We can't take you anymore. Our country is full. So turn around—that's the way it is.—President Donald Trump, April 5, 2019
On April 5, 2019, Air Force One flew over the lush green agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley located in the southeastern corner of California, on the US-Mexican border. As the plane began its descent into the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, California, President Donald Trump was greeted by a personal message carved into a nearby alfalfa field—“Trump 2020” (Morales 2019)—a field-sized billboard forecasting a desire for a future win for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, a future that portends the continued nativist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic attacks that have already become one legacy of the Trump administration.
This is not the first time that the agricultural bounty of the Imperial Valley has been used as a tool of propaganda. In 1915, D. W. Griffith used the cotton fields of Calexico, California, to stand in for the plantations of the Reconstruction-era South depicted in his historic and controversial film The Birth of a Nation (1915). The political landscape depicted in that film, characterized by a white supremacist ethno-nationalist insurgency and “rife with visions of intimidation, voter suppression, and racial division,” resembled that of 1915, a year in which there were more lynching of African Americans than there had been in the previous ten years, as much as it did that of the 1870s or, for that matter, as it does our own (Blakemore 2015; Du Bois 2007: 120). Just as the ascendency of Trump fueled both a diffuse resistance movement and the naked racism that led to violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere, The Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) similarly incited two movements—the formal rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, the post–Civil War Southern white supremacist and anti-Black racist paramilitary group described as “the most vicious terrorist organization in the history of the United States” (Franklin 1979: 431), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's fight against the film, which “mobilized thousands of black and white men and women in large cities across the country” outside the South, many of whom were unaware of the existence of the new civil rights organization (Lewis 2009: 331). Motivating these movements was a pressing sense that the future itself was somehow at stake for differently racialized groups of people.
Calling attention to Calexico standing in for the cotton fields of the Deep South also highlights how the southern border of the United States has long functioned as a landscape for imagining the nation's futurity—and to whom that future belongs. When the US Border Patrol was first established in 1924, as part of a xenophobic retreat from foreign entanglements after World War I and a concomitant wave of hostility to immigrants and foreigners, a significant number of patrollers were members of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, which was active in border towns from Texas to California (Grandin 2019: 164). The policing of the southern border over the past century thus offers a scene in which to see the interrelated histories of various forms of genocidal dispossession targeting Indigenous, Latinx, and Black lives deemed unfit to participate in the collective life of the nation.
It was during Trump's visit to Calexico that he relayed his message of “no future” for thousands of potential asylum seekers when he spoke the words: “We can't take you anymore. Our country is full. So turn around—that's the way it is.” In doing so, he gave voice to what micha cárdenas and Jian Neo Chen, the guest editors of this special “Trans Futures” issue of TSQ, call the “linear and universal times of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy.” They—and the authors and artists whose work they publish in this issue—challenge us to contest the inevitability of Trump's assertion that “that's the way it is.” In asking us to ponder, “What will be in the times to come? What will I be in the times to come? What will we be in the times to come?,” they challenge us to imagine the very possibility of trans futures and to imagine trans lives in relation to other forms of vulnerable and precarious life.
While carving “Trump 2020” into the agricultural terrain of the southwestern Imperial Valley expresses one vision of the future, another can be seen in the land itself and the life it supports—the alfalfa in which that message is expressed grows rapidly and is harvested frequently, and the message it was made to bear was quickly and easily erased. Desired futures can be unwritten. The enhanced segment of the border wall (fig. 1) that Trump came to Calexico to celebrate is but a physical manifestation of a far more extensive anti-immigrant policy that is far more difficult to efface. The presidential photo-op on the border was in fact prefatory to an order issued by Attorney General William Barr ten days later, on April 15, 2019, that forces tens of thousands of asylum seekers to remain detained indefinitely—their futures suspended—while waiting for removal proceedings to conclude unless granted parole. Given that this new policy does not apply to unaccompanied minors and families, it will disproportionately affect queer and trans asylum seekers and other unmarried, childless individuals.
The border wall that Trump fetishizes and the policies that seek to translate the fantasy it represents into a social reality can be understood as attempts to protect the nation from “gendered and racialized bodies that move through borders of all sorts, from the metaphorical gender boundaries so often invoked in transgender transition narratives to the national borders involved in immigration” (Beauchamp 2012: 72). The recent death of Roxsana Hernández, a Honduran transwoman who was detained after requesting asylum and who died after suffering abuses while in immigration enforcement custody in the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico,1 tragically exemplifies the violence that falls especially heavily on those whose bodies cross multiple kinds of borders. Their movements toward a desired future on the other side—a future of possibility and potentiality expressed through the metaphors of travel, home, and migration that are persistently invoked to describe transgender identities and bodies, as well as the embodied experience of crossing a geographical border—are all too often brutally terminated.
As cárdenas and Chen note in their introduction, futurity, transness, and crossings both literal and metaphorical supply—despite the death wishes often directed at them—a “felt horizon” that continues to solicit movement toward it, whose unfilled promises cry out to be redeemed. How utopian is it to think that Trump's border wall will ultimately prove to be no match for the brilliant interventions made by the authors in this issue, which draw attention to the kinds of “trans and queer relational and embodied practices of survival, reproduction, and transformation that move beyond what can be captured by [state] regimes” (Chen and cárdenas in their guest editors' introduction)? Speaking in Calexico in a roundtable about immigration with members of his administration and local and regional law enforcement officials, Trump boasted that his new wall was thirty feet high, heavily reinforced, hard to climb, sharp on top, and built of steel slats spaced close enough together to prevent a body from passing through but far enough apart to see what was happening through the gaps. “I think it looks fantastic,” Trump said, “very see-through, so you're able see the other side, which is a very important element” (White House 2019). Trump was no doubt imagining the ability of the US surveillance apparatus to penetrate Mexican space, but a wall always has two sides. As you engage with the visions of trans futures that fill the pages of this special issue, think of the see-through border fence that cannot but help, despite itself, to offer a sight line to the far horizon, an elsewhere that remains imbued with potential.
In May 2018, Roxsana Hernández was detained after presenting herself for asylum at the San Ysidro, California, port of entry. She had traveled with other transgender migrants as part of a migrant caravan. Days after Hernández presented herself and was detained, she was rushed to an emergency department in Chula Vista, California. There she was diagnosed with cough, congestion, fever, and unmedicated HIV. Hernández was not admitted for medical care, nor was her condition monitored. She did not receive medical attention until she was gravely ill, and an independent autopsy revealed that she was also physically assaulted and abused while in custody (Rosenberg 2018).