When we look at a map of the world, the borders look straight forward: Mexico ends where Guatemala begins; Peru rubs up against Ecuador; Brazil nudges Uruguay. The world just seems that way. But of course borders are not natural: they are human creations and through history they have come and gone, shifted and vanished. And as they do, new rulers change the name of the territory: Large parts of the land now called USA used to be called Mexico, and before that, the Spanish Empire, and before that, Aztlán and many other indigenous names.

Borders are — so we assume — a line on the ground (sometimes with a giant and intimidating wall above it). They are meant to define an inside and an outside. As just one example, an army wages war at or beyond the borders of a country; any domestic deployment of the armed forces is seen as impermissible except in matters of national security. Borders define who is in and who is out and (in theory) a nation-state has the sovereignty to determine what people and what goods are allowed to cross that imaginary divide.

The nature of national borders is radically changing in our times. One aspect is the militarization of borders, as in the case of the border wall in the southern USA, where concrete, girders, surveillance equipment, and armed troops wage an unending and deadly war on migrants. By pushing migrants ever deeper into hostile deserts, the border wall has resulted in thousands of deaths. This phenomenon is not unique to the USA; similar projects are being created around the world with similarly fatal consequences. Political scientist Wendy Brown describes these as desperate and failing efforts of national governments to maintain a myth of unity and sovereignty in an age when everyone’s life is globally connected. Futile or not, these projects are inherently violent and in response a global “No Borders” movement now challenges the rights of nation-states to close (or even have) borders.

Because of global connectedness, the border does not stop at the customs station, but now permeates deep into national interiors. Again, the USA is a case in point: our government’s effort to exclude undocumented migrants from the national body includes deputizing police officers as border guards and employing all forms of government information collection to identify and persecute migrants. The recent effort to count and then exclude undocumented people from the national census is a prime example.

Besides legal and bureaucratic borders, there are also the countless non-material barriers between cultures that we might think of as part of the border. The Mexican-American feminist Gloria Anzaldúa famously writes that “the Borderlands are physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory , where under- , lower- , middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.” In a place like Newark, where scores of cultures meet and mix, it is easy to see such borderlands all around.

In this course, we will be principally be focused on political and legal borders (although we will be interested in how cultural borders are also frontiers of power). For now, speak with your peers about your initial thoughts and impressions about the politics of the border in the United States and how it affects the communities in which you live.