The Big Picture: Building the Wall

This is the 15th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. RSVP for The Big Picture event at NYU on November 7, 2017.
Since November 2016, I’ve unfriended one family member on Facebook, and have been tempted to unfriend others. I blocked a cousin who lives in Texas and posted about Mexicans taking American jobs. It ...

Since November 2016, I’ve unfriended one family member on Facebook, and have been tempted to unfriend others. I blocked a cousin who lives in Texas and posted about Mexicans taking American jobs. It wasn’t anything beyond the pale; no matter how much research complicates this idea, it’s one of the most common assertions of the anti-immigration crowd. But I’d had enough. I’m a mixed-race Latino: part Mexican, Filipino, Panamanian, and Colombian (on my dad’s side), and part English, Scottish, and Irish (on my mom’s side). The cousin in question is my mom’s brother’s son; it’s some of her kin that have gotten under my skin.

Via shared memes, members of this side of the family oppose the removal of Confederate statues, abhor NFL players protesting in solidarity with the quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and scorn debates about reparations for slavery, since “No white person alive today ever owned a slave,” and “No black person alive today was ever a slave.” One meme proclaimed, “White Irish slaves were treated worse than any other race in the US.” Then asked: “When was the last time you heard an Irishman bitching how the world owes them a living?” And answered: “You Won’t … The Irish are not pussies looking for free shit.” Through false equivalence, they articulated the white grievance and anti-welfare discourses that characterize much of the right today. Several relatives “liked” these posts.

These are my cousins. They took me fishing, played baseball with me, and introduced me to Hulk Hogan and monster truck rallies. I’ve opened Christmas presents with them. They used to call me “green bean,” I assume without malice, because I’m part “gringo” and part “beaner.” Now we see one another infrequently. I keep up with them mainly on social media, or I ask my mom about them sometimes.

The separations between us are hardening, and I’m uncertain that we’ll come together again. As a scholar of the border between the United States and Mexico, and, more generally, of borders around the world, I often think about their paradoxical nature, how borders both divide and unite. I’ve thought about them not as peripheries, but as grounds zero for the broad articulation of national and international politics, as refracting lenses that both crystallize and distort facts on the ground as word of them ripples outward from their epicenter. This is the space I’ve inhabited with my cousins, and it’s the ground we all walk on now. It’s divided, fractured, shaky, fragmented, and, nevertheless, deeply connected terrain. It’s unclear which of these images will best describe our condition—my family’s, our nation’s—in the coming years.

The distant lands of the rural Midwest and South that tipped the scales in Trump’s favor need to become more, not less, like communities in the US-Mexico borderlands.

My cousins are the same people today that they were when Barack Obama was President, but I can no longer tolerate them now that Trump occupies the White House. What had changed? Interestingly, their posts became more political after the election. The morning after Trump’s electoral win, on November 9th, a cousin who hadn’t posted anything overtly political in all of 2016 wrote, “What a way to wake up! I can’t vote”—presumably because of her prior legal troubles—“but Wow!” Later that day, she continued, “It’s funny how bad I want to unfriend people on facebook because they won’t stop whining about Trump’s win.” Before then, her posts, and those by other cousins, contained some homophobia (Dallas Cowboys fans were “gay”), but mostly focused on football, veterans, heartbreak, cars, kids, work. Did their political evolution lend credence to the somewhat contested idea that Trump had energized white voters who went to the polls irregularly, or not at all? I don’t know. I do know, however, that, even if Trump’s victory somehow empowered them to speak their minds freely, they had long held the ideas they now posted on Facebook. Remember, I grew up with them.

I also know that when Obama was President I believed that their views were fringe. Overall, I was convinced, our country was on a progressive track and, as we moved forward, their voices would become ever more faint. Instead, their voices have grown louder, emboldened by the nation’s 45th president.

Since the election, it has been hard to remember that, demographically and politically, for better and worse, the United States is by and large the same country today as it was a year ago; that Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes than Trump, and that Trump won the electoral votes of key battleground states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—by a grand total of around 80,000 to 100,000 votes. A growing resentment toward demographic change, mistrust of academic expertise, a real sense of economic decline, and bankers pursuing their self-interests above all else: these have been with us for a long time. Yet in other ways—rapid deregulation, the erosion of norms—everything has changed.

And the fact that everything has changed has caused me to feel differently about the relatives with whom I disagree. It is always frustrating and painful when we don’t see eye-to-eye; but in the past I thought that, over time, I would be able to persuade them, because I have facts on my side and because they’re family. Mostly we watched sports together because it was one of the few things we shared in common. But when we did argue about politics, I felt like they argued by asserting their feelings and I argued by presenting them with facts. I came away thinking my facts had meant something to them. Now I’m not so sure.


No Peace for Refugees

By Emma Shaw Crane

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the Declaration of Independence, because I’ve been reading Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, as part of the One Book One Northwestern program. We read the book and come together as a community to discuss its themes; in this case, the idea that individual liberties depend on acknowledging the fundamental equality of all human beings. We’re all equal as political actors, individuals who are intrinsically able to determine for ourselves the form of government most likely to lead to our happiness and security.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence argued that they didn’t take lightly their decision to separate from Great Britain. They made every effort to reconcile with their “British brethren,” because it was human nature to “suffer, while evils are sufferable,” rather than “right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” But after a “long train of abuses,” it was their “right” and “duty” to “throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” For me, these lines shed light on the dilemma with my family, and the dilemma we face as a country: to come together despite our differences, drift apart, or perhaps break up altogether.

