Category Archives: US-Mexico Border

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?


Trump chose to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, in a disarmingly valedictory way, to offer a summing up of his achievements as chief executive, that combined the ceremonial fanfare with which he had visited the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, but as if he was now inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. If the visit of the U.S. President recalled the triumphal visits to sites of real estate developments, Trump announced in Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” transformed what was but a “development project” to border wall sections in either “construction or pre-construction,” situated as prominently in our national memory as the legend of The Alamo and its defense. The very structure of the wall, designed to force migrants and smugglers to be stopped for the needed time that they can be apprehended by agents of U.S. Border Patrol, demands further augmentation by a system of surveillance, and is in a sense but a gauntlet for a broader project of border security–hardly a done deal!

Trump never openly referenced the historic site of battle to defend a garrison flying “Old Betsy” by Tejano settlers. But he needed to magnify the fact that only eighty miles of the border that was walled created an obstacle to transit that did not exist. His ceremonial visit was a visit to a mythic border was a rhetorical exercise in mapping the nation, combining a real geography of the border wall with an imaginary border, rooted in Texas history–his visit might have been not to the town Alamo TX, on a symbolic level, but to the set “Alamo Village” that John Wayne had built at expense, north of Bracketville, TX, based on a 1938 commemorative map, near a fort from the old Indian Wars defended by black seminole–and foregrounded the border wall that merged a national map with a monumental line of defense. But the town near the actual US-Mexico border, itself a station of Customs & Border Protection, in Kinney County, placing the town founded to escape enslavement in the southern states that lies some forty miles form the US-Mexico border on the landscape of nativist as a major site Border Patrol has found human smuggling and arms trafficking–a site of international tension hardly visible in the terrain of the USGS topo map.

Bracketville, TX

The overlapping of border imaginaries–and the evocation of the border as a site of danger, a limit over which lay chaos and confusion, was served by the invocation of a film set in which the patriotic defense of the nation was entrusted to white men with guns, affirming that shooting straight from a multi-gauge rifle of the sort Richard Widmark used to defend the border garrison in the 190 technicolor extravaganza confirmed in semaphore that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” exponentially expanded in scale, as he conjured the danger of drug cartels, gang members, child traffickers, and coyotes in place of men bearing Mexican flags. The late addition to the western genre that glorified the use of guns for self-defense against Mexican invaders was, in a sense, the first “border” or clash of nations between Mexico and the United States, and while remembered as commemorating the first major battle for Texan independence in local state history and in the militia groups of patriots who guard the southern border, despite its little strategic consequence in the Texas Revolution, became a talisman of the defense of borders as Alamo TX was planned as a town along the post-1848 US-Mexico border as part of the patriotic frenzy of border protection after the Spanish-American War, evoking a nativist perspective on the border’s expansion dear to Wayne, a white supremacist, casting the cowboy a leading figure in the nation’s emergence.

The confluence of a spatial imaginary of the legendary line drawn in the sand, at Alamo, as a defense of the nation, the border town Alamo, the map, and a spatial imaginary of the border overlapped in Trump’s visit, in ways we would do well to understand better at the close of the Trump presidency, that has done more to map the dangerous nature of the border, far removed from the migrant, in our national imaginary. While the film set that was built close to the actual border than The Alamo in downtown San Antonio, the “open space” in the Rio Grande Valley, a long demonized as a site of cross-border migrant traffic, in need of expanded border security. Trump made building additional border barriers his central campaign promise in 2016, and he leaves office slotting a “barrier system” costing $1.375 billion in FY 2021, having built only forty miles of wall in formerly open border lands–a number some report as more like twelve–far from the “big beautiful wall” he had promised voters in 2016, to run continuously along 1,954 miles. Did the small scale of new border wall demand evoking a grandiose setting of the most famous breached wall in the nation’s memory, The Alamo? Or was The Alamo historical evidence of the right to own guns in self defense, embracing the place of firearms on the frontier and affirming that for “well-regulated militias” that patrol the border Militia, that the Second Amendment indicates “necessary to the security of a free State,” includes firearms. This Alamo was a site of nativist pride and protection, a site of the “battle between Americans in Texas and Mexican forces,” as is still taught in Texas curriculum, in a Crash Course on Manifest Destiny. If The Alamo is the regular site of staging a Fourth of July celebration, where is Alamo, TX on the mental map of nativists?

“The Alamo” (1960)

Trump’s suddenly announced border visit formally celebrated the redesign of the open space of the border by the erection of a permanent border structure, but echoed the photo ops Trump long used to announce the transactional relation of special permits and permissions for building developments in midtown Manhattan, when he came to autograph a new section of reinforced concrete. He joined by his long-time friends, the Border Patrol members, instead of the New York officials who arrived for breaking ground for a new skyscraper or luxury complex, but the visit featured as part of a “Promises Kept” tour suggested a triumphal tour to the limits of empire of reciprocal reinforcement, contrasting the “dysfunctional open border” he inherited to the current border wall. In visiting developments in New York City, Trump had regularly presented his latest deal for luxury developments as a victory for all New Yorkers. He fulsomely praised the concrete and rebar border wall over four hundred and fifty miles as a victory for America, despite its steep price tag, conjuring the dangers dismantling by the border wall would expose the nation. He listed dangers–much as, perhaps, those first American settlers and Tejanos faced at the valiant loss of Battle of The Alamo–ranging from human traffickers, international drug cartels, and an escalation of criminal violence as octopian tentacles of transborder dangers that the wall prevented, opposing sovereignty and “immigration chaos,” focussing most enthusiastically on the physical construction of the panels of border wall as complete, as if to conceal the chaos that had just incited in Washington, DC, enlisting a range of familiar border fantasies.

The Alamo was so often dramatized in film, as a national sacrifice on the border of the open space of the west, from D.W. Griffith’s historical drama Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) to the present, perhaps most monumentally, for Donald Trump, by the 1960 technicolor “The Alamo,” produced and directed by his very own cinematic “hero,” John Wayne, that used color film to emphasize the subject as a film about race. Trump did not address race openly, but in his words about the “open space” of the border at the Rio Grande Valley protected by Border Patrol almost invoked the border imaginary of Anglo defenders the Mexican garrison at San Francesco de Bexar known as a site of a race war against Mexican tyranny, inspired by patriotic love of liberty. Lest American women be exposed without defense to the murders and rapists Trump conjured as about to cross the borderline, and the corps of well-armed citizens and vigilante groups be disbanded, the defense of the border must be continued–“The Alamo” the movie confirmed that shooting was in American’s blood, “granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright, ” as Wayne LaPierre has put it. Most efficiently, Alamo TX must have invoked the sense of the border as a line–as a barrier in space, jumping right off of a map, with the security of a thick line of black ink, whose security obscured and outweighed the fate of migrants or the setting of borderlands.

What spatial imaginary of the border did Trump so easily suture to the nation? The considerable power of the thirteen-day siege that settlers resisted at The Alamo has for long held particular power in a spatial imaginary of the nation that has cast a long shadow of a thirteen-day battle over American expansion to the west among heroic battles of national defense. The battle was not pivotal in any way in itself in the Texas Revolution, but the martyrdom of white settlers have risen to the status of defending the nation, that Trump has proposed the central character John Wayne performed to occupy a central role in the National Garden of American Heroes of the “giants of our past” to “show that America is a land of heroes”–even if the Garden of statuary of Confederate figures, James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Theodore Geissel, Christopher Columbus, and Alex Trebek will probably never be built. Psychologist Mary Trump, Donald’s niece, who has spent considerable time but not more than the rest of us pondering and trying to clarify her uncle’s psychology, harbored no doubts that the President was more familiar with the idea of The Alamo as a heroic movie of border defense, than anything about its place in American history, the agreement to visit the U..S. Border Patrol in Alamo TX was not only to celebrate the victory that he did win over Joe Biden in border towns. It was a deeply transactional relation to Border Patrol, who had long endorsed his candidacy, and regain stability days after the Siege of the Capitol, to deliver a final Presidential performance with men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol. He triumphantly returned to the theme of order and showcased the future need for national order at the international US-Mexico border, rather than the process of Presidential impeachment or the insurrectionary siege of the Capitol by members of his base, with the encouragement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and other supporters of second amendment rights.

Donald Trump's life in pictures Photos - ABC News
Donald Trump unveils New York Hyatt with Mayor Ed Koch, Governor Hugh Carey, Robert T. Dormer of the Urban Development Corp
June 28, 1978/Associated Press
Donald Trump's life in pictures Photos - ABC News
Donald Trump and Mayor Rudy Giuliani Break Groundbreak for Trump International Hotel,/AP
June 21, 1995

Trump was reminding the base that he stood for order, after the disorder of the insurrection he had fomented in Washington, DC. The optics of authority were important, and the border wall had to be foregrounded as a prop of his leadership as never before. So often had Trump evoked the border wall for his base as the grounds for his election that he seem to have responded to the sense of a gaping hole in the demands of the Border Patrol in America. Barack Obama joked with some desperation in 2011, exasperated after appeasing Republicans, that if the border barriers at El Paso, TX were “basically complete,” They’ll want want a higher fence—maybe they’ll need a moat! Maybe they want alligators in the moat!” Trump in 2019 adopted that very cinematic fantasy, per Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration, by seeking cost estimates to stock a trench with alligators to ward off migrants from border-crossing to end cross-border flow on what he saw as his property, gloriously removed referential data to place. A moat may have been the ideal image of stoppage by terror, not rooted in place, but conveying the bravura of a builder. As the image gained currency in photoshopped images, Trump was furious at his staff, convinced a leak had occurred that held him up to ridicule. “You are making me look like an idiot! I ran on this. This is my issue!”

It was his issue, but enlisting aquatic reptiles was implausible in an arid desert –even if some speculated that the subsidies to Florida alligator breeders would secure the state’s votes. The planning of an adequately prohibitive trench opened the President to a range of questions about the feasibility of a border wall, and suddenly opened the project to ridicule–as the visit to Alamo opened speculation that Rudy Giuliani would join Donald Trump at the Alamo car rental agency at an airport in Texas. But the visit would showcase front lines of border protection by Border Patrol, the foot soldiers to stop migrant transit, and this time: in Alamo, the sheer concrete of the border wall existed at a real place–if “Alamo” was more evocative in the national imagination as a reminder of the perpetual vulnerability of the border as much as its defense. Trump visited the border wall to restore dignity to the office which he was leaving in disgrace–far less gracefully than he had departed NBC after fifteen seasons of The Apprentice. If affirmed as a law and order President beside the officers of Customs and Border Protection. If the moat caricatured border protection in photoshopped images, Trump wanted to promote the remaking of the Mexican-American boundary reveled as no fantasy game of alligators extending on a thousand-mile lazy river leading to the Rio Grande, but an occasion to praise heroes “who risk their lives every day to protect our families and our country” in a scared duty that compared to the patriotic moment of border defense at The Alamo mission, in the heroic adventure film of John Wayne, set in San Antonio,–even if that shrine to the nation lay a full two hundred and twenty miles north, or three and a half hour by car, and about eight days by foot—or summoned he movie set that John Wayne had built for “The Alamo,” far closer to the actual US-Mexican border.

