One of the candidates for the 2016 presidential race is famous for his bold promise to build a tall wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in order to stop the flow of undocumented migrant workers from Mexico. Scholars of immigration and border security often draw parallels between dams and border walls: the former function to control and ration the water supply and not to prevent the flow of water; and in a similar fashion, the latter function to control (and not stop) the deluge of migrant workers who are often the dispossessed, displaced, and the poor citizens from nations with devastated political economies.
In a globalized economy the U.S. and some other Western countries promote free flow of labor, capital, information and commodities. However, in order to maximize corporate profits, international labor flow has to be controlled in response to global demands for workers. My own research findings indicate that walls and fortifications along the borders are usually built only when the two nations’ economies have become heavily interdependent; and up to the point that the two economies are healthy and function independently there is no intensive cross-border migration and hence no need for border control. This was the case for the U.S.-Mexico border that until the mid-1990s was loosely secured. However, this was all changed with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.
Championed by President Bill Clinton as the ultimate cure for illegal immigration of Mexican citizens to the U.S., NAFTA was implemented with the objective of breaking trade barriers and integrating the economies of Mexico, United States and Canada, and closing the wage gap between American and Mexican workers. Instead, the heavily subsidized American corn as well as beef and poultry products were dumped on the Mexican market, devastating Mexico’s agrarian economy, pushing millions of farmers out of rural areas, and forcing them to come north in search of jobs. Meantime, U.S.-based multinational corporations established Maquiladora factories south of the U.S.-Mexico border, using the cheap labor of thousands of unemployed farmworkers. By destroying Mexico’s rural economy NAFTA unleashed a northward migration of rural population; which in turn led to criminalization of migration, increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and eventual erection of the wall along the U.S. -Mexico border by 2009.
One issue that is overlooked in public discourse and political debates is the violent nature of walls and barriers. With or without the presence of guards or border patrol agents, the barrier’s mere physical structure invokes a passive-aggressive presence implicitly threatening and challenging the movements of population. In order to secure American corporate interests, some pro-business politicians and lawmakers also advocate border fortifications and the use of implicit/explicit force and violence against undocumented migrants, as well as racially-charged language. For example, Presidential candidate Donald Trump and his supporters talk about deporting the undocumented and building a tall wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but the Wall has already been built there!
Building walls along our southern border with Mexico is a futile effort of last resort by uninformed politicians who lack a clear historical understanding of a globalized economy, and fail to comprehend the dynamics of population movements within two or more territories of the American economic empire. What we need instead, is to promote building bridges and welcoming immigrants with open arms. There is a lesson to be learned from recent history, and that is to draw parallels between the failed and defunct Berlin Wall and the impending fate of security walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border.
• Mohammad Chaichian is Professor of Sociology at Mount Mercy University. His latest book, “Empires and Walls: Globalization, Migration & Colonial Domination” was published in 2015. He is scheduled to give a multimedia talk on the logic and architecture of border walls on Thursday at 7 p.m. on Mount Mercy campus.