A Wall With Many Faces (Is Still A Wall)Posted: November 19, 2014
The border wall is morbidly fascinating every time we see it. This time, as we pulled into El Paso after a long drive through the dry, yellow expanses of New Mexico, I glimpsed part of the imposing structure I’d never seen before. It appeared to meander, to stop and start in accordance with a line seemingly drawn by a shaky hand. Juarez was clearly visible on the other side, pushed right up against the border, peering over with a silent might. We learned later on in the day that in some cases the border is not supported by a wall at all, but rather by simple land markers proclaiming this is indeed the “BOUNDARY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” In other places, the natural obstruction of mountains act as a substitute for the wall itself, relying on the perilous and exposed nature of the terrain to act as a deterrent from crossing. But even if someone were to attempt to cross over the mountains, the countless surveillance towers and motion sensors would surely catch them first.
Our trip to El Paso was part of a larger context to see the border firsthand in all its forms. We had seen the border in Nogales and the borderlands in Tucson and had even spent time on the other side of it in Oaxaca. But something was still missing from our understanding of the recent border phenomenon. Our learning, however extensive, was still based in Tucson, nearly an hour from the actual border. We needed a more comprehensive look at how the border operates from the ground level, right smack against the wall itself, and El Paso served as an ideal location for just that. Within hours of being there, the difference became palpable.
The most peculiar part of this border for me was at the intersection of New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua, Mexico. We were separated from Mexico by a mere chain-link fence. On the other side was a small neighborhood, where a group of adolescent boys were hanging out near the fence. I looked behind me to see a vast expanse of mountains and valleys – “American” territory – and felt an uncomfortable agoraphobia at the space that was accessible to me simply because of my citizenship. The boys moseyed over to the fence and began to converse with our group. As they spoke they leaned against the wall, their fingers and bits of their clothes dangling through the chains – a chilling representation of goods flowing through borders while people are trapped behind them. I felt wrong standing there on the other side from them. No matter how much any of us wanted to be cordial and show the boys decent human respect, there was still a fence between us. Not built there for us, but for them.
Being right up against the border exacerbated the sense of blending I’d gotten from my time in the borderlands. A blend of cultures, languages, people. A blend of identities. This is only natural in a place where two countries meet and overlap with dozens of indigenous cultures. But El Paso seemed to be having an identity crisis. The streets were crawling with people past small convenience stores with signs in Spanish. Wherever I was I could hear Spanish being spoken or Mexican music playing, making it seem like the border was a hasty attempt to convince the US that it belonged to it. This was definitely stolen land.
Even more than the cultural blend was the contradictory interactions between seemingly opposing institutions. Our tour guide at Annunciation House, a hospitality house for undocumented sojourners in El Paso, informed us that volunteers saw ICE officers on their way to work, and they sometimes even waved and said hello to each other. Some even knew each other personally. Interpersonal friendliness aside, it seemed the two organizations – one geared toward providing migrants a shelter on their long, dangerous trip and the other geared toward the detention and deportation of people in similar positions – interact on a professional level too, sometimes even to connect family members together. This is truly a unique overlap. In Tucson, the community seemed to be split down the middle: the ACTIVISTS and BORDER PATROL. In El Paso, the two groups existed practically on the same block.
With the constant contact between those working for justice on the border and those working within the institutions perpetuating injustice, there exists a great disparity between the organizations themselves but a strange community of people working on either side. Those on the ground level are perhaps not so different from each other after all. Activists understand that ICE officers need jobs, and ICE officers seem to understand the migrants need jobs too. With the border in plain sight, ripping through everyone’s lives unapologetically, it must be practically impossible not to think of it every single day, at least in passing. For many, that imposing fortress of a wall is their life’s work – whether they want to enforce it or tear it down.
The two did not always see eye to eye, however; in fact, they rarely did. The same natural differences of interest existed between the two only in much closer quarters, which exacerbated the tension. Much of this animosity had to do with the building of new “residential holding facilities” – which is a fancy and deceptive way of saying “family detention centers.” The lingo assigned to these new developments is hardly fooling anyone, though. It seems to be just another hoop ICE must jump through to hide the new centers from public dissent.