Trump magnified the border wall as a monument to the nation by a place-name able to evoke the image of national defense over a thirteen-day siege by foreign forces, transcended its role in the creation of Texas, or Texian pride, as a defense of flying the American flag as an icon of continental destiny and hemispheric dominance, monumentalized as an American Thermopylae, preserving American democracy and the expansive rule of American destiny before a Mexican threat, as Thermopylae turned all Greeks against the invading Persians. The status of the mission as a shrine to Texas martyrs and the struggle of liberty against Mexican tyranny gained a patriotic consensus ruffled when Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbit–later Interior Secretary–scoffed at The Alamo in 1979 not as a national monument, but “symbol of the problem in our relationship with Mexico” as a nation–a view that Mexican-Americans saw as epitomizing a paternalistic relaiton to Mexico. For while it is continued to be commemorated as “a sacred symbol to Texans and an extension of the American ideal–but to Mexico it’s a symbol of territory lost, a nation plundered by overbearing gringo neighbors.” Nonetheless, the heroism of the defense of the garrison was returned to in television films from the 1987’s The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory, the 1988 IMAX spectacle Alamo: The Price of Freedom; and in John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo–that elevated the national identity of America in terms of a struggle against Mexican culture and authority.

The major television dramas of the battle from the 1980s foregrounded the role of Mexican Tejano members in the Texan army, dislodging The Alamo from the race battle John Wayne staged, even if as many black settlers–enslaved, to be sure–died in the battle but are omitted from its list of martyrs as Seguín heroically rejects Mexican tyranny, more than Tejano identity; foregrounding the contribution of the insurrectionist Captain Juan Seguín, Travis’ partner in insurrection, in the filmed versions of the border battle from the 1980s reflects an effort to foreground Tejano diversity, but enlisted Mexicans as heroes of The Alamo led many to reject conscribing Mexican protagonists as defenders an American ideal of nationhood in an event that stripped Mexico of territory in a narrative whose “master symbol serves as a critical map for the exploitation and displacement of Mexicans” and triumphant narrative of American expansionism.

While The Alamo was not even a critical battle in the Texan Revolution, compared to others, the dramatic conceit of a forging of the nation naturalized a rights-based myth of the claiming of American identity by a line in the sand at the same time as the US-Mexican border was defined . The ongoing nature of a threat to American liberties and democracy was channeled in a visit to Alamo, TX. Never mind that the that the Texian insurrection at a munitioned garrison was in Mexico: the siege raised by Mexican forces of General Antonio López de Santa Anna may have even glorified the moment of insurrection to the groups that had contributed to the insurrection at the White House, known as the Capitol Siege, echoing the admiration and sympathies Trump had declared to the insurrectionists, who might find precedent for their own invasion of a joint session of congress in the insurrectionists and anti-federalists of the past. On the eve of increased buzz among far right extremists in the United States of renewed interest in staging disruptive events during the incoming Presidency and inauguration, even the slightest reference to glorifying the thirteen-day insurrection as a national defense broadcast messages. Was the insurrection holding of ground not a national defense against against all odds? The valiant attempt to hold the fort dignified an insurrection quelled by Mexico’s army to give it a centrality as a patriotic defense of national constitutional liberties. But the siege only acquired patriotism as it was reinvented as the cry of patriotic injunction to “Remember the Alamo!” to rally troops and revolutionaries in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48–its patriotic cry reverberated in the jingoist “Remember the Maine!” launched to start the Spanish-American War, just before Alamo TX was founded after World War One.

The place of “The Alamo” in the national memory was effectively inscribed on the border town, founded shortly after the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor was taken as a grounds for declaration of war. The declaration of war promoted by the Hearst newspapers’ yellow journalism used the very jingoist terms that the foundation of the Texas border town embodied by summoning memories of national offense and pride, born of the increased trafficking of patriotism that almost bore the imprint of Hearst newspapers. And although San Antonio was a site of American illegal immigration into Mexico, far from the current border wall, its commemoration of alleged rights of independence in the border town geographically removed from The Alamo reminded us of the power of mythic enlistment of an ideal of national defense, echoing the notion defending national ideals encouraged just days earlier when the Capitol building was seized for four hours–and would have in 1905 commemorated the national defense of the border at the “new” border town.

Was the image of The Alamo insurrection in San Antonio, a shrine of national memory glorified by white supremacists and Texan militia, a confirmation of the place of insurrections in a defense of national territory?

Distance of The Alamo from Alamo TX, by Car

This time, the President wanted to remind the base, the place existed, the wall was rooted in space. Trump wanted to share a moment of bonding with Border Patrol that might moreover root the border wall visit in a moment of national memory. And what better way than by evoking a sacralized site of American history at The Alamo, recalling a distant siege of 1836 that some might see as the origins of the Border Patrol, or the first defense of a southern border on Texan land,–if not the transformation from Tejas, the Mexican state, to Texas in defending the garrison in San Antonio, if not the blood shed by the defense of territorial claims of Tejanos that were commemorated in patriotic cries of United States soldiers who defended American sovereignty over Texas?

The critically foreshortened perspective on the US-Mexico border, and indeed on the border wall, have a long pedigree, whose genealogy might be said to begin from The Alamo, if not the perpetuation of the Alamo myth as a staking of rights to hold land–and, as it happens, to seize munitions and pistols at a fortified garrison. The preservation of the place of The Alamo as a mythic site for standing one’s ground on a line drawn in the sand–a legend without basis in historical fact–testifies to the history of the mutability of the US-Mexico border which was, of course, not firmly defined as a latitude before the two hundred and seventy-six obelisks were set in the ground to mark the US-Mexico border in 1848, after the US-Mexico War fought to define the southern perimeter of the nation–long before the idea of a “border fence” or “border boundary.”

When David Taylor undertook in 2006 to document the boundary markers that were result of the Mexican-American war, he used them to move along the landscape he knew in his native Arizona across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. His photographs capture the space that this early borderline created, in ways that make sense to re-examine after the increased spectacularity of the border wall’s rebuilt complex. Taylor’s project began before the militarization of the border by the United States and capture monuments that describe an almost surreal relation to place in 276 views of the border the art practice offers a snapshot that froze and preserved each border monument before the inevitable progress of militarization of the boundary as a security complex in the Trump years. Taylor’s corpus of monumentalism suggest the reduced monumentality of the first survey of the border, taken in the boundary line surveyed after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, remembered for having purchased rights to run the border and cede California Alta, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and much of Arizona to the gringo for $15 million, “in consideration of the extension acquired by the boundaries of the United States”–before expanding allocation of resources to fortifying those boundaries that almost destroyd the border landscape.

View from Emorys Monument South, Looking West along the Parallel of 38°20

The jointly qualitative and quantitative project of surveying that was a testament to the skill of deploying a national surveying team along treacherous terrain, engaging astronomers, cartographers, mountaineers, and artists, often the veterans of the US-Mexico War, was a massive national project of sovereign aggression, cementing the map to the land by assembling piles of rocks, cairns completed in 1852 but later replaced by obelisks every to to four miles apart to be able to be seen by an individual line of sight, transforming the arbitrary line to a the landscape. Given the difficulty of “tracing upon the ground” the boundary negotiators of the treaty concluded, the essentially arbitrary line was to be surveyed, measured and drawn on the very ground, to make the arbitrary line manifest as a part of the landscape, transforming what was a line in the sand across two thousand miles “to cement the words on the page and the line in the sand . . . both legally and physically.” Obelisks situated on the border in the 1890s long formed a permeable space marked by a sequence of obelisks, each in visble proximity to one another, make the survey manifest in the landscape.

David Taylor, from Working the Line: Border Monument 2-3, November 2012, west of El Paso/lat 31°47.032’. long 106°32.239’

The obelisks later affirmed as a patriotic point of reference from which flew flags marking territorial claims, but which increasingly look antiquated, a past notion of open-ness that the border barriers built beside them obstruct, and in a sense overshadow, as they create a protective barrier in place of a permeable membrane.

David Taylor, Working the Line: Boundary Monument No. 210, 2009

When Donald Trump ran for President on the promise to expand the border as a monitory wall, the border was already militarized, but expanding the investment in a border infrastructure to solidifed in the national imaginary and memory. Announcing a visit to Alamo as he left office sought to recognize the militarization of the border and the threat of its breaching simultaneously, by evoking without every having to the memory of the loss of The Alamo, and the conquest of the border, by creating an imaginary continuity in the historical militarization of this border line. Donald Trump, a huge fan of John Wayne, whose birthplace he visited int eh Iowa Caucuses of 2015, when running for President, must have remembered the stirring defense of the nation that was imagined in the 1960 historical epic, “The Alamo,” where Crockett shoots as many Mexican soldiers as he can, before his ammunition is exhausted, in his defense of a “line in the sand” for the conceit of a Republic. The visit that promotec the defense by Tejano soldiers of the garrison in San Antonio, then a border town to the Mexican interior of the Mexican state of Texas, evoked the myths of claimed sovereignty by an early historical imaginary of a line in the sand, commemorated in historical epics of the American cinema. For American films from D.W Griffith’s Martyrs of the Alamo to John Wayne’s technicolor epic magnified the patriotism of the defense of a racialized line in the sand that evoked the nation over the region. The defenders of the garrison commandeered by Tejans never agreed to defend a line in the sand–nor did their leader, Lt. Col. William Barrett Travis, even draw one–the image of a “line” that emerged by 1873 in printed accounts of The Alamo, that mythologized the siege as a defense of a Texan state, evoked the boundary of the 1848 Treaty as a line that the fort’s defender drew with unsheathed sword on the old Mission’s grounds.

“Legend states in 1836, Lt. Col William Barret Travis unsheathed his sword and drew a line on the ground before his battle-weary men”

The nineteenth-century American migrants who fought to reclaiming what they understood as their Constitutional rights would, after all, lead the United States to recognize Texas as a state in 1845, and defend Texas’ southern borderline. While the vision of the a moat filled with alligators seemed a flight of fancy, the reference to another Alamo seemed rooted in space, if it was not exactly geotagged. By evoking the myth of border vulnerability, bravery, and militarized valor in one of his final public appearances as President, Trump celebrated his creation of a wall in “this great outdoor space” in what he called only recently “a broken, dysfunctional open border.” The implicit message that it might soon devolve as an open border–and “the most secure border in U.S. history” might soon be breached. While “we got it done” to meet the letter of the request of the U.S Border Patrol, “the completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” what was a “development project” in either “construction or pre-construction,” the border wall system must remain, Trump implied, a part of the Texas geography as central as The Alamo itself. While he pronounced the border wall complete, enshrining it in a nationalist, the section at Alamo was always in danger of reverting to the dangers evoked in the diorama of thousands of Mexican soldiers attacking its walls that lies in The Alamo in San Antonio, able to be evoked, without even naming it, in his audience’s minds.

