Seeing illegal immigrants (literally): Donald Trump’s transparent border wall

We didn’t think of this one: when surveying the various methods that states use to “see” illegal immigrants, we did not include border walls explicitly designed to be see-through. And yet this is exactly what Donald Trump proposed in front of reporters on Wednesday.

The first reaction to this idea was incredulity. But perhaps we should actually try to take him both seriously and literally. After all, his idea points to a major starting point of our project: the inherent tensions in states’ attempts to address the illegal immigration “problem.”

The fantasies of the border wall

As everyone knows, one of Trump’s signature campaign promises was to build a wall across the US’s entire southwest border. There are many reasons to think that the two thousand mile-long barrier will never materialise. Besides its expense and logistical complexity, the “build a wall” catchphrase was pushed by a campaign team trying to keep their unruly boss on message. Moreover, there is evidence that, despite the symbolic politics of the wall, actually completing it is a relatively low priority for Trump voters. Still, discussions continue as to what form the wall will take. Will it have solar panels? Will it be glass?

On 13 July 2017, Trump tried to clarify what he considered to be the key features of his wall:

One of the things with the wall is you need transparency. You have to be able to see through it. In other words, if you can’t see through that wall – so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall. And I’ll give you an example. As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them – they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs.

It’s easy to laugh at Trump’s reasoning. For one thing, being hit in the head by heavy sacks of drugs vaulted over border barriers currently ranks low on the list of dangers in the US-Mexico borderland. Trump’s comments do, however, underscore an inherent tension in combatting clandestine immigration.

US Border Patrol agent looks out over Tijuana, Mexico along the old border wall where it ends at the base of a hill in San Diego in June 2013.

In their “struggle” to contain illegal immigration, states are torn between the need to project sovereign power by delimiting and excluding, and the need to make legible the space “beyond”. This produces a further symbolic problem because the practical need to see beyond the territory in order combat illegal immigration undermines the notion that the state possesses complete steering capacity within its territory.

Border barriers that allow some visibility through them are not uncommon, but Trump’s call for a “wall” conjures up distinct imagery: His voters imagine a structure that is towering and impermeable and he has repeatedly argued that unauthorised immigration is the result of the United States’ lack of will in stopping it. This has epitomised his unilateral approach to illegal immigration, which drops any pretence of working with Mexican authorities to curb unauthorised cross-border flows and instead promises to muscle Mexico into paying for the wall against its wishes.

The paradox of visibility

Fulfilling this political symbolism was always going to be a practical problem. The costs of Trump’s proposals are astronomical. More importantly, though, the usefulness of a wall as a place where the start of enforcement begins is challenged by the inherently transversal nature of border-crossing. Controlling it, especially at remote points, is much easier if one has a sense of what is happening on the other side.

Trump may not express that idea in such terms, but his example of the falling drug sacks absurdly manifests it. Practically, exercising effective power within the state’s purview (stopping the dangers of drug smuggling) means seeing beyond it (knowing the sacks are coming before they cross the line). Literal visibility is one way of achieving this kind of legibility that does not rely on actual cross-border cooperation.

For Trump, of course, any concession to the “other side” is elitist mush. But even in his scattered proposals, there seems to be the beginning of some realization that it is difficult to address such a “clandestine” problem without acknowledging its transnational dimension. Perhaps he also sees that hard-line expressions of sovereignty, like the promise of a tall and impermeable wall, actually risk exposing the reality of sovereign incapacity if they fail to stop the problem completely.

It is no wonder, then, that most states adopt a position of strategic ignorance in relation to illegal immigration. This type of ignorance, however, is an impossibility for Trump, whose presidency was made possible by the premise he saw the unauthorised immigration issue for what it really is. As these paradoxes likely won’t be solved by the Trump administration, we can expect many more discussions about the kinds of “openings” that befit Trump’s infamous wall.