Build Bikes, Not Walls: a Reflection on Open Borders

Border wall at Imperial Beach. Photo by Todd Miller.

It was August 2019, and I was at Imperial Beach, south of San Diego. Five hundred miles away (seemingly) was Tijuana and a hulking border wall that juts out more than 100 feet into the foaming Pacific Ocean. Before I knew it, my (almost) four-year-old was making a beeline for the wall. Above us, a Border Patrol agent perched on the embankment was more preoccupied with the surfers out in the Pacific Ocean who seemed to be antagonizing him by sliding back and forth across the boundary line between Mexico and the United States. But soon the agent turned his attention to William, who was running to the rust-colored bollard wall where we could see people standing on the other side, also on the beach but in Tijuana, a couple of them waving. The agent’s disembodied voice boomed over the intercom, sounding both robotic and godlike. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but he demanded that William not take a step further toward the wall. I almost felt bad for the agent, being forced to yell at surfers and a mischievous four-year-old while surveying the beach in Mexico and people lounging under their sombrillas.

On the sand, about 20 feet from the border wall, William had questions. Why couldn’t we talk to the people waving at us from the other side of the wall? Why was the wall even there? After I explained, he told me with decisively, “We’re going to smash the border wall.” Then, after a celebratory pause: “And after we smash the wall, we are going to turn it into bikes.”

William right after he suggested we turn the border wall into bikes. Photo by Todd Miller.

A few months later, I would think about what William had said and realize that his questions and defiance would become the soul of my next book, Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World without Borders, published earlier this year.

Sometimes when I say “open borders” during book events, which is often these days, I hold my breath. I purposely don’t look at the reaction in the room. This is not to say that audience members will necessarily react negatively, but the stigmatized word does evoke fear. The fear is that some people might ridicule me or chastise me as impractical. At least that’s how it goes so often in the national conversation. For example, Cecilia Muñoz, immigration adviser for Barack Obama for the eight years of his presidency, when quoted in an article explaining divisions in the Biden administration, said, “Some advocates have not grappled with the difference, if any, between their position and an open-borders position. And an open-borders position is anathema in the country. It’s like pushing the administration right off the cliff.” Maybe an ill-advised metaphor on the part of Muñoz, since current border policy literally pushes people off cliffs.

At book events, I always share the smash-the-wall-and-build-bikes story. There is something liberating about looking at something, understanding its material essence, and imagining something new. The master of this is Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, who in 2013 smashed into the concrete separation wall in Jerusalem with a sledgehammer and chisel. He did this day after day in five-minute stints (to avoid the Israel Defense Forces and border police), and then melted down the shards to make sculptures of soccer balls and cleats for a group of kids who had lost their soccer field to the border wall on the West Bank.

As Jarrar said years later when he came to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, “I will not accept this wall to be in my face.” He came to the same place where William and I sat on the sand that day, only on the Mexico side of the border. In fact, after that day on the beach with William, I showed him videos about Jarrar, including one where you can watch him pry away a steel bollard (a long, thick bar) of the wall as if he were extracting a loose tooth.

A little later he climbed to the top of the wall to observe two Border Patrol agents who yelled, “What is your citizenship?”

“I’m from earth!” Jarrar ended up sculpting the bollard into a ladder that he put up on the border in Ciudad Juárez, where it remains on permanent display.

What I realized during my talks is that these sorts of stories from William and Khaled resonate with people. There is the transformative part of it, but also, perhaps, there is a kind of epiphany, a self-awareness that I’ve been trained to see the metal of the wall—or the entire border apparatus—in a certain way, and that that way of thinking had become rutted, like a car trapped and spinning its wheels, preventing me from thinking about it any other way or imagining something else, something new. Indeed, it was “impractical.” Maps, nation-states, and boundaries have been ingrained into my thought patterns.

The national conversation is also trapped in suffocating preconceptions. For example, when the term “open borders” is used, it is always about poor people showing up at the border, not corporate power from the Global North ransacking the Global South. For the latter, there is already an open border. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement is an open-borders policy for companies and capital. There is no Border Patrol stopping grain movers like Cargill when they undersell Mesoamerican corn farmers and drive them into oblivion, no ICE that rounds up or deports mining companies that steal a community’s natural wealth after poisoning its potable water or oil companies that extract fossil fuels and pollute the biosphere.

In his book This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, journalist and author Suketu Mehta opens with a story about an angry British man who berated Mehta’s grandfather in 1980s London.

“Why are you here?” the man demanded. “Why are you in my country?”

Mehta’s grandfather, who was born in India and spent his working life in colonial Kenya, answered, “Because we are the creditors. You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.”

“We are here,” his grandfather was saying, Mehta writes, “because you were there.”

When I wrote Build Bridges Not Walls, I certainly didn’t claim to know the answers. I only hoped to glean some wisdom from decades of working and reporting on border issues and to forge a new dialogue rather than have the same old conversation about “immigration reform.” It is interesting to see how these ideas of turning borders into something else, whether it be bikes, cleats, or a ladder, resonates with people, but the term “open border” carries political tension and potential for dispute.

William peeing on the border barrier at Imperial Beach. Photo by Todd Miller.

The wise U.S. geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, “If you want to think about a world without borders, you have to live as if borders can go.” For decades, Gilmore has advocated to abolish not only prisons but also “the conditions in which prisons become solutions to problems.” But to do this we must counteract what she calls “organized abandonment,” the austerity measures that hurt the poor and create poverty, cutting back on affordable housing, education, health, assistance to small farmers—basic justice issues that people face in the United States and abroad. In a border sense, alleviating these root conditions of injustice is another way to tear down the wall jutting out in the Pacific Ocean, or anywhere. The abolition that she talks about seeks to awaken people’s deepest sense of humanity, drawing on our potential to be creative, collaborative, and inclusive, building up a world where humans can thrive and uplift each other. In other words, William was onto something—especially as he thought about what to do with the crushed border wall to include rails for trains and houses for the homeless. We even thought of writing a children’s book (still just an idea) about all the different things that you could turn a border wall into.

Along a dirt service road border outside the small border town of Sasabe, Arizona, you can see the haphazard and discarded piles of bollards of the former wall that go on for miles and miles. Of course, DHS smashed the previous wall (built in 2007, courtesy of the Secure Fence Act) to make way for one double its size (from 15 to 30 feet) built by the Trump administration. But the piles of metallic debris told the story that indeed the wall could be smashed. And in that material, you could almost sense the bikes—and the freedom of movement they represent—waiting to be built.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.