Todd Miller is a Tucson-based freelance journalist who has covered the U.S.- Mexico border for the last 15 years for publications including The Nation, NACLA Report on the Americas, and Mother Jones. His first book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Homeland Security explores border security post 9/11 and examines what he calls the “new world border.” To learn more, visit his website.
You’ve been reporting about the border for several years now, what made you decide to focus on border patrol and what surprised you the most in your findings?
One of the first acts of journalism that I did was photograph a crew from the U.S. Army corps of engineers when they were building the wall between Douglas and Agua Prieta in the late 1990s. That was when Border Patrol was concentrating agents and technology, and building walls in the urban areas along the 2,000 mile U.S. Mexico border. Then in 2001 I was working for a binational organization in Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora when 9/11 hit. With this, I witnessed first hand the advent of the homeland security era of the Border Patrol. The results of this have been nothing less than startling.
For Border Patrol Nation, I interviewed public information officers in places like Puerto Rico, El Paso, Tucson, and Detroit. However, I also interviewed many individual agents who had a wide range of perspectives. I interviewed from the most gung-ho to those with serious critiques about the agency. I met their kids, and went to their homes. I found that most agents think that they are in an insular world, and nobody really understands what they do. Many feel they are criticized by all sides of the political spectrum. I felt like when I was able to humanize the agent, I was able to see that they were only a small part— though a powerful part—of a much bigger world. Border Patrolling has become an industry, a technological innovation, a problem to be “solved” by engineers. There are many, many people of all perspectives involved with this domestic national security monolith, of which Border Patrol by virtue of its uniformed presence is its most public face. That was one surprise. The other surprise was when this world revealed itself, I saw that it was much bigger, and had penetrated the country (and more and more the world) in more startling and powerful ways than I was even aware of. To find these angles became, in a sense, one of the prime missions of the book.
Could you explain what you mean by the “new world border”?
This term comes from a chapter where I spend quite a bit of time on the Dominican Haiti international boundary. There, before my eyes, was a rustic version of the U.S.-Mexico border. Along the Massacre River, which demarcates the divide between the two countries that share the same island, were protest barricades placed crookedly and serving as a rudimentary barricade. Behind the barricades the Dominican Border Patrol, known as CESFRONT, sat their Xs, watching their sections of border like agents in the United States. When I asked these Dominican agents if they had received training from the U.S. Border Patrol they said yes. Not only has there been training, but also the United States sent resources. In fact, the whole idea that the Dominican Republic needed its own border patrol came from a U.S. report issued in 2006. Turns out, the United States, and its Border Patrol, has done trainings across the globe in more than 100 different countries. And it further turns out that the global market for border security is in an “unprecedented growth period,” hundreds of billions of dollars potentially. From Asia to Africa, from the Middle East to southern Europe, from Brazil to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, hardened enforced boundaries are becoming the norm, particularly between the global south (and its different gradations—the Dominicans can police the Haitians, but the Dominicans need to be policed by the United States) with the global north. As former Customs and Border Protection chief David Aguilar said, Border Patrol’s work in the “hemisphere” is to protect “our way of life.”
You say that since 9/11, Border Patrol has more than doubled its ranks, has roughly 21,000 agents nationwide and continues to expand. What do you see as the outcome of this growth and expansion?
At a recent community meeting on the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona the speaker—who was looking into Homeland Security abuse on the Nation–asked a group of approximately 100 O’odham seated there how many had been pulled over by the U.S. Border Patrol. For those that don’t know, the Tohono O’odham reservation shares a 70 mile border with Mexico, but their aboriginal land extend hundreds of miles into Mexico. When the borderline was drawn through its territory in 1853, the O’odham were not consulted. Yet, for years, and up until around 9/11 the O’odham simply ignored the boundary line, crossing back and forth to visit family, go to school, go to work, go to cultural and ceremonial sites. Up until the 1990s there was almost no Border Patrol presence (the agency began in 1924).
Now, at that community meeting, every single person raised their hand. Every single person had been pulled over, at least once, by Border Patrol. The degree of the shift of the Homeland Security presence on the Tohono O’odham Nation is a perfect reflection of Border Patrol growth. If you were to go to the O’odham reservation right now, you might see more green-striped Border Patrol vehicles, than normal ones. There are ATV and horse patrols. There are surveillance towers and surveillance drones overhead. There are Blackhawk helicopters and military style Forward Operating Bases.
People on the rez are complaining of tailgating, of Border Patrol spotlighting into their vehicles at night. People talk of interrogations, being pulled out of their cars, of being pepper sprayed. On all paved roads leading out of the reservation there are checkpoints: Heading west towards Phoenix in Gila Bend, Heading north to Casa Grand, Heading east to Tucson. If you speak the Tohono O’odham language to the agents, like Tohono O’odham member Ofelia Rivas, expect secondary and your car to be searched. You will be detained. This is one of the sharpest examples—but only one example of many– of the giant Homeland Security complex spreading across the country into many places—including places where it had very little presence before such as Rochester, New York or Erie, Pennsylvania. Since this type of expansion is basically unquestioned, unless more people step up and challenge it, we can only expect more of the same.
Could you talk more about the Border Patrol youth programs?
