The False Imperative of the Border Wall

Trump’s projection “we are currently beginning to build” a structure that will define a new era is not itself new.  For it recycles all the old tropes of naturalizing the separation of religions or peoples, repeating and extending the charges of criminalization of refugees and migrants in previous decades, behind a newly ramped up promise of purity, and a new offer of a religion of the border wall designed to purify the nation, and to rewrite our laws.  The escalation near the borderlands of apprehension of migrants–an increasing number of whom are families with children and unaccompanied children, most from Central America–has meant an expanding number of temporary sites for immigrants waiting climes for asylum and holding centers, with uniformly poor sanitary and living conditions.  The escalation of cries for its construction provoke a decline in relations between the U.S. and Mexico, which have deteriorated in proportion to talk of the border wall–the clear presence of the border wall through many twinned cities on either side of it reveals just how connected the two nations are.  

imageSasha Trubetskoy (2016)

But the abstraction of the wall from place that Trump’s language suggests conceals the fact that the US-Mexico border is in fact among the most inhabited, most shared, and the most frequently crossed in the world–which most all maps of the border wall conveniently omit.  The removal of the border wall from all actual sites of settlement or habitation would redefine a new “transborder region” of jurisdiction, encompassing all metropolitan regions and suggesting a new region that stands to replace the nation in our mental imaginaries–extending some hundred miles into the nation–as able to be more fully monitored by agencies as Homeland Security and Immigration and US Customs, remapping the government onto the nation in very clear ways.


The Border Wall would indeed approximately map, in particularly somber ways sites of the greatest migrant deaths, according to the International Center for Migration, in ways that are presented as able to bracket or exclude the very problem of entries of undocumented immigrants into the United States, by preventing any attempts of border crossing, and denying all attempts.


Rather than appeal to these laws, Trump seemed to appeal to a religion of the nation.  His attacks on the existing “faulty” laws were not based on legal expertise, but the systematic disparagement of legal rights and destruction of legal protections in favor of a religion of the nation that rises, to replace it, in the place of a nation of laws.  The violent obstruction created by the wall lies not only in the obstruction that it creates on the ground, but the new model it creates to map sovereignty, or remap sovereignty, not based on legal protections but by and for creating a sharply uneven access to justice, from immigration courts to the rights we accord others.

The border wall justified the xenophobic desire to gird and bind the nation in ways that run against the actual map of cross-border flows, in ways that have normalized them within political discourse in what were previously almost unthinkable ways.  Indeed, it has generated a new notion of border management in the Trump Presidency that we increasingly see playing out in the erosion of rights of immigrants who confront the wall.  The proposal of the border wall, enthusiastically endorsed by the U.S. Border Patrol Union, has become a pillar of Trump’s brand of nationalism that has created a new regime of governmentality in the southwestern borderlands–and far removed from the proposed site of the border wall.

Trump’s piling up of adjectives seemed oddly ekphrastic as he returned so often to an ““impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall” has convinced us to find a national lack–and a new metaphor for the nation,  so powerful that it seemed to define the global relation of the United States to the world not in laws but in poured concrete.  The border wall that launched much of Trump’s campaign has become a critical part of political discourse itself–a promise of Trump’s distance from politics as usual practices, and defense of American interests–and a platform of Republican politics, ostensibly defining Trump’s opposition to politics-as-usual, even if it is an escalation of a longstanding militarization of the border and criminalization of migrants, evident largely in the archipelago of unlawful sites of detention that strip those detained from rights to consult, rights to speech, or even rights to health and well-being, and separate them from their families and children in deeply painful ways.  As the border wall blocks the future of migrants, it suggests a poor human management and environmental management across our borderlands.

Although the border wall has been claimed to have been born with Trump’s candidacy, as Minerva from the head of Jupiter, fully armed, the border wall processes a long marginal view of the nation threatened by external threats, and of the Homeland, nourished in the  Homeland Security Department or new version of the Dept. of Interior.  Created to defend against emergencies within and at its borders, as much as manage its interior populations,  the notion of Homeland Security is epitomized by the wall, and reflects the subsuming of Immigration and Border Patrol to the defense of “Homeland” that the border wall maps.  Rather than define a space, or a national space, the border wall seems a suspension of legality that reinforces the limited rights of those detained in the existing archipelago of detention centers.  Such centers, constructed and maintained to strip migrants of their freedoms as they await hearings on asylum, have long served as sites suspend all personal liberties and freedoms.  The wall itself–built against international law, and with dispensations to over-ride existing federal laws of historical preservation, conservation, and protection of public land, and even crossing the border into Mexico’s own national space, emblematizes the power of the executive office over legal tradition.  

As a structure of illegality that replaces the law, the wall is the epitome of a remapping of sovereign authority through the executive branch, and redefines governmentality of exercising control over  migrants, their citizenship, cases of asylum, and the practices of border control, by introducing the presence of the state into the landscape.  Creating a border wall to replace inadequate fencing was however promoted as a pillar of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign that was hardly believable to many observers, although it produced a powerful reaction as a rational form of limiting citizenship and civil rights:  was only a rhetorical posture of leadership, newspapers and journalists asked, or an actual platform? wondered many.   But the announcement of the start of the process of building shifts from insistence on the project to affirmation that it is underway and actually being built, in ways that have necessitated a change in rhetoric and a search for visual evidence of its construction.  Candidate Trump presented the “border wall” not only as a slogan while campaigning, but an assertion that would be enabled by executive authority, and the need to materialize its presence in the collective consciousness has grown acute.  The roll-out of plans for a border wall is not only a mapping of the nation’s southwestern border, but a maximalist project that seeks to unify the nation behind the magnification of state authority over civil liberties, seemed almost a bizarre Faustian bargain for the man seeking to be president who ran on the notion of circumscribing and curtailing individual rights. 

But it was quick to gain a unifying power  remap a logic of governmentally,  escluskding foreigners, defining a new limit of  legality, and obscuring the law.  In replacement of “bad” immigration laws, written without love of the nation,  the increased introduction of a collective possessive–“our wall;” “our southern border wall”–as a compact has created a sense of false proximity to the border wall to much of the nation, making what was a primarily exclusionary project  a collective project, and introducing a new form of civil classification.  The notion of a barrier along the border was earlier entertained–Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin proposed a boundary barrier between Canada and United States in 1995, and cross-border movement since the 19902 has provoked calls for enforcing the quality of border fencing.  But Trump early defined the border wall as a principal platform of his campaign, fixating on the gesture of constructing a monumental wall across the southwestern border as a sign of national strength, and treated it as a testament to his own national credentials, even at the costs of dividing the nation.  

The expansion of the border wall mirrored the construction of border walls in over sixty other countries, largely ostensibly as a response to crises of refugees, however, and encompasses a typically removed American reaction to globalization, whose problems are projected onto the border, and a nativism that seems specific to an American origin.  It is hard to say where it came from–Trump or his advisors.  The maximalist project of a border wall was clearly  planned at a remove from local landscape, civil engineering,  or established policy of managing borderlands, and seems so utterly removed from it to be credibly mapped not only in Washington, DC–where Trump signed and gleefully proclaimed two executive orders that allowed the construction of the border wall and amplified powers of deportation of those who were found to be “Illegally” residing in the nation–but redefines the relation of migrants to the law in more than symbolic ways.

image.png January 25, 2017

The proclamation of intent to build the border wall to respond to immigration and “border security” occurred within the Dept. of Homeland Security shortly after Trump’s inauguration on January 25, 2017, in an illustration of his seizure of executive power–and the expanded power of the executive in the Age of Trump.  It suggested a policy so alien to the management of the borderlands, engineering practices, government spending, and unilateral action that it may as well have been orchestrated–as it seems increasingly possible.   Early evidence of an authoritarian relation to the redesign of government lands in the name of ostensible national defense, for which there was no actual proof.

