Borders & Belonging: Why we build border walls
Since the 1990s, the world has seen a spike in border wall construction. What is driving the increase?
The episode begins with a reflection from journalist Todd Miller on the dangers facing undocumented migrants along the US-Mexican border. Host Maggie Perzyna is then joined by Douglas Massey (Princeton University) and Elisabeth Vallet (University of Quebec at Montreal).
Maggie is a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Migration & Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University and this new podcast is Borders & Belonging. Maggie will talk to leading experts from around the world and people with on-the-ground experience to explore the individual experiences of migrants: the difficult decisions and many challenges they face on their journeys.
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She and her guests will also think through the global dimensions of migrants’ movement: the national policies, international agreements, trends of war, climate change, employment and more.
Borders & Belonging brings together hard evidence with stories of human experience to kindle new thinking in advocacy, policy and research.
Top researchers contribute articles that complement each podcast with a deeper dive into the themes discussed.
Borders & Belonging is a co-production between the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration & Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University and openDemocracy. The podcast was produced by LEAD Podcasting, Toronto, Ontario.
Upcoming episodes investigate:
How has Brexit Changed the UK for Migrants? Despite the well-documented benefits of labour migration, much of the discussion before the referendum in the UK argued that it was a bad thing. Now, a few years on, are labour shortages painting a new picture or are migrants forever stigmatised?
Alex Bulat, a Romanian-born councillor on Cambridgeshire County Council, provides a voice from the ground. Bridget Anderson (Bristol University) and Aija Lulle (Loughborough University) talk about fear of migration and why they feel hope for the future of migrants in the UK.
Human Smuggling or Human Trafficking? Why the Difference Matters Politicians sometimes talk about human smuggling and trafficking as if they were the same thing. It’s not always because of ignorance: they want to gain support for blocking the flows of all migrants and refugees.
In this episode we hear from Luca Stevenson of European Sex Workers Rights Alliance, who explains that, even with sex workers, we have to look at what drives them to the trade in the first place and recognise that laws to prevent trafficking can cause vulnerable women even more harm. Maggie speaks with Kamala Kempadoo (York University) and Gabriella Sanchez (University of Massachusetts) who argue that we need to look deeper at the systemic injustices behind smuggling, at what drives people to risk everything for a chance of a better life.
Below, you will find links to all of the research referenced by our guests, as well as other resources you may find useful.
Art and poetry
'10 Border Walls That Artists Have Turned Into Powerful Protests' by Maya Kroth, Afar (30 July 2019)
'Home' by Warsan Shire
'$11 Billion And Counting: Trump's Border Wall Would Be The World's Most Costly' by John Burnett, NPR (19 January 2020)
'Border wall construction resumes under Presedent Joe Biden: The Biden administration laid out its plans to rev up work on completing Donald Trump’s signature project'. by Ryan Devereaux, The Intercept (18 September 2022)
'Monsoon Rains Just Washed Away Trump’s ‘Impenetrable’ Border Wall' by Jeff Ernst, Vice (23 August 2021)
'The “smarter” wall: How drones, sensors, and AI are patrolling the border: Here’s what a so-called “smart wall” of technology at the US-Mexico border looks like' by Shirin Ghaffary, Vox (7 February 2020)
'This border-straddling U.S. home has a door that leads right to Canada' by Stephanie Lim, Global News (29 June 2017)
''A Huge Opportunity': Venezuelan Migrants Welcome Colombia's New Open-Door Policy' by John Otis, NPR (26 February 2021)
'Fenced in: The Kashmir barrier that is endangering wildlife' by Sajjad Qayyum, Pys.org (23 February 2016)
'Border walls are ineffective, costly and fatal — but we keep building them' by Elisabeth Vallet, The Conversation E(3 July 2017)
'Robot dogs could patrol the US-Mexico border' by Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN (9 February 2022).
'Texas forced to reverse Mexican truck inspection plan as drivers block bridges: Greg Abbott hit brakes on policy after a week of backlash and fears of deepening economic losses as food supplies held in protest' by Maya Yang, The Guardian (16 April 2022)
Bissonnette, A. & Valet, E. (2020). 'Borders and Border Walls: In-Security, Symbolism, Vulnerabilities'. Routledge.
Kennedy, J.F. (2008). 'A Nation of Immigrants'. Harper Perennial.
