Dividing the Sky: the Fortification of the U.S.-Mexico Border

“No other border in the world exhibits
the inequality of power, economics,
and the human condition as does this one.”


By US Border Patrol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” is slowly making its way through the American Congressional system, and it has been brilliantly summarized here by The Migrationist’s Amy Grenier.

While there is plenty to discuss with regard to the bill, the focus of the following is limited to the two words that open the bill – “border security.” The bill’s focus on tightening the U.S.-Mexico border is such that none of the bill’s provisions will go into place without it. Title I of the bill requires the Department of Homeland Security develops a “Comprehensive Border Security Strategy” and a “Southern Border Fencing Strategy,” and it is further stipulated that these strategies reach a 90% rate of effectiveness in apprehending and returning irregular migrants. While this stipulation originally only applied to “high-risk” sectors of the U.S.-Mexican border, it has been amended to include all sectors following a proposal made by Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (“Grassley 1”).

The emphasis that American policymakers are placing on border control is nothing new. Nevertheless, given the complications stemming from the fortification of the southern border of the United States over the past 20 years, Washington’s dogged pursuit of a hermetically sealed border raises some concerns. In some ways it is surprising, especially since empirical work on the subject indicates that migration from Mexico has not only ebbed in recent years, but reversed, with many migrants choosing to return home. Last year, border apprehensions fell to a 40-year low. Even so, “securing the border” looms large on the political agenda.

A Brief Overview of U.S. Border Fortification

In 1993, the Clinton administration took the first steps toward fortifying the border, largely in an effort to quell Republican criticisms of the administration’s lax approach to immigration. Subsequent administrations have continued these policies, allocating unprecedented funding to an impressive display of force along the southern border: steel fences, high-intensity lighting, remote-controlled, 24-hour-a-day video surveillance systems, helicopters, and unmanned surveillance drones (Cornelius 2005: 779).

In the early days of border fortification, strategists determined not to distribute resources uniformly along the border. Instead, they focused attention on “high-risk” sections of the border, where 70-80% of crossings were made. The logic was that if authorities could secure these areas “geography would do the rest” to discourage would-be migrants from leaving their homes (Cornelius 2005: 779). Policymakers assumed that the natural borders of the U.S. – soaring mountains, swift rivers, and wide deserts– would deter crossings. They believed that migrants would not risk their lives crossing such brutal terrain.

Twenty years later, it is clear that they were wrong. The flow of migrants has continued, and there is no evidence that the expansion of border enforcement has effectively deterred irregular migration from Mexico to the U.S. (Cornelius 2005: 776). However, there is ample evidence from recent research that border fortification policies have contributed to the “bottling up” of unauthorized migrants in the U.S. (Cornelius 2005: 782). Unwilling to risk traveling home, undocumented migrants have ended up staying in the U.S. longer, and more migrants have settled permanently. This has resulted in a paradox policymakers seem hesitant to discuss: an explosion in the numbers of unauthorized migrants living in the U.S. at a time when this country spends more on border security than ever before (Cornelius 2005: 777). In fact, Washington now pours more money into immigration control than all other federal criminal law-enforcement agencies combined, its total spending estimated at over $18 billion a year.

As Al-Jazeera has reported, this funding is directed toward the development of some of the most sophisticated border technologies in the world. In states like Arizona, an extensive industry has taken shape in the shadows of the border, ensuring handsome profits for companies that design and produce tools to detect unauthorized migrants. The University of Arizona has gone so far as to accept funding from the Department of Homeland Security for its Center of Excellence on Border Security, which will work together with its Tech Park on Science and Technology to develop border enforcement technologies. Companies converge at “Border Security Expos”, peddling their wares and propagating a “homeland security state,” which receives its financial backing from the federal government.

Few in Washington seem willing to own up to fact that these border fortification policies are exacting a devastating human toll. The figures are bleak; since 2000, an average of 410 migrants have died each year as a direct consequence of illegal entry along the U.S.-Mexican border (Cornelius 2005: 783). Migrants drown in the Rio Grande and the All American irrigation canal running through California and Arizona. All too often, they succumb to heatstroke and dehydration in the deserts (Cornelius 2005: 783), and more than 5,000 bodies have been recovered on U.S. soil. To put that figure in perspective, the fortified US border with Mexico was more than 10 times deadlier to migrants from Mexico between 1993 and 2004 than the Berlin Wall was to East Germans throughout its 28-year existence (Cornelius 2005: 783).

