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  • Hardening the Border
  • Stefano Bloch

The frontier between the united States and Mexico has been hardening since 1848. More than forty pillars were constructed at regular intervals along the U.S.-Mexico border, starting with markers placed at the Pacific Ocean in California, at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers in Arizona, and on through New Mexico until surveyors reached the mouth of the Rio Grande, where the angular line became a river in Texas. These modest stone structures were built to be seen from across the desert floor, to physically demarcate and concretize a long-standing political concept of state-hood and legal division brought about by war, justified through legal treaty, and upheld through threats of violence, both physical and economic. The hardening of the border has continued for more than 150 years, manifesting as makeshift gates, imposing signage, and corrugated metal fences.

But in recent years the border has managed to get even harder. This hardening is not just a result of concrete walls or bollard fencing, and it is not just the result of increased military presence or enhanced surveillance technology. Rather, the hardening of the border has been accomplished through a hardening of rhetoric and terminology concerning who crosses the line. The language of border (in)security not only acts as a deterrent for those who might cross, but it works to harden those who do. A hardened border suggests that only hardcore migrants and hardcore smugglers will take such hardcore chances. And it is these hardened humans who will suffer hard deaths under the hot sun of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts.

Those who do survive to make it into U.S. cities and suburban communities are ontologically transformed by the rhetoric of border (in)security into “hardcore gang bangers” upon arrival. Even those who crossed as children cannot lose their hard edge and are therefore denied the protections and respect [End Page 264] that their hard-working counterparts once received. The creation of the less-than-human gang banger helps fuel the need for a fictional narrative that tells a story about 2,000 miles of impenetrable border wall that only monsters can traverse.

The misapplication of the “gang member” label reveals its absurdity when applied to those who, as children, managed to cross that physical behemoth before being entered into gang databases and later denied DACA protections as “priority one threats to national security.” Once denied such currently fleeting protections, these kids are slated for deportation as much for being illegal as for being so-called gang bangers. In fact, according to an audit of the California State Gang Database known as CalGang, of the 150,000 identified gang members in the state, a disproportionate number are undocumented Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans, thousands of whom are under the age of eighteen, and hundreds under the age of one. Of those infants entered in the gang database by local law enforcement in so-called sanctuary cities across California, dozens of them are purported to have “admitted to being gang members,” according to the California State Auditor (2016).

The renewed application and use of the gang label has become part of the renewed rhetoric about border (in)security and the stepped-up fight against illegal immigrants. Although street gang membership has been on a steady decline for two decades, just as crime rates in the U.S. have plummeted from their all-time high during the early 1990s, gangs such as 18th Street and MS13, which started on the west side of downtown Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1980s, respectively, are being seen as Latin America’s most sinister and growing imports, which only a high and powerful wall can stop.

Many so-called gang members are categorized as such without actual gang membership, let alone violent criminality, but based on superficial indicators, including what law enforcement perceives to be gang-related gait, argot, fashion sense, address, pheno-type, place of birth, and of course, immigration status. Like the prototypical gang member, the border wall prototypes currently sitting outside of Otay Mesa, California, need never do more than exist symbolically to provide the requisite level of (in)security. The...


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pp. 264-265
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