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 in cartographical terms. Whereas states map the world by geographical positioning. 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.
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.
If compelling in its linear bluntness, the concept of the border wall serves to concretize a response able to contain what seem to be proliferating dangers of immigration flows on which many have lost purchase–and the ability to adequately map. 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.
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. Whereas solutions to the border, first treated as a site that required monitoring in the Nixon era, 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 that Trump first proposed–“a great great wall,” as if to distinguish it from China’s Great Wall–along 2,000 miles of borderlands would call for a massive increase of border patrol agents, and a 50% growth of immigration officers that would make the border region a site to obscure and deny legal rights in the country, collectively define migrants as criminals, and create prison bars through which to view all lands south if the ‘border’ and the new governance of the Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on the border, where we plan to build tent cities of 1-5,000 at military posts in Texas for unaccompanied children crossing the border, run by Health and Human Services,–removed from any court system or representation.removed from any court system or representation.
Despite its immensity and the challenges posed by its engineering, the border wall exists in the mental imaginary, as well, defined against an unnamed individual subject–as much as to divide space, it creates a new legal space for individuals, and indeed for all who migrants it groups in a collective. For the notion of the wall along the border seeks to materialize a permanent divide that obscures the relation of the wall to the individuals who cross the border annually, and to shift attention from the migrants to the criminality of migrants in ways that erase their stories in a definitive fashion. Even if it is not built–or not completed–the success of its construction in a collective mental geography effectively criminalizes migrants both undocumented and not.
The cognitive power of the border wall were recently incarnated in several faux mock-ups–segments of wall intended to constitute the “continuous” and “impenetrable” wall to replace fencing Trump has dismissed as easily breached–resemble prison architecture. If Trump dismissed fencing as easily and scaled to guard the Homeland effectively, the border wall offers an alternative patriotic image of a vertical flag, its canton and honor point able to be seen from either side, and fashioned as an opaque strip, undoing the form of the flag from all obligations of heraldic etiquette.
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.
In girding the nation against multiple dangers, and providing a new sign of patriotism that seems to replace the flag: indeed, the flag-like proportions of these mock-ups seems to suggest a new flag for the nation, 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–a sort of surrogate for the purification of the country, restoration of the economy, and an elevation of the minimum wage, wrapped into a promise of poured concrete.
The inverted flag painted on the oldest fencing by deported US veterans in 2013 was meant to suggest a symbol of distress at the deportation policies. Deported former soldiers chose the wall as a site for a cry of emergency: they are eerily prescient of the flag-like nature of the mock-ups, sections of which uncannily resemble a vertically hoisted flag. After disabled US Navy veteran Amos Gregory, a San Francisco resident, completed the painting with twenty deported veterans to paint the flag, he was shocked at charges of creating an iconography deemed “hostile toward the United States of America.” Gregory, a US citizen, chose the image of an inverted flag as a distress signal that is used at sea–to show honor to the flag, and to “mean no disrespect” to the nation, but raise alarm at its policies. The collective dismay when asked to remove the mural by US Border Patrol, who argued it sent the wrong message, sent a message of censorship as an attack on freedom of expression; Gregory had incorporated crosses to commemorate on the wall the migrants who died as they sought to enter the United States for better lives and livelihoods to find a place for their commemoration, as well as to call attention to an undermining of ideals of freedom he cherished by placing their memory on the wall–not to dishonor the flag, but to use it as a symbol of extreme gravity
The current mock-ups suggest a similar undermining 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–
–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.
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. The faux csensual 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, allowing migrants to move across them with the aid of GPS, or Google Maps, empowered by the location of border check-points on their cross-border transit,–
—the border wall maps 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–
–and an obstacle that will allow better the apprehension of migrants who will be confined by Homeland Security agents, deprived of their rights, in the multiple improvised and established detention centers–mostly private–that are on the other side of the border. The penal architectural idiom of the border wall prototypes resonate with the penal archipelago of detention centers–a new Siberia–that lie, removed from population centers and non-profits dedicated to immigrant rights or advocacy, in the desert wilderness of our over-heated southwest, an inversion of the frozen north that was the site of Russian labor camps in the Cold War.