Diorama of The Battle of the Alamo

This, at least, seemed a real place–and seemed the conclusion of a history where the walls of the Alamo were besieged and new walls, truly unbreachable, existed at Alamo TX, in their memory. The ruins of the fort that were a shrine to national memory had provided a living memory to the nation, preserved in the oppositional terms that they had been recorded in the diary of the member of the volunteer Revolutionary Army of Texas, Dr. John Barnard, as the very Mission and church whose masonite walls were stormed as “the foes of liberty came and dealt death and destruction to all around.” They site of pillage would be claimed by a Mexican army that had “exulted in their carnage and gloried in the conquest of a handful of brave men, who overpowered by numbers, fell as those heroes of old did Thermopylae,” where 7,000 Greeks had held off what were said to be a million Persian invading troops in ancient three-day battle that had raged in a mountain pass. The topos of invasion had cast the Alamo as itself a divide where the Texian revolutionaries held the garrison that had fallen, but was preserved in popular and national memory something akin to the early wall–the line that, legend had it, the commander of the garrison, Cl. Travis, traced in the sand with his sword, as he asked fellow-defenders to choose to defend “in freedom’s cause” or to accept the surrender to General Santa Anna demanded. If historical legend has it that all but one of the “heroic defenders” still commemorated in Texas High School history books had chose to defend, their canonization as martyrs was enshrined in the adoption of the battle charge “Remember the Alamo!” to among Texan Revolutionaries, revived in the defense of Texas’ southern boundary in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and the Spanish-American war.

Just three years after The Alamo was retaken, before American forces had occupied Mexico to provoke the United States-Mexican war, Mitchell’s Family Atlas had mapped Texas as lying outside Mexican sovereignty, a decade before the state entered the union, four years before Mexico’s foreign minister warned Washington that annexation of Texas as a state would be an act of war–even if cotton production in Texas had encouraged the extension of slavery, competing with plantations in southern states for pricing their primary cash crop.

While the defense of the United States’ new southern boundary after the annexation of Texas by Congress, as the military occupation of the territory led Mexico to sever relations with the United States government, the State of Texas was mapped as Anglo land grants above the Rio Grande (or Rio Brava), during the Texas Revolution, against longitude from Washington, DC according to acts of the U.S. Congress, as Texas militia invoked The Alamo decades before the United States’ southern border officially extended to the Rio Grande.

San Antonio was far from the southern border, but as a crucial trading post to the Mexican interior, and trading post, the city where the Alamo lay was a The mythic line for holding ground against the Mexican forces was never drawn by defenders of the garrison at the Mission whose masonite walls afforded a border outpost and fortress; but the line was mythologized in the service of the defense of a longitudinal boundary line, and is commemorated for all visitors to the Alamo, a shrine to revolutionaries as the site of burial of its defenders, marked by a bronze rod inset in paving stones twenty feet before the church’s door, as a line that Texian separatists pledged to defend to the death until they exhausted their supply of canon balls and bullets. The line, even if it does not commemorate an actual place, and was never drawn, has been enlisted in a project of national memory in a celebratory history of the start of “the geopolitical structure of the Americas” and an exclusion of Mexican history and Mexican memory from the map, as it inscribed a myth of belonging to the occupiers of The Alamo, and their defense of a territory which we imagine we vicariously continue: the naming of the city of Alamo at the entrance to the Rio Grande Valley, in Hidalgo County, was named after the shrine of Texan liberty in San Antonio, as it lay just north of the US-Mexico border.

The place-name not only erases Mexican presence from the Rio Grande valley at a place where the river regularly overflowed its bounds, but reduces the wilderness wildlife refuge that abuts the border, the lush region still fed by seasonal overflow of the Rio Grande in an area of massive water diversion, one of the few areas in the region amid cleared lands where flooding was curbed by settlers, an ecological niche for migrating birds. If the memory of The Alamo was an erasure of Mexican land claims in Texas up to the border, the expansion of levees, concrete panels, and border wall system would erase delicate avian habitat along the Rio Grande or, as it is known in Mexico, the Rio Bravo has nourished. If these ecological niches were encouraged in wildlife refuges established in the 1940s, to counteract water diversion and land clearing, elevating the perspective of the border complexby imposing a perspective privileging construction of the border wall along sensitive habitat–and erasing the serpentine border that runs through the Rio Grande Valley wilderness complex–

Rio Grande No Longer? Agriculture, Development, and Border Patrol Threaten  Valley's Future - News - The Austin Chronicle
https://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2001-10-26/83444/

–privileging the fear of a “flood” of migrants over the seasonal flooding of the river that long enriched riverside “resecas” by water bearing loamy soils, through the imposition of dikes, levees, and dams for water diersion, erasing the flooding of ecoystems by clay-rich waters by expanded sheer concrete of a border wall.

Slicing a Corridor in Two: A Report from Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge  - Wildlands Network
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge - Maplets
Mobile Maplets/Refuge Wildlife Complexes

–as a grid of urban development, land clearance, and habitat destruction advances along the border, increasingly threatened by the very construction projects that have completed existing segments of border wall. The triumphalist image of the progress of construction promotes a dangerous vision of border defense, erasing the protection of sensitive habitat in wildlife refuges critical for migrating birds, privileging the fear of migrating humans above migration patterns of birds and butterflies, by imposing the perspective of the imperative of continuing the construction of further levees in the Rio Grande Valley for border wall.

Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge/Refuge Planning Documents

1. The dividing line of the bronze bar before the mission that was a garrison channels the defense of the border. The evocation of this bronze line set in The Alamo evokes a military defense of the border that imbued with sacred purpose. As the defense of the border was commemorated in the historic epic of border defense, directed and produced by John Wayne, featuring the cowboy actor massacring “invading” Mexicans in a celebration of commitment to a fateful line for the nation, the mapping of the border wall removes the edge of the nation from its environment. In ways akin to a line of longitude, maps a divide of territorial defense in the name of the nation, even if the choice to defend the garrison was made by Anglos who entered Mexico as illegal migrants, only later remembered as sacrificing their lives to assert inalienable rights: the echo of the falsification of the preservation of rights was echoed in the name of the border town Trump visited to commemorate completion of panels of a border wall designed and in the process of completion to deprived migrants of rights. And while Trump may know little American history, or is widely read in Texas history, despite the many rallies he has had in the state, U.S. Border Patrol is so keen to have the completed border wall recognized as if it were a line of national defense, that Joe Biden’s administration might allow Mexican immigrants to breach, that Trump arrived in Alamo TX.

The name of the border town is itself a commemoration of the Americanization of the Alamo–an old Mexican fortress, the Fortress of San Antonio de Valero, that has entered the nationalist lexicon of many of the militias commemoration at Alamo emphasized the primacy of a border, over a borderland, and in visiting the wall at the end of his Presidency performatively enacted a telling bond to the nation, fulfilling the fully transactional nature of his relation to the U.S. Border Patrol’ union whose board early endorsed his Presidential candidacy, thrilled by the commitment and seriousness with which he tool the construction of a border defense system. It was time for Trump to restore his sense of pride, in the days after the Siege of the Capitol, and to try and restore his sense of himself as a Law and Order President, who had promised jobs, not mobs.

Who could deny that the primal scene of the border-like invasion of the breaching of the garrison walls of a building known as The Alamo, and not the Fortress of San Antonio de Valero, was at the back of his mind, given its place in the national psyche as a site of national defense? The commemoration of the Alamo of the struggle of Fortress of San Antonio de Valero, is after all its own sort of confederate monument, commemorating the attempt of settlers from the southern states who would expand slavery to Texas, as it was established as a Republic–before joining the United States–making it the most retrograde of nations as the only one to sanction second-class status for blacks–or to deny them citizenship. In the calls for the removal and reassessment of Confederate monuments in Texas and around the nation, the Alamo is one of the most deeply racist–with national status, but little international value, and indeed an insult to Mexicans, who should see the garrison where so many lost their lives as a shrine to the Mexican nation, even if it lies in United States territory.

For The Alamo is a shrine of the agenda of white supremacy that distinguished nineteenth century Texas history, and a racially inflected line of battle, as much as a defense of the nation, which is a touchstone for gun rights activists, and even the leader of Branch Davidians, followers of a self-anointed prophet, David Koresh, who had announced the end of times, who staged a showdown with federal forces at Waco TX called a “wake-up call” for Americans akin to Waco–perhaps more apt comparison than any–and should be reassessed as a battle, historian H.W. Brands argued, as an engagement with Mexican forces that in terms of its “contribution to the strategy of the Texas Revolution was nil or negative,” rather than a turning point or watershed of local history, meriting commemoration as a national sacred shrine. The Alamo is often, however, iconographically remembered as a fortress over which flew the Gadsden Flag, recently adopted by the Alt Right and southern secessionists, white supremacists, or states rights activists, even if the Mexican soldiers who stormed its barricades to restore order in the garrison that anti-federalist Texians held for thirteen days in a stand-off had only arisen during the heady rhetoric of states’ rights, liberties to own guns, and religious freedoms that the Waco massacre itself provoked among white supremacists and white terrorists who were energized to action during the Waco siege, and which have found renewed focus among varied militia groups which grew in fears of a Hilary Clinton victory, and have  multiplied in Donald Trump’s presidency–groups with strong ties to the U.S. Border Patrol. Did Border Patrol invite Trump to Alamo to evoke the depths of their commitment to preserving the border wall, and the apocalyptic imagery of ending the wall complex defined as critical to border security?

The recent salute to the heroism of Border Patrol members at Alamo, TX was a clear reference to another cinematic fantasy of national defense, this time of sacred origin. The symbolic nature of the huge assault Santa Anna waged at The Alamo brought a massive 1,800 assault troops to lay siege to the munitioned garrison that the settlers desperately defended, resolved to hold to the end, perhaps, legend has it impelled to bravery by their commander drawing of a “line in the sand” refusing to cede land. The war ending in bloody hand-to-hand combat left dead almost all hundred and eighty nine defenders of the fort, save a few women and children gallantly allowed to leave the garrison’s besieged walls as the mission and its walls became the target of enemy canon fire to retake the garrison, earlier abandoned, in December, 1835, using canon onslaught to retake the strategic fort and its munitions, March 6, 1836.

Texas, 1836, Alamo, Manuscript Plan, Texas Revolution | Battlemaps.us
Plan of the Alamo, by José Juan Sánchez-Navarro, showing military operations of Mexican Siege on March 6, 1836 (1836)

Was the border wall a similar instance of martial valor, and, indeed was enshrined by many militias and white nationalists as a canonic turning point in the border’s defense in future histories of the American West, trying to retain a garrison filled with munitions as from its walls, as they faced canon fire on two flanks?

