Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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"Borders" Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385


Lalami describes an incident in which she and a friend were driving in Texas and were halted for a check by Border Patrol agents. It struck her as odd that they were not stopped at an international border but at a spot within the United States on I-10. Internal checkpoints such as this are not unusual, she discovered. Justice Department regulations since the 1950s have established the right for such searches within the country so long as they fall within “border zones” one hundred miles within land and sea perimeters of the United States. 

The author asks herself what the meaning of a border really is. The extended meaning of the word involves the concepts of the Self and the Other. 

Two cities lying on an international border are El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. An eighteen-foot tall fence was erected less than thirty years ago between the two cities. El Paso appears to thrive, while Ciudad Juárez appears to be “mired in drug violence.”

It was only relatively recently that the idea of building a wall along the southern border of the United States came into being, Lalami notes. Much of the initiative for a physical barrier came from the Clinton administration in the 1990s, in an effort called Operation Hold the Line. Successive administrations have furthered the goal of physical separation along the frontier and have scaled up the militarization of the border. Though the barriers were often talked about with euphemistic terminology, Lalami says, when Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, all pretence was stripped away and the object of “keeping out” Mexican people from the United States became explicit.

Lalami notes that since Trump took office, there has been “shifting rhetoric” regarding the wall and its dimensions and physical nature. There have also been legal efforts to build a “virtual” wall, creating an atmosphere of increased hostility towards Mexican migrants and imposing mandatory prison sentences on those who cross the border illegally. The effect is to dichotomize supposedly genuine Americans from everyone else and to imply that the latter are not only alien but also criminal. 

Lalami and her husband spend a vacation night on the California–Baja border and find that it is much easier to cross from the United States into Mexico than to do the reverse, in which case one is subjected to intense questioning and countless checks. This contrasts strikingly with the situation at the US–Canada border, where the crossing in either direction is so easy and smooth that one hardly notices one is in a different country. Yet Canada is one of the main places from which drugs flow into the United States. Lalami suggests that the stated rationale—that traffic from other countries must be controlled because of the drug trade—is a cover for the reality that the Mexican border wall is a “racialized structure.” 

In her childhood, Lalami and her family crossed the border during their holiday into Melilla, a town under Spanish control bordering Morocco. At the time, in 1977, Melilla did not seem much different from towns in Morocco. Now, forty years later, the situation has changed. Melilla is surrounded by a twelve-foot-wide ditch and a huge wall topped with blades. As with the US–Mexico wall, this separation on the North African coast, she says, indicates not simply a national border but a division based on race, ethnicity, and religion. The problem has been exacerbated by the recent histories of Spain and Morocco. Since the death of Franco in 1975, the newly democratic Spain has grown its economy, whereas Morocco has been stuck in poverty...

(This entire section contains 1385 words.)

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during an endless and unfulfilled process of “democratization.” Impoverished Moroccans in increasing numbers migrate illegally to Spain, as do asylum seekers from other parts of Africa. The response from the European Union has been to impose more stringent policies on immigration. And this, in turn, causes those fleeing the impoverished and undemocratic countries to seek increasingly resourceful ways of circumventing the system. Violence has increased due to the tighter controls, because smugglers hire people to carry goods duty-free across the border to Morocco. Those who are hired are often poor women and girls who are arrested and placed in detention camps, where they are subject to violence, including assault and rape. 

Walls, Lalami asserts, used to be looked upon by Americans as the work of tyrants and dictators. In 1972, Nixon described the Great Wall of China in such terms, as did Reagan the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s. Lalami notes that the West is now constructing its own barriers to keep out asylum seekers and people of different ethnicities and religions. Hungary and Turkey have done so in order to keep out Syrian refugees, and walls have been erected in the Palestinian territories. The result of such structures, Lalami believes, is to dehumanize people. The refugees or those on the other side of a wall are often spoken of in demeaning terms by the leaders who have given the orders to build these barriers. For example, in 2015, British prime minister David Cameron referred to the “swarm of people” in the Calais detention camp across the Channel. 

Lalami meditates further on the presence of checkpoints and border patrols within the United States, such as in the town of Marfa, Texas. Though people are legally protected from arbitrary searches by the Fourth Amendment, a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1976 authorized border patrols to use “Mexican ancestry” as a rationale for stopping people in their cars and searching them in border areas. The result is a form of racial profiling. People of Mexican ancestry have been stopped and searched as far from the US–Mexico border as Montana. Additional discriminatory practices exist, such as the denial of passports to Americans merely because they were born in proximity to the Mexican border. 

Building walls, Lalami states, is a way of creating the illusion that we are safe from the problems and complications that exist elsewhere in the world. But the normal process of life is one of migration, and the planet is deeply interconnected. For instance, when Americans observe disasters such as drought and flooding in Africa, it’s conceivable that as a result of climate change, such catastrophic events will eventually occur in the United States. Borders are a “place of cultural contact, hybrid identity, and political complexity,” but when people put up a concrete barrier, they are actually expressing their worst fears, Lalami says. She concludes the chapter by noting that walls have always been “monuments of failure,” because they have resulted in migration routes being controlled by traffickers and have generally caused dehumanization, discrimination, and segregation. 


This chapter is an examination of borders, focusing on how in the modern world, physical barriers have increasingly taken on a significance involving issues of race, ethnicity, religion, and other cultural constructs. The question is posed, first, as to why there are so many border patrol agents in the Southwest United States—not just along the border with Mexico itself but also many miles from it. Even before the Trump administration seemingly made “the wall” a centerpiece of its policies, there were efforts to impede the movement of people from Mexico into the United States. Lalami’s implication is that these efforts are long-standing and endemic but that in recent decades, the intention to keep Mexicans out has become more open and explicit.

In this chapter, Lalami tries to understand why this trend is occurring, to understand why a wall is a “racialized construct.” Why, Lalami asks, is it easy to cross from the United States into Mexico but extremely difficult to cross the other way? Why is it that the border between the United States and Canada is not heavily patrolled and that traveling from either country into the other does not even seem like crossing an international frontier at all? Lalami surmises that the United States wants to keep darker-skinned people out. The same is true regarding the border between Morocco and the Spanish-governed town of Melilla on the North African coast. Lalami’s implication is that if there is a wish to create unbridgeable physical barriers in order to keep others from entering and mixing with one’s own people, it can only be because those others are deemed inferior.


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