Trump’s increasingly personal attachment to the border wall and to was-building–the “our” seems increasingly important to him to define who is for and against his use of executive authority–would indeed be the perfect project by which to goad the master-builder, to tempt him to rise by planning a projected redesign of the nation’s southwestern on an unheard of scale, by connecting and reinforcing existing segments, to define and defend a new idea of th enation.  The project that was one without regard for environment, landscape, or topography–as the basis of a quasi-sacral promise to an abstracted nation, organized about protecting invasive threats from easily entering across its ostensible “gaps”–gaps that were made all the more legible in the maps of the border fence as discontinuities that suggested a national failure.


15.  For all its American jingoism of retrenching against globalization, nationalism, and faux populism, remapping of the nation may have a surprising pedigree, perhaps reflecting the prominent fault-line that it has created.  For the wall is unique, in American politics, in its distinctly authoritarian relation to borderlands and to national rights of asylum.  In an article recently penned in The Moscow Times, of all places, journalist Elizaveta Osetinskaya allowed that”Much like the United States, Russia has its own ‘Mexico’” in the  “former Soviet republics, now independent countries in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan,” which send “millions of migrants . . . . legal and illegal, who suffer from all types of discrimination, hate speech and abuse,” despite strong nationalism in Russia , “Even Putin would not build a wall!”  As former editor of Russian Forbes, after being pushed out of the business news outlet RBC, Osetinskaya was a fellow at fellow at Stanford University in 2016 during the election, and her temporary residence in the United States lent her credibility, but her extreme distortion of American xenophobia as a widespread discrimination seemed only to normalize the polices of President Trump.

But is Osetinskaya ignoring a deeper similarity between how Putin’s government was insistently searching for ways to divide the American populace, rather than to marginalize a minority population in his own nation?  Any wall, indeed, can hardly be a model for good governance that a credible national leader would have sanctioned or proposed.  Ethnicity and ethnic divides in Russia are, of course, more of an echo of the divides of the Soviet Union than they are a disruption of existing trade alliances–NAFTA was, after all, modeled in some way after the EU, not a federated government.  But the divisions of ethnic groups—and the “millions of migrants” to whom Osetinskaya refers as “legal and illegal,” adopting Trump’s categories, must be mapped onto the ethnic divides in the former Soviet Union, and Russian lands–


–as well as the divide in the post-Soviet period through which Putin of course lived as a complex fragmentation formative in Russian political experience, if not the major crisis or tragedy Russia seemed traumatically afflicted as a state, both by reducing its resources, markets, and access to goods from 2014–


2014 EUromap Russia Frag.png

–it made sense to foster similar rupturing of large trade alliances deemed fragile, from the EU and its ties to Britain, achieved in Brexit, encouraged by  Russian operatives and diplomats, and to fragment NAFTA and other international trade alliances fractured by Trump’s campaign.  The broad process of “reordering” that is a defining political tension of the past decade by which the Soveiet Union was afflicted would be imposed abroad, or exported; the revealed ties between Brexit supporters with Trump’s campaign reflect ties Russian diplomats and ambassadors cultivated with both.

Perhaps the comparison between Putin and Trump that she posits is, while negative, instructive.  For Putin long cultivated a rhetorical demonization of others on the border of Russia a enemies of the Russian state, the security threat that Trump and the Trump campaign have singled out with a rhetorical persistence bordering on outright alarmism.  One wonders if the thirteen Russian nationals accused of intentionally seeking to examine what fault lines could “promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy” with the “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.”  The alleged branch of “Project Lakhta” that focussed on the U.S. population created social media presence,  false grassroots activists, who staged rallies and created large websites from 2014, that concealed their Russian origins; the waging of  war on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”  

The proposal of the border wall would definitely have amplified division:  one could perhaps find no better fault line to exploit that ran through the values of American law than the wall that would run through the border.  For the wall becomes less an anti-monument, in this context, than a needed and valued instrument national protection by which to divide the body politic against itself.  The recirculation of these American proposals from admittedly fringe groups into political parties’ platforms has, after all, destabilized the party system and paralyzed negotiation about the border and immigration practices in ways that continue to puzzle journalists–unsure why Democrats don’t champion the need to end the separation of families, fearful as they are of adopting what might be labeled a position of weakness, and leave Trump controlling political discourse not only for Republicans but in public discourse, as if the map of the nation about the border was accepted by all, and the border wall could become reborn as an emblem of nationalism.  Indeed, the reinstating of boundaries is more than a refusal to imagine a new or interesting future for the nation, communicated around or beneath fences of separation.  The anti-asylum agenda that the wall serves to perpetuate and justify holds the policy of denying asylum to many foreigners–including Russians and former Soviets–who were arrested only under politically motivated charges, and are now able to be targeted abroad, as Natasha Bertrand observed, by advancing false crimes as a basis to deny opponents asylum.  The denial of asylum, in short, recalls one of the biggest bugbears of Russian authorities by inserting their agendas within American laws.  The rise of politically motivated arrests opens the possibility of “backdoor extraditions” through effective arrest warrants of dissidents to be denied asylum in the United States.

16.  The imperative championed to build the border wall from early in his campaign may have been the essential issue by which Trump disrupted political debate.  The prominent Russian journalist Osetinskaya ostensibly sought to distinguish Putin from Trump for an American public, as if each embodied a distinct set of policies.  Her argument posits an equivalence between rampant discrimination and hate abuse suffered by many in Russia to what immigrants in the United States experience by suggesting widespread attribution of criminality to migrants was the norm.  Her argument that “Many Russian people think illegal migrants are evil and responsible for a wide range of crimes” is inaccurate as a point of comparison with American xenophobia–it distorts Trump’s recently announced immigration ban as a reflection of American sentiments. Osetinskaya concluded “Putin and Trump’s immigration policies are very different” but it is hard to ascertain what Osetinskava’s claim means–but her prose seems to seek to naturalize Trump as a leader, and offers, if unintentionally, a rather whitewashed Putin to Americans, discriminating between the deeply similar authoritarianism of Trump’s policy to that of Putin in its privileging of “border security” over individual liberty.

Putin’s government has previously sought to divide opinion–in Brexit–and the festering division that debate about the border wall would create could be separate from the pragmatics of its construction or its adoption as a coherent policy.  Is it possible that the distinction Osetinskaya intentionally erases the sheer violation of human rights by casting it as a question of policy and foreign relations, and an incarnation of actual existing prejudice?  Surely, the conceit of the wall is to normalize and encourage such prejudice, and to allow it to grow to the levels of attributing criminality to immigrants that Osetinskaya describes as the norm in Russia.  Openly racist sentiments about Mexican immigrants were no doubt read by Russians as similar to the “evil” nature of undocumented migrants in Russia eerily suggests a sense of the deep distrust of the figure of the undocumented that Trump has surely exploited from the point of his entry in the race, and which the border wall has embodied as a denial of justice, equality or civil rights.  The projection of a map about the border, if originating within marginal American groups, has gained  legitimacy as a geographical imaginary through the Trump Presidency that began in the  Trump campaign:  it is indeed part of the contractual obligation by which Trump introduced himself to the American public.

