The False Imperative of the Border Wall

10.  The expanded fear of an entrance of immigrants is a distortion of a spatial geography that conceals the huge negative space already created about the borderlands.  As much as responding to a crisis of immigration policy, the border wall responds to a crisis of mapping the nation’s integrity–and of strengthening its border, as Trump reminds the nation, as if all are at risk.  It does so in dangerous ways.  While the assertion of such a “state of crisis” at the border expands federal authorities under direct executive agencies–as the Dept. of Homeland Security or Border Patrol, who work without oversight, it moves the border out of the public view, cordoning the entire region as an area that is privately overseen–and that no light is shown on.  The recent protests against family separation in detention camps are the conclusion of longstanding use of detention camps that are similarly removed from public sight, removed in an archipelago of unpriced private prison, security and defense companies, many of whom are run by groups under contract to the Department of Defence.  The diminished rights within this archipelago is based on notion that immigrants are criminals–and deserve to be regarded as foreign to the social body, and hence excluded from our system of laws, in this borderlands–a region long defend over a decade as the border-industrial complex of reduced rights, detention, and an irregular, distinct, separate system of law enforcement.


2015 ICE immigration detention centersU.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 72-Hour Facility Locations, August 2013

image.pngPrivate Detention Centers in United States in 2011/artwork Dreamline Cartography © 2013 Michael Dear (based on 2011 ICE Statistics)

The proposed border wall normalizes a space of separation, normalizing a geography of separation and isolation of the border as a separate regime, outside the social body and outside of our laws.   It replicates the devaluation of life and persons in a war zones, as immigrants and migrants are cast as others, and as an invading army whose lives are devalued, as former U.S. Border Patrol guard Francisco Cantú elegantly and succinctly argued who are separated from the norms, laws, and customs of the United States in a geographically removed space.  The promise to built an impenetrable border wall from poured concrete became a basis by which Trump framed and offered a contract with the disempowered, or those who considered themselves disenfranchised, and provided a basis by which Trump convinced them of their empowerment–offering the nation the sense of a makeover of its facade in the style of a master builder who has made a fortune by re-marketing hotels and buildings as monuments to himself, that has become  a basis for which Trump has sought to define the nation’s relation to the world.  For by mapping the remove of this region for a new generation, the wall would be a final step in plans to ensure that “geography would be an ally to us,” by dramatically redefining the area through which migrants pass in our own spatial geography.

We would notice the wall–and notice it from space–even as we remove ourselves from what occurs in the state of exception that has developed along the US-Mexican borderlands.  While one might do well to scrutinize the ever-increasing amounts of hazardous waste that indeed regularly crosses the border from points of entry in Brownsville, El Paso, Nogales, Calexico, and Otay Mesa, for destinations that extend across the United States, based on actual border manifests, the attention to an often invoked entry of drugs, gangs, and smugglers, as well as undocumented workers, has shifted our attention from toxic post-industrial pollutants to individuals we would like to describe as the greatest risks to our nation, even as we degrade our actual environment.

image.pngDestinations in US for Hazardous Waste/Border Center (January 2004-June 2005)

For the conceit of the continuous and impermeable border wall has refracted and focussed our attention to globalism and immigration in exaggerated ways.  The lack of relation of the border wall either to local context of the borderlands has parallels to its increased growth as a criteria of prosecution–without attention to the vicissitudes and specificities of legal judgement, and at a remove from the laws or norms of legal practice.  By replacing the body of immigration laws with the definitive nature of a border wall, Trump has created an anti-monument for the nation, even if the wall is never constructed, mapping a “social body” at a remove from jurisprudence.  The false mapping of a clean, crisp borderline that Trump openly presents as a new model to define our nation and its respectability as a nation as a work project that will secure a borderlines region by which the nation has been compromised–mapping a vision of the nation  sold as a sign of collective strength–and a project that was ready to be begun.  

