We live in a world of borders and walls. In the 23 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, 27 new walls and fences have gone up on political borders around the world. These walls are built by both totalitarian regimes and democracies, including India, Thailand, Israel, South Africa, and the European Union. Invariably, the barriers are justified in the language of security—the country must be protected from the terrorists, drug cartels, insurgents, or suicide bombers lurking on the other side.
Despite the external focus of these justifications, in most instances these walls and fences are actually the result of internal reasoning, from establishing sovereignty over ungoverned or unruly lands, to protecting internal wealth, to preserving cultural practices from the influence of other value systems. The decision to build the 664-mile barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, although often presented as primarily in response to drug-related violence and terrorism, is largely due to these internal factors.
Although we often imagine the territorial outline of countries as sharply drawn lines where the control of one state ends and another begins, most borders on the ground belie this simplicity. The idea that borders (or rivers or coastlines) are lines is a convenience of cartography that is established on the ground many years after a map is drawn, if at all. The oldest political borders in Europe, for example, are only a few hundred years old, and most were established more recently than that. Before the 1600s, for instance, most European states did not recognize each other’s sovereign authority over a territory, and the technological advances in cartography that allowed fixed borders and territories to be represented had not been achieved.
The contemporary U.S.-Mexico border was established on maps at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The war settled which territories the expansion-minded United States could claim and transferred almost half of Mexico’s territory to the United States. The last sections of the border were finalized with the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, which secured mining rights and a better route for a railroad connection to California. At the time, the territory was part of the United States in name only and, despite the enormous land area, was populated by about 100,000 Mexicans and 200,000 Native Americans. Over the intervening years, sovereign authority over these lands was established by moving Anglo populations onto the land and by violently suppressing any resistance. Land surveying, creating property maps and the deployment of police forces re-signified the landscape. Yet the line existed on the map and in the population’s geographic imagination only inchoately, as the practices and performances of sovereignty slowly inscribed the different territories onto the landscape.
This process accelerated in the 1990s as funding for border security increased substantially and the idea of marking the imagined line with a physical barrier took hold. When the Border Patrol was established in 1924, it was tiny and remained underfunded for decades. In 1992, there were 3,555 agents at the U.S.-Mexico border, but by 2010 there were more than 20,000. The additional agents play a practical enforcement role while the fence project, which passed Congress in 2006, is much more symbolically significant. The construction of the barrier is another step in the process of reimaging these formerly Native American and Mexican lands as firmly part of the territory of the United States. By physically inscribing the line in the landscape, the wall brings the border into being and visually demonstrates where U.S. territory ends and Mexican territory begins.
In previous eras, political borders served primarily as either military defensive lines, where one army prevented the movement of another, or as markers of different government regimes where one set of laws and taxes or one cultural system stopped and another began. Over the 20th century, the practice of absolute sovereignty over a bounded territory produced substantial wealth inequalities globally, which increased the desire of many people to move either to avoid deteriorating conditions in their home state or to seek better economic opportunities elsewhere. These movements, along with the possibility of hostile people or items passing into the state, resulted in a much more substantial focus on borders as a location to prevent the unauthorized movement of people.
Just as we often imagine most borders as the sharp lines depicted on maps, we also imagine that historically most borders were fenced and fortified, but this is not the case. The older purposes of borders as defensive military lines or administrative divisions do not necessitate a wall or fence. Fences do not deter tanks and airplanes, and administrative divisions between peaceful neighbors do not require an expensive barrier. The changing purpose for borders is evident in the sheer number of new barriers built in the past 20 years. Compared with the 27 that have been built since 1998, only 11 appeared during the entire Cold War period from 1945 until 1990. Furthermore, several of those Cold War border walls were quite short including the U.S. fence with Cuba at Guantánamo Bay and the fence between Gibraltar and Spain.
Not only are the new border walls longer than in the past, but many are built along peaceful borders and instead mark the sharp wealth inequality between the countries. The average annual per capita GDP (in 2010 U.S. dollars) of the countries that have built border walls since the fall of the Berlin Wall is $14,067; the average for the countries on the other side of these barriers is $2,801. The U.S. barrier on the Mexican border fits this pattern. Although the Canadian border is longer and certainly more porous, (the Border Patrol estimated in 2009 that it had effective control over less than 1 percent of the Canadian border versus 35 percent of the Mexican border), the debates about fencing the border focus only on Mexico.
At the same time, concerns about the threat that immigrant values pose are as old as the U.S. itself. At different points in our history, the Irish, the Chinese, and the Italians were all described as posing a grave threat to a particular version of what it meant to be an “American.” Today, these debates revolve around both Muslims and Latino immigrants who, anti-immigrant activists argue, bring alternative social codes and do not assimilate into the mainstream of U.S. society. The fence on the border symbolizes the hardened and fixed borderline that marks a clear distinction between the territories where particular people belong.
The U.S.-Mexico border wall should be understood both in terms of the enhanced enforcement capabilities of the government and in the assertion of where the state has authority and who should be allowed in the state’s territory. The United States built the barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border to define its sovereign authority over its territory, to protect the economic privileges of its population, and to protect a particular way of life from other people who are perceived to have different value systems. Rather than a barrier against terrorism and cartel violence, it is a performance of the United States’ territory and boundaries.
Reece Jones is Associate Professor and Chair of Graduate Studies in the Department of Geography at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Parts of this article are excerpted from his new book, Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India and Israel (Zed Books, 2012), reprinted from NACLA (Fall 2012), the quarterly publication of the North American Congress for Latin America.