The facility in Artesia, New Mexico, is a perfect example of one such construction, and is located in a very rural area next to a Border Patrol training base. Though convenient for Border Patrol, this location is to the detriment of everyone else. Very far out of the way of, well, anywhere, it is a hassle for lawyers and support organizations to make their way out to Artesia – perhaps a way to literally hide the facility with its physical location as well as behind deceptive lingo. And they have good reason to want to. In this family detention center children are being held without schooling, since after a brief stint of school for three hours a day, it was decidedly not worth the trouble. Next, they weren’t even allowed to have crayons to distract them from their inconsolable boredom. In fact, boredom was said to be the number one complaint among detainees, which often led to severe depression.
The adults were not in much better of a situation. Forced to witness their cases from the confines of a small trailer somewhere in the facility, the courtroom must seem like a distant world when only seen through a small box on a monitor. The judge cannot see any body language of the defendant due to the limited visual span of the courtroom’s monitor as well. It is difficult for the lawyer to even speak to her client because of the hypersensitivity of the microphones in the makeshift trailer, often resulting in both the lawyer and the defendant sitting in silence for the duration of the time. Though operating under the title of “residential holding facility,” it seems that the odds are stacked against the subjects ever being released. Hearing of the circumstances leading to incarceration and the limited opportunities for release were very familiar to me after visiting Operation Streamline and the Florence Detention Center. Justification for such facilities came in the form of humanitarian principle, claiming that families are at least kept together this way, just as the shiny, well kept grounds in the detention centers distracted the visitor from the unjust reasons people end up there in the first place. But the reality is that life in Artesia is no freer than in a detention center anywhere else.
The existence of these new holding facilities highlights the superficiality of the relations between Border Patrol and their opposition despite their friendly contact. Though an interesting blend of people exists in El Paso, there still exists a fundamental misunderstanding between them as well. Our Annunciation House guide expressed frustration at the lack of concern from Border Patrol and ICE agents about the workings of higher-ups within the institutions they work. They seem content to let the laws they so loyally follow be created by people and forces far beyond their control, even while some acknowledge the unfairness of the work they carry out. The empty echo of “just following the law,” mimed by so many Border Patrol agents, is problematic when said as if such laws are absolute and beyond question. We heard this echo from our guide agent at the Nogales Border Patrol Station, from the head of a detention center in Florence, Arizona, and then we heard it second-hand from our Annunciation House tour guide.
The pattern is unsettling and unrelenting. Perhaps something in Border Patrol training convinces each and every agent this is the correct attitude to have. Perhaps the few “threats” that are caught coming through the border – which itself is very debatable – is enough to convince even the most skeptical agent of the justice of his work. Or, most likely, perhaps many agents continue their jobs because it is simply the easiest path to take. Regardless of the reasoning, the blind acceptance of regulations concerning border control proves that we live in a culture obsessed with security. This attitude is by no means confined to border agents, either. In fact, it is rampant within this country. It creates a culture of fear that perpetuates anti-immigrant sentiments by making their very existence within the border walls illegal. Once stripped of legality, it is easy to call undocumented people criminals and ship them off to detention centers and private prisons, where they make the corporate elite money by filling the spaces created for them behind barbed wire. An industry has been built off of misdirected hysteria, all of which culminates in the form of the border wall. And though the nature of that wall may vary from place to place, a wall with many faces is still a wall – a physical manifestation of exclusion.
The border was once merely a line in the sand, but has now progressed into a power display under the auspices of “fighting terrorism.” But let us not forget the origins of the Border Patrol, as a division of the Department of Labor, and how those origins are still relevant today. In El Paso, the might of the border can be felt in every pore, and it is impossible to escape. Where the wall tears families and communities apart, it also forms a highly dysfunctional network of opposing institutions in the immediate area. These institutions directly determine the lives of thousands of migrants. And their lives determine the life work of thousands of people either working for a check or working for change.