ENDIsolation Immigration Detention/Freedom for Immigrants Map immigrant jails (red); visitation centers (lavender); Jails (blue); private prisons (black)
While nationalist in its tenor, Trump presented the border wall almost intentionally as biblical in epochal tones as if it proclaimed new era of mankind, or a shift in government that makes the end of a republic, and a declaration of the purity of the nation or the project of making America great again–and doing so in uppercase. But Donald Trump’s perennial projection that “we are currently beginning to build” a structure that will define a new era not only recycles all the old tropes of naturalizing the separation of religions or peoples, repeating and extending the charges of criminalization of refugees and migrants in previous decades. The escalation of apprehension of migrants–an increasing number of whom are families with children and unaccompanied children, most from Central America–has meant an expanding number of temporary sites for immigrants waiting climes for asylum and holding centers, with poor sanitary and living conditions, even as relations between the US and Mexico have declined with talk of the border wall–despite the clear presence of the border wall through many twinned cities on either side of it.
1. The border wall has concretized and justified the xenophobic desire to gird and bind the nation in ways that run against the actual map of cross-border flows, in ways that have normalized them within political discourse in what were previously almost unthinkable ways. Trump’s piling up of adjectives seemed oddly ekphrastic as he returned so often to an ““impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall” has convinced us to find a national lack–and a new metaphor for the nation, so powerful that it seemed to define the global relation of the United States to the world not in laws but in poured concrete. The border wall that launched much of Trump’s campaign has become a critical part of political discourse itself–a promise of Trump’s distance from politics as usual practices, and defense of American interests–and a platform of Republican politics, ostensibly defining Trump’s opposition to politics-as-usual, even if it is an escalation of a longstanding militarization of the border and criminalization of migrants, evident largely in the archipelago of unlawful sites of detention that strip those detained from rights to consult, rights to speech, or even rights to health and well-being, and separate them from their families and children in deeply painful ways. As the border wall blocks the future of migrants, it suggests a poor human management and environmental management across our borderlands.
1. Although claimed to originate with Trump’s candidacy, as Minerva from the head of Jupiter, fully armed, the border wall processes a long marginal view of the nation threatened by external threats, and of the Homeland, nourished in the Homeland Security Department or new version of the Dept. of Interior. Created to defend against emergencies within and at its borders, as much as manage its interior populations, the notion of Homeland Security is epitomized by the wall, and reflects the subsuming of Immigration and Border Patrol to the defense of “Homeland” that the border wall maps. Rather than define a space, or a national space, the border wall seems a suspension of legality that reinforces the limited rights of those detained in the existing archipelago of detention centers. Such centers, constructed and maintained to strip migrants of their freedoms as they await hearings on asylum, have long served as sites suspend all personal liberties and freedoms. The wall itself–built against international law, and with dispensations to over-ride existing federal laws of historical preservation, conservation, and protection of public land, and even crossing gentering into Mexico’s own national space, emblematizes the power of the executive office over legal tradition.
As a structure of illegality that replaces the law, the wall is the epitome of a remapping of sovereign authority through the executive branch, and redefines governmentality of exercising control over migrants, their citizenship, cases of asylum, and the practices of border control, by introducing the presence of the state into the landscape. Creating a border wall to replace inadequate fencing was however promoted as a pillar of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign that was hardly believable to many observers, although it produced a powerful reaction as a rational form of limiting citizenship and civil rights: was only a rhetorical posture of leadership, newspapers and journalists asked, or an actual platform? wondered many. But the announcement of the start of the process of building shifts from insistence on the project to affirmation that it is underway and actually being built, in ways that have necessitated a change in rhetoric and a search for visual evidence of its construction. Candidate Trump presented the “border wall” not only as a slogan while campaigning, but an assertion that would be enabled by executive authority, and the need to materialize its presence in the collective consciousness has grown acute. The roll-out of plans for a border wall is not only a mapping of the nation’s southwestern border, but a maximalist project that seeks to unify the nation behind the magnification of state authority over civil liberties, seemed almost a bizarre Faustian bargain for the man seeking to be president who ran on the notion of circumscribing and curtailing individual rights.
