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  • Beyond Sovereign Exclusion: Progressive Alternatives to the Wall
  • Matthew Longo

In american political discourse, the problem of the U.S.-Mexico border is relatively straightforward—you are for the wall, or you are against it. For proponents of walling, the border is good if it is walled—secure, contained, defensible, powerful—and bad if it isn’t—porous, dilapidated, surmountable, permissive. The wall is a powerful fantasy of sovereignty in an era of mobility and uncertainty. Mexico represents a land of threat and upheaval. If they will not pay for the wall, as President Donald Trump famously alleged they should, they will at least be dominated by it.

The rebuttal from progressives is simple: Walls don’t work. They are expensive and ineffective. To this point, former Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano famously remarked, “You show me a fifty-foot wall, and I will show you a fifty-one-foot ladder.” These concerns have largely been borne out. Across the borderlands we see tunnels going under the wall, and low-flying and cheap-to-make aircraft flying over it; you also have ramps going over it, and packages passed through it. Low-flying aircraft are so easy to make, you can get over the wall with a large kite and the engine of a simple lawnmower, a device sufficient to drop 200 pounds of cocaine across the border.

Progressive thinkers—scholars and policymakers alike—sit confidently with this position: On our side, we allege, are the facts; on the other side, folly. This may be true. But politics is rarely about facts, and in the real world of politics, the narrative has been dominated by discussion of the wall, a rhetorical space that progressives have been unable to reclaim. The debate today is entirely about walling: To have a wall, or not to have a wall (or realistically, to maintain the wall we already have). What the debate doesn’t have is an alternative. Progressives suffer a failure of imagination, failing to answer the simple question: If not a wall, then what?

This is too bad, because the answer is hiding in plain sight. Despite the political rhetoric, there is an open secret among the border security community that old-style measures of border security no longer work. Instead, a new realization has taken hold: In today’s age, states cannot secure their borders on their own, no matter how much money is thrown at the problem. Robert Gilbert, former chief of Border Patrol, summed this up when he said, “The reality is, while securing the border is upfront and personal, you can’t do it alone.”

This thinking first became explicit in Border Patrol’s 2012–2016 National Strategy, which called for increased collaboration with Mexico and Canada to cultivate an integrated border enforcement zone—i.e. one that is jointly administered. As one border official explained to me in an interview, in the future the goal is a consolidated border zone “where we could cross and patrol together. . . . It would be a dual-sovereign zone, almost like a Euro zone.” This collaboration is already underway.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this transformation. Traditionally, we have thought of borders as lines of division [End Page 266] where sovereign states and their armies faced each other. Over the past century, border functionality has changed in response to the challenges of globalized mobilities—borders have become filtration sites, protecting states from the movement of people and goods. But what we are seeing today is something wholly different. Borders now are not merely spaces where states oppose one another, or stop flows, but where states work together (co-locate or cross-designate) in the shared fight against transnational flows.

Given these empirical facts, a proactive policy agenda about border security will need to take this as a starting point. And there is little time to wait. If we want to shape U.S. policy toward Mexico in a way that is progressive, aligned with concerns over human rights and the rule of law, the time is now, while these developments are still nascent. Collaborative bordering is not in and of itself progressive; there is great potential...


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