The construction of the border wall on the southwestern border of the nation was central to the very notion of nationhood, Trump insisted. Trump so compellingly made a central issue of his first Presidential campaign, has been showcased in his Presidency to created a wedge driven into the nation, if the border wall promised to protect national security in ways that previous administrations, for a lack of clear bearings on the situation or blinded by political incompetence that prevented them from endorsing measures of sufficient strength. “All of you people, incredible,” Trump waxed, trying to soar to patriotic heights, as he praised a secure southern border and reformed immigration system as if the border wall stood as but a synecdoche for a complex ensuring border security, prefigured, however ahistorically, in the undying defense to the end of the Alamo.

Trump was offering during his visit a new narrative of his Presidency rooted in law enforcement, not the expansion of anti-migrant hostility or escalation of violence against migrants systematically separated and detained at the border to discourage immigration in almost psychological warfare. The border wall was a synecdoche for national defense: “When I took office, we inherited a broken, dysfunctional, and open border.  Everybody was pouring in at will..  Everyone here today is part of an incredible success story.  This is a real success story.”

Instead of asking what sort of film was playing in his mind, it makes sense what sort of map he was creating for the nation. The tenor of President Trump’s somewhat valedictory visit to the border town of Alamo, TX reenacted his relation to the nation, by affirming the border not only as a boundary enforced during his Presidency to affirm the nation’s integrity. The flight down to Texas to visit the border wall at the border town Alamo in his first public appearance since the Siege of the Capitol was not only an attempt to feel, but to steal the headlines and turn the attention of the media, and, unbelievably, offer further trigger words after inciting mobs to storm the Capitol building.

The visit was Trump’s first public appearance after the nation was destabilized and shocked by the January 6 Siege–and he sought a new photo opportunity to look Presidential that restored an image of law and order long cultivated and projected onto the border and its blockage, if often from a repertory of performance more imbued in cinematic fantasy than immigration law.

January 12, 2021
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Filed under Border Patrol, border policy, border wall, Donald Trump, US-Mexico Border

The False Imperative of the Border Wall

Donald Trump’s most astounding victory–predating and perhaps enabling his astounding electoral victory as President–was to remap the mental imagination of Americans, and reconfigure proximity of the United States to its southwestern border in the public imaginary.  The goal of this insistence is no less than a remapping of civil liberties, based on his insistence of the need for border security and constructing a Border Wall, and preferably doing so in all caps.  

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Condemning “obstructionist Democrats” are the party of “open borders,” and obstructing the work of law and order agencies such as ICE–the Immigration and Customs Enforcement–agents or his beloved Border Patrol, and for filling the national need for border security, and the project of building “the wall,” a super-border structure that would both prevent cross-border migration deemed ‘illegal.’  The construction of border psychosis is evident in the large number of Republican governors of states that have been elected two years into the Trump Presidency–

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–as the question of “governing” states most all the southwestern border–save California–has created a new “block of red” that has been generalized to much of the nation, rallying behind the America First cry to defend borders, build prisons for immigrants deemed illegal, and work with federal agencies to apprehend such immigrants, denying their lawful place or rights to work in the United States.  For much of this map of governors, now that the Republican party is increasingly the Party of Trump, reveal the uncertain terrain of the undocumented immigrant, and the massive circumscription or reduction of human and civil rights, as well as a fear of failure to manage immigration.  Although current findings of sixty-nine competitive districts in the 2018 election include many border states–sixty-three districts of the total are held by Republicans before the election, a considerable number of the “battleground states” lying near or adjacent to the planned Border Wall, according to a Washington Post-Schar School survey

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–where calls for wall-building originated.  The magnification of the border in the electorate’s collective consciousness was a gambit of electoral politics and staple of the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and it conjured the unprecedented idea that a single President–or any office-holder–might be able to shift the borders of the nation, or guarantee their impermeability to foreign entrance.  The striking appeal of the border was not seen as a question of border protection but rather the construction of a wall, evident in the expansion quasi-tribal collective rhythmic changes at rallies, now repeated as if in a non-stop campaign.  Although the focus of most buildup of the border has been to update existing fencing, the calls for fix-it-all border protection plans gained sufficient appeal to suggest a potential shift in the nation’s political terrain.  Even though Donald J. Trump was, for practical purposes, a quite parochial perspective based in New York and Manhattan, and perhaps because Trump’s own expertise in national building projects was as limited as with working within the law, the project was first floated by the candidate as if from the sidelines of national politics, treating the project as akin to protecting a two-mile southbound side of the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan, beside his pet real estate project, Trump Place, at 220 Riverside Drive, through an Adopt-A-Highway Project, and that the border wall was essentially the same need of securing .  (Although the prominent sign was itself quickly vandalized to read “STOP TRUMP”  as Trump won the Presidency, needing to be replaced, the return of the defaced sign promising the riverfront side’s maintenance was far less an act of good citizenship than a vanity act.)

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New York City limits the Adopt-a-Highway program to individuals, companies or organizations, rather than to political candidates and campaigns seeking publicity, but since the Trump Organization maintained the section since 2007 or earlier, it gained an exemption–and a tax write-off for its contributions to maintenance.  And when he spoke to residents of the territory currently known as “America,” Trump seems to have treated the proposed Border Wall as an almost similar project of beautification, and a project of protecting what was his, in a proprietorial way that seemed to conflate his own identity and person with the country, as the current sign conflates his name with the Trump Organization, as his recommendations have contained as little familiarity with the site, scope of the project, or terrain, as many have noted, treating the construction of a continuous border wall as a detail designed to beautify the country, even though the border includes 1,288 miles currently without any pedestrian or vehicular fencing, gate or protection.

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It almost seems that the proposed border wall had not been “mapped” per se, so much as it was a rhetorical promise for the sort of project Trump would like a President to do–and a project whose magnitude appealed to his sense of personal vanity.  He praised the benefits of the construction of the wall as a need to “get it done” and imperative that responds to a state of emergency–a national emergency that sanctioned the suspension of existing laws.  The emergency, as Trump saw it, was created by crime, gang violence by MS-13 members, who he has called “animals,” and a source for a loss of low-wage jobs.  The acknowledgment of the need for the wall is virtually a form of patriotism in itself; recognition of the need for the country has become a way to participate in a new nationalism of strong borders–a nationalist sense of belonging that was opposed to the agenda of those unnamed Liberals without clear purchase on the geopolitical dangers and a failure to put America First.  President Trump has argued that the “larger context of border security” necessitates the wall.  Trump has come to repeatedly proclaims in his continued rallying cry stake out a new vision and map of American sovereignty, and indeed of territorial administration.  Evoking a new tribalism in openly partisan terms, Trump even promoted with impunity the false belief that Democrats have united behind an “Open Borders Bill,” written by Dianne Feinstein–distorting the #EndFamilyDetemtion protests and “open borders movement” with an actual legislative bill.  More to the point, perhaps,

The very crude geography and mental mapping that animates this argument is repeatedly a staple of Trumpian rhetoric.  As if  thick red ruled line could be drawn atop a map, Donald J. Trump has become the outsider political voice able, as a builder of vain monuments, to claim the ability to build a new structure able to replace existing border fences, and provide a continuous monument at endless concealed costs, without any acknowledgement of the people who have long moved across the border on the ground.   The transposition of this tribalism of border separation into a partisan dichotomy has promoted and provoked an apparently Manichean opposition between political parties around the defense of the US-Mexico border, and the building of a Border Wall, in an attempt to define the differences between Democrats and Republicans around the issue of the defense of national safety.

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President Trump has not only made immigration into a platform for his campaign and for his party:  the stubbornly intransigent logic of Trump’s oppositional rhetoric has not only remapped the nation in mind-numbing ways.  The fixation on the fixity of the border as a means to “Make America Great Again” erases the historical instability of borderlands in the United States, in its place projecting the image of fixed boundaries:  the exact shift in the image of national territoriality seems a not only shift on the border, but a decisive replacement of an inclusive state.  And even as Trump’s recent rallies are–as of September–still interrupted by “Build that wall!” tribal chants, leaving Trump to lie openly by claiming “The wall is under construction,” he reminds us of his need to evoke an inexistent barrier for which such intense desire has developed among his supporters that it is indeed a talisman by which America will, indeed, be able to be Made Great Again.

Continually crying about the urgent need for “building the wall,” even if it would be in violation of international law, is cast as a state of emergency which would reduce crime, the illegal presence of gangs, and existential dangers, and a promise made without acknowledgement of any who live outside America’s national borders, or any foundation in civil law.  The promise to finish “building the wall” is cast as a simple question of volition, in almost pleading tones, that can be addressed to the entire nation as an ability to cathect and commune with the nation in simple concrete terms, no matter the distance at which they live to the actual border.  It is an exercise in the geographic imaginary, in short, and a nearly ritualized deceit which Trump labors to sustain–as if a Border Wall could be conjured into existence as a leap of faith.

Identifying the dangers to the nation as lying external to it, the discourse of the wall have created a subtle remapping of sovereignty, on an almost emotional level.  It focusses on the border, as an imagined line, rather than on people who move across it, laws or citizenship–placing demonized dangers as lying beyond the border and outside of the nation-state.  The disproportionate focus that has been directed to the border–a distortion of attention that is epitomized and focussed on the desire for a continuous “border wall”–functions as a deeply dehumanizing way of remaking the nation, and remapping national priorities, around a fiction and a distinctly new discourse on nationhood, that is mapped by vigilance to the border, rather than to the course of law or to individual rights and liberties.

If maps provided tools for defining and symbolizing nationality, the conceit of the need for a border wall symbolized and also creates a notion of nationhood based less on ties of belonging than on boundaries of sovereignty that exclusion people from the state.  Mapping is long based on ties of exclusion.  But the focus of intense attention on stopping border-crossing and transborder permeability as replaced a logic of maintaining protections on equality or access to the law in the interior, shifting the attention of the nation of spectators by a deeply cruel trick of remapping the nation’s priorities.  For the political rhetoric of creating a fixed border has effectively magnified the borderlands, through the terribly exaggerated violent pen-stroke of an Executive Order casting the border as a vital key to national security, and increase the proximity of the nation to the southwestern border in the political spatial imaginary.  

Is it any coincidence that the same government to elevate the symbolic mapping of a wall on the southwestern boundary of the United States has reduced the number of refugees that it agrees to admit from war-torn lands, already reduced by half through executive orders from the number of refugees accepted in 2016, a limit of 45,000, to a new ceiling of “up to 30,000 refugees” beyond “processing more than 280,000 asylum seekers,” in line with the current 2018 count of barely over 20,900 by mid-September, but now for the first time less than the number accepted by other nations.  Turning a cold shoulder to the crisis in global refugees is ostensibly rooted in a responsibility to guard its own borders, and “responsibility to vet applicants [for citizenship] to prevent the entry of those who might do harm to our country” and reducing grounds for asylum–even as the numbers of global refugees dramatically escalate dramatically world-wide–as if intentionally setting up obstacles for travel, and setting policy to openly prosecute any cross-border travel that was not previously authorized, and actively separating many asylum seekers from their families to deter them from pursuing asylum.

