of the panels of the faux border wall, as a model for their future construction, and a sort of public theater of the newfound authority of the border’s space.  While the wall already exists in the minds of most Americans, an illusion that Trump has worked hard to create–


–the actual costs of the wall remain not fully understood by most of the nation.  Not only do almost eighty percent of Americans believe that the United States will pay for its construction, even if the majority of Americans oppose the U.S. government pay for it.  As if invited into a fantasy of bookkeeping by which the wall could exist without being subsidized, the space of the border has become a collective illusion, whose costs are able to be defrayed in ways that conceal and mask its actual costs to the nation, both financial and institutional, as an unprecedented circumscription of liberties.  


Perhaps only an art project can amply respond to the unprecedented material rhetoric of separation and remapping, and the imperative it incarnates on behalf of–but outside–the state, as an assemblage conjuring state authority that is complete with a cheap and abstract map of the boundary, gates, crappy wire fencing, a spotlight, and impersonal imperatives–

IMG_3454-2.jpgBerkeley, CA; July 2018 (street art assemblage in fire)

–but the negative space of the border wall often seems part of a deep project of disavowal, disenfranchisement, and restriction of migrants’ rights, not tied to the border at all.  The design of the border has been promoted repeatedly as an effective replacement of the rule of law, and indeed the mapping of a state of exception, to use the term of Giorgio Agamben, weirdly rooted not in any real map but in the poor mapping of the alleged “gaps” in the borderline as a site of illegal immigration, in need of defense, by recasting the border as the site of denying individual rights of immigrants.  The proposed border wall echoes a perverse reading of the boundary of the nation as a site of vulnerability, less of an open threshold or permeable membrane than a line of militarized defense, where the stateless become the prime targets of suspending individual rights.

Beyond a denial of immigrant rights, the wall expanded and defined the sense of the border as a threshold of defense inherited rom the post-9/11 construction of a “Homeland,” whose safety trumps the individual or individual access to the law, and is organized by the needs of national security that are defined as paramount to legal norms.  How can the violence of the false imperative of the border wall be suitably mapped, resisted, or described?  It is a redefinition of national security, and a theater of state, but one which hides real consequences of the stripping of rights for all who enter its new space–either the physical space of the borderlands or the mental space of the wall.  Indeed, it seems to excavate a negative space, as a pretense for the undoing of the law or denying human rights.  Much as the planned border wall would cut through the landscapes to which it is foreign, it  would cut through lives, separating one-time immigrants from any chance of crossing to a future.  The border wall stands to leave a huge scar on the borderlands as a region, creating a negative space of citizenship as well as a space of environmental devastation, converting a membrane of mutually beneficial passage to a space where dramatically curtailed rights, due process, or access to law rewrites our national legal and moral landscape.  

Can an art art of counter-mapping assist in puncturing the emptiness of the pretenses of a boundary wall to help police our national space?  Can it help to loosen the strictures that the proposed imposed upon those who would share the space of the United States, by allowing them to be detained within the region or zone of the border wall?   The tactical reshaping of the border space is quite precedented.  The concentration of such camps by the border or at four of its major crossing points is striking–two based in Texas, the state that contains two-thirds of the US-Mexico border, and seems the site of the notion of building a border wall, and two in California, and several in Arizona, north of the desert–

MIgrant camps used to detain minors

While most all actual maps of the proposed Border Wall remain “pre-decisional”–a bizarre bureaucratic newspeak, reminding us of theirorigins in one branch of government alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who responded to President Trump’s Executive Order for Border Security and Immigration Enforcement, the twinning of immigration to the border and its security is strikingly non-contiguous, filled with gaps, and suggestive of a sinuous ribbon–


-or based on the relative ease or difficulty of “claiming land” often privately owned or in a state park or wildlife refuge, where it is planned to include a substantial 150 foot “enforcement zone,” seeking to claim its own authority as a structure of enforcing policies, even if those policies depart from or contravene the established law.

wall claims

from data from th U.S, Corps of Army Engineers

The utter lack of transparency of the proposed wall’s construction suggests its origin in executive policies to redefine a national space by sheer will-power and bullying, rather than a process of working through the law.

