Border Architecture: Spatial Politics of the U.S.-Mexico Frontier

By: Dylan Galano Morrissey


Chants of “build that wall!” electrified Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign events. The idea of constructing a U.S.-Mexico border wall ignited a political movement, while specific details were lacking. At most, his campaign website described this vision: “an impenetrable physical wall...[using] the best technology, including above-and below-ground sensors, towers, aerial surveillance and manpower to supplement the wall.”1 Though the wall proposed by Trump has been widely cited as impossible to construct, the imagery Trump invokes calls into question the relationship between architecture and politics.

The singular term “wall” fails to capture the multitude of materials, designs, technologies, and security strategies that comprise this enormous infrastructure. Since the border’s success is measured by interceptions of unauthorized crossings, “national security” conceptually dictates its design. 2 Its structures are composed of steel tubes, recycled railroad tracks, wire mesh, barbed wire, or reinforced concrete, and it utilizes surveillance systems from aerostat blimps to motion sensors. 3 Only approximately 700 miles of the its 1,954-mile total length are demarcated with physical infrastructure.4 The U.S. Border Patrol provides basic details of the names and images of the fences they utilize (see Figure 1)

on which Rael adds a high level of specificity on these typologies. 5 U.S. barrier designs directly respond to specific environmental, political, and population conditions, and therefore, produce relationships between typology and regional needs. While having a loose geographic definition, the U.S.-Mexico “borderlands,” which I refer to as the “frontier,” emanates for miles from the geopolitical line and generally denotes “an area of historic, cultural, and, more recently, economic and functional overlap across the two-thousand- mile international political boundary.”6

The following analysis addresses the question: to what extent do the multiple forms and functions of the U.S.-Mexico frontier produce a political architecture? The core of my analysis starts with the spatial theory to consider the relationship between architecture and politics. I then utilize form and function as analytical frameworks to investigate how this spatio-political theory applies to the architectures of the U.S.-Mexico frontier. This section categorizes the border into several forms: the fortified frontier, informal architectures, and frontier geographies.

Taking a spatio-political approach enables a broader and more inclusive understanding of how border architecture is manifested and what it signifies. I argue that these frontier architectures, holding varying degrees of political meaning, are performative, reactive, and innovative. The border’s state-constructed architectures are political primarily because the frontier constructs American territorial sovereignty through exertions of power and control over the people and landscape. Nonetheless, the agency of those whose existence opposes the border’s formal aims, including economic migrants and borderland residents, can be found in the frontier’s many informal architectures. This amounts to a dynamic and deeply political border that begs the question: what are architects and Americans to do about the border?

History of the U.S.-Mexico Border

The wall’s history includes several phases. Ending the Mexican-American War in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo originally defined the two countries’ division, and fences were built soon after. 7 Migration trends in the 20th century have been determined largely by socio- economic factors—from global economic inequality and political instability to consumer demands for cheap goods and services—that outweigh for many the potential costs of crossing a dangerous border.8 Political decisions either increasing and decreasing ease of immigration in the past century have produced several notable waves of immigration into the U.S. The most recent wave, which began in 1986, has coincided with increased border militarization.9 The architectural history of the border therefore comes most notably into play from the early 1990s to the present when the political climate produced an interest in building infrastructure to secure the border. American works programs have grown most substantially since then, with the physical barrier strengthened prominently under Presidents Clinton and Bush. 10

The Global War on Terrorism emerging in the early 2000s frames the United States’ most recent border-related actions. Jones argues that this war—driven by feelings of fear and vulnerability stemming from a shifted representation of the “enemy-other” as omnipresent, uncivilized, ungoverned, and evil—has resulted in both physical and symbolic border security changes on a global scale. Beyond only the U.S., the creation and reinforcement of barriers both defend the state against external threats and psychologically define the “other” in opposition to the state’s ostensibly uniform and orderly “self.” The construction of a barrier on the frontier legitimizes the exclusionary practices of sovereign states by “providing a material manifestation of the abstract idea of sovereignty, which brings the claim of territorial difference into being” and justifies further action by the state once the “other” has been reified in citizen’s minds.11

While justified as top-down prevention against external threats, the barrier’s violent and exclusionary goals personally affect borderland residents. Protecting the essential quality of a state and its people is achieved through border militarization, which allows the state to impose sovereignty over its territory. This politicization and securitization of borders have, however, produced violent impacts on borderland residents. In the El Paso-Juárez border region, U.S. government actions resulted in a once-connected community becoming divided by “economic inequality, cartel violence, militarized border enforcement, and the barrier that limits the vision of the other side.”12 The modern, border-related security and defense practices accompanying the Global War on Terrorism have substantiated the imaginary line demarcating sovereignty; therefore, the border becomes “the site for contested performances of territorial control, separation, identity, insecurity, and resistance.”13 As performative acts, barriers represent political claims.14

