Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami
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"Borders" Summary and Analysis

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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. 

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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 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...

(The entire section contains 1385 words.)

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