Phil America Flies Immigrant Flags on the Border Wall
"The essence of the American Dream"
The Statue of Liberty has long symbolized America as a land of immigrants, but with the recent surge of xenophobic nationalism, another image has surpassed it: the (fucking) wall. As a commentary on this seismic shift, California-based artist Phil America has transformed a small portion of the 650-mile long wall into a temporary art gallery for his latest works. America collected the clothing worn by undocumented immigrants as they were crossing the border and used the fabric to create re-imagined collages of American flags, which were then framed behind glass and mounted on the wall. The colorful garments present a distinct contrast to the rusted, imposing barrier.
“The idea of borders is archaic and divisive and nationalist,” says America. “For me, it is about building something new and beautiful, which is the essence of the American Dream.”
America began hanging the artwork in Tecate, California, not far from San Diego. On the Mexican side of the wall is a busy city filled with the sounds of laughing children, but on the U.S. side, there’s not much but silent desert. The nocturnal images he took while installing the art, lit only by car headlights, evoke the feeling of clandestine risk that migrants must face as they attempt to cross.
It took America six months to complete the project, but he kicked it into high gear on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. He had met a mother who undertook the dangerous journey across the border with her daughters. She then introduced him to others who had crossed recently and needed help. America collected new clothing and some simple household items and exchanged them for their old garments, which he used to create the flags. “When you cross you can only take a few possessions, so most people cross with only the clothes on their back,” America says.
As if the current wall weren’t a powerful enough symbol as it stands, a central promise of President Trump’s campaign was to construct a brand new “big, beautiful wall.” But this attempt to prevent immigrants from crossing the border may not even help improve the situation for American workers. Economists have pointed to the not too distant past, at the end of the Bracero Program. From 1942 to 1964, migrant workers from Mexico were offered the same protections as local workers, but terminating the program did nothing to improve employment or wages for Americans in the states affected by it. In terms of Trump’s proposed new wall, internal estimates of the building costs range from $5 billion to $21.6 billion. Though Trump has said he’d tax Mexican imports to pay for it, that move could backfire by raising prices for the goods within the United States, leaving American consumers to foot part of the bill. (On the campaign trail Trump also outlined a host of other options, like seizing remittances and fees on visas and border crossings.) Republicans in Congress have actually considering paying for the wall out of pocket with no definite means of recouping the costs.
And the fate of those trying to cross the border that end up detained can be both expensive and grim. Mothers with children who make the journey in hopes of asylum from crime and violence can be kept for months at a time, and sometimes over a year. At one immigrant detention center in Texas, crayons were banned. At another in Arizona, unaccompanied minors were penned inside chain link fences topped with razor wire. Beyond the fact that these are families, not real security threats, the whole process is a deep financial burden. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found in 2014 that general detention costs were around 15 times higher than alternatives like supervised release on bond. Family detention costs even more.
“This is usually thought of as a faceless problem,” says America explains. “There is rhetoric of illegal immigrants being called ‘murderers and rapists,’ but I want to work to humanize and ultimately give empathy to their story.”
It should be noted that America’s border flag project began under President Obama, who earned the nickname “Deporter-in-Chief.” Of course, the new administration has unveiled plans that expand both the types and the number of people to be detained and deported. Last month Trump signed an executive order calling for the construction of new detention centers and the hiring of thousands of new immigration agents. While the average number of those detained in 2016 was over 30,000 a day, the Trump administration aims to increase that number to 80,000. It’s no surprise stock prices for private prison companies soared following Trump’s election. And some of these privately owned facilities have troubling records, including one detention center in Texas where the detainees rioted over rotten food, overcrowding, and poor medical care before it was shut down last year.
Phil America’s installation is the most recent project in his Unauthorized Galleries series. The last one focused on gun violence, popping up in an abandoned Brooklyn subway station last year. Other artists have also used the border as a gallery, albeit on the Mexican side, with work ranging from life-size Día de Muertos dolls scaling the wall, to wooden crosses placed in memory of those who died making the journey, to colorful scenery meant to combat the wall’s foreboding presence. On the U.S. side, the fate of America’s work is unknown. After hanging the flags and taking photos, he leaves the work to be claimed by the elements–or the border agents.