A Few Snapshots of The U.S. Borders

By Shahram Khosravi

Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade, 1790/1791. Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791. Photo courtesy of the Lilly Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana University. Public domain.


In May 2013, I arrived at Chicago O’Hare Airport, on my way to a workshop in Irvine. It was early, around 4 am. The border control officer was weary but not too sleepy to let me pass through just like others, many of them Swedish passport holders just like me. I had something extra, though—my Iranian background, marked both on my passport and my body. He gave me a form to fill out. No pen at his kiosk, so he went to find one. After a while, he came back and handed me a pen, which stopped working when I had barely written my first name on the form. I asked the officer for another pen. Without looking at me he said, “You don’t need to fill out the form. No one would read the forms anyway”.

The border did not stop me but delayed me, made me dispossessed of time. It made me a different passenger from other passengers who were not different until the border. I did not understand what the border did to me that early morning at Chicago airport before I came across this passage in Adventures of an African Slaver written by Theodore Canot, a slave trader in 1854:

“The strict discipline of nightly stowage is, of course, of the greatest importance in slavers, else every negro would accommodate himself as if he were a passenger.”


Customs and Border Protection self-serve kiosks in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Photo by Kristoffer Grogan. United States Government Works.

In mid-November, 2016, I landed in New York to catch my flight to Minneapolis in order to attend the American Anthropological Association conference. Earlier that year (exactly one year before Trump’s Executive Order) the Obama administration had removed the visa waiver privilege from dual nationals who were citizens of 38 named countries, including Iran. I had spent time and money to obtain a visa valid for ten years. While the border control officer was looking at my visa on a passport that has no visa requirement to enter the U.S., I told him that I had a visa because I was Iranian. The young officer gently said “No, not because you are Iranian but because you have been to Iran recently.”

Less than a couple of months later, Trump’s travel ban confirmed I was right. All is about race. He told me to follow another officer to a room, packed with non-white bodies waiting to be interviewed. After 45 minutes waiting I could go without being asked any questions. I almost missed my connecting flight. The border delayed me, made me different from others who were not different until then. My passport was marked with a sign, a visa, not required for others with the same passport, rendering me visible. Easily distinguishable, observable, traceable. The word visa comes from Latin word videre that means “to see.” A racialized body has to be seeable.

In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne (2015) writes about the Lantern Law from 1713, when the Common Council of the City of New York approved “A Law for Regulating Negro and Indian Slaves in the Night Time.”

It required any slave older than 14 to carry “A lantern and a lighted candle in it.” The racialized body had to carry a light that made her or him seeable, easily identifiable. Today the visa on my passport that requires no visa, like the lantern in hands of black people three centuries ago, to paraphrase Browne, is only for illuminating otherness. Just as the Lantern Law was launched to protect white New Yorkers against violence and the threat of black bodies, Trump’s Executive Order aims to “Enhance Public Safety” by keeping out Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis, Sudanese, and Libyans


Mexico / US Pacific Ocean Border Fence,” Imperial Beach, San Diego, California. By Tony Webster. CC BY 2.0.

Part of Trump’s border policy to make America [sic; he means, of course, the U.S.A.] great again is to build in his words an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful” wall on the border with Mexico. His racism against Mexicans, palpable in his choice of adjectives and words when talking about the southern neighbors, is deeply rooted in the history of the U.S.-Mexican relationship. We live in a time of wall fetishism. Never as today have human beings been so obsessed with building walls. In the end of the 1980s at the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were border walls between 16 countries. Today the number is four times more; almost 70 countries have built or are building walls around their territories. Walls are old. Empires built walls, from the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England and the Limes Tripolitanus of the Roman Empire in North Africa. If we look closer we can see that there are still traces of the old imperial visions in the modern border walls. The American political scientist Victoria Hattam (2016) has observed that a large part of the U.S.-Mexico border wall was built with portable helicopter landing mats, originally designed and constructed for use in the Vietnam war. The materiality of the wall displays the connections of wars and walls; walls and empires. The same material used to subjugate the people of Vietnam is used today in the aggression against Mexicans to further the U.S. imperial vision. To paraphrase Wendy Brown (2010), Trump’s Executive Order and “beautiful wall” are icons of the erosion of the Empire, rather than the expression of its greatness.

Shahram Khosravi

Shahram Khosravi is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University and the author of: Young and Defiant in Tehran, University of Pennsylvania Press (2008); The Illegal Traveler: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders, Palgrave (2010); and Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran, University of Pennsylvania Press (2017). He has been active writer in the Swedish press and also written fiction.

Works Cited

Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Canot, Theodore. 2002 [1854]. Adventures of an African Slaver. New York: Dover Publications.

Hattam, Victoria. 2016. “Imperial Designs: Remembering Vietnam at the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall.” Memory Studies 9(1): 27–47 .

Brown, Wendy. 2010. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books.

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