In American politics, the problem of the border is simple: You’re either for the wall, or you’re against it. For proponents, the wall guarantees security. For opponents, it is costly and ineffective.
What the debate doesn’t have is an alternative. Progressives fail to answer the simple question: if not a wall, then what?
In many ways, the answer is staring us in the face. While toxic, exclusionary rhetoric about bordering fills the airwaves, the situation is very different on the ground. Every day new forms of cross-border accommodation are being forged. Across government agencies (DHS, CBP, Border Patrol) a new way of thinking has taken hold: Instead of walling, to make the border safe, we need a strategy that is collaborative and binational–one that works with our partners in Mexico rather than against them.
This co-bordering approach was first formalized in Border Patrol’s 2012–16 National Strategy, which institutionalized collaboration with Mexico and Canada, and has taken hold ever since, transforming the border into an expanded, binational security zone. As one border official explained to me in an interview, the goal is to create a unified border zone “where we could cross and patrol together.… It would be a dual-sovereign zone, almost like a eurozone.” This new attitude doesn’t downplay the threat at the border; rather, it takes it seriously. Today, states simply cannot, and indeed, do not, secure their borders on their own.
These developments are not in and of themselves laudable—we should be wary of a system designed to maximize states’ abilities to organize against migrants. Still, they present an opportunity to harness these changes in the name of an actually progressive form of bordering.
One way is to complement the binational security zone with democratic institutions. After all, if border dwellers (on both sides of the line) are subject to two authorities, it’s only fair they be given some form of cross-border rights and permissions to match. In some places, cross-border political institutions already exist—as with collaborative town councils and work exchanges in border conurbations like Laredo–Nuevo Laredo and El Paso–Ciudad Juarez. It’s also common for border citizens to have special cross-border travel permissions (via SENTRI, for example). Such protocols do a lot to stitch border communities together, but they remain partial, site-specific and informal. We can do better.
One idea would be to match border-zone security with a kind of cross-border citizenship: a formal legal status conferring special rights and responsibilities onto citizens of the borderlands. The proposal would be to delineate a broad zone comprised of districts in the United States and Mexico along the 1,954 miles of the border in which citizens on both sides would be afforded special rights unique to the border zone (on top of their own national citizenship). Certainly, border security would be decided by the wider polity, but local issues—such as cross-border trade, schooling, environment, and waste management—would be resolved jointly by the communities themselves.
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Border zones in this rubric, would be refashioned not as democratic wastelands but as places where locals can take authorship of their collective interests. Such a proposal may sound radical, but such a move would be relatively simple to instantiate—after all, in many places such policies already exist. Using the language of citizenship simply formalizes practices already in operation on the ground.
Of course, there will be limitations. For example, while cross-border citizenship might enable borderlands citizens to cross freely between states, participate in local elections, and vote on shared issues, it might not enable the same privileges of residency. There would also have to be regulations on who can enter and leave this demarcated zone. In this way, rather than “remove” the border, it would create a graduated line. The national citizenship line would stay in place, as would preexisting rules—to vote in American elections, one would obviously have to be American—but local democratic institutions would be open to citizens from both states. In doing so, this model would cultivate a zone legally that already exists economically and culturally.
Policies are as strong as we make them, and this one is no different. For example, a more ambitious version of this proposal might fashion the border zone as a place to accommodate the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers—migrants for whom states have special obligations in international law, but whom the United States consistently fails, in part due to lack of capacity and provision. Creating such a zone of protection, where migrants can live and work and even participate politically, would eliminate some of the cruel and arbitrary features of our current immigration system, without requiring a fully open borders policy. It would take considerable legal protection and guarantees to make this work, but that is no reason not to try.
There are many forms this model could take; and, of course, not all of them are progressive or desirable. But a new approach to the border is long overdue. Rather than think of security in binary, exclusionary terms, we should embrace collaborative border policies and develop a more comprehensive strategy around them. And rather than think of citizenship only in the perverse language of desert—where longtime undocumented immigrants can under some circumstances earn the right to citizenship only when they’ve earned it—we should design a path based solely on residency. Individuals in border communities deserve special protections simply because border policies disproportionately affect them. Such a proposal is less proactive than retroactive; it is corrective of the frictions written into the border itself.
Thinking about borders in this way is not easy, because it stokes anxiety about sovereignty and security. But this is only further evidence of the one-sided nature of our discourse. Co-bordering is happening, whether we like or not. If anything, designing a healthy, engaged border environment would make the task of collaborative border security easier, not harder. The problem now is that our border forces are attempting to set up joint security institutions against the grain of an antiquated bordering system that is holding them back.
As former CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin himself noted in a 2018 speech, we suffer from a “Westphalian instinct”–after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), credited with generating the international bordering system—that makes us think in us/them binaries. This model is comforting but outdated, and struggles to handle today’s complicated transnational problems. Our goal should be to encourage this strategic mission, while fulfilling our democratic values as well.
‘To wall or not to wall’ is not the question. Rather, it is: How can we transform the changes happening on the ground into a powerful force for good? Right now there is a lull in talk about the wall, but this won’t last. Pretty soon the race for 2020 will catch fire, and fervent, nasty rhetoric about walling will return. Hopefully, next time around, we will have an alternative.