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New York Times

Such false magnification of problems of “border management” has defined a disturbing and false relation to a deeply distorted image of globalism, of fuzzy borders, and not only apparent but intentional distortion–

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–predicated on a false sense of national vulnerability, the urgency of greater border security, and the definition and elevation of national interests above global needs.

The rejection of refugees and closing of borders in the United States in the Age of Trump seems endemic:  if the country resettled some three million people since 1980, when modern refugee policy began, this year, the United States for the first time fewer resettled refugees than the rest of the world–less than half as many as the rest of the world.  The shuttering of borders is echoed in some 800,000 cases for asylum awaiting review, revealing a distorted view of the global situation that is mirrored by the blurred map behind Mike Pompeo’s head, and may suggest a global irresponsibility and deliberate disentanglement from world affairs.  But it also suggests a deep remapping of the place of the nation in the world, not limited to the State Department or Mike Pompeo, of imagining the greater proximity of the borderline to the mental imaginary, and a privileging of so-called sovereign rights over pathways of human flow.

The promised wall planned for the border of unscalable height is a bit of a blank canvas designed to project fears of apprehension onto those who would confront it, a barrier to prevent motion across the border by unilaterally asserting the lack of agency or ability to cross a line that was long far more fluid, in a sort of sacred earth policy of protecting the nation’s territory along its frontiers–and refusing the extend rights or recognition to those who remain on its other side.  Trump’s signing of grandiose Executive Orders as statements of sovereignty stand to reverberate endlessly in our spatial imaginary of the nation–while hardly warranted as a form of national defense, the border wall serves as a phatic act of sovereignty that redefines the function of national bounds.  Indeed, in a country whose history was defined by the negotiation of borderlands, the assertion of the long unstable border as an impermeable barrier seems a form of willed historical amnesia, as well as the fabrication of a non-existent threat.  The repeated indication of the southwestern border seems to seek to restore it to prominence in our national consciousness–and to see its security as being linked to the health of our nation–as if to make the current project of re-bordering an improvement of our national security–a process of re-bordering that is a performance of sovereignty, simultaneously symbolic, functional, and geopolitical in nature.  

The symbolic of sovereignty is far more insistent than the functional, and the symbolic register is the heart of its political meaning, if the structural need is promoted as a response to geopolitical actuality.  

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For the Trump train, the wall is a “smart” redefinition of the nation, rooted less in the accordance of civil rights or guaranteeing of human rights, than the subsuming of law to protection of a nation that we imagine as under assault.  If globalization has been understood as a process of “re-bordering,” where the lines between countries are neither so fixed or so relevant to political action on the ground, the border wall maps a defense against globalization in its rejection of open borders.  The proposed construction sets a precedent as an act of unilateral border-drawing, or willful resistance to re-bordering, by asserting a new geographical reality to anyone who listens, and by cutting off the voices of those powerless to confront it.  The deeply dehumanizing conceit of the border wall that was modeled in several prototypes deny the possibility of writing on their surface.

In ways that mirror the inflation of the executive over reality or the rule of law, the border wall serves to reinstate an opposition over a reality of cross-border migration.   And Trump seems particularly well-suited and most at home at this notion of reordering, which he has made his own as a construction project of sorts, where he gets to perform the role of the chief executive as a builder, as much as a politician or leader of a state, and where he gets to fashion a sense of sovereign linked to building and construction, to a degree that the builder turned political seems to be intensely personally invested and tied.  Although Trump has been keen to treat the notion of a border wall as a form of statecraft, the proposed border wall is all too aptly described as a an archaic solution to a twenty-first century problem–for it projects an antiquated notion of boundary drawing on a globalized world in terrifyingly retrograde ways.  For while the construction of the border wall between Mexico and the United States was mistakenly accepted as a piece of statecraft that would restore national integrity and define the project and promise of the Trump presidency to restore American ‘greatness’ rooted in an illusory idea of privilege, but focusses on the privilege of entering the sovereign bounds of the nation alone.  

The proposed wall maps a dramatic expansion of the state and the executive that continues the unchecked growth of monitoring our boundaries to foster insecurity, but creates a dangerously uneven legal topography for all inhabitants of the United States.  For Trump and the members of his administration have worked hard to craft a deeply misleading sense of crisis on the border that created a stage for ht border wall, and given it a semantic value as a need for an immigration “crack-down” and “zero tolerance policy” that seem equivalent in their heavy-handedness to a ban, but have gained a new site and soundstage that seems to justify their performance.  

While it is cast as a form of statecraft, the only promise of the proposed border wall is to exclude the stateless from entering the supposedly United States, and to create legal grounds for elevating the specter of deportation over the country.   For the author of the Art of the Deal used his aura to of pressing negotiations to unprecedentedly increase the imagined proximity of the entire nation to the border–by emphasizing its transactional nature in bizarrely in appropriate ways.  The result has undermined distorted our geographical and political imaginary, with the ends of curtailing equal access to due process, legal assistance, and individual freedoms.  Acceptance of the deeply transactional nature of the promise of a border wall during the 2016 Presidential election as a tribalist cry of collectivism–“Build the Wall!”–as an abstract imperative, removed from any logic argument, but rooted in a defense of the land.  The purely phatic statement of national identity was removed form principles of law, but offered what seemed a meaningful demand of collective action that transcended the law, either civil law, to affirm an imaginary collectivity of Americans without immigrants–and an image of a White America.  

The imperative exhortations that animated Trumpism, as it gave rise to multiple other inarticulate cries repeated on Twitter and at rallies, based on lies and false promises or premises–“Lock her up!”; “America First!”–fulfilled a need for membership and belonging at the expense of others, in ways that subtracted popular opinion–and a false populism of the Trump campaign–from the law.  By isolating the artifact of the wall as a sort of grail and site of redemption and religion of the nation, the tribalist cry “Build the Wall!” offered a false imperative that replaces reasoned discourse.   Trump sees fit to treat as a basis for shutting down the government, accordingly, and indeed as a logic for a brand of governing that doesn’t follow the “terrible laws” of his predecessors.  If the budgeting of a border was was earlier taken as a grounds to actually shutter the government, in 2017, the rehearsal of the threat to willfully “‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes [for] the Wall” once more unnecessarily equated the need for the border wall as a basis and rationale for government.  The Manichean vision of politics of a pro- and anti-border party has been determining in creating a vision of the United States where sovereignty is defined at the border, irrespective of responsibility for the stewardship of the country:  we built walls, impose tariffs, and end treaties, rather than acting in a statesmanslike fashion, and evacuate the promise of the state.  

Much as Trump earlier called for “a good border shutdown” in the Spring of 2017 cast the wall as a part of his notion of governance, the new threat treats the as a bargaining chip able to equate with an act of governance–even if the wall as it is described seems less about governance at all.  Trump rails against the passing of spending bills that do not foreground or grant a prominent place to the proposed border wall that he sees as a point of orientation needed for his constituents and that he still cherishes and his own introduction into national debate:  attacking legislative packages about spending bills that don’t include special stipulations for border security or the construction of a border wall, threatening on Twitter to suspend governmental functions altogether without knowing “where the is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this reicidulous Spending Billaon the eve of the arrival of an apporopriations bill to the White House in the Fall of 2018, as his executive functions seem as imperilled as his grasp on the Executive Branch,  of government: but the border wall retains centrality as the central promise he has made to the nation.

For the unwarranted and ungrounded promise to prevent the imagined threats of organized criminals, gangs, rapists, and drug dealers from entering the country–not that we lack many who are home-grown–through the border wall is a governance of exclusion, racial defamation, and promotion, which has little to do with governing at all.  The apt characterization of the border wall as being an inefficient and irrational fourteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem by Texas U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar-D of San Antonio–riffing on the suggestion of U.S. Representative Will Hurd-R of San Antonio as a third century solution to a twenty-first century problem ineffective to secure cross-border migration, and gesturing to the new tribalism that the project affirms.  The imperative of the border wall is an insistence of tribalism over civil society, and a reflection of the increased tribalism we feel and see, but mostly feel and fear.  Indeed, it allows these fears to be mapped against cross-border traffic.

The imperative distorted and magnified what a border is and should be that shows little understanding of effective governance, and reclaims an old idea of the border–a fantasy, at root–that rejects the permeable nature of borders in an era of globalism, by rather affirming an imagined collectivity from which dangers–unspecified, but ranging from gangs to drugs to child trafficking–must be kept out.  Although an underlying problem is POTUS’ spectacular lack of understanding of how government works, or of the law, which he has spent most of his life reinterpreting, it reveals his conviction construction contains crisis in essentially fascistic terms, building a structure that has little contextual meaning, but seems to impress, as a negative monument to the the state that is located in a borderland of apparent statelessness, but which Trump seems more and more frustrated at his actual inability to change what still looks more like a rusting twelve-foot tall Richard Serra sculpture than the imposing frontier promised America–

imageRichard Serra, Tilted Arc (New York City, Federal Plaza, 1981-89)

–but whose offensiveness disturbs, upsets and angers the viewer in a truly visceral way. Resting on the edges of our own borders as the basis for a larger “border complex” that seems to steadily expand, the border complex is not only a unilateral dictation of border policies, but a relinquishing of any responsibility of governance of the inhabitants of the nation, treating the definition of citizen/non-citizen as a primary duality never explicitly adopted as central in American politics and history, but assigning this division a centrality rarely so clearly geographically expressed as a question of national territory.  

Even though the wall is a practical separation between territories, and an assertion of exclusive territorial identity, the imperative of the border wall that is repeatedly cast in urgent, existential terms, has presented itself in discursive terms both as a promise to the nation, in terms analogous to the Contract with America, that separated Americans from others, but which promised to strengthen Americans’ relation to the rest of the world.  The increased proximity of the nation’s inhabitants to the border and border wall was asserted in the Trump campaign:   the transactional status of the wall grew as a means to prevent multiple forces from endangering “our communities’ safety” as the border wall became a narrative plug-in for something like a promise of redemption from higher wages, untold economic dreams, and an acceptance of police security, as if a border can radically change the status quo of the American economy and local family safety.   The proposal of the border wall continues to exist in a deeply transactional sense for Americans, as geographic relations to the actual border has been erased so thoroughly for the border, under the guise of “immigration,” to become a national platform of a political party, and a new model to define and remap America’s relation to the world.

