The False Imperative of the Border Wall

28.  The conceit of the border wall ran against reality, however, with the arrival of the Caravan of Central American Migrants, who seemed to adopt the perfect foil for the panic that Trump had for so long stoked of an unwanted invasion that would be staged across the border, which could be cast as needing a response in explicitly military terms. The new version of the fencing that already exists along two miles at Calexico, CA was begun to be replaced in March 2018 as a start to the replacement of over 100 miles of wall–not with a bar on which teeter-totters could swing, as in Rael’s jubilliant vision of the wall as play structure but a grimmer, presumably taller, and less easily scaled sheer concrete.  Although members of the US Border Patrol would prefer additional high-tech tools like sensors and cameras, or even all-terrain vehicles, rather than a wall, the acting deputy commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection insisted on the notion of the wall–“walls work!”–that Trump insists will be payed out of military funds, erasing any sense of a distinction between the military and Homeland.



The conceit that the border was a protection for United States sovereignty may seem home-grown, but the augmentation of the border into a barrier protective of the nation’s security and wealth is a conceit that bears the marks of how Trump credited after the inauguration to the Israeli sheer concrete Separation Barrier, built ostensibly to secure Israel from Palestinian terrorists during the Second Intifada, as a model.  Trump enthused to FOX-TV’s Sean Hannity, with whom he often discusses politics in recent months, that the Barrier had successfully created “99.9% stoppage” of “a total disaster coming across” originating from the West Bank, oblivious to the human rights violations it created or disenfranchisement it effectively institutionalized.   Despite the absence of similarities to the wall Israel’s government justified building as a threats to national security in response to the 2002 military uprising–or that it was 1/13th the size of the Border Wall that Trump proposed, only thirty-five miles longer in 2013–the building of the border walls against an “existential threatto the nation”–to quote the former commander of the southern border, John Kelly, Trump’s former director of Homeland Security and now Chief of Staff, for whom Nielsen worked–creates a demand for its urgency even if it corrodes civil society or a society based on guarantees of human rights or laws.

Indeed, although Israeli courts judged the building of a barrier in occupied Palestine boundary to be illegalas early as 2004, Trump saw in them a precedent for effective strategies of wall-building.  (His friend Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu gleefully took credit for providing Trump with the idea of such a Barrier in his own three-year-old border fence to keep out “infiltrators” of Israel’s security–”I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.–signing off with twinned emoji of the Israeli and American flags, as if to grant the tweet the status of a statement of state relations–


–but conveniently ignoring the illegal nature of the Separation Barrier but promoting its obstructive benefit despite its illegality, or the insulting nature of the tweet to Mexico, so happy was he to affirm his newfound friendship with a new American President, international and domestic opinion be damned–if suggesting to Israelis that he was seeking to sell border-policing technologies of surveillance that Israel now manufactures back to the United States, after the Secure Border Inititative was first sold to Israel from the American President George W. Bush.  (Trump had not yet itemized the border technologies he sought,  including border towers, akin to those that exist in the West Bank, priced at $50 million and another $20 million worth of ground sensors, but was about to start his shopping spree.)


Tjeerd Royaards (September 1, 2017)

The spectacle of the range of technologies that stand to be employed at the wall suggest an attempt to jump-start the investment in the American economy, making what would stand to be the largest infrastructure project ever attempted into a Works Project Administration designed to include state-of-the-art surveillance tools that stand to expand the cost of adapting military technologies developed in wars from drone surveillance to radar to blimps and remote video surveillance–all included in the 400 million approved for border technology–which promise to defend the border into a huge expense to bankrupt the state through high-tech border management.


The expansion of the policing of the border zone through a new range of technologies undermines the individuality of the migrant.  The corrosive nature of the wall grows as its apparatus is elevated into part of a religion of the nation, that trumps the value of human and civil rights of those on the other side, and indeed reduces their stories and cases for asylum by insisting on the greatest need to protect national security in military terms, whose urgency replaces the ability to hear the stories of those who approach it.  Even if the promised “big, beautiful wall” does not exist as a structure, it exists as an animating conceit to affirm the dehumanization of those on the other side:  the imagined “beauty” of the wall lies in its denial of legal rights and its justification of bullying, bating, and attacking the other, who is cast as an animal needing to be kept out:  even if Trump won’t acknowledge capacious use of the term and category of the “animal,” the figuration of the border wall as a pen for animals–

Secured Borders

–animates a notion of national security that based on remapping the security of the nation,–or at least the security of the lower forty-eight.


