Just another brick in the (Great American) Wall

The construction of a Great American Wall on the border with Mexico is still seen as a pressing necessity by large sectors of the U.S. administration and electorate. Why is it so? The recent initiatives literally build of various decades of border hardening to develop and test large-scale, high-tech, surveillance and control tools. The construction of a geopolitical imaginary neatly separating normality from chaos and danger also plays a part, but more than a linear wall what really matters is the borderspace defined and shaped by it. A first-hand report from El Paso / Ciudad Juárez.

The deadlines for submitting proposals for the implementation of “The Great American Wall” have expired a few weeks ago, by the beginning of April.
The construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border had been presented by the then-candidate for the Presidential election Donald Trump as a crucial measure to protect US citizens from the “tsunami” of migration from Latin America. Amidst the loss of landmarks brought about by the neoliberal globalization, Mr Trump broke the open door of Americans’ fears by reiterating the idea that irregular migration inevitably leads to an incontrollable surge of criminality and insecurity. The call for proposals to actually make the dreamt-of wall real was issued by a presidential decree on 25 January 2017, soon after President Trump took office. It was even before the issuance of the infamous — and short-lived — “Muslim ban”, a fact that speaks volumes of Mr Trump’s priorities, whereby Latin American migrants are seen as more a pressing threat than potential ISIS affiliates. Subsequent pronouncements of the Congress further specified the content of the call, spelt out the criteria for the construction of the wall in terms of toughness, aesthetic appearance and height, and allocated a budget of 2.6 billion dollars.

Yet, in line with a script that has become familiar throughout his presidency, Mr Trump’s post-electoral dynamism evaporated soon, when his bombastic promises clashed against the hardness of reality. First, it turned out that Mexico would not pay for the construction of the wall, as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto made clear. Not unexpectedly so, but still against Mr Trump’s electoral claims. Trying to minimize, and putting a brave face on it, Mr Trump conceded that «for sake of speed, the Great Wall will be paid back by Mexico, later»; the when and how are anybody's guess. Second, the estimated budget for the construction of the wall skyrocketed in a matter of weeks, possibly reaching 15 billion dollars for the Republicans, while other estimates run as high as 21.6 billion Department of Homeland Security or even 38 billion MIT Technology Review. And - third - the creativity of U.S. bidding contractors fell short of expectations, or exceeded them, depending on the point of view. A recent article by The Guardian has listed the most whimsical proposals submitted to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. They include — for instance — that of a company from Illinois who plans to build a wall complete with decorative parapets and square castle watchtowers «to defend what is truly American, and it can start by being beautiful in a way that ordinary American citizens appreciate, rather than by being starkly institutional or by catering to the controversial and perverse tastes of the elites».

Touch of evil

[The US-Mexican border is the setting of Touch of Evil, the 1958 movie by Orson Welles. The border is present but evanescent, more inside-here than out-there, and it's very difficult to tell what side anybody is on. ]

In spite of this wave of post-modern extravagancies, it is worth stressing that the construction of the wall is by no means a novelty. Sure, there was perhaps a time when one of the characters in Orson Welles's iconic 1958 motion picture Touch of Evil could utter to his wife the famous line:

Susie, one of the longest borders on Earth is right here between your country and mine. Open border. Fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun in place. Yeah, I suppose that all sounds very corny to you.

Indeed. The latest initiatives by President Trump's administration are just the most recent — and typically pretentious — stage of a process of "borderization" (i.e.: extended border hardening process) that has been in progress since the 1970s, to which all presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, have made a fundamental contribution, or at most refrained to develop it further. In 2015, when Mr Trump was nominated as the official Republican candidate, he called for an «impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful wall»: by that time, more than 1,000 km of the US-Mexico borderline — out of a total length of 3,141 km — were already equipped with different sorts of protecting barriers. The laying of the foundation stone of the wall, in fact, dates back to 1978, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The sudden arrival of several Cuban migrants and refugees had then triggered a strong feeling of encirclement across the US, to which the coeval sentiment of a decline of the American power most likely contributed. And the fortification of US border was seen as a reasonable answer to it.