3.  The new landscape of the southern borderlands so enthusiastically promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump seems lodged in our nation’s collective spatial imagination.  It is never fully mapped in any detail, but described in terrifyingly vague terms as an area of danger–as if it was a primary threat to our country–as the massive security apparatus that we have allowed to emerge after 9/11 has been projected onto our poorer neighbors to the south.  One of the odd perspectival tricks of the border policy is that it not only militarizes the border as a line of defense, but defines a state of exception around the border removed from the law.  This new zone of the border wall appeals to many because it makes most of the nation feel a vague relief at the unjustifiable fiction that they are entitled to a position of privilege of not being on its other side.  

Border Patrol Officer beside Second Fence near Tijuana in Mexcico/Gregory Bull/AP

For the border wall defined a distinctly new relation between individual and sovereign state, increasing the proximity of the state to all who approach it and stripping most individuals of rights before the evidence of the state’s presence.  Far more than current fencing, the wall promises to claim ownership over the border as a transactional space, defining absolute sovereignty over who passes it and promising to prevent all human passage across the border, independently from the rights or conditions of individual migrants and their families.  

Perhaps has become a screen on which we project an imagined sense of security and authority, magnifying the presence of the state in the borderlands, without any proof of its effectiveness of need.  It exists as a charade and show of strength:  for rather than separate us from actual terrorists, migrants seeking new lives–the very stuff of the American story at one time–have been painted as the danger that threatens to over-run the nation as we know it, and targets which the chief executive can direct full attention.  The border patrol agents who watched the arrival of migrants at San Ysidro who would flee across during the night, in an attempt not to be apprehended or stopped; the wall would serve to marginalize them by making the state’s presence suddenly visible.  The cruelest trick of the distorting lens of the border wall is to sustain this unwarranted fiction of privilege–a fiction without moral or ethical justification, which rests on shutting down empathy.

San Ysidro.pngzilia Castrillon

4.  The proposed border wall is presented to the nation as opposed to an existing framework of laws.  It is designed to prevent our border–and nation–from being “overrun” by immigrants who might take advantage of “pathetic” laws, to create a nation where “you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house.”  The borderlands stand to change the landscape of the nation as you know it, Trump insists, unless they are defined as subject to executive oversight as places outside the law–given the “pitiful,” “pathetic” and inadequate nature of immigration laws to deal with the exceptional violence and cruelty of the borderlands and of migrants.  If over thirty environmental laws were already waived by the Department of Homeland Security for the Rio Grande Valley–allowing a key area of focus of concern for immigration protection by the Trump administration–and the Chihuahan desert, the absence of much attention to the region attention to the borderlands by the nation save as an area of danger has allowed it to be transformed to a bulwark of national defense against imprecise faceless dangers that have continued to grow as a specter of fear.  

If the waiver of environmental protections will allow the pollution of the delicate ecosystems by the construction teams of Customs and Border Protection and its subcontractors, who plan to arrive with plank concrete to be fixed into the sandy earth, or the Army Corps of Engineers–by waiving the rights of indigenous peoples or species protection, the illegality of the border wall has been obscured as well–as has its conversion to a region without any oversight and removed from civil laws and human rights.  If it is already truly bleak at the US-Mexico border wall–a site of surveillance more than of human habitation, even if it runs through site cities–

image.pngGetty Images

–the precedent of loosening federal, state, and local laws stands to remove the borderlands from any place within the legal framework of the nation, and allow it to stand as a region of exception, where all protections of migrants from federal authorities are inexistent, and the migrant is subject to an opaquely Kafka-esque masquerade of authority in the guise of low-level bureaucrats who have no familiarity with the laws, but are given license to act as they see fit.