In every city and town on the southern U.S. border, and increasingly in the north are programs that the U.S. Border Patrol has with youth. One of these is called the Explorer program, which comes from the Boy Scouts of America. With the Border Patrol, teenagers learn handcuffing techniques and with “red guns” (fake guns) take down potential terrorists and other threats. They learn how to do interrogations (or “field interviews” as Border Patrol calls them) and to question people about their documents. When I met with the Explorer post in El Paso at dawn, they were doing uniform inspections, and then marched in lock step around the Border Patrol Training Center. The kids learn what it takes to become an agent. And, as many agents have pointed out, Border Patrol can identify possible recruits for an agency that is always expanding and always on the lookout for more agents.
But there is more to the creating of the fertile ground upon which the homeland security state can grow. As one of the agents working with the kids told me—it’s more than recruiting. He told me about the Thanksgiving parade in El Paso. He said that when the Border Patrol marched at that parade, they would get a mixed reaction at best. But, he said, a couple years ago the youth Explorer post began to march right along with them. The applause from the crowd was wild. The families, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends of the kids were all in the audience. The kids, this agent told me, were “the key” to Border Patrol’s relationship with the community.
You write, “Predawn house raids have become a routine tactic for ICE, it’s a time when most people are at their most vulnerable: at home and unconscious.” Why do you think the Homeland Security agents have been using such tactics?
The predawn raid is a military tactic to get to somebody when they are at their most defenseless. The Cardozo Immigration Justice Clinic documents cases of ICE agents storming into people’s homes– in one occasion pulling the covers off of a sleeping woman, shining a bright flashlight into her face and her child’s face who began to wail in terror. In another incident, in Massachusetts, ICE agents kicked in the front door of a house, leaving splintered wooden fragments on the floor. Like in a war, they commanded every one to lie down and stay still. They shined bright lights directly into people’s faces. These tactics, and others– such as Border Patrol agents shooting into and killing people in Mexico—give credence to the idea that Homeland Security is acting in some sort of war posture, even in their domestic operations. The priority mission of Customs and Border Protection, for example, in the post 9/11 era is to stop “terrorists” and “weapons of mass destruction” from penetrating our borders. They are on the front lines, the rhetoric goes. They have lots of weaponry and high-powered and sophisticated surveillance equipment at their disposal. They have drones flying overhead, some with radar systems imported from U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan, such as the VADER system. They have high-tech war rooms with expensive video walls for “situational awareness.” The tactics of war are very much a part of today’s Homeland Security operations. Predawn raids are just one part of that.
What would you propose as a solution?
What I know, first and foremost, that a much more holistic dialogue is needed which includes a variety of voices such as those most impacted by the Border Patrol expansion like the Tohono O’odham people mentioned above. The notion, even the term “border security” I believe needs to be challenged. It implies that this expanding security monolith is indeed protecting “us” from some sort of ill-defined “them” who are out to get us. By far the brunt of Border Patrol arrests are of people who are coming north to find a job. People who probably didn’t want to leave their communities, their loved ones, the food that they eat, and the language that they speak, but felt their hand was forced by an untenable economic situation or a situation of spiraling violence and threat—or both—speaks to the need for a much more profound analysis around the immigration debate.
The fact that the immigration reform bill (passed in the Senate a year ago) is more than 1000 pages long– and with the Hoeven-Corker amendment includes a provision for $46 billion designated to “border security”–with no mention at all about, say, the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement in Mexico, seems like an omission of extraordinary proportions. If U.S. economic policy– or say a set of policies such as IMF structural adjustment (in effect in Mexico since 1982)–has anything at all to do with anyone losing their livelihood and having to move or migrate in order to find work, such policies need to be scrutinized. And this needs to be a part of any immigration reform debate. In the immigration debates, and thus the immigration reform bills, this part of it is so roundly ignored that to bring it up almost seems like you are coming from left field, and at times openly disdained.
However it was former INS chief Doris Meissner who argued to Congress in 1993—indeed she was arguing for the militarized border apparatus that we see now with Operations Hold-the-Line, Gatekeeper, and Safeguard—who said “Responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border.” Before it even happened, Meissner prophesied Mexico’s post-NAFTA exodus.
Right now economic systems in the world are structured in such a way that we are seeing unprecedented inequality, few extremely rich and many, many poor. The solution lies in a wider discussion that includes unprecedented world-wide inequality as an important reason why so many people are migrating and that treats cross-border immigration as an international issue.
With the constant talk of immigration reform, how do you hope your book will inform policy makers?
Border Patrol Nation offers a contribution to an ever-evolving landscape, and I hope it indeed will inform both our policy-makers and their constituents and at least contribute to a more robust debate. The idea that the debate around “border security” is one that occurs at the fringes has to stop. The idea that money is continually thrown to this border fortifying initiative without much debate at all needs to stop. If there’s one contribution that my book makes at this level, it is at the very least that this debate needs to happen. But I also hope the book drives home the point that this debate is also important to the very direction of our country and to what we are becoming.
If people were to take just one thing from this book, what do you think that should be?
Aren’t there much more important things—such as basic services like education, housing, or public transportation—where we can put the billions designated now to Homeland Security? If there is a security crisis in the United States it is that people are losing their homes, their jobs, their transportation. It is not from a non-existent terrorist lurking on the other side of an international boundary line.