SEPTEMBER 17, 2016
WHEN I WAS A BOY, my family would cross the US–Mexico border at Mexicali — from California into Baja California. The inconvenience to us was minimal. On most occasions, a green light flashed the word “Pase” and we rolled onward past Mexican guards with dark glasses and young faces and military rifles slung across their chests. The rare times our car was pulled aside for secondary inspection, a quick confirmation that we were not carrying firearms sufficed to allow us on our way.
The road diverged outside of Mexicali, and we took the southeastern fork toward San Felipe. We were bound for the coast of the Sea of Cortez. The highway crossed hot and rainless lands where the ragged miles made a small boy fear any sputter of the engine. Nearby was the vast dry bed of the Laguna Salada. Pavarotti would later sing there, to 50,000 spectators — the closest our species has yet come to staging an opera on the moon.
My grandfather lived part of the year on the Sea of Cortez, in a house that was not quite his. If there is a central political question that has plagued the Mexican centuries, it is ownership of its land. During the bloody factional struggles of the Mexican Revolution, one outrage spoken of by almost all sides was the millions and millions of hectares of territory under foreign and absentee ownership. Today, most Americans rely on bank trusts or long-term leases to “own” property in Mexico. As I understood it, the physical structure of the house belonged to my grandfather, but not the land it rested on. This made a certain sense to me — who is more than a temporary resident anywhere? At best, we are given the kind of lease my grandfather had for his house, and very nearly for his life: a 99-year term.
His house was an airstream trailer built onto a cinderblock addition, and it sat in a cluster of similar ad-hoc structures. At low tide, the gulf waters receded more than a mile. With the curtain of water pulled away, hours of tide-pool treasures sat exposed on the ocean floor. Alongside the littoral sea-life were decomposing boat parts and barnacled outboard motors. My grandfather wore a Panama hat and dug for clams, and I caddied them in a bucket of seawater. Back at the house, he soaked the clams until they were purged of sand and then steamed them open while I sat by eating frosted cereal. My parents took us to restaurants in town, and my brother and I put “La Bamba” on the jukebox again and again because it was the only song we recognized among the list of Norteño polkas.
This was Mexico to a young boy: a vanishing tide. Griddled quesadillas stuffed with Chihuahua cheese. A beach camp where a hot shower cost a dollar at a public stall. John Steinbeck, in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, speaks of the “treachery of light” on that sea, the way “even a short distance offshore one cannot tell what the land really looks like.” It would be years before I read that account — but I have known that light from my earliest days, and the mirage of the land beneath it.
It is a political moment that compels me to relate this history. There is currently a candidate for president — an unserious person, but a serious contender — whose opening campaign gesture, and most common applause line, is a broadside against Mexico and Mexicans that ends with a vision of a border wall. Donald Trump promises he will build an enormous border fence, spanning the entirety of the 2,000-mile boundary-line between the United States and Mexico. And he asserts that Mexico will pay for it.
As Trump regales his followers with this dream, he does not appear to recognize how much wall already exists. He seems not to know, or not to care, that in San Diego a border wall already extends beyond where the land ends, hundreds of feet into the Pacific Ocean. In many of the most populous cities along the border, there are in fact two walls, patrolled day and night, with a no-man’s-land in between. There are concrete-filled steel beams a dozen or more feet high. There are deceptively stubby panels of rusty siding that belie the electronic eyes all around and the Border Patrol vehicles perched on nearby hillsides.
And I can tell you that across those lands where no wall exists, there is the desert where I grew up, where daytime summer temperatures regularly top 125 degrees Fahrenheit, where the sand feels like it might at any moment turn to glass. Should a migrant become lost, should his hired guide abandon him, the cost in crossing these deserts is death. It is worth reading the accounts of the first boundary commission surveyors, who were given the unenviable task of marking the material line agreed to on paper in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. The surveyors found the land they traveled through inhospitable, treacherous, confusing, and nearly unmappable. “Much of this country, that by those residing at a distance is imagined to be a perfect paradise, is a sterile waste,” they wrote, “utterly worthless for any purpose than to constitute a barrier or natural line of demarcation between two neighboring nations.” I will be the first to defend the stark beauty of the desert, to dispute the notion that it is only a sterile waste. There are ocotillos and Joshua Trees, bighorn sheep in the rocky hills, and tortoises so hardy that one has to imagine they possess a stoic wisdom. But that the Mexican-American borderland is brutal to the disoriented and unwanted and alone — that is beyond dispute.
To be precise, then, it is not a wall that Trump wants, but additional walls, walls that would extend through landscapes where crossing the lines demarcated in the official paperwork already kills people. Every serious analysis of Trump’s proposal has concluded that the additions he describes would be prohibitively expensive to build. They would be impossible to maintain. And his wall would almost certainly be ineffective as a deterrent to the immigration he wishes to prevent — many people who desire American citizenship settle here initially simply by overstaying a temporary visa. All of these facts are so obvious they feel tedious to recount. And yet here we are, in a political moment where the transparent unworkability of Trump’s border vision is not enough to disqualify it, or its speaker, from mainstream political discussion. The social and political reforms the United States must undertake with respect to immigration have complex dimensions — but these are not the questions that Trump addresses. Trump’s border wall can be refuted on a bumper sticker: It is a lie.