To be sure, the border has itself become a site for security but also of indignation, open expression of grievances about the nation, and rage, as it has assumed undue prominence in a new religion of the nation that seems increasingly unsecular in character and dimensions.  In an age when we are assaulted by disembodied data on immigration, the Caravan provided the Trump White House communications team with a concrete image FOX and Friends were eager to convert into an immediate threat to our sovereignty of unwarranted proportion.  The accusation “porous border” has become a target of wrath among those devoted to the integrity of the nation and a talking point for Trump repeatedly returned to in his ongoing and endless campaign; the conversion of legal protections accorded non-citizens as “loopholes” that allow immigration of criminal actors overturns legal protections in the name of a new, oddly hollow, and far emptier, notion of the nation that is as blank and emptied of legal traditions as the insignia of the U.S. Border Patrol.

29.  Although the arrival in the United States of “undocumented” immigrants occurs far less from trans border traffic than among those who overstay visas, and the criminality that is attributed undocumented immigrants considerably lower than for legal immigrants to the United States or U.S.-born peers, data on border-crossing and apprehension has been unfairly magnified into a metric of national health.  It has been given undue weight as a telling metric by which the nation which is increasingly apt to look in a distorting mirror with newfound anxiety about its decaying appearance and economic buoyancy, and to look for sources of widespread grievances about homelessness, opiates, drug crises, homelessness, and downward social mobility and declining physical well-being and health.

Within these deeply distorting and disorienting mirrors, and searches for clear indicators of who is to blame, it is almost not surprising that the voyage by foot of a caravan of immigrants seeking to call attention to the injustice of their plight has provoked increased concern as criminal fears were amplified on social media feeds and broadcast as a security threat.  The amplification was totally unfounded, but by now has become reflexive, as we see regular maps that have tracked their progress and have been invited to panic at the alleged approach of what seem needy hoards.  The presence in the group of BuzzFeed’s Adolfo Flores in the group may have first allowed it to be tracked, and relayed in alarmist tones on Fox News to the nation, allowing it to enter our collective consciousness and be a lightening tower for debate, and apparently provoking the posting of National Guard at the US-Mexico border–even if Flores sought to portray its peacefulness of migrants.

Unwanted attention in international and local media coverage compelled Mexico’s government to crack down on immigration.  Because this year’s annual exodus has been unwarrantedly associated with escalating dangers of gang violence, future migrants, and the fear of arriving migrants, has clouded the fate of the group that began at over a thousand has attracted considerable attention in the United States as a source of general and collective panic, as if in a reflex to the warnings of community dangers that have been so successfully conjured.

The rejection of their approach seems so compelling because it fits within anti-migrant story lines so well, and mirror some of the signage recycled by populist parties of advancing men and women, seeking work, to magnify online.  The group of advancing prospective asylum seekers has become, effectively, one of the biggest pieces of “fake news” out there, insofar as it reflects poor border security–but a narrative terrifying to have any purchase.



The advancing migrants moving with their packs along roads is hardly street photography.  For the images of their progress is cast in relation to the wall, as much as to the border, in an alchemy recasting their advance as a barely coded compromise of national sovereignty.  The caravan raised fears for Americans as it conjures a threat to the religion of the nation–a strong nation, whose strengths compensate for a concern of decline of status by many Americans–that starts from the defense of strong borders by well-armed, white men, who are the custodians of the new national religion of the west.  The “faceless” nature of these migrants makes them similar to a foreign hord, with deep symbolic associations of invaders, as well as foreigners, who follow different customs, lifestyles, and modes of association that are dangerous to American life and liberty, albeit in deeply exaggerated ways.