Trump delights in claiming to demonstrate the ease and effectiveness of the border wall, indeed, persuading them of its necessary place in the nation, despite the repeated concerns about its feasibility, cost, or effectiveness as a barrier against the entry of undocumented migrants, drugs, or gangs–the trifecta which he argues mandate the border wall–all of which are dismissed to advance the image of the protection of building a wall along the border.  As much as a line, of course, the “border” stretches a full hundred miles into the interior, in toto including as much as two thirds of the entire population, and extending along a zone far more complex to administer and patrol than the simple line that Trump has mapped with insouciance as if it can be completed independently of the difficulty of it terrain or geographical remove.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Far  more than building a wall along a border divide, the border wall offers a mental re-mapping of national security, nativism, and isolationism, circumscribing individual rights.  As a negative mapping to civic space, occurring on its edges and based on exclusion, the promised border wall united an unlikely range of constituencies around the need for a sheer  border boundary–nationalist; white supremacist; racist; xenophobic; unemployed; economically insecure; fundamentalist–seems daunting to unpack as an assembly, but all of whom bought the promise of its modernity, even if the notion of a border wall is more aptly described as a pre-modern solution to a post-modern problem–as Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas put it, a “medieval or fourteenth-century solution called [simply] ‘the Wall’ to a twenty-first century problem”–rather than understanding the border or cross-border traffic as a problem of migration, instability, and deepening economic divides.  

Fencing at Border


The threat of immigration are largely of the past.  But as a chant from Trump’s campaign rallies that celebrated a break from politics as usual–“Build the wall!”–the promised border wall, even if its construction is long deferred, has provided a toxic future vision of the nation, incredibly able to unite groups thought incompatible with one another.  The  collective fixation on a geographic site may reflect a  form of mental mapping of territory of increased reactionary nature in an age of GPS, when the relevance of boundaries and boundary lines have all but vanished as cartographic markers from maps, when states geographical positions by point-based data, and boundaries are feared to have dropped off our maps.  Even if it is not constructed on the US-Mexico border, the imaginary construction has gained prominence in Trump’s rhetoric and for his followers in ways that provide and constitute a post-border map of nativist integrity removed from laws.  

11.  The promise of a border wall was imagined by Trump as a sort of monument for his legacy.  But it remaps our nation and national ethos, by denying rights of migrants seeking asylum and extending a state apparatus or complex that is removed from legal review, as well as creating a false sense of security and shifting attention from the value of a secular civil society.   The hollowed out ethos of the religion of the border wall has proved a basis for  racist taunts, and create a veneer of respectability for the positions of “the exclusive representative of approximately 18,000 Border Patrol Agents and support personnel assigned to the U.S. Border Patrol,” Brandon Judd, that “if we do not secure our borders, American communities will continue to suffer at the hands of gangs, cartels and violent criminals preying on the innocent.”  

The false security of all Americans that the border wall promises–and the dangers of an “open border” as the greatest threat to the greatest nation–has allowed border patrol agents and local law enforcement to legitimize a racist agenda by which they have assailed local border communities and stand to allowed ethnic and racial profiling to become part of our governmental practices.  Indeed, the increased prominence of racial profiling in the practices of immigration where an increased premium is placed on “the fact that the person is here illegally” tramples constitutional rights through unlawful searches both on the border,  on highways, on public buses and on neighborhood streets in ways that seem to legitimize longstanding practices of racial profiling by ICE agents. (Since the  immigration enforcement depends on stereotyping and generalization to bring charges, racial profiling practices cannot lead charges to be dismissed.)  For the border wall would go to fund an increased policing of the border by agents not trained in migrant rights.