Spatial Theory of Political Architecture

In a 2013 interview, Noam Chomsky addressed the “militarized architecture” of the U.S.- Mexico border: “our understanding of it cannot be divorced from the social and political context surrounding it. It is clearly political architecture–maybe even a symbol–built to send a message to both the Mexican and, importantly, the American public.”15 Lefebvre’s core proposition that “(social) space is a (social) product” forms the theoretical basis of my argument that all architecture is political because architecture produces spatial relationships and space exerts control and power. 16 All societies produce their own space; for capitalism and neocapitalism, these abstract spaces include “the ‘world of commodities,’ its ‘logic’ and its worldwide strategies, as well as the power of money and that of the political state.”17Therefore, I argue that capitalism and neocapitalism rely on border-making in order to secure their practical aims. For states to control territory—their jurisdictional space—they must define boundaries. The organization of modern international relations in Westphalian sovereignty therefore presupposes a political conception of space in territorial sovereignty.

In 1787, Bentham described his concept of the “panopticon, or inspection-house:” a circular building that enables constant surveillance from the center point of those inhabiting cells in the circumference of the building.18 Bentham asserts that surveillance architecture of panopticism—imitated by the patrolling of the border—produces control by inducing “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” 19 Through the arrangement’s effect of permanent surveillance, “this architectural apparatus [is] a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation.” 20 This spatially configured observation mechanism also enables architectural space to penetrate human behavior. The intended spatial and psychological control of modern border security technology has roots in the panoptic schema. Architecture is political because it creates a spatial power dynamic, exerts spatial and human control, and inspires opportunities for human resistance.

Feminist criticism contributes to these frameworks by complicating colonized spaces. Weisman’s spatial critique of discrimination in the built environment relate the social and physical aspects of space to societal expressions of power. She argues that dichotomy is conceptually critical for the “structuring of the patriarchal symbolic universe.”21 By classifying people into opposing groups, dichotomy “creates a social system that justifies and supports human exploitation and white male supremacy.” 22 Within this spatial framing, the political expediency and reliance on the border shows the link between architecture and its symbolism. The border imposes a dichotomizing spatial relationship between the U.S. and Mexico (self and other). In these split dynamics “one group is afforded power and status and the other rendered powerless and inferior.” Border-making, in its multiple scales and in various contexts, is an active process with deeper intentions than simply drawing a line between countries. As political rhetoric and policy, the border is used to define territorial sovereignty and limit formal and informal transnational flows. Territoriality—“the claiming and defending of social, built, and metaphysical space”—reinforces and protects these dichotomies.23 This political dimension enforces a power dynamic that operates on personal, communal, and societal levels, as apparent in Chomsky’s statement that “the U.S.-Mexican border, like most borders, was established by violence—and its architecture is the architecture of violence.”24

A Spatio-Political Frontier

If architecture embodies political ideology spatially, materially, and symbolically, what does it look like? I will address border typologies to investigate spatio-political representations of the U.S.-Mexico frontier. Considering these forms, how do they function at the level of the state and of the individual? Using spatial theory, I will take an interdisciplinary approach to frontier architecture by considering border materials and locations.

Rael, for instance, thoughtfully re-envisions the border and challenges the elementary notions that Alvarez discusses: a “horizontal line—that particular cartography, that edge, periphery, and limit.”25 While Trump’s definition of the border utilizes this rudimentary terminology, the varied spatial materializations of the border provide considerable nuance. More than a geopolitical dividing line, what we see now is a frontier that emanates, both visibly and invisibly, beyond its infrastructure. While Trump has called for a monolithic wall, border architecture is currently manifested in different scales and materials that demonstrate how the border is a performance of, and reaction to, political ideology. I organize border typologies into three categories to identify and analyze its diverse architectures: the fortified frontier, informal architectures, and frontier geographies. Putting form and function into conversation under the lens of spatio-political theory, I seek to answer how the border works, when it is political, and the extent to which its political nature depends on its location.


As the largest urban area along the border, the San Diego-Tijuana region hosts one of the most fortified and militarized barriers dividing the countries. This area has been a testing ground for CBP’s most rigorous anti-crossing strategy and powerfully exemplifies U.S. government infrastructure at its full enforcement threshold. Its fencing and zoning make the border performative, its surveillance towers create virtual control, and its stationed officers, helicopters, and boats heavily patrol it. By this state-sponsored, militarized approach, the physical structures at the San Diego-Tijuana border demonstrate a politically-charged architecture exerting power and control over its environment. These structures at the immediate sites of crossing also provide opportunities for informal responses, which show its dually performative nature as both border patrol and crossers constantly transform the border visually, materially, and symbolically.

