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Discussion: The River and the Wall

The River and The Wall follows an immersive adventure of five friends journeying through 1200-mile-long wilds of the Texas borderlands from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. This glossy travelogue highlights the region’s varied fauna and scenic splendor while touching on topics like immigration, conservation, and border security—as well as the then much-ballyhooed border wall.

Throughout history, the US has taken drastic strategies to protect its citizens and territory from varied dangers ranging from drug and weapon smuggling to terrorism to illegal immigration. These measures range from policies adopted to increments of boots-on-the-ground along borders to control immigration to the US. Among these multiple measures, erecting physical barriers has been for many a time found as a sound solution for protecting US borders. The US-Mexico border has, for instance, been subject to various fence construction projects to deter immigrants from crossing over. For instance, President Clinton’s administration oversaw the construction of fences along sections of the south border under Operation Gatekeeper in the ’90s (Stephen, 2018). Similarly, President Bush and his administration came in and approved the construction of a fence running along the border from San Diego to Tijuana.

This trend of constructing border fences continued further. The Obama administration took on where previous administrations had stopped and did what they could. After that came Trump’s administration, in which the construction of a much larger and fortified border wall was a primary campaign selling point. In 2017, Trump’s administration signed an executive order directing the US government to begin erecting a federally-funded border wall. This order came with many legal and logistic challenges. However, by the end of Trump’s administration, over 400 miles of border wall had been constructed, with most being replacements of outdated or dilapidated barriers.

Nonetheless, border wall construction along the US-Mexico border has been a contentious issue in which different stakeholders have sided with diverse motivations. Majorly, proponents have cited reasons such as national security, immigration control, drug smuggling control, and job protection as primary reasons for supporting the construction of a US-Mexico border wall. For instance, a statement by Trump in 2015 described migrants as people who bring with them problems and drugs and are criminals (Adelman et al., 2017); that their immigration to the US is an onslaught to the US itself (Nevins, 2016). Through such assertions, proponents for the construction of a border wall, therefore, argue that the wall is essential in ensuring national security and public safety, particularly with regard to controlling illegal immigration into the US. They contend that a border wall is necessary to regulate the number of immigrants who cross into the US unlawfully.

Despite all the above, questions remain regarding the efficacy of the border wall and the primary stated problems the wall is presumed to safeguard against. Majorly, the deterrence of immigration of people from countries south of the US has been a critical selling point for building a wall on the US-Mexico border. Nevertheless, that argument has not been universal, with opponents to the border contending that these barriers have been far from practical at controlling illegal crossovers to the US. The film reinforces this notion that the US-Mexico border wall is more or less an enormous boondoggle in that it is expensive work that will not serve the purpose effectively. Evidence is inadequate to convince that the wall can completely prevent illegal immigration from Mexico. Stephen (2018) notes that walls built on the US-Mexico border have only funneled migrants into desert corridors, which have perilous weather and geography that expose those migrants to suffering and death as they try to cross over to the US. Additionally, these walls, coupled with the increase of Border Patrol agents by the start of the previous decade, have only led to smugglers changing their smuggling tactics and skills but not necessarily deterring illegal crossovers to the US (Stephen, 2018). In the film, Austin Alvarado climbs a section of the 20-foot-high fencing on the border in mere seconds, illustrating that the fence would do anything but deter someone from crossing over.

In addition to failing to thwart undocumented migration to the US, the documentary predicts that the wall will have unprecedented effects on the surrounding ecology, particularly on the US side. Many critics of the wall concur that the surrounding environment will be adversely impacted after the wall is erected. These critics (for instance, Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd, who appear in the film) cite several issues that will result from the wall’s construction, including interruptions to people’s everyday lives and land usage, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. In terms of environmental concerns, it is essential to remember that a border wall will jeopardize the regional ecosystems, which include varieties of plants and animal species that rely on the US-Mexico borderlands for water and food. The film emphasizes the consequences of erecting the US-Mexico border wall on the natural environment, especially along the Rio Grande River. This river is a significant component of the US-Mexico border and has vast, rich, and diverse ecosystems. Constructing the wall along this river will primarily disrupt the natural habitats of various plants and animal species along the river and adjoining wilderness. Specifically, animal migration routes across the river, the Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Big Bend National Park will be obstructed. This will result in a significantly unbalanced ecosystem adjacent to the border. Erecting a wall could threaten this area’s biodiversity by fragmenting habitats and limiting the ability of species to migrate freely. More so, people whose lands are adjacent to where the wall is constructed will lose an enormous part of these lands, resulting in their livelihoods and land use being disrupted.

Furthermore, immigrants have historically made up a sizable portion of the labor force in the US. In the secondary labor market, where job qualifications and wages are lower, immigrants, especially foreign-born Latinos, offer a lucrative competitive advantage as cheap labor, leading to many employers preferring to hire them (Adelman et al., 2017). Immigrants have thus had a significant impact in several areas, frequently filling positions that native-born Americans may have left open. Undocumented migrants’ willingness to labor in fields like construction, services, and agriculture has helped these sectors fulfill their demands and has boosted the economy as a whole. This dynamic labor force has been crucial in sustaining sectors that rely on an affordable and flexible workforce. Since the economic contributions of migrants are evident, they need not be regarded as criminals. Adelman et al. (2017) write that despite some exceptions where immigrants are affiliated with crime, immigrants have a lower propensity for criminal activity and commit fewer crimes on average than native-born Americans. Most of these migrants choose to migrate illegally because they are escaping gangs, wars, and dire economic situations in their country to find greener pastures in the US (Frank-Vitale & d’Aubuisson, 2020); others are escaping the culture of impunity, for instance, femicides in Honduras (Blume et al., 2023). Criminalizing all undocumented migrants and erecting a wall at the US-Mexico border to deter them from crossing over is thus not the best solution. It will only reduce the availability of a vital labor force, potentially stifling economic growth and undermining the diverse contributions migrants make to the nation’s prosperity.

Thus, the documentary The River and the Wall focuses on the contentious topic of border barriers and their effects on the environment and people both north and south of the wall. The effects of the US-Mexico border wall on the environment and humanitarian issues are covered explicitly in the movie. In sum, the film challenges its audience to consider the arguments for and against building a border wall.


Adelman, R., Reid, L. W., Markle, G., Weiss, S. & Jaret, C. (2017). Urban Crime Rates and The Changing Face of Immigration: Evidence Across Four Decades. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 15:1, 52-57. DOI: 10.1080/15377938.2016.1261057.

Blume, L., Meza, D., & Heath, P. (2023, January 31). Honduran Women Leaders in the Crosshairs. NACLA Report on the Americas.

Frank‐Vitale, A. & d’Aubuisson, J. J. M. (2020). The generation of the coup: Honduran Youth at Risk and of Risk.

Nevins, J. (2016). How US Policy In Honduras Set The Stage For Today’s Mass Migration. The Conversation.

Stephen, L. (2018). Creating Preemptive Suspects. National Security, Border Defense, and Immigration Policy, 1980-Present. Latin America Perspectives, Vol. 45, Issue 223, p7-25. DOI: 10.1177/0094582X17699907


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