Massey, D. Alarcón, R., Durand, J. & González, H. (1990). Alarcón, Jorge Durand, Humberto González. 'Return to Aztlan: The Social Process of International Migration from Western Mexico'. University of California Press.
Massey, D., Dyrand, J. & Malone, L. (2003). 'Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration'. Russell Sage Foundation.
Miller, T. (2014). 'Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security'. City Lights Publishers.
Miller, T. (2021).'Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders'. City Lights Publishers.
Miller, T. (2016). 'Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border around the World'. Verso Books.
Miller, T. (2017). 'Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security'. City Lights Publishers.
Vallet, E. (2016). 'Borders, fences and walls: State of insecurity?' Routledge.
Benedicto & Brunet (2018). 'Building walls: Fear and securitization in the European Union'. Centre Delàs d’Estudis per la Pau, Transnational Institute, and Stop Wapenhandel.
Durand, J., & Massey, D. S. (2019). 'Debacles on the border: Five decades of fact-free immigration policy'. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Fernández-Kelly, P., & Massey, D. S. (2007). 'Borders for whom? The role of NAFTA in Mexico-US migration'. The ANNALS of the American academy of political and social science.
Massey, D. (2005). 'Backfire at the Border'. Center for Trade Policy Studies.
Massey, D. S. (2020, September). 'The Real Crisis at the Mexico‐US Border: A Humanitarian and Not an Immigration Emergency'. Sociological Forum.
Miller, T. (2019). 'More than a wall: Corporate Profiteering and the Militarization of US Borders'. Transnational Institute.
Su, H., Qu, LJ., He, K. et al. (2003). 'The Great Wall of China: a physical barrier to gene flow?' Heredity 90, 212–219 (2003).
Trouwborst, A., Fleurke, F., & Dubrulle, J. (2016). 'Border fences and their impacts on large carnivores, large herbivores and biodiversity: An international wildlife law perspective'. Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law.
Valet, E. (2 March 2022). 'The World Is Witnessing a Rapid Proliferation of Border Walls'. MPI.
Welcome to Borders & Belonging, a podcast that explores issues in global migration and aims to debunk myths about migration based on current research. This series is produced by CERC Migration and openDemocracy. I'm Maggie Perzyna, a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration program at Toronto Metropolitan University. The school's name was changed earlier this year to better represent the university's values of diversity and inclusion and to address the harm to the community that was caused by commemorating Egerton Ryerson and his complex ties to colonialism.
Today, we're going to delve into the increase in border walls around the globe. Since World War II, the world has gone from seven border walls to at least 77. Most were built after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Walls are a symbol of security and protection, often the arguments used to justify the steep cost of building them. But are border walls really achieving the goals that are built for? In this episode, we'll hear from two distinguished professors who will weigh in on the intricate layers around why border walls are built and the human toll on each side of the divide. First, we'll speak to someone reporting along the Mexico US border. Todd Miller is an independent journalist based in Tucson, Arizona. He writes for the Border Chronicle and is the author of several books, including 'Build Bridges, not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders'. The impetus for the book was an experience that marked Todd deeply. A few years ago, Todd was driving on a dirt path about 30 kilometers north of the US-Mexico border in Arizona, when he saw a man at the side of the road.
I stopped, I stopped my car. Um, he looked like he was in distress. He was waving his arms. And he came up to, where I had stopped, and I gave him a bottle of water and he drank the water. And I found out that his name was Juan Carlos and he had been walking in the desert for about three days. Um, so he was in a bit of distress.
Todd was concerned. The reality is that thousands of people just like Juan Carlos risk their lives by crossing the desert into the US on a daily basis. In April 2022 alone, US Border Patrol documented the arrival of more than 230,000 people at the southwest border. But of that number, it’s likely only a small percentage will remain in the country before they are deported. And Todd feared that might be Juan Carlos’ fate...that is, if he was even able to survive the next few hours in the desert heat.
I asked him, uh, what, if there's anything else I could do for him? And he said, yes, could you give me a ride to the next town? And -- in that moment -- I hesitated.
Todd had good reason to give pause. He knew that -- even though they were in the middle of a dirt road -- they were most definitely not alone.
I knew there were probably roving patrols of the US Border Patrol in their trucks. I knew that we had possibly tripped an unattended motion sensor underground. I knew that there were cameras, there were camera systems and surveillance towers that could see seven miles away. I knew that there was drone systems, predator B drones that the US military has used in Iraq and Afghanistan that were now used on the border that could see from the sky to where we were.