General Fences
The most publicized of the frontier architectures are several types of fencing used by Border Patrol at various locations that sometimes correlate fence design and environment. Some of the most imposing fences exist in dense urban areas, like San Diego and El Paso (see Figure 2).

These fence typologies work as the “major material impediment that inhibits human movement,” though they do not completely stop the flow of people.26 They amass the most visual manifestation of border enforcement, sending a clear message of division and jurisdictional control at the edge of territorial American sovereignty.

The designs include the architectural language of power, politics, and dichotomy. Large metal poles, layers of steel mesh, barbed wire, and steel plates collectively form the “tall and imposing monuments” characteristic of many urban borders. 27 Border Patrol use these behemoths not only for preventing unauthorized crossing, but also for “publicity photos and political photo ops” and showing “off to visiting politicians.”28 Of all forms of enforcement architectures, the political function, symbolism, and performance of these fences is by far the most visually exaggerated. Materially, non-opaque fences, such as wire, emphasize “a demarcation, but it allows one to see and interact with neighbors.” 29 This interaction can be positive at certain sections of the border, such as Friendship Park. However, in allowing CBP to monitor people in Mexico through openings in the fence, this porosity creates a spatial dynamic of control over movement that embodies the mechanisms of observation discussed by Foucault. Dividing communities and blocking cross-cultural contact, solid, opaque, and tall metal walls make it “impossible to see and interact with neighbors, and it also sends danger signs, generates fear, and naturalizes mistrust.”30 The form of designs chosen for fencing therefore contributes to greater societal productions of antagonism between the communities on each side of the border.

Composed of a tight steel mesh, the secondary fence in San Diego County is covered in patching marks of either dark grey, half-circles or square replacements. According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, “$7.2 million” was spent “to repair the 4,037 documented breaches to the fence in 2010.”31 In solely the section between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa Ports of Entry, human-sized holes are cut approximately 550 times a year often by coyotes using “axes or battery powered saws to slice the steel mesh.”32, 33 A daily process thus occurs wherein the border is constantly reinvented and recreated by coyotes and potential crossers. The latter cut the fence, and Border Patrol deploys someone to weld it. These repairs create permanent visual markers that coyotes leave on the fence itself. This informal, reactionary process demonstrates a performative quality of the border. As a material, this patched fence displays transnational tensions. It holds both action and reaction, and as such, it is deeply intertwined with the fence’s political character. These small pieces of welded fence symbolize a broad dynamic of assertions of and reactions to infrastructural control at the border.

Enforcement Zone
In the region between Otay Mesa and San Ysidro, the Border Patrol’s layering approach shows the most updated border strategy (see Figure 3 and 4).

The enforcement zone between the primary and secondary fences affords officers a highly controlled space to slow down and apprehend crossers by creating obstacles. In the context of the Global War on Terrorism, CBP constructed this “highway of surveillance” after 9/11 when “Homeland Security claimed a 150- foot-wide linear corridor parallel to the borderwall as its own jurisdiction.”34 Due to this zone, the border itself obtains a width and physical space (similar to Israel’s border) beyond simply a metal material. As Border Patrol officers speed through this surveillance highway to respond to reported crossing attempts, the enforcement zone takes on a hyper-jurisdictional quality. This space is enclosed, appropriated, and limited to only Border Patrol agents and crossers. Produced through fencing, the architectural space of the enforcement zone exclusively contains the dichotomous relationship of these two parties who enter it. Paralleling Weisman’s discussion of the structuring of unjust and patriarchal space, the pure dichotomy designed into this judicial enforcement zone demonstrates exaggerated architectural control.

In the heavily militarized San Diego-Tijuana border, the Border Patrol utilizes cameras positioned atop towers for remote, digital surveillance (see Figure 5).

Infrared cameras on helicopters, aerostat blimps, predator drone aircraft, and motion sensors are a few other examples of the technology infrastructure that is relied upon when a fence is insufficient in preventing illegal crossing.35A CBP agent’s ability to distantly view all potential crossers at once while they cannot see the agent creates a dynamic of spatial control and power comparable to Bentham’s panopticon. Surveillance towers therefore are the panopticon of digital age border security. Ironically, the very location of these towers, according to the CBP officer I spoke with informally, have also become known sites of increased crossings due to the inability of the cameras to directly view a tower’s base. Thus, these exertions of control over the border simultaneously become sites of rejection to state power.

