Building a border wall

My alarm on Monday went off at 3:40 a.m. After a cursory attempt to get dressed and put my contacts in, I walked out the door fifteen minutes later with a mug of green tea. My heart was racing as I walked to the library. Starting at four, a group began to assemble on the front steps. All told, there were about ten of us. We carried wooden pallets and metal stakes from cars, busted out the hammers and nails, and got to work. Our task was simple: to build a border wall.

After two hours of work, we’d driven stakes into the grass, put the pallets on top, and stapled cardboard to the whole thing. Our wall stretched from the library to the tennis courts, blocking off a funnel pathway for students walking to and from class.

We spray-painted the side facing the library with graffiti in a variety of languages—German, Arabic, Spanish, English—and made references to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Berlin Wall and the Israeli occupation.  This side was the “occupied” side of the border, the side that traditionally has graffiti on it.

I added my favorite piece of graffiti from the U.S.-Mexico border wall, though it’s since been painted over: Las parades vueltas de lado son puentes. Walls turned on their sides are bridges.

The other side was blank, except for a large proclamation: International Border. Please have documents ready.

It wasn’t a serious impediment to travel—people could easily go around the library or through the tennis courts—but it was big enough that people had to stop and look at it, think about how they could navigate around.

I won’t speak for the other members of the group, but I was motivated to participate in this project because of my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border over spring break. Spending a week in the Arizona borderlands made it abundantly clear to me just how much is broken about our immigration policies, their enforcement, and the very notion of a border in the first place.

The wait to get a legal visa for Mexican nationals is currently about twenty years if you already have a close relative living in the U.S., and the U.S. government has yet to recognize the drug-related violence in Mexico as a legitimate conflict, which means people threatened with death can’t apply to get asylum. U.S. policies, including free-trade agreements like NAFTA, the continued criminalization of drugs and the unwillingness to stop weapons from being smuggled into Mexico, account for many of the problems pushing people north—realities that our immigration laws largely refuse to consider.

Border fence from Arizona, near Nogales.

The U.S. enforces its immigration laws through a physical border in the Southwest, which pushes migrants into the desert, where many die of dehydration and other injuries in the attempt to cross into the United States. Still, to focus only on that physical border fence would be disingenuous. The U.S.-Mexico border has worked its way into communities across the country, and the line separating us from them is redrawn constantly in day-to-day interactions between citizens, migrants, law enforcement, government officials and the mixed-status families affected by immigration policy.

In short, U.S. border and immigration policies have combined to make movement a privilege, something accorded based on citizenship and skin color. As a U.S. citizen, I can enter 90 countries around the world with no visa, including virtually every Latin American nation. If I want to walk into Nogales for a day of shopping, I’m free to do so. Driving through the American Southwest, I can sail through Border Patrol checkpoints without having to show ID—my whiteness is enough to tell the uniformed men that I “belong” in this country.

Border Patrol checkpoint near Tucson, AZ

Perhaps most insidiously, these things are simply part of my life. Part of having these privileges is not having to think about them. When I flash my passport coming back to the U.S. from Mexico, I don’t have to consider that the blind luck of being born in the States has given me the ability to move freely from country to country. I don’t have to think about the fact that there are people moving through the desert around me who might die in the attempt to simply make it into my country, even without any guarantee of legal status in the future. My family will never be split by deportation, unable to reunite on either side of the border because it’s too risky.

For me, this is the value in building a border wall on campus. Whitman students as a group are largely privileged. Virtually all of us are U.S. citizens, and international students are generally here with documentation and visas. There are fewer than a dozen undocumented students on campus. For most of us, movement is not a privilege we have to think about. Most of us will never encounter a border that we are not legally allowed to cross. Most of us will never have to consider the possibility of being deported.

When we first put the wall up, students reacted to it. It made crossing the path impossible, so people were forced to interact with it. Some students were frustrated by the boundary. I overheard several comments such as, “I don’t get the point of this,” “This is ridiculous, it’s in a public space,” and “It’s not fair; they’re blocking the path.” A lot of people stopped to read the graffiti. But every single person, no matter their thoughts on the project, had to think about it. At the very least, they had to consider their own movement—how can I get around this wall?

I was tired after our 4a.m. construction call, so after breakfast with the construction team, I went back to sleep from 8 to 10:30. After my nap, I went back to look at the wall. Apparently, we’d frustrated some people enough that they felt compelled to knock down two pallets in the middle of the wall. It was a small gap, but it changed the wall completely. With the hole there, students no longer had to think about their movement. Some still stopped to look at the graffiti, but far more walked by talking with friends or texting.

If there’s one lesson I got out of this, it’s that reconceiving the ability to move as privilege is a challenge. I think it’s important for people to recognize the things they take for granted, and important to push people to think about what those things are. I had a ton of fun building the wall, and I hope that we were able to get at least a few Whitties thinking about all the borders in the world, visible and invisible, that have much more serious implications than just being a minute late to class.

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One thought on “Building a border wall”

  1. Cool idea and I LOVE that quote from the wall. Its interesting for me to talk to brazilians about our immigration issues and the racism that goes along with it. I don't think it's an issue that a lot of people outside the US know about, and for brazilians going to the US it can be an issue because they can look "Mexican" receive some of the hate fueling these tensions.

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