Knowing this was scary enough, but Todd's hesitation extended even further than this.
I knew if I gave him a ride to the next town, I could be pulled over by the Border Patrol. I could be charged with a felony and spend time in prison.
But Todd also knew that he wasn’t the only one who would face consequences if he were to just turn away.
And it was this dilemma, this first hesitation thinking about what might happen if I were to give Juan Carlos a ride. And then the second part of it was a feeling of ire, a feeling of anger, um, of thinking that. You know, the very basic values that I had been taught from a very young age of how you treat your fellow human beings. This would be violated by leaving a person in distress in the middle of the desert, who was obviously thirsty and hungry. And how could you possibly do that?
Todd also couldn’t plead ignorance at what might happen to Juan Carlos if he were to leave him there. Having reported on the US-Mexico border for over 20 years, he knows the statistics all too well.
So, people are walking through these areas. And since more than 8,000 remains of people have been found since these deterrent strategies started in the 1990s, the deadly consequences of them are very evident. And so, knowing that, and knowing that, you know, even where I was… the remains of many people have been found who had been in the similar circumstances as Juan Carlos, that presented a gigantic dilemma.
Understandably, Todd can't really say what he did at that moment...
But I can say one thing that you know if you can probably guess what I did, and that your guess would most likely be correct.
To Todd, that moment with Juan Carlos was an example of the three-pronged approach to the border apparatus that the US has adopted: the physical border walls, roving border patrol agents, and increased surveillance technology…something which he worries many people might not know about, because they simply associate the border wall with the physical 30-foot walls that Trump built.
So, it's been interesting in the, over the last year to see how the Biden administration, that said in its campaign and then right when they got elected, or right when it took office, that it would not build one more foot of wall. And then if you read the next line 'instead, we're going to focus on technology.' And indeed, they have. There's been a lot of technology. There's been contracts. I believe I did this calculation recently, about 8,000 contracts that have been given out to private companies by the Biden administration.
What does this say about the future of the US-Mexico border wall. To Todd it's more of the same as before, just packaged differently?
What the Biden administration kind of frames as more humane way of enforcing the border, in fact is just the same old way of enforcing the border or you could argue in a more invasive way of enforcing the border that is using pretty heavy surveillance, and it has the same effect of trying to stop people from crossing and really, at the end of the day, it has the same purpose as a 30 foot wall.
Thanks to Todd Miller for providing a snapshot from the field. Now I'd like to welcome two guests who can provide unique perspectives through their research on border walls and their effects. Douglas Massey is a professor of sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is the founder of the Mexican migration project studying the complex issues at the southern US border. Also joining in is Elisabeth Vallet, Director of the Geopolitics Observatory and Professor of International Studies at the Royal Military College of St. Jean. Her research focuses on the complexity surrounding border walls and the global challenges that follow. Welcome to you both.
Alright, let's dive in. So, countries typically use security and protection as reasons for building border walls. Are there other motivations for building them?
In the United States, the border has become more important as a symbolic political gesture. The border has become a line on which the United States defends itself from all kinds of threats. The original threat was communism from south of the border, then it became illegal migrants from south of the border, and then it became Ebola, and then it became ISIS and Al Qaeda. And the all-purpose answer for any threat seems to be more border enforcement along the Mexico-US border. Not the Canadian-US border, but just the Mexico US border. And that's a highly racialized construct.
It is a very interesting question and Douglas is right about the fact that you can have several motivations, or several justifications that may overlap over time, for the construction of a wall. And it is interesting that indeed, it happened first at the southern border of the US with a very racialized construct behind. Talking today, actually, there is that discussion in Canada and particularly in Quebec, where the Quebec government is asking the Canadian government to close the Roxham Rd entrance, which is an irregular point of entry for refugees who want to enter Canada. And so, the very idea of closing a border is a mise-en-scene, an answer that we find in very specific times as Douglas was saying. And for instance, here in Quebec we're in election time. So, you will find in those official discourses that will legitimize the construction of the wall, different motives depending on the time and the place where they are being built. So, if we look at, my team and I have been going through the many border walls that we can find around the globe right now and you will see that indeed, smuggling, and trafficking accounts for 24% of the discourses, justifying the construction of the wall, that security, terrorism will account for 23% of them and then you will find negative peace, so we agree that the border should stop here. And we agree that we disagree actually - Indian and Pakistan, in Cyprus, or between the two Koreas - and that's 21%, and the remaining is as we speak today, so I'm talking about the current justification, is illegal - or what we would say irregular - but it's named illegal immigration. So, there are many justifications and as Douglas was saying, it may alternate over time and sometimes even overlap.