At many parts of the border, the “wall” dividing the United States and Mexico creates a functional dichotomy. As a material, the fence largely operates for the U.S. government to control unauthorized immigration; for those aiming to cross it, the fence hinders their ability to get into the U.S. Yet, the border’s functional significance impacts people far greater than this simple duality suggests. For the Border Patrol, the fence is used both as a legal tool to prove crossers knowingly entered the U.S. without authorization and to give agents more time respond and apprehend within a limited zone. The militarization and securitization of urban borders also plays into a strategy that funnels migrants out of urban areas. This strategy, called Prevention Through Deterrence, will be elaborated on further in the section frontier geographies. Teddy Cruz finds, however, that despite the intentions of the wall in communicating sovereign strength, it instead acts as “a concrete symbol of an ‘administration of fear,’ the clearest evidence of our obsession with private interests at the expense of social responsibility and the erosion of public thinking in our institutions today.” 36 For the producer of this infrastructure, its political function has multiple interpretations.

Those whom the border seeks to control range from Mexican borderland residents to drug smugglers to economic migrants from all parts of the world hoping to enter illegally into the U.S. from its southern border. For these people whose identities are deeply intertwined with the borderlands (as is also true of Palestinians), the assertions of control and architectural power exerted through the border are felt personally and psychologically: “This voluntary (yet forced) alienation makes for psychological conflict, a king of dual identity—we don’t [totally] identify with Anglo-American cultural values...[or] Mexican cultural values...I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.”37 The border, for the U.S. and Mexico, Israel and Palestine, and India and Pakistan, powerfully shapes identities and communities.

Gloria Anzaldúa writes of the border’s effects: “1,950 mile-long open wound / dividing a pueblo, a culture, / running down the length of my body, / staking fence rods in my flesh, / splits me splits me / me raja me raja / This is my home / this thin edge of / barbwire.”38 These material manifestations of architectural control affect the minds of borderland residents as much as they affect the frontier’s visual and physical appearance. Anzaldúa describes this as “Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland.”39 Her discussion of a border consciousness relates to Weismann’s assertion that patriarchal architectures create power over people through employing dichotomy as a tool: by dividing people and space into self-versus-other, the powerful can reinforce and further their control. Anzaldúa’s analysis rests on overcoming this forced separation between cultures: “it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counter stance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence.”40She proposes a mestiza consciousness, emerging from multiple spaces and identities, to conceptualize identity in this in-between zone of culture war: “la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war.”41 The border creates more than dichotomy in space, it creates mental dichotomies as well. While the border exerts power, it does not eliminate agency. Rather, those who the border is meant to oppress (as Anzaldúa would argue) find many ways to reclaim space, invent their own architectures of the frontier, and avoid oppression. After all, many call this frontier home: “To survive the Borderlands / you must live sin fronteras [without borders] / be a crossroads.”42

Generally, the wall becomes a symbol of the power dynamic between the U.S. and Mexico. Iglesias-Prieto describes the border’s significance from the respective sides it creates. As the “material and social expression of the geopolitical demarcation,” the wall as understood from the Mexican side is the “most dense and meaningful object” that epitomizes the concept of “all the power asymmetry.” In areas like San Diego, this metal barrier is rooted in the urban landscape “with which people learn to live, but it does not cease to offend on a daily basis.” Beyond the power the fence embodies, it also represents the United States’ failure to respect migrant workers’ human rights. It therefore alludes to the double standard of American efforts to halt illegal crossing while simultaneously taking advantage from “the economic benefits of a cheap and vulnerable labor force.” It is a constant reminder, Iglesias-Prieto declares, of the “high number of Mexicans who die in their attempt to cross into the United States.” As made clear by Trump’s campaign, the wall plays an important role in the American social imaginary as an amorphous idea representing the territorial sovereignty, and enforcement and protection thereof, of the United States. These competing cultural understandings of the wall demonstrate the functional impact of spatial practices, especially those based on producing dichotomies. 43

While these fortified frontiers illustrate the political efforts to control the landscape, border architecture also contains a material dialogue between the U.S. and many other actors. Weisman concludes that architecture, relating to the power to build, is developed by “social, political, and economic forces and values embodied in the forms themselves, the processes through which they are built, and the manner in which they are used.”44The numerous reactions to the border’s militarization strongly shape this broad understanding of border architecture. Jason de León provides a crucial insight into the minds of those who see the border from its southern side with this quotation relayed to him by a deportee: “Para los Mexicanos no hay fronteras [For Mexicans there are no borders]. We will keep trying until we cross.”45 While the U.S. has made substantial efforts to quell unauthorized migration by exerting power over the borderlands, this has not deprived agency from those living there or seeking to cross.


Beyond the aforementioned fences, other man-made objects populate the frontier in less formal ways that nevertheless produce an architecture of the borderlands. Trash dumping, discarded objects, liminal spaces, pollution, and artistic responses all activate the border. While physically and visually distinct, these categories show how frontier architecture exists beyond governmental infrastructure. By adopting a broad definition of architecture, I am able to consider the material culture of the borderlands as equally performative of and symbolic for the political and personal functions of this frontier. As much as the border is a space of enforcement and control, its architecture is also informal, innovative, and invisible. While this section deals directly with undocumented migrants, I seek not to dehumanize them further by considering their relationship to the border solely in terms of the material objects left in borderlands. Rather, this visual and spatial approach intends to provide one of many lenses for humanizing their experiences.

