Category Archives: immigration

The False Nationalism of the Border Wall

One of Donald Trump’s most significant victories has been to increase the proximity of much of the nation to the border wall planned for the southwestern boundary of the United States–irrespective of their actual geographic location.   The range of constituencies that united around the need for a border boundary–nationalist; white supremacist; racist; xenophobic; unemployed; economically insecure; fundamentalist–seems daunting to unpack as an assembly.  But if perhaps incompatible with one another, their collective fixation on a geographic site was perhaps most striking as a new form of mental mapping of territory in an age of GPS, when the relevance of boundaries and boundary lines have all but vanished as cartographic markers,  where states geographical positions by GPS.  How can the nation be mapped in an age of global positioning, save by rehabilitating the border in a built form?

The sacrifice of civil liberties that are the consequence of the remapping of borders and borderlands as subject to military authority is almost the inverse of an interactive map, that allows one to accommodate individual agency.  For in the face of exact mapping of spatial position, the wall offers a retrograde “dumb” map of the nation’s border–and a map generated by the concept of Homeland Security more than nation, or the compulsion to remap Homeland in the Age of Trump, to guard the nation against those seeking to improve their lot.  The definition a “border wall” defines a new relation to space, as it increasingly projects a new relation of the United States to the world, less as a beacon of liberty or a home of freedoms, than a disturbingly hollowed out image of a state.  Although the conceit of the wall is to define a fixed line–the border–rather than a space, the conceit of the stability of that borderline stands as a means to contain the fear of global immigration flows that have grown in recent years since the refugee crisis of 2015–a crisis refracted through transborder migration in dehumanized images of “transborder flows” increasingly mapped as in need of containment.

The wall is an image of solidity conceals its actual nature as a sign of tyranny, once it is presented as a crucial part of a religion of the state, as it has been within the Trump administration, necessary to defend the homeland and public safety: but the radical incommensurability of the border wall with any actual threat–as with many global right-wing almost reflexive reactions to fears of immigration–lacks a clear relation to threats which it claims to react.  Despite the broad indication of a global context by an orienting compass, the border structure seems a microcosm designed to apprehend the “illegal alien” whose criminality is defined prior to charges being brought, and define a space for the Border Patrol Authorities to monitor the borderlands, rather than to accommodate the needs or stories of migrants seeking to travel across it.

 

Border Calculus DHS Strategy

 

 

Despite heterogenous boundaries built over the past 12 years in the Bush and Obama administrations on the border, peaking between 2006-8, when 481 miles of fencing were built between Mexicali and El Paso, the vaunting of an “impenetrable” “real” wall would replace them all:  compelling in its linear bluntness, it serves to concretize a response able to contain what seem to be proliferating dangers of immigration flows on which we have lost purchase–and the ability adequately to map in the collective imaginary.  For the tool of the wall is a conceit of boundary drawing, affirming collective identity, and rejecting what is cast as contamination, in a throwback to a vision of purity.  “Illegal entry is a crime,” DHS Secretary Nielsen has intoned, suggesting that all asylum seekers as legitimate Ports of Entry will not be prosecuted, but that lack of evidence of a verified familial relationship demands scrutiny, and blames Congressional laws for the splitting of families at the border, arguing that many of the alleged parents in fact pose security risks to the common good, and blame the immigrants “put their [own] children at risk,” and allow them to be exposed to anti-trafficking laws that Trump seeks to enforce.  

The problem only underscores the inadequacy of immigration courts to process migrants–leading the Attorney General to fall back on the authority of the unbuilt wall, and its false salvific narrative, arguing that “If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices.” Yet construction of the border wall ignores actual infrastructures of education, public transportation, and open access that America most needs.  The wall, which seeks to enshrine the criminality of the misdemeanor of border-crossing by elevating its criminality, and amassing border police and immigration authorities to process migrants as criminals, provide a means of dehumanizing the migrant,  lest we want “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country”–an image that casts the migrant as a bacillus, in a stock fascist trope, and the Nazi description of the migration of Jewry to Europe and the rest of the world to parasitical rats, who Nazi propaganda films described as carrying crime, gangsterism, and shady financial transactions to the greater world as they cross national border lines.

 

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 image.pngNazi Propoganda Film, 1940

 

The border wall is compelling in its linear bluntness of containing cross-border flows of migrants.  But if the border wall helps  concretize a response to a global problem, pretending to contain proliferating dangers of immigration flows on which so many have lost purchase, it erases the stories of the migrants themselves, and seeks to subject them to the state.  Is the border wall enough to give the nation a bearing on numerous problems of immigration that Trump–who seems more eager to announce the crises of national consequence than any recent President, as if he thrives off of crisis without concern for the national psyche or well-being–seems set to evoke?  More to the point, perhaps, the border wall is an illustration of a new form of governmentality over the individual migrant, and the entry into the nation:  it provides a form to address the complex of immigration and immigration reform that Trump has promised as a way to keep immigrants out, and echoes the carceral state to which it is so closely tied, far more than the border-fencing that was begun back in 1997.   And so, turning away attention from true  effects of the wall on migrants, Trump celebrates the wall as a reform of laws, or a replacement for law; a response of executive power; and a means of not reviewing or hearing the stories of migrants.

 

 

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To be sure, the proliferating crises of globalization and population have been narrowed and refracted from a global point of view to the point of view of only one nation–in a new iteration of America First.  But the conceit of the border wall on which Trump was elected rests on a distortion that it affirms a place–or line–in relation to a global crisis to which it offers less of a realistic response than a retrograde complication. The southwestern border was first defined a site that required monitoring in the Nixon era, and the United States has long struggled to accommodate the different topographical problems of varied terrain, broad rivers, and existing laws and habitat of the region, the simplistic and univocal nature of a single, uniform wall Trump proposed–“a great great wall”–as if to distinguish it from China’s Great Wall. Building a “wall” is of course not simple: its construction along 2,000 miles of borderlands would call for a massive increase of border patrol agents, and a 50% growth of immigration officers that would make the border region a site of military management, and obscure and deny legal rights in the country, collectively define migrants as criminals. For the image of the border wall creates prison bars through which to view all lands south if the ‘border’ and the new governance of the region. The combined presence on the borderlands of the Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who plan to build tent cities of 1-5,000 at military posts in Texas for unaccompanied children crossing the border, run by Health and Human Services, define a new space of governmentality–removed from any court system or representation, and removed from any court system or representation. The wall is a surrogate for this image of governmentality–and the relation of the individual to governance–in ways so absurd that it is only apt that they have concretized around the image of separating children from their families, and placing them in separate facilities, as the wall suggests one of the most rudimentary means of population control for those who face it, even as it stands, apart from its context, as a floating signifier of national power.

Despite its immensity and the challenges posed by its engineering, the border wall exists in the mental imaginary, as well, defined against an unnamed individual subject–as much as to divide space, it creates a new legal space for individuals, and indeed for all who migrants it groups in a collective.  For the notion of the wall along the border seeks to materialize a permanent divide that obscures the relation of the wall to the individuals who cross the border annually, and to shift attention from the migrants to the criminality of migrants in ways that erase their stories in a definitive fashion.  Even if it is not built–or not completed–the success of its construction in a collective mental geography effectively criminalizes migrants both undocumented and not.

 

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Filed under border wall, immigration, nationalism, Trumpism, US-Mexico Border

Strongman on the Border

The border was closed and immigration authorities simply ‘at capacity,’ announced newspapers, after a Caravan of migrants from Central America arrived.  In rejecting the ability to process new arrivals who lacked necessary papers of transit, the papers parroted a an anti-immigrant line, revising the southwestern border from a line of passage, or space of transit, in what seemed a meme about the border as a threshold of legality-as if a line defines the legality of those who cross it. The image that suggested migrants atop the wall, or of others scaling a dilapidated section of slatted border fence near San Isidro–“through a dark, treacherous canyon, notorious for human trafficking and drug smuggling”–collapsed multiple tropes of border-crossing on the least likely of targets:  a peaceful procession through Mexico that began on Easter Sunday, crossing borders to call global attention to migrants’ rights.

 

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While the simple visualization of the course of the procession that wound through Mexico City from the southernmost border of Mexico cannot trace the mental geography on which the arrival of migrants was mapped in the United States, the progress of Central American migrants was viewed and mapped by Donald Trump and FOX in terms of the desire to see their arrival from behind the proposed $18 billion border wall that has become a contentious object of debate.  As the number of arrests along the border has grown above 50,000 for the third straight month in a row, and more children separated from parents in an attempt to broadcast cautionary warnings about the dangers of attempting to cross the border, or to appeal to existing immigration laws by asylum pleas, stories of migrants that the proposed wall would silence are increasingly difficult to silence or contain, and the human narratives of migrants are increasingly difficult to place behind the imaginary screen of an insurmountable border wall,–which of course does not exist, save as a mental construct–but is cherished as one and difficult for many to relinquish or deny.  Even though there is no structure corresponding to the height, thickness, and architectural design that Trump had treated audiences during his campaign, the Caravan threatened to remind us that the wall didn’t exist, despite the attention that has been lavished on its proposed construction at a cost of an estimated $18 billion, far below what actual costs might in fact be.

The specter of the arriving migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras–the triumvirate of “failing states” that Trump has demonized and sought to distance the nation–seemed cast as an oddly unstoppable “horde” that had defied Mexican immigration authorities who had not turned them back, and whose arrival was magnified as a threat to create a persuasive image that reminded the nation of the urgent need for the wall.  After months of dehumanizing migrants as faceless hordes, poised at the border, migrants seemed to have arrived at the border fencing, about to breach an inadequate barrier that is a relic dating from the era of the Vietnam War.  The news of the progression of the Caravan–and clouded interpretation of what their aims for crossing the United States’ southwestern border truly were–led them to become a poster child for the urgency with which Donald J. Trump has so stridently advocated the construction of a “real wall,” with an intransigence that almost embodies the physicality of an actual concrete wall, a month before the construction of the border wall began in San Diego and Calexico, CA, replacing some fourteen miles of improvised border fencing that was long ago made of scrap metal to “secure our border” as a way to “make America great again.”  The promotion of building the border wall was a way to ensure “public safety” followed repeated images of migrants attempting to scale or protest before existing improvised fencing–

 

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-whose inadequacy to deal with the border threat Trump had relentless ridiculed as useless during his Presidential campaign.  The danger of cross-border traffic that Trump had repeatedly magnified circulated back to prominence within the national media with the arrival of the migrant Caravan.  The hope for the migrants to gain asylum in the United States was immediately questioned as their true agenda was assumed to be one of evading the border controls before the Wall was built–and the immigration laws that would permit their entry changed.

If the announcement of the construction was a feign of a a show of strength, and promoted as a basis for national pride, it was an insult to migrants petitioning for asylum, as the promotion of the border wall as a sign of national security debased the notion of the nation as one of laws and civil society.  The promotion of the wall as a slogan of nationalism remapped the nation in relation to the border, after all, in the Newspeak of social media and twitter–“Strong Borders are Security”, “Immigrants are Criminals”; “Refugees are Terrorists”–the border wall protected national security and projected the idea that all migrants were illegal.  The spatial imaginary of the border wall echoed the longstanding claim, made without evidence, that the immigrants at the border were “the worst” of their society, and for allowing an untold number of undesirables to enter the the nation.  As well as protesting the treatment of the United States”the dumping ground of European Refuse” as an insult to the nation, the insult was accepted by the nation.  The blame rests on citizens who are accept the very immigrants Europe does not want.  The image, which appeared just before Bartholdi’s “Statue of Liberty” was erected in New York Harbor, raised objections to accepting those rejected by Europe’s crowned heads, of dubious value to the nation that echoed Trump’s position.

 

European Refuse.pngKendrick, “And We Open Our Arms to Them” Life Magazine (July 12, 1885), 

 

 

The very chaotic narrative of depositing “human refuse”–a group of former colonials identified as “not like us” but being advanced by an invisible broom–was repeated in the image of the approaching Caravan, as the legitimacy of their requests for asylum from Central American nations were questioned, and suggested to be fundamentally an illustration of disrespect for the law.  The “Caravan” of over 1,000 migrants seeking a better life was widely mapped as a threat to sovereignty and law, recasting a protest march that promoted migrants’ rights as an invasion of sovereign space–and a grounds to deny migrants’ rights.  The  tweets of President Trump directed the attention of the country to the border to query the status of the migrants who were headed to the nation, as he announced instructions  “not to let these large Caravans of people into our country”–magnifying the migrants as a national threat through a dichotomy between “them” and “us.”   The anxieties about immigration policies that Kenrick’s cartoon registered panic at the caricatured faces of the new arrivals.

In announcing an intent of illegal entry across the border, Trump once again conjured the need for a border wall, as if trying to co-opt the message of migrants to create an image of a cross-border threat.  The construction of border walls against an “existential threat to the nation”–as did the former commander of the southern border who was named Trump’s director of Homeland Security and now his Chief of Staff—creates an urgency for protection that corrodes the possibility of an open society.  Kelly’s disparagement of migrants as “people who would not easily assimilate into the United States,” “overwhelmingly rural,” from countries where “fourth, fifth, and sixth grade education are the norm,” described them with the same disdain as Kendrick’s cartoon from the early Life of the 1880s protested the insult by which ex-colonials were sent to the United States as to Australia or India, which had indeed become “dumping grounds” for convicts, remittance men, and socially unwanted cast-offs, as well as seeing them as barbarians who threatening the social fabric of the United States.  The disparagement of migrants who are seeking asylum as uneducated, of rural origins, or indeed, as Kelly’s remarks must have reminded his audience, criminals.

 

ICE 2014 arrests gangs--ms13?ICE Arrests of undocumented immigrants, 2014

 

The disproportionate warnings of a “border threat” or “trouble at the border”  telegraphed on Twitter was inserted in a narrative rooted in the plan to create a border barrier of cast concrete in August 2015, in the heat of the Presidential election–a mission that crystallized support behind Trump’s campaign.  Trump insisted that the border wall he advocated wasn’t rhetorical, symbolic, or virtual–a space defined by hi-tech monitoring–but an impervious barrier that would succeed where other poor-quality fencing had failed.

