Demonstrators in El Paso, Texas in June 2018. USA TODAY Network/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
"Walls”, “fencing”, “barriers”, “steel slats” – many are the terms being bandied around by lawmakers in the United States as they seek compromise on the further fortification of the US-Mexican border. Although a second government shutdown tomorrow looks unlikely, President Donald Trump's remarks to his supporters that “we’re building the wall anyway” indicate that he will continue to search for ways to forcefully fulfil one the central promises of his 2016 presidential campaign.
The southern border of the United States has been portrayed by the US government as a national security threat for much longer than Trump has been in office. Although barriers first started to go up in the major border cities in the early 1990s, it was the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 and the start of the ‘war on terror’ that precipitated the Secure Border Initiative and the doubling of the border protection budget to $12 billion. The existing barriers – initially constructed from recycled landing strips used in the Vietnam War – were fortified at a cost of $775 million, and a primary fence nearly 700 miles long was constructed at a cost to the US tax payer of $3.9 million per mile. Before the US spends more on more of the same, it’s worth asking how much of an actual security function the existing wall plays.
The physical presence of walls can certainly feel impressive, reminiscent of a past time of fortresses and militias. Yet in today’s day and age, they attempt to project a power they no longer possess. Walls simply do not stop the movement of people – this needs to made clear from the outset. As long as migrants perceive the situation on the other side to be better than what they could ever hope to attain on theirs, they will find ways to cross. They will go around the wall by sea; under it through tunnels; over it with ladders; through it with blowtorches; and across it at official checkpoints through subterfuge and inventive smuggling. As Janet Napolitano, a former secretary of homeland security, once said, “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder”. Where there is a will there is a way.
Meanwhile, the great human cost of border militarisation and securitisation at “La Linea” (as the southern border is informally called) is evident in the data on migrant deaths. The IOM Missing Migrant Project estimates that 124 individuals have died since 2014 on this border. This is surely an underestimate, given that most migrants attempt the crossing in the most inaccessible and dangerous areas to avoid detection. And paradoxically, as the border becomes increasingly fortified and harder to cross, migrants are incentivised to settle in the United States permanently once they make it over. From the standpoint of the wall’s proponents, this can only be seen as counterproductive.
The sociological impact of border militarisation is equally troubling. Walls are symbolic reiterations of frontiers and thus markers of difference – a physical declaration of the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Thus it is no surprise that the increasing fortification of the southern border over the past 50 years has paralleled the worsening of attitudes towards Mexicans and Latinos, culminating in the generalised fear of the “Latino Threat”. This often spills over into outright hostility, weakening social cohesion and fuelling anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy initiatives, including projects to refuse public education to the children of undocumented immigrants and halt affirmative action programmes. Similar dynamics are at work in the rise of border patrol vigilante organisations such as the “Minutemen”, which often use racist or discriminatory language when discussing immigrants and when encouraging their members to exercise their ‘right’ to decide who is worthy of being a US citizen. Among their other activities, the Minutemen allow supporters of the cause to sponsor plates with engraved personalised messages directed at the immigrants, which are then nailed to the fence communicating everything from rancour to aggression (Drop Dead, You are not welcome in the USA, Stay Out or Die, etc).
While Trump insists that a wall is the only effective method of securing the southern border, it is highly unlikely that this is true. If it does eventually get built, its effect on the flows of people and contraband will be radically limited by the technology and ingenuity of those on the other side. This means that, at the end of the day, the power of whatever Trump manages will only ever be largely symbolic. Perhaps that is why it is so attractive to him anyway: a symbol that visually and psychologically gratifies his wish to project rectitude, autonomy and might.