In June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President with a wild promise: that he’d halt illegal immigration and crime — which he traced to Mexican immigrants — by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively,” he said. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
Trump is intent on delivering on that campaign process as president. He kickstarted the process with an executive order last week, ordering the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border” that would serve as an “impassable physical barrier” between the United States and “illegal aliens.” Trump’s intended wall would be 1,000 miles — natural barriers would take care of the rest — and claims it will cost between $10 to $12 billion (estimates from the Government Accountability Office have the number closer to $14 billion).
“A nation without borders is not a nation,” Trump said when he announced the wall executive order. “Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders — gets back its borders.”
But walls don’t fit into our increasingly post-humanist society, argues Juanita Sundberg, an ethnographer who specializes in border security and geopolitics at the University of British Columbia. Inverse spoke to her about the role of walls in defining national borders.
You say walls don’t fit into a definition of post-humanism, which has many definitions of post-humanism. How would you define that concept?
There are different ways of thinking about it. One of them is considering in which ways humans will become “beyond human” through technological changes. Another approach to what post-humanism is — more the focus of my research — is more focused on the de-centering of the social world and the reaction of humans to that, what will happen when technological influences change how traditional networks are composed.
There are psychological studies that show that walls can have the intended effects of the people who want to construct them — such as influencing people to accept the status quo. Do you think that will change as we become more influenced by technology?
I feel like the wall [that Trump is discussing] is already influenced by technology because it operates symbolically online — so few people seem to realize that there is already a wall. There is so much conversation and hype about it all, but the number of people who will actually have to experience and live with the wall is a minority.
I find it hard to believe that, for most people, they are considering it an actual material thing. When you speak to people who are actually living by the border, they are saying things like: “We know the wall doesn’t work, why are the rest of you so excited about it?” The symbolic power of the wall remains as powerful as ever.
As an ethnographer who studies and researchers political ecology, what is your reaction to hearing that people intend to build this physical wall?
To me, it is completely outdated as a technological thing. It’s not a technology that works unless you have someone posted every three feet.
There has been so much effort by the U.S. government to create a virtual wall, and there are places along the border where these virtual walls are. Essentially, these virtual walls have technological features that allow border control to survey the area and create “a wall” in the sense that they can sense movement, and they can see whether the movement is people or animals. The purpose of these walls is to calculate where undocumented people are coming out of the landscape, and channel them into very specific geographies that then make it easier to apprehend them.
The research that I’m conducting is looking at the ways in which the physical landscape creates all kinds of obstacles for this technological wall; it also makes it difficult for construction and maintaining of a physical wall. Even though we’re so sophisticated technologically, the physical landscape continuously thwarts human plans to build barriers.
Do you think that virtual walls have a different symbolic effect on people than physical walls?
I’ve sat in on community meetings with the border control in souther Arizona where there’s discussion about the construction of virtual walls, and people were very upset because the virtual wall cameras and such were actually surveilling them. And people were really disturbed by this notion that they are now going to be the object of this technological surveillance. That factor really changed things for them. I was in a small town that is closer to the border, and people do a lot of outdoor activities there and were concerned about being exhibited in the border control stations while they did that.
Interestingly, you never really hear about the virtual wall in the news. You don’t see advertising for it, the same conversation that the physical wall gets. It doesn’t have literal weight — you don’t see anything, it looks like a cell tower.
Turning to the future, if walls don’t work, what is the right way to approach borders? Do you think a post-humanist society will pivot away from this type of border security?
Yes, I think that pivot will happen. How exactly is obviously uncertain — perhaps our passports will be embedded in our bodies, and so surveillance becomes biometric. But again, if our bodies became our passport, we move towards a totally authoritarian society.
Or the opposite may happen, and we go back to the entire span of human history where borders really weren’t significant. Physical, political boundaries are such a recent phenomena. What is interesting is that we think we’re moving into the future, but something as regressive as a wall is the recent past — the nothing that it’s going to protect the nation-state. Border security on the U.S.-Mexico border is recent; on the U.S.-Canada is recent. We assume that the future is more progressive, or that we will progress beyond what seems like archaic technology, yet that appears to be one of the ways that we might be going now. This wall certainly isn’t indicative of any technological progress.
And do you think a potential future where surveillance acts as border security will create a different effect than a wall?
It creates obstacles yes, but they’re [migrants] going to get around it. It just has so little weight for them — which is not to diminish the violence they face. They are very much aware of that — of being caught, of getting lost out there; there are a variety of ways in which the border is materially violent. But I’m talking about its political weight, which seems to be just meaningless.
I think the migrants of today exemplify what has always been true, and I think will always be true, which is that humans constantly move through the landscape. That’s a normal part of human history — people will move. The idea that we should be static and closed in is a recent one.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.