We are back in Ann Arbor and even though the border is far away physically, I think it is not far from anyone’s thoughts. I recently realized that I have been taking students to the border since 2010 and I was there five times in the past year alone. Examining border issues over time gives one both a multi-layered perspective and an opportunity to learn—again and again. The idea of a wall at the border is anathema. But conditional on its existence, even its form is controversial. What are some arguments about its form?
When I took students to the border in 2010 we were stunned by the tall ugly structure we faced in Nogales (see picture # 1). We talked with environmentalists and others who bemoaned the fact that the wall prevented conversations from the two sides of the border and the movement of animals, birds, and butterflies. A wall with spaces would be an improvement, they claimed. In 2011 a new wall was erected, with regular gaps between tall columns. Border Patrol agents liked it better too and said it allowed them to see what was happening on the other side before, for example, someone jumped into the United States by climbing the wall. Last week, we met with an activist from the Border Patrol Victims Network who asked whether Donald Trump could make the wall solid again so that the Border Patrol can’t shoot people through it (see picture # 2).
The Tohono O'odham sovereign nation spans the border between the United States and Mexico. Right now pole and barbed wire fencing constitutes a border barrier through the nation. This fencing while disputed, and still a barrier, allows air to flow freely, permits animal grazing and migration, means that the Tohono O’odham can still walk on their lands, and provides an easy view of distances. The current administration is readying to build a wall across the rest of the border that is like the one that cuts through Nogales. And one of the top priority places to begin building it is across the Tohono O’odham nation (see picture # 3).
To learn more read the NYTimes article "Border Wall Would Cleave Tribe, and Its Connection to Ancestral Land".
The border wall in Nogales in 2010.
The border wall today (2017) in approximately the same place as the previous picture.
The U.S./Mexico border fence that runs through the Tohono O'odham nation. The monument in the background is the official border as established by several treaties in the 1800s.
Day 6, Thursday March 2
Today, my students showed me the troll comments on U-M’s Facebook page in response to our blog. It’s a tough world and I know that many people will not agree with what we do. We would never respond to such comments. But I will carry one with me as an artifact of this week because it denigrates everything we academics do. It read, in part “Very little of what matters with respect to immigration realities, consequence,s [sic] and policy has much to do with a silly field trip to peek at the border.” How should we interpret this? That our “silly little field trip” has little to do with immigration? That very little of consequence happens at the border? To me, the most offensive part of the comment is that we came to peek. Nope. There was nothing quick in our examination. The students were so careful to observe border activities from many perspectives. Nor was there anything furtive in our observation. The students spoke to everyone, no matter their practical or political affiliation. There was no sneakiness in our game. Our questions were forthright and the people we met gave us genuine answers because we asked thoughtful questions.
No, we didn’t peek at the border; we opened our eyes and gazed upon a wall that makes all of us less free.
Looking at the reality of the border.
Day 5, Wednesday March 1
It is hard to imagine how difficult it is to walk for miles in the desert day after day. Today UM-SSW students will walk a canyon on a typical trail used by people coming to the United States. They will walk four miles to the border and leave the packaged food we have prepared. Then they will walk four miles back. It will take them about six and one-half hours. Read their blog posts from Day 4 to view this journey from their eyes.
Examples of food bags left along the trail.
Water left along the trail.
Day 4, Tuesday February 28
Social scientists often talk about the importance of time series data. I have attended federal court sessions of Operation Streamline (OS) for almost a decade. In that time, numerous litigations have transformed it from the gut-wrentchingly cruel and inhumane to merely cruel and inhumane. At the beginning OS was a judicial spectacle—a magistrate addressing, declaring guilty, and sentencing 100 orange jumpsuited and shackled defendants en masse. Today they wear their own clothes, handcuffs and leg irons to face a kinder, more gentle, magistrate who questions each defendant individually and asks carefully whether they understand the charges against them. But the outcome is the same.
Day 3, Monday February 27
While at the Nogales Customs and Border Patrol station today, I was struck by the similarities between people trying to talk across political parties and U-M students trying to talk with border patrol agents. Conversation across the divide is difficult but it can be done. One way that we change minds (or learn more) is to have respectful and real conversation. It isn’t easy. And it isn’t perfect. But it is better than allowing the gap to widen. I ask my students to strategize about how best to pose their questions. Think twice-then act. Who can you talk with about a difficult and divisive topic? How can you approach a conversation about a contested issue with someone you don’t know? What if you started with a divisive topic like immigration? Is there any common ground that you can use as the foundation to further conversation?
How do you have a conversation when you fundamentally disagree?
Day 2, Sunday February 26
Today we went to the border to encounter the wall. As an instructor, I grapple with the difficult things I ask my students to do and the expectations I have of how they will then proceed. How do we act as witnesses to the consequences of the wall without making our experiences exploitative? Last year, students felt there was a taint of voyeurism to our process. So for this year’s journey, I worked to change our pattern of behavior, alter our processes, and change my own participation. Before we left today we struggled with the issue of non-voyeuristic witnessing as a group. The students raised so many thoughtful points that it was clear they have thought about these issues more than I knew. None of them, however, raised the one issue I have always had (and avoided dealing with): The wall is an inherently exploitative barrier and to even view it from our safe vantage point reinforces the power of its presence. Power disparities create spaces for the powerful to build walls and our position of power allows us to view the wall safely.
Witnessing the border.
Day 1, Saturday February 25
Tucson, about 65 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border, is a border city. It hits home when you arrive at the airport and immediately see the ubiquitous green and white trucks of the border patrol. When driving south on the highway from Tucson, you’ll pass many more border patrol trucks, be photographed by the high resolution cameras dotted along the highway and hillsides that send real time videos to the border patrol, and stop at the border patrol check point on I-19 (where every single car is checked). The virtual fence makes its presence felt closer to the border. Video feed towers, movement towers, stadium light towers, and drones all check your progress.
Ann Arbor, about 37 miles west of the U.S./Canada border, is also a border city. And it is far closer to the border than Tucson. And yet, no one notices. Why do you think the northern border is treated so differently from the southwestern border?