But it was quick to gain a unifying power remap a logic of governmentally, escluskding foreigners, defining a new limit of legality, and obscuring the law. IN replacement of “bad” immigration laws, written without love of the nation, the increased introduction of a collective possessive–“our wall;” “our southern border wall”–as a compact has created a sense of false proximity to the border wall to much of the nation, making what was a primarily exclusionary project a collective project, and introducing a new form of civil classification. While the notion of a barrier along the border was earlier entertained–Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin proposed a boundary barrier between Canada and United States in 1995, and cross-border movement has since the 1990s provoked concern about border fencing, the gesture of a monumental wall to across the southwestern border, Trump defined the “border wall” as a platform of his campaign, mirroring the expansion of physical boundaries among over sixty nations, as a testament to his own nationalist credentials.
It is hard to say where it came from–Trump or his advisors. The maximalist project of a border wall was clearly planned at a remove from local landscape, civil engineering, or established policy of managing borderlands, and seems so utterly removed from it to be credibly mapped not only in Washington, DC–where Trump signed and gleefully proclaimed two executive orders that allowed the construction of the border wall and amplified powers of deportation of those who were found to be “Illegally” residing in the nation–but redefines the relation of migrants to the law in more than symbolic ways.
January 25, 2017
The proclamation of intent to build the border wall to respond to immigration and “border security” occurred within the Dept. of Homeland Security shortly after Trump’s inauguration on January 25, 2017, in an illustration of his seizure of executive power–and the expanded power of the executive in the Age of Trump. It suggested a policy so alien to the management of the borderlands, engineering practices, government spending, and unilateral action that it may as well have been orchestrated \–as it seems increasingly possible. Early evidence of an authoritarian relation to the redesign of government lands in the name of ostensible national defense, for which there was no actual proof.
Trump’s increasingly personal attachment to the border wall and to was-building–the “our” seems increasingly important to him to define who is for and against his use of executive authority–would indeed be the perfect project by which to goad the master-builder, to tempt him to rise by planning a projected redesign of the nation’s southwestern on an unheard of scale, by connecting and reinforcing existing segments, to define and defend a new idea of th enation. The project that was one without regard for environment, landscape, or topography–as the basis of a quasi-sacral promise to an abstracted nation, organized about protecting an image of invading threats from entering ostensible gaps.
For all its American jingoism of retrenching against globalization, nationalism, and faux populism, the image of this remapping of the nation may have a surprising pedigree in its distinctly authoritarian relation to borderlands. In an article penned in The Moscow Times, of all places, journalist Elizaveta Osetinskaya allowed that”Much like the United States, Russia has its own ‘Mexico’” in the “former Soviet republics, now independent countries in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan,” which send “millions of migrants . . . . legal and illegal, who suffer from all types of discrimination, hate speech and abuse,” despite strong nationalism in Russia , “Even Putin would not build a wall!” As former editor of Russian Forbes, after being pushed out of the business news outlet RBC, Osetinskaya was a fellow at fellow at Stanford University in 2016 during the election, and her temporary residence in the United States lent her credibility, but her extreme distortion of American xenophobia as a widespread discrimination seemed only to normalize Trump.
The comparison between Putin and Trump, while negative, is instructive. Putin long cultivated a rhetorical demonization of others on the border of Russia a enemies of the Russian state, the security threat that Trump and the Trump campaign have singled out with a rhetorical persistence bordering on outright alarmism. One wonders if the thirteen Russian nationals accused of intentionally seeking to “promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy” with the “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.” The alleged branch of “Project Lakhta” that focussed on the U.S. population created social media presence, false grassroots activists, who staged rallies and created large websites from 2014, that concealed their Russian origins; the waging of war on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” would definitely have amplified the demand for a border wall and could find no better fault line to exploit than through the image of a border wall.
Osetinskaya suggests an equivalence of rampant discrimination and hate abuse in Russia to what immigrants in the Unites States experience is false; despite her admission that “Many Russian people think illegal migrants are evil and responsible for a wide range of crimes”–a distortion of American xenophobia if there ever was one–only normalizes the immigration ban as reflecting American feelings, leading her to conclude that “Putin and Trump’s immigration policies are very different.” It is hard to know what Osetinskava’s claim means–it may naturalize Trump as a leader, or offer Americans a whitewashed image of Putin–but her statement suggests the deeply similar authoritarianism of Trump’s policy, and its privileging of “border security” over liberty.
