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impacts of the War on Terror on the Policing of US Borders

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“Some nations need to be more vigilant against terrorism at their borders if they want their relationship with the U.S. to remain the same” (Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, September 20th 2001). With reference to this statement, critically examine the impacts of the war on terror on the policing of the borders of the United States of America


The 9/11 attacks and subsequent feelings they produced bear many similarities to the Pearl Harbour attacks of 1941 with respect to national identity and patriotism. With both events, the matter of immigration became a prominent issue, especially when considering the concern in America relating to the ‘enemy within’ (Schildkraut, 2002). These concerns manifested themselves in post 9/11 discussions on how best to police the borders of the US. Statements such as, ‘our enemies are hiding in open and available information,’ (Accenture, cited in Kestelyn, 2002: 8) led to calls for greater levels of surveillance, profiling and security, all of which have substantially increased post 9/11. The result has been the rapid expansion of the homeland security market both on American soil and overseas (Amoore, 2006).

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Rana and Rosas (2006:2) highlight, ‘the mobilisation of the amorphous category of terror, construction of enemy combatants and the collapsing of terrorists with immigrants,’ in creating a renewed fear around borders and illegal immigrants. The scope of the war on terror was expanded in America, where once the threat was considered to be those of Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim descent, it now spread to include migrants crossing the borders of Canada and Mexico into the US. While Canada has received criticisms from US government officials relating to their border control policies, the focus of this paper will be on the US-Mexico border and in particular the border wall. The post 9/11 expansion of security manifested itself in large parts around the US-Mexico border, culminating in the signing of the Secure Fence Act in 2006 by then President George W. Bush thus allowing for 700 miles of physical barriers to be built along the border.

This essay will take the title statement from Colin Powell and discuss how America has become more vigilant post 9/11 and observe the impacts. In addition, while reviewing the range of new measures enacted at the US-Mexico border, this paper will centre on displaying how these measures have been justified by those putting them in place. During these discussions the terms post 9/11 and war on terror shall be used interchangeably as both signify the period of time after the terrorist attacks.

History of the Border

It is important to note that while border control has long been a primary function of the state, it has been substantially heightened in the wake of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror (Andreas, 2003). This has been exemplified by The US VISIT programme, run by consulting company Accenture who have created a ‘virtual border.’ This system allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to view, regulate and manage the lives of potential visitors (Amoore, 2006), thus preventing any potential threats from coming into contact with US soil (Accenture, 2004). This practice of surveillance and governing multiple aspects of people’s daily lives is a vital component of biometric borders that when all brought together provide ‘a set of unique physical characteristics that can be used to identify you’ (UK Border Agency, 2013).

Given the proposed advantages of surveillance, it comes as no surprise that the US, like most modern countries, moved into an age of biopower in which the state regulates its subjects through, ‘an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations’ (Foucault, 1976:140). Biopower has somewhat signalled the delocalisation of the border in that border functions have been separated from the physical border itself (Bico, 2002; Salter, 2004). However, the US-Mexico border post 9/11 illustrates a clear display of sovereign power with increased networks of disciplinary and military institutions at the actual border acting outside and above the normal law (Nail, 2013). The idea of being above the law and exhibiting high profile displays of force at the border is addressed in the subsequent section discussing the state of exception with consideration to the unique nature of the US-Mexico border.

The State of Exception

The events of 9/11 led to the US government declaring a state of emergency, a period in which policing powers are expanded. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees this as enabling the US government to create a state of exception, a legal measure that precludes normative laws (Agamben, 2004). This approach allows for constituents to be declared as homo sacer, the act of taking away basic civil and human rights from the individual. Accenture’s virtual border and the enhanced powers of the DHS illustrate Agamben’s view in that by providing biometric information required for the US-VISIT you are being stripped to a state of bare life. Agamben’s work around homo sacer, the idea he refers to as bare life (1998, 2000, 2005), has led to a number of scholars applying his work to post 9/11 events such as the new security methods applied at the US borders and the shameful actions documented Guantanamo Bay (Butler, 2004, Zizek, 2002, 2004).

Undoubtedly, the creation of a state of exception increased calls for tougher border security and led to the implementation of a new 700 mile US-Mexico border wall and a rise in the number Border Patrol agents from 11,156 in 2005 to 20,119 in 2011 (Correa, 2013). While it has been resisted by many of those living along its path (Haddal et al, 2009), the DHS was able to use their considerable power to move, with force if necessary, those who opposed it. Correa (2013) collected data from residents in Cameron County, Texas, who had lost parts of their land or been forced to move with the implementation of the barrier. Resident Debra Langley described her mixed feelings in being forced to lose a substantial part of her farm due to the new border wall. While not wanting to move, Debra classified herself as a patriot and referred back to the days after 9/11 where George W. Bush said: ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ (Bush, 2001). This sentiment has allowed for the DHS to implement many of their expansive border measures such as drones, watchtowers and sensors with limited opposition as people are unwilling to question immigration and border policies for fear of coming across as unpatriotic.