Tracing the Fault Lines between North and South

International borders often overlap with the fault lines of global inequality. The divisions and differences between the U.S. and Mexico do not begin and end in the borderlands, but the border is where they come into sharp focus. As Alvarez (1995) has pointed out, borders “graphically illustrate the conflicts and contradictions of a hierarchically organized world.” Therefore, the management of the U.S.-Mexico border holds a meaning that extends far beyond the two countries, representing a larger struggle on the part of countries in the “North” to deter, detect, detain, and deport migrants from the global “South.” As Stephen Castles notes:

The perceived ‘migration crisis’ is really a crisis in North-South relations, caused by uneven development and gross inequality. Migration control is essentially about regulating North-South relations.

The U.S.-Mexico border clearly illustrates a crisis in North-South relations. The border acts as a dividing line between the wealth of the world’s largest economy and the poverty of the “third-world” nations that lie south of it. Thus far, policymakers have largely refused to address the patterns of economic inequality that spur migration to the United States in the first place, opting instead for a heavily fortified border. However, U.S. officials have historically shied away from robust internal controls in the labor market, which has lead some migration scholars (e.g. Castles, Cornelius) to claim that the government has in fact intentionally allowed low-skill labor into the country through illegitimate channels in order to create an undocumented and thus more readily exploitable working class, all while maintaining their legitimacy with the electorate through a display of force at the border.

They Divided the Sky

I would like to conclude by mentioning the impetus behind this post. I recently stumbled across a photo essay chronicling life along the U.S.-Mexico border, published in The Atlantic and entitled On the Border. The images are striking, and one in particular caught my attention – that of a man and a woman embracing through the border fence; she in Mexico, he in the U.S. (36). I mention this because I believe it is essential to recognize that political borders do not merely define territories and delineate realms of sovereignty. They also cut through the hopes of individuals caught on either side.

The photo reminded of a passage from East German author Christa Wolf’s 1963 novel, They Divided the Sky (Der geteilte Himmel), which follows the story of a young couple separated by the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Earlier, before the construction of the Wall, lovers used to search for a star, where their gazes could meet at night. ‘At least they can’t divide the sky’, he said, teasing. The sky? That enormous vault of hope and longing, of love and mourning?

‘No’ she said softly ‘they divide the sky first of all’.*

The boundaries the U.S. has been building around its fraying edges began slicing through the sky many years ago, and that is the crux of the issue. The problem with the U.S. border apparatus is not merely its physical presence in the deserts of the American southwest, but the fact that the fortified border is just one a manifestation of far deeper divisions – those that divide rich from poor, “us” from “them,” “immigrants” from “natives”. There are plenty of people with a stake in maintaining those divisions, eager to build the walls that protect wealth and perpetuate inequality at a global scale.

What we need are more people who are willing to tear them down.

Further Reading

Alvarez, R. R., 1995, “The Mexican-US Border: The Making of An Anthropology of Borderlands.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, pp. 447-470.

Castles, S., 2004. “Why migration policies fail.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 27(2), pp.205–227.

Cornelius, W. a., 2005. “Controlling “Unwanted” Immigration: Lessons from the United States, 1993–2004”. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 31(4), pp.775–794.

* Früher suchten sich Liebespaare vor der Trennung einen Stern, an dem sich abends ihre Blicke treffen konnten. Was sollen wir uns suchen? “Den Himmel wenigstens können sie nicht zerteilen”, sagte er spöttisch. Den Himmel? Dieses ganze Gewölbe von Hoffnung und Sehnsucht, von Liebe und Trauer? “Doch” sagte sie leise. “Der Himmel teilt sich zuallererst”.  Any inaccuracies in the English translation are the author’s own. 

One comment

  1. […] the American deficit, the savings described in the CBO score go directly towards amplifying the fortification at the Southern border of the United States to a degree we cannot even begin to imagine, although Fernando Garcia of […]


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