17.  Of course, although the Wall has been claimed as a distinguishing factor of the Trump presidency–and a means by which he will reveal his own seriousness for establishing borders in ways Washington, DC was long resistant–the marketing of the wall is not only quite similar to what has been purveyed in online anti-immigration groups, but bears the stamp of international anti-migrant movements that are tied to white nationalism in other countries, which are aimed at denying the collective or individual rights of migrants–and indeed silencing their stories–by converting them into a generic faceless mask, indistinguishable from one another.  For it cannily mirrors the widely broadcast iconic falsified electoral advertisements designed to conjure massive hordes of foreigners arriving on foot–a disenfranchised faceless mob, photographed and deployed to provoke fears of disenfranchisment–widely deployed to get out the vote behind express anti-immigrant platforms from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Órban, who had been the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his victory–

a__ungary__rban__lection_04052018_1Michael Fludra/AP

–to the UKIP images that were associated with Nigel Farage during the Brexit campaign, spearheaded by Trump’s friend Nigel Farage–


The circulation of this image of faceless hordes, whose eyes have become shadows and whose mass-like nature seem almost substitutable across nations and across space, the opposition between the immigrant and the native serve to undermine a structure of laws in the United States, where the border was long fluid.  Indeed, if the fluidity of the border depended on a stable economic divide, the degree to which borders and walls have replaced class as a primary divide of social fracturing in the Trump campaign has been especially puzzling to Democrats and liberals, who marvel at how Trump supporters embrace policies against their economic interests, but celebrate the reinforcement of the map and artifact of the impenetrable border wall.  Is it not a new religion of the nation?

Despite the ostensibly secularism of these democracies–Britain and Hungary– do not both appeal to a new religion of the wall, and a religion of independence, rather than to civil laws, even within secular states?   For in all such cases, questions of borders has been increasingly naturalized and used to stoke panic–and even as borders have become less important cartographically.  Few would see the value of mapping a nation, now, or mapping the borderline in a globalized world–but national borders they have become incessantly and insistently naturalized in spatial imaginaries as signs of divisions of wealth, status, and economic well-being, even as actual borders are increasingly removed from natural landmarks or topographical markers, and have become far more intensely present as they are evoked as conceits of a mental geographic imaginary for most of the nation.

The removal of the border perhaps has allowed its return, as a guarantee of economic well-being and protection, in an era when few feel themselves protected, and vulnerability provides a new trope of global identity against which all seem compelled to be vigilant.  Both reinforced a terrifying geographical imaginary of borders besieged by outsiders, seeking native wealth and social assistance–a standard set of tropes about the outsider.  As recently re-elected Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has championed the “role of Christianity in preserving nationhood,” inviting attacks on those he terms Muslim invaders and Jewish anti-patriots, he has undercut the notion of a society made of secular laws, to unite populist support for authoritarianism; similarly, UKIP’s leader champions his ardent Christianity and Roman Catholicism, and religion proclaimed a basis for supporting the part, conflating religious law–even as a religion of the nation–is opposed to accepted immigration law.

But the conceit of the border wall that has grown in America–as in other nations–has created a new culture and ethos of border management, far more illiberal and more removed from laws or even legal oversight than ever before.  The conceit of the border wall that has divided the body politic became a new form for mapping government power, and the independent authority of the largely untrained and undisciplined border patrol, a basis for defining a corps of private contractors, independent agencies, and officers without law enforcement training to manage the border and process immigrants. How did the notion of such a wall play out in an American context, quite different from how Russians regarded their central and eastern European former allies, demands to be examined, for it rests on a far more primitive classification of cultural opposition, to use Maussian terms.   If a constellation of short barriers existed for some time, the continuous wall suggests that its history is increasingly forgotten, the construction of the border wall posited the foreclosure of futures.  The suggested pseudo-policy of a border wall played out in a very unique American context, both of globalism and of what was in fact a uniquely shared boundary line, one far less crisply defined on the ground than on a map.

For the wall that would divide several cities along the border–

image.pngEl Paso TX and Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua/Mwilliams151

–in a spectral dissolution of thecontiguous areas of the borderlands, here showing the divide between El Paso Texas and Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua, which predominates our collective  attention, and continues along other cities divided along the border, from Tiuana/San Diego through Cuidad Juárez/El Paso to Matamoros/Brownsville, and remains among the most populated in the world, however often we imagine it to lie in the desert.


Sasha Trubetskoy (2016)

The dramatically oversimplified images of the border suggest the opening of multiple  “gaps” and lacuna reduce the site of the future border wall complex on social media to a simple image have communicated,–either intentionally or not, to provoke fears of national vulnerability.  The several tretches of “border with no fence” marked so prominently as open gaps–as if in a dream of division–

brookings institutionBrookings Institute

–erase the history of the border or population flows by focussing attention on a supposed “line” as the site of a future “wall” to exclude migrants–

Fence:Wall Trump

–by graphics so effective to flatten attention to ecological costs, human consequences or the historical complexity of cross-border relations in a fell swoop.

Osetinskaya’s comparison also oddly conceals the lack of precedent for Trump’s border wall in American laws or our legal system.  For the parallel of modes of thought of authoritarian governing by a cult of personality are increasingly evident.  The very comparison reveal how similarly wedded Trump is to the dominance of authoritarian  over the law in his advocacy of the border wall.  Despite the false nature of an equivalence between the border wall and immigration policy, it is oddly an echo of Trump’s own talking points–as it erases the subtraction of civil liberties form immigrants, and the huge stigma that the border wall represents and the undoing of established legal process of immigration that it seeks to replace.  While Trump projected faux populism onto the border wall as a shift in “immigration policy” alone, he concealed the continued escalation of Border Patrol agents–from 3,000 total agents to 20,700 in 2011, with 18,600 now stationed on the US-Mexico border, as “operational control” over the border has transformed the border from a permeable barrier into an imagined line of combat as if it were a collective resistance to immigration that demanded the border states to be placed on red alerts against the entry of all immigrants–we must be reminded.  


The evocation of a wall long existed as a slogan–a “beautiful wall,” an “impervious wall,” a “real wall”–has accentuated a new geographic imaginary of the nation, able to be defended and protected, far beyond protecting border crossing.  As if by an act of will, located in Washington, the vision of the proposed “border wall” that is perpetually in a state of being begun serves as an act of will that tries to be imposed on the landscape.  It has staked absolute authority over immigration that sought to rewrite previous decades of relations to Mexico, by recasting the “porous” membrane between two countries through a new national map, focussed on its borders, and haunted by the need to monitor them to protect cross-border flows, and to remap the frontier between two countries, as if the border wall is part of the very landscape and topography,–even though it seems to have been arrived from outer space:  rarely has such a Faustian bargain for a collective project of construction been promised as an illustration of executive power with so diminished an understanding of the executive office.