The illusion of the  increasing proximity of the entire nation to the border parallels the growth of the increasingly secret space of the border as an area:  for the borderlands remain off the map of most Americans’ actual attention, it becomes a a space that is primarily organized by the expansion of state sovereignty, and set apart from the legal organization of the nation as we know it as a framework of laws.  Current maps of the border don’t just point people toward the proposed wall, as they adopt a purely Apollonian view of the proposed border wall; they appear to create or instate something of a newly mediatized monument, in a sort of stagecraft for the national viewing audience, replacing statecraft, as if to present a roll out of a spectacle of augmented border security–by eliciting further fears as much as an actual feat of engineering.  

The promise to create a new space of heightened policing along the southwestern border signs a policy of creating a new space of policing and of negotiating claims to sovereignty that suggest a new space of governmentality, as much as an extra-legal space, where migrants lack permission to enter the United States.  The proposed border wall feigns a sign of national strength, but to rewrites of one of the most crossed borders to a space where it alone incarnates the law, and subtracts all rights from those migrants whom the border wall excludes:  it serves to banish and exclude the migrant from a system of laws, as much as to deny permission for entry, and pre-emptively deny all entertainment of rights to asylum or citizenship, in an attempt to rewrite the geography of the region by a projecting a monumental building project over hugely varied terrain–irrespective of the difficulties of doing so.  But the mapping of this imagined proposed border wall–no precedent for which really exists–has provided an image of particularly persuasive power for Donald Trump to showcase and promote, even if it is likely to not be built.  The conceit is particularly powerful as a mapping of the relation of the region to the world, and the remapping of the borderlands as a region of statelessness.

Wall Segments

Trump assession wall

For a President acutely unawares of the relation between stagecraft and statecraft, the border wall has become a unique opportunity to showcase the simulacrum of American leadership and a facade of state authority.  The proposed border wall first unveiled in the 2015 Trump campaign is intended to defend national space, even before it can be fully or adequately mapped, but exists as a mental imaginary less as an actual space, so much as alternative to a state of undefined chaos that has been conjured in the borderlands.  Despite the absence of anything approaching the needed funding for its construction, the border wall has insidiously become a prominent aspect of the nation’s mental geography, trading on an old metaphor and image of the cruelty of the border, but replacing it with a new vision of national security organized by Customs and Border Protection, Dept. of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement–and condensing the bloated government that police the politics of immigration across the nation to a concrete wall. The faceless nature of this new symbol of government is the absence of good government, but rather a state of emergency and of the suspension of laws in the name of the state–at the same time as a redefining of the geography of the border as a space where local authorities as Border Patrol have unsupervised authority.

For the current President has insistently distorted the need for attention to the border to magnify debate about legal and what he calls “illegal” immigration–rarely an issue in previous years.  Immigration has been tied to national safety for the first time in modern memory, through the image of the US-Mexico boundary, fixing public attention in a particularly narrow-minded focus on the border.  In ways that may well conceal an unwarranted expansion of executive power of which Trump seems to regard US-Mexico border wall as a concrete manifestation, we have been focussing on the border to the exclusion of deep fault lines within the nation, from homelessness to income inequality to gun control:  if all have corollaries in a border portrayed as a site of illegal immigration, drugs, violence and the growth of Central American gangs, the mis-mapping is both profoundly dangerous to individuals and aims to corrode civil discourse and civil society.

It has at times seemed as if this anti-monument to executive authority, imposed on the landscape, but foreign to it, maps Trump’s magnification of executive authority.  The massive project of building, as if destined to consume the federal budget, is to stretch 2,000 miles, in a grandiose attempt to shift American immigration policy by a monumental construction that ignores the plight of migrants it boasts to prevent from crossing into the United States.  Unveiled as a response to an apparent congressional paralysis on border policy, it blocks out migrants’ plight by a dramatically expanded security state.  The so-called prototypes of the border wall that were unveiled in San Diego this summer–eight thirty-foot structures revealed in the arid landscape between Tijuana and the outskirts of San Diego triple the height of existing fence, and extend six feet underground–but  are unlikely to stop tunnels of smugglers already as deep as seventy feet below ground.  If its full structure is unable to be adequately mapped–much as the border wall may not be built–it haunts a growing discourse on immigration disquietingly, as if an organism that somehow exists in the world, to define immigration policies of the borderlands, as if already present on the border and only waiting to be built.  The inverse of a hotel, made of trucked in sheer concrete precast plank, promises to materially solidify the current border line at a cost likely to exceed $70 billion, but irrelevant to the drug trade which enters at border crossings in the  cargo of trucks or trains, the presents of actual undocumented immigrants, or routes of human smuggling which only stand to be pushed out to sea.