1.  The growth of global insecurity echoes profound anxiety at the realization that the lines of control of states cannot be so legibly or clearly mapped in the present moment, an anxiety it reflects by proposing to inscribe the border onto the landscape to make it visible to all and permanently fixed.  The false promise of the border wall has been able to gain meaning on an individual level, allowing each to invest it with meaning and feel proximity to, independent of their own actual geographic proximity–even if the result is to silence the violence that the proposition of such a border wall does to the rule of law.  If the long and energetic tradition of public mural painting that had origins in the Mexico of the 1930s provided a movement of energetic and energized monumental painting on open air surfaces in projects of humanity and considerable color.  But the elevation of their pictorial formal power moreover asserted a new public identity of the nation for observers.  In contrast, the artlessness of the empty screen of the border wall is an evacuation and denial of subjectivity:  the defining characteristic as a concrete surface of the proposed border wall is itss inexpressive surface, its denial of common humanity, and its assault on the collective narratives that were the subject celebrated in muralism.

The wall stands as a sort of rebuttal to a muralist tradition of inclusiveness–embracing varied styles from Rivera to Siquieros to Orozco–through the assertions of a new artistic idiom by which to involve viewers in a revitalized broad civic life.  The border wall is less an illustration of human will, than an image of the assertion of the reason of the state, understood less by legal principles than a tortured logic of exclusion.  For while the extant border was a site of recuperation of muralist public art, the new border wall serves to impose the fixity of the border as a site that offers no place to the individual refugee, migrant, or legal immigrant, but a blank canvas that symbolizes the absence of individual autonomy or subjectivity to cross the transborder space.  Indeed, rather than a collectivist statement of unity, whose monumental forms suggest a human struggle of collective identity and work, the construction of the wall is presented as a testimony of the need for an obstruction of the passage across the border to protect the nation, based on the knowledge and experiences of border communities, presented as a need to ensure and defend safety, national integrity, and economic power.  Like the symbolic language of muralism offered a replacement for the common iconography of sacred art, in its assertion of public identity, the border wall presents itself as nothing less than a new religion of the state.  While the comparison of the proposed border wall to the public panting of collective art muralism intended as an call to collective national consciousness and unity in post-revolutionary Mexico is a provocative comparison to the elevation of sovereign authority over the border by building a wall, the magnification of the border by the project and prospect of building a border wall has served to elevate a perilous image of nationhood, based less on ties of commonality, collective identity, or a rich historical legacy of individual involvement that muralists proposed than an unhealthy focus on the border as a site of danger, a frontier needed to be vigilantly guarded, and a threshold whose guarding substitutes for the defense of civil laws.

For in claiming to protect and secure the nation, the border wall becomes a performative exercise of the religion of the state, as much as it serves as a defense of political sovereignty.  The authority of the US-Mexico border wall, in unintentionally, seems to stand as an open rebuke and rebuttal to the hopeful ideals and huge figures in images of dynamic abundance such as the monumental Allegory of California (1931) by which Diego Rivera depicted the rich bestowal of gifts on of a heroic mother earth figure of California, in San Francisco, whose monumentalism addressed individual viewers by an almost tangible allegory of local abundance —

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–which set a basis, in one of the first large projects of the painter in the United States, set a basis for a new tradition of public moralism in western states.  The interchange between active labor, earth, and a united countryside, if not a united narrative of nation, offered an optimistic personification of a monumental Gaia-like state, who, her resources liberated by workers, grants “gold and fruit and grain for all” of its residents, the revolutionary art of Siqueiros that heroized his country, or the twined histories of the Americas that José Clemente Orozco organized of tragic but truly epic historical scope of the Ancient Migration and the Migration of the Human Spirit, extending the collectivist spirit of revolutionary nation.  Affirming a discourse of white privilege, indeed, rather than inclusion, the border wall is an imperative of religion of the nation that girds the border as a sight of defense, mapping the other as outsider in relation to the needs of the state, rather than celebrate the human subject as a force that is part of nature or culture. Rather, the proposed border wall seems to exist outside culture or nature, as an imperative to an endangered and threatened civility of the status quo.

The border wall erases the spirit of the migrant as it prevents migration, alleging compelling reasons of state and the new logic of the religion of the nation that replaces the law and any appeal to the law in its urgency.   Rather than portray a giving sense of the heroism of migration, indeed, the wall interrupts any freedom of migration and transborder or transnational citizenship, reducing citizenship to a notion of territoriality and land, by bounding the terrain of citizenship and affirming a new ordering of space, and a political theology about the boundaries of the state, and the subtraction of citizenship or rights from the “enforcement zone,” “border zone” or denial of the rights of political representation or legal status for all transnational migrants in the “dead zone” of the borderlands.   The absence in this zone of rights of the subject–the refugee, migrant, or itinerant subject–is paramountly defined by their statelessness and inability to fit between strict categories of sovereignty, rather than motion across states being celebrated as a point of access to the bounty of the land, or of the migration of the spirit as a celebration of the recuperation of a modern individual political identity.  By demonizing the practice of migratory mobility, as if by a principle of “earth-first” binding of the nation, the border inverts the celebration of the human spirit

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panel21Jose Orozco, Migration of the Modern Spirit (panels 1 and 21) (Dartmouth University)

There was a resurgence of the discursive practice of the political messages contained in  muralism as a form of public art in the resistance to decorating the border with monitory signs.  Is the Border Wall not only a map, but also a rebuttal to this tradition, and indeed to the painting of public rebuttals to the wall through paintings and commemorations in the past?  The absolute absence of any affect or visual address within the intentionally blank, sterile and almost industrial character of the wall seems in hidden dialogue or rebuke of an aesthetic of direct involvement of the viewer through its mute surface and corresponding evacuation or denial of individual human rights.  

1.  The triumph of industry, of rich historical cultures, or even of cultural conquest and revolutionary violence is compellingly replaced by the absence of any trace of human making or creation–or individual subjectivity–within the surface of the proposed border wall, which rather stands to deny individual liberty:  in place of an aesthetics of broad political involvement, the denial of the presence of those on the other side of the border wall stand as a vicious act of disenfranchisement, and even a denial of human subjectivity.  Indeed, if the heroic or epic narratives of monumental figures engage viewers in a pedagogic manner in muralist traditions by illustrating a narrative of nation, the proposed wall suggests a blunt lack of any national narrative, save the denial of the subjectivity of those on the other side.

The talismanic nature of these “prototypes”–mock ups slightly removed  the border–was meant to evoke the prominent place of the border wall, and to restore or reinforce  in the psychological and mental imaginary of our new national space.  Repeated throughout the Presidential campaign as if a mantra, evocation of “the promised wall on the southwestern border” has redefined a relation to the nation–and indeed been presented as a form of love for the nation–by the master builder who would be US President.  And although the request for a “solid, Concrete Border Wall” in March, 2017–described as the President’s building medium of choice–became a secret state project, as “too sensitive” to be released by a Freedom of Information Act, by the Department of Homeland Security, designed to meet demands to be impossible to tunnel under, and impenetrable to sledgehammers or other battery-operated electric tools for at least an hour, seem something of a simulacrum of the state that is both all too obstructive for actual migrants and cherished by many Americans, and prevents the transformation of previous parts of the border wall to public sites of commemoration–remembering the suffering of those who attempted safe passage, or indeed of mural-art that has attempted to assert the fluidity of cross-border transit.

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gettyimages-632717318.jpgSandy Huffaker/Getty Images/Palm Beach Post

–or that try to imagine the perspective that the future of the border wall will create for the migrant subject who is excluded from hopes of cross-border transit.

Trump Vows To Build Border Wall Between Mexico And The U.S.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even as the proposed US-Mexico border wall is presented as girding the nation against multiple dangers, the new bounding of the nation that prevents any intervention or artistic transformation of the wall, by stating its own absolute authority as a re-writing of the nation.  The permanence of the models of the wall seem not so tacitly or subliminally suggested by the physics form of one of the mock-ups, which references the form of a flag, as if to suggest its similar permanence as can image and record of the nation, and proof of the nation’s continued existence, as if the nation could not exist without it:  indeed, the flag-like proportions in mock-ups suggests a new flag for the nation.  As the promise of the border wall has allowed such a range of audiences to cathect to the national boundary–a sense that was perhaps predicted in the repainting of a section of the existing border wall of welded metal and steel near San Diego–the very site where a caravan of Central American migrants would arrive where they were taken by President Trump as an illustration of the fear of the dangers of cross-border immigration–the wall suggested a sort of surrogate for the purification of the country, restoration of the economy, and an elevation of the minimum wage, wrapped into a poisoned promise of poured concrete.

It was no surprise that a group of Mexican-American veterans chose to paint a segment of the older wall near Tijuana in 2013 as if a mural that mirrored the use of the inverted flag to stage a signal of distress to the nation:  indeed, the deported former navy who chose the wall as a site for a cry of emergency and national belonging:  teerily prescient of the flag-like nature of the mock-ups, sections of which uncannily resemble a vertically hoisted flag, the wall sections painted by disabled veteran Amos Gregory, a resident San Francisco resident, who completed the painting with twenty deported veterans, recuperated the tradition of moralism to create a new story of the wall, where crosses of dead migrants replaced the stars of the stars and stripes, as if to appropriate the wall to a public narrative of nationhood.

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The inverted flag that a group of U.S to paint the flag, but expressed shocked at charges of using an iconography “hostile toward the United States of America,” and chose the inverted flag as a distress signal–to show honor to the flag, and to “mean no disrespect” to the nation, but to raise alarm at its  policies.  His dismay when asked to remove the mural by US Border Patrol sent a message of censorship as an attack on freedom of expression; Gregory incorporated crosses to commemorate on the wall the migrants who died seeking to enter the United States for better lives and livelihoods,  undermining the ideals of freedom he cherished.  By placing their memory on the wall, he sough not to dishonor the flag, but to use it as a symbol of extreme gravity that respects its ideals–and the etiquette of flag display, in the manner  future protests at the marginalization of migrants seeking asylum as they enter the United States at its border zone.

distress at Ptotest

The current mock-ups suggest, if unconsciously, an actual evacuation of patriotic ideals.  The MAGA President might have been conscious of how several of the so-called prototypes suggested a flag turned on its end, as if in a new emblem of national strength–

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–as if to offer them a new symbol of the nationalism of a new nation.  The segment of this prototype recalls the flag suspended vertically, as on a wall or over a door, above the border that has become a prominent character in the current President’s Twitter feed, and evokes the ties between terrorism and immigration that Trump has long proposed the government recognize and acknowledge, despite having few proofs of these connections, acting as an assertion of the implied criminality of all immigrants who do not cross border check points by legal protocol, no matter their actual offense.

