The Rock of Gibraltar, as seen from the Spanish border (David Danelo)
“So what do you think about The Wall?”
“Do we need The Wall?”
“Are they really going to build The Wall?”
For the past seven months, some version of this question has been a regular part of my dialogue with almost anyone who learns I live near the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, any discussion of “The Wall” with other Americans usually referred to the celebrated 1979 Pink Floyd album. Now, when people ask me the question, it implies a request for a story, explanation, or perspective about either U.S.-Mexico border security or my policy position on immigration. Most interlocutors are rarely looking for new information, but rather seek affirmation or disagreement of their existing worldview on one or both issues.
For some, the 1,951 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border conjure the lawlessness, smuggling, and vice of the drug trade. For others, the border is an economic transit zone necessary to maintain efficient manufacturing, trade, and travel. The border can be a place of migratory sadness and tragedy where many die missing and forgotten. For a puritanical few, the border is a symbolic Spanish-speaking blight in a nation that should eliminate public use of all other idioms and make English the national language.
For me, first and foremost, the border is my home. I work in El Paso and own land in the West Texas mountains, two hours north of the Big Bend border area. After 10 years of studying international borders, I feel comfortable discussing not only the U.S.-Mexico border, but borders throughout the world. Border zones are cultural estuaries where ethnicities and politics blend and humanity—in myriad forms of beauty, complexity, and violence—finds full and direct expression. Barbed wire, guard towers, customs checkpoints, and passport control stations clearly delineate “The Other.” Where physical walls have existed—the West Bank, the Korean Peninsula, East and West Berlin—spontaneous conflict or persistent strife is normally a constant in the consciousness of both sides. Even without a wall, borders are still lines to be crossed; spaces that are gated by legal or structural means that keep some out permanently while others pass through without incident.
The English-Spanish Border
As FPRI concludes this special series on Mexico’s future, the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar may seem an unlikely place to begin a discussion about the U.S.-Mexico border relationship. Yet, the history, language, and controversy surrounding The Rock offer insight and reminders to any policymaker offering simplistic answers to complex questions on border security, international migration, and political sovereignty. A miniature border ecosystem, Gibraltar’s 2.6 square miles and land border—only 0.75 miles in length—have been a thorn in Spain’s side since 1704, when a British-Dutch naval force seized the inlet from the Spanish monarch. Although the Spain-Gibraltar and U.S.-Mexico borders could not be more different, the basic conflicts—trade, travel, culture, controls, security, and sovereignty—are oddly similar.
With a population of 33,000—on par with Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino—the British satellite nation-state is one of the many regional cities whose Spanish (and, later, Mexican) appellation has Arab origins. Gibraltar derives from the Arabic Jabal Tariq—mountain of Tariq—named in 711 AD in honor of Tariq bin Ziyad, a slave-turned-general whose Muslim army conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula over a three year campaign. During the same time, Tariq’s army coined a large valley northeast of Madrid as Wadi-al-Hajarah, meaning valley of stones. The name carried across the ocean, best known today as Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city—one of many common Western names with origins in the Middle East.
For the British, Gibraltar’s strategic location has enabled access from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and African coastlines, shaping three centuries of naval strategy through multiple European conflicts and both world wars. Ownership of Gibraltar was one reason the British sought to control the Suez Canal, which would assure British control of sea lanes throughout the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Before Islam and the Romans, Gibraltar was seen by the early Europeans as the ultimate border—the Mediterranean Sea defined the known limits of civilization. The Greeks referred to Gibraltar as one of the two Pillars of Hercules—east of which, so legend claimed, was hidden the lost city of Atlantis.
Like the U.S.-Mexico border, the paradox of Gibraltar is that those who live there feel a deep allegiance to their own region, while, at the same time, also share strong ties with the nation of their citizenship. For example, although the citizens of Gibraltar overwhelmingly voted in 2016 for Britian to remain in the European Union, they rejected referendums in 1967 and again in 2002 to officially become part of Spain by equally substantial margins. At the same time, although Gibraltar’s official national language is English, Gibraltarians call themselves Llanitos, or people of the little plain, and speak Llanito—a Mediterranean version of Spanglish—as an unofficial national language. Almost all Llanitos speak Spanish as well as English, and three-quarters of them are Roman Catholic. While comfortably British, they also define themselves in terms of an amalgamated identity and, like their Andalusian Spanish coastal neighbors, routinely bike, walk, and jog across international lines. The Llanitos appear at home on both sides of the border, yet have no interest in changing the distinction.
A Border is A Wall
When visitors to El Paso ask me about The Wall, many are surprised when I tell them it is already there. Since 2008, a barrier of tightly woven corrugated steel ranging 18-21 feet in height has run along the full length of the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border. A concrete wall would add little more to this imposing structure, which, although it reduced the passage of migrants through the city itself, did little to alter migration trends, smuggling patterns, commercial trading, or cultural sentiments on either side of the border. In both security and symbolism, discussions of The Wall mean little, since its presence is already a way of life. Fortifications are, for border people, an outdated story that peaked a decade ago. The Wall already happened.
