Mexico & The United States

The Mexico-United States Border Region, Receptacle of XXIst century Anxieties

by Zoé Barry and Josselyn Guillarmou

The pillars of the wall which divide the United States and Mexico have rusted. From far away, one can even believe that the archaic structure that separates the residential neighborhoods of Texans, slicing through the Sonora desert to plunge into the Pacific Ocean, has always been planted there. However, this closed border was not obvious. For a long time contested, then forgotten, the American-Mexican frontier today is partly armed, and redefined according to critical events.

Much disputed amongst colonial powers and independence movements, the meridian lines of the United States Border were stabilized following the second half of the XIXth century. In 1848, the Treaty of Peace in Guadalupe Hidalgo put an end to the Mexican-American War, and geographically defined a large portion of the American territory. With a length of 3,200 kilometers, the border line parts from the Gulf of Mexico in the East, slices through the Grand Rio River all the way to the City of El Paso in Texas, crossing the desert zones of the States of New Mexico and Arizona, and cuts up the most densely populated regions, located between Nogales and the Californian Coast.

In these nevertheless heterogeneous spaces, the inter-border communities are highly integrated. The cultures and ideas meet, mix, and their economies are also interdependent. In average, over the last two decades, more than 215 million people have crossed the border each year.

For a long time isolated and out of the spotlight, these places of life and exchange have been re-interpreted and politicized since the 1980-1990’s. In a context of globalism and economic openness, the Mexican-United States Border presents a new security concern. It is swiftly being redefined as a rampart against the perceived threat of trans-border mobility: drug trafficking, illegal immigration, international terrorism and frontier criminality. Many legislative measures and regulations were made under the Presidency of Bill Clinton to restrict immigration and reinforce the surveillance of the border. The frontier barriers of metal signs and bars were similarly erected starting in the 1990s, in the outskirts of the cities of El Paso, Nogales and San Diego.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 produced a political context that was favorable to a more global distribution of border reinforcements in the United States. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and the increase of ways that responsible agencies were permitted to control the border, the frontier regions quickly became militarized. Video surveillance, sensors, checkpoints: military technologies, techniques and personnel were deployed in a network along the border, as well as throughout the regions of the United States interior. In 2006, The Secure Fence Act authorized the unilateral construction of 1125 kilometers of border walls. Under the administration of George W. Bush, the law was adopted with a bipartisan support from the American Congress. The implementation of the wall extended to the presidency of Barack Obama, who declared in May of 2011 that “the construction was basically finished.” Principally constructed between San Diego and El Paso, as well as in the south of Texas, today these fragmented walls cover a little over one third of the border. The materials used vary: bars of steel, concrete, barbed wire, wire netting, dikes and subterranean infrastructure.

The election of Donald Trump into the American Presidency in 2016 confirmed the preeminently electoral and political nature of the wall. While exploiting the polarization of American society on the border question, the one who gathered people together around the slogan of the campaign: “Build that wall!”, imposed the idea of the walled border as an essential tool in the face of the anxiety of the XXIst century. With time, the border between the United States and Mexico was rooted more firmly, on the ground and in the consciousness, as self-evident. In this way, the wall bogs down the border situation even as it stands rusting, and hides in its shadow all possible alternatives.

A rusty cage that kills, and excludes

by Zoé Barry and Josselyn Guillarmou

Every day, at least one person dies after having crossed the border between the United States and Mexico outside of official points of entry. Because of this, between 1998 and 2017, 7,216 corpses were found on the American side of the border, according to the US Border Patrol. These numbers do not include the people who were never found, nor those who had died before even crossing the border. While they are intended to send an image of security, the walls erected between the United States and Mexico kill, and exclude. In institutionalizing a permanent situation of crisis, these exceptional measures are normalizing violence, and legitimizing the arbitrary in the frontier spaces, pushing migrants to take up illegal measures.

Objects of engineering, brickwork, and digital technology, the walls built at the American-Mexican border have not stopped, since the 1990’s, to be heightened and fortified. The tips of sheet steel recycled by the American army were replaced by pillars of stainless steel reaching up to six meters in height, and the vicinities of the border are now controlled by drones.

In the middle of the cities, in the desert, or along the Rio Grande, the symbolic and visual weight of these objects is therefore powerful, and seems to follow a fairly simple logic: The more the barriers are imposing and spectacular, the more they will send an image of protection to the American population. The whole gives the illusion of dissuading those who seek to cross the border without authorization. Except that this fabrication of security based on a performance rhetoric is not a trivial matter. Its cost is as high for the migrants as it is for the border communities and their ecosystem.

In fact, even though the measures applied to the Mexican American border are set according to a “deterrence strategy,” overall, they push individuals to develop dangerous behavior in order to get around them. In this sense, this strategy does nothing but move the migration routes from one sector of surveillance to another. Whereas in 2000, the sector of the Rio Grande valley in Texas represented 8 % of arrests at the meridian border, it has since become a significant place of passage, and accounted for more than 45 % of arrests in 2017. The sector under high surveillance in Tucson, Arizona, has unremarkably experienced the opposite tendency. What is more, feeding a black market of different players (smugglers, traffickers…), this strategy normalizes the violation of the rights of migrants, and exploits the vulnerabilities of the same. The women are particularly exposed to the border violence: assaults, rape and abduction mark almost systematically the passage of their migratory obstacle course.

One can see at which point individuals in situations of illegal installation in the United States began to be perpetuated. There may be a little more than 11 million, of all nationalities combined, living permanently in the United States. The seasonal workers avoid coming and going, which has become too risky. Immobilized, and pushed into an illegal lifestyle, they live in permanent fear of deportation, and face the problems of being excluded from public services, the education system, and healthcare.

Out of step with the border realities, this fabrication of security is for this reason disputed all the more locally, as it has been imposed from distant decision-making centers. In this sense, it represents an affront to the border communities, who suffer directly from the costs of the militarization of their homeland. Many landowners were expelled from their land during the construction of the barriers, and their protests were repressed. This reconfiguration of the border zone is not lacking in consequences for the cross-border ecosystems either, where numerous animal and plant species are disappearing.

The armored border between the United States and Mexico is thus nothing but an image. In the shadow of its walls, danger has even became normal. And little by little, human crises have become policy, violence and arbitrary power have been tolerated, and the border communities have been marginalized.


Zoé Barry and Josselyn Guillarmou are two young researchers associated with the research team for Studies on Borders and Migrations of the Raoul Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies (UQÀM). Within the framework of their research, they notably went at the American-Mexican border, as well as in the Migrant Service Centers in France. They have been working on the border walls with Professor Elisabeth Vallet, and are in collaboration with large international media channels (The Washington Post, The Economist, Nouveau Projet, Radio-Canada…).