Allen believes we should come together. Her book was published in 2014, in Obama’s America, an eight-year period in many ways defined by an optimistic faith that our similarities are greater than our differences. If freedom and equality are the most important ideas in the Declaration, Allen argues that we have elevated freedom above equality. She wants to reverse the tide by convincing all of us, especially those who would disagree, that freedom is impossible without viewing one another as equals.

Through conversation, we can find common ground—my cousins and I, and all Americans—much like the authors of the Declaration of Independence, who, despite their different religious, political, and occupational (but shared racial) backgrounds, forged their document by working together around the clock in Philadelphia, and by corresponding constantly with constituents in their home colonies. Allen argues that the Declaration of Independence belongs to all of us. It’s our “patrimony,” Our Declaration.

I liked Our Declaration a lot. But in Allen’s desire to have us come together as equals, I think she downplays the eventual rupture between colonists and their British brethren: after attempting to reconcile, they opted for Revolution. I spent two weeks discussing Allen’s book with incoming first-year students, who took a summer course with me to help them transition from high school to college. One noted that nobody like her helped write the Declaration, and that the Constitution, written a decade later, would have recognized her only as three-fifths of a person. Many didn’t think that more conversation will accomplish much, since not everyone is viewed as an equal participant in the conversation. It is not self-evident to them that their truths are heard equally, or that their adversaries are, or would be, good listeners.

At the end of the day, while I see where these students are coming from, I want to side with Allen because I believe that, if we’re to remain connected somehow, working through even these challenging ideas requires more talk, not less. But I confess, the past couple of years have shaken my faith in this idea.

Undocumented immigrants pay more taxes, without receiving benefits, than they take. Border cities are some of the safest in their states, not the dangerous places they are made to seem.

As a scholar of Latinx and US-Mexico borderlands history, I’m inured to statements about Mexican immigrants like, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” I instinctively historicize calls for the construction of an “impenetrable,” “BIG & BEAUTIFUL” border wall, supposedly made necessary because of the “illegals” who “pour through our borders,” members of ISIS who “have been caught crossing the Mexico border,” and the “very bad MS 13 gang members” crossing from Mexico. I’ve thought that, if I could demonstrate how such statements in the past led to violence and discrimination against Mexicans, it would make us less likely to be persuaded by their logic. We would become more likely to unify in resistance against those who would speak them.

Unity was key. Community and togetherness has been the subtext of much of my writing about Latinxs, Latin American migration, and the border. Like many Latinx historians, I’ve argued that the future of our country depends on recognizing all Latinxs as Americans. They’ve served in the military, benefitted the economy, and have lived on the land for centuries. In an opinion piece written days after the 2012 election, in which Latinx voters helped deliver Obama’s victory, I argued that politicians, and the parties they represent, ignored Latinx communities at their own peril.

In my book Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland, I drew attention to the many points of contact between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. I wrote about celebrations of regional identity, Arizona’s economic dependence on Mexican shoppers, and student exchanges between US and Mexican universities, so as to undercut the idea that the border represents a sharp division between two countries, and the incorrect understanding that movement between the United States and Mexico has been exclusively about undocumented labor migration and drug trafficking.

Undocumented immigrants have paid more taxes, without receiving their benefits, than they’ve drained from public coffers. Border cities are some of the safest in their states, not the dangerous places they are made to seem. By living the truth that Mexico and the United States are deeply and inextricably intertwined in love, politics, and economics, the residents of border communities have much to teach Americans elsewhere about co-existing with others. The distant lands of the rural Midwest and South that tipped the scales in Trump’s favor need to become more, not less, like communities in the US-Mexico borderlands.

If I said these things in different ways, to different people, in different formats, then, I believed, our national conversation about immigration and the border might change, however slowly. Immigrants would be seen as vital and regenerative forces in American life, and the border would be seen more as a point of connection than division. This is the leap of faith that many writers and teachers take every time we put pen to paper, or step into a classroom.


Immigration’s Daughters

By Laura Fisher

At least for now, though, I’m not convinced about the efficacy of my optimistic belief in community, faith in dialog, or hopeful empathy. Are they the right approaches for moving politics in a more progressive direction? The pessimistic voices of others—marchers in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the “Proud Boys” who consider white Christian males to be the most marginalized population in America, and a President who sows division when he talks about the great danger he faces when he visits the border (“I may never see you again”)—seem to be more persuasive.

Still, a kind of optimism—maybe even the “infectious and relentless optimism” that Obama spoke about the day after Trump’s grim speech before the UN General Assembly—is all I know, and sometimes I think it’s all we have. I continue to place my hope in the country’s changing demographics, the potential of education, and the idea that justice will follow community organization around shared interests. The students I teach give me reason to be optimistic about these things.

About a month ago, my mom called me to say my cousin—the one I’d unfriended—was looking for me. He said I’d unfriended him because he’s conservative, but his daughter wants to go to college and, he said, I’m the only person he trusts to talk to her about applying and deciding where to go. I told my mom that I’d think about whether I wanted to reconnect with him or not. I haven’t decided, but I probably will. Apparently my cousin thinks I have valuable advice to impart, so I’ll likely try to work things out with him.

That’s what humans do, according to the authors of the Declaration of Independence; it’s in our nature to “suffer, while evils are sufferable,” to try and mend relations and seek connection. It’s what Danielle Allen thinks we should do—Americans, that is, not necessarily my cousin and I—and it’s what I still try to do in my scholarship on Latinxs and the border. icon

Featured image: The border wall, with the United States on the left (near San Diego) and Mexico on the right (in Tijuana), 2007. Photograph courtesy of National Guard Bureau / US Army