At the same time, I am aware that labeling the central premise of Trump’s campaign an obvious fabrication underestimates what Trump has achieved — what he has, in fact, already built. Trump’s border wall, as a material entity, will never exist because it cannot exist. But I suspect that the carnival barker inside of him already knows this. His campaign has succeeded in giving voice to those who have always imagined Mexico as a feral place apart, and Mexican immigrants as pollutants to American life. For the population that supports him, Trump is constructing a rhetorical wall that could prove more solid and lasting than the real thing would be.
The first federally built fence along the United States border with Mexico was not built to prohibit Mexican entry. It was a range fence built to corral wandering cattle. The aim was to prevent the spread of livestock-borne diseases like “Texas fever.” This idea of a border wall as a barrier to contagion seems never to have left us.
Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the border was mostly a place to collect customs and duties. Rachel St. John, in her study Line in the Sand, points out that it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that designated immigration inspectors began to patrol the borderlands. By 1904, under the aegis of the new Bureau of Immigration in Washington, DC, there were 18 of these men assigned to the New Mexico and Arizona borders.
And yet these early immigration agents were not specifically concerned with Mexican entry, either — their mission was largely to exclude the Chinese laborers barred from the United States by the 1882 Chinese-Exclusion Act. Border immigration officials were in fact so closely identified with pursuit of the Chinese that they were colloquially called “Chinese Inspectors.” It was nearly 60 years after the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo before any dedicated records were kept about the crossings of Mexican citizens into the United States. It was still another decade before Mexican migrants were subject to an official immigration act from the United States government — and even then, in the Immigration Act of 1917, restrictions on Mexican persons were mostly a casualty of those more directly aimed at immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.
As the old threats along the border fell away, new ones were found to replace them. By the 1930s, it was no longer wandering cattle, Apache Indians, anarchists, prostitutes, the mentally ill, or Chinese laborers who preoccupied the border control apparatus, but — at long last — Mexicans. This is instructive, as it suggests that institutional self-justification seems to require an endless series of persons and objects to forbid. Otherwise what is a border? To hear Trump speak, one would imagine an inexorable tide of Mexican refugees, crowding into the United States since time immemorial to murder, rape, and steal. But this is not just a lie as contemporary description; it is a lie as history.
In a bit of further misdirection, Trump and his supporters will sometimes claim it is the paycheck of the American worker they aim to protect from the threat of Mexican labor. Trump’s followers would no doubt roundly applaud the complaints of Texas Congressman John C. Box, who in 1928 wrote in favor of further restricting immigration from Mexico:
Mexican labor is not free; it is not well paid; its standard of living is low. The yearly admission of several scores of thousands from just across the Mexican border tends constantly to lower the wages and conditions of men and women of America who labor with their hands in industry, in transportation, and in agriculture.
The Center for Immigration studies, in summarizing contemporary research, unearths a certain limited truth in Congressman Box’s complaint about lowered wages. Immigrant entrants into the American workforce might suppress the wages of low-skilled native workers — particularly those who did not finish high school — by as much as two to five percent. This is not inconsiderable at the bottom end of the wage scale, where a few hundred dollars over the course of a year might stave off an eviction notice. One might also point out, however, that the workers most negatively impacted by immigration would be in the best position to benefit from an expanded social safety net, free community or college education, job training, and a raise in the federal minimum wage, all of which Trump opposes, preferring to spend that money constructing an unfeasible border wall and paying for its upkeep and enforcement.
To take these economic complaints at face value, though, risks overlooking the way that economic concerns about immigration are often used as a smokescreen for what would otherwise be plainly visible xenophobia. Congressman Box, at least, was not reticent about the racial animus that underwrote his professed economic worries. Box’s desire, to use his own words, was to prevent “American racial stock from further degradation or change through mongrelization.” To the congressmen, Mexicans were particularly rough beasts, comprised of a “blend of low-grade Spaniard, peonized Indian, and negro slave.” Today’s anti-immigrant Right has for the most part tactically shifted to voicing this portion of Box’s argument sotto voce or in coded appeals. Trump’s regrettable achievement is to have brought the underside of the immigration argument back out into the daylight. The transformation of Mexican persons into dangerous racial others took time and political will. In Friedrich Katz’s biography of Pancho Villa, he quotes from cables American border officials sent back to Washington, DC, about Villa’s rise. In them, Villa is called a “white man.” This does not mean that Villa would have been exactly welcome at the average American church potluck, but it does indicate that ethnic and racial categorizations are far from the fixed boundary markers that Trump and the nativists imagine.