30.  The Caravan  embodied a danger to the nation’s security was magnified on social media through the Presidential megaphone.  Indeed, even as , the Buzzfeed national security correspondent embedded in the Caravan, provided a counter-narrative denying the absence of sexual violence or criminality among refugees and attesting to their actual peaceable nature, the danger of the migrants whose itinerary seemed destined to arrive at the border created a hum of background radiation in sectors of the national news media.

To perpetuate this threat, banner headlines provided near-daily updates on the impending arrival of “more than 1200 refugees this April 3 in panicked tones, urging the need to consider “What should we do about it?”  Images of advancing migrants came to personalize fears of”large Caravans coming” across the border, and excuses for calls for tough border laws as if any nations’ security starts with “real borders,” impermeable to transit, as if to magnify their authority beyond secular law.

image.pngReuters/Jose Torres

As if accustomed to the convenience of a televised spectacle, the former Reality TV star Trump used the progress of the group on foot seeking asylum to make his case for the need for a Border Wall, asserting his intent to “stop” those who have traveled 2,000 miles on foot, as if the asylum seekers from the Guatemala.  The thousands called attention to the need for a Border Wall, given Mexico “doing very little, if not NOTHING,” in his inimitable capitalization, to stop cross-border transnational migrant flows.  Indeed, they illustrated the dangers of the “open borders” policy of the Mexican government was cast as a “convenient” strategy benefitting those “intent on violating US immigration law,” attributing criminality to asylum-seekers before their arrival and questioning the credibility and legitimacy of their fears of violence or persecution.

Converting the asylum-seekers into a threat to national security was, of course, a crucial act of mis-mapping.  Describing the migrants as coming disproportionately from states with “high levels of violence,” rather than offer grounds for asylum requests, naturalized the violent nature of migrants in the caravan fleeing militarized nations, despite their carrying of crosses made out of palm, and underscored the dishonesty of their claims for asylum.  As the chief of the Border Patrol union alerted the nation on the megaphone of Fox & Friendsthat the advancing migrants would unleash “chaos and havoc” across the border, he raised the specters of trans-border flows of drugs, crime, and gangs that Trump, Border Patrol, and ICE have long evoked and deceptively mapped as the “scourge of illegal immigration.”  As if illegal gangs were poised to enter the nation at its borders.

The result was to undo the laws of immigration in the name of the protection of the nation.   It was a bit anticlimactic that just over 228 were granted asylum out of the 1,200 that set off from Honduras on March 25.  But the performance of an ongoing refusal to grant asylum to those seeking to cross the border, a performance whose assertion that our refusal to defend the borders of our nation would cease, and our borders protected against those “stealing our jobs” by seeking to enter our country, and the promise to “bring back our borders,” our wealth, and our dreams.   As the National Border Patrol Council union chief announced that migrants’ hopes rode on “catch and release” policies, in which detained undocumented migrants have been released while they await court hearings, Trump argued that the procession of “these large Caravans of people” [sic] who left Guatemala on Palm Sunday constituted a security threat.  As FOX regularly displayed updates to a “Caravan Map,” to stoke panic, as if that deserved to be our main worry, the performance of a refusal to allow crossing the border was for those who felt themselves aggrieved–even if a refusal to grant asylum violated international law, human rights, and showed a stunning lack of empathy for asylum-seekers.  Border Patrol authorities insist that for reasons of border management, they must be turned back; Manuel Padilla, chief of the Rio Grande section, argued that allowing them to cross the border would only “generate interest from other groups to do the same thing.” Padilla primarily believes in monitoring the border by technology to reduce criminal traffic, but in describing best practices may reveal thirty years of deflecting attention from migrants’ actual plight.

