One of Donald Trump’s most significant victories has been to increase the proximity of much of the nation to the border wall planned for the southwestern boundary of the United States–irrespective of their actual geographic location. The range of constituencies that united around the need for a border boundary–nationalist; white supremacist; racist; xenophobic; unemployed; economically insecure; fundamentalist–seems daunting to unpack as an assembly. But if perhaps incompatible with one another, their collective fixation on a geographic site was perhaps most striking as a new form of mental mapping of territory in an age of GPS, when the relevance of boundaries and boundary lines have all but vanished as cartographic markers, where states geographical positions by GPS. How can the nation be mapped in an age of global positioning–save by rehabilitating the border in a built form? And what better way to do so than to divide Americans from what can be demonized as a danger to the national safety? As much as mapping space, even if it runs along the border, the border wall seems a post-border map, abstracting the idea of the border and remapping an ideal of the nation by pulling attention from its social coherence to the protection of its edges.
The broad sacrifice of civil liberties that are the consequence of the remapping of borders and borderlands as subject to military authority is almost the inverse of an interactive map, that allows one to accommodate individual agency. For in the face of exact mapping of spatial position, the wall offers a retrograde “dumb” map of the nation’s border–and a map generated by the concept of Homeland Security more than nation, or the compulsion to remap Homeland in the Age of Trump, to guard the nation against those seeking to improve their lot. The definition a “border wall” defines a new relation to space, as it increasingly projects a new relation of the United States to the world, less as a beacon of liberty or a home of freedoms, than a disturbingly hollowed out image of a state.
Although the conceit of the wall is to define a fixed line–the border–rather than a space, the conceit of the stability of that borderline stands as a means to contain the fear of global immigration flows that have grown in recent years since the refugee crisis of 2015–a crisis refracted oddly through transborder migration in dehumanized images of “transborder flows” increasingly mapped as in need of containment, from a man whose entry into politics was to cast Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists” as if they posed a national threat? With a poisoned rhetoric as vicious as Trump’s attack of the “Central Park Five,” suddenly undocumented immigrants were seized upon and painted as a principal national threat. The redefinition of the border as a site for the repulsion of othered subjects–migrants who are defined as criminal, unfamiliar with American ways, poor, and rural in origin–seeks to arrest “streams of migrants” but stands to create a far greater humanitarian in the misplaced rationality of its “border calculus.”
And although we don’t like to admit it, given its deep illiberalism, Americans elected Trump because he promised to build a border wall. The border wall is an image of solidity conceals its actual nature as a sign of tyranny, once it is presented as a crucial part of a religion of the state, as it has been within the Trump administration, necessary to defend the homeland and public safety: but the radical incommensurability of the border wall with any actual threat–as with many global right-wing almost reflexive reactions to fears of immigration–lacks a clear relation to threats which it claims to react. Despite the indication of a global context by an orienting compass in the lower right, the border structure seems a microcosm designed to apprehend the “illegal alien” whose criminality is defined prior to charges being brought, and define a space for the Border Patrol Authorities to monitor the borderlands. Rather than to accommodate the needs or stories of migrants seeking to travel across it, the border wall serves to define migrants’ “illegality” as “undocumented aliens” and offer a site for immediate apprehension, staging a conflict between two nations–albeit without an actual declaration of war.
The border wall conceals itself as a break from politics as usual, because it is a dare or conceit of bravado of such extreme implausibility. Despite heterogenous boundaries built over the past 12 years in the Bush and Obama administrations on the border, peaking between 2006-8, when 481 miles of fencing were built between Mexicali and El Paso, the vaunting of an “impenetrable” “real” wall would replace them all: compelling in its linear bluntness, it serves to concretize a response able to contain what seem to be proliferating dangers of immigration flows on which we have lost purchase–and the ability adequately to map in the collective imaginary. For the tool of the wall is a conceit of boundary drawing, affirming collective identity, and rejecting what is cast as contamination, in a throwback to a vision of purity. “Illegal entry is a crime,” DHS Secretary Nielsen has intoned, suggesting that all asylum seekers as legitimate Ports of Entry will not be prosecuted, but that lack of evidence of a verified familial relationship demands scrutiny, and blames Congressional laws for the splitting of families at the border, arguing that many of the alleged parents in fact pose security risks to the common good, and blame the immigrants “put their [own] children at risk,” and allow them to be exposed to anti-trafficking laws that Trump seeks to enforce. The blaming of migrants for causing risks to their children, and insistence on a “zero-tolerance policy” of procedural detainment to stop faceless “streams of migrants” threatening to move across the border without the imposition of a wall masks all sense of their individuality or humane reaction to their plight.
