February 20, 2019
“Walls are not very effective at stopping movement. People can go around, over, under…The way that walls do work is as a symbol. The material object of the wall stands in for all of the other complex issues about borders, migration, and trade.” - Reece Jones, author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move
“You know, a wall is the best way to do nothing while looking like you’re doing something” - Anonymous comment on India fencing project along Bangladesh border
On Friday, Congress managed to pass a compromise budget bill that included some money for wall construction. Trump, not happy with the amount, used the signing ceremony to issue an executive order declaring a national emergency in a gambit to give himself authority to use up to $8 billion from other accounts to finance his promised border wall.
While pundits debate “who won” the budget showdown and/or fact check Trump’s many lies about immigration, we thought it might be worth stepping back for a minute and look at the wall debate from a more global perspective. It is worth noting that between the end of World War Two and the end of the Cold War (1945-1989) the number of international border walls (fences or other barriers) grew from five to fifteen. Since the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, the number of border walls has actually grown to seventy, with at least another seven in various stages of planning.
Which is to say, the post-Cold War age of the globalization of finance, transnational production networks and open trade regimes has not been met with open borders for people. On the contrary, the impact of global economic forces has led to a dislocation of millions of people around the globe. The related force of climate change is estimated to displace 22.5 million people a year. Add to that the refugee crises that have emerged from U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S.-supported wars in Yemen and Syria and other conflicts, and there are now more people displaced in the world that any time in history. Their migration, when they attempt to cross international borders, has been met with increasing nationalistic backlash.
So, we build walls. The United States already has a border wall - a bipartisan effort launched in 2006 with the Secure Fencing Act. Nearly a third of the border is thus walled in - with the rest of it monitored and patrolled. In the course of this latest budget debate, Democrats were themselves committed to spending billions more on border security. They just didn’t want to give Trump a wall - or at least a concrete/brick wall. But billions of dollars for more fencing, border patrols and expanding a virtual surveillance wall was fine (though not enough for Trump).
It seems the political class are all nationalists now, left to debate simply the optics of implementing anti-immigrant policies. Why? Well, to hear politicians talk, it has something to do with scary people crossing our borders in search of free lunches, who thus threaten hard working Americans (or Brits, French, Greeks - whatever appropriate demonym for the given country). However, beneath this pandering to an audience made insecure by the same economic forces displacing their neighbors, there is another explanation for the turn to nationalist policies: A global market in border security.
We’re currently in the middle of a golden era for border wall contractors. Companies are building everything from fences lined with concertina wire to military-grade drones to high-tech lidar sensors to monitor borderlands, and budgets for holistic frontier defenses are ballooning in tandem. The global market for border security technology is expected to grow to nearly $53 billion in the next few years, with major security companies like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin leading the way.
If one views the larger homeland security industry, at a global level, the numbers are staggering. Todd Miller, says in an interview with The Nation:
[W]hen you look at the market forecast, all of them show a homeland-security market that’s growing. There are reports that say it’s an unprecedented boom period. The last one that I saw for the homeland-security market had it going to $742 billion by 2023. In Storming the Wall, I had figure of $546 billion for 2022 for the broader global security market.
So, while Trump may be unique in his bombastic approach, and dangerous in his autocratic tendencies, the phenomenon he represents is a global one of displacement, insecurity and nationalistic responses. With the money at stake, we can rest assured that pressure will remain on Congress to maintain a securitized response to the movement of people, whatever happens to Trump.
T.M. Brown "Border Walls are a big Business - and not just in Trump's America," FastCompany
Will Mayer, "The Climate Wall: Q & A with Todd Miller," The Nation
Jeff Gammage, "Construction of border walls exploding around the world, as Trump demands billions for barrier at Mexico line," The Inquirer