rookingsBrookings Institute/Currently Fenced and Unfenced Border and Rio Grande River

But the border wall insistently exists in our media and public discussion, as a new mapping of a new nation.  The mock ups are the inverse of public monuments.  As monuments to a failed border policy, and to the new expansion of executive power and personal ambition, they seem showpieces of the state’s reluctance to confront immigration as a human problem.  Waiting to be tested by Homeland Security authorities, Customs and Border Patrol, and other executive branches, and to be combined in a final border wall are still unbuilt, and not even funded at this point, they boast creating a new geography of the borderlands, echoing the brutality of the Old West in the architectural idiom of a maxi-prison.  As a structure of control and of avoidance of rising migration pressures, they met with shrugs and skepticism from those watching from the other side of the border, who saw it as little change–“I don’t know why they’re building them that tall if immigration will always stay the same;”  “People will go under or over it, it won’t stop.  They think that by building those walls, they’re going to end immigration.  But it’ll be the same.”  The new monument will block out immigrant stories, and as such pose perpetual problems for cross-boundary relations.  It stands to overwrite the law, and misleadingly is promoted as if it were a new paradigm for cross-border negotiations in which America will retain the upper hand.

For the crippling conceit of the border wall has changed national geography, and the nation by legitimating racial profiling, detention and the criminalization of immigration that seeks to cross the line they seek to define by building negative monuments in relief across a delicate border zone, as if in a huge earth-moving project far more imperial or early medieval than modern.  The notion of “border security” is not a modern problem:  the post-9/11 political construct is both alien to the fortunes of migrants who reach the border, so foreign to the region.  It is extra-legal, that builds on racial prejudice create an  improbable reconfiguration of the vulnerability of the border as a site of security threats.   While far more Ports of Entry exist in the United States’ northern border than tothe south, increasing pressure has been brought to resisting the porosity of the southern border, long a fluid membrane of migrant work in the western states to allow Big Agra to maintain low wages, and reflects the protected nature of many of the lands and its rough terrain–

ports of entry.jpgPorts of Entry and Ports of Entry per State/Jocelyn Godinez

–has been magnified as a site congested by border patrol units, reshaping the borderlands as an obstacles for migrants portrayed as exploiting a diminished commons, upsetting the peace, and lowering wages.  The proposed border wall expands this long-term trend of the expansion of Border Patrol units, replacing a legal system of immigration  with a vision of a far more brutal and unethical borderland minimally trained Border Patrol Officers have come to dominate.

BPADutyLocationsU.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Ports of Entry and Border Patrol Duty Locations

The border wall serves to deny the future legal place of immigrants in society by creating a magnificent obstacle to their future integration;  the boundary for entering society is symbolized by a monumental security wall, monitored by Border Patrol officers, and closing the country to foreign entry even more forcefully than the tallest and most imposing current fencing on the border.


5.  The late Jon Berger was a keen student of how border walls created unique interventions in space.  He observed how they emerged and acted for those who inhabited lands on the ground, and argued that the creation of exclusionary walls after 9/11 as a new tool of state created new divides in power, political participation, and the recognition of the different nature of individual rights on either side of the wall.  Berger historicized projects of wall-building outside a unidirectional historical narrative of triumphalism.  In a set of pieces on arts of political survival and expression after 9/11, he returned to the fabrication of walls as divides within society that were increasingly and inescapably present in our new global geography, from his haunting description of how “there is not a wall in the town center of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead [martyrs of the Second Intifada]” that suggested the appropriation of the wall as a register of the stateless, in 2003, to the presence of walls as monolithic and disruptive images of the state that erased the voices of those lying on its other side.  