Considering the creation of a state of exception and limited opposition to tougher border policing it comes as little surprise that the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environment Policy among other environmental laws were waived in favour of constructing the 700 mile fence (Bartholemew, 2008; Correa, 2013). DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff came under a number of criticisms for his role in the implementation of the border wall with The New York Times (2008) saying: ‘To the long list of things the Bush administration is willing to trash in its rush to appease immigration hard-liners, you can now add dozens of important environmental laws and hundreds of thousands of acres of fragile habitat on the southern border.’ The environment has been so adversely affected by the physical barrier of the border wall yet it took until 2009 for the US government to act in trying to asses and restore the damage that has been caused. In criminalising the entire border area, nature was seen simply as part of the border and thus included in the criminalisation process (Nial, 2013). Even with laws being in place and the expected criticisms arriving from pro environmental sections of society, the government still had enough support to move forward with their projects. Collier (Collier, in Correa, 2013) sees the depiction of Mexican immigrants as a threat to the nation by the state and DHS as providing one of the main justifications for the barrier. Equally important is the role of politicians jumping on the immigration bandwagon in their attempts to garner votes during election periods post 9/11 (Correa, 2013); both notions shall be discussed in the remainder of this essay.


US politicians quickly recognised the importance of supporting enhanced security in combatting the war on terror. The focus of attention swiftly turned to the border wall post 9/11 with its effectiveness coming under increased scrutiny. With George W Bush signing the 2006 Secure Fence Act, the impetus was placed on President Obama to follow suit; in 2012 Obama spent $11.7 billion on the wall to secure a number of areas considered at risk (Dwoskin, 2013). The official reason provided by the DHS for building the US Mexico border wall at a cost of $49 billion (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2009) was to stop unwanted migration. However, records since its construction display no conclusive reduction in illegal migration, while in contrast, migrant deaths, incarceration and excessive costs have rapidly increased. Nail (2013:113) describes the barrier as ‘a wall that was built to stop illegal migration, and has objectively failed to do so, yet continues to receive funding and political support regardless.’ While the potential backlash of scaling back the wall discourages many politicians from criticising it, providing support for greater security measures rarely sees a backlash from politicians or the general public. A method of justification discussed previously was depicting Mexican immigrants the greatest threat to America, we shall now discuss how this has developed post 9/11.


The rhetoric of some politicians has undeniably resulted in some US citizens’ xenophobic fears of Muslims shifting towards the US-Mexico border, as it is presented as the new biggest terrorist threat to America (Correa, 2013). The Californian Congress representative Duncan Hunter and Senator John Cornyn provide two examples of high profile politicians calling for greater surveillance and military presence at the border citing terrorism as their rationale (Benett, 2005; Eaton, 2010). This portrayal of the US-Mexico border as a hub of international terrorism allows for the continued justification of militarising border regions in order to ‘protect’ America (Inda, 2006). Although illegal immigrants have been classified as ‘new’ security threats (Andreas, 2003), it is incorrect to believe that viewing them as national security concerns is a new phenomenon (Adamson, 2006). Long before 9/11, migration had been a focus of concern for America going back to the Cold War when borders began to be far more closely scrutinised. This scrutiny rose significantly post 9/11 with a prominent reason being that securing and maintaining your border are, ‘arguably necessary preconditions for the maintenance of state security in other areas’ (Adamson, 2006:176).

While it was thought that the end of the Cold War would signal a reduction in militarised borders (Mearsheimer, 1990), this has not been the case with the US Mexico border post 9/11 where in order to secure and maintain the border, we have seen a spike in amount of military apparatus used as a method of policing. Alongside this, there has been the merging of predominantly geopolitical intelligence work and domestic law enforcement work with the Pentagon taking a far more active role in matters of border enforcement (Andreas, 2003). This has resulted in surveillance of immigrants within the US increasing, especially since discourse on the ‘enemy within’ has risen. Interior policing has also expanded rapidly with 359,000 internal removals made in 2008, up from 180,000 in 2001 (Coleman, 2007). While this would appear to signal more is being done, we can look the role of private companies in operating the US Mexico border and see this simply as the circulation of illegal immigrants. Politicians classify the border and especially the border wall as being in place to stop illegal migration yet the US government has hired private companies to secure the border. Boeing Corporation, G4S and Wackenhut are three such companies, all of whom, as private companies aim to generate the greatest amount of profit and thus not necessarily stop all illegal migration which would destroy their market (Nial, 2013). This circulation of illegal migrants enables the companies to maximise their profits and allows politicians to utilise the figures from arrests and illegal migrants entering the country to justify the increased levels of policing on the border (Norrell, 2007).


Looking at the history of policing on the US-Mexico border there have been notable changes since the war on terror began. Correa (2013) notes there has been a level of racial anxiety around the border since the 1920’s (resulting from the simple use/ definition of a border as keeping the enemy out), which has now culminated in the border existing in a ‘permanent state of racial emergency’ (Michaelsen, 2005: 89). The war on terrors’ main impact was the subsequent creation of the quasi- military DHS who facilitated the rapid militarisation of regions around the border, much to the detriment of the region’s nature and human population. Alongside this, it has legitimised groups such as The Minutemen who patrol the border stopping illegal immigrants attempting to cross (Marinucci and Martin, 2005). Considering there are high profile politicians such as John McCain boasting of making the US-Mexico border into ‘the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall,’ (McCain, 2013), it appears there will be no subside in the levels of border policing. For any change to occur, the socio-historical construction of the US Mexico border as a violent and threatening area must subside (Correa, 2013).


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