The build-up of the arrival of the migrant caravan ran against the disproportionate attention that Trump had drawn to the border.  As Trump pedaled the fiction that the wall had already been begun, newscasters on FOX mapped a showdown by the approach toward the border of “that scary migrant caravan” of Central Americans with American law enforcement as inevitable, placing the migrants in a narrative of unwieldly crisis of immigration management on the US-Mexico border.  In ways that intersect with a broad unease of increased immigration–often manifesting itself in extreme xenophobia, othering and racism–a vaguely masked anti-immigrant sentiment that has growth in the United States over the last four to five years which Trump has deftly exploited. For the ‘border wall’ was recognized code for a thinly disguised racism, captured in John Kelly’s characterization of the Caravan–and migrants–as “overwhelmingly rural people” not capable of assimilating, who “don’t have the [necessary] skills” to do so, and are “overwhelmingly rural people,” as if ignoring just how dependent U.S. farms are on immigrant labor.

The disproportionate attention the Trump and his planned border wall directed to the southwestern border made the region seem far more immediate to all Americans–and defined the Caravan’s approach as national news.  Although the formation of such “Caravans”–a name not coined by Americans, though it gained new spin in the mouth of President Donald J. Trump, who had grown frustrated with an uptick in U.S. Border Patrol metrics of illegal entry–the tactic that was long adopted by advocacy groups to foreground migration difficulties was used by the group Pueblos sin Fronteras, or Peoples without Borders, whose name was seen as revealing their opposition to the redefinition of the southwestern border of the United States, which has also been mapped onto the wall–creating a reflexive panic at the sight of large crowds of unidentified migrants marching toward the border.  The legal and physical obstacles that Trump promised to place on Mexicans or Central Americans seeking entry to the United States were always twinned, but the arrival of the migrant Caravan seemed to give it a new urgency, and to legitimize, as a suddenly mainstream demand of border management, the ability to control human cross-border flows.

 

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The march was described disdainfully as a “political stunt” in media, as the Attorney General and Director of Homeland Security demonized the “Caravan of migrants.”  Trump had promised the nation a border wall unlike the reclaimed corrugated metal fencing in Tijuana, but made of  “precast [concrete] plank,” a protective barrier far more powerful and robust than the inadequate fencing he treated as “a joke” and a disgrace to the nation, and which the multitude of migrants were seen as able to cross, but in need of immediate arrest and detention in a fantasy of border enforcement.  If Trump had promised to be a strongman at the border, the old border wall seemed indeed flimsy obstacles, unable to stop even the crowd from the Caravan who arrived to petition for asylum at San Ysidro, CA.

 

Migrants arrive at Tijuana

 

The peaceful protest of the Caravan de madres centroamericanas, to use their full name, was recast as a march of opposition to Trump’s border policy, while for Trump, as some three hundred odd members of the Caravan arrived at San Isidro, a recognized port of entry, in five busloads, and mounted on a fence made of repurposed scrap metal became for President Trump evidence of a crisis of sovereignty.  In response to a crisis he seemed to have created on Twitter, he ordered the Department of Homeland Security to “stop the caravan,” displaying his knack for sound bytes and slogans, and imagine that, searching for the right string of capital letters on his keyboard,  only “a strong, impenetrable WALL. . . will end this problem once and for all”–even if the problem lay with the places the migrants had fled.  The motion of “migrants,” now cast as “illegal aliens” in the right-wing press, even as they hoped for a miracle from god able to “touch the hearts of immigration agents,” was not able to be seen clearly by many, even if their course was carefully mapped over the previous month in increasingly colorful reportage.

 

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The momentum of masses “heading to the border”without visas or documents “who no one in Mexico dares to stop” that Buzzfeed reported conjured an image of illegality, or just “headed here”–in vague terms that meant toward American sovereignty–bolstered by the longstanding promise of security that Trump had promised in the border wall.   For FOX, the group was “a small army of migrants marching to the US.”  The elevation of the border as violated line of sovereign power, translated the border from map to territory  to sovereignty, creating not only a false idea of safety and community.  Trump exploited this idea when his tweet sought to magnify the “small army” to a vague charge about the border “getting more dangerous” in ominous tones.  Trump was long acutely aware that the border wall was, in his eyes, the most politically important subject of discussion with Mexican President Enrique Nieto in earl 2017, as the wall was a crucial to his promises to the American electorate.

For the southwestern border had grown more proximate to much of the nation than it had ever been in previous years.  Evoking the border-crossing reminded the nation of the dangers of the deferment of a national project of wall-building.  Migrants stood for the vulnerability of the nation that was not only a narrative about fraudulent requests for asylum, but a failure of Mexico at “stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their southern border and then into the US.”  The  march became all about crossing borders that needed to be enforced, as “an army of migrants is marching to America . . . all the way from Honduras,” reframing a Buzzfeed story of migrants “boldly crossing military checkpoints” to their imminent arrival.  The story became one about whether their claims for asylum will be granted or if this “freedom march” was unlawfully breaking laws, with an agenda against Trump’s notion of the border wall;  the crisis of  migrants arriving in the United States through illegal networks or in illegal conditions in search of the American dream was recast as an open violation of  American law and immigration protocols.

Federal criminal charges were filed, against eleven of the migrants who presented them to the law for asylum.  As the chief law officer of the United States declared that they revealed diminished “respect for the rule of law” compromising “our ability to protect our great nation, its borders and its citizens,” stating “The United States will not stand by as our immigration laws are ignored and our nation’s safety is jeopardized,” the safety of the migrants was not only elided or bracketed, but removed from the map:  the protest was not an illustration of the conditions of migrants or the dangers of passage in an area where migrants are themselves subject to criminal gangs, cartels, and opportunistic smugglers, who place them on special assignments, but they embodied the threats to the nation.  The executive prerogative that allowed the construction of the wall, over-riding existing laws without congressional approval in ways that remapped the relation of the United States to the world and the legal protections offered those petitioning for asylum.  For while brushing aside the inadequacy of earlier projects of fencing along the border–once mapped as important national projects in 2009–but varying in height–

 

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–the ramping up of a notion of national protection by a “real wall,” announcing  its “beauty” as if to signal its impervious character, and to accentuate an obstacle that would dissuade all migrants from attempting to traverse.  But in promising to expand the border as a monument to national defense in cost concrete seemed to obscure even the legitimate cases of migrants for asylum.

Premonitions of a “public clash” between “some perhaps trying to make it across [the border] illegally,” from the southern Mexican border, the lack of ability to control cross-border movements seemed a particular point of frustration for team Trump, who long identified the border wall as the only means to national security.  Trump  treated the border wall as an executive right, not respecting individual rights or legal process, in response to issues of national security and protection he depicts as an ongoing state of war.  In ways that echoed–or bolstered his radical declarations of absolutist understanding of presidential authority, Trump treated the wall ss a personalization of executive authority, not only imagining that the border wall be named after him–as the Eisenhower Highway System–“Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,” he mused back in August 2015—but glorifying his efforts at massive deportation as akin to Eisenhower’s mass deportation effort, a forced migration of populations that stands to obscure laws of individual asylum, human rights and civil protections, and disrupt the American economy.  And so it is not surprising that Trump seems ready to shut down the government again, if funding for completing the border wall is not agreed to by Democrats in the Senate and House, as he tries his hardest to convince the nation of its urgency, and the urgency of revising the supposed “loopholes,” increasing the authority of Border Patrol agents, and streamlining the procedures of extradition–or, basically, of stripping the migrants of any rights.

Such a notion of the border wall that replaces and erases the stories of the people who might cross it, and deprives them of any rights, as it sets up a narrative of deportation.   And the sense of such a protective wall stood as the understory and tacit subject of the caravan that sought to protest the dangers to which migrants had been subjected or fled.  Their stories were predictably subsumed to a story about our nation:  tweets volleyed about “caravans” of deported illegal aliens for a moth, evoking how Trump so often elevated the border wall as a national project–and a form of bluster that trumps the law.  The migrants who travelled together to protect themselves from violence had been mipmapped as the enemies Trump promised to keep outside the nation; Trump even seemed unable to process their existence in terms other than refracted into opposing camps through the prism of the “beautiful” border wall.  The plight of the migrant was erased with the international braggadocio of a unilateral wall desperately needed to ensure national security, as their struggle became a basis to assault existing immigration policies.  The border wall promised to erase existing immigration laws, as Trump seemed to position himself both as a political outsider and to cast immigration in partisan terms.

 

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The very project of the border wall, a poor cartography of nationhood and national sovereignty, suggests an abandonment of attention to context, contextual meaning, and to privilege tools of geometric bounding that seem to have locked much of the nation into a vicious circle of inflexible thinking that sacrifices the individual and the law to an archaic wall.  To be sure, a slim majority of likely voters agreed “the United States should continue building a border fence along the Mexican border” in 2013, and although that decreased slightly when asked about a “wall along the Mexican border,” and aseems to have further decreased among registered voters in 2016 or when asked in 2016 about building a wall “along the entire border,” Donald Trump attracted new voters to a campaign that stressed the inadequacy of current fencing, and need to gird the nation against external threats long improperly addressed.  The border wall has now defined relations between political parties, and become a lightning rod in the broader debate–painfully unresolved–about immigration.

The arrival of a relatively small protest march of migrants became an occasion  recalled he fears of how the border was described as a site of risin violence, an end to low wages, terrorist attacks, urban crime, and national security, dominating the recent round of political ads for House campaigns more than any other issue.  As if on demand, the arrival of migrants at the port of entry of San Isidro led their transit to be compared to that of gangs, criminals, and drug cartels, exploiting how the border was long falsely mapped by Trump as an obstacle to the national safety:  but even if the vast majority of Republicans believe in the need to secure the nation through the building of the wall, or quite astoundingly nearly 70%, as a way to limit immigration, other Americans are far less convinced.  But as the border wall has been recast as executive prerogative, guided by Trump’s sense of the benefits and needs for the wall, we are compelled to examine the logic, however painful.  Greater support for the border wall with distance from the southwestern border among Republicans revealed the appeal of the border wall had grown diffused on national terms.

 

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The need for the wall-and the unsuitable nature of current border barriers, from bollard fencing to pedestrian obstacles,  was suggested by the rhetorical multiplier with which President Donald Trump described “the caravan of thousands of people coming up from Honduras–thousands of people” and “very weak laws” to halt their advance.  Changing “our borders” and “securing our borders” are not only about building fences, but changing “our laws” as a way of “toughening up at the border” that affirms the border as a threshold of national sovereignty.  Cast as “illegal immigrants” even while they were in Mexico, the identity that American television bestowed on the masses often numbered in the thousands seemed a test for “toughening border security,” rather than laws alone, and seemed to suggest that laws would just not work in the face of fraudulent asylum claims and a need for processing people without documents, who have been accepted as a national threat.

 

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1.  The construction of a tall, imperious border wall stands to rewrite the border as a barrier, redefining the question of migrants’ legality, and rewriting the law and lawfulness, replacing existing immigration laws.  The reasons for building a border wall echoes the Border Patrol authorities–and a President increasingly casting migrants as “aliens” and “animals” who need to be penned, contained, and not granted individual or human rights as they constitute dangerous threats to the nation’s safety.  The dehumanization of the migrant as an animal seems the end-result of a rather slippery rhetorical slide:  as twitter becomes a tool of international diplomacy in a performative vein, the wall is the masterpiece of the performative Presidency of Donald J. Trump.  The arrival of any migrants–let alone of “an army of migrants,” seemed to appear on command, recalling fears of how the border was described as a site of risin violence, an end to low wages, terrorist attacks, urban crime, and national security.  The transformation of Buzzfeed claims, while unsubstantiated, were magnified in media loops in an online version of “telephone,” as the Caravan of over a thousand headed north was invested with an attack on Trump’s border policy, and became framed as an international event undermining sovereignty.

The empty notion of sovereignty that was evoked was considerably emptied of meaning, however, and far less robust.  Trump long invested the conceit of the border wall with functions as a defense of the nation, claiming that it will increase national safety.  Yet the insistence on the benefits of building the wall conceal the extent to which the attempted protection of the border conceal the increased levels of violence along the border they have provoked, even as the border has gained a national prominence that it lacked in the past, before Trump announced his candidacy.  Indeed, with areas among the highest murder rates in the hemisphere, declarations of the imminent construction–or groundlessly congratulating himself on the “beauty” of  its construction- in April and May, 2018 to public audiences in Ohio, West Virginia and Indiana.  For these middle-Americas voters–all located at a distance from the border, reveal the immediacy of the border as a response to the epidemic of heroin, gang violence, and low wages long mapped–or appeared to be mapped–on border crossing.  The proximity with which Republican voters geographically removed from the border have connected to the border helped generalize  anti-immigrant politics on a level unthought of only five years ago.

In ways that would have been unthinkable five years ago, the proximity of the border wall to the nation has increased.   Although Trump’s remarks seem to be confined only to prototypes of the wall that were placed near a limited section of the border, the legitimacy that he has granted the conceit of border-wall construction has taken a demand that began in groups like “Secure Borders” in Southern Texas–like the Secure Borders Coalition which included current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who demanded “real border security,” led by Texan Representative Michael McCaul.  (McCaul’s group had advocated the Mexican-American border be lined with five-layer fencing with chain link fences topped with razor wire, concertina wire, and watchtowers as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq.  Their advocacy of the Saudi Great Wall as a model for the U.S. conveniently ignored the radically different role of laws of individual protection of rights in the two states, the border wall has grown to eclipse the notion of civil rights or protections in a democratic state.)

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What was once a demand of the marginal groups associated with Homeland Security seemed increasingly legitimized as mainstream, the demand for the border wall that plays to national audiences far from the border of interest to the entire nation, leading to bizarre discussions of how ICE “liberated towns in Long Island” from MS-13 gangs, transforming the entire nation a battleground whose front line is the wall, and defining the border wall as the only secure defense of the southwestern border given the inadequacy–and indeed unpatriotic nature–of what Trump painted as a partisan position of acknowledging migrants’ rights and respecting asylum claims.

