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Constructing a Virtual Wall: Race and Citizenship in U.S.–Mexico Border Policing Josiah McC. Heyman The U.S.–Mexico border wall is not just physical—it is also virtual. Virtual in this instance has two meanings, one narrower and one broader. More narrowly, the virtual wall involves applying advanced surveillance and computer technologies to border law enforcement. Ground-level radar can be used to detect movement; information processed through a computer model indicates if it is, say, a cow or a person, and if the latter, the direction the person is likely to move, given the terrain. More broadly, the virtual wall points to the massing of police forces, including military and intelligence agencies, in the border region, which presents a web of obstacles to northward movement of illegalized people and goods, obstacles that usually are overcome, but at great risk and cost. Physical walls and fences and the technological “wall” are parts of this wider development, and should be understood in these terms. The physical walls and fences present visible symbols of the coercive side of U.S. immigration policy (enforcement against undocumented migration; of course, there is also extensive legal immigration). They are crudely imposed between twinned border communities with longstanding ties, and they insult Mexico by treating it as a threat rather than a partner. Thus, U.S. governmental and policy circles hope that a technological system will pose an invisible wall with the same enforcement effects but without the negative attention. Also, the virtual technological wall offers corporations huge governmental contracts, drawing Homeland Security into the costly military-industrial complex. We do not, however, have to accept the “technological solution” discourse at face value. Jason Ackleson (2003, 2005a) has demonstrated that border-control technology claims are overstated and that they face significant limitations in implementation. My goal here is to widen this Josiah Heyman is professor of anthropology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso. Journal of the Southwest 50, 3 (Autumn 2008) : 305–334 306  ✜  Journal of the Southwest critique by asking how and why the broad pattern—the constructions of physical, technological, and mass law-enforcement walls, has occurred, and what are its contradictions and limitations. I begin this essay by delineating how the border-enforcement “wall” operates at the tactical level, and following that I explore the fundamental assumptions behind those tactics. Doing so helps take these technologies and tactics out of the realm of the normal and natural, to examine them as an overall system. I then state what these operations ideally should accomplish, from their immediate law-enforcement goals to the wider social goals that they are supposed to address. In turn, I consider the evidence on whether the border-enforcement wall has been effective or not. If it has been ineffective, why is the border wall being raised even higher? To answer this question, I consider how issues, such as migration and drug use, are turned into matters of national security, akin to military imperatives of defense against fundamental threats. Moves to transform border issues into security issues are, we find, highly contested and contradictory. To tease out these complicated drivers of border policy, I explore some circumstances of the United States at the present moment, and some of the history through which we arrived at this point. This includes insecure prosperity and clinging to order in a world of vast inequalities of lifestyle, class, and power, and how such concerns are expressed in two ways: citizenship differences between deserving insiders and serving (but not deserving) outsiders, and racism against Latinas/os, especially Mexicans and Central Americans. A serious limitation of our current border policy is that it attempts to solve with one rigid and coercive mechanism a wide variety of issues in the societies on both sides of the boundary (Canada, the United States, Mexico, and Central America). I close by agreeing that citizenship, openness, security, and prosperity are important values, but argue that we err in displacing the challenges involved in obtaining them onto a single, illusory answer: a virtual border wall that has little effectiveness and causes much suffering. The Virtual Wall in Practice Enforcement occurs...


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pp. 305-333
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