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Borders are cruel. I know this because I’ve been studying the US-Mexico border for more than 40 years. It features prominently in two of my books, written in different decades. It keeps pulling me back. Every time I cross that border, I say to myself that this is no big deal—I’m used to it. And every time, I feel that familiar fear-or-flight jolt of adrenaline and hear the inner warning: Watch out! Things go wrong here.
The border is cruel because it gives some people what they want and denies the needs of almost everybody else. Still, the hopeful come, lately in swelling numbers. Sadly, the cruelty of the border has ratcheted upward. It didn’t have to. US policies have added unnecessary meanness to the innate hurt of the dividing line we share with Mexico. Here are a dozen “realities” of the border that I try to keep in mind while mulling the latest disasters.
1. Nothing will “fix” the border, not a wall, not troops, not presidential bombast
Some of the thousands of families from Central America now streaming to the border and surrendering themselves to US authorities are desperate because crop failure and poverty have denied them the means of subsistence. Others are desperate because the gangs that now control large portions of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador threaten them with murder, extortion, and persecution. In many cases the families are desperate for both reasons.
This is an immigration phenomenon of recent vintage, but it belongs to an old tradition. Steep differences in wealth, opportunity, and political security divide the societies on either side of the border and, as long as those differences exist, have-nots on the poorer side will keep trying to join the haves on the other.
Unsolvable predicaments like this require management—continuous care, if you will—in the same way that chronic disease or steadily rising sea levels require it. Our efforts to manage the situation can be wise or stupid, mostly benign or downright sadistic, cost-effective or absurdly wasteful, realistic or hallucinatory. The task facing this country is to make it less awful and more humane than we have so far shown much talent for doing.
2. Donald Trump’s “Great Wall” is about gratification, not immigration.
For every complex problem, there exists a simple solution—which is completely wrong. In the case of the US-Mexico border, Exhibit A is the president’s proposal to build a 30-foot-high (or 55-foot-high), 1,900-mile (or 1,000-mile) wall (the president’s numbers vary with the moment) to provide security. The imperative behind his fixation arises from his boisterous, demagogic, and chronically over-counted political rallies. More than Fox News, more than the sycophants who surround him, the rallies are the mirror before which he preens. They are his political Viagra, a drug that takes effect when the crowd begins to chant. Even two years into his presidency, Trump can’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton, and when he mentions her, his admirers rock the rafters, yelling “Lock her up!” It’s the MAGA mob’s way of reconfirming that he hates who we hate, which is the DNA of Trump’s appeal.
Another chant at every rally is invariably “Build the Wall!” Its origins are instructive. The problem the border wall was initially intended to address was candidate Trump’s lack of mental discipline. It began as a mnemonic. Advisers Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg wanted to ensure that Trump pushed the hot button of immigration at his campaign rallies. They correctly thought that the simple, monosyllabic notion of a wall would help him remember to do so.
The Trump campaign soon learned that invocations of a wall embraced a larger range of prejudices. Like yelling about Hillary, it indulged the visceral enjoyment of hatred. It celebrated keeping people out and putting them in their place. It was racist, but more than that as well. The incantation “Build the wall!” conjured up walling out and excluding everything that was threatening—dark-skinned people, scary ideas, social and economic change, even complexity itself. Trump’s present desire is not so much to build an actual wall as to keep the chant going or, even better for purposes of the 2020 election, to morph it into “We built the wall!”
3. Support for a border wall decreases the closer you get to the actual border.
People who live on the border know that walls don’t work. Instead, wall construction diverts money from more pressing needs, while damaging land and communities. In sleepy Columbus, New Mexico, which jarred to full wakefulness in 1916 when Mexican revolutionaries set the town on fire, opinion runs 90–10 percent against Trump’s border wall. All nine congresspersons representing districts along the border similarly oppose the wall. The same may be said of most local governments in the borderlands.
It’s not that local officials don’t want to address border problems. It’s just that they would rather see federal money applied to strengthen law enforcement, improve vehicle inspections, and speed traffic through busy ports of entry. These are the places where, as seizure statistics show, the vast majority of hard drugs actually pass from Mexico into the United States. Even less publicized is the reality that official ports of entry are also where the preponderance of illegal arms, as well as considerable amounts of cash from drug revenues, pass in the other direction, from this country to Mexico.
4. Drugs underlie the crisis at the border, but not the way Trump says.
The United States imports drugs because people want them. Appetites for hard drugs here are the driving force behind a significant portion of the global traffic in illegal substances, whose value is estimated in the trillions of dollars. The cash spent by American citizens in the pursuit of getting high is sufficiently astronomical to corrupt governments and destabilize nations. The rise of gang rule in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador partly results from those countries’ serving as conduits for moving Colombian cocaine and other drugs into this country. Put simply, the United States imports drugs and exports anarchy. That anarchy, in turn, puts people in motion.
