I am a French researcher in political science and international relations and a photographer. I have been traveling along the U.S.-Mexico border for the past 10 years, first driving along the 1,200 miles from Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas, then paying short trips to key portions of it.
I have seen the border fence evolving over the years. Some call it “the barrier,” others “the wall.” But no matter what you call it, it is a system that blocks people from crossing.
I have seen it changing, being constantly reinforced in height and by having several layers. I have seen it being expanded to the degree that it now covers the border almost entirely, except in a few sections where the terrain is so difficult that you can’t build anything on it.
I have documented those changes through my pictures and my book on separation walls published in 2007 and in 2015, with the U.S.-Mexico border being only one case among nine others around the world.
Through that book, I wanted to document the fractures of a globalized world, to meet the people who live by those constructions of fear, steel and concrete, and to see what they have to tell us about them.
The border fence built by the American authorities since the mid-1990s has been erected a few centimeters north of the actual border line, so it entirely belongs to the U.S., and cannot be legally contested. It is a sign of control, and the shape it takes most of the time only confirms that.
You can see through to monitor what is happening on the other side. The novelty of today’s walls (India-Bangladesh, Spanish enclaves in the north of Morocco) is indeed that they are built on recognized borders — the old ones were built on cease-fire lines (Western Sahara, Cyprus, Kashmir, Korea, Northern Ireland) or contested borders (Palestine) — in response to the new challenges and fears related to globalization. Those include issues like terrorism, poverty, organized crime and migration movements.
Walls are built partly because they give the impression that a nation can recover control over its territory. In a fast-moving world where traditional values and milestones are questioned, walls can seem to provide an easy and tangible answer to people’s fears. They become the dividing line between “them” and “us,” between the good and the evil, the rich and the poor, the risky and the safe worlds.
But the people who live by those walls know this is not really the case. And most of the people I met during my trips to the U.S.-Mexico border told me they don’t like the wall.
They don’t like the message its construction sent to their neighbors they feel close to. They think it is the result of decisions made very far away from the border, without consulting them or even understanding the way they live.
And they know that fundamentally walls don’t really work. They don’t stop people from crossing irregularly.
And they don’t address the real issue: All this money is spent on security — on a fence that can be climbed with a ladder — and so little on developing the countries from where the migrants are coming (Central American nations, for example).
Those who are desperate to cross will always find ways of getting around the wall, even if it’s more dangerous. Wrong answers to real challenges — such as walls, by becoming a pole of attraction — only deepen the misunderstandings.
On the contrary, new ways of thinking that foster mutually beneficial growth and well-being should be encouraged. Nobody gains anything by hiding behind a wall.
Alexandra Novosseloff is a French author and scholar with expertise in the field of international organizations and U.N. peacekeeping. She has also written extensively about border walls as well as on crisis and post-conflict situations.