Pretty Ugly

Maurice Sherif’s photos of the border wall are undoubtedly beautiful. And that’s precisely the problem.
Pretty Ugly
Buy it from Univerisity of Texas Press
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

The first notable thing about the border wall between the United States and Mexico is that the damned thing exists. Unless you live in the most southwestern reaches of America, you may have assumed, as I did, that the whole thing was merely a proposal, one of those preposterous ideas that are floated in Washington by politicians hotdogging for their constituents, only to be shot down by saner minds. But no, there is a wall, or rather, there are several walls, intermittently covering more than 600 miles of the 1,954-mile-long boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, including most of California’s and Arizona’s borders and much of New Mexico’s. (South Texas residents, a formidably independent bunch, have slowed its progress across our state, though some cities, like Brownsville, have been unable to stop the wall from slicing through their community.)

Almost all of it has been built by the Department of Homeland Security in the past four years, under the aegis of the Real ID Act, which granted the Secretary of the DHS an absolute, monarchical freedom to barricade our borders in whatever manner he chose, unhampered by the established laws of the land, including those covering environmental protection, clean air and water, and historical preservation. Starting at the Pacific Ocean, then—or, more accurately, about 450 yards into the ocean, presumably to deter swimmers, but not really strong swimmers—the wall runs over hill and dale, gouging a path through wildlife preservations, Indian reservations, and many poor neighborhoods (though at least one golf club managed to secure a waiver). In some places it’s little more than reinforced hurricane fencing with barbed wire on top, but in most others it’s an imposing structure built of slabs of concrete or steel that extend as high as 25 feet. It has cost over $2 billion to build thus far, and it’s expected to top out at more than $6 billion, not counting future costs for upkeep. An expensive project, and what’s more, ugly, unnecessary, and ineffective. And so we have The American Wall ( MS Zephyr Publishing, distributed by the University of Texas Press), a forthright attack on the entire project, composed of two volumes, the first presenting nearly one hundred photographs by the French photographer Maurice Sherif, the second containing seven essays about the wall. The whole thing comes in a slipcase and retails for $150.

If you’re like me, you’ll read the essays first, and while you probably won’t find yourself any more cheerful when you’re done, you’ll almost certainly be better informed. They’re prefaced by a monody from the essayist Charles Bowden, a longtime observer of life and death along the border, and a brief statement from Sherif. Then comes a series of dismaying facts, presented without embellishment.

Anthropologists Miguel Díaz-Barriga and Margaret E. Dorsey focus on South Texas, where the wall is seen as an eyesore, an encroachment, and a crude obstacle to communities that have traditionally enjoyed fluid relations with their Mexican neighbors. What’s more, they point out, most of it has been built in urban areas and small towns, forcing illegal immigrants to cross the border in harsh and isolated regions, thereby increasing the number who die along the way. University of Texas law professor Denise Gilman neatly sums up the many ways in which the wall violates American legal precedents and international human rights law. Scott Nicol, an activist with No Border Wall and the Sierra Club, details how it threatens animal species whose existence depends on their ability to roam the lands around the Rio Grande. The last essay is an unfortunately homiletic performance by a doctor named James Tryon, but it’s followed by an exceptionally useful timeline, put together by the researcher Martha Davidson. There you will learn, for example, that barricading the border is utterly irrelevant to about half of all illegal immigrants, who come to the U.S. on legitimate visas and simply stay when they run out, and it’s little more than a speed bump for many of the rest (in four years, the wall has been breached well over three thousand times).

Volume one, which is the impetus for the entire publication, is more of a mixed bag. To be sure, Sherif’s photographs

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