Fear and loathing on the border

The militarised nature of the US-Mexico border sustains the fallacy that the US is under attack by ‘criminal’ migrants.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. worker inspects a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, U.S. opposite the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez
The effective criminalisation of migrants for pursuing a dignified existence translates into an existential hazard, writes Fernandez [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

As Donald Trump‘s sordid vision of a “big, beautiful wall” on the United States-Mexico border begins to take shape, The Guardian has revealed that – of the more than 600 companies currently vying to get in on the wall-building action – 10 percent are identified as “Hispanic-American-owned” businesses.

Posing a greater ethical dilemma, perhaps, is the potential opportunity for Mexican cement manufacturing giant Cemex to profit handsomely from manic border fortification efforts. The firm has seen its shares leap in value since Trump’s election in November.

Of course, there’s little room for ethics when gobs of money are at stake. According to Reuters, an internal US Department of Homeland Security report puts the price-tag of the wall at up to $21.6bn.

Indeed, in a world ever more committed to walls, barriers, and the profitability of exclusion, it seems ethical boundaries are the easiest to knock down.

Not just a wall

While Trump would have his followers believe that the US-Mexico border was itself dangerously nonexistent prior to his ascension to the presidency – with Mexican “rapists“, and other figments of his own imagination, flowing unencumbered into the country en masse – reality tells a very different story.

Frequently lost in all of the “big wall” talk, for example, is the fact that there is already a wall on the US-Mexico border and that it happens to be quite big.

A recent AJ+ video notes that the wall in its current form covers 1,051km and was erected at a cost of $3m a kilometre in certain parts.

But the wall can’t be measured in units of distance alone, encompassing as it does a vast border security apparatus involving everything from helicopters and drones to blimps, watchtowers, and gunboats, not to mention an ever-evolving number of armed personnel.

In an email to me, Todd Miller – author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security – remarked that the number of US Border Patrol agents has “increased five-fold from 4,000 to 22,000” over the past 25 years, with “annual budgets for border and immigration enforcement rising from $1.5 to $19.5bn”.

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In reference to the intense build-up of border machinery, Miller observed: “All of this Trump had at his disposal without any executive order and before he ever set foot in the White House.”

Now that Trump has two feet planted firmly therein and xenophobia has not only been catapulted into the realm of political correctness, but also embraced as a mark of national pride, you might say we’ve definitively crossed the border into a state of upbeat sociopathy.

Criminalising existence

The increasingly militarised landscape of the US-Mexico frontier serves a variety of pernicious functions.

For one thing, the obsession with border “security” helps to sustain the notion that the US is somehow under attack by migrants from Mexico and Central America, many of whom have either been forcibly displaced from their livelihoods by US-engineered free trade agreements and other punitive economic measures or are fleeing violent contexts the US itself has played no small role in creating.

The effective criminalisation of migrants for pursuing a dignified existence translates into an existential hazard, and an untold number of travellers have perished at the mercy of the elements while endeavouring to navigate the border region’s hostile terrain.

Beyond the actual physical barrier, there's also a significant psychological dimension to the wall, which operates as a conferrer of value upon human life and skews the results in favour of those lives north of the line.


Migrants also run the risk of being kidnapped, murdered, raped, extorted, and otherwise abused in transit – a risk that exists purely because, as global have-nots, they’re denied many options for “legal” movement between countries and thus rendered even more vulnerable to exploitation.

According to a 2013 Amnesty International report on US-bound Central American migrants in Mexico, “it is believed that as many as six out of every 10 migrant women and girls experience sexual violence during the journey”.

But who in the US has time for empathy when our country is under migrant siege?

Cake and more cake

Since the border wall is designed to block human movement in only one direction, I, as an American citizen, am permitted easy access to Mexican territory.

From my present location on the Yucatan peninsula, I can report that there are, in fact, certain Americans residing in Mexico who apparently detect no irony in verbalising their support for Trump or referring to undocumented Mexicans in the US as “illegals”.

A bigger and better wall will no doubt further facilitate the job of persons intent on upholding the standards of imperial hubris.

Beyond the actual physical barrier, there’s also a significant psychological dimension to the wall, which operates as a conferrer of value upon human life and skews the results in favour of those lives north of the line.

Meanwhile, the climate of fear perpetuated by militarisation schemes helps justify the schemes themselves, in addition to distracting popular attention from national defects.

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On a bus the other day, I chatted with a Mexican American man who resented the idea that his mother -herself a resident of the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo – could be deemed a security threat and potential “invader” in the eyes of “Caligula“, as he referred to Trump.

The man reasoned that, were the US concerned about invasions, it should perhaps stop invading other countries.

But that, of course, would cramp America’s style and ruin the good old tradition of having one’s cake and eating it, too. Unfortunately, cake and ethics don’t mix.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.