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'They are majestic even as they instill horror': What's the role of a border wall?

Although border walls can often be thought of symbolizing exclusion, they can be transformed to facilitate inclusion and mobility of people, said speaker Miriam Ticktin at an event Monday. 

Ticktin, associate professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research, spoke on campus about reimagining border technologies to convey new political messages and catalyze social changes. Her talk, entitled "Re-Imagining Borders Technologies: Designing New Political Forms," was sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics. 

The goal of Ticktin's project is to move beyond the dichotomy and encourage people to conceive of borders in different terms, such as permeable, partial, temporary and multi-layered, she explained. For example, a border can take the form of a flyway—similar to a flight path for birds—where access shifts hour-by-hour depending on membership, she added. 

“In a world where borders and the movement of people constitute some of the most pressing political issues of our time, we require empirical work, theory and imaginative practice to get beyond the entrenched ideas that have led to right and populist ideas all over the world,” Ticktin said. 

In light of President Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, and tension surrounding the arrival of a caravan of Central American migrants at the U.S. border, there has been an ongoing debate on the roles of border walls—whether they should be open or closed. 

“More specifically, the dichotomy builds on a long-standing debate about whether a liberal, democratic nation-state has a moral right to control or restrict immigration,” Ticktin added. 

To achieve her goal of helping people reimagine borders, Ticktin is currently collaborating with a group of “speculative designers,” who will tackle planning obstacles to build new forms of borders and use their imagination to develop a new type of political community for people from different nations. 

Although a new type of border may seem unrealistic, it is not completely detached from reality, Ticktin said. 

Ticktin refers to other kinds of movement across borders as inspiration, such as the mobility of commodity and capital and the migration of animals. She added people could also come up with new ideas of designing borders by studying cities, which are able to regulate flow of people but don’t have border walls in the same way as nations.

Trump’s proposed border wall is an imagination of the future and an attempt to bring it into reality, Ticktin said. On the flip side, it could be reimagined as a channel to enhance interaction and communication.

“Trump’s wall is performance that must be countered with an even better, more compelling set of imaginative acts,” Ticktin said. “The point is to deconstruct what you have taken for granted…and challenge others’ vision of the real.”

Ticktin said that establishing sanctuaries could be a starting point for reimagining the functioning of the border because sanctuaries are both a political legal technology and a form of architecture that challenges nation-state borders by creating spaces inside nation-states. 

The sanctuary movement in the United States originally began in the 1980s to help undocumented refugees cross the border, providing life subsistence and shelter in churches. 

Since Trump’s election in 2016, the sanctuary movement has become a powerful, multifaceted and increasingly transnational movement, Ticktin said. There are sanctuary states and cities across the nation to provide protection to immigrants, as well as spaces such as churches, art galleries and campuses that carry out similar roles. 

“In this sense, sanctuary is a broad and politically evolving concept,” Ticktin said. “Many of us has used it as a wide intersectional umbrella under which coalition of groups can gather and protect each other.”

Ticktin added that although sanctuaries offer protection, they can also be turned into a form of containment or even imprisonment. Such is the case of some refugee camps, where refugees are protected from external conflicts but engender new forms of violence and suffering inside. 

“People sheltered in the sanctuaries cannot go home, cannot see their friends and their children, cannot go to school,” she explained. “It doesn’t necessarily feel like freedom.”

Sanctuaries could create a sense of distance between people outside from the ones sheltered, where the latter feel abandoned, she added. They may also trigger a sense of compassion from the privileged outside toward the underserved inside, which is not based on equality and therefore is unable to generalize to a broader community. 

Reimagining a new form of the border wall is a political task that aims to facilitate the encounter of ideas and beings and ultimately induce a transformation of the political landscape, Ticktin said. 

“[Border walls] attract even as they repel; they are majestic even as they instill horror,” she said. “They perform and ask to be challenged.”


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