Good fences, goes the saying, make good neighbours. Walls and fences have been used as messaging for thousands of years; early humans probably made a point of building fences as soon as they could figure out how to do it. We’re fond of fences as a method of social control, a firm reminder of who belongs out and who belongs in. The Great Wall of China. The Berlin Wall. And, of course, the forbidding fence that stretches across the US-Mexico border, even as crossings into Canada are not similarly secured. That disparity is a particularly firm reminder of the purpose of the fence. It’s not about physical control, but social and cultural control.
It’s not just the fence, though. It’s the use of National Guard troops at the border, even though they’re a military force, not trained for policing activities. Using the military at the border also sends a stark message to people thinking about crossing it, legitimately or otherwise. Between the visuals of the wall and armed troops, the message is clear: This place is a war zone. You pass through it at your own peril. The United States has created a war zone without actively declaring war while the world looks on, powerless to stop the fence just as the neighbour can’t do anything about the monstrous fence someone erects to make it clear that people are not welcome, unless it violates zoning, which apparently doesn’t apply on an international scale.
Immigration policy in the United States has always been deeply troubled and in recent years it’s taken on particularly sinister and aggressive aspects. Touting itself as a land of opportunity, the United States wants to limit these opportunities, and not in a functional or logical way. This does not involve concerns about whether we can meet the needs of new residents, how we will adjust infrastructure to accommodate new residents, how we should make the country welcoming. This is specifically about race-based exclusion and it’s transparent and it’s hateful.
The United States has effectively declared war on its neighbours to the south and expects to take a free pass on it. It wants access to the factory zones along the border where cheap labourers produce low-cost goods, it wants inexpensive produce grown in Mexico, but it doesn’t want people. Just products from their hands, and the ability to exploit people to get what it wants. The United States wants to export pollution and labour exploitation and harsh industrial and agricultural chemicals without paying the cost for these things, it wants to be able to scream about ‘illegal immigration’ and punish its neighbours for existing.
Creating a war zone at the border has serious implications. It started with a slow creep, conservative policy pushing further and further against the boundaries. The 11 September attacks created a more hospitable climate for racism in the United States by stressing that The Other is bad and suspect, and the best way to identify The Other is by skin colour, which makes those who are darker bad and suspect. People moving across the border for work, to join their families, to seek education, are maligned and treated like criminals no matter how they cross, whether in a tunnel or openly with a visa across the border control plaza.
For people in the United States, the war zone creates a figure of very real fear—after all, we wouldn’t need such tight controls, we wouldn’t need to militarise our border, if there wasn’t a real danger, right? The messaging of the images from the border has effectively created public support for the border and reinforced it. Going against the war zone is to imply that you don’t care about public safety or, worse, that you don’t think ‘illegal immigration’ is a problem, even though of course people enter the country illegally through many points of access, through ports, along Canada’s border, but it’s only one border the government seems worried about. Worried, it claims, because of the high volume of movement across that border, but we all know the truth. We can all stop lying to ourselves. This is about preventing unwanted immigration, with ‘unwanted’ being a definition that has shifted over the years through centuries of racist immigration policy.
Militarising the border may have consequences the United States cannot recover from. Mexico has recently raised repeated concerns about the handling of immigration policy and the demonisation of Mexican immigrants, and it’s possible that the nation’s efforts to push back may take a more aggressive form in coming months or years. Cracking down on the maquiladoras, for example. Enacting tougher anti-pollution legislation to reject the toxic compounds the US wants to export to its soil. Raising a diplomatic stink to make it clear that this open warfare when no war has been declared will no longer be tolerated.
There are people growing up in the United States right now who have always known the border as a war zone, who have accepted it as part of their lives. Who believe that this is the natural state of the border, that of course it needs to be secured with troops and heavy-duty fencing and trigger-happy vigilantes. These are the people who will be growing up to make policy in the future, who will be the next generation of diplomats, and the messages they are absorbing right now have the potential to be deeply damaging. Pushing back on the border now isn’t just about righting an injustice, but about addressing the very real fact that this injustice becomes more deeply entrenched with each passing year, that it becomes the new normal, utterly acceptable and unremarkable.