In this interview, graciously provided to Spirituality & Practice by City Lights Books, Todd Miller discusses his book with his editor Greg Ruggiero. Our review of the book is here.
Q: You've either lived or worked near international borders your whole life. You grew up on the U.S. border with Canada and have been reporting from the U.S. border with Mexico for more than a decade. What are your observations and what should people know about our borders?
A: There isn't a better time than right now to discuss this. Immigration reform proposals are floating around Congress, and there isn’t one that doesn’t include a multi-billion dollar package to bolster border policing in the south, the north, possibly on the coasts, and definitely in the Caribbean. This comes at a time when never in the history of the United States has their been so many Border Patrol and so much surveillance technology concentrated in our borderlands. Since 9/11, more than $100 billion went into a border enforcement apparatus that now seems to be growing for the sake of growth. The budget for border and immigration enforcement, and their law enforcement agencies, are higher than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, including the DEA and the FBI. Long gone are the days of orange cones on the bridges at night between Canada and the United States, or chain link fences along the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican border communities with significant familial, political, and economic ties look like deranged versions of what they were even as little as two decades ago. Twenty-foot walls scar the landscapes, mounted cameras peer into Mexico, and stadium lights blind people at night. Armed Border Patrol agents stand behind these huge obstructions, eyeing Mexico, and sometimes shooting and killing innocent people. A manufactured war zone has been created where there isn't a war.
Q: In Border Patrol Nation, you give many detailed examples and stories about how the military style and culture of policing the border is no longer limited to the border itself. What's going on? Are U.S. Border Patrol really all over the country and not just at the borders? Can you provide examples?
A: One of the best examples of this is presented in the first chapter of the book: a Border Patrol operation to protect the Super Bowl in the area around Miami, Florida. Green-uniformed agents go to train and bus stations in Ft. Lauderdale -an area the head agent refers to as an "all threats environment,” -and ask people for their citizenship status. Border Patrol has surveyed the Super Bowl for the past 10 years no matter if the game is located in Indianapolis or Dallas. This is one example of many of the agency’s post-9/11 expansion into places where it has never been before, having a jurisdiction of 100 miles from any international border--including coastline--into the interior of the United States. This covers an area where two-thirds of the population lives, or roughly 200 million people. They are now in other surprising places like Erie, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Ohio, or Port Townsend, Washington. Since September 11, 2001, Border Patrol has more than doubled its ranks, has roughly 21,000 agents nationwide, and is clearly advancing into the interior. However, its partner Immigration and Customs Enforcement leads the charge in bringing border-style policing to places like South Carolina (discussed further in chapter 7). Collaboration between these Homeland Security agencies and local police forces (more than 650,000 nationwide) have brought the type of targeted policing, once seen only on the border, into the interior at an alarming rate.
Q: In Border Patrol Nation you describe the booming business that has exploded around the U.S. Border Patrol. Is this really a growth industry? Explain.
A: In chapter 2, I describe my visit to the “Border Security Expo,” which takes place in Phoenix every year. All you have to do is walk into the trade show to witness the buzzing business around border control. There it is before your eyes: the towers and surveillance blimps, the mini-drones and night vision cameras. The Border Patrol and the border enforcement apparatus it represents has become big business, and is a growth industry by all prognostications of the market. Companies big and small are flocking to this global industry projected to be worth roughly $20 billion in 2013. And that scratches the surface of what we are talking about. Another projection sees the global homeland security and emergency management industry at well above $544 billion by 2018 if you count "the threat of cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, and separatist movements that have been a driving factor for the homeland security market." As we discuss immigration reform, the profit-motive behind border security is perhaps one of the biggest ignored issues.
Q: You discuss how U.S. Border Patrol recruitment efforts involve youth and children. What's going on and what's your take?
A: Yes, one cold morning in El Paso, right at sunrise, I arrived at the Border Patrol Training Center just in time to watch a youth group of "Border Patrol Explorers" do their uniform inspections in front several advisors, all Border Patrol agents. Spending an entire day with them gave me a peek into one underreported post 9/11 dynamic: the explosion of Border Patrol youth programs throughout the country, ranging from Detroit, MI to Douglas, AZ. Through these programs, Border Patrol can identify potential future recruits to its ranks. They also provide a public relations opportunity in the community at large where the Border Patrol is at work. This is fertile ground upon which the Border Patrol’s industries and overall mission can grow. No better place to start but with the future generation, especially in places where Border Patrol might just be the best-paying job around.
