The False Imperative of the Border Wall

26. And as the Caravan of Migrants made its way across Mexico in the spring of 2017, American news agencies broadcast that any lies in asylum requests would violate US law;  the American Attorney General announced the intent to separate adults from their children by jailing them while processing their immigration cases, referring all “illegal border crossers” to the Department of Justice “until we get to 100%,” in the hopes to encourage families who arrive from Central America, as if Homeland Security privileges can trump longstanding refugee policies and legal rights.

Caravan 2017.png2017 Route of Caravana de Madres Centroamericanas (Googlemaps)

The advancing of a Caravan of migrants–a threat of massive immigration–ran against the religion of the nation.  ven if the annual Caravana de madres centroamericanashad regularly protested the legal rights of individuals on their 4,000 km trek across Mexico.  In their progress, they were, to be sure, encouraged by priests and Franciscans in their desire to make visible the plight of those migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador who had disappeared in transit to the United States.  Many carried signs while they moved across frontiers that broadcast that Ningun her humano es illegal.  The migrants were not only from the nations that many of the Border Patrol had already apprehended in previous years, raising questions of danger–and as an image habituated us to the border as a site of apprehension and surveillance, as if to inoculate us against the human stories of migrants.  The spectacle of the 2018 “caravan of migrants” however served as a focal point of national news not to foreground the plight of refugees but to stoke panic about cross-border migration, to generate panic about traversing the border, rather than the refugees’ own conditions. The refugees were, after all, erased from the map of the border, as was the notion of legal rights.  The fears border authority invoked of cascading immigration American laws were unable to contain undermined the legality of the immigration process, and emphasized the legal loopholes that created the Caravan–and made it an emblem of the dangers of transnational flows.  Daily tracking of the slow, if inevitable, progress of the Caravan by FOX as a source of anxiety about borders.  Was it any coincidence the U.S. Department of State had stoked up fears by issuing travel advisories discouraging travel–“do not travel” alerts–for most Mexican states?  The State Department issued these alerts because of their high criminality, equating their levels of danger to Syria, Yemen, or Somalia–the  sites of other refugees that Trump would prevent entering the nation–as if to confirm the underlying needfor a border wall.

image.pngJanuary 2018 Travel Warnings, U.S. Department of State

In ways that seem to conflate the mapping of widespread criminality with the dangers posed by migrants and refugees–an argument confusing correlations with causality, the identity of the refugees was erased by the inherent criminality of most Mexicans, as five states–Sinaloa, Colima, Michoacán, Guerrero and Tamaulipas, and focussed the dangers of drug and gang-related violence–often not victimizing tourists, but indicating a level of violence that speaks volumes about the public image of neighbors south of the border, even if Mexico as a whole retains only a level 2–not 4-warning; the revised ratings of safety by the U.S. State Department led 11 states to be assigned level 3, but the highest warning went to sites of turf-wars among cartels–Tamaulipas and Sinaloa–and the burgeoning homicide rates in Colima, a site of another cartel.

But the imagery of criminality that such maps have long cultivated in America suggest the deeper fears of the drug and arms trade entering the United States.  Since 2012, the US State Department issued broadened travel warnings about Mexico, cautioning Americans against “displaying any evidence of wealth that might draw any attention” given “ongoing security and violence concerns” that reflect fears of the very economic inequalities accentuated by globalization and perpetuated by neoliberalism in an earlier period.


It was paradoxical but almost inevitable that the notion of an unstoppable momentum of the on-foot migrants generated levels of panic akin to an asteroid headed for earth.  Images of the progress of thousands of migrants, proceeding unchecked by local authorities across Mexico from Central America, served to foreground, once again, the gaps of border policing the border, security breaches, and the need for national protection of which Donald Trump had reminded constituents were endangering the nation with limited factual basis.  The concept of the border wall became emblematic of a new religion of the nation, a sacralization of the border that could be both protected and secure, and secure a different future for the United States–or the restoration of an old economic order, before globalization.  Trump helped amplify longstanding claims of national security threats that prepared for the arrival of the National Guard at the border to meet the Caravan of migrants who had passed migration checkpoints in the past, and were cast as heading inexorably toward the border, and in need of being stopped as if they were truly “invading forces” who would attack our nation, even if against their own stated purpose or will, as they became an emblem of globalization’s threat.