18.  The perpetual promise of the border is less about the actual topography or function of a wall.  But it is a pact with the nation to expand violence over the individual, restrict the rights of immigrants, and expand a logic of deportation and criminalization that has already been longstanding among vulnerable groups.  The pact isn’t limited to Trump, but stand to compromise the moral authority and legal responsibilities of the government in ways most Americans don’t fully fathom, increasingly fed doctored images posing as updates on its construction that create the illusion of its ongoing, imminent, or  construction.

The border wall now stands as the most alien aspect of the border, and projected at a distance from the entire landscape:  perhaps the very distance of the border wall from its surroundings is in evidence in how Trump is trying to convince the country almost incessantly that everyone in the nation lives in close proximity to the wall, and to the threat of immigration it will protect.  In ways that may have been created on social media, but occurred through the election, the border wall has assumed an increasing inevitability, and with it the inevitability of the circumscription of rights of all immigrants, undocumented or not, in the process of petitioning for asylum–and even rescinding or stripping citizenship of many Americans deemed to have made fraudulent or false statements to immigration authorities.  For the wall is an indictment of all who would cross it, it is even more undermining of the legal terrain to allow increased deportation.  Beyond architecture and engineering, the wall is designed as a new structure of governmentality, redefining relations of disempowered and the state.  

And of a piece with the effective separation of 2,000 children from their families in six weeks in May and June 2018 alone, in what is argued to be a continuity with previous border policy but is not, and whose ethics are even defended by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions–as part of a “zero tolerance” policy of “illegal” entry, even if this construal of illegality is not strictly within the law, but a new Homeland Security policy:  and if Sessions has defended the policy by Paul’s words in Romans 13 as civil laws God “ordained . . . for the purpose of order”–even if pediatricians found separating children from their parents is likely to cause them irreparable psychological harm.  Homeland Security asserts that prosecution, rather than separating families, is the official program–“We do not have a policy to separate children from their families.  Our policy is, if you break the law we will prosecute you“–but the metaphor of dismembering an organic whole, and is aptly concretized in the border wall.

image.pngRaymond Pettibon

The religion of the border wall was almost referenced in Jeff Session’s recourse to Romans 13 to justify the policy of civil prosecution of adults that separates them from children.  Yet if the same chapter of Romans finds Paul describing the essence of God’s laws to be ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” separation of those seeking asylum between official points of entry from their children justly drew swift condemnation from churchmen and religious groups familiar with the passage.  For the border policy reflects a religion of state–and Sessions’ version has rightly provoked immediate and vociferous condemnation from religious leaders who found  profound lack of ethical guidance in the Attorney General’s poorly chosen scriptural defense:   the omission of the word “neighbor” and both Law and the Prophets support treating both strangers and the immigrants with mercy in elevating “orderly and lawful processes [as] good in themselves.”  But separating vulnerable migrant families in structures of detention cannot be seen as anything remotely like a form of protection of the weak or lawful–and seems only intended to discourage immigration without proper papers, if it had long been rejected as an option of border control given its inhumanity–and the utter absence of any clear strategy in the long-term.

image.pngFrederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images

One might due better to recall Mikhail Bulgakov’s wry version of the story of the sensitive Yeshua, stripped of all claims to authority, who preached “every kind of power is a form of violence against people” that survives until there “will come a time when . . . . Man will enter the kingdom of trust and justice, where no such power will be necessary,” but until such redemption we remain condemned to live in a cycle of revenge and retribution, without compassion.  Yeshua’s statement rejects the hierarchical power of Rome or Jerusalem, but if   intuitive is historically acute as a portrait of a figure of religious healing, is itself an exercise of the redemptive nature of historical study.

The emphasis placed on border security is a removal of American authority or mapping from history, abstracting executive power subtracting civil liberties.  Jasper Johns’ interest in the vertical flag in a series of paintings form c. 1973 is a purely formal echo.  Johns sought to abstract the formal content of the flag from its symbolic value as a patriotic image, pressing against the recognized symbol by translating its surface from fabric to encaustic and beeswax resin–

Johns Flags 1997.pngJasper Johns, Flags (1997)

Johns Flags 1 (1973).pngJasper Johns, Flags 1 (1973)

–or sikscreeing the image to make it appear paint, rather than a patriotic form; the faux sections of possible panels for the future border wall on display near Tijuana echo bars, and suggest the misplaced nationalism of the border wall, and the emptied notion of the nation that seems implicit within the imposition of the wall, far closer to the punk aesthetic of Raymond Pettibon that destroys the patriotic idealism of the flag, even if it respects the etiquette of its display.


Was the mock-up of such a border wall the first defense in an increased elevation of the border as a line of living national defense?  For the the “big, beautiful wall” that is primarily promoted as a structural creation, serves not only to remap the border, but to remap migrants’ legal rights, liberties and local governance over immigration.  The policing of the border zone concretized state authority in ways deeply intertwined with resonant symbolic values–a protective wall; a wall of security; a sacred wall; a state monument to the defense of values that boasts to resolve intentionally vague “immigration problems” argued to afflict the nation over many, many years.  But if the promise of the wall is to break through politics as usual, its promise suggests a rewriting of a notion of the nation, swerving from the protection of individual liberties, to the ostentatious expansion of state power over the borderlands.  Rather than continuing payments to the development of Mexican infrastructure, the massive shift of funds to the border is a poor policy of borderlands management that plays to the supposed Trumpist heartland and ensures the eroded civil liberties of all immigrants.  And the separation of families at the border by U.S. Border Patrol is all but admitted to be a bargaining chip with the Democrats to negotiate DACA and immigration.

For in the Trump era, affirming the border wall has become a project of affirming the proximity of the border across the entire country:  we are all living beside the border in the age of Trumpism, whose urgency rests in safeguarding a nation, irrespective of geopolitical relevance.  Trump remaps reality akin to the limited  bearing on geopolitical reality that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat,” that “If we don’t have a wall system, we’re not going to have a country,” upping the ante on the meaning of the border wall beyond its status as a barrier, to present it as an existential power  (If Trump announced as if it were a discovery soon after his inauguration that “A nation without borders is not a nation,” in a stretch of logic, that affirmed the need for the wall as a not only a security but to sustain a fiction of national integrity.  Even as most who live near the border oppose its creation, the promise of the wall has permeated the nation, remapping attention to the borders, in a major remapping of government priorities.

And it is perhaps not surprising that the partisan differences in how Americans regard Mexico have become increasingly accentuated, with less than half of registered Republicans viewing Mexico positively, and almost there quarters of Democrats:  the geographic weighting of Americans residing near the border to regard Mexico more positively than those dwelling over 200 miles  from it reveals  the constitutive role migration has been gained to define Americans’ perception of the nation across the southwestern border.  The geographical determinism of attitudes toward the border suggests the proximity at which Americans feel themselves living to the border:  even as most living close to the border found it unwelcome, the promise is more powerful far away from the frontier, where a dangerous, crime-ridden borderlands seem to be far more convincing.

Favorable:borderPew Research Trust

The notion of a physical barrier has assumed far more than defining the border; it is promoted as necessary to save the country.  Although the nation has been seduced by this notion of protective benevolence, the violence of the wall, however concealed by its sleek design that recalls prison architecture or minimalist poured concrete more than the largest infrastructure project proposed since the US Highway System, Erie Canal, or WPA, exists as a perpetual promise, needing to be repeated and affirmed, more than an actual engineering project that can be realized only by using a tenth of the total concrete consumed in the United States:  if architects use walls to define space, the wall is removed from space or context.  It resembles a huge moved earth project, of  fabricating and relocating some 340 million cubic feet of poured sheer concrete at a cost of $25 million per mile.

