For decades, Todd Miller has reported on borders and the conflicts they create. In his new book, Build Bridges, Not Walls, Miller invites us to envision a borderless world, one better-equipped for our collective survival. In this excerpt, he describes the militarized U.S.-Mexico border and considers recent history, when the border was more permeable and life on both sides more interconnected.
Below us in Nogales, the agent abruptly halted his lecture and tore up the hill again, spitting gravel from his wheels. I was relieved, because you never know how such a scene might play out. Every day such displays of asymmetrical power take place, small acts of aggression that never make the news. Before long, the agent returned to his perch under the camera post, an elevated spot providing unobstructed views of the surrounding area. This whole scene would not have happened before 1994, when there was only a chain-link fence with big holes through which people would cross back and forth. According to longtime resident and musician Gustavo Lozano, back then the only worry was the occasional presence of a kid at the hole asking for pocket change. When Lozano occasionally got caught by the Border Patrol and thrown back into Mexico, there was no incarceration, no formal deportation on his record. He told me that he would often cross from Mexico into the United States to pay a bill at a department store for his mom, to play basketball with his cousins, to hang out with his family. As late as the 1980s, on holidays such as September 16—Mexican Independence Day—officials opened the borders completely and a parade zigzagged back and forth as if the international boundary simply didn’t exist.
Ambos Nogales is one place that exists on both sides of the U.S.- Mexico border. Ambos means “both,” and as the name suggests, communities on both sides of the border share deep familial, community, social, economic, and political ties. They also share common infrastructure. As Ieva Jusionyte writes in her book Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border, “extending from northern Sonora to southern Arizona, the railway, the highway, even the sewage pipeline facilitate dense ties between the two sides of the border. It becomes impossible to disentangle one town’s everyday logistics from the other’s.” The border cannot stop the roots of trees and the vast mycelium networks symbiotically entangled with them from reaching across to the other side.
At Ambos Nogales, the border is not designated by a mountain, lake, or river. This border first came into being as an imaginary line in the sand with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, that is, if a transaction at gunpoint can be considered a “purchase.” Officials from both countries put up the first permanent fence in 1918 after what was known as the Battle of Ambos Nogales. The battle resulted from spiking tensions after the implementation of passport requirements by the United States, which included limiting the number of times Mexican citizens could cross the border. Repeated shootings by U.S. Customs agents and military, including the killing of two Mexican citizens, precipitated the combat. In his book Violent Borders, geographer Reece Jones argues that borders are implicitly violent, often from their very inception.
It’s a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine the world without human-imposed borders for working-class people.
Nevertheless, despite these U.S. border wars with Mexico, there is a long history of cross-border cooperation and mutual aid among the people. For example, fire units on both sides have crossed back and forth for decades in mutual assistance. Louie Chaboya, who served as the director of emergency services in Arizona’s Santa Cruz County, where Nogales is located, noted to Jusionyte this underlying sense of connection uniting the communities on both sides of the divide. “In Nogales,” he said, referring to this cross-border cooperation, “we are not associates. We are not business partners. We are not even friends. We are family.”
In that spirit, anthropologist Josiah Heyman posed a broader question in his 1999 essay “A Border that Divides, A Border that Joins.” “What if we think of Mexico and the United States as one country, unified, rather than divided by the border?” Heyman asks. “Issues often framed as contrasting the United States with Mexico are better understood as the allied elites and finances of both countries (plus Canada) versus divided and somewhat anxious commoners of the entire continent.”
It could also be understood in another way: For the cross-border networks of allied elites, borders are open, but for a purposely discombobulated working class on the Mexican side, borders are all but closed. The working class in the United States is told that the Mexican working class is dragging its wages down, while the allied elites move good jobs across the border without impediment.