 

 

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Trump has asserted the need for an increasingly militarized barrier, already being tested by U.S. military special forces and US Customs and Border Protection special units, as U.S. Navy SEAL units claimed to have confirm its impregnability–as if to illustrate its strength and military grade, but  in ways unable to be confirmed.  The wall designed to replace inadequate border barriers, fencing, would fix “miles and miles of [inadequate] wall that’s already up,” as a way to enforce “strong borders” that suggest a misunderstanding about strength–and to force demand for its construction.  While the border wall is a show of strength, its promise is a cartographic simplification that seems to focus the nation’s attention not on laws, rights, or legal protection, but fixed attention on the line as a line of legal violation, and the degradation of the border as an obstacle, and as a source of vulnerability.

Rather than see the fixity of the structure Trump had promised would ensure  the safety of the nation, the caravan evoked the impervious barrier which was such a focus of national attention,  The arrival of the Caravan played as national news, as it seemed that most were heading toward detention camps that dot the US-Mexico border, where the processing of immigration claims takes on average almost two years.  And as BuzzFeed reports were relayed on FOX as an “army of migrants marching to America” or a “small migrant army marching toward the United States,” the use of  militarized terms evoked–despite the marcher’s peacefulness–the militarization of a border wall.  When several hundred Central Americans arrived, seeking asylum, and scaled the fence near St. Isidro, holding a Honduran flag, as if to suggest the fear of a loss of sovereignty, rather than what might be a site for international cooperation.

 

 

 n wall:commemorated at wall.pngDaniel Gonzalez

 

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J. Omar Ornelas

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Trump responded that the need for “a strong, impenetrable WALL that will end this problem once and for all”–implying the problem of immigration, once a concern mostly of border-states, had become a national problem of urgency that might unite the divided nation.  Would it be too much to say that the border wall had indeed become a living force, despite its actual function as a site of migrants’ death, as if the vitality of the wall on one side of the border contrasted with the consciousness of the wall as a site of migrants’ death, and indeed the attempts to commemorate these deaths, on the other side–the most alarming and disturbing of the deceptive truisms of the new Newspeak the border wall presumes, and we would be urged to entertain—that Death is Life?

 

 

CrossesAguaPrieta--Dec08NogalesStreetCrossesFb08ShpO

Migrant Deaths and Water Stations, 1999-2012

 

 

The imaginary function of the border wall has created an inexplicable tie between the wall and a project of modernization and modernity, even if the wall seems among the most post-modern, fragmentary, meta-conceptual, and notional sorts of pastiches one could imagine:  the isolated prototypes, on which DHS requested bids weeks after Trump’s inauguration, have become more than a totem of a new sense of sovereignty, as Steve Bannon asserted, eerily but aptly suggesting the living nature of the border wall in the collective imaginary, a point oddly echoed in how U.S. Customs and Border Patrol union that long agitated for a border wall described such a wall as a “vital tool” as their leadership advised the Trump transition team.  The investing with living properties in the wall by Bannon and by advocacy groups seems, indeed, to shift the life of the nation into the “vital interests” that the wall will protect, as if to a living organism–even if the immobility of such a project would suggest the opposite, by intruding in habitat, ecosystems, and dividing open spaces in what were protected lands.  The wall indeed is promised to be constructed through protected lands, interrupting wilderness spaces, as if it demands to be accorded respect as a dividing land, crucial to the nation as a barrier to keep out undesirables alternately identified as dangers to safety, jobs and health.

 

imageBorder Wall and Federal- and State-Protected Lands (dark green)

 

Is the border a sort of living form, so closely was it tied to the nation’s “vital interests” of stopping the flow of drugs across the border, ending the reach of drug cartels, and stopping the flow of refugees.  But the increasingly vital form of the border wall seems to have dignified it by its centrality to the nation, and the impermeable membrane that it created for migrants:  the repeated identification of the border wall as defending vital national interests from the “failed states” across the border suggests a retrenchment of national interests, but an elevation of the border wall almost at great costs to the nation.  The pleasure with which Dept. of Justice affirmed that after Judge Gonzalo Curiel sustained Homeland Security’s mandate to build the projected border wall did not violate the Constitution, but fell within its mandate for boarder security, that DHS “can continue this important work vital to our nation’s interest” reflects a confusion between vitality of the nation and wall.  The entity of the wall seems, indeed, to have replaced the nation as a guiding figure of the Trump administration, as if the physical structure were in fact able to express the interests of the state, and the survival of the wall more important than the survival of migrants who might encounter it.

But the Border Wall became a project both Trump and his crowds celebrated as a way to discuss the nation.  The elevation of the border wall into an almost sacral place in a religion of the nation, rather than as a tool of a secular state, and a sign of national identity.  (The border wall has become so central to the state, indeed, that Bannon readily predicted the need for a shut down government if full funding for constructing a border wall was not approved by Congress–much as Trump has earlier threatened a mere hundred days into his Presidency, in April 2017.)   Trump attacked the arrival of the Caravan as an illustration of “Democratic inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad, so one-sided” and that “our laws are so weak, given to us by Democrats, . . . are so pathetic,” treating the arrival of immigrants with cases of asylum as evidence of a partisan dereliction of the protection of the state.  Rather than seeing motion across the membrane of the border as a sign of biological health, the health of the social body depended on the construction of an impenetrable wall, for Trump and his closest advisors.

For Trump seems determined to link his presidency–and even shut down government for it once again this year, suggesting how central the project is to defining new ideas of the state but  invested with a new religion of the state, undermining civil and secular society.  While cast as a project of construction or infrastructure, the wall is a realization of the changing of existing immigration law, and a watershed for chaining the law, “our dumb immigration laws,” which Trump has criticized in vague terms as “very, very bad,” “very, very weak laws,” and even “the worst laws,” as if recognize that the project of border wall building reveals ambitions to rewrite the legal framework of immigration and national legal protections, and indeed the relation of the state and the individual.  In this sense, the project of wall-builting that has become the recurrent subject of tweets, public speeches, and government statements on the border wall’s imminent or current construction.

 

2. The wall seeks to remap the border as a fixed line as an effective barrier against violence and to preserve jobs, lower criminality and thwart gangs, and prevent drug traffic across the border–as if its construction and enforcement could redeem the nation from a plague of ills.  The urgency with which President  Trump has evoked the need for the border wall–and the intransigence with which he promoted building a barrier across the border–have remapped the sovereign integrity of the union.  The rhetoric of a need for closing the border informed the announcement that no “additional persons traveling without appropriate entry documentation” be admitted into the country until further notice–if ever at all. The finality Trump invested the wall as a resolution of national problems–extending far from the border, where the first anti-immigrant movements began–has indeed taken the southwestern border as a basis to remap the country, and to redefine migrants’ relation to the law in very real ways.  And even if it does not exist–and has not been begun–the rhetoric of stopping cross-border flows caused many of the vulnerable migrants–pregnant women, children, transgender–to be cast as lawbreakers who did not respect the country they sought to enter.

The redefinition of migration as an issue of sovereignty, rather than rights, suggests rather chilling consequences both for migrants, and a shifting relation of America to the world, with harsh consequences for civil society and the law.  Indeed, law seems trumped by a religion of state in the recent proclamations of the Trump Presidency, where “sovereignty” is not about rights or people, but about the power of the state to protect jobs, safety, and goods.  The fear of an arrival of migrants has increased the symbolics of the wall; and even as the United State has long treated Mexico as a significant or primary immigration filter of Central American victims fleeing not only poverty, but persecution and threats of personal violence.  The story of the fear of arrival and the threats of the image of the porous border have increasingly taken the place of the personal stories and narratives of migrants and refugees, in a shocking sort of cartographic charlatanry, as fear of migrants crossing the southwestern border has become primarily perceived as a compelling security threat, in ways that seem to elevate a religion of the nation above the question of individual rights with urgency, as if to elevate the right of state above the individual, by elevating the needs of the state above the individual, and invoking a state of “exception” that allows the suspension of individual rights of any migrants who approach or try to cross the nation’s southwestern border, by criminalizing not only their immigration but redefining the relation of the state to all migrants as potential “illegal aliens” seeking to breach  existing fencing and border policy.

 

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Can one shift the map of the peril of criminalized migrants crossing the increasingly militarized border to reveal the plight of their journey?  As the march of migrants organized by  Pueblos sin Fronteras, or Peoples without Borders, the peaceful protest of the Caravan de madres centroamericanas, sponsored by Pueblos sin Fronteras, or Peoples without Borders, in an attempt to protest the difficulties that migrants face as they cross borders from Central America, the very protest march designed to demand safe passage across borders, is cast it as an occasion to fear the arrival of migrants and treated, in a bizarre extension, as grounds to refuse protection of migrants in the United States who entered the country as children–and has occasioned the increasing separation of children from their families– the loss of records of about 1,500 children entering the country before the arrival of the Caravan–despite assurances John Kelly provided that separating families at the border “will be taken care of–put into foster care or whatever” in a way that “wasn’t cruel.” As a response to the problem of coming into the United States “illegally,”  the shift to a “zero-tolerance” policy pursued in “the name of the game is deterrence” did’t inspire confidence.

Family separation was described as an effective deterrent–and Kelly reminded his interviewer that if “people say that it’s cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children,” the fault lies with those who attempted to “illegally enter the United States”–which no one “hopes is will be used extensively or for very long.”.  but the emergence of the border as a site of prolonged detention of undocumented immigrants, who wait for their immigration cases to be hear for almost two years on average,  the routine separation of children from their parents and families, and the deportation of those without papers, as all migrants can be stopped and searched and held them without charges in the name of national safety.  The map of the peril of migrants to national security is a basis to strip migrants seeking to enter the nation of any personal rights.

 

3.  The creation over time of a tortured cartography of fear may recall the latest iteration of the “paranoid style of American politics” that Richard Hofstadter long ago described as an impulse in the national DNA, of impulsively seeing an external nexus of evil, by giving credence with little actual proof that a toxic combination of external forces lie at the root of our most serious social problems–even when it masked them.  Hofstadter argued that it was in fact impossible to appreciate U.S. history without paying attention to such fantasies and  our current matrix of fears has mapped the fears of national decline and economic instability onto the immigration,  condensing heterogeneous fears onto the construction of a border wall, by misreading maps of immigration and mis-mapping immigration.

 

image.pngMap showing migrants safe and risky routes at “La 72” migrants’ shelter , Tenosique (Tabasco), October 2017. Crisis Group (Froylán Enciso)

 

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The very charge that immigrants bring guns, violence, and dangers into the United States is aptly reputed by an actual map, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Explosives (AFT) with open OSM data, to reveal that as 70% of the firearms siezed in or from Mexico are of American origin, Mexico’s strict gun laws are indeed undermined by the presence of numerous gun dealers–catering to migrants who are increasingly scared of cross-border transit–located just north of the border, where stores provide many of those cast as smugglers, gangs, and criminals who seek to protect themselves from being subject to smugglers’ and cartels’ increasing demands.

 

image.pngMetric Maps

 

Yet the evocation of a wall, by now constructed on social media and on twitter, has elevated a demand for guarding the border from the towns, cities, and states that lie along the border to a need to preserve the security of the nation, the Homeland, and national safety and indeed health.  The sputtering incoherence of @RealDonaldTrump Twitter exclamations of increased urgency–“SECURE THE BORDER!  BUILD A WALL!” (August 5, 2014) “WE NEED A BIG AND BEAUTIFUL WALL!”  (Nov 19, 2015) or just, in time, “NEED WALL!” (April 1, 2018); “we must have THE WALL!” (August 27, 2017) ; “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”; “We must have a great WALL to protect us, and to stop the massive flow of drugs into our country” (January 16, 2018); “We need the Wall for the safety and security of our country” (January 18, 2018); “If there is no Wall, there is no DACA” (January 23, 2018)–cemented the wall to the nation in a map of exclamations.  The statements and sound bites seem perverse cries in an echo chamber, but are supported and given currency by maps.  The urgency of these demands work to conceal the complete remove of the border from actual problems that face the nation, but externalize the difficulties of the nation, and raise the possibility of creating an impoverished sense of the nation, and to conceal the plight of migrants, and huge economic imbalances across the border.

 

4.  But they draw their urgency from how maps suggest the need to remap national safety about the border.  Despite some demeaning of the elevation of the wall on Twitter to a node of national politics, the amount of attention dedicated to the wall–and this magnified in 2018, and became a tacit undercurrent in his tweets about the Caravan–the provocation of renewed fears about the need for a border wall, which he consistently paired against “our country” in an odd collective possessive, since the wall seems always “my” wall.  One might suggest they make the wall a site of constant contact with Trump’s personality and speech, in treating the wall as a celebration of the religion of the nation dedicated to keeping out ostensibly dangerous migrants and refugees, and labeling them as dangerous “illegals” needed to be excluded from the social body and from legal protections.  Trump’s outright leis about removing MS-13 gangs “by the thousands,” or that Mexico would pay for the border wall, create a false geography that was quickly exploited.

Trump’s degree of duplicity about the border astounds.  The dangers of crime, underemployment, gangs, sex trafficking and gruesome violence were in mapped onto the border’s porous or permeable nature in the public imagination, as if to remap the hard southwestern edge of the United States in a satisfying manner, as Trump mapped or trusted maps that effectively tie national dangers to border crossing.  The spectral if necessarily vague map of migration that have been burned into the national consciousness–and perhaps, in a bizarre circulation of images, into the mind of current President Donald J. Trump–and seem to haunt his own insistence on threats to national security and also his failure of establishing an immigration policy.  With the arrests of U.S. Border Patrol on the rise, as the techniques of survival to which migrants who traveled through the country compelled them to develop alliances with criminal organization, cartels and gangs, the Trump government has attempted to invest in the massive construction of a border wall, rather than dedicating funds to the safety and security of  refugees, processing cases of asylum or offering guarantees of safe passage across borders.