1. The compact about the construction of the border wall has, against all probability, become the latest in faux populist promises since the Contract with America to pose fictive contracts of illusionary responsibility and reciprocity to the democratic process, and have provided new tools of assent.  At the deepest level, the wall exists in this discourse of urgency not as a proposition, but as an actuality that need only be built, and cannot–or need not–be mapped, less the practicalities of consequences of its construction by acknowledged.  The border wall, viewed in its prototypes, is somehow an expression of the unmappability and existential quality of the border wall that Trump wants; alien from its surroundings, and existing as an obstacle to entrance, it is a redefinition of the border from a site of passage to an obstruction.  The affirmation of the border as a “real border”–which Trump repeatedly ties to the status of the United States as a “real country”–seems to mean an impassible border, which lacks any negotiation, but is recognized as an element of the nation that needs to spatial location but acts to strip all outsiders of their their rights.  All attempts to map the border as a spatially situated place  seem to stand as a challenge to undo the imperative of the wall’s construction.

The faux consensual ties with the electorate perpetuate a fiction that a democracy runs on the contractual obligations between a government and populace, but have early been so focussed on geographically specific terms.  But in an age of anti-government sentiment, the icon of the wall has become an effective icon of describing the ineffectiveness of prior administrations, and an iconology embodying the new role of the executive in the age of Trump:  in an age of global mapping that seems to disrespect and ignore borders, we imagine migrants moving across them with the aid of GPS, or Google Maps, empowered by the location of border check-points on their cross-border transit,–

Google maps borderGoogle Maps

In a rejoinder to these fears, the proposed border wall would map a continuity among the stations in different sectors administered by the US Border Patrol, already strikingly dense, and apparently easy to connect by a solid wall–

Border Checkpoints

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Filed under border wall, globalization, human rights, immigration, US-Mexico Border

Mapping the Material Surplus along the US-Mexico Border

When running for President of the United States, Donald J. Trump already betrayed a shaky knowledge of the territory. He didn’t want you to think that a wall had already been built along the southwestern boundary of the United States.  Now occupying the Oval Office, he seeks to convince the nation that it is in fact being built, and that the need for a permanent, impassible “wall” exist, despite Congress’s refusal to allocate new funds for a “border wall.”

But the massive show of force of cyclone fencing, regular patrols, and bullet-proof barriers set a precedent of border fencing since the 1990s, and something like a precedent for redrawing the nation in ways that are designed to resist changes in a globalized world. In ways that Trump has put on steroids as a racist divide between outsiders and “Americans,” and used as a vehicle for an “America First” agenda, as filling a need to remap strong divide between nations that would replace an “open border,” able to protect the nation, the “border wall” has become fetishized as a paradigm of the unilateral mapping of global space–in terms of actual sovereign bounds, and as a way to remap the nation’s involvement in the world and shuns international responsibilities. If the rhetorical role of the “border wall” has replaced its actuality, and mapped the proximity of the nation to the border in both duplicitous and quite dangerously simplified ways, only by returning to the border, and viewing the existing scars on its lived landscape and the traces of the migrants who have crossed it, can we unmapped the mental mapping of the border.

The effectiveness of the current complex of bollard fencing, barbed wire, steel fencing, cyclone fence, prison-wall like bars, and other obstacles has become one of the largest collections of military surplus in the United States, an accumulation of military materiel that appears designed to remind those who see it of their absence of rights.  As much as a defense against globalization or immigration, the border wall stands as a fiction.  Although some Americans lend credence to the idea that a barrier along the border could prevent “unlawful” entry of the country, whether such entry is in face unlawful–and what sort of balance of justice would be reinstated–is unclear.  The frontier is constructed as site for denying justice, and a denial of human rights, both embodied in the a massive build-up of military material and show of force in its regime.  

The construction of the border as a region that denies civil and legal rights–a “negative space” of sovereignty and liberty–has redefined its relation to the state.  While the project of a wall seems to mirror the lines of a map that would separate two countries, the simple division of national zones and spatial division more of a fiction in the transborder region.  The compulsion to create a map that was present on the earth–a sort of scar between two regimes–depends on defining a space outside of either state, overseen by someone who has no interest in securing rights of its inhabitants.

In this sense, Donald Trump is the perfect messenger of a circumscription of personal rights. When Trump urges the nation that no choice exists save a wall– “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier”–citing that any agreement with Congress for “a fair deal” to be far off, he invokes a notion of fairness and justice that he argues it would create a sense of security–and promote a sense of national security as well as personal security–but relies on evoking the sense of fear and vulnerability that “open borders” conjure.  Without any clear statistics or evidence for its value, save the magnification of border security, the need for a border wall is only a fantasy, based on an imagined. As someone who defines himself outside the political classes, and apart from an interest in preserving civil rights–or a sense of the role of government in the preservation of the nation’s liberties–Trump is perfectly suited to define himself in terms of the border wall, which he seems to be set on developing as a property.

1. The sense of justice or security is altogether absent from the landscape of the wall, and from its already heavily militarized region.  The absence of place along the border is particularly striking as the accumulation of increasing obstacles to cross-border transit seem designed to preserve a sense of the integrity of the nation–and the safety of our own sense of place–in a world increasingly defined outside of the nation-state as a category, where “states” have decreasing presence or meaning for many American citizens, and most inhabitants of the globe.

In an era of the continuous extent of global space, where borders of nations are to a large extent rendered arbitrary in the virtual space of the meridians of the widely adopted Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system–

–there seems an urgency that is more easily created of the need to define a boundary line, and to believe that the ideal border line of a national map can conjure the antiquated entity of the “nation”and defend it against the danger of migrating threats.  Invoking the fear of the dangers of cross-border movements  are so often epeated by the America First movement–“bad hombres,” rapists, murderers, or criminal networks, drug cartels, and multi-nationals that go beyond the current systems of state-based law enforcement, that seem designed to suggest threats that only a clear partition of territories can stop,

Migratory Routes of White Pelicans in the United States Originating from the Gulf of Mexico



Historical and Current Sites of American Black Bear in Mexico

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 already constitute one of the most massive investments in wall-building–and the most massive project of wall-building that exists.  Rather than offer a spatial division that can serve to protect the nation, or reassure us of the possibility of law enforcement, the complex created around the militarized complex serves only to suspend individual rights, as much as to guarantee the law.  Ie exists in an atmosphere of compromised legality, if not  lawlessness, in the name of security.  

Rather than see to create a secure spatial division, the border has been transformed into a deeply hostile landscape, a site seeking to erase or obliterate any sense of individuality, however much the wall is identified with justice or national protection against the threat of criminal elements.  The rhetoric of wall-building that invokes justice indeed obscures the utter injustice of its construction.  The 2,500 mile barbed wire fence that India is building to separates itself from Bangladesh, the US-Mexico border wall would be by far the longest such wall in the globe, as if a bald rebuttal to globalization and a declaration of American self-interest:  if intended to illustrate American strength against the specter of the threat of the cross-border movement of workers, criminals, or lawlessness, it claims the ability to remove surgically the territorial United States from the dangers globalization has wrought.  

In this sense, the project of wall-building is a promise to protect the sense of “place” of the nation.  At the same time as our sense of the nation and our sense of place has dramatically altered for reasons beyond any individual nation, the wall reified the nation as an entity, even as the distinct nature of the nation is unclear.   John Berger observed grimly, but surprisingly presciently, toward the end of his life, after touring the Occupied Territories in the Middle East, 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 new definition of walls that are defined to separate hoary categories of race or ethnicity are increasingly evident in all too frequent attempts to create barriers of regional protection.  They are based on the sense that national survival depends urgently on such massive projects of enclosure, as if such projects could be isolated from their huge effects and psychological consequences for those who might confront them on the ground.

The current emptying of words–emergency; invasion; criminality; violence; human-trafficking–make them tags to activate the border within the political imaginary, but conceal the actuality of the borderlands where the military is already present, and the lands are already quite secure–and quite vacant of habitation.

2.  The place of the amassing of materials and military materiel along the US-Mexico border seems designed to create a new experience of the border, and to make it scarily real for those who might seek to move across it or to regard it as part of a zone of permeability.  The exquisite photographs portraits of the wall by west coast photographer Richard Misrach has worked to document  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.”  The residue of the human is even more haunting in Misrach’s new project, and the photographs that result of human traces on the border, because they are emblems of the disenfranchisement of the borderlands that hauntingly parallel their military build-up. One might even say Misrach interrogates the landscape in his work–if the word didn’t tragically resonate so closely with the state-security apparatus on the US-Mexico border. Misrach dwells on human traces that lie around the militarization of the borer regions–from the cultural detritus left by cross-border travelers, left on migrations, the security apparatus encountered at border, and the hollow loneliness of the massive redesign of its landscape capture the expanded military-defensive complex at the border.

This evacuated land is the region that Donald Trump has come to champion as a basis for defense from national emergencies. The argument that the border is understaffed erases the rewriting of the transborder landscape that has already occurred. Misrach’s contemplation of magnificent vistas, broad traces of the inscription of authority at the border, and the reduction of the human, are truly Kafkaesque in their nightmarish reduction of the individual before the inscription of authority in its landscape.

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Near Campo, CA. ©2008 Michael Dear

3.  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, long before Donald proposed to build a “beautiful wall” to prevent crossing the US-Mexican border. If the expression reveals a lack of compassion, its problematic nature is even deeper: it reveals Trump’s peculiar identification with an apparatus of border protection, and of human containment, and the removal in his eyes of that apparatus from a discourse of rights.

Trump has celebrated the wall as if it were a new hotel and building project–asserting that he has the needed expertise to build and design it.  Trump presented himself to the American 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, with considerable self-satisfaction, to suggest his suitability to the position as chief executive, despite his lack of political experience; defining himself apart from other political candidates in the vision of the nation that he supported, Trump added with evident satisfaction, “Isn’t it nice to have a builder?”  

Precisely because he came from outside the political sphere, and outside the government that preserves and respects individual rights, he has been presented as a perfect fit for a region that lies and has developed as outside the securing of individual rights.  By having a “builder” of the nation and the nation’s identity, he suggested, rather than a politician, he could guarantee the increased presence of the military along the nation’s southwestern border, and indeed promised to dedicate an increased amount of the national budget to the defense of this borderland.  Precisely because Trump lacks interest in guaranteeing or preserving the rights of migrants, or rights of asylum to the nation, he is a perfect custodian and symbol of this over-militarized zone without rights.  As a man without military experience, but cowed by military authority, he has become, as President, the perfect surrogate for the stripping of rights for people who try to cross the border.

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 build 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.”

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Mark 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  the “illegal” immigrants who were surveilled by the U.S. Border Patrol at the highly monitored militarized border, designed to thwart unregistered immigration.  The argument that the old border fence is now outdated, and contiains gaps–

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

–has been demonstrated repeatedly in maps.  And 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.

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Badge 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 Signs

Richard 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 grandiosity of the wall as a project of Trump’s megalomania led the architects at the  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

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Agustin Avalos/Estudio 3.14

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 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 substitute surpassing the expansion of border security in recent decades.