The first “brick” of what would become the wall was put in El Paso, an important crossing point along the US-Mexico border, as the very name of the town reveals. El Paso lies on the north bank of the Rio Grande, which defines the US-Mexico border and divides El Paso from its twin city on the southern, Mexican bank, Ciudad Juárez. El Paso has since then become a symbolic haut-lieu where border discourses and policies are exposed and tested. In early April this year, an international workshop on smuggling took place there, under the auspices of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and of the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute. Scholars, activists and practitioners from all over the world gathered there to discuss about the theory and praxis of irregular migration facilitation, and I had the chance to join them. Parts of the debates held in El Paso can be found here. It was also a great opportunity to get an idea of what the “Wall issue” is about. Building on the exchanges with the scholars convened, and on personal observations, the first thing that jumps out is that, in fact, the wall is not a wall. Not even a fence, or a barrier: it is not a linear infrastructure at all. It is not about a line, because the question is not one about a borderline. Rather, it is about a borderspace. Unlike a line, a border-space has a specific extension, and a population living in it, and governed through the political dispositif of the border.

To understand this paradox, one must look at the broader political economy in which the construction of the wall fits. The wall, in fact, cuts across a community otherwise rather homogeneous on both sides of the borderline: daily commuting is widespread in El Paso, and 20% UTEP students live in Juárez. Most importantly, it cuts across a free trade area of which both the US and Mexico (as well as Canada) are part, following the entry into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA ) in 1994. Building on the analysis put forward by Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Nielson (2013), it is easy to observe that the fortification of the border crucially contributes to creating enclaves for the isolation of a low-cost labor reservoir on the Mexican side that produces cheap supplies for high-income countries — USA and Canada. The immobility of labor is thus the dark side of the mobility of commodities, and the secret gear of neoliberalism.

Bisson, fence

Such a spatial dis-continuity has triggered the development of a whole border economy in Ciudad Juárez, which has greatly contributed to shaping the city’s landscape in the last decades. Production and assembly industries — the maquilas — have sprouted. Major transnational corporations have also benefitted from this context, opening up large factories in Ciudad Juárez destined for export to the US. The industrial boom has made of Juárez one of the most populated cities in Mexico: not only a transit point for migrants, but also a destination of immigration itself. The customs union brought about by the NAFTA has also eased the smuggling of all sorts of goods towards the consumption markets of the US, not least of drugs. The rise of the Mexican cartels is closely linked to these dynamics. Mexicans climbed the value chain of international cocaine trafficking, and crucially contributed to the staggering rates of criminality experienced by Juárez and other Mexican cities in the last decades. As a result, the US-Mexico border is the most militarized in the world, but also the most crossed in the world, with about 350 million crossings every year in both ways.

Amidst the complexities of current border policies, which seem to stand more on the side of the problem than of the solution, the construction of an impenetrable and unbreakable barrier between US and Mexico would be obviously unfit for the purpose of smoothing trade. The point is not to obstruct the flow, but to filter it. Legal constraints, detection technologies and policing are part of a dispositif aimed at identifying and expelling what managed to enter illegally in the US territory. This approach seems to attract a bipartisan consensus in the US: Bill Clinton issued the first authorizations to carry out captures, detentions and expulsions; these peaked under Mr Obama’s mandate, whose border policies enabled an unprecedented 2.5 million expulsions, leading to a number of abuses and families’ splits. The paradigm underpinning the strategy of filtering and expulsions is that of territorial surveillance, quartering and individual control, whereas linear fortifications appear increasingly unsuitable and outdated. Borderspaces, in other words, matter more than borderlines.