The insistence on the border wall has become a sort of fetish to reveal a new policy toward migrants that was extremely heatless in its broad criminalization of their motives:  President Trump cast the need for the wall as grounds to refuse protection of migrants in the United States who entered the country as children, and had been protected from prosecution, as if the construction of the wall undermined all immigration cases.  The crude hand-drawn or painted maps painted on the walls of migrants stations that reveal the desperation of their cross-border flights have only been taken as demanding resolute response through the construction of an impermeable border wall.  If the wall has been most frequently mentioned on Twitter, among other social media, the image of the wall has travelled through a variety of maps, images, and visualizations long cultivated by many anti-immigrant groups, and increasingly adopted as a policy of state by the Twitterer-in-Chief who rises each morning early to watch FOX-TV en lieu of reading the Presidential Daily Briefing.

Perhaps President Trump’s favorite strategy of forcing the audience to be dependent on his own decision and whims is the ultimate depowering device, but suggests the extreme dependence on his decision–and the power the Border Patrol exercise over migrants’ lives.  To be sure, the clear echoes of nativist anti-immigrant groups such as “Secure Borders” are quite terrifying–they advanced, after all, in institutional or bureaucratic language the deeply proprietorial belief in an ability to close borders even to the vulnerable.  While debate about “illegal” immigration denies the legality of the entrance of undocumented into the country is about laws; the southwestern frontier is so central to the debate, that it is not surprising that it is also about national maps and maps of cross-border traffic and flows.  The new and increasingly universal coinage of the “illegal”–a proxy for foreigner that has served to undermine the status of refugees seeking asylum by defining them as non-nationals–is defined by border-crossing, rather than being tied to a court of law.  The effect of these maps is to try to affirm the need for a solid, non-porous border, despite the productive nature of the fluidity of the border as a site of entrance; insisting on the need for a “real” border that doesn’t allow passage of individuals, the border wall denies the past historical benefits of a porous border, even while presenting itself as a way to “make America great again.”

Maps both define borders, and provide a form of essentializing national norms by rehabilitating a literal nationalism that trumps the law in ways one barely expected to breath again.

 

image.pngCenter for American Population Stabilization, Web-Based Interactive Pop-up Ad

 

Rusian FB ad for Secrured Borders“Secured Borders,” Web-Based Interactive Pop-Up Ad

 

The increasingly aggressive proprietorial notion of the nation is effectively mapped, perhaps reflexively, by means of a retro sign suggesting disinterest in assuming a role of global or economic leadership in the first; the lower forty-eight become a defensive banner akin to a tattered unfurled flag in the second, as if a flag were elevated above the territory, pulling patriotic heartstrings by rejecting ‘illegals’–a now-universal term of exclusion and disdain for refugees or immigrants cast as not “our” responsibility after all, and as outsiders whose itineraries must be reversed.  The status of migrants has been repeatedly questioned and interrogated in debates about border policies, as if their status eroded as they made progress pass immigration checkpoints across the country.  And as the recent Caravan crossed into Mexico’s border controls, the decision of Mexican immigration authorities to allow Central Americans to cross their border without paper led them to be named as suspect, as they progressed past Mexico City.

The laws of immigration have been questioned, in ways that undermine the claims of asylum of many of the refugees–deemed as “illegal” in American media.  Over the coming weeks, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for a review of longstanding laws granting asylum to all vulnerable or threatened populations, including women and children–who composed many of the marchers who had walked from Central America to the United States Border.  The targeting of the vulnerable seems echoed in the defense of separating children from families of migrants at the border–former Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly reminded the nation that rather than feeling sorry for them, given “tremendous experience dealing with unaccompanied minors” who are turned to Health and Human Services to “disrupt this terribly dangerous network” of Mara Salvatrucha–MS-13–gangs.  Yet is such disruption grounds for putting over 10,000 immigrant children into custody, separately from their parents, a policy that has never been adopted on such scale by previous presidents?  The 21% surge in taking children from their parents that occurred in May 2018 alone has left Health and Social Services shelters at 95% capacity, and raises the prospect of housing children in military bases in the future–and promising to give all information about the parents, relatives, sponsors and living conditions of children to the Department of Homeland Security, or access to highly personal or private data, long privileged as protected.  the increase in separating children form their families was a long planned message to be sent across the border.

The faceless horde of immigrants that Trump regularly disparaged on social media as increasing “danger” for the nation, and a proxy for the criminals, drug-sellers, MS-13 gang members, murderers and rapists Trump argued are concealed themselves among those who present themselves for immigration or sneak across the southwestern border, without documents.  Such “illegal aliens” were seen as actively undermining laws and recast as evidence for the need and urgency of building a permanent border wall.  As the aim of separating families is to send a message across the wall, and define the permanence of the border as a–and perhaps to use the separation of children as a pressure point to get Democrats relinquish support for DACA, or the deferring of deportation for children brought in to the country by their parents, who have only known life in the United States.

 

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5.  In a successful gambit to distinguish himself as a straight-talking candidate able to alter or disrupt political debate, Donald Trump–a surprise, outsider candidate–long promised to build a wall that would “protect America,” unlike attempts to build fencing along the southwestern border by previously elected presidents.  And in a very deep sense, the promise to built the “wall”–“a real wall,” Trump emphasized, “a physical wall,” as if to underline the massive returns of its construction–served to differentiate him from other politicians and members of political parties.  In ways that recall how political theorist Antonio Gramsci, who lived through Italian Fascism, defined fascism as presenting itself as an “anti-party,” inviting all to “conceal by a veneer of legitimacy vague and nebulous ideas wild and unfettered passions, hatreds, and demands,” the dangers that Trump argued would bee contained by the “wall” served to legitimate the xenophobia it sought to contain.

Trump seemed to orchestrate the expression of passions in reaction to the Caravan.  His tweets mirrored its advance, launching angry public statements escalating in their fear and intensity, granting the “caravan” of migrants a disproportionate role in imagining the continued vulnerability of the United States.  The Caravan took place both on a map and in an incoherent narrative of the threat that migrants posed to the United States, and the specious narrative that Donald J. Trump launched as a Presidential candidate in the Republican primaries alleging Mexico–without grounds save what he “heard” from the U.S. Border Patrol–for sending criminals across the border who threatened the nation’s safety.  The final tweets Trump issued into the ether refusing “to let these large Caravans of people into our Country” confused the issue in typical Trumpian fashion, imagining the quantity of people and the absence of discriminating among refugees–his Attorney General sourly called their arrival on Easter week “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws”–or far more dangerous to the nation than the stragglers who arrived at the old wall in Tijuana in fact appeared.

 

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The veneer of political acceptability that the border wall bequeathed on anti-immigrant sentiment indeed ran against the sentiment of a body of law, presenting as their rationale a hollowed-out notion of the body politic.   For all the hope of providing a better narrative to unite the nation since 2008, the appeal of Trump’s narrative of exclusion, fear, and economic security promoted the image of wall-building and the xenophobic ban of dangerous foreigners entering the nation.  The veneer of political acceptability that Trump provided for defensive acts of exclusion gave legitimacy to a range of xenophobic fears, broad charges of illegality, and xenophobia that celebrated exclusion and the denial of rights.  Trump’s longstanding use of inhumane metaphors for immigrants–dangers to the nation that ranged from “anchor babies,” “immigrant hordes” to bad hombres–underscored the usurpation of rights, and somehow offered a more compelling narrative of national identity than was on offer.

It furthered a fearsome spatial imaginary that was enforced by numerous crude maps of false objectivity.   From announcing his candidacy by collectively identifying Mexican immigrants as “in many cases criminals, rapists, [or] drug dealers” typecast an ethnic group as criminal to justify wall building on the southwestern border as patriotic, opportunistically perpetuating a spatial imaginary dangerous and without legal grounds in a mendacious and tenacious manner.   Trump proposed an alternate reality of the US-Mexico border wall that existed in the mental imaginary  and has come to haunt political debate about immigrants, and national policy, that runs against inclusion.  Only minutes after  Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi happily proclaimed in a joint statement after visiting the White House an agreement not to deport children brought to the United States as children in “a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable” [italics added],  Trump promptly tweeted an affirmation of an alternate reality of the border wall’s continued presence, in an image that stands to haunt our nation and political imaginary, and remains a favored image of political geography.  In affirming that “The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built,”  Trump oriented to a map of the nation’s safety, declaring “We need the Wall for the safety and security of our country. We need the Wall to help stop the massive inflow of drugs from Mexico, now rated the number one most dangerous country in the world.”  The sums demanded to construct the wall almost invited a government shutdown early in the Trump era:   the manner in which adherence to the conceit of the unbuilt border wall might cause a future government shutdown reveals its place in affirming Trump’s political identity and leadership.

Trump asserts that the recognition of the need for the border wall is as apparent as an act of scales falling from one’s eyes, and restoring a clearer geopolitical vision.  The acknowledgment of the need for the border wall less recalls Saul’s infusion with the Holy Spirit, than a demand of how U.S. Customs and Borders Enforcement has insisted on the permeability of the US-Mexico border in a new national spatial imaginary.  The wall reflects not only affirms the guilt of undocumented immigrants as “illegal” guests but distracts from its own illegality, and the massive efforts of incarceration that the prominence of the defense of the border stands to justify.  Trump recently championed the arrest of over 1,500 people who have “entered the country illegally”–in one of the largest mass-incarceration of undocumented populations ever to occur.  And although the seeds of the possibility of an imagined border wall was defined during the 1990s, when the US Government built border fencing in order to keep economic migrants from seeking higher wages up north, in response to the inequalities of globalization, the attempt to maintain and effectively “naturalize” the increasingly steep inequalities of globalization, remains a relatively recent idea.  

The search for constant reminders for the need and urgency of the border wall has become a sort of trope of the Trump residence.  The reminders conceal a profound failure to process refugees seeking to better their conditions, and the deep changes in the ground beneath the feet of the undocumented migrant, whose status has been effectively eroded:   stripped of rights, privacy, or security, the building of a wall designed to obstruct passage and persecute all who seek to cross it undermines the legality of cross-border transit.  Visualizations purporting better to orient viewers to the presence of migrants cast them as “illegally” present to demonize the figure of the refugee and undocumented migrant–cast as an “illegal alien” as transgressing the law, investing illegality of a criminal in those who illegally cross the boundary serves to erase individual histories by tallying them as standing in violation of the law, fueled by the expansion of mass incarceration across the nation from the mid-1980s, fed by images of a “war on crime,” and aggressive drug prosecution and the expansion of the Department of Homeland Security as the largest national law enforcement agency.


6.  Of the almost half million attempting unauthorized  immigration apprehended on the southwestern border, half arrived from other countries than Mexico–any proposal to return all apprehended or deported to Mexico effectively erases the itineraries or needs of the 257,000 from other Central American countries in Central America fleeing poverty, organised extortion, and inner-city violence from areas far south of “Mexico.” Yet as “Mexico” remains a place-holder, removed from any clear geographical relation to the United States in this entire debate, maps of the border purport to make “sense” of the changes in stagnant wages, unemployment, and taxes, and the specters of refugees, terrorism, drugs and gang violence.  The wall was projected onto the nation as a means to create a needed barrier of impermeability; Trump has promised a “real wall”–although what sense any border was ever “real” is unclear–will contain threats in what takes and isolates the border as a threshold of legality.  

By repeatedly magnifying the danger of border-crossing within the national imaginary, Trump worked to create a false–and divisive–consensus elevating border crossing as a threat to economic security, public safety and public health.  The distorted magnification the dangers undocumented immigrants who would traverse it pose to the nation, although in ways that revise and empty the “nation” as an established legal system.  For every urgent suggestion of the need to “revise our immigration laws” are, in fact, attmpets to void them and legal precedent; attacking the “loopholes” that have permitted the vulnerable people including women and children who face threats of violence either at home or on the streets to seek asylum, not as actual stories that deserve attention but as deceptive strategies of evading that must be unveiled lest they undermine public safety.  Trump’s empty assertions in August 2017 that the very high levels of criminality in Mexico necessitate or mandate the construction of a border wall sought to provide an image to his supporters that, indeed “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE,” tying the “nation” to the wall, and to the border.  The circulation of a photoshopped tweet revising the course that “the wall” would take, to include New Mexico, or exclude it as well from the commonwealth, was intended as humor but revealed that the border wall had come to afford a new mental geography of the nation and its relation to the world.

 

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The arrival of the Caravan of Central American migrants seeking asylum and safe transit across borders has threatened the narrative of illegal border crossing but has provoked increased insistence on the imagined spatial geography of dangers crossing our borders.  The Caravan’s arrival reflexively provoked an accelerated project of “revising our immigration laws” as the migrant “Caravan” crossed immigration checkpoints, military bases, police stations, and walked through cities in Mexico without facing any obstacles.  It conjured the needed image of a tidal wave headed to the border, which necessitated the very militarization of the border that the border wall had not created for the national good, and working to create a militarized defenses of the border extending the current melange of heterogeneous border barriers, and left mays seeking visualizations the conjured the new border division the Trump administration sought to create to affirm the border’s impassibility, in an image of the physical naturalization of a “wall” that replaces the “fence.”

 

Fence:Wall Trump

The nomenclature is not accidental.

If good fences make good neighbors, the “wall” is the language of a strongman on the border, an oddly archaic notion of a boundary doing double duty as a new noun of national protection, acting as an exclusionary boundary, and a verb as providing a defense that is more effectively able to obstruct passage of outsiders.  The deeply archaic sense of wall-building–Giambattista Vico defined it as a pre-legal notion of national self-definition, going back to the Romulan walls that were the first set of walls that defined the integrity of Rome, although how the “wall” would exclude the massive amounts of contraband that enters within established entry points within cars and concealed in shipments–rather arriving than on foot–is never explained.

Yet the fantastic narrative of such on-foot traffic evading border checkpoints–“Does Google Maps indeed help migrants evade border checkpoints?” wondered a website that was promoted on RT, designed to tap into the paranoid strain of the American mind–has lent urgency to the creation of a continuous border “wall” –often just describe as “the wall.”  The militarization of the border as a built boundary, compounded with more border guards is promoted as preventing any such transit, even if the website suggested that the provision of information in the crudest of nline maps may allow migrants to outfox border patrol and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the ineffective nature of the Ports of Entry as barriers against migrants from Central America or Mexico.  The mapping of “routes to avoid” which are marked by “Border Patrol Checkpoints” as tools to circumvent border barriers.