If a constellation of short barriers existed for some time, the continuous wall suggests that its history is increasingly forgotten, as a foreclosure of futures and its future effects dominate attention. For the wall that would divide several cities along the border–
El Paso TX and Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua/Mwilliams151
–in a spectral dissolution of the contiguous areas of the borderlands, here showing the divide between El Paso Texas and Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua, which predominates our collective attention, and continues along other cities divided along the border, from Tiuana/San Dieago through Cuidad Juárez/El Paso to Matamoros/Brownsville.
The dramatically oversimplified images of the border suggest the opening of multiple “gaps” and lacuna reduce the site of the future border wall complex on social media to a simple image have communicated,–either intentionally or not, an image of national vulnerability. The several tretches of “border with no fence” marked so prominently as open gaps–as if in a dream of division–
–erasing the history of the border or population flows by focussing attention on a supposed “line” as the site of a future “wall” to exclude migrants–
–by graphics that have effectively flattened our attention to ecological costs, human consequences or the historical complexity of cross-border relations.
Osetinskaya’s comparison also oddly conceals the lack of precedent for Trump’s border wall in American laws or our legal system. For the parallel of modes of thought of authoritarian governing by a cult of personality are increasingly evident. The very comparison reveal how similarly wedded Trump is to the dominance of authoritarian over the law in his advocacy of the border wall. Despite the false nature of an equivalence between the border wall and immigration policy, it is oddly an echo of Trump’s own talking points–as it erases the subtraction of civil liberties form immigrants, and the huge stigma that the border wall represents and the undoing of established legal process of immigration that it seeks to replace. While Trump projected faux populism onto the border wall as a shift in “immigration policy” alone, he concealed the continued escalation of Border Patrol agents–from 3,000 total agents to 20,700 in 2011, with 18,600 now stationed on the US-Mexico border, as “operational control” over the border has transformed the border from a permeable barrier into an imagined line of combat as if it were a collective resistance to immigration that demanded the border states to be placed on red alerts against the entry of all immigrants.
The evocation of a wall long existed as a slogan–a “beautiful wall,” an “impervious wall,” a “real wall”–has accentuated a new geographic imaginary of the nation, able to be defended and protected, far beyond protecting border crossing. As if by an act of will, located in Washington, the vision of the proposed “border wall” that is perpetually in a state of being begun serves as an act of will that tries to be imposed on the landscape. It has staked absolute authority over immigration that sought to rewrite previous decades of relations to Mexico, by recasting the “porous” membrane between two countries through a new national map, focussed on its borders, and haunted by the need to monitor them to protect cross-border flows, and to remap the frontier between two countries, as if the border wall is part of the very landscape and topography,–even though it seems to have been arrived from outer space: rarely has such a Faustian bargain for a collective project of construction been promised as an illustration of executive power with so diminished an understanding of the executive office.
The perpetual promise of the border is less about the actual topography or function of a wall. But it is a pact with the nation to expand violence over the individual, restrict the rights of immigrants, and expand a logic of deportation and criminalization that has already been longstanding among vulnerable groups. The pact isn’t limited to Trump, but stand to compromise the moral authority and legal responsibilities of the government in ways most Americans don’t fully fathom, increasingly fed doctored images posing as updates on its construction that create the illusion of its ongoing, imminent, or construction.
The border wall now stands as the most alien aspect of the border, and projected at a distance from the entire landscape: perhaps the very distance of the border wall from its surroundings is in evidence in how Trump is trying to convince the country almost incessantly that everyone in the nation lives in close proximity to the wall, and to the threat of immigration it will protect. In ways that may have been created on social media, but occurred through the election, the border wall has assumed an increasing inevitability, and with it the inevitability of the circumscription of rights of all immigrants, undocumented or not, in the process of petitioning for asylum–and even rescinding or stripping citizenship of many Americans deemed to have made fraudulent or false statements to immigration authorities. For the wall is an indictment of all who would cross it, it is even more undermining of the legal terrain to allow increased deportation. Beyond architecture and engineering, the wall is designed as a new structure of governmentality, redefining relations of disempowered and the state.