It’s a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine the world without human-imposed borders for working-class people. The Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, humans and ancestors of humans for 6 million years, and civilization as we know it for only 6,000 years. Perhaps the world’s astronauts sensed this as they contemplated the sweeping view of the planet and experienced a sense of interconnected global consciousness. There is a reason they cannot see the borders, mostly because human-drawn international political boundaries are artificial and new, and do not register as topography, unlike bodies of water, rivers, and mountain ranges. The border in Nogales, for example, was drawn in 1853 without any agreement from the original inhabitants of this land, the Tohono O’odham. Colonial European powers sliced up Africa during the 1883 Berlin Conference, effectively creating the borders of its modern nation-states, without consulting any African people. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 divvied up the Middle East to the logic of the British and French, and not, say, the Palestinians. These artificial borders and their enforcement apparatuses are relatively new—border militarization, for example, has accelerated in the last 25 years—and often imposed by faraway allied elites. In the grand scheme of things, borders now largely serve as a neocolonial scaffolding for a planet divided into exploiting and exploitable countries and peoples. They are untouchable. As an example, on one occasion Moroccan military and security personnel surrounded me and briefly confiscated my phone for simply taking pictures outside the border wall separating Morocco and the autonomous Spanish city of Ceuta. But even as they surrounded me—they were paid by the European Union to provide “security”—I realized this was the universal conditioning around borders. You are on the “sacred ground” of the nation-state, the border is its ultimate monument, humanity be damned.
So to continue the thought experiment, what if we were to allow ourselves to imagine a world without borders? What if we were to see borders not as shields, but as shackles keeping the planet in an unsustainable status quo of inequality, racial divide, and climate catastrophe?
Perhaps philosopher Michael Marder was contemplating these questions when he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times on March 3, 2020, titled “The Coronavirus Is Us.” In his op-ed, Marder describes his version of wall sickness: “Well before the current outbreak, a global tendency to build walls and seal off national borders…had taken hold. The resurgent nationalism instigating this tendency nourishes itself on the fear of migrants and social contagion, while cherishing the impossible ideal of purity within the walled polity.”
Concerned with how such tendencies would complicate solving the coronavirus crisis, Marder continues the metaphor to encompass the global lockdown in which people are further divided by class. “As panic sets in,” he wrote, “in some quarters, personal border closure imitates the knee-jerk political gesture: Food and medical supplies are hoarded, while the wealthiest few prepare their luxury doomsday bunkers.” Marder arrives at the border’s eternal paradox: “Borders are porous by definition; no matter how fortified, they are more like living membranes than inorganic walls. An individual or a state that effectively manages to cut itself off from the outside will be as good as dead.”
In April 2020, political cartoonist Matt Wuerker published a cartoon of a stern general looking out from a missile-laden border barrier, as his minion spots a coronavirus floating over the wall with his binoculars. For better and worse, the virus reveals humanity’s interconnection, and the inability of borders to truly partition us, even when sealed as tightly as possible. In this sense, the coronavirus becomes not only a catastrophe but also a lyrical messenger.
For Marder, it delivers a prescient message for the post-pandemic future: The coronavirus speaks to the inability of walled countries to respond to global issues such as climate catastrophe—the pandemic being but one aspect of it—and advocates for us to “learn to live in a world that is interconnected.” Contemplated as one might contemplate a poem, the pandemic could be seen as a deep call to action, part of the “great turning,” as deep ecology scholar Joanna Macy has written, from an industrial-growth society that relies on borders, to a more sustainable civilization for which borders are an impediment. “The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth,” says Macy, “is not that we are on the way to destroying the world—we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves, and each other.”
In this sense, we can only hope that the director for the International Institute for Environment and Development, Andrew Norton, is right to state that the lessons drawn from COVID-19 could apply also to climate change. “Strengthening recognition of our interdependence—that everyone’s health is everyone else’s business—could strengthen the understanding that compassion and empathy are functional traits for humanity,” he writes. “The virus may lead to a deeper understanding of the ties that bind us all on a global scale.” Coronavirus is thus an offering for us to reimagine borders, what they are, who they are for, who they are not for, and how humanity and the Earth will be better served without them.
This excerpt from Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders (City Lights Books, 2021) by Todd Miller appears with permission of the publisher.
Todd Miller is the author of the books Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security; Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security; Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World; and most recently Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders.