CLAREMONT, Calif., Borders are contested zones, spaces where two differing forces meet.
As in the case of nations, whether this amounts to a line drawn in the sand, over the mountains, through valleys, or at the mid-point of rivers, they reveal some of the cultural, political, and social tensions that govern and define the people on either side of that demarcation.
The United States has two such international boundaries. Ours with Canada is the longest shared border in the world; it clocks in at 5,525 miles, a distance that is notable for another reason – it is the longest and least militarized boundary on the planet. The Mexican border by contrast is considerably shorter at 1,954 miles, is the most heavily traversed (an estimated 350,000 million legal crossings occur each year), and is becoming the most thickly guarded anywhere.
Whereas no one pays much attention to any point along the Canadian border, alas the same cannot be said for the line that runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific.
Since 2006, it has become one of the great theaters for the expression of American angst, a stage on which (mostly) Republican politicians and their media understudies can strut and fret. In late June, a new act in this long-running saga made its debut. Called the “Border Surge,” it gives voice to some of most anti-democratic and anti-environmental tendencies in our civic life.
An amendment slapped on to the Immigration Reform Act, the “surge” is designed to pump upwards of $30 billion of taxpayer funds into the construction of fully walled-off border between the U. S. and Mexico and to pour 20,000 Border Patrol agents into the region, doubling their current number. Its advocates in the U. S. Senate have argued that thicker fencing, and more surveillance by human and electronic means (including an increase in drones flying overhead), will make us feel safer.
John McCain, R-Ariz., bragged that a full-scale armoring of this landscape would make it “the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” as if mimicking Soviet oppression was a good thing. “This whole border security amendment,” a not-to-be-outdone Senator Lindsey Graham chest-thumped (R-SC), “is the most aggressive attempt to control the southern border and regain our sovereignty.”
Actually, this big-stick initiative amounts is a hostile takeover of the immigration-reform bill, undercutting its more generous provisions by which the undocumented currently living here may secure a (relatively straightforward) path to citizenship. So when the Senate passed the measure on June 27, and its proponents called on the House of Representatives to follow suit — joining those who cheered the outcome was President Obama: the bill brings “brings us a critical step closer to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all” — I cringed.
After all, the proposed arming of the border is fiscally irresponsible. The Senate’s legislation proposes to spend an obscene amount of money to underwrite the construction of Fortress America.
Then there is the egregious nickname, an evocation of the rapid deployment of U. S. troops in Afghanistan in 2010 that was supposed to pacify that troubled land (which failed).
And what can one say about the xenophobia embedded in this notion of sealing off this particular border once and for all? Put bluntly, the GOP does not like Hispanic voters and is doing everything it can to keep them from the polls, now and in the future.
There is another reason why the “border surge” is such an anathema. If the House follows the Senate’s lead — and at this writing it is not clear that it will — this legislation will further devastate the borderlands environment. As I have argued in my new book, On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest Trinity University Press, 2013), the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which was the first step in what is now a seven-year-long attack on this remarkably varied terrain, cut through, blasted, bulldozed, and flattened some of the most remote, beautiful, and bio-diverse landscapes in the southwest.
To build the infamous wall, canyons were filled in, wilderness areas were sliced in half, wildlife refugees were truncated, and human communities were similarly severed. In an attempt to legitimize these blunt-force actions, the George W. Bush administration not only set aside key provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act to expedite the wall’s construction, it also ran roughshod over the private property rights of ranchers and homeowners.
The “border surge” will only add to this heedless – and needless – destruction. It will further militarize a landscape that already bristles with men in arms; it will intensify the criminalization of the land and anyone found on it, whether citizen or not; it will erect additional barriers compromising the life chances of those species – avian or terrestrial – that for millennia have migrated back and forth across what some now decree must be an impenetrable boundary.
What we have failed to recognize is that when we terrorize this terrain, we are sending ourselves a message about the brittleness of our society, about how unsettled we are by our deep-seated fears of The Other. One of these unstated worries is the realization that a border wall, no matter how sturdy, will make us less secure, not more. In savaging the land, we undercut ourselves.
Char Miller teaches in the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College in Claremont CA and is author of On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2013). An earlier version of this commentary appeared on KCET.org (Los Angeles).