5. The identity of border crossers has changed—again.
In the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper and began building walls to curb illegal entry, the typical migrant was a Mexican male seeking work in the United States. The idea behind Gatekeeper was that, by walling off the border in urban centers like San Diego/Tijuana and El Paso/Juarez, migrants would have to cross through desert so inhospitable that they would desist. Of course, they didn’t. Crossing just became more arduous and expensive because a migrant now needed a guide—a coyote—to find his way through harsh terrain and reach contacts on the other side.
An unintended consequence of this policy was to curtail the “circularity” of migration. Because border crossing had become more difficult and costly, workers couldn’t regularly go home to see their families and return to jobs in El Norte. So they called for their families to join them. This triggered a shift in the identities of the migrantes. Women and children began to make up a growing proportion of the “illegals” entering the United States.
In recent years, the mix of migrants shifted again, with an increasing proportion consisting of asylum-seekers, often whole families, fleeing the destabilization of Central America. They sometimes travel in caravans hoping that the strength of numbers will protect them from gangs that they are trying to escape. Their intention is not to sneak across the border but to get to the border and ask for asylum.
So here’s the rub: The infrastructure of the border is designed to deal with young Mexican men seeking work, not families, including young children, who arrive destitute and often sick. Although the border agreement that ended the recent government shutdown authorized upward of $400 million for new facilities—the total is debated, with some Republicans arguing that as much as $750 million might be available—adequate structures don’t yet exist. And so people, often children, have been held in cages in jury-rigged, overcrowded, and distinctly punitive facilities.
6. But asylum seekers shouldn’t need to be detained.
Ports of entry could be equipped and staffed to process asylum requests quickly and in volume instead of the“metered” trickle that is current practice—sometimes 10 or fewer a day. The immigration-court system also needs to be fully staffed (funding exists for 107 more judges than the 427 currently serving), as well as expanded. The effect of this bottleneck, in an echo of Operation Gatekeeper, is to force groups of refugees into the desert where they cross the border illegally and at great risk (meanwhile distracting Border Patrol officers from legitimate law-enforcement duties). Once in the United States, they surrender themselves so that their cases will have to be addressed.
Another alternative is to allow prospective immigrants to apply for asylum at US embassies and consulates in their home countries, as was the case for certain foreigners under an Obama-era policy that the Trump administration curtailed. (The administration recently took yet another step backward by ordering the closure of all US immigration offices abroad.) A third alternative, presently applied in limited fashion, would be to release asylum seekers in this country under the sponsorship of third parties while their cases are pending.
7. The cruelty business
The hurt inflicted at the border increases when people behave like… well, people. Every job has frustrations, and border work has more than most. Maybe an officer twisted his knee working double shifts or got scared one night when he thought he saw a narco with a gun. So he roughs up a few people or tightens their handcuffs until they hurt. To be sure, US Border Patrol officers commit many acts of mercy in their work, but they also sometimes deny or delay medical treatment for people in need or slash life-saving water jugs set out by humanitarians to aid migrants crossing the desert (and sometimes federal attorneys then prosecute the humanitarians).
Even harder to understand is the cranked-up air conditioning in Customs and Border Protection facilities. For good reason, the detainees call the holding centers hieleras (iceboxes). Most migrants have no jackets or extra clothing. They receive a flimsy foil or paper “blanket,” one for each person, and then must sleep on cold slab floors for days at a time. Many a mother will double wrap her baby and shiver on her own until she and her child are released. This is what happened to Deña, a Salvadoran asylum seeker who spoke to a friend of mine in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in January. She came out of the hielera sick, a frequent result of the widespread and needless refrigeration of detainees.
The most extreme cruelties, however, come from the highest levels. The forcible separation of young children from their parents, when carried out by civilians, is called kidnapping. When carried out by the Trump administration, such barbarity fell under the rubric of “zero-tolerance.” The US Government Accountability Office estimates that thousands more children than the 2,737 identified in a 2018 court case have been involved. Scandalously, the Department of Homeland Security and other responsible agencies failed to keep thorough records, so that even after the policy was reversed, no one could be sure that all of the children were properly reunited with their families. Moreover, separations, without the sanction of policy, apparently continue.
At the top of the cruelty list as well are the deaths from exposure, heat stroke, and dehydration caused by wall construction that drives migrants to undertake longer treks through ever-more-inhospitable terrain. The NGO Humane Borders has cataloged and mapped 3,244 migrant fatalities since 1999 in Arizona alone, but the actual number of deaths is acknowledged to be considerably higher, as many bodies remain undiscovered and unrecorded. What’s going on in the desert these days is not a war, but it’s producing war-level suffering and casualties.