As much as a structure, the proposal for the border wall even as a map stands to embody and concretize–before being cast in sheer concrete–national fears.  Indeed, by presenting itself as definitively preventing cross-border transit and mirroring the current ““zero-tolerance policy” at the border, the false strength of the wall undermines a policy of strength for dealing with our neighbors.  As Trumpist media tells the nation that the 2,300 migrant children separated from their parents at the border (and held in isolation camps apart from family contact) just “aren’t are kids”–unlike the children of Idaho or Texas–the border has grown as a site of apprehension, detention, criminalization and family separation, a site of deportation without prioritizing their danger to the nation-casting the misdemeanor of “illegal entry” as federal crimes meriting deportation.  The border wall maps an effective absence of prosecutorial discretion removing legal judgment from defining the illegality of border-crossing.  The separation of individuals from rights distorts human rights and remaps the rights of all migrants, children, and refugees in a betrayal of our values and deepest principles:  the refusal to allow journalists, lawyers, or the International Red Cross to visit the centers where they are detained suggests how fearful the administration is of their conditions.



The betrayal of liberty have foreclosed the narratives or stories of migrants, and their rights of liberty, by rehabilitating the border in a built form in an age of global geographic positioning, where border crossing is demonized as a danger to the national safety to divide Americans, and separate individuals from their rights.  As much as only mapping a spatial divide, 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, and indeed as an invasion of a nativist image of the nation–

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

Pew Research, based on data of 2014 (2017)

–that seems to outgrow usual practices of governance.  Indeed, 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, where it became such a central platform for the political vision that Trump came to articulate.  

During Trump’s Presidency, the border wall as it has rehabilitated a form of primitive classification–to adopt the term to which Durkheim and Mauss called attention in an essay of 1903–in the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair, it must be noted, in a work that demands to be read in the context of his defense of a secular republic by the son of a lineage of eminent rabbis from eastern France–in which Durkheim and his nephew turned to ancient China, Australian natives, Native American tribes as the Zuni, Sioux, and Omaha, to explicate the societal roots of spatial categories that blurred the division between nature and culture.  The spatial division of the border wall proposes the “natural” divide between sovereign systems–between “failing states” and the “United States”–as categories removed from any social origins or genesis, and as bridging culture and and nature as concepts transcending individual thought.  

12.  The border wall serves to generate oppositions–as Mauss’s forms of primitive classification–between criminals or illegals and law-abiding citizens, between gangs and smugglers and American society, between “failed states” and the United States, and naturalizes each as a categorical oppositions that seem inherent in nature, and accepted conceptual forms and tools of thought difficult for individuals to escape, as if they were indeed eternally given.  The fiction of the wall demands to be examined as a sociology of knowledge which manufactures categorical oppositions  that seek to shift debate around immigration and migrants from their actual lives:  it exists, even if it is unbuilt, of a figure of collective social and economic meaning of the sort Mauss described as the “total fact,” but acts as a map, resting on but going beyond economics, social safety, or social institutions.

If Mauss cleverly noted that “Aristotelian categories are not the only ones that exist or that have existed in the human mind” as a personal revelation, as much as a conviction, the mapping of the wall conceals the multiple oppositions it creates.  The sense of a categorical set of oppositions that go beyond the  individual person is perpetuated by the conceit of the border wall.  The fiction of the wall acts as a map in affirming this division between nations as a set of oppositions needing to be maintained.  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–separately from the judiciary or the process of judicial review, and existing by executive orders that are themselves disembodied from existing laws which Trump takes every opportunity to discredit, undermine, and dismiss.


There is no law at the border, because the border wall separates itself from any body of existing laws of immigration, asylum, or civil rights.  Although the border wall seems to follow a fixed border, it creates the conceit of the stability to contain fears of global immigration flows by false security.  Such fears have grown in recent years since the refugee crisis of 2015–a crisis refracted oddly through trans-border migration in dehumanized images of dangerous “transborder flows” mapped as in need of control.  The border wall is premised on casting immigrants as a national threat.  It is unusurprising that it was promoted by a man whose entry into politics was to cast immigrants from Mexico as criminals and “rapists” and has long demonized the other or outsider, and shown disdain for legal practice:  with a poisoned rhetoric of demonization as vicious and insistent as his attack on the “Central Park Five”–never convicted of a crime but charged without evidence by racial profiling–Trump as a candidate demonized undocumented immigrants as a principal national threat in ways that illustrated his lack of suitability for public politics.  

