No. 17: January-June 2017

Ed Casey

U.S.-Mexico Border

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the U.S.-Mexico border?

Donald Trump has infamously called for the construction of a new border wall with Mexico, to be paid for by the Mexican government. This betrays not only abysmal ignorance but an unabashed arrogance. As if the wall does not already exist! It stretches over a full one-third of the 2000-mile distance from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, and a large part of the rest of this length is supplied by the Río Grande River. In some stretches, there is a fence rather than a wall. But when the wall is present, it is a formidable sight. Reaching up to twenty-one feet high, constructed of iron girders attached to a concrete base that goes six feet deep into the ground, it is both difficult and dangerous to scale. In those few parts where it has not yet been built over dry land, either the terrain is so remote and rugged as to discourage any traversal of the border or else there is close surveillance from remote cameras and sometimes drones flying overhead to detect human motion.  Costs for constructing the current wall in the years 2007-2014 alone have come to 5.9 billion dollars. Maintaining the wall comes to 1.4 billion dollars annually, with most of this paying for the thousands of Border Patrol guards whose numbers were greatly expanded by George W. Bush after 9/11. Despite all this, Trump has called for building a “big beautiful wall” that would be “massive and impenetrable” and would tower 40 – 50 feet high at a cost that is estimated to reach 50 billion dollars. Given this situation as it now exists on the ground, it makes as little sense to call for building such a “great, great wall” (again in Trump’s words) as trying to build a second Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco!

Trump’s demand that Mexico pay for an expanded wall shows that he doesn’t understand that the very need for the wall in the first place came from moves made by the United States in the mid-1990s under President Bill Clinton, who in setting up NAFTA in effect forced millions of Mexican corn farmers off their lands because they could not sell their crops at prices competitive with those of the U.S.-subsidized crops imported into Mexico after NAFTA went into effect. The result was a glut in the unemployed in Mexico, millions of whose workers – having no other option in their own country – were forced to try to find employment in the U.S. This and other causes led to the influx of millions of Mexicans over the next two decades -- most of them dispossessed farmers who had to support families. These workers (mostly men, but with sizeable numbers of women as well) have consistently sent back remittances to relatives who remained in Mexico. These remittances have recently averaged 25 billions of dollars each year – an inflow of funds second only to the profits from petroleum in Mexico itself.  Donald Trump has threatened to block the sending of these remittances, thereby adding insult to injury.

No wonder that the current Mexican President, Enrique Nieto, has rightly refused even to discuss paying for the wall: a wall that was only built by Americans to contain those many who have been forced to migrate north to look for work.  The U.S. created the problem, then tried to stem the tide by constructing the wall, and now Trump has the arrogance to ask the Mexico to foot the bill for building what was called for in large part by imperialist American actions in the first place! (Other factors driving immigration from Central and South America include the drug wars, corruption, and poverty; but the U.S. has exacerbated each of these as well.) Talk about circular reasoning! But we are not here talking about logic but about human lives subjected to misery by the remorseless effects of capitalist practices as pursued with little regulation in the United States of America.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

If Donald Trump is at once irredeemably ignorant and irremissibly arrogant, he is only the latest in a series of U.S. Presidents who have generated and exploited human misery in Mexico since the U.S.-Mexico War of 1848. He is certainly the crudest of these infamous leaders, and he is arguably the most dangerous. Looking ahead, one fears that he will institute a trade war with Mexico as he has also threatened with China. This will be bad for the Mexican economy – which depends heavily on its trade with its northern neighbor – and it will also be bad for the American consumer, who will pay higher prices for goods manufactured in the U.S.

The immediate future looks dark indeed for Mexican immigrants in the U.S.. Trump claims he will deport two to three million of these back to Mexico (a revised downward estimate from his campaign rhetoric of eleven million): all those with some kind of “criminal record.” But such a record could include nothing more than traffic violations, domestic violence, and other minor infractions. Indeed, in the eyes of the anti-immigrant forces – who will be in the strong majority in both houses of Congress – just being in the U.S. and working here without “proper documentation” constitutes a crime. Given the xenophobia stirred up by Trump and his reactionary supporters, there will be a high risk of mass deportations looming ahead in Trump’s first term in office. Notice, once again, the cruel irony: the same people who will be subject to deportation (often tearing apart those families who accompanied Mexican workers) are just those who are the U.S. because of the duress engendered by the reckless policies of earlier heads of the American state. Not only this, but (contrary to the propaganda of the far right) these workers do not take up any significant number of jobs that would otherwise go to American workers, given that the work they do is very often considered beneath the dignity of the latter: backbreaking work in the vast farms of the Central Valley of California, washing dishes in restaurants, doing garbage pick-up, working in slaughter houses, etc.

Of course it is too early to be sure about what exact effects a Trump administration will have upon the lives of Mexican immigrants, much less their role in entire national and international economies.[1] But the prospects are not auspicious, given Trump’s xenophobia and his combative personality. One aspect of what lies ahead, however, is more certain, even if rarely discussed. This is the “waning sovereignty” that Trump’s pugnacious nationalism betokens. On the thesis set forth in Wendy Brown’s remarkable book Walled States and Waning Sovereignty, the construction of international walls world-wide – from the U.S. to Israel, from Saudi Arabia to India – is ultimately motivated by a fearful sense that the sovereignty of the states who build them is diminishing in ways these same states cannot control or limit. She has in mind above all the increasing economic and political power of transnational corporations that threaten to displace entire national economies. According to this thesis, building walls can be viewed as a reaction formation motivated by the displacement of nation-based power. This applies to the United States just as much as to any other nation at this historical juncture.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

Brown’s theory points to structures at a global scale that are settling into place at this historical juncture. Wall-building such as that which we witness at the U.S.-Mexico border is a primary symptom of this encroaching circumstance. Trump’s bombast can be read in this light as something more than narcissistic self-assertion; despite its stridently offensive tone, his rhetoric can be read as operatively defensive: indeed, as only the latest episode in a series of comparably self-deceptive assertions of unmitigated imperialist power on the part of previous American presidents. This is not to deny the danger of Trump’s hyperbolic discourse itself; it is to try to understand one source from which it derives – a source unsuspected by those politicians who like Trump revel in inflated and misleading claims.

My recent writing has taken me to the notion of earth-mapping.[2] Where earlier I pursued this notion mainly in regard to land art, the events discussed in this intervention are leading me to consider infusing this approach with a new aim: to map the misery of the millions of human beings who, suffering already from forced migration, are subjected to further persecution and likely deportation in the countries to which they migrate. How to map these migratory movements and to portray this misery in a more adequate way? What kind of map would this look like? Cartography would be the barest beginning; demography one step further; but how to capture the suffering and injustice of all those who toil in the wake of the unbridled capitalism of the very sort of which Donald Trump himself is the ultimate exemplar? These are questions I hope to pursue in the troubled and troubling years that are now unfolding.


[1] See Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010), esp. chapters one and two.

[2] Earth-Mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscape  (University of Minnesota Press, 2005).


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Ed Casey is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook.

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