I’ll never forget Giovanni’s blistered feet as an EMT attended to him on the Mexico side of the US-Mexican border in Sasabe, a remote desert town. On the back of one foot, his skin had been rubbed away and the tender, reddish, underlying tissue exposed. One toenail had completely ripped off. Giovanni, who was from a small Guatemalan town near the Salvadorean border, had just spent days walking through the Arizona desert in the heat of July.
When I think of the “border crisis”, I think of Giovanni’s gashed feet. Stories of death and near death, of pain and immense suffering like this, happen every single day. This displacement crisis is not temporary; it is perpetual.
This is something that I’ve witnessed in my own reporting for more than two decades. The border by its very design creates crisis. This design has been developed and fortified over the span of many administrations from both political parties in the United States, and now involves the significant participation of private industry.
The border-industrial complex and its consequences is one of the reasons that I argue in my new book Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders that if people honestly want a humane response to border and immigration issues we have to confront something much bigger than the Trump legacy, and begin to imagine and work towards something new.
Across the line from where I sat looking at Giovanni’s feet was one of the most fortified and surveilled borders on planet Earth. An array of armed border patrol agents, walls, surveillance towers, implanted motion sensors and Predator B drones were deployed specifically to force people like Giovanni (and the group of five people he was with) into desolate, deadly regions. Like many, he walked a full day through a rugged mountain range until his feet became too wounded and his shins started to give out. He also ran out of water.
What happened to Giovanni is part of the design of what the US border patrol calls “prevention through deterrence”. By blockading traditional crossing areas in border cities, a 1994 border patrol strategic memo notes, the desert would put people in “mortal danger”.
At the beginning of this strategy, in 1994 under the Bill Clinton administration, the annual border and immigration budget was $1.5bn, through the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 2020, the combined budget of its superseding agencies, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), exceeded $25bn. That is a 16-fold increase.
Another way to look at the scope of this money juggernaut are the 105,000 contracts, totaling $55bn, that CBP and Ice have given private industry – including Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, G4S, Deloitte and Core Civic, among others – to develop the border and immigration enforcement apparatus. That is worth more than the total cumulative number of border and immigration budgets from 1975 to 2003. That’s 28 years combined amounting to $52bn. The companies can also give campaign contributions to key politicians and lobby during budget debates. And so we have the formula of a perpetual “border crisis”: the bigger the crisis, the more need for border infrastructure, generating more revenue.
One result? Since the 1990s, nearly 8,000 human remains have been found in the US borderlands. The number of actual deaths is almost certainly much higher. Families of migrants continued to search for lost loved ones.
In this sense, Giovanni was lucky. He decided he could go no further and left his group. He was disoriented when he turned around. The high desert landscape of mesquite and grasslands all blended together. Luckily, he found a puddle from a rain storm, which likely saved his life from death of dehydration.
By the time I saw him, Giovanni’s feet were a disaster, but that wasn’t the disaster that brought him to the border. As the EMT applied antibiotic cream so that his discolored feet glistened, he spoke to me at length about the fact that it hadn’t rained in his community for 40 days; the crops wilted, and the harvest never came. He lived in the “dry corridor”, he told me. The term describes a huge swath of territory running from Guatemala to Nicaragua that is getting dryer and dryer as a direct result of global warming. According to an estimate from the World Food Programme, this has left 1.4 million farmers in severe crisis.
In that sense, Giovanni was, like many others coming from Central America, driven by the climate crisis. The back-to-back hurricanes in late 2020, in particular, displaced countless people. Since the United States has produced nearly 700 times more carbon emissions than El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras combined since 1900, you might think it would be ethically obligated to help undo the damage. Instead, as with other large historic greenhouse gas emitters, it is at the global forefront of militarizing its borders.
As the Zapatistas say, Basta Ya. There has to be another way to imagine the world. Yet instead of truly confronting the problems that we face as a globe – such as climate change, endemic inequalities in which 2,000 billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people, and runaway pandemics where the health of people and peoples across borders become intimately interconnected – the solution somehow always becomes more border walls, more surveillance technologies and more suffering. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were 15 border walls worldwide. Now there are 70, two-thirds created since 9/11.
Clearly the time has arrived for new questions to be asked. When geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore discusses the abolition of prisons, she talks about presence. “Abolition is about presence,” Gilmore has said, “not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” Gilmore stresses that abolition today is not just about ending incarceration, but also about “abolishing the conditions under which prisons became solutions to problems”. This approach also applies to borders: how do we shift the conditions under which borders and walls became acceptable solutions to problems? Perhaps the answer lies not in the impossible task of building a humane border, but rather a more humane world in which concepts such as borders and prisons are seen as outmoded, unjust ways of relating to one another.
Maybe the biggest impediment to this is the global border-industrial complex. Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign received three times more campaign contributions from the border industry than did Donald Trump’s. While the president has called for a reversal of Trumpian policies, he is far from challenging a border-industrial complex that leaves people like Giovanni with ravaged feet and near death in the Sonoran Desert. The border is designed to be in a perpetual crisis, but we can stop this by shifting to something new. Abolition is not about destruction, but about restoring who we can be. It’s time to build bridges, not walls.