28.  The act of silencing is, after all, the point of the planned construction of the border wall.  The obstructive wall was curried, this post argues, through the very statistics of Border Patrol stations created and published to demonstrate the need for containment on our borders–statistics that were mapped in distorting manners by anti-immigrant groups over decades.  The group of asylum seekers has become widely described as a “caravan” approaching the United States, to conjure its impending danger of an onslaught of unwanted immigration, as if a time bomb that was being delivered on foot; groups performed similar similar pilgrimages seeking citizenship and refuge in previous years, but this large group was tracked by global media, and in a distinctly different geopolitical context seemed to become an emblem of the fears promoted by the Trump regime of immigrants seeking to take advantage of the system, and “openly defying our border,” whose advance constituted a threat the nation must repel–lest they be allowed to cross.


The ‘caravan’ was portrayed as actively attempting to compromise Americans and American safety in doing so, on their way to abuse existing immigration practices by exploiting its loopholes in the manner that Trump had foretold.  For in proceeding without papers across the country that many conservative nationalists in the United States–like the neutral-sounding “Center for Immigration Studies,” a right-wing nationalist group that has long promoted infographics of dangers lurking across the border–suggested was a more fitting site for asylum.  These graphics, data visualizations, and magnification of the dangers of transnational arrivals have been successful in obscuring the individual stories of those seeking asylum–so that only “a few”–eight!–of those seeking were allowed to enter the United States territory were at first allowed to cross the metal gate between Tijuana and San Diego.

Americans who traveled to the border to care for and wash the worn feet of those who had travelled over days, cleaning them of infections and offering socks, more than seeming Christ-like, seemed to have the healthiest and most normal reaction of all.


The parallel caravan visiting Texas border-points and Ports of Entry to inform citizens of their rights

Was it only a coincidence that the headline screamed in the media of a border “at capacity” only seemed to naturalize the indignant slogans broadcast on social media of “Secured Borders,” in images posted to Facebook during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, and ricocheted across the country on social media accounts?  At the same time as social media has become a venue to express “true” and personal thoughts, it has become a site for expressing rage, fears of being taken advantage of, compromised, and deep dissatisfaction with the present, its exclamatory character and syntax providing the perfect means for the expression of a threat to masculinity, despite the passive nature of “sharing” or “liking” it invites from users–as if a deep sense of grievance of the opening to the borders to immigrants seeking American jobs were a policy of previous administrations, who had wronged Americans in adhering to outdated immigration practices that failed to secure “our” home.

Rusian FB ad for Secrured Borders

For one places oneself outside of a debate, but as an imaginarily active participant in it, and somehow granted by its medium an elusive purchase on global affairs at best.

31.  The image that Trump had long promoted of deportation as the only rightful response to the Caravan’s arrival reprised a platform that the Trump campaign was then of course quite openly tied. The image of deporting migrants promoted a territorial protectionism that rejected the legal processing of asylum for refugees or any foreigners who were seen to seek American benefits and jobs by illegally entering the country in the past.  The almost sacred identity of the nation it projected to the world, of a nation wanting no additions that would obscure the relation of each citizen to the flag, activated a terrifying sense of national privilege as one followed the transit of the “caravan” imagined to be seeking asylum within the borders of the United States, and advancing to our national frontier.  The actual response from The Donald’s mouth when he heard of the asylum seekers walking across Mexico in hopes of asylum in the United States–“Don’t let them in!  We must put America first!”–led him to use them as a ploy for stricter immigration practices and restrictions, to change immigration law without empathy.


Of course, many left the Caravan along its progress, due in part to attrition the Mexican government was urged to encourage, and most all, by the time they arrived, were made to live on the Mexican side of the border, due to the justification that they “lacked papers” necessary to process their fates.  As if over a hundred and fifty asylum seekers–including many children among them–clogged the port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana in ways that the U.S. government hadn’t had warning to process, even as most major media outlets and Americans tracked their progress on foot, the magnification of the group into a “caravan”–conjuring pre-modern pedestrian travel across the Ural steppes or Spice Route–and were definitively foreign and migrants.  Space, location, and place seem almost irrelevant, perhaps, in the overly distorted spatial imaginary that the border wall creates, that privileges threats that come from afar, from different cultures, and with not so hidden racist fears barely simmering below the surface.

A Method of Migration.--Eastern CaravanWith the World’s Peoples (1912)


–captured the sense of an on foot journey, but was transformed to a symbol of feared “illegal entry” and fraudulent border-crossing, and a reminder of an increasing insufficiency to deal with an influx of immigrants long registers in national news.