Trump seems to have grown in attraction to the vision of a border wall as a site repelling othered subjects by denying their right of entrance and a map of national safety; 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 of thresholds at the border was drafted in 2006, during the administration of President George W. Bush; it defined thresholds to contain cross-border migration as a rational infrastructure provides perhaps the most telling archetype for the border wall.  

Although we often 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.  But the wall is primarily a geography of exclusion, about detection, tracking, and apprehension at the border, rather than about individual migrants and their stories or petitions for asylum.

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

13.  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 Ports of Official Entry into our borders, and the problems of border management that Bush promised to resolve have led to the definition of the border as a basis for the pile-up of criminal prosecutions of deportation proceedings that seem to have strategically paralyzed our legal courts, by using criteria of border-crossing alone as a basis for the definition of a federal crime, and justifying the erasure and silencing of migrants’ voices:  it is as if there is no geography of the border beyond the “vanishing point.”

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 increased suspension of human rights and legal rights around the border reflects attempts to remap what was a line as a no-man’s-land of surveillance and policing, complete with vanishing point seems an area outside the government, but maintained by the Border Patrol.  For the proposed border wall would define a new threshold of criminality, and provide evidence of the guilt of “illegal aliens” in crossing the border zone, demanding their deportation for committing a federal offense in crossing them.  Longstanding concern about the permeability of the southern border were evoked by Trump to make the need of wall even more real, as invoking the fiction of a “real” wall able to block all “unauthorized” immigrants assumed concrete contours, even if it is never built.  Trump early and repeatedly promised to create this “real wall” along this border–although in what sense any border was ever “real” is unclear, although this recalls the Department of Homeland Security’s insistence on a “physical wall,” rather than fencing–to establish a threshold of legality, and magnify the danger of managing border-crossing within the national imaginary–defining the border-crossing as at the root of broad vulnerability to threats to jobs, economic security, drug addiction and public health. and redefining the notion of government by removing it from any public benefits.

The border wall misleadingly presents itself as a break from politics as usual.  Trump urged, shortly after the election, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to “take enforcement action against all removable aliensencountered in the course of their duties” and immigration officers “may”indiscriminately initiate expedited removal and deportation of “unauthorized” migrants, even if a wall did not yet exist, refusing to prioritize the arrest, deportation, and removal of aliens and deeming all migrants “illegal” by their very presence.  But it is a dare or conceit of bravado of such extreme implausibility, continuous with the past patrolling of the border, if  magnified in size and cost.  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 lies a remove from ideals of good governance, or any principles of human rights:  the border wall would subsume all bureaucracy to a faceless refusal of entry, and something like an exhaustion of hope.

But despite clear continuities in border policy with earlier administrations, the new significance of the map of the border wall that works to provide evidence of migrants’ criminality.  Indeed, it defines the relation of the subject of the migrant to the state policy and governmental representatives, and the role of the border wall as a map that claims to represent and affirm American interests makes it not only dangerous to the borderlands environment and to migrants, but to the nation.   The proposals that were acclaimed by “the exclusive representative of approximately 18,000 Border Patrol Agents and support personnel assigned to the U.S. Border Patrol” have come to be falsely accepted as a basis for national interests.  In the new theology of the state, the border is a space now meriting intense collective attention, transforming its place at the fringes of our attention, despite the destruction of civil life in parts of the nation.  In the new theology of the state, the border is a space not meriting attention, preservation of the rights of its inhabitants, or according and guaranteeing rights of legal representation, but may stand for the broad emptying of civil protections of the nation, subtracted from a sense of the polis.

The border wall is a conceit of boundary drawing, affirming collective identity, and rejecting what is cast as contamination, as if to preserve 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.  While allowing migration cases to balloon in dockets and detention camps to become overloaded in a complex web of bureaucracies of immigration, in hopes to create consensus on the border wall, the separation of just under 4,000 children from their families–over 3,700 and counting–creates a bureaucratic confusion of thousands of children until the border wall can be begun.