Indeed, the arrival of “the Caravan”–capitals courtesy the Commander-in-Chief–was projected as a threat needing containment of the border barriers not yet in place, sounding a coded alarm to the closed-border groups that had so strongly supported Trump’s Presidential candidacy.  Trump promised in the Republican presidential debate that building the border wall would indeed “create a border,” as if none existed before, with a striking sense of logical leaps that may have guided much of the nation down a rabbit hole–“They built the Great Wall of China. That’s 13,000 miles. Here, we actually need 1,000 because we have natural barriers. So we need 1,000.”—as if it were rational; a man who moved billions regularly in transfers and earnings seemed to argue the price-tag of a mere $7 billion was no impediment, and even as it dizzyingly rose in Trump’s own words first to $8 billion, $10 billion, $12 billion, and then $20 billion, his supporters suspended considering a ballooning national debt or other needed national infrastructure.  But the fetishizing of a suitably massive wall able to prevent scaling, and now existing in prototypes–as if they would afford the necessary obstruction of cross-border threats and to express Presidential leadership.  But the poverty with which the wall projected leadership–and the absence of any defense of an ethos of American liberties or respect for established laws.

image.pngJenna Schoenfeld

The arrival of a Caravan of migrants seemed a stage-managed event to illustrate the need for the wall, as the panic about the progress of the Caravan of Central Americans registered the prominence of the border wall in the national imagination. Opportunistic banner headlines mapped the annual transit across Mexico of hopeful migrants.  These banter headlines paid little attention to the migrants or their fate, but  converted a map of their progress into a clear message that almost seemed an opening act for the prominence of immigration platform among GOP candidates in this year’s general election.  While “immigration” is less a platform than a coded form of racism and xenophobia, the rhetoric and hopes of anti-immigrant groups has gained a new veneer of political legitimacy within American politics.

The approach of Central Americans passing the country’s immigration checkpoints raised the spectrum of immigration by blurring nations,  and if they were seeking asylum from Honduras and other nations, their transit blended into a story about the United States and its borders–in ways that served to silence the voices of the migrants in definitive ways, and use their progress to illustrate American immigration policy and the stiffness of an immigration response.  For newscasters, and the President himself, seemed for a month unable to understand their peaceful progress as a departure, or a protest, but only as tantamount an invasion.  The panic generated about their impending “arrival” fit a script painting immigrants taking jobs, using social benefits, and indeed even increasing violent crime and increasing drug traffic and opioid addiction, no matter how poorly those concepts mapped onto their progress.  The dominance of an “immigration platform” in current Republican campaigns even outside border states tells us much about the country, and the distorted sense of national politics of a Trump presidency.

In part, the apparent failure to create a promised–always improbable–immediate “legislative fix” addressing those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children,  collectively granted a stay to remain in America, the uncertainty of their aspirations and legality captured by the acronym DREAMers, has led GOP candidates have sought to parry past promises of immigration solution heading into the fall election; Trump’s fantastic promise of construction of a border wall that has epitomized immigration debate, as the wall which Trump promoted has become as prominent as limits on deportation in Sanctuary Cities, placing not only “politics above people,” but symbolics above people, ethics, and laws–epitomized by a spiked boot of a modern storm-trooper seems the ultimate representation of collective fear, and includes, beneath the raised arms of migrants, loosely mapped Central America by the outlines of the Mexican beaches and a deserted island with a single palm, an apt way to conjure the vague political geography behind what is presented as a platform of geopolitical political strength as well as public protection.

Imm Platform.png

The pathos of those raised arms–shown only in outline, and almost to dehumanize the figures that stand in for migrants in this satyric button that reflects the widespread advocacy of new immigration policies–even if it evokes the pathos of Picasso’s figures subject to deadly gas attacks, the sketchy grey silhouettes who raise arms are tellingly less expressive, or individuated, and their faceless gestures are removed in space, filling an abstract Mexico, demanding entry and holding black flags.