 

Google maps borderGoogle Maps/”Routes to Avoid–Border Patrol Checkpoints

 

Inflating fear of the arrival of the “Caravan of Migrants” provided a powerful rhetorical urgency to the creation of a border wall, in short.  The over-inflated fears of a faceless “Caravan” suggested a surge of undocumented advancing and progressing toward the border, following maps that pointed them to the sights of crossing, as if they were destined to cross in a matter of weeks.

With a tacit blame that Mexico had been overwhelmed from acting to filter on immigration that the United States government has increasingly insisted, the US began attempts to dissuade migrants from crossing the border by calling the National Guard’s arrival, both in an open confession that even the current massive militarization of ports of entry fails to ensure and an excuse for encouraging the border’s increased militarization.

 

Migrants in Oaxaca, Felix Marquez AP

 

The arrival of the Caravan of migrants became a test case for the urgent need of a border wall, and of the narrative for its construction.  Despite the peaceful ethos and intent of the migrant refugees’ march–organized annually by Pueblos sin Fronteras, “Peoples without Borders”, and designed to guarantee safe passage across borders,  President Trump cast it as grounds to refuse protection of migrants in the United States who entered the country as children, and had been protected from deportation under DACA, confusedly taking fears of the arrival of migrants as an illustration of the dangers of “porous” borders to foreign threats.  Despite the non-threatening nature of the peaceful march that sought to map–and protest–global economic inequalities, the image of the “Caravan” was effectively expanded in the imagination as a looming threat to our security, akin to the thieves, rapists, and gang members he had argued without grounds that Mexico actively “sends” across the border, as if to erase any sense of migrants’ own agency, narratives, or needs of those women, children, and families arriving at the border after a month-long journey.

As President, Trump has enjoyed incorrectly taunting that the Caravan constituted a threat to national safety–either destined to cross the border legally as they petition for asylum, or cross the border illegally to enter the United States, or encourage massive migration of others.  As the migrants’ procession overwhelmed border authorities they encountered, posting social media updates of their progress past towns and border checkpoints in non-violent ways while provoking a theater of confrontation over their month-log trek that let Trump direct increased attention to the border, and focus national attention on the need for an unbuilt and over-budget border wall, as a need to raise the stakes in border management in ways that he had long eagerly argued, hoping to force the inclusion of a border wall in the military budget and achieve a rewriting of the nation, and an emptying of many of the values, shared sense of civil rights, and civil protections that have defined the nation in the past, and seems to have sought to grant legitimacy to the erosion of civil rights.

The imperative of the border threatens to warp the notion of sovereignty by imposing a notion of national frontiers that predate civil institutions or the law, but are a restoration of order–although the notion of an authoritarian border wall itself seeks to dismantle a legal process of immigration, and strip US residents of rights.  While this may be due to Trump’s limited experience with the law, the cognitive violence of the wall lies not only in the obstruction that it creates on the ground, but the dangerous model it creates for remapping sovereignty, and for creating a sharply uneven access to justice, from immigration courts to the rights we accord others.

 

image.png.Jose Torres/Reuters

 

Trump had long promised his constituencies as a candidate that the border was was necessary for national safety, in ways that offered a basis for dividing the nation. The idea of a border wall was itself without clear legality or precedent in international law.  But as a response to the “state of emergency” after September 11, 2001, creating boundaries has generated a warped image o the state, in which the executive could bend the law: when Trump summoned self-confidence to declare “A nation without borders is not a nation,” he essentially proposed a new idea of the nation; as much as describing the borders of the United States, he obscured his own lack of political experience or familiarity with government or civil institutions., and boasted of the ease of binding the nation by a wall able to obscure what the civil institutions that long defined the the nation, promoting paint a new image of sovereignty with confidence of the need to replace the existing political status quo

While Trump had no evidence for the urgent need to construct a wall along the border and made the “problem” of illegal immigration so central to his campaign without any evidence, the arrival of the migrants claiming refugee status seemed an opportune chance to redirect attention to the need of a border wall, and increased militarization of the border.  The progress of the Caravan across the Mexican border and Mexican states seemed a veritable illustration of the fear of globalization that Trump tapped so effectively in the primaries and general election, without offering any evidence, as the pressures of low employment, a poor economy and limited immigration checks created a specter of massive immigration and refugee flows.

Could the border not yet wall not yet in existence be manufactured over a month?

 

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The advance of the collective body of refugees–cast as migrants; “undocumented”; “illegal aliens”–was designed to “break down borders” in the very regions that they crossed.  The protection of the nation from migrants fleeing political unrest, persecution, or sexual violence, into a menace to the United States is among the illusions created by the expansion of the southwestern border into the consciousness of the nation:  if the humanitarian crisis was not an illusion, the threat that the crisis posed to the nation was.  Over recent weeks, the defense of the nation that the initial rebuff of what would be some 200 migrants who entered the United States became something of an event of international politics, in an massive effort of staging the nation:  the effort of bullying that the project of wall-building on which Trump long campaigned made the arrival of migrants an opportunity for showcasing of a new border policy that would parallel his intransigent commitment to the construction of a “real” border wall, in an instance of the staging of a bizarre theater of international as well as national politics, about borders–both playing to audiences at home and future migrants abroad, but focussed on American viewers who sought evidence of the promise construction of a “physical” and “real” Border wall as evidence of the new vision of the nation.  The simple barrier constituted the defense of national security that Trump claimed was his primary concern.  Did the gradual arrival of the Caravan at the San Ysidro border, site of the 30 ft. border wall prototypes and the oldest constructed border wall, stage an inevitable drama of confrontation?

The insistence on the readiness of border defenses that the migrants’ arrival provoked became a basis to rehearse Trump’s  after taking the time to visit California to observe new prototypes for the Border Wall he has promised, as if to put news of progress on its construction back in the news,  the limited funding that has been included for funding the massive 2,000 mile construction–a return, in many ways, to brick and mortar from the “virtual border” of the integrated technology of SBInet, the Secure Borders Initiative that served as a web of electronic surveillance device, the failure to contract the promised obstacle to cross-border migration, however improbable its construction, as a network of surveillance spreading out from towers–

 

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–or as a continuous border wall, the promise that Donald J. Trump sold the nation which  replaced the limits of the existing Border fencing, which covers only a mere fraction of the entire border–1,130 of its 3,200 km of its expanse–and sealed potential gaps in its mountainous areas of the Rio go, as well as the terrain near Nogales, or between Nogales and Juarez:  gaps on the Mexican side of the border would be bridged by waiving any legal requirements limiting its construction, based on the 2005 Real ID Act, promising expedited construction of authorized border barriers–despite the somewhat limited or interrupted nature of border fencing separating the United States from Mexico.

 

7.  The fear of the border’s crossing haas however been fabricated in a range of maps in studies produced by anti-immigration groups.  Visualizations from the  Center for Immigration Studies–allegedly non-partisan; viewed by SPLC as a “hate group” given the links it has drawn between immigrants and criminality and their tortured use of data to make unwarranted claims and ties–and the fear of a compromised sovereignty they raise, and the Federation of Immigration Reform (or Immigration Reform), which similarly purports objectivity, while defending nativism, have gained broad circulation on line that has eroded our sense of a nation, and even migrated into mainstream media.  The graphics and visualizations of both groups have sought to remap the border as a danger zone in ways that have percolated to broader audiences and political discourse, to help remap the policing border as a challenge to the nation.  The border wall not only frames the issue of security in the simplest possible terms–it reveals the “broken system” of politics as usual, and replaces it.

The persuasive value of the border wall is not only a case of the insidiousness of the graphics of many anti-immigration groups that were displayed on social media:  the Trump White House has repeatedly selected multiple anti-immigrant activists from the  Center for Immigration Studies as (CIS) to frame and devise its official policy in ICE and the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration, tantamount to rewriting official U.S. policy that echoed their frequent depictions of immigrants as terrorists, denouncing “the myth of the law-abiding illegal alien,” and even the “health risks” to Americans of open borders policies, conflating legal questions about immigration as essentially security risks.

The role of maps and visualizations offering false expertise about cross-border migration as a danger that the border wall could stop demands consideration.  For the production of such misleading maps helped shift public discussion away from the effects of such a project on migrants or on foreign policy, and on the preservation of human rights immigration laws.  The current fencing is shown as limited and with openings as if to redirect attention to the linearity of a single wall, as if this will bolster and redefine our nation, per Trump’s eery unfounded statements that nations without borders are not nations.

 

650 miles of fence BBC.png

 

As the advance of migrants claiming rights advanced through Mexican cities, its message transformed into one of aggression, the notion of a “via cruces emigrants” was transformed into an arrival of untold dangers and threats, inserted into a narrative of invasion that “securing the border” would respond, and a test of  the ability to control or police the border line:   if the collective cry at Trump rallies to “build the wall!” was the cry of a powerless, seeking to secure borders to calm their fears, the fears of the waning prominence of the wall, so forcefully conjured as a means of national protection in the public imaginary, seemed suddenly at risk.  The alleged illegality of immigration that led assert the legal right to defend “our” borders erodes the law, and respect for rights, even as six companies awarded contracts to create thirty-foot tall prototypes of a border wall with Mexico have completed their full-scale models being tested for their resistance to sledgehammers, scaling, underground tunneling.  Could the blurred legality of a project of wall-building be accepted as a national project as the migrants advance, and it gains greater urgency?

 

 

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It is striking the degree to which an intense–if relatively marginal–online debate about the border’s enforcement has been elevated through maps.  The simplistic data visualizations of border flow allowed to mobilize ideas of the nation that depend on a sense of illiteracy in reading data, or mapping divides.  In ways that met Trump’s own endless appetite for fostering division and opposition, the wall assumed a huge wedge to be created in American public opinion, and of opening a divide between “our safety” and the other side of the border, law-abiding Americans and the illegal behavior of undocumented immigrants branded as “illegal” for having crossed the border without documents, as if they were not law-abiding.  Poor enforcement of laws in Mexico allowed central Americans without papers to travel through their nation, to undermine the borders, Trump argued, theatrically capturing the attention of the nation without of trace of empathy for their plight as victims of violence within their own nations–but casting the United States as a victimized by global migrant flows.

And as Facebook updates of Pueblos sin fronteras described crossing immigration checkpoints without resistance, and entering nations without papers, the fear of crossing the US-Mexico border was triggered, and Trump injected increasingly militaristic language and policies, from summoning the National Guard to protect the United States’ southwestern border to threatening the “nuclear option” of end DACA, as if the category of immigrants, citizens who were the children of migrants, and refugees could be collapsed into a blurry collective, removed from any individually defining story, but grouped as a collective mass alien who were recognized as alien to the United States and lying outside the “America First” doctrine that has been a reflexive cover or varnish of unthought passionate defenses of the need for building a border wall. The adoption of this nativist point of view seems to rehabilitate its xenophobia, intent as the President’s own statements are to fail to differentiate not only between actual cases that merit asylum, have been granted working papers, and indeed contribute to American society. By making all subject to the threat of deportation–and stripping them of any legal status at all–they are removed from civil society and civil society is eroded.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, immigration, mapping the US-Mexican border, unauthorized immigrants

Mapping the Material Surplus along the US-Mexico Border

Donald Trump doesn’t want you to think that a wall has already been built along the southwestern boundary of the United States.  But the massive show of force of cyclone fencing, regular patrols, and bullet-proof barriers already create one of the larger and ambitious border fences in the world and have done so since the 1990s.   In ways that echo the growth of border walls world-wide–only fifteen existed in 1990; there are beyond seventy–the US-Mexican border barriers remain one of the most massive investments in wall-building:   if the 2,500 mile barbed wire fence that India is building to separates itself from Bangladesh, the US-Mexcio border wall aims to be the longest in the world, as if an illustration of American strength against the specter of the movement of populations, in hopes to remove the United States from the dangers globalization has wrought.  When John Berger observed grimly but presciently that “The present period of history is one of the Wall,” shortly after 9/11, he foretold the policing of border-crossings and humanity, ” . . . concrete, bureaucratic surveillance, security, racist walls.”

The exquisite photographs portraits of the wall by west coast photographer Richard Misrach documents the extent to which border barriers have changed experience of the border crossing.  The barriers progressively built on the southern border of the United States reveals a new heights of the costs of bureaucratic surveillance in the name of border security.  As if in a second episode of his classic Desert Cantos, begun in the 1970s, which, Geoff Dyer noted, “record the residue of human activity inscribed in these apparently uninhabited lands,” in an attempt to explore “the multiplicity of meanings in the idea of desertness.”  One might use the word “interrogate,” if it didn’t resonate so closely with the state-security apparatus on the US-Mexico border, and the militarization of the regions of the desert that Misrach worked to photograph and explore the meanings of the cultural detritus left by cross-border travelers, as they migrated north, and the massive security apparatus they encountered by which the border is increasingly defined.

 

Fence on Mexican Border.pngNear Campo, CA. ©2008 Michael Dear

 

For since the definition of the US-Mexico borderline as a line of passage monitored by the border patrol back in 1924, the expansion and militarization of increasing sections of border wall is in part a spectacle of state.  Their growth reflects increasing concern not only with the border, but the militarization of a border zone.  But increasingly, such a zone seems sealed off form much of the country, and is rarely fully comprehended or seen, but rather invoked as a specter that needs to be expanded to establish national safety and economic security, even if its expansion has already occurred in a hypertrophic fashion:  and long before Donald proposed to build a “beautiful wall” to prevent crossing the US-Mexican border, as if it were a new hotel and building project–noting to the press that he was perfectly suited to such a task, since building is what “I do best in life.”  “I’m a great builder,” he assured his audiences, adding with apparent reflection, “Isn’t it nice to have a builder?”

