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  • Trump’s Border Militarization and the Limits to Capital
  • Jeremy Slack

The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border looms large as the Trump administration’s rhetoric, policies, and actions have thrust immigration and border issues onto the front page. Having just come out of a month-long partial government shutdown over his unilateral demand for $5.7 billion to fund a new border wall, the United States is starting to get a small taste of the everyday experiences of borderlanders who often find themselves at the mercy of political whims disconnected from their everyday needs and desires. This chapter of the fight over the symbolic and material dimensions of border militarization has yet to conclude, but it is important to reevaluate the limitations and continuity of the United States’ approach to a militarized border.

One question has become particularly complex in light of all of these events: Is this simply a continuation of an ongoing build-up of border militarization? Or does it represent a break, a watershed moment for border enforcement? This is unclear and requires careful review of what has happened over the past two years. First, there are many anti-immigrant measures that do not amount to border militarization at all (for example, the removal of categories of asylum seekers such as victims of domestic violence, and the general desire to reduce legal immigration). Other new policies, such as family separation, are more complex, since the families were separated largely because the parents were sent to prison and charged with the federal crime of illegal entry. Therefore, “zero tolerance” polices could be considered a borderline form of militarization. However, blockading the border, deploying the military, and hanging razor wire, among many other actions, clearly constitute militarization.

I argue that the Trump administration’s border militarization efforts do represent something new for two reasons: first, for the explicit way that the administration has sought to break its own laws by denying entry to, expelling, and bottling up asylum seekers, and second, for the ways in which these [End Page 193] actions have interfered with the border’s main, albeit often overlooked, purpose: facilitating transnational flows of capital (Heyman, 2012).

As a border scholar and border resident living and working in El Paso, Texas, this perspective stems from my work with student projects focusing on detained asylum seekers and other individuals forced to wait on the bridges between Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas. Efforts to prevent asylum seekers from gaining access to the United States have been one of the hallmarks of the first two years of the Trump administration and require significantly more in-depth research. However, my perspective here is also colored by my role as faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso, many of whose students live and work in Juárez and cross the border daily to attend class. The disruption of border life is one of the forgotten aspects of border militarization.

As residents of the border, we have also felt the shocks of Trump’s military actions, including border closings and sporadic militarized training exercises on the bridges. The deployment of troops to the border—a common, almost laughable exercise enacted by all recent Presidents—took on a sinister tone in late 2018 as these troops began installing razor wire both in the Rio Grande Valley and in Nogales, Arizona. Moreover, this deployment of active duty military units to the border flies in the face of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the U.S. military from engaging in military exercises domestically (Meeks III, 1975). This came to a head on November 25, 2018, when a group of asylum seekers from the so-called caravan began a peaceful protest in Tijuana because they were being denied the right to enter the United States and request asylum. Conditions had been deteriorating as shelters in Tijuana filled and many asylum seekers were forced to sleep in the streets. U.S. authorities’ claims of “no space,” and thus their refusal to admit asylum seekers into the U.S., rings hollow, as there is no need to incarcerate asylum seekers who previously, after passing “credible fear” interviews, would have...