30.  The problem of mapping the Caravan existed, of course–for FOX audiences and for most American news outlets–only in relation to the border.  One could almost forget the amazing bravery of the on foot itinerary across Mexico.  The approach of the border seemed to test the importance of the border wall, and to pose a challenge for its absence, and the centrality that Trump had directed toward the border as a site of loopholes for increased transnational threats.  If the Army Corps of Engineers began the first fence on a stretch of just fourteen miles of the US-Mexico border, the imagined continuity of the border as a line has been perpetuated in two-dimensional maps that portray a fantasy of stopping trans-border traffic, alienated from the practice of preventing border crossing or the physical topography of the region, intending to silence the stories of those who attempt to cross it or live on the other side, raising questions about the accuracy or truthfulness of their cases for asylum and the opportunism with which they exploit “loopholes” in American immigration laws to exploit a “porous” border created by faulty laws.  (The problem of who would pay for the costly conceit was tabled through the blame Trump distributed on the laws he had inherited.)

Such an unwarranted but effective rhetorical manufacture of the border wall as if it exists, or will, is an odd, tenuous, mentally tangible conceit, even if it is not there:  the President keeps it alive with bizarre reassurances to the nation with repeated public statements that seems to reassure his constituents of its reality, whatever else they had heard.  “The wall is going to get built, folks–in case anybody has any questions, the wall is going to get built;” “the wall’s getting built, ok?” in a faux populist avuncular tone.  Trump took to promoting the desired barrier with an abandon recalling P.T. Barnum, as the attraction of the Trump Era; the monomania of even hoping to brand a wall he has hoped might in the future bear his own ubiquitous surname, in the manner of the Eisenhower Freeway System, be his gift to the nation–and proudly celebrating it as his Big Idea and the Big Idea that he conceived of because he wasn’t a politician, or beholden to any interests, and ready to change the status quo.

The fiscal irresponsibility about the wall is astounding, but is only able to be explained as a deep desire to keep its promise alive.  Trump had threatened to allow the government to shut down if the U.S. Congress didn’t approve funding for the wall he claimed Mexico would pay for, blustering in 2017 “if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall;” the threat may return again, in 2018, because the wall has been excluded from the budget–and seems to relish “a good [government] shutdown” to force funding of the wall as a way to make his case about a break from politics as usual–although as support for the border wall wanes, the value of a shutdown may start to seem irresponsible.  (Trump still asserts giddily he would never need pay for the border wall, persuading voters he could charge it,–unilaterally–to Mexico’s government–as if to credit card company or by juggling the books–making its costs suddenly disappear.  Trumpd quite gamely asserted in an improvised turn that seemed a sudden realization, that its construction would in fact bring economic benefits to Mexico as well, and be embraced by their government.)

Continued assertion that aggressively expanding the current 652 miles of border with a wall of 1,302 miles would expand the Secure Fence Act of 2000 from 700 miles of border fencing to the full 1,954 miles.  Even as Mexican President Vincente Fox Queseda replied on Twitter Mexico “is not going to pay for that fucking wall,” it is promoted within the national imaginary, tabling the crucial questions of   who was going to pay for the estimated $15-25 billion, a cost that Trump has ended up holding, even as he claimed he could hold costs to $8 billion, have created questions that the fanciest accounting couldn’t cover, and that the days of paying 12.6 million for a Scottish golf course, $79.7 million for a set of UK golf courses, and $16.2 million for a West Virginia winery in a virtual tidal wave of cash that points to money laundering in a virtual tidal wave of cash that points to money laundering, in its use of covered accounts and transfers through shell companies, expectating that a mere $8 billion could be covered by the U.S. government even with the oversight of the General Accounting Office maybe wasn’t preposterous or absurd.  Even if the bill might be run up over time, running over could be explained.  (Trump was after all used to having easy access to cash up to paid $400 million.)  The rhetorical evocation of a Border Wall might still force it to metastasize into a reality.

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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