Trump’s promise is that the continuous wall, to be payed for only upon completion, would remove deep worries about border security.  Widespread national concern about cross-border movement since the 1990s have led to the investment to making the border more physically and symbolically present to potential migrants than it ever was–no doubt reflecting an inflated fear of illegal immigration and the dangers of their immigration by fortifying what was once an open area of transit and rendering it a no-man’s land.  The number of US Agents stationed along the border has almost tripled from 1992 to 2004,  according to The Atlantic, and doubled yet again by 2011, even as the number of US federal employees shrunk.  Investing in the border by allocating over $4 billion each year created a concept in our spatial imaginaries we have not fully digested or mapped, or assessed in terms of its human impact, despite increasing appeal of calls for its expansion and further consolidation–even as the further consolidation of the border zone has made migrants depend on drug smugglers and other illicit trade in hopes for guarantees of cross-border passage.  And in an era when a large portion of Americans seem to interact with government through the TSATransportation Security Administration–or NTSB–National Transportation Safety Board–the fear of external threats to the public safety seem incredibly real.  The inspired gesture of a monumental wall to be built across our Southern Border with Mexico, if a sign of weakness far more than one of strength, obliterating hope for the promise of a future, as Berger noted, intended to overwhelm and oppress as a monument to decadence and American insularity.

Outfitted with not only walls, fences, and obstacles but checkpoints and surveillance cameras, the US-Mexican border has become a pure hypostatization of state power.  And although Trump’s promises to built a “beautiful, impenetrable wall”–“He’s going to make America great, build a wall and create jobs,” folks repeated on the campaign, as if these were causally linked to one another–the massive construction project has been revised, as the “great, great wall” promised at rallies was scaled back to a fence and confined to “certain areas”–with the odd reassurance that “I’m very good at this, it’s called construction,” while acknowledging that the wall was “more appropriate” only in “certain areas.”  Does Trump have any sense of the massive investment of capital that already exists on the border.  The promise of dedicating as much as $26 billion–even $30 billion–to such a soaring, precast concrete monument along the border, standing as high as fifty feet, was a mental fantasy, and election promise, but filled a need for ending perceptions of its permeability grew so great that his advisers see the need to warn folks “it’s gonna take a while,” but promising the ability to do so by fiat and executive order and reallocating funds for immigration services; others demur, “it was a great campaign device.”

 

110519_mex_border_fence_mpotter-grid-6x2Mark Potter/NBC News

 

At the same time as deporting hundreds of thousands of immigrants now deemed “illegal,” the Department of Homeland Security has effectively rendered the border a militarized zone, interrupting what had been as late as the 1980s was a relatively porous transit zone on which both countries’ economies had depended:  the accumulation of capital on the border has expanded what was once a simple line to create obstacles to human movement challenging for viewers to process from a distance, or to map as a lived experience.  Of course, the existence of the wall has created a blossoming of illegal trafficking, as migrants are forced to depend on smugglers to help them in their quest to cross the imposing border, augmenting the illegal activity that occurs along its path, under the eyes of the many employees that guard the expanded border zone, in a far cry from the border patrol of years past.

The accumulation of obstacles for human transit contrast sharply to the old border fences that they have long rendered obsolete. The growth of the border zone dates from 1986, when granting of “legal” status to Mexican immigrants in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) had the consequence of redefining Mexican migrants as “illegal.”  The investment in increased construction of the border over thirty years to monitor the “illegal” immigrants who were surveilled by the highly monitored militarized border, designed to thwart unregistered immigration.  The old border fence is now outdated–

 

US_Mexico_Border_ap_img.jpgAP/Gregory Bull:  Border Agent Jerry Conlin looks out over Tijuana beside old border fence 

–since the Customs and Border Protection agency dedicated to “securing the nation’s borders” has come to expand the border between the United States and Mexico to prevent any possibility of human transit, reifying frontiers in ways that are nicely stated in one side of the pin worn by the very officials tasked to secure the border by regulating cross-border movement.  The mandate for U.S. Customs and Border Protection–“Securing America’s Border and the Global Flow of People and Goods”–is fulfilled by a range of devices of detection, surveillance and apprehension–attack dogs; choppers; drones; visual surveillance; horseback; speedboats; binoculars–that seem to expand an impression of total mastery over space in ways that are oddly ignore the human targets of the Agency.

CBP Commissioner USA-2.jpgBadge of the Current Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Reverse)

The division of Border Services that is dedicated to secure the US-Mexico border has attracted a level of investment that multiplied the increasingly inhumane terrifying ways, as “securing the border” has encouraged a material surplus and hypertrophic expansion of the border as militarized region that exists to obstruct human transit that is undocumented.  The border-zone assumes an increasingly prominent place within the spatial imaginary of Mexican migrants, as it has become increasingly accepted as a militarized–and naturalized as such–within the United States at considerable costs.  What are the consequences of such acceptance of the frontier as uninhabited lands?  How can one confront the consequences of its built-up construction from the perspective of the border-crosser?  How can one measure the human consequences of the expansion of this  outright militarization of a space between two countries who are not officially at war?

The separation of customs enforcement from border protection led an increased amount of resources to securing the material border, independent of the enforcement of customs, with effects that can be witnessed in the broad expansion of the border’s expansion as an uninhabited policed area needing to be secured in the abstract–independently from the human traffic that passes through it.

 

Misrach, Border SignsRichard Misrach/Wall, Jacumba, California (2009)

 

It is difficult to process the expanse or scope of the expansion of the border or the imposing barriers to border transit that is intended to prevent unmonitored migration and indeed terrify migrants from crossing the border .  The experience of the surplus on the border is especially difficult to capture from an on the ground perspective, distinct from the abstract definition of the border on a map as a simple line.  For the investment in the border obstacles and barriers that have themselves created the terrifying idea of sealing a border to human transit, and protecting the entry of those newly classified as “illegal”–a category that was the consequence of the IRCA, and legislation that criminalized the presence of “undocumented” Mexicans in the United States, and the growth of apprehensions of migrants after the increase in the monitoring of the border after IRCA– and the later increase of border patrols from 1994, in response to the inhumane balancing of needs for Mexican workers with fears of an increased number of Mexican immigrants, as the number of “undocumented” migrants multiplied nation-wide to new levels.  The increased militarization of the border to monitor all and any cross-border transit has created a massive expansion of border fortification under the Homeland Security Dept.

The result has been to create a shocking dehumanization of border crossing as attempts to cross the border in search of a better life have grown.  And the response of Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo to recuperate the human experience of border crossing that is erased by most maps.  Recent explorations by Misrach has called renewed attention to the expansive construction of the border as a human experience migrants face and encounter, and the new landscape of border-crossing that has been created across a new no man’s land.  His attention to the remains humans have left along the wall–abandoned detritus and intentional markers of cross-border transit–remap the construction of the border zone so challenging to capture in a territorial map, and capture a new sense of urgency to confront the human rights abuses that have grown with the border’s senseless expansion, and the overbuilding of border barriers and borderlands as a militarized space.  For the accumulated military surplus along border boundary is less a clear divide, than a means of creating a territory of its own within the growing border area:   Misrach’s recent photographs map intensive fieldwork of the region of the border that try to comprehend the scale of its presence for those on its other side or who traverse the border zone–an experience entirely omitted from even the most comprehensive maps of its daunting scale and expansion, which reveal the growing presence that “the border,” border area and the growing expanse of trans-border regions have already gained–a scale that can in part capture the heightened symbolic role that the debates about a border fence or barrier have gained in the 2016 United States presidential election.  The notion only a wall could fill the defensive needs of the United States must be protected from those Donald J. Trump labeled “bad hombres”–we stop the drugs, shore up the border, and get out the “bad hombres”–is laughable, but was a lynchpin to fashion himself as a strong male leader.

The laughability of the wall as a project of Trump’s megalomania prompted Guadalara-based Estudio 3.14 to propose a version in hot pink, stretching along the 1,954 miles of the border, based on the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán.  The wall, including a prison to house the 11,000,000 deported, a plant to maintain its upkeep and a shopping wall, seems specially designed both to daunt migrants and offer eye-candy for Americans.

the-design-was-also-inspired-by-the-work-ofrenowned-mexican-architect-luis-barragn-who-is-famous-for-his-blunt-stucco-walls-and-use-of-bright-colors

Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

stretching-from-the-pacific-coast-to-the-gulf-of-mexico-the-wall-would-separate-the-southwest-us-from-northern-mexico-jpgAgustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

the-designers-imagineda-pink-wall-since-trump-has-repeatedly-said-it-should-be-beautiful.jpg.png Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

Indeed, such a “Prison Wall” reflects the deeply carceral function of the space of the border, whose systems of surveillance systems and technological apparatus make it less a space of transition than a site of expansive investment going far beyond the notion of border protection, both as a spectacle and expansion of territorial control.   The hot pink wall offers a good surrogate surpassing the expansion of border security in recent decades.

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March 1, 2016 · 1:06 pm

Refugee Traffic Scars the Globe’s Surface

Almost any graphic is inadequate to represent the plight of displaced refugees.  The aggregate numbers astound: the sixty countries from which 30,000 people were forced to leave their countries each day over the previous year.  While these numbers reflect only those designated candidates for asylum and refugee status–and do not reflect the extent to which those fleeing from persecution and have expanded so dramatically–the image charts the number of asylum-seekers that grew to over 1.2 million in 2014.  Yet the quantities of those considered for refugee status can hardly be adequately processed, let alone mapped in aggregate–or the recognition of refugee status processed on Europe’s borderlands.  The map of refugee flight in red arcs across a map lacking political frontiers and boundaries seeks to foreground just how frantic the desperate search for pathways to new homes have become, and how wide-ranging these itineraries.  If they seek to provide a sort of negative to the privileged paths of an age of increased air travel and suggest the desperation of forced spatial migration, they silence the actual stories of refugees.

What sort of stories does this simplified map simply omit?  The stories of those journeys are interrupted by death, while they are far smaller, of course remain absent:  the perilous trajectories of individuals fleeing Syria, Iraq, Africa, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Pakistan however risk not only their lives, but increasingly their legal status as they undertake huge geographic migrations in search of new homes elsewhere, traveling by boat, on foot, or along paths promised by human traffickers.  The sleek image, despite its attempted accuracy, shows the intensity of itineraries as embossed on the map as if to disfigure the notion of global unity that runs against the very narrative of global unity implicit in a iconic equidistant azimuthal projection centered on the North Pole which emphasized global harmony as World War II was tried to be forgotten, which as the official flag adopted by the United Nations adopted in October, 1947 promoted an image of global unity:

 

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Harrison Polar Map/Official UN Flag

But the problem of effectively mediating the growing plight of stateless and displaced from “hot-spots” across the world poses not only a problem of the geographic imagination, but of the ethics of mapping.  For the aggregate mapping of those deserving or awarded refugee status not only presses the limits of the data visualization, bound to simplify itineraries of refugees far more fragmented and indirect than can be mapped, but that no data visualization can group the individual stories that the sheer numbers of those displaced by conflict and violence are barely possible to comprehend.  Refugee traffic suggests a level of instability difficult to condense in any map:  and is “traffic” not a fatally flawed metaphor, suggesting a possibility of monitoring or policing, bureaucratically inflected, blind to varied reasons for the rapid growth of refugees?

The hot-spots from which those crossing borders were readily recognized as refugees were increasingly focussed on wealthier countries since before World War II, but the growth in those granted humanitarian status as refugees had already been defined around clear epicenters back in 2007, when millions of the population in Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, and Iran were accorded status, after having crossed borders, as refugees, and large numbers of asylum seekers in the United States, Canada, and Europe had started to grow–the map, which seems an earlier version of the decentered azimuthal projection later chosen by the graphics editor and cartographer at the New York Times, similarly serves to suggest the global nature of a problem largely centered in the Middle East.

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WRSC

The choice of trying to map the data of those declared refugee to show the arcs of their arrival from global hot spots on a decentered azimuthal terrestrial projection aptly maps the crowding of the globally displaced in 2014.  But the choice of transferring the collective itineraries to a global projection–in a sort of perverse mapping of flight paths suggests the most deeply troubling side of global inter-connectedness, and perhaps its deepest source of stress–by scarring the world’s surface in a frenetic criss-cross of arcs.   UNHCR data of the global monitoring of refugees’ origins and points of arrival in new homes served to reveal an aggregate picture of resettlement in “Global Trends in Migration of Refugees” based on the accordance of refugee status, but in doing so erases the complex negotiation of the fate of asylum seekers, as well as the painfulness of the itineraries the globally displaced increasingly suffer.  Is it ethical to hope to draw equivalences of the growing problem those claiming asylum as refugees by showing their arrival along idealized clean arcs?

Are we in danger, moreover, of representing refugees by the designation that western countries who grant them asylum accord them, for lack of complete or adequate data of the dynamics of displacement and mass-migration?

1. The graphic seems apt by rendering a scarred world.  But it also seems an all too cool comment on the violent status quo, in which the number of displaced people raising risks by falling back on a modernist aesthetic that fails to capture the violence of displacement and indeed the placelessness of the refugees:  the distinctive azimuthal projection, whose particular properties orients the world around the common locus of refugees’ eventual destinations, so as to suggest the range of their flights, rendering the range of collective arcs of geographic displacement at a uniform scale.  Although the projection, which echoes the cartographical rendering of a global space in the flag of the United Nations, illustrates the actual global consequences of the heartbreaking tragedy of over fifty million refugees and internally displaced (IDP’s) across the world, their fortunes remain impossible to map, and difficult to visualize.  Indeed, despite the difficulties of mapping those displaced, and problems of protracted displacement that have eroded societies, images often remain far more powerful than maps.

 

displaced persons

 

By mapping the aggregate destinations of the displaced by flared arcs, of uniform size, the visualization maps the eventual destinations of refugees, as determined according to the UN’s Refugee Agency, and foregrounds the question of their destination rather than the reasons for their displacement.  The costs of such an omission are considerable.  The question of how to represent displacement, and how to mediate the experience of the refugee, raises questions of how to visualize population within a map.  The record numbers of those forced to flee their homes over the past year raise questions of whether resettlement can ever be enough–and if the tragedy incurred by displacement, without a clear destination and often just beyond the borders of the country one fled, trapped in war zones, or stranded in temporary settlements, aggregate trends of displacement seem oddly removed from refugees’ experience.

