Of walls and robots: The future of immigration

Professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego

Even before Donald Trump promised to build one, U.S. popular culture was preoccupied with walls—most famously the Wall in Game of Thrones that protects the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings. Contemporary depictions of zombies are set amid fences and fortifications that recall both current and projected architectures of border enforcement, as in World War Z and The Walking Dead. A recent Comic Con allowed fans to interact with actors made up as zombies in a sort of chain link labyrinth that, while based on a Georgia prison from the show, might also suggest the fortification of the nearby U.S.-Mexico border, or any number of immigrant detention centers. Meanwhile, the Fox mini-series Wayward Pines is about a small town in Idaho surrounded by a mysterious wall that not only protects it from degenerate, carnivorous humanoids (derisively called “aberrations” or “abbies”), but that also keeps its residents inside and in line.

Read alongside these examples, Trump’s wall can be seen as a speculative fiction. Recalling Samuel Delany’s definition of science fiction, the future projected by Trump represents a significant distortion of the actually existing security state with its miles of fences, drones, high-tech surveillance, networks of detention centers, and mass deportations. But whereas popular culture mediates the migration security state in dystopian tones, Trump paints his wall as part of a future utopia, but not only because it promises to keep Mexicans out.

The idea of hermetically sealing the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall that Mexico will pay for is widely regarded as impossible and even many of Trump’s biggest fans don’t really believe it will happen—but they love him for dreaming that dream anyway. The wall is thus a utopia in the etymological sense of “no place,” but its appeal lies in what the dream of a wall represents. Imagining the wall is less about excluding non-U.S. workers altogether and more about disciplining them. As speculative fiction, the wall is built out of such racialized and gendered dynamics of subordination and humiliation.

In Farm Worker Futurism: Speculative Technologies of Resistance, I argue that speculative fictions in literature and film—works by Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, George Lucas, Alex Rivera, and Beatrice Pita and Rosaura Sanchez—mediate, in revealing ways, histories of conflict involving migrant workers in California. This is in part because workers and employers have historically fought for conflicting visions of the future. On the one hand, I analyze “agribusiness futurism,” or capital investments in the dream that future technology, especially forms of automation, will result in a utopia of profits undeterred by worker demands. In practice, however, automation led not to the exclusion of workers but to the ramping up of production in ways that required even more. New technology did, however, provide the rationale for deskilling and wage reductions, supplemented with heavy doses of police and vigilante violence that I call, following Carey McWilliams, “farm fascism.” Like the wall, agribusiness technology was historically aimed not at excluding non-white, noncitizen workers, but at disciplining them for better exploitation. So I wasn’t surprised when, in an apparent reference to the Bracero Program, Trump drew a parallel between his employment of foreign guest workers at his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club and the practices of California grape growers, or when at a recent campaign speech in Fresno he was greeted by fans holding signs reading “Farmers for Trump.”

On the other hand, I also analyze “farm worker futurism”—efforts by farm workers and their allies to use technology, especially visual technologies like cameras and computer screens, to imagine other worlds beyond exploitation. From the late-1940s grape strikes in the San Joaquin Valley to the early 1990s, when the United Farm Workers helped organize a fast in solidarity with janitors at Apple Computers in the Santa Clara Valley, Farm Worker Futurism engages the dialectic between agribusiness and farm worker futurisms in visual culture. In opposition to forms of agribusiness sovereignty partly secured by domination of the visual field, farm workers have claimed what Nicholas Mirzoeff calls the “right to look”; thus, studying their visual culture enables the reconstruction of a subaltern “counterhistory of visuality.” Viewing agribusiness from below reveals how farm workers and their allies have appropriated visual technologies to imagine better worlds and project different, more egalitarian social orders.

Starting with the image on the cover, Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer is threaded throughout Farm Worker Futurism. As the director explains, he

basically uses the genre of science fiction to flash forward five minutes or five years to look at the politics between the United States (and Mexico) if they keep going the way they’re going today. I guess science fiction is always looking at political and economic realities shot into the future, but this is from a perspective we haven’t seen before: the U.S. from the outside . . . In this future, the border is closed. Instead of physically coming to the United States, workers go to cities in Mexico and work in giant factories or sweatshops where they connect their bodies to high-speed, network-controlled robots that do their labor. So their pure labor crosses the border, but their bodies stay in Mexico. It’s kind of a sick and twisted spin on the American dream.

In Rivera’s near future, the border has been closed and water in Mexico has been privatized behind a giant dam. The water company in the film suggests not only contemporary efforts to privatize water in Latin America but also the large-scale, state-sponsored water projects such as dams and canals that have historically fed California agribusiness. Recalling Star Wars and the destruction of the Death Star, in the climax of Sleep Dealer, three working-class Mexican characters commandeer an automated drone in the U.S. and fly it across the border to destroy the dam. As if anticipating Trump’s wall, the film thus concludes with a utopian fantasy of seizing technology from below, in opposition to state-supported corporate enclosures.


Curtis Marez is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is author of Farm Worker Futurism, for which an online companion “Cesar Chavez’s Video Collection” is available. He is also author of Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics, the former editor of American Quarterly, and past president of the American Studies Association.

“In Farm Worker Futurism, one comes face-to-face with the techno-fascism that was routed around daily by the collective actions of laborers who hacked the future with anticipatory illuminations and critical disturbances. This is not science fiction, but it is futurity-as-history that drives science fiction into the present for activist, artists, and critics. Curtis Marez has written a unique and highly accessible book that calls on us to perform the speculative seeding of the future as farm workers to make new worlds grow now.” —Ricardo Dominguez, University of California, San Diego

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