If it seems streamlined, it isn’t a modern project, but a neo-medieval monument to exclusion that seems a last gasp of power,  but is more of an abdication of state agency to military contractors.  As U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told Forbes perceptively the “a fence is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” the wall echoes the assertion of medieval power over transit that fails to account for the situation on the ground–or the status of migrants as individuals with rights.

Trump assession wallEvan Vucci/AP

The promise of building the wall was long presented as a collective project of strength–albeit in wrong-headed ways.  But the allocation of funds to a borders wall ignores the multitude of actual infrastructure problems by which the United States is actually also haunted, from the needed upgrades on fragile train tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, aging bridges, a water system that remains poorly monitored, and an absence of effective recycling programs or effective public transportation.  While Trump seems content to leave all these to the free market, he seeks a massive relocation of state assets to a project that increasingly seems to close of the future of good relations with Mexico or Central America, and a fragmentary monument to the redefinition of the state.

Advocate policing wall.pngMandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Rather than being an engineering project or an architectural project, the border wall is, in an age of increasingly refined mapping, a spatially illiterate reshaping of the borderlands.  Designed to affirm its relevance to the nation in the abstract, even as it reduces rights, rather than reflecting local knowledge of immigrants or their rights.  In ways that reflect the increasing criminalization of refugees, immigrants and undocumented since the increasing incarceration in the 1990s, the wall cast as keeping criminals outside of the United States seems designed to affirm the continued criminality of all migrants.  Despite the codes of ethics that binds the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Institute of Architects, and, the wall is an upending of expertise and redefining of the nation, asserting itself to be break from government as usual, even if the wall dramatically increase sthe authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security.

The contradictory logic of the border wall was no more evident than during the arrival of the caravan protesting longstanding American migration policies in May 2018, the Caravan of women, children, transgender and marginalized or persecuted populations who crossed through Mexico to call attention to their cause, and were quickly criminalized to recast their march as the approach of a threat to our Homeland and national security that we as a nation needed new collective tools–not laws–to confront.  The approach of the Caravan, even more deeply disturbingly, became an occasion to argue that laws were indeed the problem, as they failed to protect the nation from a new level of threat from people who did not respect the law.

The promise of building a thirty-foot high concrete wall was repeatedly presented to the electorate as a means to make the nation great again.  The presentation of the wall either concealed or dodged actual issues of the nation, from the rising number of children in poverty or homelessness or opioid addiction, as if “immigration” were a greater problem that demanded address–with the excuse that drug cartels and smuggling groups had defaced or disabled the existing wall to necessitate the need for its reconstruction.  Trump’s visit to proposed models for the “new wall” seemed almost a sort of religious pilgrimage itself, designed to recreate the reality of a wall he may, in fact, never complete, but has served as the foundation of a religion of the state.

An earlier post in this blog offered that the expanding presence to much of the nation of the border as a site of violence that was long neglected was closely tied to the erosion of the civil liberties along the space where a border wall is to be built.  For the prominence of the building of a border wall seems tied to the deterioration of a notion of the secular state along the southwestern border and the creation of a new a space outside of the system of laws, where surveillance, detention, and deportation create a negative space without rights, where families are separated for years, immigrants await potential deportation in subcontracted spaces, stripped of legal rights, and deportation allowed without legal due process. 

19.  If the wall has a sacral character, its mythic character as a substitute for a society of laws seems deeply retrograde in ways that demand unpacking in an American context:  its prominence as a mental artifact indeed recalls not a site of modern governance at all.  For it recalls, as suggested in an earlier post,  how Neapolitan jurist Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century described “walls” as a primitive sense of collective belonging, and a primitive version and notion of a nation rooted not in laws but m myth; Vico argued that wall-building historically precedes the rule of law.   For it is less in terms of an architectural sense of a wall dividing built space, than the linguistic origins of the term maenia, that Vico identified the noun’s deep relation to munire, to build, or the significance of the linguistic origins of walls, moenia, extended to their earliest use as a form of fortification–the Latin word for ‘walls’ is moenia, a variant of munia; he unpacked the noun’s relation to the verb munire kept the sense of fortifications–whose pre-legal status as a means of control combined violence with religious ritual to stabilize the social order that predates civil laws.  The sharp contrast to defining the border wall as a legal threshold with the criminalization of immigration reminds us of the distinctly extra-legal origins of boundary-drawing, despite its increasing power as a threshold of the southwestern boundary.  

The wall as epitomized as a sense of violence and sacrifice, Vico observed, in Roman history.  For rather than reflect the society of written laws of the Romans, Vico argued that wall-building by Romulus was tied to the mythic status of the wall as a site of sacrifice at the root of the founding of a new order that preceded the state–but constituted.  Vico sited the Romulan Walls around Rome as site of the death of Remus by his brother, and the violence of the wall where Remus’ death was commemorated as preserving the imagined citadel of Rome as a city of humanity and civilization, separated from the violence that was external to it, where the foundational scene of Remus’ slaying constituted  a primal scene of violence that prefiures the authority of the written law, and is foreign to it.  Indeed, the site of the border complex become a site of sacrifice and violence that proclaims its own licit function, in a state of exception that lies outside the law. 

There is a sense that it returns the nation–or its port of entry–to a state that predates the establishment of a written law or legal code.  Given the disdain that accompanies Trump”s denunciation of the insufficiency of immigration laws  as the grounds needed for the promise of an “impenetrable” border wall where U.S. Border Patrol agents can arrest and deport those “illegal” aliens–rather than follow the “poor policy” of “catch and release” where immigrants are freed pending legal hearings, asked to appear in court at a later date, and may “exploit” the system of U.S. justice by not even showing up to court for asylum hearings and remain in the US.  The wall responds to these predicaments of the insufficiency of existing laws by emptying of the legal state and a mythic promise to protect the integrity of the nation, without legal due process, preserving the “security” of the nation and ending the “catch and release” policy of deportable immigrants, elevating the wall as the site for violence that has no need to follow the law.



Much as the primal act of violence of the slaughtering of one’s own brother occurred at the Romulan wall, in an emblem of the founding of a state, the violence toward one’s neighbor is elevated in the Border Wall, which is a similar emblem of a pre-legal state.  The elevation of the border as a site of detention without conviction, of removal from children and family and legal advocates, and of imprisonment creates a shadow state of suspending individual rights and upholding the religion of the nation, rather than the law.  Trump cast the wall’s need as an urgent imperative, meeting a state of emergency, that seemed to prepare for the migrants’ advance, as he adopted and cultivated a notion of the border promoted by Border Security that has warped the notion of sovereignty by a notion of national frontiers as a restoration of order that seem to predate the civil institution of the law–and would replace “faulty” and “terrible” immigration laws, written by those who “hate” the nation–as if the authoritarian border wall itself seeks to dismantle a legal process of immigration, and strip actual US residents of their rights.