The central role of what Berger called the increasing fabrication of ever-present walls in the series of brief but increasingly urgent “dispatches on survival and resistance” written as letters to the future are filled with the author’s premonitions of deep historical change that seem to forecast the creation of Trump’s proposed US-Mexico Border wall, and to place it in a broader context of depriving voices, rights, and from the most vulnerable–and from the stateless.  For Berger warned of the presence of a wall that “crosses the land where there is nobody, . . . carefully planned on electronic maps, prefabricated and pre-emptive” that exists to prevent and disrupt (2005), its geographical scale bound to and almost interchangeable with its tragedy.  The proposed US-Mexico border wall is a continuation of the same wall, and effectively points to the arrival of future migrants–much as the odious “Breaking Point” advertisement in the Brexit campaign was terrifyingly used as an effective backdrop for separatist oratory, appealing to the notion of alleged national purity to remove the stateless from care or empathy, and indeed remove them from attention–and appeal to personal interest and needs.


The power of such an anti-immigrant campaign created a new image of fears for the other as an invasive horde, the stateless have been demonized in Trumpian campaign for a border wall as a protection of national identity and security against an outsider.  Much as English critic John Berger had been long dedicated his attention to documenting migrants’ stories in their own words, and the urgency of empathy to migrants, with funds of the Booker Prize £5,000 for his novel G. he toward compiling stories of migrants workers Europe he sought to speak through a new book, based on conviction of the need to foster abilities of empathy, he perceived the rise of wall-building as a new phenomenon excluding people from wealthier nations’ life.  For the rise of walls was linked by Berger quite presciently and incisively to a cheapening of language and values of humanity; their structure implied a denial of their humanity curtailing our abilities for empathy our threatening to do so.  The pre-emptive disenfranchisement epitomized in the denial of asylum policies or the granting of citizenship and cross-border transit that the US-Mexico border wall is proposed to create is a similar denial of humanity, inscribed in the landscape that was once a purposively permeable boundary, but assumes new meaning in a new political culture’s repertory.  

An art and literary critic, John Berger was long sensitive to the relational nature of all gestures, material objects, and rearrangements of space–in the world or in paintings.  His words echoes how the role of the proposed border wall in our nation demands to be likely contmeplated in our national imagination, in homage to Berger’s work.  Berger’s keen observation of the function of their remaking of social relations by border walls, transforming once fluid  borderlands into sites of policing, reveal a historical moment as intense as that to the transformation of a commons into private property in their elevation of the power of states and as powerful symbols and emblems of intransigency.  

The prayer-like function of these images parallels the crosses attached to the border fence at Otay Mesa, more than the conversion of the wall to a site of memory.  The US-Mexico border wall doesn’t delimit an experienced space, or work to bound space, save create a negative space in which it stands.  It gestures to our mental maps of migrants’ paths, overlaying a distinct map upon them, and insulating us from their suffering and the suffering of their travel as if to make us feel better as a result.  Berger in 2004 wrote that the “present period of History is one of the Wall,” that run everywhere, and constituting the “front line of what, long ago, was called . . . ‘Class War’,” as if perceiving the inadequacy of earlier analytic tools to the phenomenon of wall-building he had noticed at first hand in Gaza.  Berger wrote soon after observing the insulating effects of a barrier walling off Palestinian Gaza, but in 2004 portrayed the Wall as the start of a walling off of global elites from dispossessed and disenfranchised, and as a new social remapping endemic to globalization.  Berger’s prescient reflection on “concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security racist walls” echoes and extends to the current magnified border wall, meant to conjure fears of the inhuman violence that lies on its other side–here Trump invokes the “inhuman” violence by the alleged “violent animals” of MS-13, argued to have crossed the border.  Although some 5, 400 are claimed to have deported in 2017 alone–the number cited as evidence that “these are animals, and we have to be very, very tough” in our country–the gang’s presence in American cities has little to do with border policies, drug cartels, or family migration, despite Neilsen’s unwarranted assertions the gang is a transnational organization.  The absence of credible links o MS-13 to unaccompanied minors crossing the border or family migration reveals the opportunistic assembly and manufacturing of a form of bricolage to support an unwarranted change in border policy.

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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