What’s amazing to me is the degree to which border militarization persists when the data all show it's backfired historically. So, when the US militarization of the border began in 1986, and the walls started going up. The net effect was not to stop migration from Mexico into the United States but to deter people from returning to Mexico's on a circular migration pattern. Before 1986, 85% of undocumented entries had been offset by departures. As soon as the militarization of the border started, and border crossing became more difficult, costly, and risky. People did the rational thing, which is to minimize border crossing. Not by staying in Mexico but by staying longer and longer in the US. So, we ended up spending $3 to $4 billion a year during the 1990s in order to accelerate the growth of the undocumented population by about 83% because net migration equals in-migration minus out-migration, and our policy intervention had no effect on in-migration but dramatically reduced out-migration. We actually shot ourselves in the foot.
There's lots of myths about border walls, can you maybe speak to some of those?
Border walls are usually an admission of a failure of some other policy and it's an attempt to patch over. And then they acquire these symbolic values that create a life apart from any realistic policy purpose. And that's what happened with the border wall in the United States. It started out as policy to combat undocumented migration. But when that started failing, they started justifying it in other ways, and it became a potent political symbol. And so, from 2008 to 2018. net migration - that undocumented migration from Mexico - was actually negative and more people were leaving than coming in, and yet that was the point at which Donald Trump called for the building of a border wall when undocumented migration had effectively stopped for a decade. And it shows you that it's not a practical policy lever, but a potent political symbol.
Absolutely. It's super interesting to see how when Trump went and signed the border wall actually, it was probably the best image of what is a wall. It's a spectacle, it's a mise-en-scene, it's a theater. And we will see that more and more as illiberal democracies are building more and more walls actually around the world. The need to answer maybe a populist appeal, or even to foster it. In saying that a wall will be built to show the population that 'we are actually doing something'. But what's interesting is that, as Douglas was saying, the policies that are put in place are not the right ones in a week. Even if we're looking at real migration flows, which as Douglas said can be discussed. But if even if we're looking at that, building a wall is not answering the question of the matter because people are leaving and are desperate enough to leave, with their kids and not many things with them, knowing all the dangers and all the risks - because they all really do know that - and sometimes they take incredibly dangerous migratory routes. Through the Darien jungle or through north of the Arctic Circle, for instance, at one point in Norway. So, taking those dangerous routes to the US. So, the problem is far, far away from the border. And the policy that is being used or applied is obviously not the right one and that's where to answer your question, Maggie, where the first myth of the wall lies. It's not preventing the flows of people from coming in. If worse comes to worse, it will make people go through more dangerous routes. And go further underground to be undetected. It will bring, even, organized crime to the border table because there is money to be made. As people used to be, as Douglas said, going back home on a circular pattern. They're not doing that anymore and they have the motivation to stay undetected. So, it's not in the interest of the state to build the wall and it's certainly not in the interest of better security of whatever it is or better control of the flows. It will make them harder to detect but also it will make the migratory routes more dangerous.
The sad thing from my point of view, is that in the United States, the securitization of migration, the false securitization of migration, has been bipartisan. The Democrats have talked a good line about immigration reform, but when you look at the policies, they've been playing handmaids to Republicans initiatives of securitization. It was Bill Clinton who launched the militarization of the border in earnest starting in 1992, 93. And it was Barack Obama who raised deportations to record levels never seen before in the United States, all because they accepted the framing of immigration as a security risk. And once you've accepted that framing, you're forced into building walls, hiring border patrol officers increasing deportations, even though they have nothing to do with the problems at hand.
The normalization of that very idea of the border and of migration, in the US actually, as well in the world, people and governments have adopted the same stance, so we've seen that evolution. And in Europe, it's particularly striking where the visa policies that have been put in place and the Dublin agreements, have actually triggered different type of flows that have been more difficult to assess and control. So, there is definitely a language pattern that goes with populism and the rise of the far right. The Transnational Institute, for instance, in Europe has done a very interesting study correlating the rise of the far right and the erection of border walls, which is really the way the discourse has been framed recently, and it's spreading across the world. It's super interesting for your listeners to really read JFK's book, 'A nation of immigrants' and as you will go and read that book you will remember that there are other ways to talk about immigration that we have totally forgot. All the positives, the positive aspects of migration, which adds to the GDPs of countries, and we know how much we need immigrants. Nowadays in Canada but elsewhere in the world. But it's as if we're unable to reframe the discourse because we are cornered by the conservative way of looking at migration.