The symbolic power of the border wall has indeed helped sanction the ugliest racist and xenophobic imaginaries lurking in our nation, and show them to the world, as an ability to control foreign movement and entrance across borders, and indeed to criminalize the notion of border-crossing in particularly aggressive and definite was, by symbolizing the strength of barriers that any immigrant must face, and redefining the relation of the entire nation to the border, and commanding our attention, through daunting graphics, massaged data, and maps, making undefended borderlands more central than legal precedent to our nation:  we were all left, Trump insisted, now even closer to the undefended border than those who lived there, and we needed the border to prevent the arrival of faceless hordes of immigrants from surreptitiously entering the ostensible large number of jobs, benefits, and civilization of the region of prime real estate of nation where we lived.


The geographical argument of the border wall–or even of “sealing up our Southern Border” by the National Guard–suggested a trick of remapping the nation as lying close to its borders than we ever thought, as if to distract us from the protection of civil liberties that in fact define the nation-state.  By manufacturing a “migrant crisis” on our borderlands, the border wall is a promise not only of protection, but of the need to suspend rights to allow protection, and expand the rule of US Customs and Border Patrol over the borderlands as a way to protect the nation, even as the nation seems emptied by such undeserved attention to the border wall.  For mapping the nation by the border wall, and insistingly proclaiming that all Americans take stock of the relation of their safety in relation to the border wall is not only a means of salesmanship, but a way of remapping the presence of state power over all immigrants, refugees, and seekers of asylum by denying their rights.

20.  The promise of building the wall seemed to strengthen the nation, but rewrote the nation–starting from its boundaries–able to magnify fears of immigration disproportionately, transforming it into a central platform of Republican politics.  For the promise of the border wall has accorded a disproportionate degree of attention to the southwestern border in the global mental maps of Americans, as if it were a site of invasion–almost a trope that ICE officials in the nation and border agents and officers bring against those who are suspected undocumented migrants, charging them as seeking to “invade” the country and take jobs, based on an individual’s “Mexican appearance.”  The racism that the wall encourages and sanctions serves to bestow an aura of legitimacy–or the veneer of a political belief–on the reduction of immigrant rights, and on an endless process of detention, incarceration, and deportation that had already existed before, but is now focussed along the southwestern border.

Long before filing his candidacy, Donald J. Trump has long prided himself on his ability to sell anything.   He is perhaps the unique messenger of the promise of the border wall.   He has been able to sell a new vision of sovereignty and governmentally to the nation, in ways we don’t perhaps fully ken, almost in order to take pleasure in the success of selling a vision of the nation that encourages migrants suspected of lacking documentation to be unconstitutionally rounded up, searched for in secret government databases, and be subject to a process of detention and possible deportation.  The project that Donald Trump has now outlined of a $1.5 trillion package promoted in populist language as a commitment to “get that sucker built,” but is a package complete with the circumscription of individual rights and access to the law.

For Trump seems as taken by the notion of the border wall, and the project of building a structure that has the appearance of novelty and innovation in its sheer poured concrete, of which he has been so proprietary and promoting to hope it might be “someday” named after him in May, 2016, describing it as “beautiful” to erase, deflect and conceal just how horribly cruel it would be for so many others–both in terms of the power that it claims over mobility, and the regressive fiction of impermeable borders, akin to the projects of great earth-moving in AlbaniaBulgaria, and Bohemia and other instances of premodern barrier-making along the Islamic-Byzantine Frontier.  The plans for a massive deployment of troops to “secure” the frontier from individual states that lie along the border seems an attempt to revive local anti-migrant hostility in border states as an example to the nation, to prevent what Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen called an “unacceptable levels of illegal drugs, dangerous gang activity, transnational criminal organizations, and illegal immigration”–as if echoing the criminalized border that Trump long claimed justified the need to expand existing fencing as a wall.

As a candidate and as President, Donald Trump advocated building a border wall in a project of mapping what is sought to be neutralized as a cultural divide, and divide of governmentality as much as only of territory.  But the permanence of its construction threatens to erode and corrode the modern state, by creating both a pretext for increased militarization of the border and the concealment of the diminution of all immigrants rights.  For it has provided a basis to perpetuate and naturalize a line of difference that would not have been dared before Trump suggested it in his campaign.  The man who defined himself as “able to sell anything,” more than a political candidate, As much as condensing global geography, it has created a symbol of classification akin to mythic and religious  symbolic structures, which are indeed greater–as Émile Durkheim might put it–than the individual human mind can construct.  The collective prominence of the wall in our national consciousness not only makes the entire nation closer to the border–“closing down the country” for a while over the issue of border security, by telling his constituents in Ohio “we’re going to get the wall, even if we have to think about closing up the country for a while,” and stating with finality that “We’r going to get the wall. We have no choice. We have absolutely no choice.,” and announcing it will provide us all with “tremendous security,” and then arguing, in tortured logic, “And we may have to close up our country to get this straight, because we either have a country or we don’t.” 

Trump’s equation of the country and the border wall is not new.  But it is deeply deceptive, and perhaps is made with urgency to suggest the very reduced an hollowed out notion of the nation that it seeks to protect.  Perhaps Trump is the ideal messenger of this notion of security.  For the wall surely concretizes and brings back the very fears, oppositions, and dichotomies to which Trump was immersed as a child.  The border wall maps deep fears of national vulnerability from the southwestern border, effectively legitimating and magnifying fears of the migrant crossing as a national collective threat–and providing evidence of an opposition akin to the elementary structures of national kinship–if that existed.  For the promised wall stands akin to what Durkheim and his collaborator Marcel Mauss posited as among the “primitive classifications” that structure individual life.  For the promise of the border wall surpassed anyone’s actual expectation of announcing, but seems to set a threshold denying international cooperation.

What was presented as a plan for securing the border is treated as form of border management, but is a vision of the country, distorted toward its xenophobic tendencies, that is rooted on exclusion, marginalization, and criminalization in a deeply thuggish way.  The wall poses as a simple, single, declarative statement–the beauty in the eyes of some is perhaps its simplicity by which it declares rights of excluding others–the promise for its construction has become an insidious vehicle to disorient the United States’ relation to the world.  Even the reference to its construction–and the plans for its existence–act as a grounds to map one’s own position in relation to the world, and a new mode of collective thought.  The absence of logic in the wall–oddly mirroring Trump’s unprecedentedly freewheeling pivoting of principles of trade negotiation with the G7 or with North Korea–sets a precedent for reordering the priorities of the nation but presents a far more hollow, and emptied notion of the nation as subject to vulnerabilities, invasion, and contamination that is not only destabilizing of our earlier categories of civil society, civil rights, human rights, and the law, but creates new collective categories of what seem logical classifications that create new patterns of collective  thought.    