4.  Indeed, as the transborder region has dramatically expanded with the expansion of cross-border trade since NAFTA in 2004, the expansion of the trans-border region has been widely neglected, and rarely mapped.  The attention the photographic mapping of the human experience of border crossing–evident in the abandoned detritus and remains of cross-border transit–present a ghostly counter-map to the expanded border region.  

This human map is all too often unfortunately overlooked, even with increased attention Republican presidential candidates have paid to remapping a closed border and constructing a border wall, a project that seems to erase or remove the broad area of cross-border traffic that occurs within the immense region that surrounds the physical border–whose sociological expansion is so oddly conveniently erased by any project of wall building along a region demanding to be recognized as being part of the United States.

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Barajas/Sisto/Gaytán/Cantú/Hidalgo López (2014)

Most boundaries between states are regularly rendered in maps by dotted lines, as if to recall milestones–miliaria–placed at regular intervals on perimeters of lands or counties in earlier times.  But the borer strip that is embedded in an expanded border area is a site of increasing surveillance that seems to engrave itself on the land.  To map the proposed building of a fence along the 2, 428 mile border between Mexico and the United States reveals a the expansion of the policing of the national borderspace, erasing its past status as a transit zone across which people and goods easily moved.

In an age of globalization, borders are increasingly not only policed, but managed at a distance from their crossing lines–and increasingly invoked in Presidential elections as if they have become the primary charges of governmental management.  Constructed to symbolize and symbolically represent sovereign authority, the overbuilt border seems staged a spectacle to impede human movement and to monitor and erase, individual experience, and to bolster the appropriately faceless authority of the state.  Borders once the creation of shared conventions, are colonized by an apparatus designed to impose state authority on helpless people, and constructed at massive cost as artifacts that seem to exist to violently intersect with actual lived experience, confronting the cross-border motion or migration of populations, and concretizing the need for a fixed frontier as a need of the nation.

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Getty Images

5.  The huge popularity of advocating construction on a continuous border wall within Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign to seal the frontier along Mexico’s sovereign territory reveals the degree to which borders become a means to assert failing claims to sovereignty–even as it is an attempt to reassert the authority of an individual nation-state by unilaterally asserting its own abilities to police its bounds.  How the border gained such broad purchase on the national imaginary is unclear, and may require another post–but the incommensurability of the alleged solution and the situation on the ground demands empirical evaluation.  Revisiting the spectacle of the border and the suffering it creates engages broad advocacy to the continuous wall advocated alike by such presidential candidates like Trump and Ted Cruz–and the explicit violence they serve by of subjecting social life of border-crossing to surveillance in the name of national security.

And so it is apt that, in Border Cantos, a recent collaboration between photographer Misrach and Mexican-born composer Guillermo Galindo, the amassing of capital on the US-Mexico border is so eloquently documented and revealed as the brutalizing landscape that it is.  More than any map is able, their collaboration bears witness to the expansion of the border’s imprint on the lives of migrants in incredibly moving ways, by asking viewers to evaluate the costs of the overbuilt structure of the fence, and assembling the artifacts and unintended traces that were found and collected about the border–traces accidentally left by actual migrants from backpacks to sneakers to books to children’s clothing and dolls to the spent shotgun shells that targeted migrants or the bicycles used to overcome border barriers–to reflect their social experience.   These remains are human traces that do not appear on any actual map, of course, but are the remains of the violence that is enacted on how national boundaries are mapped–and the continued violence of the experience of border crossing that intersects with the broad security apparatus on either side of the border fence.  As if to accompany Misrach’s photographs of the human geography of the borderlands–a largely empty space with few humans and only scattered human markers and material possessions–Galindo fashioned musical instruments whose playing is able to generate sounds in his own scores, specific to the surreal fraught space of the overbuilt borderlands, an eery score to accompany Misrach’s haunted landscapes, and remind us of the human presence that is so often necessarily absent from the images.

Such ephemera pale in contrast to the experience of migrants, to be sure, but offer both avenues of empathy and proofs of the brutality with which sovereign authority intersects with the mundane everyday at the border walls, in the built space that runs across the emptiness of the desert borderlands.

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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.  In ways, the map manufactures and embodies the pathways of a disease’s infectious spread: the rise of deaths in the borderland between the United States and Mexico can only be mapped as a dereliction of national responsibility that charts an erosion of civil and moral codes.  The recent erosion of civil law and attacks on immigration law conceal a longstanding withdrawal of responsibility along the border, opening the way to creating the borderland as a military jurisdiction—rather of civil law.

We have long mapped diseases to grapple with their causation.  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.  The distribution of mortality around public fountains provided a basis to demonstrate vectors of contagion for Dr. Snow, and by mapping all deaths from cholera to have occurred in recent years in relation to one pump on Broad Street in relation to London’s thirteen city wells by a voronoi diagram.

By locating each and plotting the distribution of deaths from cholera in the city in relation to the significant incidence of deaths form cholera near specific street-pumps revealed a way to grasp infectious transmission from the Broad Street pump that embodied a new notion of contagious diseases that challenged miasmatic transmission—making for the first time a clear spatial argument about how disease existed and moved in an urban environment, and presented a second map, with clearly traced polygons to indicate routes of transmission to the local parish showing routes of walking by which the disease was transmitted—using the recent mapped deaths from cholera in London Edmund Cooper tabulated—

 

—in hopes to encourage a level of civic engage about the origins of cholera infections that had plagued Londoner’s for twenty eras in the city’s fabric.

The source of deadly infections that this famous data visualization revealed suggests the communication of fatalities by a clustering that indicated clear routes of the spatial communication of a viral infection, focused on a large subset of deaths in close vicinity to the Broad Street pump, even without bacteriological or microscopic evidence.

The exact distribution Snow organized contrast to the terrifying distributions of the deaths of migrants seeking passage across the border, which resists any extraction of an explanatory framework or conclusion, but raises questions about the inhumanity of the terrain we have created.

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Dot maps of migrant deaths follow no such clear distribution, and has no sense of transmission form a single site.  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, even a decade before Donald J. Trump used the management of the southwestern border as a campaign talking point to pole vault into public politics.

No similar diagrams can be drawn to elucidate the range of dead bodies discovered in the desert of migrants who were attempting transit into the United States for better homes: can one better explain their deaths b a virtual miasma of cruelty that fills the air of the border zone. Their deaths were caused by dehydration and starvation, as well as cold, but suggest nothing so much as a miasma of neglect. The distribution of deaths of migrants in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve, and O’Odham Reservation already illustrated a dereliction of national responsibilities.

The map is a deeply tragic reminder of the loss of life that is forgotten in the dry expanses of these deserts where the border, such as it is, lies, and the distinctly disturbing regime of a lack of interest or care for human fate that—even with the mortality of children in detention camps at the border—still can stretch incredulity at the evidence it offers of a large theater of cruelty.  They recall the denial of burial to the bodies of enemies in the ancient world, left as prey to dogs and vultures:   the Enlightenment jurist Giambattista Vico faced considerable difficulty explaining to his readers that there was a time when the bodies of anyone was left unburied in an earlier age in his Scienza Nuova, “an inhuman custom—so contrary to what the  writers on natural law of all people’s claim to have been practiced among any nation— . . . which [once] prevailed among the barbarous peoples of Ancient Greece,” described in Homer’s Iliad, and at which he marveled as “crude, coarse, wild, savage, volatile, unreasonable and unreasonably obstinate . . . and foolish unreasonable customs,” far removed from his own age and from the imagination of his readers, so “discordant” was it with our own civil age. Yet the unburied dead whose bodies have been located in states of extreme decomposition along this border zone reveal a discordant reminder of the return of such an inhuman custom on the borders—and within the borders—of what we consider is a region that is distinguished and administered by civil laws. Whether this region can be rightly considered a region of lawfulness or civility seems to be raised and put on the front burner by the discovery and attempted identification of the human remains discovered lying in the desert, often dramatically decomposed, of migrants’ bodies dating from the administration of George W. Bush.

If Vico could scarce imagine the barbarity of leaving bodies exposed to the elements even in war—and the spectacular cruelty of the dragging of the body of Hector around the perimeter of Troy three times—among those who “were held to have spread humanity across the world,” given the sheer physical disgust of leaving the body unburied, and given that “all gentle nations certainly concur that souls [of the unburied] remain restlessly on earth, wandering around their buried bodies,” from Guinea to Peru to Mexico to Virginia to New England to Siam, the readiness of Christians to leave the dead unburied by the border, if not intentionally, haunts the border region with its own inhumanity. The violence of this early heroic age was before the age of laws of nations, for Vico, and belonged to the age of “violent and impious men who dared to enter the cultivated fields [] in pursuit of the weak who had fled thither to escape them,” and belonged to “the vulgar customs of the barbarous Greece” of Homer’s day, and adequate burial in fact constituted one of the three institutions of human society—with marriage and religion—in ways that betray the huge remove of a heroic era, which incredibly lacked burial customs or rites, from our own.

Yet the abandonment of unburied bodies has returned in the no-man’s land of the US-Mexico borderland, where the abandoned bodies of would-be migrants fall between governing bodies and accepted customs.  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–leaving them exposed as “prey to dogs and vultures” in the very horrifying ways that Vico was so horrified. The recent spatial distribution of such abandoned cadavers and corpses, left without any rites of burial, force the viewer to scrutinize its mute surface of dots against a deceptively pastel base map as if they might magically be able to glean or recuperate the silent, forever-lost stories of migrants who lost their lives attempting to cross the border, and the stories of whose travails and travels can never be told. The ends of their lives, reduced to the finality of a bright red circular dot in the data visualization, out of scale, arrests attention but is disarmingly and alarmingly flat, resistant to any further narrative or even identifiable name.  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–risking their lives to do so.  

Ex Voto painted to express thanks for successful crossing of the Rio Grande

If the many migrant deaths of those attempting to cross the border between the United States and Mexico are often expressed by crosses that are hung on sections of the fragmentary “border wall,”—

—the precise distribution of the dead in sites of their death is rarely preserved in public memory, and the archive of dead migrants who did not survive passage is rarely assembled as a geospatial record.

The number of the dead remains but 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

If the deaths of those attempting to cross the border will probably never be know with precision—and is often lost to oblivion—the recovery of human remains affords a grim picture of the actuality of recovering the dead, and the attempts to name, identify, commemorate and memorialize their fates as well as prevent the loss of their identities, despite the jarringly abstract geospatial symbology of this map, and the minuscule proportion of those remained that have been so far identified.

This project of memory and memorialization, echoing the imagery of northward passage in the famous Underground Railroad taken by fugitive slaves taught to recognize the handle of the Big Dipper to follow the North Star to find their path to freedom, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” the symbol of the constellation has been adopted by the Humane Borders organization which has identified remains and sought to allow them offer needed geospatial assistance to migrants in their search to find a path north.

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Filed under boundaries, data visualization, GIS, mortality maps, US Border Patrol, US-Mexico Border