8. Both Republicans and Democrats have built sections of the border wall.
But until Trump came along, both parties ran from the semantics of calling it a “wall.” Officially, it was a border fence. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations feared castigation for applying a second-century technology to a 20th- and 21st-century problem. The optics of being identified with other famous wall-builders—Roman Emperor Hadrian (122 CE), China’s Ming Dynasty (14th–17th centuries), the USSR (Berlin, 1961), or even contemporary Israel—were considered unappealing. Of course, President Trump not only embraced the negative connotations of wall construction, but pretended that the 654 miles of barriers, including approximately 354 miles of wall, erected by his predecessors did not exist.
9. If Trump gets his way, the steel in his border wall will contain a high percentage of irony.
The United States went to war in 1846, ostensibly to assert that its southern border was the Rio Grande and not the Nueces River, as Mexico claimed. Trump’s campaign for a border wall, however, puts the US in retreat, sovereignty be damned, because it effectively returns to Mexico some of the land conquered in the Mexican War.
Let me explain: You can’t build a wall in the middle of a river. The river will eventually wash the wall away, or it will make a new channel where no one wants it. It is also inadvisable to build a wall in the floodplain adjacent to the river, because, well, it floods. Moreover, a wall designed to keep humans out can’t have big gaps or people will get through, and in a flood small drainage gaps quickly clog with debris, backing up flows, causing property damage, and undermining the wall itself. (Even away from the river, the wall causes flooding and damage in places like downtown Nogales, Sonora, where its design ignored local drainage.)
Because the Rio Grande is a low-volume river with big-river storm flows, new sections of wall are nowadays sited on high ground out of the flood zone and some distance from the main river channel. This means the border will effectively be moved back from its internationally agreed placement in the middle of the river. No deed will change hands, but this de facto relocation of the southern boundary of the United States is tantamount to a cession of land to Mexico. One wonders if this matter has received the attention of America’s chest-thumper in chief.
10. As usual, the environment takes a blow
The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge encompasses a significant chunk of floodplain and adjacent ground where Trump’s great wall is to be built. So does the chain of protected areas constituting the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) National Wildlife Refuge, as well as other nature preserves held by private non-profits. Past wall construction has already fragmented portions of the area. Additional wall construction will decimate it. At stake is vital habitat for the last ocelots existing in the United States, as well as for scores of other species.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service calculates that planned wall segments will negatively affect 60–75 percent of the LRGV’s lands. The wall would also plow through the National Butterfly Sanctuary like a superhighway.
Across the borderlands, the roster of species detrimentally affected by Trump’s wall amounts to a who’s who of Southwestern fauna—from jaguars, Mexican gray wolves, pronghorn antelopes, and bison (yes, there is a wild herd in the Chihuahuan desert) to cactus ferruginous pygmy owls (which fly close to the ground and so can’t cross the wall), leopard frogs, and lesser long-nosed bats. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that “a minimum of 93 species at risk of extinction will be further imperiled by construction of Trump’s border wall, including impacts to critical habitat for 25 of these species.”
11. Defense-in-depth works better
An excellent book on the border is the late Jefferson Morganthaler’s The River Has Never Divided Us. Morganthaler explains that from the Spanish colonial era forward, defending the border as a hard barrier has rarely been an effective strategy. It “seduces us into establishing our own Maginot Line. It lures us into attempting the impossible…and distracts us from more promising solutions.” The most appealing alternative, applied in the 18th century by Spain’s Teodoro de Croix, was defense in depth: addressing “problems at their source and destination, rather than trying to dam them up somewhere in the middle.” Accepting amnesty applications at US facilities in the applicants’ countries of origin would be a modern adaptation of such a policy.
12. Get ready for the problems of migration to worsen.
The president and just about all the members of his administration believe in walls but not in climate change, a guarantee of disaster. It’s possible that refugees now appearing at the southern border, who say that the corn they planted last year failed to produce a harvest, are lying or are bad farmers. It’s far more likely, however, that they are climate-change refugees. One thing is certain: As climate change intensifies, it will displace ever more people. Subsistence agriculture is always a gamble. When the weather changes so radically that subsistence farmers can’t bring in a crop, they have to move. At least in the short term, the vigor and diversity of the US economy will buffer most of its citizens against the full effects of climate disruptions. There will be no such buffer for people hoeing milpas in Central America. This is not a matter of speculation, and one consequence is clear. People who lack the means of subsistence will pick up and move. Wall or no wall, a fair portion of them will head northward.
Maybe the best borderland novel of recent years is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, in which an early scene pretty well sums up future prospects for the southern border, especially if current policies persist. A sheriff and his deputy are near the Rio Grande, inspecting the aftermath of a shootout between narco gangs. They walk past smoldering vehicles and gory corpses. The deputy says, “It’s a mess, ain’t it sheriff?”
And the sheriff replies, “If it aint it’ll do till a mess gets here.”