For the border wall creates the very notion of a “tribal space” that sociologists Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss describe.  The tribal space traced by routes as the march of the Omaha Indians for Durkheim and Mauss is eerily mirrored in the moving sentinels of four-wheel drive jeeps of the Border Patrol that monitor the actual border day and night, as if in a surrogate for the nation’s increased attention to its southwestern border–




–moving silently across space between sites of the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints that trace the prioritizing of the border wall’s construction and the points of passage across the border, and that trace the points of transit that once made the border a permeable, healthy membrane for cross-border travel to create a new order of space by clans as if it were natural and needed, which maps of migration and crimes of undocumented immigrants afford an alleged empirical basis.  And when the current commander-in-chief ordered military to guard the frontier until “we can have a wall and proper security” as he visited the prototypes for the border wall in mid-March, 2018, the fiction of an unprotected border was floated once again for the nation.

image.pngMandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse:  Trump’s Cavalcade Skirts Border

21.  Even though Trump doesn’t want you to think that a wall has already been built along the southwestern boundary of the United States, the massive show of force of cyclone fencing, regular patrols, and bullet-proof barriers that already create one of the larger and ambitious border fences in the world.  In fact, the multiplication of border barriers along the US-Mexico border over the past decade has been challenging to map.:  the proposal for their elimination by a border wall is almost a fantasy of mapping, fully removed from local contexts or differences, but running across the flat, disembodied surface of the map as if to create a new reality where countries are walled off from one another, and their residents suffer the consequences, transforming the existing barriers across space, punctuated by gaps and transit points–

Border Checkpoints


–to a smoothly defined hermetic image of closed borders, where Border Patrol has augmented authority to stop, search, and question any within a hundred miles of the border: the persuasive power with which an “impenetrable wall” has become an artifact of the mental imaginary, before being built, planned, or created, is a change in practices of land management, the suspension of individual rights, and sites of governmentality–and of the Constitution–in ways left out of the map of the border wall, or the proliferation of maps that describe its proposed construction, but that inseparable from it.  The “border build-up” ostensively designed to stop drug-traffic and illegal immigration, by allowing to obstruct human transit more effectively than bolsters designed to stop vehicles, and “illegal” human traffic that will deter by “strong borders.”

The map neglects what might be called the location-rich metadata of the border wall, located not only at the line on the site of proposed  building but its the margins that will be reshaped by it, where habitats, civil rights, and the law will be changed.  If the promise of the wall is linked only to national security, the project of one of rewriting the nation form its frontiers, and increasing fears to an unprecedented status that takes our eyes off of its actual costs.  Replacement walls along a twentieth of the full 2,000 miles of the US-Mexico border may begin at a cost of $1.6 billion, in extravagant spending announcing a plan of hidden environmental and civil costs; it promises an imposing illustration of state authority that conceals its new vision of the law and the relation of the state to the individual and to the land, by remapping the legal landscape of the nation from its peripheries, and affirming with brazen bluntness that all parts of the nation lie close to the border, in a distortion of the mapping of our national political imaginary and community.

Closed BordersBorder Control Env Laws

For the border wall is a promise of remapping and remaking the nation.  Although the boundaries are the same, the complex of the border wall within a “comprehensive” package on migration, by investing robustly in a program of barrier-building that may form a segment part of the annual military budget. But the  US-Mexican border barriers would be the greatest investments in wall-building–as if the nation needed protection from external threats–and far more than earlier projects of a border fence in the United States floated in 2007, but was stymied by the region’s diverse terrain.  If the 2,500 mile barbed wire fence that India is building to separates itself from Bangladesh aims to be the longest in the world, the project of wall-building Trump promotes would make the United States’ wall-building technologies as if in an icon of national power, and a new model of the nation-state, keeping in place the specter of the global movement of populations.  The coded racist baggage of the construction of the wall accompanies its construction, as the construction sanctions the diminution of human rights, increased racial profiling, that it accompanies in the increased foreclosure of immigrant rights.

22.  The promotion of the border suggests a creation of a new processional route of policing along the frontier that casts a long shadow across the state.  In a discussion with Bob Woodward while a candidate for President, Trump offered the odd promise “trust me, when I rejuvenate our military, Mexico won’t be ‘playing’ war with us — that I can tell you,” and indeed his recent response of sending the National Guard to the border suggests his eagerness to augment military presence the border as a way of strengthening his ability to ensure that the wall designed to repel immigrants from the nation’s southwest border worked–as if the border wasn’t already militarized to police border-crossing in order to further an agenda of deeply racist ends, even as it is repeatedly represented as only a form of self-protection.

The form, mode, or costs of wall-building were never clear, and its rationale were asserted more forcefully than logically explained.  The border wall presented a break from politics as usual, and became a clarifying tool to define the future relation of the  United States to the world.  As such, it became not only a totem of the Trump campaign, and a collective chant for rallies during the election, but a recreation of social organizations that is increasingly presented as protecting and reproducing a classification between different peoples, notions of social organization, and indeed–in a fundamental way–religions, as Trumpism’s own classification of space and society takes its bearings and spin from the protective powers of the unbuilt border wall.  For the border wall is if nothing else–and even if it is never built–a form of religion that serves as a complain form of social organization, dangerously erasing and replacing the secular state and system of laws and civil protections by which it was defined.


March 3, 2016

The politics of urgency with which the border wall has been invested and sold as a collective need is dangerous because of the futures of cross-border cooperation it closes off, and the new precedent it sets to treat all immigrants; it is an emblem of the new policy to those classed as “undocumented aliens” who are opposed, in the schematic oppositions of this classificatory system, to the safety of the nation.  

The aesthetics of disregard and obstruction are captured by the newly unveiled border wall “prototypes”  proposed to remap the southwestern border for all who approach it, and a barrier to transit in a new monument to national safety, that may as well be inscribed with the Dantesque saying “abandon all who, ye who approach” to discourage potential applicants for asylum and turn back any border-crossers–and broadcast to the nation what seems a renewed ability of defending our borders, but is more accurately a belief that their defense is a credible object of national attention.


The threat of constructing the border wall seemed to emerge fully-born, like Minerva, from the head of Donald Trump.  The Trump campaign, and the man campaigning to be President deceptively portrayed the construction of an impregnable border wall as a form of modernity that would resolve urgent problems of immigration, as if they had not been adequately resolved or fully perceived before; the sense of scales falling from one’s eyes was indeed something of a trope in a conversion narrative, but the gospel of the border wall that Donald Trump preached in the 2016 Presidential campaign seems not only false promise of a wall along the US-Mexico border, but a deeply distorting project in the American political imagination.  The promise of building of a truly adequate “border wall”–filled with its echoes of the Israeli border walls, as well as the Great Wall–presented both a new salvific image rich with religious connotations of both a Holy Grail and a new age of protection from faceless as well as a new mythology of the nation.   The cheap slogan of protection in isolation has become an emblem of the rejection of globalization, even if it serves to conceal and reinforce the imbalances of global wealth and obscure any protection of vulnerable populations–women; transgender; children–from persecution by granting them asylum.

The border wall is hardly a national project warranting the immense expenditure on infrastructure that it would require.  The promise however gained a logic of its own in recent years, deeply toxic to our democracy, announcing exclusion and a suspension of civil rights, as the discovery of the relevancy and urgency of protecting the border to the nation that stands to distract the nation from diminishing protection of civil rights.     The wall is increasingly–and dangerously–treated as if it were a living form, central to the nation’s health, rather than an obstruction to movement of increasingly questionable legality:  even if much of the border fence has been constructed on or adjacent to state- and federally-protected lands, where the role of federal protections has been effectively suspended in the name of the planned construction of border wall, pedestrian fence, and vehicular fencing, from bollard fence to wire fencing, the project of the concrete border wall has taken a far more religious role in the national imagination, elevating a promise of protection with an effect that seems to undermine not only human rights and civil protections of the inhabitants of the United States, but a secular state.