And so maybe to switch gears a little bit and think about sort of repercussions of what actually happens when a wall goes up. What happens to the border lines and the people on both sides,
Given my knowledge of the Mexico US border, most of the people living on the border in Mexico or in the United States, would just like Washington and Mexico City to leave them alone. The borderlands was really a binational economic zone with a free flow of people and goods, information, and investments across the border within a single metropolitan area such as Juarez and El Paso or Tijuana and San Diego. And when you start throwing walls up and causing blockages of trucks and trains you get terrible logjams see you disrupt the local economy, and of course, because a lot of the flows across the border are connected to the broader integration that's going on in the economies in Latin America. We have very dysfunctional consequences. When you try to block those flows as Governor Abbott's policy of closing down the truck stops, truck crossings from Mexico into Texas showed. It finally stopped because the private sector, the entrepreneurs were so angry, that he had to pull away from that policy even though it was very successful politically because I think a lot of people would like to see Mexican people suffer.
For sure those walls will disrupt the economy and of course, in some places it has had concrete impacts on the local agriculture, for instance. So, you will find that at the border between India and Bangladesh, or with the West Bank and Israel and other places where farmers used to go on the other side of the line, which was barely a line for them, but they had fields on the other side, or maybe their house so it's on one side and there's still these on the other one. In some cases, even in the US you may have the wall in the middle of your farmland with your farm or your house being on one side and your fields being on the other side. So that has had concrete impact on the lives of people, of borderlanders, and in some cases that has also led to a decline of the economy on at least one side, which has had to rely, for instance more on organized crime, or let's say not even that but a parallel economy. You will see in the "CNI" [unclear] shepherds who have found much more interesting, financially speaking because they were vulnerable already to climate change or other things, to actually become smugglers. And this is profitable because a fence has been erected there. So, it has an impact on the economy. It also has an impact on the ecosystems and there is that one study, for instance, done by the University of Beijing in 2003, showing that on both sides [of the Great Wall of China], there has been a differentiated evolution, genetically speaking, in the fauna and the flora. So of course, it's a long term, it's on both sides of the Great Wall of China so we've had like a few thousand years to assess the evolution, but we do know that it may have an impact on the long term. It may also have an impact on the short term. Let's say if you're using the local water to make concrete to build the wall. We know that a few mammifers [mammals] have had to maybe make some detours that has had an impact at the at the Arizona border, if I recall properly, with the gray wolf, recently. But it's also the case in Kashmir with black bears, or cougars, that have been attacking humans because they had to find other ways to go through the fence. So, there are definitely many borderland impacts that will affect border landers in the short and in the long run.
So many, so many things that people may not even think about.
We also need to remember that all these lands were once Native American lands, and the US-Mexico border was put down middle of territories that were part of Indian nations that are now being divided from one another as the wall goes up and it separates one half of culture from the other half of a culture. You see this all along the Mexico-US border and also along the Canadian-US border, although it's not as severe there because the enforcement is much, much more reduced.
And definitely I think that we need to remind people that there is no such thing as a natural border. Actually, borders are by definition, political objects that are being drawn. And it is then our choice collectively to either have them remain as just a line in the sand or on the other side, be fortified, and maybe thicker, or harder to cross. But indeed, as Douglas was saying we do have seen on the northern border, the bottom line is going in Vermont right in the middle of a library but that was a choice. But right in the middle of houses with people having their living room in Canada and kitchen in the US. Which may have been useful at one point, when they were opening a bar during the Prohibition era but has become quite some trouble for those people because they have a hard time, for instance, insuring the house, because who is going to come if there is a fire. Will they be coming from the from the Canadian side or the US side? So, there are many, many problems associated with the fact that we do assume that borders are somewhat natural and that a world wouldn't make sense. Whereas borders are first and foremost political objects.
Walls are very expensive to build. Are they worth the cost?