The perspective is resolutely American, because the humanity of the migrants is denied, as their claims for asylum and fear of persecution are called duplicitous self-presention. The panicked reaction to the migrant procession often known simply as a Caravan–and magnified to become an onslaught on our southwestern border that condensed fantasies of national vulnerability–arrived on Easter Sunday as an event that might be stage-managed to restore the fears of border-crossings front and center to national politics, and help move a fairly hollow notion of the nation, focussed on its frontiers, to the front burner of national attention, or at least restore it to banner headlines on FOX.

The procession of central american migrants had occurred in the past as a five-week itinerary on foot, although now, with embedded journalists, migrants carrying their own cell phones, their itineraries were not only mapped.  As if reacting to updates on their progress on FOX news, as his his wont, the President of the United States fenced with their progress on social media, inviting Mexican authorities to hault their progress lest they start a trade war, or jeopardize their free trade agreement, cautioning that any lies or incorrect statements made to border authorities would be viewed as prosecuted, and that the border was full, repeatedly made them a the panicked focus of national attention.


Migrant Corridor (2012)

President Trump increased his performative creation of a border wall; where a barrier did not yet exist, he took the conflict as an occasion to visit to prototypes of the planned Wall, projecting its imminent installation as if it existed in his mental imaginary in an act of bravado and bravura, disguising the bullying attitude he imposed in response to the 2,000 migrants he claimed were advancing to America attracted by its “weak laws” and urging in his twitterfeed that they “had better be stopped before they get here.”

President Trump didn’t address actual policy, as is his want, but took the opportunity for photo opportunities, posing grim-faced, with a version of his border map at stark contrast with the reality of the border.  Trump took the occasion as a chance–and even a perfect moment–to revitalize the empty promises of his campaign, asserting the greater reality of the wall than the plight of migrants who were protesting the cruelty inherent in longstanding immigration conditions.  But he enjoyed the photo op, even if it did not engage the complex problems of the border that he sought to replace with a wall in increasingly performative ways.  Is it any surprise that so many artists have joined in with responses to the project of wall-building, in ways that similarly underscore its increasingly performative function of preserving national safety that he had promised to restore?  In ways that echoed the words of his Attorney General,  Jeff Sessions that the United States is fundamentally not only “an idea,” or a set of abstract principles, but is embodied as a “nation-state” not only by its Constitution and laws, but borders,–“We have a Constitution, we have laws, we have borders, and we must help protect them”--Trump has taken every opportunity to blame the “horrible laws” and “bad laws” around immigration, that could not have been made by folks who loved the country, in a new religion of the nation that almost threatens the secular state.

Through the renewal of a religion of faith at the border Trump promised through  a “get tough” approach to prosecuting immigration “violations” at the border is promised to rid the nation of “filth” brought by both cartels, gangs, and criminal organizations and end the dangerous “abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws” in “catch and release” practices of the Obama presidency–“We don’t have laws.  We have catch and release.“–invoking a term that sounded awfully weak.  It is only because “no wall [is] in place yet,” explain patriot groups as they endorsed Trump, that the national guard was sent to the border to stop the migrant caravan.  The fake judiciousness with which Trump summoned a sense of determination and judicious judgement in  showcasing the potential of a wall for which he was requesting an extra $500 million, bringing his request to at least $2.2 billion for the coming financial year, and a total of at least $25 billion,

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

–suggested a Contract with America that had a steep price tag indeed, and one on which Donald had to perform quite a sell as a major transformation of the borderlands, even though the consequences of the project were clearly not well considered or thought out.

Donald Displays MapApril 2, 2018/AP

Legal practices, legal rights, or the granting of asylum all went out the window, as it were, as Trump asserted his bullying warped view that the procession of migrants was the basis for overturning DACA, appends for the border wall he had promised but lacked funds to build, and for sending the National Guard to the border.  The peaceful annual procession of the Caravan de madres centroamericanas was improbably recast in the American media as a fear of criminal immigration, worthy of provoking an illustration of the renewed strength of American borders by President Trump and the Border Patrol, rather than as revealing the plight of actual refugees.  The defense of the border, by now a central pillar of the religious of the nation, and a cause for the suspicion of parties who did not fund the border wall, even if the religion of the nation ran up against civil laws that had long defined the nation, and destroyed the idea of the nation as granting equal protection to foreigners and accepting asylum requests.


