US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign promises that, if elected, he will build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” along the 3,100 km US-Mexico border is, in historical perspective, not an anomaly, but reflective of a significant global geopolitical trend (“How realistic,” 2016). As Thomas Nail (2016) points out in his recent study of the border: “In the last twenty years, but particularly since 9/11, hundreds of new borders have emerged around the world: miles of new razor-wire fences, tons of new concrete security walls, numerous offshore detention centers, biometric passport databases, and security checkpoints of all kinds in schools, airports, and along various roadways across the world” (p. 1). Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and especially since the refugee crisis that erupted in 2015, European nations have constructed or began constructing “almost 1,200 km of anti-immigrant fencing … That distance is almost 40 percent of the length of America’s border with Mexico” (Baczynska and Ledwith, 2016). As Mohdin and Collins (2016) recently enumerated:
“In 2015 alone, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria all started construction or announced plans to build fences. In the last two months, Norway has begun construction of a steel fence at a remote Arctic border post with Russia to deter migration. France, with British funding, is the latest to build its own wall — near the so-called makeshift refugee camp known as the Jungle. It has been dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Calais.’”
Trump’s proposed US-Mexico border wall was itself inspired by Israel’s 700 km separation barrier from the Palestinian West Bank, which is “the largest infrastructure project in Israel's history.” While the Palestinians see the barrier as an “apartheid wall,” the Israelis see it as an “anti-terrorist fence,” and Trump views it as a “successful … security fence” that has helped Israel “secure its borders” (Jacobs, 2016; Zonszein, 2014).
Given the heightened rhetoric and activities concerning borders, it is timely to reflect on the nature of borders. Korf and Raeymaekers (2013) remind us that borders are “key sites of contestation and negotiation” within and between states. While states establish borders to fix their territories, the distribution of borders reflects the distribution of power within each state. Illegal or anti-state activities that occur in border regions “implicitly and explicitly call into question the legitimacy of states and their pretences to control an illusionary cartography of territory and population, and the legitimate use of violence therein” (p. 5). Frustration with human and narcotics trafficking across the US-Mexico border has raised popular support for Trump, while in Europe fears of terrorism — which were validated by the infiltration of Islamic State terrorists among Syrian refugees — have intensified the populist backlash against refugees and immigrants (Nabeel and Bhatti, 2016; Wike, Stokes, and Simmons, 2016; “Rancher yearns,” 2016).
In the third presidential debate, Trump highlighted the existence of a major bordering practice that exists within US territory, namely arrests and deportations of criminal undocumented immigrants, which under the Obama administration numbered over 2.5 million deportees (Palma, 2016; Woodruff, 2016). As Jones and Johnson (2014) point out, people “encounter borders in their multiple locations in their daily lives” (p. 6). This is because borders “are no longer entirely situated at the outer limit of territories” and have become diffused within the borders of the state, “wherever the movement of information, people, and things is happening and is controlled” (Balibar, 2003, p. 1). Balibar’s concept of the diffuse border supplements Deleuze’s (1992) account of contemporary society possessing elaborately modulated controls for migration and movement that resemble “a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point” (p. 4). In the case of the US and the world’s other advanced economies, such modulated controls include biometric passports and other identification documents which allow their security apparatuses to quickly distinguish non-citizens who are in the territory legally from those who are not. Such technologies have had to be developed to help the governments “cope with the risks inherent to the increasing mobility of humans and goods by patrolling beyond and within the territorial boundaries of the state” (Johnson and Jones, 2014, p. 5). These technologies in turn strengthen the power of the state, increasing its ability to organize “people and things into discrete areas” and manage their “social, economic, and political” lives (Agnew, 2009, p. 30).
Borders have become diffused within the borders of the state, “wherever the movement of information, people, and things is happening and is controlled.”
The economic life of a people may also be affected by borders and bordering practices. Communities which depend on remittances from undocumented immigrants working in the US may expect to be devastated should the US government seek to expel their breadwinners from the country. More broadly, borders serve as “connective tissue” that allow people to cross “scales (local, national, regional, global) through their everyday practices,” such that people may experience the border “as a ‘local’ phenomenon, a nation-state ‘edge,’ or as a transnational staging post, thereby allowing them to experience the border as a conduit” (Cooper, Perkins and Rumford, 2014, pp. 19-20). Globalization treats borders as transnational staging posts through which the transnational supply chains of multinational companies flow through. However, should Trump’s anti-globalization agenda bring him electoral success, his supporters will expect him to re-modulate the immigration and customs controls at the US border to increase the costs borne by transnational supply chains, and to restrict the cross-border movement of labor, thereby disrupting the uninterrupted flows of capital, goods, and people that are necessary for the smooth operations of globalization (Lim, 2016).
Tsing (2005) has famously found that global connections emerge from “sticky engagements” or “friction” between individuals, and that “the effects of encounters across difference can be compromising or empowering.” Unhappy encounters may range from “everyday malfunctions” to “unexpected cataclysms” (p. 6). One such unexpected cataclysm was the November 2015 terrorist strike on Paris, which involved Islamic State terrorists who had entered Europe disguised as Syrian refugees (Faiola and Mekhennet, 2016). This and other terrorist attacks have, as was noted earlier, given rise to anti-immigrant public sentiment in Europe and prompted several governments in the region to impose tighter controls on their borders. Refugee populations have also experienced state violence as a result of the anti-immigrant backlash, including the recent closing and demolition of the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France (Chazan, 2016; Mallinder, 2016). Such violence reflects Elden’s (2009) observation that “creating a bounded space is already a violent act of exclusion and inclusion; maintaining it as such requires constant vigilance and the mobilization of threat; and challenging it necessarily entails a transgression.” The violence that gives the state control over its territory “is what makes a state possible,” and its control of territory “accords a specific legitimacy to the violence and determines its spatial extent” (p. xxx). However, in the current anti-immigrant zeitgeist, immigrant groups may also experience violence triggered by politicians and other “ethnopolitical entrepreneurs” whose divisive rhetoric creates a “powerful crystallization of group feeling” which pits local or native populations against immigrant groups (Brubaker, 2002, pp. 166-167). Such rhetoric may be understood as an informal bordering practice which highlights the presence of undocumented immigrants within the state’s borders and which may then identify them as targets for state or vigilante violence. The escalating tensions arising from the increasingly bitter US presidential campaign may yet mark a watershed in the global movement to tighten borders.
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