The Border is No Longer a Line

A CBP Border Patrol agent monitors the Canada–United States border near Sweet Grass, Montana.Credit: By Gerald L. Nino, CBP, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After the fall of the Berlin Wall it was believed that the reconfiguration of international relations was opening an age of globalization in which states, borders, and sovereignties would become obsolete. September 11, however, signaled the end of this Western-centered utopia and the beginning of an era where border barriers and walls were becoming central to a re-fortified world. Borders were seen as open, soft, and purposely porous. They have become more and more closed, hard, and seemingly impassable.

The fact is that as the global economy and cyberspace rely on open borders, the securitization discourse has led to the tightening of border crossings and, in some cases, to the closure and fencing of some borders. In that sense, constructivists see border walls in terms of “securitization” where the fortification of the border is seen as a response to a classic problem (e.g. migratory issues) that has come to be perceived as a security issue (migratory threat). And it is the clash between those discourses that has opened a new field within globalization studies, focused on borders and the bordering process.

With the paradigm shift induced by the 9/11 events, borders have become more mobile and pixelated. One of the first reasons borders are now mobile is that they are no longer limited to the physical boundary line: borders can indeed be both internalized and externalized.

Borders are internalized and internal in a sense. For instance, in the U.S. a 1953 Department of justice regulation defines a 100-mile zone of legal exception within the American territory along all U.S. borders. In that zone, all vehicles can be searched, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) claim some exceptional legal powers. It is in that zone as well that mobile checkpoints will be and are established.

Borders are also externalized, when states transfer to airlines the obligation to verify their passengers’ authorization of entry on their destination territory before boarding the plane: in that case, for instance in Geneva Switzerland, Air Canada won’t allow a non-Canadian or non-resident without an appropriate visa to board one of its planes flying to Canada. Another case of externalization is when travelers flying into the U.S. have to go through U.S. immigration and customs in Canada – for instance in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal airport – even though they are still on Canadian territory: the experience of border crossing takes place several tens of kilometers from the actual U.S. border.

Externalization, finally, is key to international agreements between for instance the EU and the Maghreb states (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) in which case the latter will filter the flows, enhance EU border security while furthering the bordering process way down into the south, sometimes in the Sahara, with detention camps as far as Nouadhibou, Mauritania.

This externalization process, as a whole, raises questions about both the accountability of the agents and the tangibility of the rule of law. Since part of the border crossing process happens away from the boundary line, sometimes in foreign territory, it has become difficult to hold those border agents (understood here widely as any agent of the bordering process) accountable, since the applicable law might not be the national law of the destination state but the law of (one of) the transit state.

Borders are also pixelated. That means that their opacity will vary depending on the nature of the flow – for instance the citizenship of the passport holder. As the brief application of Trump’s migration executive order has shown, there can be a high discrepancy between different passport holders based on citizenship or country of origin. This discrepancy might lay in immigration laws, or rely on the perception of individual border patrol agents and their arbitrary interpretation of the law. A pixelated border will therefore show a variable penetrability depending on who is crossing.

In that context, walls can be seen as markers of identity, instruments of differentiation, and visible tools of what political theorist Wendy Brown sees as “waning sovereignties.” As a matter of fact, while globalization tends to blur the very idea of borders, border fences tend to stiffen and tighten boundaries in order to reassure the public, which sees them as a means for controlling unwanted flows and improving security. In a security-conscious world, globalization has not led to the disappearance of borders but rather to the redefinition of territory and the underlining of its delimitations. In fact, border walls have become the “fault lines of globalization,” according to French political scientist Evelyne Ritaine, a sort of asymmetrical membrane that filters flows in a highly integrated, interdependent economy.

The fact is that, in this particular contemporary context, there are at least two protagonists in each dyad: the transit State (or State of origin) and the destination State, where the migratory movements through the transit State represent a threat for the destination State that will try to stem the flow. Border barriers have, therefore, been justified by aiming at illegal immigration (For instance around Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, along the U.S.-Mexico border, between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, China and North Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, Brunei and Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, at the European borders of Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, or Austria), sometimes in connection with the fight against smuggling, or against terrorism (for instance around every border of Israel, between Brunei and Malaysia, Thailand and Malaysia, Kenya and Somalia, or Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and Iraq). Sometimes the arguments are less clear-cut and may alternate over time. In that respect, border barriers are seen as a response to the instability in the international system and a solution of choice to a phenomenon experienced by both sides but perceived differently. It is also a solution that reflects an asymmetrical relationship and an asymmetrical response to the security issue.