For his part, Trump returned tauntingly, obsessively, and even with some pleasure on Twitter to the “caravan” to energize calls for a Border Wall.  The coverage of the caravan of migrants in daily news offered a megaphone to magnify its presence, and the threat an onslaught of migrants poses for the nation, and grounds  to dehumanize their plight.  As much as deny them legal recourse, it subsumed them to a new religion of the nation that the Taunter in Chief assumed.  Rather than accord human rights to the migrants, the Caravan became, mutatis mutandi, a way to demand greater authority for the executive branch to police our borders better, and to magnify the presence of Border Patrol and National Guard across the border–even without defining their precise mandate during their border posting, and without undergoing any specific training for the job.

When California’s Governor Jerry Brown pluckily pushed back against the federal request, Trump pluckily began a Twitter skirmish with the California Governor.  And Governor Brown pushed back only to the extent that he would restrict the activities of 400 National Guard in California to actual transnational crime, limiting their mission to focus on actual public safety threats, to satisfy those who concerned about the projected “surge of large numbers of criminal aliens,” as if scared by the neologism ‘crimmigration’ that the recent delegation of authority in the Secure Communitiesprogram led local law enforcement to hand over “criminal aliens” to ICE.  President Trump rebuffed Brown’s threatto have federal immigration authorities withdraw  from the state of California–“If I wanted to pull our people from California you would have a crime nest like you’ve never seen in California,” Trump told the nation, with a bravado that sought to reveal the key role ICE played in ensuring national safety, predicting that if he did so, “in two months they’d be begging for us to come back”–as if gangs were poised for entry at the border, and ICE alone promised peaceful order.   (Trump has engaged in public discussions with California sheriffs in an attempt to portray ICE as a law-and-order alternative.)  Trump has long attacked Oakland’s mayor Libby Schaaf for having “shielding illegal immigrants,” after she warned Oaklanders of a four-day sweep of Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents, which sought to separate families by deportation by following ICE detainer requests that expanded the priorities for national removal for anyone accused of offenses, and not even convicted–even if that “offense” was gaining a job without legal papers.

When President Trump vented in a recent cabinet meeting about limited progress in “sealing” the border against those he called “illegal immigrants,” he performatively berated the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen as she became his newest punching bag for flawed border policty, as if to per formatively conjure the need for the wall by bemoaning its absence.  By directing blame at her for an ill-conceived plan, as if girding the nation has been countered by the rising rates of “illegal” immigration at its borders, and  border agents detained 8,882 people in families and 4,171 unaccompanied minors–boosting the largest monthly increase in border arrests since 2011.


As President Trump sought to channel the same anger at the border, he vented in the midst of a cabinet meeting at Dept. Homeland Security Director Nielsen in about as inappropriate ways imagined.  Seeing himself as an outsider even while framing national policy in the White House, Trump sought to blame Secretary Nielsen–an expert in national security of some time and lawyer who has defended the practices of policing the border for some time–for the failure to secure the boundary “fully” or in sufficiently intimidating ways.  Nielsen had objected to  jailing of undocumented migrants separately from their children or allowing border agents to aggressively pursue migrants, to be sure, and the become an advocate of peaceable immigration practices at checkpoints.

Trump’s angry outburst–performative, to be sure, but emblematic of the bombast and bullying that Trump imagines gets things “done”–followed his own multiple invocations of the boundary barrier; Trump had trotted out familiar campaign promises in even greater rhetorical expansiveness when addressing the National Rifle Association that, a year and a half into the job, as if by his rhetorical boasts blaming immigration laws he convinced himself that legal obstructions that Nielsen incarnated –“we have laws written by people who could not have loved their country,” he vented to the NRA, elevating a religion of the nation above the law.  And so Nielsen, a woman lawyer, became transformed, in the unlikeliest of manners, into his latest punching bag and target of aggression in an unbalanced fit of aggression about “securing” the border as if it were a military front-line.  “We’re going to start defending our borders,” venting his anger by indoor yelling at cabinet meeting about the need to fix those open borders, and the continued failure by his administration to secure the border or build a border wall, directing the nation’s rage and resentment to his own appointee to question her competence in building the promised structure.

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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