Well, I think the whole border enforcement operation is not worth the cost. In fact, it's counterproductive. So, as I said earlier, we're spending millions of dollars a year on a failed policy to actually accelerate the rate of undocumented population growth. And of course, once you build the wall, in the southern part of the United States in the borderland’s region there it's very hostile territory. And even once you build it, over time it can deteriorate. In fact, some of the walls that Trump had rapidly constructed have fallen down already. So, it's really not a viable policy for any real purpose. It's become more important as a political trope than any kind of practical policy answer to any real problem we have.
What do you think that money should be spent on instead?
I've written about this and argued that if we, after we signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, brought Mexico in with Canada and the United States into a single trade zone. Instead of militarizing the border at the time that we did this, if we had used all that money that we spent on border enforcement and turned it into structural adjustment funds to help Mexico solve its problems within its internal political economy, then and opened the border to more movement across back and forth. We would have actually ended up with fewer migrants than we ended up with the enforcement regime. It would have been much better to adopt the European Union's policy when they decided to admit poorer countries like Spain and Portugal, into the European Union. There was debate about whether they should have open borders, but in the end, it was not just an economic project. It was a political project. And so, they, the northern countries bit the bullet and said, okay, we'll admit them in and give them free labor mobility under the Schengen agreement. And surprisingly, what happened, at least surprising to people who don't think about it much, it that once Spain joined the European Union with free rights of labour mobility and was to receive structural adjustment funds to overcome some of the institutional weaknesses they historically had, the migrant flows reversed and Spaniards came back to Spain and it was Germans that were migrating from Germany to Spain to buy villas on Costa Brava near Barcelona and islands in the Mediterranean ended up with German mayors. So, it just shows that you can't integrate an economy, and integrate all markets except one. And that's what we tried to do in North America. Integrate the markets for capital, information, products, services, manufactured goods, and somehow keep labor market separate. It's a contradiction in terms that just ends up creating more problems and ends up in failure.
And your research is really corroborated by the results of other research I've seen in Europe, with the Sub-Saharan migration from Africa. And we do know that actually, as we are fortifying borders, we are doing exactly the opposite of what should be done. And policies that should be used in those cases, apart from the fact that we should have indeed more integrated regional agreements, would be to look for the roots of the problems. So, Syrians have left by the millions to go, mostly to the neighboring states, but a lot of them in Europe. For what reason? Because there was insecurity, and maybe insecurity some assume that that insecurity and the war really started in the first place because of climate change and food insecurity. If we look at the Arab Spring, the triggers were very much around food insecurity. About from the problems, the political problems. So, there are many things that we could do, and those millions should be spent far away from the border on questions related to adaptation, to climate change, some mitigation solutions, should be put into food insecurity and insecurity per se. So actually, the places where we should be spending should be maybe these missions, or in peace operations, which is what we used to do in the 1990s, but we're not doing anymore since 9/11. And cooperation should be actually the place where we should be spending all that money in order to help people stay where they want to stay. You know, there is that one poem by Warsan Shire, who is a Somali-British poet and what she's saying is that nobody leaves home [unless home is in the mouth of a shark], or a place in a dinghy with their kids, unless that home is actually more dangerous than any other dangers that you can know of, as you flee through the Mediterranean Sea or closed borders. There should be a common approach to that problem. But if we want to be very cynical, if we have not been able to have a common approach to the pandemic or a common approach to what's going on in Ukraine, with the food insecurity that it will trigger apart from the conflict itself. Well, I don't see how we can attack or tackle that problem. That border problem from a more global perspective.
We heard from Todd Miller in the opening segment, about how the US-Mexico border wall is now relying more heavily on technology, like drones, and facial recognition technology, as opposed to increasing its physical and material structures. Is this something that you see happening with other walls around the world?
