Anthropologists discuss effects of US-Mexico border wall, address disruption to regional communities, wildlife

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COURTESY IMAGE / WM.EDU

As part of the anthropology department’s “Brown Bag” series, University of Richmond anthropologists Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Díaz-Barringa visited the College of William and Mary Feb. 19 to discuss the cultural impact of the United States-Mexico border wall construction on the surrounding population. During the talk, Dorsey and Díaz-Barringa discussed their new book “Fencing in Democracy: Border Walls, Necrocitizenship, and the Security State,” in which they argue that the border’s construction establishes a culture of exclusion as residents near the construction are largely left out of the conversation regarding border security and are also deprived of constitutional rights.

Dorsey and Díaz-Barringa’s discussion focused specifically on border wall construction within the Texas Rio Grande region, where they have spent a significant amount of time conducting anthropological research. According to Díaz-Barringa, this area and other similar locations along the U.S.-Mexico border are often misrepresented by the federal government. Consequentially, the media also depicts these places as barren and dangerous wherein the people themselves are portrayed inaccurately or, as often the case, deprived entirely of voice.

“We view the border as a visual ethnographic space, a space portrayed as a warzone,” Díaz-Barringa said. “A space in which reporters and the media often take on the perspective of state agents and relies on information from them becoming part of a larger argument for increased border militarization.”

“We view the border as a visual ethnographic space, a space portrayed as a warzone,” Díaz-Barringa said. “A space in which reporters and the media often take on the perspective of state agents and relies on information from them becoming part of a larger argument for increased border militarization.”

Díaz-Barringa went on to describe the border as a state of exception, wherein the government has, in some cases, paradoxically suspended its own laws in order to uphold others. This is the case regarding the Real ID Act of 2009 and its subsequent amendments, which have given Department of Homeland Security the ability to suspend all laws necessary to construct the border wall in what Díaz-Barringa called the largest waiver of laws in U.S. history. He perceives this practice to be aligned with the U.S. government’s longstanding tradition of dispossessing its citizens, particularly those of Mexican descent, of their land and property. Nevertheless, Díaz-Barringa emphasized that border residents continue to fight back against this narrative.

“While this thing is a legal reality, ordinary residents demonstrate that they themselves have agency as they push, shove and talk back to the nation-state’s overwhelming drive to make this state of exception normal,” Díaz-Barringa said. “One of the things that fascinates us is how protests continue even though time after time legal challenges were mounted and dismissed right away because of the feeling that people are not giving up.”

Dorsey and Díaz-Barringa’s research aimed at dismantling the false stereotype of border life and culture perpetuated by the media and federal government. They sought to emphasize that in southern Texas, the U.S.-Mexico border wall is not isolated from the population, but in reality bisects several communities, cuts off a nature preserve from tourism and resources and even goes through a university. Moreover, the wall itself is, at times, two miles inside the U.S., quite literally excluding anything that may lie south of it from what is perceived as part of the country.

The pair hopes to use their photo essay, comprised of images taken while conducting research at the Texas-Mexico border, to develop a counter-narrative highlighting the communities that have been bisected by the border wall. Dorsey discussed examples featured in their research that have been or will be significantly impacted by the wall’s presence, beginning with the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge. The corridor is intended to protect and maintain local wildlife habitats. However, 75 percent of the area already has, or will be, impacted by the border wall construction. This includes the national butterfly center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Center, where a border wall is set to be built.

Dorsey then discussed the Palm Tree Forests, the second case study featured in her and Díaz-Barringa’s research. This region, densely populated with palm trees and tropical wildlife, are currently protected as preserves and sanctuaries by the Nature Conservancy and Audubon. Against the conservancy’s wishes, DHS took legal action and constructed the border wall within the Palm Tree Forests’ territory. This in turn has had a negative effect on the area’s tourism and wildlife.

The final example Dorsey referenced during the talk was the Old Hidalgo Pump House and Museum, a site significant to the history of irrigation and farming. The museum is bisected by the border wall, which prevents tourists from accessing nearby trails, and nearby border patrol creates an unwelcoming environment that Dorsey witnessed first-hand.

“We led a group of international representatives attending a United Nations conference on human trafficking on a tour of the border wall,” Dorsey said. “We took them to this spot and reminded them that this portion of the border wall is almost two miles north of the Rio Grande, the international boundary between Texas and Mexico. Nonetheless, they did not believe they could cross the threshold without entering Mexico and stayed on the northern side of the fence.”

“We led a group of international representatives attending a United Nations conference on human trafficking on a tour of the border wall,” Dorsey said. “We took them to this spot and reminded them that this portion of the border wall is almost two miles north of the Rio Grande, the international boundary between Texas and Mexico. Nonetheless, they did not believe they could cross the threshold without entering Mexico and stayed on the northern side of the fence.”

Caroline Watson M.A. ’21 found Dorsey and Díaz-Barringa’s discussion of the border’s role in creating a cultural divide and depriving residents of their legal rights and creating confusion regarding the U.S.-Mexico international boundary particularly intriguing.

“I thought it was really interesting how they got into this idea that the border wall acts as itself a political boundary, so it’s kind of superseding the actual geopolitical boundary and that in turn defines people’s identity and ideas of where their citizen status begins and ends,” Watson said.