Image: Dr Marie Eve Loiselle (RegNet)

Image: Dr Marie Eve Loiselle (RegNet)

Walled landscapes: Legal discourse and the construction of physical partitions

27th January 2021

For millennia nations across the world have erected border walls and fences. With these physical divides, states have sought to fortify their defences, signal power, and delineate borders. They have sought to control illegal immigration, prevent crime and in some cases shun disease. However, as nations around the world seek to increase their fortification on land, in the sea and even ‘virtually’, they may also be exacerbating some of the problems from which they seek to defend themselves.

Border walls have been a central issue in the United States, especially since 2015 when then Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump made the building of the “big, beautiful” wall at the US-Mexico border a signature promise of his administration.

According to Dr Marie-Eve Loiselle, who recently completed her PhD thesis ‘Walled Landscapes: Legal Discourse and the Construction of Physical Partitions’, at RegNet, the idea of constructing physical partitions along the US-Mexico border is far from novel.

“I was so surprised to find out that there had been plans to build fences between the United States and Mexico in the first half of the 20th century. That motivated me to dig further into this history,” she said.

“My research looks at the role law played in the construction of the US-Mexico border wall. Very few scholars have studied this border from a socio-legal perspective, except with regards to the impact of waivers issued for its construction on environmental law”, said Marie-Eve, who completed her thesis under the supervision of Professor Hilary Charlesworth.

“In my thesis, I analyse two episodes of wall-building in American history: the first surrounding the adoption of the Act of August 19, 1935, and the second, the adoption of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, both authorising the erection of a fence at the US-Mexico border.”

“For each period, I investigate how legislative debates and legal texts authorising the erection of walls represented the Mexican neighbour. Then, I consider how the materiality of the walled border landscape operates to transmit legal knowledge about the border and national identities.”

While each legislative moment is defined by its own unique set of events, Marie-Eve identified ‘structural connections’ in both.

“In both periods, state law and associated legal processes provided sites for deploying both oral and textual narratives that featured the southern neighbour as an inferior and often threatening ‘other’, in opposition to an idealised self-defined American identity,” she added.

“The erection of hundreds of miles of walls under the authority of the Secure Act engraved an “us” versus “them” discourse onto the border landscape,” Marie Eve wrote in a recent article following the completion of her PhD.

Dr Loiselle said she first became interested in the issue of physical partition in 2013, while assisting a conference on Palestine. During the event, a photojournalist talked about how states built border walls to prevent certain groups of people from entering their territory.

“I was shocked by the number of such walls being constructed,” she said.

“For the past 20 years, states have been erecting walls at their borders at a pace unmatched in history. Today, over 65 walls stand between states, marking cultural, religious, ideological, or economic differences.

“As the walls grow longer and sturdier, division is learned and becomes normal. The risk is that it becomes impossible to imagine a space undivided,” she concluded.

Following the completion of her degree Dr Loiselle, secured a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity (Germany) and the University of New South Wales (Australia).

“There is no doubt that my degree was crucial in obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship with the Max Planck Institute,” she said.

Currently Marie-Eve is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto, where she is also coordinator of the R.F Harney Program in Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies. Her research focuses on the critical legal analysis of the role of technologies and discourses in the governance of the movement of people across state borders.

As a SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Marie-Eve studies the legal and normative consequences of the use of biometric technologies by UNHCR for the identification of refugees and the provision of humanitarian aid.

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Image: Border Field State Parky by Tony Websteer (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet