And one of the proposals was described as a “Bush meets Gore hybrid” that tied together the functionality of a border wall with the utility of solar panels—much like the new white paper.
“There’s a long history of alternative imaginations of what the borderlands could become,” Cadava says. “I think this draws our attention to how unproductive our contemporary conversations are.”
When Big Bend National Park was established in the southwestern corner of Texas in the 1940s, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned it as an international park that spanned both sides of the Rio Grande. Though the river is, politically, the dividing line between the two nations, ecologically it travels through deserts, mountains, and forests that existed long before any border did.
The inspiration for a binational park came from a similar project along the United States’ northern border: In 1932, Canada and the U.S. established the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, straddling Alberta, Canada, and Montana. The park is recognized, even today, as a symbol of the goodwill that exists between the U.S. and Canada.
And in Derby Line, Vermont, flowerpots mark the border between the two countries. “That is a really, really different image than a steel fence protruding from the earth, separating people,” says Mary E. Mendoza, a historian at Penn State University.
But if Roosevelt saw the environment of the southern borderland as a natural wonder, its more hostile character has also been used as a strategic tool of border security. In 1994, under the presidency of Bill Clinton, the government adopted a border-patrol strategy known as “prevention through deterrence.” By strategically increasing security and patrolling in large, urban centers such as El Paso and San Diego, the government hoped that immigrants seeking to cross illegally would be driven to more dangerous, and life-threatening, points of entry.
A few years later, a Government Accountability Office report listed “deaths of aliens attempting entry” as one of the indicators of the strategy’s effectiveness. The predicted outcome if the strategy was successful was that “deaths may increase (as enforcement in urban areas forces aliens to attempt mountain or desert crossings).”
By contrast, there is a certain level of optimism in the proposal for an infrastructure plan at the border. If the plan were to come to fruition, it could transform perceptions of the borderlands as an empty, desolate, or dangerous place to one that’s a source of economic growth and productivity.
Read: The problem with a ‘smart’ border wall
But even the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from California to Arizona, is a sensitive and complicated environment that would be disturbed by the level of development that Castillo’s plan would require. And a major hurdle to current border-construction projects—even small-scale fences or barriers—is the fact that landowners in the borderlands are unwilling to allow the federal government to seize their property for construction.