Building walls is far from a revolutionary idea. We’ve been building them since ancient times. And they have largely been intended to serve the same purpose: to keep people out (and sometimes in) and define national borders.
The success of these endeavors varied widely. For example, in the 21st-century BC, the Sumerians built a wall to keep out the Amorites. It stretched over 100 miles between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but as it didn't encircle the city invaders could walk around it. A double attack from the Amorites and the Elamites ultimately rendered the wall useless and the Sumerian city of Ur fell around 2000 BC.
China's Great Wall has been featured in a few memes recently that attest to the effectiveness of physical barriers. And it's true that the Wall worked to control Chinese citizens and their trade, but it took some time to get there. The Great Wall began as a series of smaller, independent walls built from stone, wood, and earth which were ultimately connected during the Ming Era. This wall was also impermeable. Two notable instances of breach include the Mongol leader Altan Khan in 1550 when he raided Beijing, and then by the Manchus in 1644 who caused the fall of the Ming Dynasty.
As a concept, the idea of a wall suggests permanence, security and identity. Physical boundaries help define people by establishing a shared experience of place and time. But this is a very simplistic view of national barricades. It overlooks the ways in which these monuments function as sites of exchange, and the ways in which they generate their own experience of identity and place.
The lifecycle of Hadrian's Wall, parts of which still exist today, highlights these experiences. The Wall was constructed during the AD 120s and remained functional until the early 5th-century. It was built after the Britons appealed to Rome for help defending against the Picts and Scottish tribes that resided in Northern Britain. Hadrian agreed and sent troops to help oversee the work, which was both privately and publicly funded and built with labor support from local Britons. The Wall served as a barrier and the Romans were able to levy taxes for crossing the wall. When the Romans eventually withdrew from Britain, the Wall was looted for materials and fell into general decay. It's survival today--however diminished—speaks to its original imposing facade.
As an agent of identity, Hadrian's Wall served multiple parties over time. It was claimed as a physical reminder of Britain’s Roman heritage, which became particularly important in the 18th-century as the British Empire expanded around the world. This succession was leveraged to add authority to the British presence as it implied that the British Empire had inherited the imperialist rights held by the Romans. The Scottish view of the Wall, on the other hand, held it as a symbol of valor for the ancient Scots who resisted and opposed the imperial aims of Britain/Rome. The Wall defined the spatial identity for the British on two fronts: for those south of the Wall, it was heralded a heritage and for those north of the Wall, it delineated who they were not.
But it did nothing to clarify the area around the Wall itself. Were those inhabitants British or not? Roman legions were notorious for recruiting far and wide and records indicate that along the wall there were soldiers from Germany and Spain. Additionally, as soldiers settled along the wall, they intermarried with locals which created generations who were uniquely rooted in this space. Thus even as the Wall separated and contained people, it was also inclusive in one sense. This muddling of identity is apparent in the writing of antiquarian Thomas Wright who maintained that people living along the wall remained in their distinct ethnic groups but adopted the Roman language. Wright’s 1852 book, The Celt, the Roman and the Saxon, is problematic in its discussion of these people as it struggles to maintain that they are distinct but susceptible to the strength of the Roman culture overall. The language is divisive and is reflective of the discriminatory perspectives that plagued these residents.
In today’s world cultural borders seem outdated. There are hints of this in Hadrian’s Wall—and other walls—but a hallmark of modernity is its fluidity. From political boundaries, gender identities, and global capitalism, boundaries shift, are re-evaluated and argued over, and are accommodated. Walls represent and idealized expectation in today’s world. They reflect a hope that a place can be closed completely which simply isn’t true.
Donald Trump insisted during his presidential campaign that he would build a wall along the southern border of the United States to secure the border. And now he intends to keep this promise. Currently, 650 miles of border fencing is in place to stop or slow foot traffic and vehicles. There are several challenges that present a potential issue for an actual physical wall. First, the region is governed by a 1970 treaty that protects the Rio Grande and the Colorado River at the Mexican Border, which means that nothing can be built that disrupts their flow. This means in turn that if the wall were built, it would need to be built well into the United States to meet the treaty and environmental obligations--not to mention that the US government would need to buy a significant amount of private property to make this happen. Second, there are 18 federally protected species that live along the California border, and at least 39 federally endangered or threatened species along the Arizona border. Disruptions to the their habitats could be disastrous.
And finally, there are the people. The Mexican-United States borderlands are part of the area that was taken from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe. It has long been an area of transience and conflict. People have moved north into the United States when things were bad in Mexico and south into Mexico when things were bad in the United States (such as during the Great Depression). There are generations of families that have lived along the border and the space is at once inclusive and defining and contradictory.
As in the case of Hadrian's Wall, the Great Wall, and others, the border identities along the US and Mexico are complex. American border citizens of Mexican ancestry are rejected from the Latino/Hispanic "minority" because they do not identify with "interior" Latinos and Hispanics. But they're also rejected by Mexicans because they are not Mexican nationals and can't fully perform cultural tasks. What happens to these people in the face of an actual wall? On which side do they fall? What nation claims them?
Trump wants an actual physical wall more for the statement it would make than the actual effectiveness of the structure. Data tells us the majority of illegal immigrants actually enter by air and simply overstay their visa. They're coming from Mexico, but also from India, Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. And there are more non-Mexicans—people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Central American countries—who are trying to cross the southern border than Mexicans. In fact, people from these countries account for 97% of Mexico's deportations. Not only are fewer Mexicans are actually migrating into the United States, but more are returning to Mexico.
The objective then is not to stem the tide of Mexican immigrants--or illegal immigrants in general--but to send a strong message to the rest of the world using Mexico as the example. Mexico has distanced itself from the ideology of this particular wall. To Mexico it is not a representation of valor as the Scots viewed Hadrian’s Wall, but a clear insult to their progress and their partnership. The truth is that walls are only as effective as the people living with them allow them to be. They require cultural and structural maintenance from both sides. And nations typically grow out of them. National borders will never be undone—but we’re well beyond the point where a wall will help us secure them.
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Alvarez, R. (1995). The Mexican-Us Border: The Making of an Anthropology of Borderlands. Annual Review of Anthropology,24, 447-470. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2155945
Earle, D. (2003). Commentary: Where does the Border Start? Identity, Biculturalism, and the Practice of Anthropology. Practicing Anthropology, 25(1), 39-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24781751
Hingley, R. (2010). "Tales of the frontier: Diasporas on Hadrian's Wall." Journal of Roman Archaeology, 227-243. Retrieved from http://dro.dur.ac.uk/8357/1/8357.pdf
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Image Credit: Stu and Sam Marlow