Trash Dumping
During a Border Patrol ride-along, I was brought into the enforcement zone between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa Ports of Entry, where press commonly photograph the border. I documented large piles of trash, which are infrequently removed, dumped over the primary fence from Libertad, Tijuana into the enforcement zone. With its population growth, Tijuana has had difficulty with waste disposal and reliable trash pick-up, leading residents to dispose waste at improvised or illegal sites.46 The trash piles physically abutting the primary fence visually appear as an unintentional element of the fence itself. By adding to its width, this material abundance become incorporated into its architecture and ironically attain an spatial quality. While not viscerally political, this disposed trash nonetheless demonstrates the differences produced historically by the United States’ economic relationship to Mexico.

Discarded Objects
Though sometimes referred to as “migrant trash,” the objects left behind by migrants crossing into the U.S. amount to a material culture that politicizes the otherwise natural desert landscape. The Land of Open Graves provides an in-depth, archaeological account of these material remnants in the Sonoran Desert. These objects are abandoned for a variety of reasons. Items such as “empty water bottles, food wrappers, worn-out socks, [and] broken backpacks” are left in the desert once they lose their functional purpose.47 Exhaustion, startling encounters with Border Patrol or animals, and consequent fleeing may also serve as reasons one might discard bottles or heavy packs.48Officers additionally may force one to drop their belongings before entering a CBP vehicle.49 One of the most common reasons for shedding clothes and backpacks occurs at pickup sites—where unauthorized crossers are arranged by coyotes to be taken out of the desert—in attempts to rid themselves of “incriminating evidence that would signal someone as an undocumented migrant.” 50 These items have both fueled anti-immigrant arguments (“the physical evidence used by anti-immigrant activists to demonstrate that Latino border crossers are destroying America”) and led to state-recognized clean-up operations.51, 52 That said, archaeological and anthropological approaches to these dynamic items highlight their political meaning of migrant space-making in the desert. These “material traces,” as De León argues, “can offer fresh perspectives distinct from the dominant narratives often written by those in power.”53

Besides shoes, many other discarded objects are found in the borderlands that similarly tell the story of migrants and amass to collection of a material culture. De León mentions a “breadcrumb trail of ripped clothes and bone-dry water bottles” left behind in the uninhabited regions surrounding the border.54During a visit to San Diego County’s Border Field State Park, I came across ladder packaging, a few pairs of shoes, and small pieces of carpet. The carpet pieces were presumably used for protection while jumping over barbed wire. I cannot verify the use of any of these remains; however, they were found immediately beyond a fence where a CBP officer told me crossing attempts occur several times a day. These examples of use wear likely indicate the ways in which migrants have attempted to overcome the physical barriers constructed by the U.S. Further, these items demonstrate that the border fences are not impermeable; rather, they invite reactions and innovation to challenge their ostensible strength and control. This material culture of the frontier reveals the limitations of architectural power.

While these objects are spatially and materially political, so too is their erasure. Naming the material culture of migrants “trash” enables the government to justifiably and systematically remove these items and, consequently, erase the history of those engaged in space-making in the desert. 55Indeed, “site formation processes...are political.”56 These materials transform the desert into a collective site of migrant stories and histories as a result of the political funneling of migration into the desert. Whether intentional or not, these objects left behind in the desert become an element in the political appropriation of a natural landscape.

Liminal Spaces
Within the vast and undefined desert, collections of liminal spaces have emerged. These spaces mark the journey of crossers and hold a range of meanings: from religious resting points to “rape trees.” In particular, home to many of these liminal spaces is the Sonoran Desert, wherein the natural environment itself acts as a shield against immigration more so than any structure. For Border Patrol, “layup” is the generic phrase used to describe these migrant-made places for eating, resting, and hiding from law enforcement.57 De León builds greater depth into this term by distinguishing between sites where people “camp for long periods, briefly rest, get picked up, practice religion, get arrested, and die.”58 These makeshift places for rest, shade, prayer, and hope are destinations along the migrant trail: “As I walked...I found the paths strewn with rosaries and votive candles used for mid-voyage prayer.”59 Additionally, evidence of drug smuggling can be found in the “informal architectural features that people construct in the desert out of tree branches and rocks,” which are reported to be used for shelter by economic migrants as well.60 While they can take on spiritual or smuggling-related meanings, some liminal zones have also been constructed on the basis of violence against female migrants. In the Arizona and California borderlands, “rape trees” have been discussed in border literature as places “where human smugglers, many connected with Mexican drug cartels, pause their journey to rape their female charges. When they finish, the rapists hang their victims’ bras and panties on the branches as a morbid accounting of their conquests.”61 These liminal spaces thus hold painfully different meanings. While informal, lawless, and ostensibly placeless, the natural environment has been politicized and appropriated by migrants and crossers in the process of space-making. The United States may create formal structures at the border, but the architecture of the frontier is not exclusive to state intervention. Rather, this desert frontier holds innovative architectural spaces, however small or informal, that are no less critical to defining the whole of border architecture than more formal structures.


