Monday, January 2, 2012

Frontier Injustice: Not Even the Pacific Ocean is Safe from Our Pernicious Effort to Wall Off the Border

by Char Miller

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a nasty habit of rubbing salt into wounds, fresh and old.

Just ask anyone who lives along the Rio Grande Valley, makes their home in the Sonoran Desert covering large sections of northwest Mexico and southwest Arizona, or inhabits the dense sprawl of those entwined cities, San Diego and Tijuana. Since 2006, wherever DHS has pounded down its infamous Border Wall, it has chopped up habitats human and natural, severing longstanding cultural links and environmental connections between the U.S. and Mexico. It is a haunting reminder that the post-9/11 hunt for national security has generated its own insecurities.

The most recent (and stinging) example of this painful paradox came in late November. That's when DHS began construction of the latest segment of the wall, dubbed the Surf Fence Project. This 18-foot-high barrier, hung on six-inch rust-proof steel piping, is being pile-driven out 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean. The goal is fortify Imperial Beach, making it impregnable redoubt, the first line of defense for San Diego.

"There is a clear operational need for this development," Michael Hance, field operation supervisor with the U.S. Border Patrol, told the BBC. "The southern side of the border is densely populated and in the past many people found an easy way into the US through these beaches. We need physical infrastructure as well as border agents in the area."

As for the urgency to thrust this wall so deep into the pounding surf, local border patrol agents point to the capture in November of several undocumented migrants attempting to swim around the current fencing.

At a cost of $4.3 million, this new wall will be a very expensive form of deterrent. But Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Bruce Parks assured the LA Times that the exorbitant price tag (amounting to $143,333.33 per foot!) is worth every penny, for this stretch of beach "still has the potential to be very dangerous, as beautiful as it is."

I'd like to think that Parks is just being silly: do we really spend this much money building a wall because of the potential that this stretch of seaside can be a dangerous gateway into the U.S.? But he's not being flippant. After five years of listening to the Border Patrol and its parent department, DHS, say similar things every time they have announced the launch of yet another segment to the 670-mile border wall, it is clear that there is a pattern to their patter.

If, as DHS asserts, the land and sea are so threatening; if the people who would cross these stretches of our sovereign territory are judged to be so unsafe, then we must militarize the first while demonizing the second. Every mile of steel pole and three-ply fencing, every searchlight, movement sensor, high-flying drone, and armed guard is a reflection of this American war on nature and the Other. A terrorism that may be as malevolent as the threat this thick bulwark is supposed to repel.

This deliberate violence against land and people is underscored in the title of a new and insightful collection of essays on the geopolitics of the borderlands: Wounded Border/Frontera-Herida. The injuries that its ten chapters probe cover a wide range: the deeply flawed law enforcement and judicial systems on both sides of the border; the inequities and humiliations that migrants face in U.S. labor markets desperate for low-wage, expendable workers (pressure that women disproportionately bear); the environmental despoliation that comes from a globalized economy that created maquiladoras in Mexico, industries whose toxic effluent damages ground and surface waters, pollutes the air, and poisons adjacent neighborhoods. The border is a fraught landscape.

No shock, this contested physical space is also a social construct. As co-editor Justin Akers Chacón argues: "Since its inception as a boundary imposed by war of expansion, the U.S.-Mexico border has functioned in a dualistic manner. It has served both as a gateway to economic opportunity and as a barrier that creates and maintains unequal power relationships." Out of this duality, he writes, flows "the identities of both people in relationship to each other," becoming a "signifier of status that sustains each population in its own form of isolation." Although the proponents of globalization like to argue that this force is flattening the distinctions between counties and cultures, the U.S. border wall stands in stark refutation, a vertical and visible barrier. Bluntly divisive.

Emblematic of the rending of the social fabric that this enforced divide can produce is Friendship Park. Its name once conveyed its binational significance: First Lady Pat Nixon was on site at its ceremonial opening in 1971, there celebrating the site that memorialized the two nation's close relationship. "There should be no more fences," she declared.

That amity turned into animosity when, as a result of the 2006 Secure Fence Act that the George W. Bush administration promulgated, DHS built a series of fences that turned the park into a penitentiary. "New rules for public access to the gathering place leave families feeling like they have entered a maximum security prison on visiting day," writes Jill Holslin at her blog At the Edges. Any who would like to enter the park today must "wait outside the border wall 150 feet away from Friendship Park, seek permission to enter a locked gate, then be escorted by a border patrol agent in a 'security zone,' a five-foot tall pedestrian barrier that confines the space of the concrete circle of Friendship Park." Detention, surveillance, enforcement: these are the markers of a "containment society."

More egregious still is the latest effort to cordon off the United States, our arrogant ambition to split the Pacific Ocean in two.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." This article originally appeared on KCET, and is reproduced with the author's permission.


Major Mark Schoenfeld, Student, Command and General Staff College, US Army Combined Arms Center (Satellite), Fort Lee, VA. said...

In response to your no border wall comments I submit the following: One of the things that frustrates me about the idea of a physical wall or barrier separating the U.S. and Mexico is that there is absolutely no proof or study that it (the portions of the border with a wall) has done anything to stem the tide of illegal immigrants or the movement of drugs. Is the emotional desire for a physical wall the driving force to building it? Is it the same thing as putting a ten foot high fence around your yard to keep out the bad guys? It seems that so often the pull of emotions trumps our ability to seek a logical, coherent solution to a complex issue. It is much simpler to sell the idea of a wall than to expect people on our side of the border to understand the social, economic and cultural dynamics that exist to drive people to take life and death risks in search of something better.

I am assuming that environmental studies were not required to build the wall or they were conducted and determined as 'acceptable'. In either case the second and third order effects of wall building will not be known for some time and by then short attention spans will care little about why the wall was built in the first place. As with most issues there are usually several actions that need to occur simultaneously to attempt to solve it. I understand that this is not a novel thought, but sometimes we (as Americans) need to remind ourselves why we do what we do. Again, that requires information gathering, analysis, 'wargaming' solutions, and agreement. Instead of going through all that we build a wall. Too easy. We give away our freedoms much too quickly in this country all under the guise of increased security. Again, who determines how safe we are? How is that measured? I don't have the answers to those questions, but perhaps someone does or maybe not.

Finally, the environment always seems to be the victim of human nature. Greed causes us to pollute the air and the waterways with toxic chemicals proven to have detrimental effects on the environment. Fear causes us to build barriers into the Pacific Ocean creating disruptive sea states and impacting marine life in a way we likely don't understand. Let's talk to the people who live along the border about potential solutions and what they think we can do to mitigate the problems the face. No, better yet let's figure that out from afar and tell those people what to think.

"The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government."

jay817 said...

The lives at risk are those innocent victims of the U.S. border patrol.......

jay817 said...

The lives at risk are those innocent victims of the U.S. border patrol.......