As part of this strategy, the mandate and means of the Custom and Border Protection agency were progressively strengthened, while adapting to the specific catch-all threats put forward by different generations of secureaucrats across the decades. Under Ronald Reagan, the budget of the CBP soared by 90% with a view to fighting cross-border drug trafficking (whose spectacular rise since then is quite an explicit reminder of the ineffectiveness of these “tough” policies). President Bush Sr. further increased the budget of the CBP of another 59%. Lastly, CBP competences, size and resources skyrocketed following President Bush Jr.’s Secure Fence Act of 2006. The CBP then became a sort of self-standing army, with an entire air force at its own disposal larger than that of Brazil.

The unchecked growth and the sudden hypertrophy of the CBP has not failed to raise major problems. The securitization of border spaces and border people has led to the systematic intimidation of local dwellers, and especially of those of mixed origins. Centered in El Paso, the Border Network for Human Rights has documented plentiful of abuses allegedly committed by CBP, including property violation, forcible evictions, racial profiling, violation of individuals’ right to privacy and of indigenous peoples’ rights, beatings, and reportedly a few instances of killings. On the other hand, one can attribute the misconducts of the CBP to an even more alarming dynamic. During the Bush era, widespread perceptions of border insecurity in the post-9/11 have urged to speed up the strengthening of the CBP. Thousands of candidates were then recruited hastily, without paying due attention to the vetting process. Reportedly, trafficking networks took advantage of it to infiltrate the CBP en masse. It is precisely in those years that cross-border narcotrafficking took hold, leading to the takeover of Mexican cartels. By the end of the second Bush Jr. mandate, CBP officers were convicted for corruption almost on a daily basis, thereby making the disastrous outcome of these emergency policies obvious. Local observers report that the cartels have thus managed to partly take control of the borderspace. Some drug cartels now exert a protection racket on the homespun networks of irregular migration — the coyotes — operating within “their” turf, thereby making of human smuggling a rising criminal market in the process of business diversification.
The actual extent of this phenomenon, though, remains unclear. The profound politicization of the issue leads to fundamental lack of transparency, which boils down to lack of accurate figures about the estimated numbers of irregular crossings along the US-Mexico borders. Security agencies, including the CBP, contend that the phenomenon remains «huge», but then refuse to release official data. One cannot ignore, however, that the emphasis on the extent and dangerousness of this “threat” is part of a complex bureaucratic game of resource allocation. On the other hand, smugglers and coyotes interviewed by local researchers report that each of them could hardly facilitate the transit of more than 3 or 4 migrants a week. In that case, one would need to significantly scale down the magnitude of irregular migration along the US-Mexico border, given that even the aggregate figures would pale as compared to the scope of the phenomenon in — say — southern Europe.

In spite of this long and controversial history, though the construction of a Great American Wall is still seen as a pressing necessity by large sectors of the US administration and electorate. Why is it so?
In first place, one could argue, the securitization of border spaces, epitomized by the construction of the wall, allows to develop and test new modalities of large-scale surveillance. A new strategy unfolds, whereby sophisticated technologies, such as drones and territorial scanners, deploy a virtualized control over the space and the population. High-tech and defense industries are of course very keen on underscoring the need for such investments.

Secondly, the Great American Wall, just as much as its predecessors in China or Israel, contributes to the construction of the geopolitical imaginary, by defining the neat contours of a space of norms and normality separated from the space of chaos and danger. Symbolic violence is indeed much resented in Juárez. On one side of the Rio Grande, Juárez is portaryed as one of the most dangerous cities on earth; on the other side, El Paso is considered the safest city in the US. Inscribed in the groove of this sharp dichotomy, the construction of the wall contributes to the stigmatization of an entire community. As Mr Trump claimed at his presidential announcement speech in June 2015: «When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They are rapists». The construction of the Great American Wall is simultaneously justified by and contributing to this narrative. It is, in other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy.


For the drafting of this article, a special thanks goes to Gabriella Sanchez, Luigi Achilli and Antje Missbach for the organization of the Smuggling Workshop 2017, and to Peter Tinti and Damien Simonneau for their precious insights on the history of the wall and of the CBP.


Cover and inline: Luca Raineri, Ciudad Juárez, April 2017.

Inline: Casey Bisson, border fence, https://flic.kr/p/rgdtLF