Like the Llanitos of Gibraltar, U.S.-Mexico border residents—themselves bilingual and bicultural—are acutely aware that they live in a “nation” with particularities that neither Washington, D.C. nor Mexico City can easily appreciate or understand. This especially applies to federal government intrusion on daily life. For example, although the U.S. Constitution protects American citizens from searches and seizures without a warrant or probable cause, the Border Search Exception in U.S. federal law grants U.S. Customs officers almost limitless authority to search anyone—U.S. citizens included—at all international border crossings. As part of this same legal code, U.S. Customs officers and Border Patrol agents also possess authorities to search suspected violators of U.S. federal law within 100 miles of any U.S. sea or land border—a region which includes over 200 million people, or about 2/3 of the American population. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, permanent immigration checkpoints are common features well beyond ports of entry—there is a checkpoint on every major road leading out of El Paso, and I drive through one every time I leave the city.
Despite the commercial prosperity that is likely to continue throughout Northern Mexico regardless of how NAFTA is renegotiated, people living on the border bear constant witness to the structural violence the border’s presence imposes on the region. The World Health Organization defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” By this definition, international border crossings are the most common and widely accepted exercises in state violence both in the U.S. and throughout the world.
With minuscule exceptions, every internationally recognized country worldwide—along with numerous autonomous regions, ethnic enclaves, and self-policing nation-states—claims the right to defend its sovereignty against the threat of an outside attack, which international law defines in terms of violations of physical borders. Because the right of armed self-defense is enshrined militarily on this line on land (or, for island nations, along a coastal zone), borders themselves are space where people can only transit with state permission. At the U.S.-Mexico border, the government has vast authority—the same which governments worldwide claim—to incarcerate, detain, threaten, or intimidate anyone approaching the United States. From the visibility of barbed wire and armed guards to the presence of monitoring sensors and detention facilities, border residents worldwide are constantly aware of the violence of borders.
Security and Our Homeland
In Part I of this article series, I noted the late Professor Samuel Huntington’s concerns in 2005 that the United States and Mexico were inevitably destined for a civilizational clash. One of Huntington’s specific concerns was that, over the long term, identity politics in Northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest would result in a popular desire for both border communities to create a breakaway Spanish-speaking nation. Without articulating this concern using theoretical political science constructs, I see the same fear expressed by Americans clamoring for The Wall. In their view, the current level of structural violence, as defined above, is insufficient to address the cultural threat. Whether Latino, Muslim, or anything else, The Other represents an existential threat to an American way of life that must be guarded against at all costs.
As both a border resident and a longtime aficionado of crossing international lines, I feel affronted, puzzled, and saddened when adherents of this worldview describe the perceived threat the United States faces from Mexico in urgent, martial terms. Many Americans appear to see the U.S.-Mexico border as a place where many thousands of “potential terrorists” hide across the border awaiting the opportunity to sneak into the United States and commit heinous criminal acts. For example, the online newsletter Judicial Watch warned its readers in April 2015—and, later again, in August 2016—that ISIS has a training cell located in Anapra, a Cuidad Juárez suburb. That Fox News, the U.S. State Department, and even the town of Anapra denied the allegations—and, indeed, that the only evidence offered was a video of a “strange building” that was believed to look like a mosque—only cause some to believe the story more. For whatever it is worth to FPRI readers, I have been to Anapra, as have several of my field research students. None of us has discovered any evidence of an ISIS training camp.
The Wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, as seen from El Paso’s Paisano Ave (Gabriella Sanchez)
Like all of us, I have implicit biases about my home, as well as a fondness and pride in the cultural norms of the inhabitants where I reside. Although Ciudad Juárez has endured its share of troubles, I think of the city as the place where my friends Fernando and Ana are preparing their two daughters for first Communion, or where Carlos and I meet up to watch soccer or boxing. To me, the border represents the potential for what the United States and Mexico can become: a culturally vibrant, economically competitive, binational partnership. Unlike Huntington, I see the prosperous future of Mexico as an outcome that benefits the United States, not one that comes at American expense.
To intimidate or inspire: that was the choice U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said that Americans offered the world when making policy and exercising power during his January 2017 Senate confirmation hearings. I find little to benefit either the U.S. or Mexico through increasing intimidation, either by building The Wall or through any other border security enhancement. On the contrary, I see the possibility for America’s best opportunity for sustaining a competitive advantage in the global economy to emerge by increasing labor mobility, reducing trade barriers, and collaborating on regional security. Although this worldview is not current U.S. policy, it remains aspirational throughout the U.S.-Mexico border. Indeed, the appreciation for both countries is perhaps the most profound expression that border residents could offer on how they see their country’s future: as inclusive, not exclusive, towards The Other side of the line.
World Report on Violence and Health, World Health Organization, Geneva: 2002, p. 5.