The changing functionality of borders does not alter the nature of the State per se, but rather underscores a state of affairs that the mainstream academic discourse had eluded by positing a borderless world, when in fact the eradication of borders was limited to two Western free-trade zones – NAFTA and the EU. Therefore, the hardening of borders does not equate the return of the State in the international arena, since it has actually never disappeared: it is more a matter of shifting the focus towards security issues among domestic audiences and in that sense reflecting the prevalence of domestic issues over foreign policy considerations.

What will change over time, however, is the nature of the border through the permanence of the wall as it alters the border process. The objective of an armored or fortified border is to cut off and exclude. And that it does, transforming borderlands in an unknown “other” as the case of the East and West Germany shows, long after the fall of the Berlin Wall: obviously, as photographers and authors of the beautiful Walls Between People illustrated book, Novosseloff and Neisse, have once stated, “hiding crises does not solve them.”

The security benefits yielded by fortifying and strengthening borders tend to evaporate over time. First no border is impermeable (with the exception of the DMZ in the Korean Peninsula, maybe). Therefore any fortification will induce a logic of transgression, with circumvention strategies such as the drilling of tunnels, the ingenuity of basic smuggling stratagems (scales, scissors to cut through) or on the contrary sophisticated ones (submarines, drones, catapults) and the use of new migration routes. In the long term, therefore, the lack of cooperation across the border may trigger greater security concerns as mafias and organized crime take control of the border crossing process. Fortified and strengthened borders will actually generate new problems that cannot be addressed effectively separately from both borderlands: the border is no longer a line but a zone. 



A common theme in your essays was the shift from the border as a line to the border as a zone. What sort of impact do you see this shift having not only on the world at large, but specifically on border communities?

There used to be a time when border communities would define the core and the periphery in a different way. For instance, kids in Quebec and Vermont (just as kids in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora) have been schooled on either side, in public funded schools that wouldn't question (or even register which has raised some census issues in the past) their students' citizenship. Kids would simply walk to the nearest school, which sometimes would happen to be on the other side of the line. Therefore, local identity would be shaped collectively, and people would sometimes migrate several times across the border during even a lifetime which would also contribute to the definition of the border community and its identity.

Nowadays, in both mentioned places, the line has hardened and the border has thickened. Border controls are much more prone to happen away from the line, the community itself has been involved in border surveillance, while being itself subjected to a more aggressive border patrol. The thickening of the border has two impacts on border communities: defiance and destructuring, all linked to the (de)construction of a local identity and the very definition of a borderland. 

Do you think the closing and tightening of borders has an effect on national identities? What sort of long-term impact might this have?

It has an effect, in terms of the permeability of national politics to populism and fear. It fuels the feeling that the other is a threat and that militarization, policing and walling are the panacea. Sometimes it is interesting to note that the radicalization of the discourse is based on figures that are actually lower than what has been experimented before and never labelled as it is now. The refugee crisis at the Quebec border being one example of the over mediatization of irregular border crossings as a threat for national security, when figures where just as high less that 15 years ago.

For a brief moment in time, it seemed (particularly in Europe) that there was movement toward a more cosmopolitan ideal of borders.  Do you see a return to this in the future? What would it take for that shift to occur?

A paradigmatic shift is necessary to redefine the movement from a closing trend back to a cosmopolitan approach border, one such as what 9/11, the 2008 crisis, and the arab spring have triggered. However, cosmopolitanism relies on a positive take on international relations - Climate change, food insecurity are not among the positive shifts necessary to change the turn of things.

Do you have any additional comments for our other Roundtable participants?

The fight of the Tohono O'odham Tribe is underplayed relatively to the Standing Rock demonstration. It may, however, be just as important. They are talking to our contemporary and westernized take on borders. The academic community (one needs to mention prof. Kenneth Madsen work here) needs to include their approach (as Forman does here) in a broader critical approach of borders.

Elisabeth Vallet is the scientific director and research fellow at the Raoul Dandurand. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Geography at UQAM, and leads the Quebec region in the Borders in Globalization program, an international research network based at the University of Victoria. She teaches geopolitics at UQAM. She has published recently Borders, Fences and Walls – State of Insecurity.