Yes, absolutely. And Todd Miller, has actually written a super report for the Transnational Institute about the border security complex that has been actually working since the end of the Cold War and has very much developed. As border walls are not working as we were saying and are not efficient to prevent any flows from really coming in, the need for further militarization and additional forces and technologies has been obvious. And what's interesting about borderlands across the world, and especially those fortified borderlands, is that they almost function as a laboratory. They are very far away from the center. So sometimes being so remote that the capacity to inquire and check, and maybe ask for accountability is not so easy. And at the same time, the government has been dumping a lot of money and is, at the same time, very remote and very present. And so, in those experimental lands, borderlands we've seen developing some technologies that really borrow from the military complex and Todd Miller has been reporting in the Border Chronicle quite a few times about that. Robots, for instance, being tested. We had drones for a long time and the thermal cameras and sensors and all these means of detection. But for a few years now we've seen some robots appearing. And it raises other questions because if we have a drone, we do have a human at the end of the joystick or whatever, and somebody who is making, maybe making, a humane decision. We could discuss that. But it's for the sake of the argument, whereas a robots will decide based on an algorithm whether to act or not, and if that robot is armed, then it triggers some very harmful consequences, of course. But yeah, so those places have been highly militarized, as Douglas was saying, highly securitized and that has justified a whole set of technological experimentations, artificial intelligence, being one of them as we speak. So yeah, it's a place, it's a real technological laboratory. Those provenance, fortified borderlands are very specific places, specific laboratories, and we should be looking at what's going on there because it will have implications and replications for us, well, sometimes far away from the border.
So, I mean, everything we have been speaking about is pretty dystopian. What makes you feel hopeful or inspired for the future?
I think what technology does is make border enforcement universal throughout a society and not something that is confined to a small segment of territory between two countries. We become a surveillance society, over-surveilled society. And border enforcement is something that occurs every day, everywhere, in a country like the United States. It targets certain kinds of people and reinforces color lines and ethnic and racial divisions. Because they don't target everybody. They target certain people that look in a certain fashion or are perceived to be foreign in some way. And it really takes border enforcement and removes it from being isolated thing that happens in a desert between Texas and Sonora and turns it instead to something that happens on the streets of Los Angeles or Ames, Iowa and not just in the hinterlands in the border regions somewhere.
Well, it's hard to sustain hope these days with the rise of populist nationalism all over the world. I have hope. And I had hoped for people like Obama. And I had hope for people like Biden, in the United States, but nobody is really making the counter narrative that immigration is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. Nobody's saying in the United States that we're a country of immigrants. We've always been a country of immigrants. It's what's made us who we are and what's made us great. The last person to really articulate that point of view was Ted Kennedy, JFK's brother of course, and he was the last person, last politician of national standing to get up and make a case for immigration. Now, the opposition everywhere just caves and buys into the securitization metaphors. And then you can't defend immigrants anymore. There are some elements of hope around the world. The collapse of Venezuela has created this huge outflow of desperate people from that country even though it used to be the richest country in Latin America, and it sits on the world's largest deposits of crude oil reserves. And the state has collapsed and in five years, more than 10% of the country has left. And the United States is reacting of course, with harsher border enforcement and crackdowns, but Colombia next door to Venezuela has taken in about 1.5 million immigrants, migrants, refugees from Venezuela and has accepted them as something they need to do and giving them a legal status and allowing them to live and work in Colombia, even though their resources are a fraction of what we've got. So, there are some enlightened policies around the world. We just need more of them.
[laughing]... I definitely agree, it is difficult to be optimistic in those current times where we've seen during the pandemic borders appear in places where actually we didn't - we knew they existed, but we had never seen them demarcated like that. Right inside Canada between the provinces, sometimes between regions around Indigenous reservations. So, it is difficult to see how we will be able to change the narrative as soon as you are speaking in favor of reframing the discourse about immigration, you are labeled as being for open borders, which most people are not in those terms - like free borders and et cetera. What it will take, it would take probably is a paradigmatical change to the scale of World War II, of 9/11, but also, maybe on another positive stance, maybe like the end of the Cold War. So, something that would change the narratives and the discourses worldwide that would make people see things in a different way. But as long as countries will be sanctuarizing their territories seeing or advertising the border as being the ultimate limit of defense. I don't see how we that will change. So, it will need something else. A change maybe in the structure of the economy, of capitalism, the way we see globalization, something that substantial, that we will need to rethink the global order. Which seems a bit tragic now that I said, but I don't see how it could be otherwise.
Great. Thank you both so much for joining me today. I really, really appreciate it and thank you for sharing all your knowledge and for the amazing work that you do.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to participate.
It's a pleasure.
Thank you to Professor Massey and Professor Vallet for joining me today. And thank you for listening. This is a CERC Migration and openDemocracy podcast, produced in collaboration with Lead Podcasting. If you enjoyed the episode, subscribe to Borders & Belonging on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more information about walls and borders, please visit the show notes. I'm Maggie Perzyna. Thanks for listening.
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