« Return to this article

Know the West

Democrats also gain from the border wall

The militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border was always a bipartisan effort, with symbolism that’s useful to both parties.


The 24 mile-long stretch of the Tucson 3 Project cuts across the landscape in the San Bernardino Valley east of Douglas, Arizona.

Months after COVID-19 reached the United States — as the economy stumbled to a halt, businesses shut down, and “non-essential” activities were suspended — construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall not only continued, but intensified. RV parks and motels in communities like Ajo, Arizona, and Columbus, New Mexico, teemed with workers from across the country. “We need the Wall more than ever!” President Donald Trump tweeted in March, implying that more steel fencing in the desert would somehow keep the coronavirus from sneaking in from Mexico, which at the time had few documented cases. Citing “grave public health consequences of mass uncontrolled cross-border movement,” Trump seized the opportunity to complete his administration’s evisceration of the United States’ asylum and immigration system.

For decades, politicians on both sides of the aisle have supported controlling the border and policing the undocumented. 

For nearly 10 years, I have worked as a volunteer with No More Deaths, a Tucson-based community organization that provides humanitarian aid to people crossing the remote Borderlands of southern Arizona. I have watched in horror as Trump doubles down on the tired nativist trope of the diseased other — the undifferentiated immigrant mass, bringing drugs, terrorism, illness and all manner of savagery and contagion into the country. I have witnessed an escalation in state-sponsored border violence, and my friends and fellow aid workers have been arrested and charged with crimes by federal prosecutors. But this kind of racist fearmongering, like the violence and repression that accompany it, is not new in American politics. For decades, politicians on both sides of the aisle have supported controlling the border and policing the undocumented. 

“We do need to have secure borders, and what that will take is a combination of technology and physical barrier,” said then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2006, while a Democratic senator for New York, Clinton voted to approve 700 miles of new wall, as did then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who later earned the epithet “deporter-in-chief” for his role in expelling an unprecedented 3 million people. His administration inflicted many of the same cruelties now being decried by Trump’s critics — caging children, separating families, abusing migrants in custody and deporting people to their deaths.


The border wall — the roughly 650 miles of barrier built under the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the hundreds of new miles being built as I write — is, of course, very real. It slices and severs communities and ecosystems, disrupting the movements and migrations of people and wildlife alike. It pushes border-crossers into more remote and dangerous terrain, where people die and disappear by the thousands. It is a profane violation of the land and sacred sites of Indigenous nations, like the Tohono O’odham and the Carrizo/Comecrudo, who continue to resist its construction. “The border with Mexico divided our people,” Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribal Chairman Juan Mancias told The Guardian last year. “This new wall shows no regard for our ancestors, beliefs or culture which are tied to these lands.”

But the wall is also a symbol. For Trump, it is red meat for his ravenous base. For the more “moderate” wing of the Republican Party, Trump’s obsession with it makes an equally racist anti-immigrant agenda appear more reasonable. Similarly, for establishment Democrats, like presidential candidate Joe Biden or California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Trump’s cartoonish vision of border security — a “big, fat, beautiful wall” and a moat filled with alligators and snakes — serves as a perfectly absurd contrast to the more sophisticated enforcement system their party has worked so hard to create, which also includes a wall, but a less medieval, mostly “virtual” one. It is an ideal backdrop to foreground their “#resistance,” even as they collaborate with corporate contractors to militarize the Borderlands and build up a massive detention and deportation apparatus.

Border wall construction continues at a rapid pace in Arizona’s San Bernardino Valley in January of this year.

“Trump’s theatrics and the Democrats’ opposition to his plans have given the impression that the Trump administration is forging a new direction on border control,” writes journalist and researcher Todd Miller in More Than a Wall, a 2019 report from the Transnational Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research and advocacy think tank. “A closer look at border policy over the last decades, however, shows that Trump is ratcheting up — and ultimately consolidating — a long-standing U.S. approach.”

As an aid worker, I have felt a strange and terrible combination of frustration and relief as the Trump era progresses: Things have gotten worse, but at least now people are paying attention. The cost of this shift, however, has been devastating: historical amnesia, increased suffering, and the exoneration of the politicians who created this wretched situation in the first place. Meanwhile, Borderlands residents continue to offer hospitality and support, detainees continue to fight for their freedom, and the undocumented continue to mobilize for the rights and dignity they deserve. Let us hope that one day soon, the wall will be no more than a historic relic — the symbol of an era of bipartisan cruelty, dispossession and division we have finally left behind.

Max Granger is a writer and translator who lives between the Colorado Plateau and the Sonoran Desert, where he works with the migrant solidarity project No More Deaths. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.