The American Wall

An excerpt from a new book by Maurice Sherif.

This collection of photographs describes the border wall as it slices across the landscape severing lives. It is a story about American destiny gone awry.

Since 2007 I have stalked the wall that will eventually run from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. This barrier has hidden in the shadow of saber rattling. What does not appear at first view is the haunting emptiness of a place that was once filled with life. The wall exposes a political act with global ramifications about the U.S. and its neighbors. The wall repels human activity. The landscape is made more barren by the presence of the wall and the absence of native flora, fauna that were previously so much a part of the region’s rich bio-diversity. The photographs make us aware of the new lifeless atmosphere at the border. It is a record of the visible and invisible. Now the wall stands in segments, alone.

Meanwhile the reality of this wall remains. For those south of the border, lives of quiet desperation will persist as will the impulse to chance death in the desert for the opportunity to find a new life on the other side. To the north some will entertain the illusion of security and separation from those feared as outsiders or enemies, the “others” who have no rights, who have been repelled and denied not only access, but also their humanity.

In 2006, the U.S. government began to build a towering wall along hundreds of miles of border between the United States and Mexico. While border checkpoints have always existed, most of the U.S.—Mexico border has traditionally been wide open. The U.S. southern border is more than 1,952 miles long (3,141 kilometers) and includes mountains and deserts. But the expense of building such a vast wall no longer matters to a country whose values have become skewed.

The U.S. government has spent $2.4 billion since 2006 on a still-unfinished project to erect more than 613 miles (that’s $4 million dollars a mile). To maintain the wall, the government will need to spend $6.5 billion over the next 20 years.

My motivation in documenting this barren and lifeless subject is to try to discover how the United States, which sees itself as the champion of law, rights, and democracy, came to engage in such an egregious violation of human rights. As the images in this book reveal, the border wall is a physical symbol as well as a legal example of a trend in the United States toward exceptionalism and exclusion. This trend began to be formalized during the Clinton administration, particularly through the passage of anti-immigration legislation, and accelerated under President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks.

Comparisons with the Berlin Wall, which was 96 miles long (155 kilometers), are inevitable. The American wall, still under construction, is expected to reach at least 1,952 miles in length. The average height of the Berlin Wall was 11.8 feet (3.6 meters), compared with the maximum current height of America’s wall at 25 feet (8 meters). The political comparisons are explored in the essays that accompany the photographs.

The American wall’s planning and design have failed to consider the long-term environmental, social, and economic costs of altering the border with a physical barrier. This wall has also failed its stated purpose, which is to increase the safety and enhance the security of the people and place it is purported to protect. It is the world’s responsibility to end the construction of the American wall. This wall will destroy communities. The wall is devastating every aspect of both American and Mexican life—already dozens of communities have experienced the loss of land, water, and resources that used to provide their sustenance; it has also destroyed community and personal property in South Texas. Towns near the wall have become isolated ghettos. For example, in Naco and Douglas, Arizona, and Yacumba, California, movement across the border used to flow. With the wall in place, movement across the border is limited, thus severing travel for work, health, education, and visits to friends and family.

The notion of “access” gates where the Department of Homeland Security ( DHS) will “permit” farmers to travel to their land demonstrates the wall’s institutionalization and lack of planning, and will consolidate absolute control over every aspect of life at the border by restricting all movement. In doing so, the DSH violates a wide range of international laws. A major violation of the American wall is the unilateral demarcation of a new border in South Texas that in essence annexes occupied land (United Nations Charter, art. 2.4). Furthermore, building the wall has amounted to other violations of the IV Geneva Convention ( IV GC), including the destruction of land and/or property (art. 53) and collective punishment (art. 33). The wall also breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ( ICCPR, 1966) and the International Covenant on Economical, Social and Cultural Rights ( ICESCR, 1966), both of which the U.S. is a signatory. The rights violated include “freedom of movement” ( ICCPR, art. 12), property ( ICCPR, art. 1,), “health” ( ICESCR, art.12 and IV GC, art. 32), “education” ( ICESCR, art.13, and IV GC, art. 50), “work” ( ICESCR, art. 6), and “food” ( ICESCR, art. 11).

Under Article 1 of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1979), the wall constitutes a “Crime against Humanity.” It divides populations on the basis of race and ethnicity, and enforces what is commonly known as “apartheid.”

Six authorities in their fields—Charles Bowden, journalist and author of Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields; Professor Miguel Diaz-Barriga (Swarthmore College) and Dr. Margaret E. Dorsey (Indiana University), anthropologists; Professor Scott Nicol (South Texas College), artist and spokesperson for No Border Wall; Professor Denise Gilman (University of Texas Law School), a specialist in immigration law; and James Tryon, M.D.—explore the experience of the American wall and place the debate in its

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