With infrastructure piercing through 700-plus miles, the borderlands region is home to several different environments, topographies, and geographies. A primary function of the U.S.- Mexico border, especially as it relates to both rural and urban spaces, is the Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD) policy, discussed at length by De León. Implemented first by the Border Patrol in El Paso in 1993, this strategy garnered attention for its considerable success in, at the very least, moving unauthorized border crossings out of urban areas to make it less visible to the general public.62 By consequence, PTD gained political traction and was adopted in Southern California in 1994 (Operation Gatekeeper), Arizona in 1994 and 1999 (Operation Safeguard), and South Texas in 1997 (Operation Rio Grande). 63 Not deviating far from the language of a 2010 report to Congress, De León defines PTD as a “strategy that largely relies on rugged and desolate terrain to impede the flow of people from the south,” specifically by pushing illegal migration away from urban centers and funneling it “into remote areas where the punishment handed out by difficult terrain will save money (or so some foolishly thought) and get this unsightly mess out of public view, which it did.”64 Regarding definition, De León shows that the government’s current “sterilized description of an enforcement paradigm” disguised by policy memorandums does not match the explicit nature of Operation Blockade’s Strategic Plan (El Paso, 1993), which once recognized that “the dangers posed by the desert could be strategically exploited as a weapon in the war on immigration.”65

In terms of justification for this intentionally violent policy, De León found that “the isolation of the desert combined with the public perception of the border as a zone ruled by chaos allows the state to justify using extraordinary measures to control and exclude ‘uncivilized’ noncitizens.” 66 On the ground, the desert is policed by dehumanizing means that would quickly be deemed to be irrational and cruel in less vast and populated areas. 67 The Border Patrol is thus engaged in a cunning, 25 year-old operation that appropriates a frontier geography—the desert— into a “state-crafted geopolitical terrain designed to deter [noncitizens’] movement through suffering and death.”68 Since the desert discretely does the killing, Border Patrol can assert “plausible deniability regarding blame for any victims the desert may claim.”69

The natural environment of the frontier is politicized by its appropriation into a tool for violence in the name of border enforcement. While the physical infrastructure vanishes in certain places (see Figure 6),

its spatial structuring of the frontier is clear regardless of lacking a material quality. By creating an “infrastructural funnel,” Border Patrol channels migrants into the desert, where CBP has a “tactical advantage,” to monitor migrants remotely for prolonged periods. 70In making the desert a silent partner in its brutal work, Border Patrol has politically implicated a nonhuman actant.71 The many who die in this process become, De León asserts, “the human grist for the sovereignty machine.”72 The slogan “build that wall” translates to a militarized urban border and a weaponized frontier geography. Nature and sovereignty, therefore, are linked. Yet still, as previously discussed in Informal Architectures, this frontier is informally transformed by many. While nature has been used for this function, this geography holds multiple meanings.

Regarding the costs of this politicized terrain, De León asks, “How do the lives of those lost to the most extreme forms of ‘deterrence’ articulate with notions of American sovereignty?” His discussion of necropolitics, or “killing in the name of sovereignty,” conceptually pieces together the many politically charged and deadly frontier architectures. De León references Achille Mbembe’s conclusion that sovereignty is most ultimately expressed in the power and ability to decide who may live and who must die. Necropolitics thus associates sovereignty and the act of either killing or allowing to live. Applied to the border, CBP’s PTD strategy is operational necropower. De León finds that a “war on noncitizens is...taking place on US soil,” as is evident through the “technology (e.g., drones and night-vision goggles), discourse (‘bodies,’ ‘aliens,’ ‘Homeland Security’), and casualties... (more than 2,600 bodies recovered in Arizona alone since 2000)” linked to border enforcement.73

