Category Archives: US-Mexico Border

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.

 

 

Fence:Wall Trump

 

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

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.

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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

Mapping Migrants’ Deaths along National Divides

Mortality is mapped to gain a grasp of geographical distributions of illnesses over space.  The mapping of death helps to embody the pathways of disease, and allow us to see otherwise inapparent vectors of transmission, which have historically provided crucial ways to assign meanings to a disease’s effects and pathways.  Even before the bacillus of a disease might be known or seen, the founder of modern epidemiology, John Snow, critiqued miasmatic theories of contagion by mapping the distribution with which cholera spread across London neighborhoods during the 1854 London epidemic, visualizing the disease as a social network of contagion by a dot map of neighborhood outbreaks that used a dot map to as proof that “nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump” whose water was a vector of transmission.  Far lesser incidence of deaths form cholera near other street-pumps provided a new way to grasp infection and disease.

 

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The dot map of the deaths of migrants creates no such clear distribution, and has no sense of transmission form a single site.  But it forces us to acknowledge the deep problems of the criminalization of immigration on the Mexican-US frontier by charging its human costs.  The sites of mortality from hunger and thirst are tragically dispersed over a far great undefined space, but embody the human costs of existing border policy.   Bodies of migrants that were stopped during the course of their attempts to reach a new life in the US were clustered at a distance from the border but reveal the amazing distances many undocumented migrants travel before they collapse, without food, and most often out thirst and dehydration–in ways that force the viewer to scrutinize its mute surface of dots against a deceptively pastel base map in hopes to glean the stories of the individual migrants whose lives ended far earlier than necessary, and the stories of whose travails and travels can never be told, and is reduced to the finality of a bright red dot, arresting attention but disarmingly flat.  Over 2,000 dead migrants whose bodies were retrieved at a significant distance from the border suggest their desperation to make their way across the border by clandestine routes, and the extreme climactic difficulties that they face, with few adequate provisions for crossing deserts whose expanse they feel forced to travel to search for jobs–and increasingly by risking their lives to do so.  This is only a fraction of those who have actually died attempting to travel north, leaving detritus and lost objects in their wake that only beg deciphering as images.  For although their overlap suggest something like a clustering that might belong to an external infective agent, the alarming nature of the red points call attention to the human costs–and the anonymity of lives lost–that are the victims of the intense dangers of border-crossing that migrants accept and undergo, who we have forced to accept and risks of dehydration, heat stroke, hyperthermia, and starvation which have killed them.

 

GIS Mapping of Individual Deaths on Arizona Border

 

The attempts of art students schooled in techniques of facial reconstruction at the New York Academy of Art to use artistic abilities in the service of forensic reconstruction to preserve the faces of migrants, in a new project that seeks to restore dignity to these victims of the border, if not to hope to bring them back to life, offers a broader context than the poetic detritus that have been encountered along the border, preserved in terrifyingly mute photographs of isolated commodities migrants left in their wake.

Richard Misrach

 

The terrifying distribution of migrants’ deaths near to the US-Mexico border over the past decade are difficult to confront.  While he border is a line, the deaths are not able to be tied to one place, or vector of location, but congregate along the border, from which they bleed into the edge of the nation in ways that strikes one in the gut, following the paths of those who have risked passage across the desert, alone or in groups.  Their striking distribution in a set of overlapping red dots suggest the accumulation of a terrifying loss of life that have been the costs of globalization and of closing borders to immigration.  The attempt to invest these terrifying deaths with some sense of a proper funeral and form of remembrance are suggested in the project of the identification of the dead that appear only as point data to which the decomposed remains of migrants are so often reduced.  And in some sense, the attempts at facial reconstruction of those who have been killed during the experience of transborder flight is attempted in the exercise of facial reconstruction, which as if in an improvised transformation of the art studio to a morgue confers some sense of dignity to the dead, whose faces look out at us, if stripped of names.

 

00forensics2-superJumbo.jpgNew York Academy of Art Classes/Vincent Tullo/New York Times

 

The restoration of identity to these remains, as migrant deaths continue to escalate, are an attempt to call attention to the actual enormities of the scale of migrant deaths of those attempting to cross into the nation since 2001, and online posting of these clay images in NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System of the National Institute of Justice, but barely skim the surface of the almost 3,000 remains of migrants that have been discovered and geolocated in the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative.  But how such a growth of deaths can be embodied–and the ethics of doing so–remains a pressing and compelling question as the numbers of deaths of migrants continues to grow, even as we are told that attempted border crossings decline.

The deaths of these deceased migrants–not only “undocumented” but stripped of identity save the story of the terrifying circumstances of their deaths, often able to be reconstructed,  raise compelling questions about how we have allowed or tolerated the multiplication of the deaths of migrants who undertake cross-border transit to grow.  For there is a clear inhumanity of compelling migrants to undertake arduous voyages across long, uninhabited stretches of land and undue difficulties that demands to be confronted, and we are forced to come to terms with their loss, if only to ask about the absence of any assistance that was offered to them, and the extreme isolation of such attempts at concealed travel that is something of the analogy to the underground railroad in which African American slaves followed the course of stars to navigate northward on food.

The maps invite us to with the scale of the loss of life and a universal problem of processing the undocumented, and compel us to try to arrive at a better process for managing the nation’s borders, based less on strategies of exclusion:   one is left silent trying to process the 2,000 corpses of migrants who died attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States–many found in different states of decomposition in the Sonora desert near Arizona‘s borderline with Mexico.  For the pathways of many migrants trying to circumvent increased border patrols has transformed the lands of many state counties into killing fields.  The recent plans to augment the place of stationed surveillance agents along the border by Donald Trump will not only compel more cross-border transits to be planned and accomplished, but place undue duress on the even greater difficulties to evade surveillance in the expanded borderlands through the interruptions of built boundary walls, and those who attempt to avoid apprehension or detection by travels through the desert.

 

1:3 border is fenced  NPRAlready Built Barriers and Walls (2013)

 

Misrach, Border SignsRichard Misrach

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Filed under border barriers, GIS, mortality maps, US Border Patrol, US-Mexico Border