Column: Anthropologists with a Decade of Research on the U.S.-Mexico Border Weigh in on Trump's Border Wall

January 14, 2021


Anthropology professors Miguel Diaz-Barriga and Margaret Dorsey authored this piece.

For many, Trump’s visit to Alamo, Texas to inaugurate part of the newly extended border wall this week was seen as a distraction from impeachment. 

For Trump’s followers, as seen at their rallies, the border wall is a central symbol of their commitment to maintaining the nation’s culture of whiteness and to halt demographic change “before it is too late.”  

As anthropologists who have studied the impact of the border wall on the communities it slices through, we view it as a signal to Trump’s supporters to redouble their efforts to disrupt the transition of power. A message that they stand on the side of law and order. 

Alamo, Texas is, of course, not the site of the battle of the Alamo (a mission in San Antonio), but a small border town with a population of under 20,000. The Battle of the Alamo in 1836, resulted in the deaths of 200 Texans fighting for independence from Mexico and is now honored as a site of bravery, though many see the Alamo as a monument to white supremacy. Like the defenders of the historic Alamo, Trump supporters are willing to put themselves in harm’s way, to death even.  

Yet, the town of Alamo, Texas is not about death—it is about life. Few in the U.S., except perhaps birdwatchers and anti-border wall activists, have heard of the town of Alamo, which like many border towns has a significant Latino population (85%) and vibrant Mexican-American culture.

Alamo is also the home of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge which attracts bird watchers from throughout the world to observe, among other species, the Great Kiskadee, Plain Chachalaca, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Green Jay.  Many bird species migrate through the Refuge, which is on the banks of the Rio Grande. Border patrol also observes at the Refuge.  Agents on bikes and in SUVs travel through the Refuge as part of their mission to prevent migration and trafficking. 

For border wall proponents the Santa Ana Refuge is another gap in the border wall—a hole that needs to be filled and a zone that requires militarization. Border Patrol has referred to the Refuge as an area of brush that needs to be cleared. Throughout Alamo, the border wall cuts across private property and a wildlife corridor. Because of the winding nature of the Rio Grande, the Department of Homeland Security has constructed the border wall up to two miles north of the river, which serves as the international boundary. Border wall construction has already isolated land owned by the Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Old Hidalgo Pump House—World Birding Center and the Audubon Sabal Palm Sanctuary south of the wall. 

Border wall construction now threatens not only the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge but also Bentsen State Park and the grounds of the National Butterfly Center. It also destroyed the dream of establishing a wildlife corridor along the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas.    

The Department of Homeland Security was granted the power by Congress to waive all laws for border wall construction. In order to build it quickly, the department has waived over 30 laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. This means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to challenge border wall construction in court. The town of Alamo never asked for a border wall, and citizens have lost their rights in the face of its construction.  Their perspective has never been considered, just as officials there this week were never informed of Trump’s visit last week. 

For Trump, the border wall is not about the diminishing of rights, the destruction of habitat, the taking of private property, and the militarization of the region. Instead, the wall is a marker of national strength, the power to exclude, and now a site for a call for his followers to mobilize.  The wall is yet another representation of our deep divisions.  On the one side, the wall is an example of lawless law and cruelty towards border residents, migrants, and wildlife.  On the other, the wall saves our nation from brown hordes and serves as a monument to law and order that calls us to violence. 

Looking ahead to this next presidency, we should support Biden’s agenda to address the root causes of migration from Central America and to provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States.

Additionally, we must also reverse the legislation that allows DHS to construct the border wall by waiving laws.

As we hopefully turn back to citizenship based on rights and duties, the U.S-Mexico border wall should fall and we should embrace Alamo, Texas and its sister border communities, for all of the life and vibrancy found there.