And of a piece with the effective separation of 2,000 children from their families in six weeks in May and June 2018 alone, in what is argued to be a continuity with previous border policy but is not, and whose ethics are even defended by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions–as part of a “zero tolerance” policy of “illegal” entry, even if this construal of illegality is not strictly within the law, but a new Homeland Security policy: and if Sessions has defended the policy by Paul’s words in Romans 13 as civil laws God “ordained . . . for the purpose of order”–even if pediatricians found separating children from their parents is likely to cause them irreparable psychological harm. Homeland Security asserts that prosecution, rather than separating families, is the official program–“We do not have a policy to separate children from their families. Our policy is, if you break the law we will prosecute you“–but the metaphor of dismembering an organic whole, and is aptly concretized in the border wall.
The religion of the border wall was almost referenced in Jeff Session’s recourse to Romans 13 to justify the policy of civil prosecution of adults that separates them from children. Yet if the same chapter of Romans finds Paul describing the essence of God’s laws to be ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” separation of those seeking asylum between official points of entry from their children justly drew swift condemnation from churchmen and religious groups familiar with the passage. For the border policy reflects a religion of state–and Sessions’ version has rightly provoked immediate and vociferous condemnation from religious leaders who found profound lack of ethical guidance in the Attorney General’s poorly chosen scriptural defense: the omission of the word “neighbor” and both Law and the Prophets support treating both strangers and the immigrants with mercy in elevating “orderly and lawful processes [as] good in themselves.” But separating vulnerable migrant families in structures of detention cannot be seen as anything remotely like a form of protection of the weak or lawful–and seems only intended to discourage immigration without proper papers, if it had long been rejected as an option of border control given its inhumanity–and the utter absence of any clear strategy in the long-term.
Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty Images
One might due better to recall Mikhail Bulgakov’s wry version of the story of the sensitive Yeshua, stripped of all claims to authority, who preached “every kind of power is a form of violence against people” that survives until there “will come a time when . . . . Man will enter the kingdom of trust and justice, where no such power will be necessary,” but until such redemption we remain condemned to live in a cycle of revenge and retribution, without compassion. Yeshua’s statement rejects the hierarchical power of Rome or Jerusalem, but if intuitive is historically acute as a portrait of a figure of religious healing, is itself an exercise of the redemptive nature of historical study.
The emphasis placed on border security is a removal of American authority or mapping from history, abstracting executive power subtracting civil liberties. Jasper Johns’ interest in the vertical flag in a series of paintings form c. 1973 is a purely formal echo, but prompt us to ask how the possible panels–faux sections for the future border wall–suggest a formalist sort of patriotism,
Jasper Johns, Flags (1997)
Jasper Johns, Flags 1 (1973)
whose stripes echo bars, and the misplaced nationalism of the border wall.
Was the mock-up of such a border wall the first defense in an increased elevation of the border as a line of living national defense? For the the “big, beautiful wall” that is primarily promoted as a structural creation, serves not only to remap the border, but to remap migrants’ legal rights, liberties and local governance over immigration. The policing of the border zone is concretized in an image of state authority that intertwines deeply symbolic values–a protective wall; a wall of security; a sacred wall; a state monument to the defense of values that boasts to resolve intentionally vague “immigration problems” argued to afflict the nation over many, many years. But if the promise of the wall is to break through politics as usual, its promise suggests a rewriting of a notion of the nation, swerving from the protection of individual liberties, to the ostentatious expansion of state power over the borderlands. Rather than continuing payments to the development of Mexican infrastructure, the massive shift of funds to the border is a poor policy of borderlands management that plays to the supposed Trumpist heartland and ensures the eroded civil liberties of all immigrants. And the separation of families at the border by U.S. Border Patrol is all but admitted to be a bargaining chip with the Democrats to negotiate DACA and immigration.
