BOULDER, Colorado -- As Itchy continues to formulate his thoughts on American immigration policy, I thought I would do a brief intervention about some current research on borders and migration and offer up some illustrative maps.
There are two basic schools of thought on borders. The traditional view is that the current international borders are the static, physical outcomes of international relations, and they are largely unchanging. Alternatively, the popular belief today is that we are entering a "borderless" world where distinctions of national territory and sovereignty are becoming less and less important. Neither of these are correct. Borders are, as George Simmel said, "not a spatial fact with sociological effects, but a sociological fact which takes a spatial form" - that is, they are constructions, the manifestation of a set of social processes. But just because they are constructed does not mean they are not meaningful, or that they do not have impacts on people's daily lives.
As for the second line of thinking, innovations like the Internet may have broken down some walls between people across the globe, but even access to information can be controlled and restricted by states. For every wall that has come down in the European Union, for example, another hard border has been erected, whether that be in the form of a Chinese firewall or a moveable fence in the California desert. A vast new network of migration management is growing, and it permeates far beyond the border regions. As America's recent experience with immigration has shown, the free trade impulse often loses out to fear-mongering arguments about national security when it comes to border policy, so there is no clear trajectory towards freer and more open borders [for more on this see Newman, David (2006) "The lines that continue to separate us: borders in our 'borderless' world," Progress in Human Geography 30(2): 143-161.]
One of my favorite tools for teaching students about borders is "Hypothetica," a fictitious nation that is stricken with nearly every type of border conflict known to man. From trans-border oil fields to meandering rivers to irridentist nationalism, Hypothetica is besieged from all sides. Here we can see why borders pose so many problems.
But that is only the beginning of the messiness. Many of these are static physical features, but borders only gain meaning when people or things move across them, so integrating a discussion of migration into the study of borders is essential. While we can develop some typologies of borders and migration, there can never be any sort of unified theory of borders. Ultimately, this map merely argues that it is hard to draw straight lines for borders without really considering that these characteristics can overlap and shift over time, creating a much more complicated picture. Michele Acuto in her article "Edges of the Conflict: A Three-Fold Conceptualization of National Borders" offers her own typology of migration, classifying national borders as either walls that restrict mobility, ideal lines that demarcate intangible - but not physical - barriers between communities, and border regions with varying degrees of extent. What we need to do is re-scale the border and not think of it merely as a line.
Borders have traditionally been conceived as divisions between states, but we should think about their meaning and impacts on different scales as well. As Hypothetica illustrates, international borders can also divide sub-national communities, and they are often managed, patrolled, and interpreted by people and authorities other than the national government. If we take a closer look at most borders, they are not bright lines or solid walls, but a series of gaps and zones where access and enforcement are highly variable, as this map of Brownsville, Texas illustrates. This does not mean that we should strive for this ideal type of a continuous wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean - that is neither possible nor desirable.
This also means we need to rethink how borders are drawn on a map. They are traditionally thought of as linear features - the proverbial line in the sand separating two entities. In reality, few borders conform to this two-dimensional notion. The line is often broken, demarcated in some spaces and not in others. Borders can also be point features, as access across many borders is often restricted to particular nodes. Or they can be areal features as well - there are interstitial spaces where neither side can claim absolute sovereignty, or there may be a no-man's-land between the hard borders the two sides enforce. There are also border zones, areas near the border where different territorialities and legal regimes may operate. Even approaching the border may be restricted, or the border zones may have more liberalized trade and customs regimes. Even the popular conceptions of a "borderland" or "frontier" evokes different meanings and representations - the landscape, the reach of state authority, and the identities of the people living there can change as one moves closer to or farther away from a border.
We will never be able to tackle any of the challenges that immigration presents until we stop trying to achieve that perfect, impermeable border and recognize that borders are messy. They are not lines in the sand, but a series of processes of movement and management and representation that are all tied to much larger questions of citizenship and mobility. The permeability of a border depends on who is crossing it, or what, and where and why. We can never wall off America, nor would we ever want to.
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