On Thursday, October 18th at 4:25 am, President Trump took to Twitter with a threat to close the U.S.-Mexican border. The back-to-back tweets echoed the same words: assault, onslaught, criminals, drugs. Most of them in capital letters, of course.
Trump claimed that he will “call up the U.S. Military” to shut down the border. But there is a catch: The Posse Comitatus Act restricts the participation of the military in homeland security activities. Though the military troops can provide support for border agents in terms of logistics and surveillance, they are forbidden to engage in civilian law enforcement duties outside military bases in the United States.
Despite this Posse Comitatus Act conflict, bringing military into the current discussion seems relevant given that the function of borders was once military. Throughout history, walls were built around cities in order to prevent armed attacks and invasions. Yet today, reflects liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, the siege that is being protected against at the border is no longer military, it is no longer about potential occupation by foreign rulers; “it is a siege of people with unfulfilled hunger and desire, of peoples displaced by forces larger than themselves.”
As Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zižek puts it, in the world of economic globalization, where commodities circulate freely but the people cannot, border walls safeguard those included in the sphere of economic prosperity from the immigrant flood—in other words, those excluded from prosperity. Thus the borders get to sustain and reinforce economic divisions, as well as xenophobic, racist ideologies.
The paradox is that while claiming superiority and security, the border walls signal an underlying instability. In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, political scientist Wendy Brown argues that the theatricalized and spectacularized (and remarkably costly) performance of power at the borders stem, at least in part, from anxiety. Given their actual inefficiency in keeping illegal immigration, drug trade, and terrorism out, walls built on borders mainly function as “national psychic defenses.”
Fences rise higher and higher, barbwire added daily. Ground sensors and infrared cameras scan the dark. Border agents with machine guns pace up and down. Congress signs one bill after another¾more agents; more equipment; one more allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars. Operation Hold the Line, Operation Gatekeepers, Operation Safeguard.
The U.S. southern border doesn’t just separate the United States from Mexico, the North from the South. It also asserts the boundary between the categories, “us” and “them,” thus constructing an ideological and psychological wall of exclusionary thinking, as well as intolerance, dread, and hatred.
Philosopher Jacques Derrida claims that we are only truly at home with ourselves when we are open to receiving the other. He contends that the foreigner or stranger’s presence holds a mirror up to us, showing us our own face of disregard, of scorn, of fear, of ignorance. Or the opposite: of hospitality.
Detain. Deport. Zero tolerance. Disregard, scorn, fear, ignorance, indeed.
In 1903, American-born poet Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” was inscribed on a bronze tablet and placed at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The huddled masses travelling North from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador which unleashed President Trump’s most recent threats and insults, say they are asylum seekers escaping from gang violence, looking for safety, stability, and jobs. They are the tired, the poor, the wretched, the homeless. Slowly they approach, but only to find that the lamp is lowered to the ground, the light is off, and the golden door is now slammed shut.