For in the Trump era, affirming the border wall has become a project of affirming the proximity of the border across the entire country: we are all living beside the border in the age of Trumpism, whose urgency rests in safeguarding a nation, irrespective of geopolitical relevance. Trump remaps reality akin to the limited bearing on geopolitical reality that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat,” that “If we don’t have a wall system, we’re not going to have a country,” upping the ante on the meaning of the border wall beyond its status as a barrier, to present it as an existential power (If Trump announced as if it were a discovery soon after his inauguration that “A nation without borders is not a nation,” in a stretch of logic, that affirmed the need for the wall as a not only a security but an image of national integrity. Even as most who live near the border oppose its creation, the promise of the wall has permeated the nation, remapping attention to the borders, in a major remapping of government priorities.
And it is perhaps not surprising that the partisan differences in how Americans regard Mexico have become increasingly accentuated, with less than half of registered Republicans viewing Mexico positively, and almost there quarters of Democrats: the geographic weighting of Americans residing near the border to regard Mexico more positively than those dwelling over 200 miles from it reveals the constitutive role migration has been gained to define Americans’ perception of the nation across the southwestern border. The geographical determinism of attitudes toward the border suggests the proximity at which Americans feel themselves living to the border: even as most living close to the border found it unwelcome, the promise is more powerful far away from the frontier, where the image of a dangerous, crime-ridden borderlands seem more convincing.
The notion of a physical barrier has assumed far more than defining the border; it is promoted as necessary to save the country. Although the nation has been seduced by this notion of protective benevolence, the violence of the wall, however concealed by its sleek design that recalls prison architecture or minimalist poured concrete more than the largest infrastructure project proposed since the US Highway System, Erie Canal, or WPA, exists as a perpetual promise, needing to be repeated and affirmed, more than an actual engineering project that can be realized only by using a tenth of the total concrete consumed in the United States: if architects use walls to define space, the wall is removed from space or context. It resembles a huge moved earth project, of fabricating and relocating some 340 million cubic feet of poured sheer concrete at a cost of $25 million per mile.
If it seems streamlined, it isn’t a modern project, but a neo-medieval monument to exclusion that seems a last gasp of power, but is more of an abdication of state agency to military contractors. As U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told Forbes perceptively the “a fence is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem,” the wall echoes the assertion of medieval power over transit that fails to account for the situation on the ground–or the status of migrants as individuals with rights.
2. The promise of building the wall is presented as a collective project of strength–albeit in wrong-headed ways. But the allocation of funds to a borders wall ignores the multitude of actual infrastructure problems by which the United States is actually also haunted, from the needed upgrades on fragile train tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, aging bridges, a water system that remains poorly monitored, and an absence of effective recycling programs or effective public transportation. While Trump seems content to leave all these to the free market, he seeks a massive relocation of state assets to a project that increasingly seems to close of the future of good relations with Mexico or Central America, and a fragmentary monument to the redefinition of the state.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Rather than being an engineering project or an architectural project, the border wall is, in an age of increasingly refined mapping, a spatially illiterate reshaping of the borderlands. Designed to affirm its relevance to the nation in the abstract, even as it reduces rights, rather than reflecting local knowledge of immigrants or their rights. In ways that reflect the increasing criminalization of refugees, immigrants and undocumented since the increasing incarceration in the 1990s, the wall cast as keeping criminals outside of the United States seems designed to affirm the continued criminality of all migrants. Despite the codes of ethics that binds the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Institute of Architects, and, the wall is an upending of expertise and redefining of the nation, asserting itself to be break from government as usual, even if the wall dramatically increase sthe authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security.
The contradictory logic of the border wall was no more evident than during the arrival of the caravan protesting longstanding American migration policies in May 2018, the Caravan of women, children, transgender and marginalized or persecuted populations who crossed through Mexico to call attention to their cause, and were quickly criminalized to recast their march as the approach of a threat to our Homeland and national security that we as a nation needed new collective tools–not laws–to confront. The approach of the Caravan, even more deeply disturbingly, became an occasion to argue that laws were indeed the problem, as they failed to protect the nation from a new level of threat from people who did not respect the law.
