Border Walls in a Globalized Age

April 30, 2017
By: Alberto Wilson III

In November 2016, Tom Vanderbilt published an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, “The Walls in Our Heads.” Walls, he argued, rarely engender the expected outcomes of control but rather signal the erosion of state power. Vanderbilt suggested that if people addressed the walls in their heads that animate the materialization of steel divisions then the unifying tendency of globalization might flourish. If globalization’s technological, cosmopolitan, and multicultural trends were meant to bring the world together, was President Trump’s winning platform of border walls and migrant expulsions anathema to a globalized world – or an expression of it?

As Trump’s proposed wall continues to animate his base of supporters despite objections from every border state congressperson, among others, the relationship between globalization and propinquity is due historicizing. On the morning of January 28, 1917, in El Paso, Texas, Mexican women rioted against a border quarantine established four weeks prior by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) for the prevention and eradication of typhus. The riots shut down the largest land based port-of-entry in the United States’ southern and Mexico’s northern border.[i]

Scholars have interpreted the event as a protest against the rise of a legislative and a medical border. After World War I, the United States government increased surveillance over the southern border with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Wartime Measure Act of 1918. Whereas previously Mexican border crossers had gone relatively unnoticed and unmolested, the war brought Mexican bodies under the state’s gaze. Furthermore, the internal displacement of Mexicans to the northern border region and beyond, resulting from the Mexican Revolution, generated a typhus scare in the United States. The USPHS established the quarantine that medically marked Mexican bodies as vectors of disease.[ii]

This event shows how  the state deployed exclusionary power when cognitive structures also promoted programs of control and expulsion. Border residents’ movement was not only curtailed by legislation and racialized medical discourses but also through a massive mobilization of technological capabilities. Claude C. Pierce, the USPHS senior surgeon tapped to implement the quarantine, celebrated “the measures now being carried out at the border”; measures that included the use of cyanide gas, kerosene, and steam chambers.[iii] Though the quarantine went out of effect in the 1930s, the exclusionary force it installed in the El Paso-Juárez border region has persisted through the present. In effect, a border wall has coexisted – which is not to say without a challenge – with continued mobility in a highly globalized, transnational setting.

The resiliency of immigrant communities and border residents will surely be tested by the Trump administration’s plans for a border wall as well as increased (and increasingly harsh) immigration enforcement. Trump’s proposed border wall is not an aberration to globalization – and despite experts’ claims of impracticality it must be taken seriously. Trump’s language before and since the election has emphasized the need for a physical boundary to protect the nation from criminal outsiders, fanning anxieties about difference that have been fostered by the large displacement of peoples across geographic boundaries, specifically from the Global South to the modernized North.

The El Paso Bath Riots of 1917 should remind us of the devastating effects the state can have on border regions and people. Luckily, the Mexican women who resisted and rioted then also remind us that state impositions in border settings rarely go unchallenged.

[i] “Order to Bath Starts Near Riot Among Juarez Women,” El Paso Morning Times (January 29, 1917); “Women Riot in Juarez; Fear American Baths,” New York Tribune (January 29, 1917); “Quarantine Riot in Juarez,” New York Times (January 29, 1917).

[ii] Alexandra Minna Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 79, 1 (Feb 1999): 41-81. John Mckiernan-González, Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848-1942 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012); Heather M. Sinclair, “White Plague, Mexican Menace: Migration, Race, Class, and Gendered Contagion in El Paso, Texas, 1880-1930,” Pacific Historical Review 85, 4 (2016): 475-505; Miguel Antonio Levario, Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy (College Station: Texas A&M University, 2012); David Dorado Romo, Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez, 1893-1923 (El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2005).

[iii] Claude C. Pierce, “Combating Typhus Fever on the Mexican Border,” Public Health Reports 32, 12 (March 23, 1917): 426-429.

Alberto Wilson III

Alberto Wilson III is a first-year History Ph.D. student at the University of Houston. His scholarly interests are in the U.S.-Mexico border region, specifically state surveillance and information gathering, as well as global borders, migrations, and diasporas.

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