It was the first moment of Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency. He memorably rode a Trump Tower escalator into the race to the tune of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and, as everyone still remembers, promptly denounced Mexican "rapists" for being "sent" across our border. No less crucially, he made a promise, one he's now trying to steal money from the Pentagon just to begin to fulfill: "I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I'll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words."
In popular memory, there was only one great wall on the planet then, hundreds of years old and (in myth, at least) viewable from outer space: the Great Wall of China. And that undoubtedly was Donald Trump's own reference point. In truth, for most of us, his obsession in that campaign with the border, with migrants, and with that wall, like so much else about that one-of-a-kind run for the presidency, seemed uniquely his, something newly introduced to American politics.
But that was never the case. Donald Trump's major skill -- other than his remarkable knack for getting cameras, wherever they were, to focus on him and keep "the red light on" -- was an uncanny ability to catch the mood of the moment, the vibes in the air, that other politicians seemed incapable of sensing. That certainly included his great, great wall (which, likely as not, will never actually get built) on our southern border.
What TomDispatch regular Todd Miller shows today (and in his new book, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World) is that Trump, already our "birther-in-chief" when he entered the race in 2015, uncannily picked up not just the vibe of fast developing white nationalist sentiments in this country, but of an official American obsession with borders -- not so much with walling in this country as walling "them" out globally. As Miller makes clear, by the time he took that escalator ride, an American urge to wall out aspects of our world had moved well beyond our southern border and somehow Donald Trump got it when so many of us didn't. Tom
Trapped in an Empire of Borders
The U.S. Border Is Much Bigger Than You Think (And Don't Just Blame Donald Trump)
By Todd Miller
The driver of the passenger van pulled onto the shoulder of the road, looked back, and said, "There's an immigration checkpoint up ahead. Does everyone have their papers?"
We were just north of the Guatemalan border, outside the town of Ciudad Hidalgo in the Mexican state of Chiapas. There were 10 of us in the van: a family of eight from nearby Monte Rico, Guatemala, photojournalist Jeff Abbott, and me. The driver pointed to the road blockade, already in sight. From a backseat, I could see uniformed officials questioning people inside stopped vehicles.
It was a broiling afternoon in August 2014. Dark clouds were building overhead, threatening rain. There was a murmur of hushed conversation among the family members whom I had first seen no more than half an hour before. They had only recently landed on the Mexican side of the Suchiate River on a raft made of gigantic inner tubes and wooden boards and were already aboard the van when Abbott and I crammed in.
They would prove to be a boisterous crew. "Welcome to the family!" a woman who later introduced herself as Sandra said. "At least for this trip to Tapachula!" Much laughter followed. They were going to the wake of a family member in Mexico and, as people had done here forever, they simply crossed the river, avoiding the official entry point less than a mile away. Like so many political borders around the world, the Guatemalan-Mexican divide had been officially demarcated relatively recently -- in 1882, to be exact -- cutting through regions with strong family, community, and linguistic ties.
The checkpoint just ahead represented a new kind of demarcation line: the United States border arriving 1,000 miles to the south. A month before, in July 2014, when Mexican officials announced a bolstering of their own border in what they called Programa Frontera Sur (the Southern Border Program), the United States immediately applauded that country's new "strategy for its southern border" in an embassy press release.
Under a multibillion-dollar military aid program known as the Merida Initiative, as that cable made clear, the U.S. was already, in the pre-Donald Trump era, supporting the Mexican government's border enforcement strategies in significant ways, including enhancing its biometric and other identification systems. Indeed, U.S. help in strengthening Mexico's southern border already included backscatter X-ray vans and contraband-detection equipment; funds for Mexico's National Institute of Migration, the Mexican Marines, and the federal police; patrol boats, night-vision and communication equipment, and marine sensors. That country's interior minister, Miguel Osorio Chong, said, "Who doesn't have the necessary documents to enter into our territory and enter the United States, we can't allow them to be in our territory." It was in its own way a serious admission: Mexico had already functionally been "hired" to protect the U.S. border from 1,000 miles away.
And this was something U.S. officials had already been pushing for years. As Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary and former Customs and Border Protection (CPB) Commissioner Alan Bersin said in 2012, "The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border." And indeed it was. So don't just blame Donald Trump for this country's border fixation.
Creating an Empire of Borders
In a broader sense, in the twenty-first century, the border should no longer be considered just that familiar territory between the U.S. and Mexico (where President Trump now wants to build that "big, fat, beautiful wall" of his) and the Canadian border to the north. Never mind that, as a start, there already is a wall there or rather, as the U.S. border enforcement officials have long described it, a "multi-layered" enforcement zone. If you were to redefine a wall as obstacles meant to blockade, reroute, and in the end stop (as well as incarcerate) people, then, even before Donald Trump, the equivalent of a wall was that expansive 100-mile-deep zone of defenses. These included sophisticated detection technologies of every sort and increasing numbers of armed border personnel supported by unprecedented budgets over the last 25 years.
In those same years, this country's borders have, in a sense, undergone a kind of expansion not just into southern Mexico (as I witnessed in 2014), but also into parts of Central America and South America, the Caribbean, and other areas of the world. As Bersin put it, there had been a post-9/11 shift to emphasizing the policing not just of the literal U.S. border but of global versions of the same, a massive, if underreported, "paradigm change." A U.S. border strategy of "prevention through deterrence," initiated in 1994, that first militarized and then blockaded urban areas on our actual southern border like Brownsville, El Paso, Nogales, and San Diego, would later spread internationally.