The promise of building a thirty-foot high concrete wall was repeatedly presented to the electorate as a means to make the nation great again. The presentation of the wall either concealed or dodged actual issues of the nation, from the rising number of children in poverty or homelessness or opioid addiction, as if “immigration” were a greater problem that demanded address–with the excuse that drug cartels and smuggling groups had defaced or disabled the existing wall to necessitate the need for its reconstruction. Trump’s visit to proposed models for the “new wall” seemed almost a sort of religious pilgrimage itself, designed to recreate the reality of a wall he may, in fact, never complete, but has served as the foundation of a religion of the state.
An earlier post in this blog offered that the expanding presence to much of the nation of the border as a site of violence that was long neglected was closely tied to the erosion of the civil liberties along the space where a border wall is to be built. For the prominence of the building of a border wall seems tied to the deterioration of a notion of the secular state along the southwestern border and the creation of a new a space outside of the system of laws, where surveillance, detention, and deportation create a negative space without rights, where families are separated for years, immigrants await potential deportation in subcontracted spaces, stripped of legal rights, and deportation allowed without legal due process. The mythic character of the wall as a substitute for a society of laws seems deeply retrograde: it recalls how Neapolitan jurist Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century described “walls” as a primitive sense of collective belonging, and a primitive version and notion of a nation rooted not in laws but m myth; Vico argued that wall-building historically precedes the rule of law. For it is less in terms of an architectural sense of a wall dividing built space, than the linguistic origins of the term maenia, that Vico identified the noun’s deep relation to munire, to build, o
significance of the linguistic origins of walls, moenia, extended to their earliest use as a form of fortification–the Latin word for ‘walls’ is moenia, a variant of munia; he unpacked the noun’s relation to the verb munire kept the sense of fortifications–whose pre-legal status as a means of control combined violence with religious ritual to stabilize the social order that predates civil laws. The sharp contrast to defining the border wall as a legal threshold with the criminalization of immigration reminds us of the extra-legal origins of boundary-drawing, despite its increasing power as a threshold of the southwestern boundary.
The wall as epitomized as a sense of violence and sacrifice, Vico observed, in Roman history. For rather than reflect the society of written laws of the Romans, Vico argued that wall-building by Romulus was tied to the mythic status of the wall as a site of sacrifice at the root of the founding of a new order that preceded the state–but constituted. Vico sited the Romulan Walls around Rome as site of the death of Remus by his brother, and the violence of the wall where Remus’ death was commemorated as preserving the imagined citadel of Rome as a city of humanity and civilization, separated from the violence that was external to it, where the foundational scene of Remus’ slaying constituted a primal scene of violence that prefigures the authority of the laws, but is foreign to it, and is a site of sacrifice and licit violence, binding the nation before the establishment of a legal code was possible. Given the disdain that accompanies Trump”s denunciation of the insufficiency of immigration laws as the grounds needed for the promise of an “impenetrable” border wall where U.S. Border Patrol agents can arrest and deport those “illegal” aliens–rather than follow the “poor policy” of “catch and release” where immigrants are freed pending legal hearings, asked to appear in court at a later date, and may “exploit” the system of U.S. justice by not even showing up to court for asylum hearings and remain in the US. The wall responds to these predicaments of the insufficiency of existing laws by emptying of the legal state and a mythic promise to protect the integrity of the nation, without legal due process, preserving the “security” of the nation and ending the “catch and release” policy of deportable immigrants, elevating the wall as the site for violence that has no need to follow the law.
Much as the primal act of violence of the slaughtering of one’s own brother occurred at the Romulan wall, in an emblem of the founding of a state, the violence toward one’s neighbor is elevated in the Border Wall, which is a similar emblem of a pre-legal state. The elevation of the border as a site of detention without conviction, of removal from children and family and legal advocates, and of imprisonment creates a shadow state of suspending individual rights and upholding the religion of the nation, rather than the law. Trump cast the wall’s need as an urgent imperative, meeting a state of emergency, that seemed to prepare for the migrants’ advance, as he adopted and cultivated a notion of the border promoted by Border Security that has warped the notion of sovereignty by a notion of national frontiers as a restoration of order that seem to predate the civil institution of the law–and would replace “faulty” and “terrible” immigration laws, written by those who “hate” the nation–as if the authoritarian border wall itself seeks to dismantle a legal process of immigration, and strip actual US residents of their rights.