Frontier Injustice: Not Even the Pacific Ocean is Safe From Our Pernicious Effort to Wall Off the Border

The Imperial Beach border fence in 2006 | HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a nasty habit of rubbing salt into wounds, fresh and old.

Just ask anyone who lives along the Rio Grande Valley, makes their home in the Sonoran Desert covering large sections of northwest Mexico and southwest Arizona, or inhabits the dense sprawl of those entwined cities, San Diego and Tijuana. Since 2006, wherever DHS has pounded down its infamous Border Wall, it has chopped up habitats human and natural, severing longstanding cultural links and environmental connections between the U.S. and Mexico. It is a haunting reminder that the post-9/11 hunt for national security has generated its own insecurities.

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The most recent (and stinging) example of this painful paradox came in late November. That's when DHS began construction of the latest segment of the wall, dubbed the Surf Fence Project. This 18-foot-high barrier, hung on six-inch rust-proof steel piping, is being pile-driven out 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean. The goal is fortify Imperial Beach, making it impregnable redoubt, the first line of defense for San Diego.

"There is a clear operational need for this development," Michael Hance, field operation supervisor with the U.S. Border Patrol, told the BBC. "The southern side of the border is densely populated and in the past many people found an easy way into the US through these beaches. We need physical infrastructure as well as border agents in the area."

As for the urgency to thrust this wall so deep into the pounding surf, local border patrol agents point to the capture in November of several undocumented migrants attempting to swim around the current fencing.

At a cost of $4.3 million, this new wall will be a very expensive form of deterrent. But Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Bruce Parks assured the LA Times that the exorbitant price tag (amounting to $143,333.33 per foot!) is worth every penny, for this stretch of beach "still has the potential to be very dangerous, as beautiful as it is."

I'd like to think that Parks is just being silly: do we really spend this much money building a wall because of the potential that this stretch of seaside can be a dangerous gateway into the U.S.? But he's not being flippant. After five years of listening to the Border Patrol and its parent department, DHS, say similar things every time they have announced the launch of yet another segment to the 670-mile border wall, it is clear that there is a pattern to their patter.

Social interaction such as this will not be possible with the new border fence at Imperial Beach | HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

If, as DHS asserts, the land and sea are so threatening; if the people who would cross these stretches of our sovereign territory are judged to be so unsafe, then we must militarize the first while demonizing the second. Every mile of steel pole and three-ply fencing, every searchlight, movement sensor, high-flying drone, and armed guard is a reflection of this American war on nature and the Other. A terrorism that may be as malevolent as the threat this thick bulwark is supposed to repel.

Wounded Border book cover
This deliberate violence against land and people is underscored in the title of a new and insightful collection of essays on the geopolitics of the borderlands: Wounded Border/Frontera-Herida. The injuries that its ten chapters probe cover a wide range: the deeply flawed law enforcement and judicial systems on both sides of the border; the inequities and humiliations that migrants face in U.S. labor markets desperate for low-wage, expendable workers (pressure that women disproportionately bear); the environmental despoliation that comes from a globalized economy that created maquiladoras in Mexico, industries whose toxic effluent damages ground and surface waters, pollutes the air, and poisons adjacent neighborhoods. The border is a fraught landscape.

No shock, this contested physical space is also a social construct. As co-editor Justin Akers Chacón argues: "Since its inception as a boundary imposed by war of expansion, the U.S.-Mexico border has functioned in a dualistic manner. It has served both as a gateway to economic opportunity and as a barrier that creates and maintains unequal power relationships." Out of this duality, he writes, flows "the identities of both people in relationship to each other," becoming a "signifier of status that sustains each population in its own form of isolation." Although the proponents of globalization like to argue that this force is flattening the distinctions between counties and cultures, the U.S. border wall stands in stark refutation, a vertical and visible barrier. Bluntly divisive.

Emblematic of the rending of the social fabric that this enforced divide can produce is Friendship Park. Its name once conveyed its binational significance: First Lady Pat Nixon was on site at its ceremonial opening in 1971, there celebrating the site that memorialized the two nation's close relationship. "There should be no more fences," she declared.

That amity turned into animosity when, as a result of the 2006 Secure Fence Act that the George W. Bush administration promulgated, DHS built a series of fences that turned the park into a penitentiary. "New rules for public access to the gathering place leave families feeling like they have entered a maximum security prison on visiting day," writes Jill Holslin at her blog At the Edges. Any who would like to enter the park today must "wait outside the border wall 150 feet away from Friendship Park, seek permission to enter a locked gate, then be escorted by a border patrol agent in a 'security zone,' a five-foot tall pedestrian barrier that confines the space of the concrete circle of Friendship Park." Detention, surveillance, enforcement: these are the markers of a "containment society."

More egregious still is the latest effort to cordon off the United States, our arrogant ambition to split the Pacific Ocean in two.

Related Border Stories by Char Miller
- Border Skirmish: Republicans Are Using Immigrants to Bash Our Wilderness
- What do Wilderness and Immigrants have in Common?

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday on environmental issues. Read his previous posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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