9.  The very mean-spirited blaming of migrants for causing risks to their children in a “zero-tolerance policy” of procedural detainment seeks to stop faceless “streams of migrants” threatening to move across the border.  But if follows the logic of a border wall by masking all sense individuality or humane reaction to the plight of migrants who seek to move northwards, to better their own fortunes.  For if migrants 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, the border wall promises a turning a cold shoulders on migrants’ individual cases.

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 map of hope preserved in the mural painting–and others like it–seem to preserve a sense of hope before the proposed border wall.



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.  Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, oddly shifts blame from Trumpist policies by demanding “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 migrants seized by U.S. Border Patrol and of detention camps with underage children may be a bargaining chip and warning against future migrants–if unsuccessful–but evoke the fears of migrants’ arrival.

The dispersion of maps that hold migrants taken from parents at the border–or who attempted to cross the border to enter the US unaccompanied by parents–have exceeded their limits along the border to accommodate a surge of Central American children, but reveal a geography of detainment across the nation–often in privately run detainment camps for youth costing American taxpayers over $1.5 billion to run over a hundred such shelters in seventeen states, often regularly administrating sedatives and anti-psychotics without parents’ permission, some now accommodating child migrants at over 150% capacity–and leading at least 20,000 beds for unaccompanied migrant children to be prepared at military bases–and further facilities to be created.  The legality of such centers remains open–

MIgrant camps used to detain minors.png

–from the over 1,400 children detained in a camp in Brownsville TX alone, to the hundreds in or near Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso.

Brownsville sized.png

Indeed, the complex of the border wall that has emerged in Trump’s co-called presidency 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 of 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 echoing Nazi propaganda casting Jews as a bacillus, mapping the migration of Jewry to Europe and the rest of the world to parasitical rats, carrying not the plague but crime, gangsterism, and shady financial transactions to the greater world by crossing the boundaries of national border lines.  The purchase of the promise of a border wall, and the values that it incarnates surprisingly echoed such a demonization of border-crossing suggest in ways beyond disquieting, and seems to seek to map a new vision of the roots of modernity in dislocation and cross-border migrations–as if the migration of a lice-infested pack of rats threatened to pollute the purity of the German nation.

Others Wnadered.png

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

Such use of maps to visually demonize border-crossing as a threat has been adopted to support the border wall.  Indeed, the dangers of cross-border travel are seen as disrupting a “natural” order of the nation, to restore an allegedly lost prosperity and an image of white-majority rule.  

The deployment of the border wall to “make America great again” advances a similar naturalization of the nation and naturalization of the “homeland” which scarily echoes the injunctions of Nazi politicians to develop an affective relation to their nation.  Rather than provide an affective relation to the border, the proposed border wall suggests a similar relation of deep-seated fear as the motivation for its creation.  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, more similar to a nation with deeply troubled relation to its neighbors:  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, in ways that seem to echo the Berlin Wall or the frontier of a Cold War.

Fence:Wall Trump

10.  Trump has tried to narrow and refract proliferating crises of globalization from a global point of view to the point of view of one nation–in a new iteration of America First–and though the border wall.  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.

Unlike the Great Wall, however, the border wall is a structure of total governmentality and a ballooning government bureaucracy that defines state power over the subject of the migrant.  Rather than define a “place,” or even the space, the proposed border wall is a conceit is that it abstracts the border from humanity.  Indeed, the presence of forts and fortified stations in the Great Wall might be the most compellingly similar feature both would hold in common, with the image of insularity that they seek to project.

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.  For this reason, the possible origins of the wall in Trump’s campaign and in our political discourse demand to be examined, despite their odious nature.

The proposed 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, all of whom are made more invisible by the proposed border wall, as they are placed outside the country and its laws.