The border wall may in part be be the reason for the popularity of a candidate whose political experience seems to have rested on his fashioning of himself as a master-builder–and suggesting that he could provide a “better deal” for Americans who questioned their place in a changing world.  The identity surely allowed him to pole-vault into national politics, assembling an improbable coalition of Ayn Randians in government who desired a master-builder; white supremacists and anti-immigration groups on its fringes who treasured an exclusionary narratives; and those who had not participated in national politics but felt disenfranchised.  It offered a site of resistance to globalization:  the unexpected assembly of such constituencies about the border wall as an urgent national need was indeed mistaken, despite its thuggery, as a new sign of Hope, in a duplicitous narrative indeed.  Its simple declarative statement–a one-sided one, shiny, and unilaterally American–

Immigration. border wall

–as it defended American interests.  In what seemed among the first item of business of the Trump administration, designed to satisfy the public that seemed to demean the office of the Presidency as a protector of laws.  

The border wallI presented a narrative appealing to those fearful of their status in a “minority” majority country, and desiring new symbols of the nation, is increasingly apparent to be quite toxic to our civil society–especially in its remapping of national priorities around the southwestern border as the most pressing problem in our nation.  As if in a weird repeat of the Vietnam war, the spatial attention of the nation is turned to one strip of land far away that by loose reasoning is argued to be of national significance to all Americans and to be a needed protection not only of status, but of the safety of the nation.  Adopted by the man who avoided the Vietnam war, but seems committed to a comparable financial and moral drain that has no real game plan, the project of wall-building seems potentially infinite, and without any real end.

The promise of constructing the wall seems proposed quite cunningly as a new geographical imaginary of the nation, organized around our sense of vulnerabilities, far beyond the prevention of border crossing.  This imaginary is by no means geographic, however, and transcends the divisions on maps:  for the wall is, more than anything else, the affirmation of a new social and symbolic classification of nation states, and a cultural defense of the impoverished vision of the nation  promoted in mitation of the symbolic classifications of other states:  while the border, a fiction that has less and less meaning as cartographic tools or economic divisions and distinctions, is naturalized as a division between “failed states” and the “United States.”  

The border wall as such rehabilitates a form of rimitive classification, apparently tied to the natural world, but, as Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss posits in a classic essay on collective representations order collective relations to the world–the deeply cultural  nature of primitive classifications.  In a similar sense, several oppositions are concretized in the wall as if natural, but treated as as a new classificatory system that defines our relation to the world.  Despite the apparent starkness of these oppositions, the primitive classifications in the wall reflect the culture of Trump and Trumpism—a culture of exclusion, xenophobia, and barely coded racism, obscuring costs, getting away with rule-skirting, and cost-blurring–and of seeking to create a collective desire for what once were largely fringe proposals, but have been elevated to the political mainstream–in a trick that Antonio Gramsci once associated with fascist appropriation of and legitimation of ideas that once lay outside acceptable discourse, to which they offer a veneer of respectability few expect they would gain, but which sanction an escalating level of violence in spite of their relative inarticulateness.  

The intensity and extremely mind-numbing single-mindedness with which Trump has pursued the border wall was only balanced by his inarticulate insistence on its need, and the racism that it concealed.

image.pngMay 15, 2016

For the border wall promises a system of cultural and social classification, in completing the “fences” that separate Mexico and the United States as a tribal space, as if to reify different systems of social and economic classification; political cultures; and thresholds of danger, which are projected back to the viewer as if they were natural, and need to be acted upon as a complete divide.

image.pngOpenStreetMap data/February 2017

Even if the border wall primarily exists, as much as it exists even from the other side, as a barrier of detention, rather than a continuous wall, the promise of the wall is a promise of future mass detentions, and an off-loading of the apparatus of detention by U.S. Border Patrol agents on a militarized frontier, designed to ensure decrease of border arrests contained until recent years:  the rise of migrant arrests on the Rio Grande suggest a local problem of border maintenance, with small blips at Tuscon and San Diego, and suggests a promise of eliminating all border arrests.


image.pngEl Pais (january 2017)

But if the need for the border wall in large part derives from these statistics, accumulated by Customs and Border Patrol, the classification that it proposes between Americans and undocumented migrants is as rooted in cultural divides as much as scientific observations.

The promise of the border wall seems the symptom of a new spatial imaginary of the nation–and a new idea of fundamental classification of nations, as well as a new notion of governmentality–of fundamental mental prominence, even if the border wall is never built.  Repeatedly and insistently magnified through the megaphone of the U.S. Presidency in the Trump era, the conceit of constructing a physical barrier has remapped the nation’s collective attention to the border as an area needing law enforcement–as if the misdemeanor of crossing the border is a violation of the law, and only by building the wall can a clear sense of national security be guaranteed.  As if a response to the failure of SBInet–a “smart” border technology of electronic surveillance and virtual monitoring–the erasure of all complexity in the cry for building the wall became an even more powerful stripping of the voices of migrants, and a denial of cross-border relations–even if it was boasted to deter undocumented and unwanted migrants from Central America.

image.pngRebuilding the Border Wall in 2016 Christian Torres (AP)

Sadly, the border wall increasingly seems an alternate reality, if not an erasure of any more productive future along the border:  for in committing to create one of the largest illustrations of state power ever attempted, or what has been christened The Wall of Trump, it stands–even if it remains incomplete–a distorting lens through which to view our relations to other countries, the tragic fate of individual migrants, and our relation to the word.  Evoked during the Presidential campaign as a reassuring gesture in response to an alternate reality of approaching dangers, the promise of building the border wall stands as a powerful performance piece, and a lens from which to distort and refraction the relations of the United States to the world, and a stubborn defense against globalization’s increased geographical mobility and fears of the increasing cartographical fluidity of borders and border lines.

The extent of the wall that Trump promoted was repeatedly cast as “better than fencing and much more powerful” would require about some 12.5 million cubic yards of concrete to construct the border wall, to constitute what Rosalyn Kraus has called the “not-landscape”–something that was place-less and foreign to the  landscape, but lay within it even if it disrupted it.  Krauss famously argued that the “expanded field” that disrupted a divide between sculpture and architecture in the 1970s was a break from modernism in its organization of space less around a focal point of an aestheticized space, but as haunted by a sense of absence.  If not able to be assimilated to a hierarchy between sculpture or architecture, or a separation of landscape and architecture, it joins the to around an uneasy absence, in an anti-monumental site that allows  experiencing new logics of exclusion, haunted by absence —

not landscape.png

Robert Morris, Observatory (1970)

The not-space of the border wall suggests a similar anti-monument to the nation, in the landscape but not part of it and defining the landscape.  It subsumes the category of architecture and landscape to a visual proof of the power of the state–rather than to the power of a place.  If Krauss argues that modernist sculptural practice was defined by a logic in relation to a loss of site, which both protects the abstract value of the monument and is also haunted by an absence of place, in ways that remind viewer of its nomadic and place-less status in a world of reproduction, and absence of a symbolic center, the wall suggests an anti-monument less defined by a a center, or a focal point of a built community.  Far from defining a focal point for the community in a civic space, the location of the wall on the physical periphery of the nation seems a sort of metaphor for the transportation of fringe ideas into established political discourse, as the elevation of the issue of immigration beyond human or civil rights into a question of national protection of jobs, health, benefits, and privilege serves to dominate politics discourse to the exclusion of all else, as the nation is walled up in the conceit of the border wall.


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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