- Wall Work
Amid the recent noisy proclamations about border security, it is easy to overlook that Mexico has already built a wall that the U.S. paid for. In July of 2014, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto launched Frontera Sur (Southern Border Program), a militarized security program created with U.S. support. Its aim is to stop migrants traveling north through a “layered enforcement” strategy (Powell, 2017; Walker, 2018). As a result, Mexico now detains and deports around 200,000 people per year (Hiemstra, 2017).
While attempts to discipline borderlands and migrants unfold in different ways across diverse geographic locations, the logic is often the same. In Frontera Sur, policy proceeds through the construction of spatial hierarchies that create dividing lines between North and Central America, and on the U.S.-Mexico border the language of security veils a host of racialized discourses and strong messages about America and who is allowed to go there.
Engaging multiple borders in one analytical framework reminds us not only that there are two “walls” at work, but also, of the work of walls. Yes, border walls are socio-material manifestations of systems in complex and contradictory relation with one another over multiple scales. But, crucially, they are also performative. Whether built in its entirety, incrementally, or not at all, Donald Trump’s wall between the U.S. and Mexico is already doing what it’s supposed to do.
The promise of intensified fortification is deliberately packaged for domestic consumption; served up to reach Trump’s base, all the while providing market incentives backing the border industrial complex. What is more, the Trumpist turn has produced epistemological runoff beyond our borders. According to Central American diplomats, Mexico’s approach to migrants has shifted from a certain level of tolerance to total control (Animal Político, 2018). Anti-Central American sentiment is further reflected in the emergence of the so-called Trump of Oaxaca (Leobardo Ramos), whose actions as municipal president of Chahuites, a border town near Guatemala, have resulted in the closure of one migrant shelter and pressure to close others (Van Ramshorst, 2017).
These brief examples reflect instances of the visible and tangible. Beyond that, we must also account for the destructive ideological work of wall talk. As a result of Trump’s proposals, border policy has been narrowed and constrained to conversations that reduce debates to “wall or no wall.” Discussions of revalorizing different types of mobilities (Walker & Winton, 2017) are cast aside under the weight of manufactured threats related to “illegal” and “criminal aliens.”
Political strategies that tinker with one element of an underlying system assume that brick-and-mortar walls do the work of bordering. This fallacy denies the complex realities of U.S.-Mexico relations and has unintended consequences. One of the most well-documented impacts is how walls have transformed seasonal, circular migration from a regional phenomenon into movement that has touched the whole country (Massey, Durand, & Pren, 2015). Another [End Page 256] consequence is the insecurity of security, codified in border exportation regimes wherein deterrence translates into routine abuse and displacement (Slack et al., 2016).
So, to return explicitly to the work of walls: Trump’s “Great Wall of China” (Gómez Romero, 2016) is political posturing with a volatile discursive afterlife. In the U.S. it is a bargaining chip between the right and the left. For borderlanders, the threat of a $20 billion-plus barrier is a banal brick stacked onto the uncertainty long propagated by top-down decision-making. But for Mexico, attempts to keep out “bad hombres” might hold the potential to stall the construction of walls at a border crossing that up until a few years ago was characterized predominately by its porosity.