The wall indeed offers a way to obscure their identity, and silence their stories. The border wall may underscore the inadequacy of immigration courts to process migrants–leading the Attorney General to fall back on the authority of the unbuilt wall, and its false salvific narrative, arguing that “If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices.” The current flooding of immigration courts with those children seized by U.S. Border Patrol–as the majority of federal criminal prosecutions concern immigration violations, bloating courtrooms in southwestern Texas with double the caseloads of previous months. The border wall that positions executive authority on the border in camps of detention for future deportation creates a new basis for responding to the threats of immigration evoked on the campaign trail, but which neglect our own national needs and divide the body politic, even as they disrupt the notion of a nation guided by a body of laws.
The construction of the border wall ignores actual infrastructures of education, public transportation, and open access that America most needs. The wall, which seeks to enshrine the criminality of the misdemeanor of border-crossing by elevating its criminality, and amassing border police and immigration authorities to process migrants as criminals, provide a means of dehumanizing the migrant, lest we want “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country”–an image that casts the migrant as a bacillus, in a stock fascist trope, and the Nazi description of the migration of Jewry to Europe and the rest of the world to parasitical rats, who Nazi propaganda films described as carrying crime, gangsterism, and shady financial transactions to the greater world as they cross national border lines.
Nazi Propoganda Film, 1940
The border wall is compelling in its linear bluntness of containing cross-border flows of migrants. But if the border wall helps concretize a response to a global problem, pretending to contain proliferating dangers of immigration flows on which so many have lost purchase, it erases the stories of the migrants themselves, and seeks to subject them to the state. Is the border wall enough to give the nation a bearing on numerous problems of immigration that Trump–who seems more eager to announce the crises of national consequence than any recent President, as if he thrives off of crisis without concern for the national psyche or well-being–seems set to evoke? More to the point, perhaps, the border wall is an illustration of a new form of governmentality over the individual migrant, and the entry into the nation: it provides a form to address the complex of immigration and immigration reform that Trump has promised as a way to keep immigrants out, and echoes the carceral state to which it is so closely tied, far more than the border-fencing that was begun back in 1997. And so, turning away attention from true effects of the wall on migrants, Trump celebrates the wall as a reform of laws, or a replacement for law; a response of executive power; and a means of not reviewing or hearing the stories of migrants.
To be sure, the proliferating crises of globalization and population have been narrowed and refracted from a global point of view to the point of view of only one nation–in a new iteration of America First. But the conceit of the border wall on which Trump was elected rests on a distortion that it affirms a place–or line–in relation to a global crisis to which it offers less of a realistic response than a retrograde complication. The southwestern border was first defined a site that required monitoring in the Nixon era, and the United States has long struggled to accommodate the different topographical problems of varied terrain, broad rivers, and existing laws and habitat of the region, the simplistic and univocal nature of a single, uniform wall Trump proposed–“a great great wall”–as if to distinguish it from China’s Great Wall as an illustration of state power. But unlike the Great Wall, the border wall is a structure of governmentality that defines state power over the subject of the individual migrant. Rather than define a “place,” or even the space of the border, the brilliance of the wall as a conceit is that it abstracts the border from humanity.
Building a border wall is not a simple project: few earlier Presidents would imagine such an immensity. Its construction along 2,000 miles of borderlands would call for a massive amount of poured concrete, shipped across huge spaces, many workmen, and much labor, and would be projected to necessitate an increase of border patrol agents, and a 50% growth of immigration officers to guard it. The border wall would make the entire border region a site of military management; it would obscure and deny legal rights in the country, collectively define migrants as criminals. For the image of the border wall creates prison bars through which to view all lands south if the ‘border’ and the new governance of the region. The combined presence on the borderlands of the Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who plan to build tent cities designed for 1-5,000 in Texas for unaccompanied children crossing the border, to be run by Health and Human Services, as at the Tornillo Port of Entry, near El Paso, a U.S. Border Protection facility. They define a new space of governmentality–removed from courts or representation, and removed from any court system or representation.
The wall is a surrogate for this image of governmentality–and the relation of the individual to governance–in ways so absurd that it is only apt that they have concretized around the image of separating children from their families, and placing them in separate facilities, as the wall suggests one of the most rudimentary means of population control for those who face it, even as it stands, apart from its context, as a floating signifier of national power. Despite its immensity and the challenges posed by its engineering, the border wall exists in the mental imaginary, as well, defined against an unnamed individual subject–as much as to divide space, it creates a new legal space for individuals, and indeed for all who migrants it groups in a collective. For the notion of the wall along the border seeks to materialize a permanent divide that obscures the relation of the wall to the individuals who cross the border annually, and to shift attention from the migrants to the criminality of migrants in ways that erase their stories in a definitive fashion. Even if it is not built–or not completed–the success of its construction in a collective mental geography effectively criminalizes all migrants–both undocumented and not.