The border refrain that has grown up in opposition to Trump, embraced by the Hillary Clinton camp, calls for building “bridges not walls.” This is a worthy enough substitution, provided we’re speaking of more than bridges for trans-border trade, and are in fact willing to recognize Mexico as something more than a nation filled with the United States’s would-be dishwashers, gardeners, and farm workers. There is an unmistakable whiff of condescension even in the liberal speechifying about Mexican workers who “come to do the jobs Americans won’t do.” It can sound as though an unskilled Mexican worker is of necessarily limited horizons, and might be more personally fulfilled by these tasks than an American would be. Sunbaked harvest labor is necessary, honest, difficult work, but it is hardly an aspiration. What is an aspiration, for many, is that their children might be able to engage a life without such severe boundary conditions. And yet even the extremely minor concession of treating the children of undocumented workers — children who have often lived nowhere else but the United States — as eligible to fully participate in American life remains under constant political threat from the anti-immigrant Right.
As poor an idea as a border wall is, one could make the tongue-in-cheek case that Mexico has the better reasons for building it — to wall off noxious American influence. Mexican citizens might fairly point out that the American appetite for narcotics helps to fuel Mexico’s catastrophic drug wars, and that untold cartel murders are accomplished with weapons purchased in the United States. Scholars of Mexican history can easily furnish stories of convoluted plots underwritten by 19th- and 20th-century American mining and ranching interests hoping to add further Mexican territories to the United States. Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila — if you can name a state in northern Mexico that borders the United States, then you can locate an American plot (some fanciful, some quite serious) to filibuster, annex, or otherwise acquire it. Or why not simply begin with that 1848 treaty that set the borders in the first place — a treaty in which the United States purchased (more fairly, expropriated, by force of arms) nearly half of the land of the Republic of Mexico?
It is a peculiar pastime to look askance at a person who has been repeatedly mugged, and call him a thief.
My entire life, I have been permitted to cross into Mexico for every diversion of Mexicali and Tijuana, for the vineyards of the Valle de Guadalupe, the Sea of Cortez. I have been a teenager naked at midnight in the Pacific surf at Ensenada and I have woken up on the beach in Rosarito after weddings that lasted until dawn. I have paid very real traffic fines to the Mexican police over phantom infractions. I try to imagine a day when we extend the hospitality I have been shown in Mexico (by everyone but law enforcement) across both sides of the border. The usual response is that this is not “realistic” — as though I’m suggesting living in a house without walls, rather than observing that courtesy and cooperation are a better approach for healthy living among permanent neighbors.
When I think of that Mexican coast where my grandfather spent much of the end of his life, I find myself mixing my memories of him with Steinbeck’s account of his time on the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck’s expedition spent untold hours collecting in the intertidal regions of the Gulf — poring over those small, strange ecosystems that are exposed when the tides go out, and submerged again when the tides roll in. Biological observation seems to have put Steinbeck in a mood to draw analogies to human societies:
If we used the same smug observation on ourselves that we do on hermit crabs we would be forced to say, with the information at hand, “It is one diagnostic trait of Homo Sapiens that groups of individuals are periodically infected with a feverish nervousness which causes the individual to turn on and destroy, not only his own kind, but the works of his own kind. It is not known whether this be caused by a virus, some airborne spore, or whether it be a species reaction to some meteorological stimulus as yet undetermined.”
It might seem comforting to think of Trump as an “airborne spore” — it would relieve us of the burden of imagining him as a person engaging a political history, marshaling followers to an old nativist drumbeat. In truth, the metaphor alerts us to a terrifying replication: Trump is only the latest host body for this nervous spore. At least until November, and quite possibly for four years after that, we must endure a man who is telling a lie about a wall that can’t be built — a wall whose history lies in livestock. But when this candy-colored fabricator finally shuffles off the stage, I fear the anti-immigrant fever will find a new host, and persist in this renewed, virulent form.
Before he lived in Mexico by the sea, my grandfather was a customs officer in the Virgin Islands. He kept track of the comings and goings of ship traffic and goods and people. His own parents were Russians who came to the United States after the Bolshevik Revolution. He spoke a passable Spanglish common along the border, and seems to have read every novel by Joseph Conrad. His life was spent in transit. My family was, to him, another home, and one he arrived to late. I call him my “grandfather,” because that is the role he assumed for me, but more precisely he was the second husband of my great-grandmother — younger than her by at least a decade, which allowed me to know him though I never met her.
He was not related to me by blood. But what is blood after all, when he left me an inheritance of tide pools, pidgin Spanish, and Joseph Conrad? I think of him when I think of what it takes to repel the Trumpian spore. I think of the experience that furnished my grandfather with the basic recognition that people might sometimes have unimpeachable reasons to uproot from their countries and families and embark on uncertain journeys, in search of a lease on better terms.