The Border Wall is a Metaphor

Jason De LeónAsst. Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan
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A Farce

The border wall is a metaphor for all sorts of anxieties Americans have about the domestic economy, foreign policy, security, and terrorism: it’s a very easy one to play up on. The idea of putting one down there is this farce: we don’t need a wall, we’ve got the Arizona desert, we’ve got the San Diego Mountains, we’ve got the Rio Grande.

And it doesn’t matter how much we tell people that it’s a logistical and an economic impossibility, people still think that it’s the solution to all of our problems, foreign and domestic.

The problem is that the farther away you go from the U.S.-Mexico border, the less understanding people have about the border and how it’s secured, and so the idea of what the border looks like is fundamentally flawed for most of the general American public. But obviously every election cycle we see right-leaning politicians really playing up on border security, on the role that a potential gigantic wall could play in defending the country from terrorism, from undocumented migrants.

The Walls Today

The walls that exist currently are around ports of entry. They’re fairly difficult to scale over, because they’re so tall, although people do it. But once you hop over that wall, there are hundreds of agents on the ground, there are motion detectors, there are infrared cameras. It’s really difficult to cross into the United States at a port of entry.

But, if you walk five miles west of a town like Nogales, Mexico, you get to the desert and the only thing between the United States and Mexico is a two-strand, three-strand, barbed wire fence. There are no agents waiting there, because they know that if you really want to get into this country, you will first have to walk 35 miles through one of the most remote and inhospitable natural environments in the Western hemisphere.

Crosses with the name of people who died in the process of crossing the border, nailed to the border wall between Tijuana and Southern California.

Credit: Tomas Ayuso
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The Natural Environment as a Weapon

Prior to the 1990s, the U.S.-Mexico border was a much more fluid space. People were moving back and forth with relative ease. You didn’t need a passport to go into Mexico, and for the most part, it was pretty easy to get across the U.S.-Mexico border into border towns. People didn’t have to walk for six days through the Arizona desert; they didn’t have to walk twenty miles east or west of a port of entry to find a place where they could get through. It was a pretty easy time to move back and forth.

Our take on border security has evolved over the last two to three decades. Policies were put into place to exploit the natural environment as a weapon against undocumented migration. The idea was: we can’t stop people with a wall, but we can redirect them. Some strategist at Border Patrol eventually said, “If we force people to try to cross the border in those areas where it’s hundreds of square miles of wilderness, where they can drown crossing the American Canal in San Diego, or die in the desert of dehydration or heatstroke —those things that are natural deterrents to migration — they can be used effectively against migrants.”

Everybody knows that it’s a lot cheaper to use the desert as a deterrent than it is to try and construct a wall there.


Following 9/11, we had a surge in people signing up for the Border Patrol. I know a lot of agents who are good-hearted, sensitive people who joined the Border Patrol to fight terrorism. We sold it to them. The government sold these recruits by saying, “You join the Border Patrol and your number one job will be to protect the homeland from terrorists.” The sleight of hand that has happened is that we now conflate terrorism with undocumented migration across the southern border. And there has been no evidence that terrorists are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. We do know that terrorists come through official ports of entry: they come with fake identification cards, they come with Green Cards, they overstay visas. But we have done this incredible sleight of hand to confuse these things.

We spend billions of dollars on border security. We’ve militarized the border, put more agents on the ground, but we haven’t necessarily slowed down border crossers. But it made a lot of government contractors incredibly wealthy. A lot of it has been shown to not be very effective.

We are All Involved

I think we, the American public, want these very simple answers. We want to narrow things down to: “Tell me who the bad person is.” Or “How do we keep folks out?” Nobody wants to hear about the messiness of stuff, right?

So we say, “We’re worried about Mexico as a failed state, the narco state.” But, we’re not worried about who’s supplying them with guns. We’re not really worried about who’s snorting the cocaine and the other things they’re producing that are leading to these violent things that are happening in that country—the accountability stuff.

I think that’s a very difficult thing for the American public to wrap its head around: that we are all involved in this process. The things that we do in the United States impact the things, obviously, that happen in Central America, that happen in Mexico, and in many ways, we created this problem.

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Those things really frustrate me. I had a journalist once, a British journalist, ask me about immigration reform. She said, “What are some policy solutions?”

I said I think the best place to start for any kind of immigration reform is to work on political and economic stability in these countries where people are fleeing. Doesn’t matter what we do at the border, doesn’t matter how many people we give amnesty to, or Green Cards to, people are still going to be coming if things are horrible in their home countries. We need to be responsible and figure out what we can do to help out these situations.

And this person said to me, “Well, don’t you think that that’s those countries’ problems? Shouldn’t Mexico fix itself?” And that is the problem. We have to think about these countries as being partners, true partners. Not just partners we can get cheap labor from, or outsource jobs to, but partners. It shouldn’t be combative, because I think we look for them to be friendly to us when we need stuff, but then we’re incredibly combative when we don’t like things that are going on here. It’s very frustrating that we’re just not globally aware, as a country, about all of these things.

I’m trying to get people to think more globally and understand that, number one, it’s inescapable: we are a globalized world now, and these isolationist policies aren’t going do us any good. We’re moving forward with globalization, and it can go one of two ways. We can either work for it to be productive and positive, or we can maintain the status quo, which is going to end so poorly for so many people, both here in this country and elsewhere. But, it’s disheartening. And I think if I had to say anything about the kind of current stuff, at least with the Central Americans, is that people need to start conceptualizing the migrant experience as one that is not wholly economic, at least not in terms of the driving motivation to leave home. This problem is not going anywhere anytime soon.

A runaway ex-gang member shows off his tattoo, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the five stars of the Honduran flag. He waits beneath the freight train known as the Bestia before continuing northward.

Credit: Tomas Ayuso

Tell a Human Story

I’ve had some very difficult things happen during the process of this work. I had a very good friend, a kid that I worked with last year, who was murdered right after I left Mexico. And I had two choices. It was either stay in a kind of depression that I had fallen into following that event, or pick myself up, and figure out, okay, I told him I was going to write his story, and now I’ve got to do that. He trusted me enough to share a lot of his life with me, so it’s a mutual kind of relationship. I don’t know what it is I get personally out of that, but it definitely never feels like work. And if I can raise awareness about these global inequalities, and not just tell an immigration story, but tell a human story, that’s what I want to do.

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