For while the smooth arcs of geographic relocation data are compelling, they transform the often desperate flight of refugees by an aesthetics of minimalism that rather reduces the scope of the spatial displacement that the terrifying numbers of persecuted refugees experience, and foregrounds the sites at which the displaced arrive–perhaps to remind us of the distance of the United States’ retention of an annual ceiling of resettling 70,000 refugees–and not the unrepresentable scope of the violence of spatial dislocation and tragedy of searing social disruptions.  The deepest difficulty to represent is the precipitous slide toward poverty, hunger, and poor health care of most refugees, whose arcs of travel are both far from smooth, but so rocky and economically destabilizing that the challenges of orienting oneself to its crisis are indeed immense.  And they only begin to chart the number of internally displaced and causes and scale of displacement–and the lack of political will that protracted displacement and flight have created on the ground, in their abstraction of refugee flows.  For while the distribution of internal displacement challenges one to create a compelling graphic, the dynamics of displacement by the Norwegian Internal Displacement Monitoring Center across some sixty countries seem so difficult to embody–or process–that to demand clearer visualization to comprehend the scope of internal displacement of those who are rarely granted asylum–or are accorded the so desired status of refugees.

IDP

IDMC

In its gesturing to the equidistant azimuthal projection of the United Nations, the visualization of refugee traffic evokes the clear ideals of the UN as an institution in its refusal to privilege a specific geographical centering.

600px-Emblem_of_the_United_Nations.svg

The focus in the visualization on UNHCR data of resettlement emphasizes a narrative of resettlement, even some sixty years after UNHCR first directed global attention to the “World Refugee Year” in 1959, with hopes “to encourage additional opportunities for permanent refugee solutions through voluntary repatriation, resettlement or integration, on a purely humanitarian basis.”  For in showing clean arcs that deliver the displaced, analogously to a frenetic set of flight paths, collapsing the time of one year, the tragedy of the unsettled are oddly ignored.  For although the flared arcs on the projection effectively pose questions to the reader about the impact of refugees’ arrival in Europe and wealthier countries, it shifts the question provocatively from the human rights abuses and disasters which provoke such flight–and ignores the terrifyingly young age of so many refugees, over half of whom are less than eighteen.

In seeking to grasp the scope of statelessness and displacement, and the psychic as well as economic questions of displacement, can’t we do better?

 

2.  Representing the global crisis of the displaced is by no means simple, and data visualizations are often inadequate to represent the travails of the refugee.  But although the movement of the displaced mirrors what UNHCR determined were the destinations of the displaced in 2014, the minimalist projection of terrestrial expanse oddly and dissonantly removes them from the humanitarian crises that created their displacement:  the countries noted in the terrestrial projection recedes into the background behind bright flared arcs that trace in aggregate the migratory paths refugees actually took in ways almost abstracted from experience–and in ways that may effectively unintentionally serve to diminish their plight by expressing it in an aggregate.  While an alternating focus on Southern Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Burma where many have been forced to flee their homes can afflict the most clear-headed with a temporary case of Attention Deficit Disorder as they puzzle at the multiple crises that convulse refugees to flee, leaving millions of Iraqis (2+), Syrians (3.2+), and Rohyingya to remain stateless, their flight is rarely linear, and the omission of the uncertainty of any refugee’s path or flight is troubling.

If the global visualization illustrates the increased intensity of the problem of displaced refugees over the previous year, even as it tracks the scars that divide it.  By using a set of specific points to another on a globe centered on where the greatest refugee traffic occurred, the data vis represents actual distances to countries of asylum, displaying pathways of asylum refugees took on a map of accurate distances, and traffic of truly global scope.  Although the densely crowded red arcs obscure much of France, Germany, and other sites of destination for the displaced as if to exaggerate an influx of to Europe, they illustrate a growing recognition that the scale of human displacement is a global crisis–as much as a crisis of resettling refugees.

The array of intersecting red arcs in the map underscores the proximity of an inter-related world, and provocatively foregrounds the increasingly global scope of a multiplying crisis of displaced persons that have come to scar much of the world’s surface.  The problem of how to synthesize the diverse local experiences displacing increasing refugees across the globe both internally and to other countries is resolved by using UNHCR data to map the growing traffic of the displaced that the we will increasingly be challenged to come to terms. Yet what of the image of interconnectedness that they reveal?  While foregrounded in an equidistant projection that renders evident the symbolic unity of around a nexus of departure of refugees from Africa, Syria, and Ukraine who arrive in Europe, the crimson arcs literally cut across the image of coherent harmony emphasized in the azimuthal projection, by locating sites at uniform distances to emphasize its unified image of the inhabited world–the same reasons it was adopted in different form in the flag of the United Nations–which also downplays the very national differences and frontiers more often inscribed in terrestrial maps, using an equidistant azimuthal projection of the world centered on its pole to project an ideal of global harmony.

The data visualization “Global Trends of Migration” foregrounds a marred world, however.  In it, the sites of refugees’ arrival is often even rendered illegible, disorientingly, by blotches of solid red created by converging flared red arcs.  Was there a somewhat alarmist decision to flare the ends of these arcs at the sites of the “arrival” of refugees, as has been suggested elsewhere by Martin Grand Jean?  For Grand Jean observes that in doing so, the concentration of apparent endings attract greater visual attention than the sites from which persons are displaced, or the intensity of the displacement:  we hide our eyes from the atrocities, in short, and the true nature of the crisis and humanitarian disaster, perhaps in ways informed by UNHCR data on the need to better process refugee flow.   One might go farther in this critique:  for in flaring such endpoints, the image not only oddly downplays the sites of emergency from which they seek asylum, and the unmitigated tragedy of those who remain displaced, but conveys a sense that the flights are smooth.

To be sure, the very term “traffic” that recurs to describe the “Trends in Global Migration of Refugees” seems a bit of an oblique misnomer.  It almost obfuscates the experience of those who were only recently forced to flee their homes, as much as render them for the viewer.  For the elegant aggregation of such a uniquely tragic dataset may not fully come to terms with the growing global tragedy of the apparently unmitigated spread of refugees from an expanding range of sites–and the steep human rights challenges the exponential expansion of global or internal exiles creates.  Although the attempt to synthesize UNHCR data and map those flows offer one of the clearest tools by which to process, comprehend and synthesize the rapid expansion of individuals who were forcibly displaced over the past year, and come to term with that expansion.  But it hardly comes to terms with the desperation of their travails or the difficulty of their departures.  Indeed, by covering much of Europe in busy red blotches it disarmingly foregrounds and describes the arrival of refugees who have successfully left their countries–more than the mechanics of their displacement.  And there is a sense, almost paranoiac, and to be resisted, that the arrival of these streams of refugees who enter the Eurozone almost threaten to cancel its identity.

 

Cancelled Europe?

 

What is lost in the image’s busily crowded surface is perhaps made up for by the frenetic intensity it uses to ask us to confront such trajectories of tragedy and desperation.  But as an illustration, the elegance of the visualization seems to mislead viewers through its concentration on a geometry of arrival–and the smoothness with which it invests the desperation of forced departures. Despite its impressive effects, there seem multiple reservations about the possibility of creating an adequate data visualization.  In translating the tragic dataset of forced migrations as a point-to-point correspondence, its simplification approximates the wide geographic itineraries of that the globally displaced have been forced to seek–and understates the tortuously complex paths they actually followed.

Indeed, tensions are implicit in the stark modernist aesthetics of rendering the paths of refugees and the global imperative to address the pressing refugee problems that raise questions of the ethics of mapping the displaced.  The cool modernist aesthetics of “Trends in Global Migration” obscure the messiness of refugees’ own lives.  In recent years, the Refugee Highway and others have sought to address in foregrounding the global “hotspots” of mass-migration–by combining qualitative and quantitative data.  They have tried to reveal what open routes exist for those seeking asylum and capturing the resourcefulness of the refugee–noting possible destinations of asylum, and sites of resettlement, or differentiating between routes taken in fleeing by land and sea to help viewers appreciate the scope of the refugee disaster.  In the image below, Refugee Highway reveals the presence of airplanes over industrialized nations where more refugees are apt to settle or seek asylum suggests the steep symbolic liabilities of Wallace’s stark “Global Trends.”

 

refugee highway map Refugee Highway-Legend The Refugee Highway

Another alternative visualization, proposed by Grand Jean on the basis of the very same UNHCR 2014 database, places less visual emphasis on the sites of refugees’ arrival, or sites of eventual asylum, but use similar lines as the red arcs of migration, apt for suggesting bloody scars  but less illuminating of the proportions of displaced and, as Grand Jean nicely notes, not weighted in any way, so that the 6,000 Mexican refugees that arrive in Canada are illustrated in an equivalent manner to the million refugees from Syrian territory that have arrived in Lebanon.  Gran Jean has generously proposed an alternative visualization that salutary in varying the thickness of lines that denote refugees’ displacement from sites of humanitarian crisis that confronts the limits of doing justice to the representation of displacement, sacrificing the modernist aesthetics of the image to ensure its greater readability:

Refugees-world

Martin Grand Jean

The attention Grand Jean returns to the sites of displacement can be easily rendered in ways that distinguish the different regions and countries from which the 14.37 refugees UNHCR registered have sought asylum, using color to start to distinguish the sites from which refugees were displaced–and start to diminish the information overload of the data visualization of this global crisis.

actual areas

Martin Grand Jean 

 

There is value to imitating the information overload created by the expanding crisis of global refugees, but it raises questions of the ethics of mapping disasters.  Much as it is difficult to comparatively map the multiplications of centers of forcible displacement, it is difficult to even heuristically approximate the varied qualitative circumstances of the world of the refugee–as much as one would like to grasp the extent of the desperation of exile from the boundaries and neighborhoods of one’s former home.

 

2.  The elegant economy of the jaw-dropping visualization in the Times of the refugee crisis compellingly transposes the aggregation of annual refugees to illustrate its deeply global nature.  The crisis of those forcibly displaced on a symbolic level by the harmony of uniform spatial relations–in the mode of early modern cordiform maps–although, of course, those thin red lines of scarification disrupt whatever harmony exists across the globe, despite the attention that it calls to its inter-relations, in the manner of the polar azimuthal projection surrounded by two olive branches of peace that was designed as an emblem of the United Nations to suggest the proportional representation of the continents, and lack of privileging one area of the world by Donal McLaughlin, who interest in the transparency of visual communication led him to propose its design in 1946 as a seal for the UNO.

The popularity of the visualization of “Global Trends” lies in its success in cleanly sorting a significantly large dataset in a readily legible terms in ways that insist on the proximity of accumulated crises dispersed across the globe in isolation from one another–but which affect the world and demand a global response.

 

Flag_of_the_United_Nations.svg

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One unarticulated if implicit institutional message of the equidistant polar projection in the “Global Trends” graphic is that it captures the pressure that the displaced place on the ideals expressed by the equidistant polar azimuthal projection featured on the UN flag.

Even if the very globalization of a refugee crisis makes it hard to focus on the status of those forcibly displaced or the context of collective hot-spots from which folks have fled, so clearly does it abstract individual itineraries of flight from their local contexts, the intensity of its busy red lines captures the overwhelming image of desperation, even if limited to those who have found asylum–not the refugee camps clustering on the borders of Syria, Sudan and Myanmar–it captures the intensity of forced migrations worldwide, if not the circumstances of their internal displacements or their deaths in transit and at sea.  The poor and often perilous conditions of the camps and settlements are left off of the map, as it were, as are the circumstances of ocean travel often brokered by human traffickers.

For the greatest lie and fabrication in the narrative of Global Trends of Displacement is the illusion it perpetuates that all refugees possess and have a destination–and indeed that all refugees arrive.   The extreme unmessiness of rendering the actual tragedy of refugees’ itineraries in purified form with a coolness worthy of Le Corbusier or Eero Salonen frames the crisis of refugees as if tracking airplanes’ movement or allocating resources.  To an extent, this is the result of the UNHCR dataset, which focuses on the arrival in camps or countries of asylum, rather than displacement or the camps were refugees and fleeing persons congregate along the borders of nearby countries.  But the visualization deriving from the data provides readers with a quite misleading illustration of the crisis at hand.  For in concealing local details, they obscure both the individual stories of sacrifice as well as the conditions or scarcities that has driven such a steep expansion of fleeing across what have often increasingly become quite shaky and undefined border-lines, readily renegotiated in theaters of war.

 

Sudanese refugees mappedUNHCR, Refugees from Southern Sudan by mid-December, 2013

 

Rather, the image created communicates an impression of cleanly engineered arcs of geographical mobility and direct paths to resettlement.  Unlike earlier visualizations, the elegant red arcing lines adopted in “Global Trends” present the UNHCR data as if to suggest that all refugees arrive–even though the dataset is of course only about those who do seek asylum and resettle elsewhere, and predominantly in countries far removed from their homelands.  This narrative of spatial displacement may obscure a deeper set of narratives of dislocation.

 

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

One sacrifices a sense of the local in the arching red lines in the gripping aggregation of global refugees over the past year in “Global Trends,” also pictured the header to this post.  The data vis indeed broached the difficulties of comprehending what has increasingly and ultimately become a global crisis at the end of an age of empire in readily comprehensible terms.  Although the paths of refugees’ flights threatens to muddy the specific travails from which folks are forced to flee in the data visualization, as well as their specific circumstances and travails, it synthesizes and processes the almost unsustainable streams of forced flights from refugee hot spots by foregrounding the actual routes of displacement–while misleadingly suggesting that all refugees found future homes.