In connecting politics (as asserted through territorial sovereignty) and violence, this concept can be adapted more specifically to frontier architectures. I use the term necro- architecture to mean the architectural violence that uses the power of architecture in exerting control over space to have the intended consequence of dictating how people live and die. In simple terms, killing through architecture. This architectural murder produces a frontier environment in which dead bodies interrupt an otherwise natural, now politicized, landscape. As an “innovation in murder technology,” the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy operates on the very architectural barriers constructed in urban areas that intentionally funnel migrants into the deadly desert, while simultaneously providing the U.S. government with “plausible deniability” regarding deaths.74, 75Border architectures spatially structure the overall frontier such that violence is outsourced to uninhabited desert and mountain terrains. While this outsourcing policy separates victim and perpetrator, necro-architecture provides a framework for re-linking spatial exertions of power, control, and violence to the Border Patrol and migrants. Natural, therefore, does not necessarily mean neutral. Suggesting a broader global relevance, De León asserts that those bodies of migrants left in the desert reveal “what the physical boundary of sovereignty and the symbolic edge of humanity look like.”76


My inquiry into the relationship between political space and the U.S.-Mexico border began with Trump’s rallying call to build a wall. Both his effectiveness in vilifying Mexican immigrants in the minds of many Americans and assertion that a massive wall is the necessary solution signify deeper associations between architecture and politics. I posed the question of how the border, in its multitude of forms and functions, demonstrates a theoretical understanding of political architecture. My analysis applied theory on the relationship between architectural space and political performance to the U.S.-Mexico border’s materials and functions. Works of authors, like Rael and De León, complicate architectural and theoretical concepts of borders to re-frame the role of these frontiers in social and political life. By categorizing the border into fortified frontiers, informal architectures, and frontier geographies, I argue that its architecture spatially, materially, and symbolically embodies political ideology. While the border exerts power over the landscape and people, it is also a space of agency and resistance for those who the frontier seeks to control. In striving for justice and tolerance in the borderlands, we must deconstruct the simplistic spatial dichotomies produced in this multi-dimensional frontier.

Architects must create more just spaces. If disengaged protest is chosen, the void will be filled by security engineers who have historically profited off of violent and dehumanizing spaces. Since architecture can surpass the tangible realm by changing our way of thinking, the wall has the power to shape how Americans and Mexicans see each other for generations to come. Before we can have a more tolerant architecture, we need to be a more tolerant people. “If fear and mistrust build up walls, they are torn down (literally and metaphorically) by the coexistence, interrelationships, and humanization of neighbors.”77 Not only on architects should engage in this conversation about the border, but all who participate in the American “self” must fight the categorization of the other. Architectures of tolerance and justice need politics of tolerance and justice.

As Anzaldúa finds, The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.78


1 “Donald J. Trump: Address on Immigration,” Donald J. Trump for President, last modified August 31, 2016,
2 Ronald Rael, Borderwall as Architecture (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 11.
3 Rael, Borderwall as Architecture, 11.
4 Ibid.
5 See Rael, Borderwall as Architecture, 12-13.
6 Lawrence Herzog, From Aztec to High Tech (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 7.
7 Rael, Borderwall as Architecture, 10.
8 De León, Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Immigrant Trail (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015): 101, 108, 283-4.
9 Douglas S. Massey, J. Durand, and N.J. Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002), 47.
10 Victoria Hattam, “Imperial Designs: Remembering Vietnam at the US-Mexico Border Wall,” Memory Studies 9 (2016): 27- 29.
11 Reece Jones, Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India, and Israel, (London: Zed Brooks 2012), 2, 171.
12 Reece Jones, Border Walls, 110.
13 Ibid., 171.
14 Ibid.
15 Noam Chomsky, “Hidden Power and Built Form: The Politics Behind the Architecture,” interview by Graham Cairns, Architecture Media Politics Society, October, 2013.
16 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991), 26.
17 Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 53.
18 Jeremy Bentham, “Panopticon; or The Inspection-House,” in The Panopticon Writings, ed. Miran Božovič (London, New York: Verso, 1995), 29, 35.
19 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), part 1, section 1. 20 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, part 1, section 1.
21 Leslie Kanes Weisman, Discrimination by Design (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 10.
22 Weisman, Discrimination by Design, 10.
23 Weisman, Discrimination by Design, 11.
24 Chomsky, interview.
25 Robert Alvarez, “Borders and Bridges: Exploring a New Conceptual Architecture for (U.S.-Mexico) Border Studies,” The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 17 (2012): 27.
26 Norma Iglesias-Prieto, “Transborderisms: Practices That Tear Down Walls,” in Borderwall as Architecture, ed. Ronald Rael (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 23.
27 De León, Land of Open Graves, 157.
28 Ibid.
29 Iglesias-Prieto, “Transborderisms,” 24.
30 Ibid.
31 Rael, Borderwall as Architecture, 14. Border Security: DHS Progress and Challenges in Securing the U.S. Southwest and Northern Borders (Testimony Before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, by Richard M. Stana, Director, Homeland Justice and Security Issues, GAO-11-508T, Government Accountability Office, March 30, 2011),
32 Peter Rowe, “Repairing Border Wall a Daily Endeavor,” San Diego Union Tribune, May 15, 2016,
33 Coyote is a term used for people hired to help others cross into the U.S. from Mexico.
34 Teddy Cruz, “Foreword: Borderwalls as Public Spaces?,” in Borderwall as Architecture, ed. Ronald Rael (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), xi.
35 Ron Nixon, “On the Mexican Border, a Case for Technology over Concrete,” New York Times, June 20, 2017,
36 Cruz, “Foreword,” xiv.
37 Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987), 63.
38 Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 2-3.
39 Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 73.
40 Ibid., 78.
41 Ibid., 78.
42 Ibid., 195.
43 Iglesias-Prieto, “Transborderisms,” 22-24.
44 Weisman, Discrimination by Design, 2.
45 De León, Land of Open Graves, 163.
46 “Tracking Trash across the U.S.-Mexico Border and Developing a Sustainable Water Future for the Tijuana River Watershed on Agenda for March 2 Public Meeting in Imperial Beach, CA,” International Boundary and Water Commission, United States Section, February 9, 2017,
47 De León, Land of Open Graves, 191.
48 Ibid.
49 Ibid.
50 De León, Land of Open Graves, 192.
51 Ibid., 170.
52 “Arizona Border Trash,” Arizona Border Trash, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, accessed December 12, 2017,
53 De León, Land of Opens Graves, 172.
54 Ibid., 170.
55 De León, Land of Opens Graves, 201.
56 Ibid.
57 Ibid, 175.
58 Ibid.
59 Marcelli di Cintio, “Pilgrims at the Wall,” in Borderwall as Architecture, ed. Ronald Rael (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 8.
60 De León, Land of Open Graves, 179.
61 Di Cintio, “Pilgrims at the Wall,” 8.
62 De León, Land of Open Graves, 30-31.
63 Ibid, 31.
64 Ibid, 5, 6.
65 Ibid, 36.
66 Ibid, 28.
67 Ibid, 28.
68 Ibid.
69 Ibid, 29.
70 Ibid, 66, 158.
71 Ibid, 61.
72 Ibid, 214.
73 Ibid, 66-67.
74 Ibid, 68.
75 Ibid, 30.
76 Ibid, 84.
77 Iglesias, “Transborderisms,” 22.
78 Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 80.