The cognitive power of the border wall were most recently materialized in several faux mock-ups–segments of wall intended to constitute the “continuous” and “impenetrable” wall to replace fencing Trump has dismissed as easily breached–resemble prison architecture.  If Trump dismissed fencing as easily  and scaled to guard the Homeland effectively, the border wall offers an alternative patriotic vertically hanging flag, its canton and honor point able to be seen from either side, and fashioned as an opaque strip, undoing the form of the flag from all obligations of heraldic etiquette.

The talismanic nature of these “prototypes”–mock ups slightly removed  the border–was meant to evoke the prominent place of the border wall, and to restore or reinforce  in the psychological and mental imaginary of our new national space.  Repeated throughout the Presidential campaign as if a mantra, evocation of “the promised wall on the southwestern border” has redefined a relation to the nation–and indeed been presented as a form of love for the nation–by the master builder who would be US President.  And although the request for a “solid, Concrete Border Wall” in March, 2017–described as the President’s building medium of choice–became a secret state project, as “too sensitive” to be released by a Freedom of Information Act, by the Department of Homeland Security, designed to meet demands to be impossible to tunnel under, and impenetrable to sledgehammers or other battery-operated electric tools for at least an hour, seem something of a simulacrum of the state that is both all too obstructive for actual migrants and cherished by many Americans.

14.  The compact about the construction of the border wall has, against all probability, become the latest in faux populist promises since the Contract with America to pose fictive contracts of illusionary responsibility and reciprocity to the democratic process, and have provided new tools of assent.  The faux consensual ties with the electorate perpetuate a fiction that a democracy runs on the contractual obligations between a government and populace, but have early been so focussed on geographically specific terms.  But in an age of anti-government sentiment, the icon of the wall has become an effective icon of describing the ineffectiveness of prior administrations, and an iconology embodying the new role of the executive in the age of Trump:  in an age of global mapping that seems to disrespect and ignore borders, we imagine migrants moving across them with the aid of GPS, or Google Maps, empowered by the location of border check-points on their cross-border transit,–

Google maps borderGoogle Maps

In a rejoinder to these fears, the proposed border wall would map a continuity among the stations in different sectors administered by the US Border Patrol, already strikingly dense, and apparently easy to connect by a solid wall–

Border Checkpoints

–and an obstacle that will allow better the apprehension of migrants who will be confined by Homeland Security agents, deprived of their rights, in the multiple improvised and established detention centers–mostly private–that are on the other side of the border.  The penal architectural idiom of the border wall prototypes resonate with the penal archipelago of detention centers–a new Siberia–that lie, removed from population centers and non-profits dedicated to immigrant rights or advocacy, in the desert wilderness of our over-heated southwest, an inversion of the frozen north that was the site of Russian labor camps in the Cold War that they increasingly recall as a gulag.

border detentionENDIsolation Immigration Detention/Freedom for Immigrants Map immigrant jails (red); visitation centers (lavender); Jails (blue); private prisons (black)

While proto-nationalist and defensive in its tenor, Trump presented the border wall is aggressive, and cast as epochally significant as a site of national rebirth.   It was presented on the campaign trail in almost intentionally biblical terms and in epochal tones as if it proclaimed new era not only of immigration policy but of the nation, filled with redemptive associations, if not as a benchmark of historical proportions in American empire.  But it is more insidiously the basis for a shift in government that makes the end of a republic, and surely of civil rights:  for the border wall is prosed as a declaration of the purity of the nation or the project of making America great again–and doing so in uppercase in an echo of his own presence to  virility and strength, and to his break from politics as usual.  The “new era” of the wall that the eager insistence on the border wall at Trump’s rallies was perhaps not understood as a basis for cathecting with audiences apt to fear an end of times and eager for a new age, or at least a sign of purification.  The monumental scope of its construction is aligned with a new age not only of border policy but of governmentality–hence akin, perhaps, to China’s Great Wall in its striving for symbolic purity of the nation, and of a recognition of our nation’s ability to stop historical change.

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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