Indeed, it maps the unmappable by mapping the pathways of those forcibly displaced:  yet of the 60 million displaced globally, the map focusses on the 14 million (almost a quarter of those displaced worldwide) who have left their countries in 2014 alone, offering what is probably an under-estimation of the encyclopedia of travails that can never, at another level, map or synthesize–as if the routes of fleeing can ever be adequately represented by being sketched on the perfectly engineered arcs akin to the smoothly engineered pathways of multiple airplane flights along which a very different demographic travels.  Refugees are of course unlikely to experience such travel, more characteristic of readers of the Times, who would surely be prone to recognize the map as a sad perversion of global flight paths, converging on Eruopean capitals, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Global Trends in Displacement: DestinationsNew York Times

One feels only awe at the overwhelming nature this sort of dataset, itself difficult and dizzying to process because it offers little real cue for orienting oneself to the complex totality of narratives it collectively encodes.  Whether the augmentation of refugees worldwide can be seen as a quantifiable crisis–and removed from human terms and individual costs–is a question that cannot be here addressed.  But the conversion of the crisis into human flows is a compelling way to try to come to terms with how we’ve come to inhabit the world in rather chilling ways, by plotting some of the data from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees on a global projection centered on the primary areas of regional crisis–not without posing the question of why such a global focus of the refugee crisis exists.  The nexus of the refugee “crisis” is so widely spatially distributed, indeed, to leave its “focus” dizzying as one tries to better internally process the extent of displacement worldwide:

 

detail refugees map New York Times

 

3.  The frenetic business of the long distance “traffic” pictured on the global map can also be reorganized and viewed, or disaggregated, piecemeal, luckily,  in order to make some sense of the terrifying abundance–or obesity?–of the disturbing dataset whose aggregation reveals the close relations between countries in an age of globalization, if it cannot threaten to obscure the dramatic narratives of individual experience.  The data is condensed into misleadingly orderly (if dizzyingly distracting) mesh of intersecting red lines, arcing over the earth’s surface and boundaries–as if to capture the global nature of the crisis, but which painfully erase the multiple individual narratives of struggle, internal displacement, and blossoming of the unplanned cities of refugee camps, and the different material and environmental constraints against which refugees have to contend and struggle. The comforting illusion that each refugee has a destination–or endpoint–ignore the improvised settlements now dot maps of Jordan, Turkey, Chad and South Sudan, and hold some two million souls, or the deaths of refugees in transit or at sea–runs against the demand for an adequate dynamic map of their own, as if in a sort of reverse map of sites of human habitation inscribed on maps.

Such a map would describe dislocation in greater detail than the valiant ESRI “story map” of those refugee camps administered by the UNHCR, whose slippy map invites one to inspect the numbers of displaced in different camps, but stands at a significant remove from their actual circumstances or experiences of displacement of the story it purports to tell.

efugee camps ESRI Fifty Most Populous Refugee Camps (an ESRI story-map) ArbatDarfur Refugee Camp in Chad Arbat_Transit_Camp_3-3-2014 Arbat Transfer Camp for Syrian Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan

4.  Could one rather include in such a map variables such as the length of time required for transit from each country, the amount of time required for transit, or the possibility of making such travel–all potential ways to represent the ordeal of displacement in ways that viewers might understand?  Or could one indicate the violence of the displacement in a quantitative way?

Indeed, the focus of the data vis on the routes of migration that refugees take runs against the widely accepted and reported truth that the number of internally displaced persons has expanded far beyond the growth of refugees seeking asylum in recent years–also reported by Sergio Peçanha–if the growth of IDP’s worldwide has surely increased the desperation of those refugees who leave countries of origin.

IDP's New York Times

The greatest single lie that this elegant map of refugees across the world tells in its distribution of a dataset is that all refugees have a destination to which the flee that can be mapped–a lie that the red arcs that imitate the paths of air traffic encourage.  For the paths of those fleeing are of course rarely so removed from the ground or so truly globalized in their dispersion.  In addition, there is a shift of attention from the sites where a truly unmanageable set of crises for refugees exists to the density of points of arrival in European countries as France, Germany, England, Italy, and Sweden, as well as Australia, Canada and the US–all rendered by but a single point or nexus of arrival, or destination–and often obscured by clotted red lines.  Does this detract the readers’ attention from the sites of humanitarian emergency that prompted the rush of refugees? The crowded the image evokes the image of something like a blood splatter, the result of the expansion of the intensity of combat in multiple theaters that, after all, set the mechanisms of displacement in motion, which the practice of aggregation erased.  In ways that imitate the The Refugee Project’s attempt to map arcs of resettlement of those seeking asylum since 1975 in interactive fashion within a single globe, the density of lines that converge in Europe and elsewhere suggest the deeply linked question of the global multiplication of forcibly removed refugees, and the proliferation of a forcible statelessness across so much of the modern world.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 12.10.41 PMThe Refugee Project 

 

But, on the other hand, the visualization’s immediate popularity, registered by wide retweeting, responds to the cognitive difficulty–if not impossibility–of coming to terms in a clear-headed manner with the dizzying multiplication of growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced people in our increasingly destabilized world. There is considerable clarity in how the orderly arcs mirror the readily recognizable form of a map of destinations of flights, if there is something truly odd in how they represent the terrifyingly troubled transit of peoples in times of war.  Perhaps the map aptly captures in symbolic fashion the desperate flight from regions in its numbers alone, acting like a sort of blood splatter map on the world–although one where the wounds seem to lie in those countries that receive refugees, rather than the sites of the violence that provoked their transit.

For the greatest difficulty with the data visualization remains the remove of its narrative content from the subjective experiences of the refugees than the absorption of refugees in their new countries, and the apparent equivalence that it draws between both the proportion of refugees or the experiences of refugees from different countries.  Hence, the conspicuous inclusion of numbers of departed whose final destinations were a specific country and the foregrounding of the names of those countries that were most likely destinations in the developed world–the United States, Canada, France, and Sweden among them–several countries were a sharply xenophobic ultra-right has been recently recognized as on the rise. Take, for instance, the dispersion or draining of Syrian populations, which despite its orderly symmetry offers only a stripping of data to approximate the ongoing struggles on its disintegrating borders.  During the recent Civil War, some 11.6 million people, almost half of its entire population, have been displaced, half arriving in Egypt, and only a relatively fortunate few arriving in European or industrialized/westernized nations.  Representing the length of time required for resettlement would at least be a surrogate and index for the nature of the experience of refugees that would be a possibly more ethical model for mapping displacement than the dispersion of the Syrian population on simple arcs–without notation of how many displaced Syrians remain, and omit the distortion suggested below of a smoothly engineered migration from refugee camps.

 

Syrian refugee displacement New York Times

 

5.  The infographic maps but one corner of the dilemma of global refugees.  One way that the infographic must be read is in dialogue of the as-yet limited reactions of advanced economies to the growing global refugee crisis, to be sure, at a time when it may make less sense to retain the attitudes of protectionism and fears of immigration, evident in the expansion of only 70,000 refugees to the United States during Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 on the basis of “humanitarian concerns” as “in the national interest,” and the retention of limits of admissions in accordance with clear ceilings for each region.  For does such an imposition of such ceilings come to terms with the global desperation felt by the displaced?

admissions of refugees--refugee resettlement assistance FY 2015

White House

There is an obligation to come to terms with the steep fears of immigration and better help readers better wrestle with the plight of the displaced.

An untold understory of the infographic that is less evident in the image used in this post’s header is the considerable concentration of a huge proportion of refugees–some 85% by the count of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees–in one specific geographic region, and the lack of resources that are effectively able to be devoted to these refugees’ fates.  (And this may well be an underestimation of population flows among the internally displaced.)  The majority congregate in regions running from Turkey to Southeast Asia, past Ethiopia to Kenya and the Central African Republic, although one imagines that the displaced in Ukraine are just absent from the dataset, and less able to be accurately measured by the UN numbers.  The region populated by millions of displaced is circled by dotted lines below.  In each of these regions, most relatively impoverished, refugees are often exchanged among countries with limited resources to process compelling human needs–for example, Ethiopia holds  665,000 refugees from Somalia and South Sudan–where they are bound to press further upon limited existing resources and fragile economies.

85% refugees

 

What will be the result of these interconnections–and whether they won’t demand far greater global interconnectedness–is not clear.

But the ongoing expansion of refugees in areas where there is no clear governmental or administrative organization will prove especially difficult to map adequately, despite the compelling nature of the “Recent Trends” visualization, such trends are poised to expand in future years, especially from Ukraine as well as Syria and Myanmar.

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations New York Times

It seems most likely that, at some level, the data visualization of the destinations of refugees as seeking asylum from their country of origin unconsciously records how far we have come from the optimism of picturing the possibility of global unity the United Nations auspiciously hoped to inaugurate in 1946–by the agency which compiled the UNHCR database.

600px-Emblem_of_the_United_Nations.svg

 

6.  There is a significant difficulty, of course, in mapping refugees and the increased clustering of camps that they create in so-called demilitarized border zones.  For each image condenses multiple narratives that one wishes one could tease out, but confronts an image in which one sees limited apparent possibility of resolution save further instability. South Sudan possessed some of the greatest emergency of the refugees of modern times and the twenty-first century both in the some 700,000+ asylum-seeking refugees in neighboring countries at most recent count and one and a half million plus internally displaced persons (IDP’s) within its fragile boundaries, many driven by intense food shortages as well as by an increasingly militarized and fearful situation:  almost a third of the country’s population lack food.  Emergency refugee activities have haven mapped in South Sudan from 2012.  Even as the subsequent refugee crisis generated in the Syrian Civil War has further pressed credulity, South Sudan exemplifies a refugee situation spun out of control with no clear resolution, before which one stares at the map agape,–almost conscious of the continuing inadequacy of ever resolving its narrative in the immediate future.  Back in 2012, UNHCR helpfully mapped refugee settlements (camps) and clusters of individual refugees–denoted in the second map of South Sudan below by inverted triangles; refugee settlements are shown by pink houses–spread both to camps in Ethiopia, and less organized communities on the borders of poor (and undeveloped) countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Central African Republic, states with their resources already spread thin.

 

images-16 Refugee Camps and Refuggees around South Sudan Aug 2012 2012 Sudan map legend

UNHCR By 2013, the number of displaced was combined with arrivals of those displaced from nearby areas and states:

 

1930_1366189226_province-orientale-january-2013

 

By 2014, about three-quarters of a million displaced persons were displaced and 4.9 million were in need of assistance as the borders continued to be particularly permeable and fear drove displaced persons out of the country:

 

179514-ECDM_20140318_SouthSudan_Refugees

 

The continued displacement of refugees has only grown considerably during 2015, with increased fighting in South Sudan and the Upper Nile states, at the same time as water and sanitation has continued to deteriorate across the region.  Spurring the possibility for increased refugees, food insecurity of food has grown–as food grows more scarce–in ways that the visualization leaves silent but might provide a telling under-map of the flow of refugees across increasingly fragile borders, in situation maps that foreground departure and the failure of containment within civil society.  Such maps obscure the systemic problems that are bound to make the tally of refugee counts only tic higher over time, perhaps, which might be revealed in deeper layers to suggest the levels of instability that afflict the region. One telling map to compare reveals the increasingly imperiled aquifers and drastically declining availability groundwater.

If we consider the drought to be located in California’s central Valley–a thin orange strip by the Pacific Ocean–the decrease in groundwater NASA satellites have mapped over the past decade quite dramatically extends across the Sudd Basin and Lower Chad Basin in Africa and the entire Nubian Aquifer System and the Congo Basin–as it groundwater shortages has drastically grown across the Arabian aquifer and Indus Basin over the same time.  Water is not the sole issue here, of course, but the unrest that scarcity provokes demands mapping, and GIS visualization, as a layer below the civil society, which in much of Africa and regions without and which never saw the need for infrastructures of water transport is no doubt particularly acute.

 

Global Water Storage 2003-13 legend UC Irvine

 

The consequences of depleted aquifers and groundwater across the Lake Chad Basin, Sudd Basin and the Nubian Aquifer System (NAS)–the greatest body of fresh water in the Nile basin,  and Congo Basin have provoked a catastrophe of global proportions, while we returned to the possibilities of the contagious spread of Ebola across the world as if it were the sole apocalypse on our mental radar for much of the past year. The rise of fatal–or near-fatal–the expansion of those attempting to flee food shortages and declining economies in Africa have appeared in or occasioned increasing news reports from the western media, as Italians have called in increasingly strident tones for all of Europe to turn its attention to focus on the flight of refugees in the Mediterranean ocean–which the Italian navy can barely respond to in adequate manner, and create a web across the Mediterranean simplified in the red routes below.  Already the most “deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants” in 2012, the refugee crisis intensified in 2014–often encouraged by human traffickers who deceptively promise perilous passage that is often not followed through, perhaps making this current year–2015–the most deadly in recent memory for those attempting the crossing in ships as they flee humanitarian disasters in Libya in ways that have only begun to be quantified and mapped.

 

GUARDIAN MAPS MEDITERREANEAN MIGRATION ROUTESThe Guardian

 

01_Mediterranean-Sea

 

85188.adapt.676.2 National Geographic

 

The complex story of tragedy and loss that the map conceals is difficult to communicate in conventional cartographical forms, as the each circle represents the suspected or confirmed loss of human passengers.

 

mediterranean-460-1 New York Times

 

One understory to this migration, without doubt, is the huge refugee crisis across the Sub-Saharan continent, where 15 million have been displaced in the past year alone:

 

15 million displaced in sub-Saharan Africa

The “refuge flows” are oddly almost not with a human face, as if they seem a triangular exchange of goods.  As we map refugee traffic in a manner that suggests that the flows of people are removed from a dynamics of struggle on the ground, but guided by an invisible hand or able to be imagined as a coherent network of flow, as if they at times arrive and depart from the same place, we lose a sense of the human costs of the deep scars that they draw over the surface of the inhabited world.

 

Global Trends in Displacement: Destinations But these overlapping and crisscrossed waves of displacement, if terribly difficult to disentangle, are compressed into so many misleadingly orderly arcs:  their stark form and geometric curvature elided or erasef the struggle, or indeed desperation, that we know companies the experiences of all refugees, and show an image of migration that may be as good as it gets. It surely sends an alarm about the status and state of the stateless refugees forced to flee their homes that forces us to negotiate our own relation to the changed face of the world.  But its curved red lines decisively and assertively arrogate the numbers of those who have sought asylum into smoothly completed arcs in an oddly unproblematic way, given the scarcity of solutions at hand.

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