Alvarez, Robert. “Borders and Bridges: Exploring a New Conceptual Architecture for (U.S.- Mexico) Border Studies.” Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 17 (2012): 24-40. doi:10.1111/j.1935-4940.2012.01191.x.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. “Arizona Border Trash.” Arizona Border Trash. Accessed December 12, 2017,

Bentham, Jeremy. “Panopticon; or The Inspection-House.” In The Panopticon Writings, edited by Miran Božovič. London, New York: Verso, 1995.

Chomsky, Noam. “Hidden Power and Built Form: The Politics Behind the Architecture.” Interview by Graham Cairns. Architecture Media Politics Society, October, 2013.

Corey, Michael and Andrew Becker. “The Wall: Building a Continuous US-Mexico Barrier would be a Tall Order.” Reveal: The Center for Investigate Reporting. January 22, 2017. would-be-a-tall-order/.

De León, Jason. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Immigrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

Donald J. Trump for President. “Donald J. Trump: Address on Immigration.” Last modified August 31, 2016. on-immigration.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Hattam, Victoria. “Imperial Designs: Remembering Vietnam at the US–Mexico Border Wall.” Memory Studies 9 (2016): 27-47. doi:10.1177/1750698015613971.

Herzog, Lawrence. From Aztec to High Tech. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Jones, Reece. Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India, and Israel. London: Zed Brooks 2012.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991.

Massey, Douglas S, Durand, J., and N.J. Malone. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002.

Nixon, Ron. “On the Mexican Border, a Case for Technology over Concrete.” New York Times, June 20, 2017. border-a-case-for-technology-over-concrete.html.

Rael, Ronald. “Border Wall as Architecture.” Environmental and Planning D: Society and Space 29 (2011): 409-420.

Rael, Ronald, ed. Borderwall as Architecture. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017.

United States Border Patrol. Border Fencing – California. June, 2011. From: U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Accessed April 2, 2018.

United States Border Patrol. Mileage of Pedestrian and Vehicle Fencing by State. August 2, 2017. From: U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Sep/Border%20Patrol%20Fence%20Totals.pdf. Accessed April 2, 2018.

Weisman, Leslie Kanes. Discrimination by Design. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Humanities: Menu

1. Border Architecture: Spatial Politics of the U.S.-Mexico Frontier by Dylan Galano Morrissey

2. Pathologizing Homosexuality, Pathologizing Race: Sex Offender Registration in California, 1940-1975 by Alex Burnett

3. Paul the Benjaminite: The Jewish Identity of the Apostle to the Gentiles by William Zebang Lu