In a seemingly stark policy reversal, President Biden announced his administration will build 20 miles of new fences along the U.S.-Mexico border. DHS Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas says Biden’s hand has been forced, as Congress allocated funds for this fencing in 2019, which could not be repurposed. Moreover, Mayorkas argues that Biden has been under pressure from both parties to show decisive action at the border. In short, Biden officials claim that even though he may not want to build a wall, he must, or he will face serious political consequences.
But new fences are not a reversal of the Democratic Party’s agenda. They are part of an extensive history of both Democrats and Republicans selling Americans on the idea that they can stop border-crossings by simply starting a new program or building a big fence. Politicians from both parties have consistently attempted to “close the border,” as if doing so is actually possible, let alone desirable. Biden is not continuing construction on Trump’s border wall; he is continuing to build America’s border wall.
The first border fences built along the U.S.-Mexico border to curb immigration from Mexico began in earnest under Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. After building fences for decades to stop animals, the federal government shifted its focus when people began migrating in significant numbers from south to north in the 1940s and 1950s.
In this transitional moment, both Mexico and the United States embraced the border’s permeability. To fill labor gaps left by World War II, the nations agreed to a guest worker program, known as the Bracero Program. Not everyone qualified to participate, though, so thousands began migrating independently. Growers in the north yearned for affordable labor. Mexicans within and outside of the program provided it. Under pressure to control the flow of people, the Roosevelt Administration began planning fence construction in urban areas to divert traffic to more isolated areas. By the end of the Truman Administration, most border cities were fenced. Even as both nations facilitated Mexican migration, they looked to fences to aid them in filtering who could enter.
The Bracero Program ended in 1964, and a year later, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act which, for the first time, placed a cap on the number of people who could immigrate to the U.S. from Western Hemisphere countries like Mexico. This shift in regulation directed greater attention to the border.
Despite new laws and fences, immigrants kept coming. Lured by U.S. demand, smugglers brought drugs, too. In 1969, Republican Richard Nixon launched Operation Intercept. He tried to close the border for weeks to stop the movement of illicit drugs. The initiative increased security and surveillance—a virtual fence, not a material one—but it failed by its own measure.
Two years later, First Lady Pat Nixon established Friendship Park along the border near San Diego where people could celebrate cross-border culture. At the dedication ceremony, Nixon requested that her security detail cut strands of barbed wire there so that she could greet Mexicans across the borderline. “I hope there won’t be a fence too long here,” the Republican famously said. Nixon’s administration never built significant barriers.
Facing economic distress and American angst with rising tides of labor migrations from Mexico, Democrat Jimmy Carter replaced the fence Nixon had cut with a bigger, stronger fence in 1979. A year before it went up, its design stirred controversy when the contractor stated it would “sever the toes” of anyone who dared to breach it. After public outcry, Carter’s administration redesigned the fence to be plain, but tightly woven, wire mesh topped with barbed wire. Even if that fence did not sever toes, it did tear through Pat Nixon’s bi-nationally spirited park.
Republican Ronald Reagan also closed the border for a few weeks in 1985, repeating Operation Intercept. Despite his idea that he could close the border at his whim, Reagan, like First Lady Nixon, demonstrated hesitation about actual border fences. In a 1980 debate with future President George H.W. Bush, Reagan had said, “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit and then while they’re working and earning here they pay taxes here.”
Reagan later signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law provided legalization to over two million undocumented immigrants who had been working in the United States, increased the legal culpability for employers who hired undocumented people, and provided funding for more Border Patrol agents. Although Reagan did not build fences, his administration did maintain the ones that existed, and he provided funds to increase border surveillance, as did George H.W. Bush.
In the 1990s intense xenophobia and public debate about unauthorized immigration escalated in the United States, prompting both parties to move toward physically securing the border. Democrat Bill Clinton’s policies would not just tear through Pat Nixon’s park, they would effectively destroy it. In 1993 and 1994, Clinton launched three separate border operations: Operation Hold the Line in Texas, Operation Safeguard in Arizona, and Operation Gatekeeper in Southern California.
Read More: Barriers to a Border Wall
The fences were part of what Clinton referred to as a “get tough policy at our borders.” He used steel surplus military landing mats, which the Army Corps of Engineers welded together, to build an allegedly impassable wall. In the middle of Friendship Park, the Immigration and Naturalization Service built three parallel fences. Multiple fences, they argued, would allow agents to catch fence-jumpers in between them. Clinton’s barriers to humans went up alongside NAFTA, which opened the border to material goods, once again making the border more of a sieve than a seal.
Instead of stopping people from crossing, a more militarized border diverted them to dangerous landscapes, increasing migrant deaths exponentially. In the decade following Clinton’s fences, deaths along the border doubled.
Like his father, George W. Bush began his presidency hoping to build bridges with Mexico. He floated the idea of reviving and expanding a Bracero-style guest worker program to allow Mexicans to work in the United States legally. He made that recommendation consistently, even after the terrorist attacks of 2001. But reacting to those same attacks also led Bush and Congress to tighten border security and ultimately abandon his plan.
In 2006, Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, authorizing 700 miles of double-layered, reinforced fencing. When he left office, he had completed more than 500 miles. Barack Obama continued the work, building 130 more miles of fencing. He also famously funded the Border Patrol and deported more people than any president before him.
Although Donald Trump championed building his wall, his administration only built about 85 miles of new fences. Biden will now add 20 more.
Additional fencing will do what previous fencing has done: impose severe harm—on the environment, on borderland communities, livestock, and most of all on the human beings hoping to cross who will be diverted into costlier and deadlier routes. Fences have transformed the borderlands into a racialized graveyard, but they have not and will not stop people from migrating if doing so is a matter of survival. In a future where climate crises and political unrest is certain, so too are continued waves of migration.
Fences cannot “close the border” because borders are never simply open or shut. And the costs of making them impenetrable are grave.
As it stands, fences are piecemeal and violent. And historically, Republicans have been less inclined to build them than Democrats. There are currently 700 miles of non-contiguous fences along the 1,951-mile border. A Republican built most of those, but we cannot ignore that Democrats have also built and supported their fair share, showing bipartisan commitment to this symbol of illusory control. Biden has not made an about-face, he is simply continuing an interminable trend of border-building policies and now, like many who came before him, he has fallen into the same, familiar, repetitive pattern.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University and an environmental historian of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.Leave a comment