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  • The New Border
  • John Alba Cutler (bio)

Few ideas have captured the resurgent nationalist imagination as successfully as the US-Mexico border wall. Donald J. Trump promised to build a "big, fat, beautiful wall" as a campaign refrain that generated wild applause at rallies and steady praise from right-wing commentators (Finnegan, Los Angeles Times, June 3, 2016). Trump did not invent the idea of the wall ex nihilo. It is, rather, the culmination of a thirty-year amplification of the US security regime. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Border Patrol began erecting barriers on the border between Tijuana and San Diego, a move formalized and funded under Operation Gatekeeper during the Clinton Administration. Border militarization increased steadily during the 1990s and early 2000s, receiving new impetus in the post-9/11 climate of fear. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 passed through both houses of Congress with significant (if not overwhelming) bipartisan support, and the Obama administration appropriated billions of dollars for both physical barriers and electronic surveillance along the border. The border wall promises to solidify the fence. It promises not just to keep immigrants from crossing the border, but to block Mexico from view altogether, to provide an impermeable boundary to the body of the nation.

The wall at once emblematizes and obscures power relations along the new border. While efforts at border security are not new, the new border represents changes in the magnitude, ferocity, and [End Page 498] scope of the US security regime. Since the early 1990s, the Border Patrol has more than quadrupled in size; the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (or ICE); and deportations have reached record numbers under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. According to Border Patrol statistics, more than 6,500 people died attempting to cross the border between 1998 and 2015, most of them suffering from exposure in the Arizona desert after being funneled there by increased border security in southern California and Texas.1 A significant number of these migrants traveled from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Since the 1980s, migrants from these nations headed to the United States in large numbers to escape the aftershocks of political instability, civil war, gang violence, and economic precarity. Multiplying tragedy with irony, these migrants often leave inhumane conditions in their homelands only to endure forced marches through unforgiving desert terrain. What choices would a wall force? The wall is nationalism's emblem for this disregard for human life. It is not only a policy proposal; it is a representative discourse.

Contemporary transnational literature illuminates what the wall obscures—the power dynamics of the new border. It offers a powerful counterdiscourse to resurgent nationalism, reimagining the border's history and revising our sense of its present significance. The new border differs in significant respects from the paradigm established by Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands / La Frontera in 1987. Whereas, following Anzaldúa, Chicana/o literature has tended to portray the significance of the border as a site of encounter between Mexicans and Americans, a novel such as Carmen Boullosa's Texas (2012) understands the contemporary border as emerging from multiple sites of racial, economic, and gendered contestation. By the same token, a Chicana novel like Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo (2002) might portray the borderlands as metaphorically extending to places in the interior of the United States (Chicago) and Mexico (Mexico City), but journalist Óscar Martínez's The Beast (2013), an account following Central American migrants journeying to the United States, shows how the security regime of the new border is not mere metaphor. These texts are in constant conversation with texts following the Anzaldúan paradigm, so that it would not be inaccurate to say that the new border exists in a dialectic with the old. However, literature of the new border more incisively responds to the political threats of resurgent nationalism. [End Page 499]

It would not be entirely fair to say that Borderlands / La Frontera characterizes the border only as a binary encounter between the United States and Mexico. From the very beginning of the book, Anzaldúa portrays the...


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pp. 498-504
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