Q: Your book focuses largely on the challenges and changes that have occurred since 9/11, but you also report that the militarization of our southern border started much earlier, in the 1990s. Why?
A: The Border Patrol operations implemented in the 1990s provide the blue print for the post-9/11 enforcement model we see today. Although border militarization actually began in the late 1970s, it was through these later operations that the hardened, heavily enforced lines of divisions were created, which justified significant increases in the ranks of the U.S. Border Patrol, its technology, and eventually its national security mission. In the 90s, these operations were happening in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, when immigration to the United States from Mexico was about to explode.
Q: Doesn't increased surveillance, policing, and expulsion of people who are here illegally just make us safer? What's not to like about a safer country?
A: I would argue that it makes us less safe and less secure. If Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy can be ordered out of his car at a Border Patrol checkpoint, then what does that say about the erosion of civil liberties? And if a law-abiding Islamic Studies student can have his laptop confiscated, what does that tell us about freedom of expression? If a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent can be deported to Mexico, and then Honduras—countries where he had never been before—what does that tell us about the racialized nature of this type of surveillance and policing? And if officials hem and haw to tell us how many "terrorists" they've caught at the border, how much safer does it make us when the majority of people crossing are simply looking for a job? As a sales representative from a military surveillance company told me, "we are bringing the battlefield to the border." If these "battlefields" are moving to our neighborhoods, as the notion of the border continually expands, how can we say it's safer? And, finally, if public transportation budgets get cut in Detroit causing people to lose jobs, while more and more resources go to border patrolling in the same city, how can we say that the country is more secure? (More on this in chapter 10.)
Q: In one chapter of the book, you describe the complex relationships that sovereign indigenous communities have with the federal forces deployed to their territory. What's going on and what are the issues?
A: If you go out to the Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona, you arrive to a world where 19th century notions of nation building and Manifest Destiny are still occurring. In the case of the Tohono O'odham, their original land was bisected by an international border. While the O'odham have had a history of many instances of struggles with the United States (and Mexico and Spain), the O'odham people continued to cross back and forth over the border as if U.S. notions of territory meant very little. Now this has changed dramatically, especially after 9/11. Many O'odham refer to their sovereign Nation as "occupied" by the U.S. Border Patrol. There are Border Patrol checkpoints on all roads leading from the reservation. There are Homeland Security vehicles buzzing all over the place, pulling over members of the reservation. There are surveillance towers and vehicle barriers, drones and helicopters flying overhead, and a hardened, enforced border as if finishing off something started so long ago. Perhaps nowhere is the criminalization of movement rendered as so absurd than on indigenous people's lands who have crossed back and forth for thousands of years. Perhaps there is no better place to truly see our post-9/11 border apparatus. (Read more on this in chapter 5.)
Q: One issue explored in your book is the changing notion of citizenship itself. How has Border Patrol strengthened or undermined the rights and powers of being a US citizen?
A: Border Patrol simultaneously strengthens and weakens notions of citizenship. In chapter 4 , I discuss my encounter with a Latino agent who jeopardizes his job by expressing pride for his Mexican heritage. I profile a Muslim, Egyptian-American man who cannot cross the border without CBP detaining and interrogating him, often for hours. I profile a young student studying Islamic Studies, whose photos of Middle Eastern countries, including a Hezbollah demonstration, gets him a detainment of four hours, and his computer confiscated for ten days. If you are associated with a certain community, ethnicity, religion, or even political ideology (real or perceived), you can be a target of the Border Patrol. A hierarchy of citizenship has been created where an upstanding citizen is defined by your patriotism and whiteness. Any notion of foreignness or dissent can undermine even basic rights.
Q: Not everyone agrees with the aggressive treatment of people based on their residency status. There have been flare-ups where ordinary citizens are mobilizing against police actions. What's been going on?
A: In Tucson, where I live, some truly remarkable actions have been happening. In one case roughly 100 people formed a human wall around a Border Patrol vehicle so it couldn't take away two fathers of small children, that agents had arrested under suspicion of not having correct documents. The fact this group was mobilized in less than thirty minutes speaks to a world that is fed up. Two days later activists stopped deportation busses in transit, and locked themselves to the vehicles, including its tires, to draw attention to a hungry deportation machine. People are starting to put their bodies on the line in what is, perhaps, the United State's newest civil rights movement. Undocumented youth, who grew up in the United States, are appearing at U.S. ports of entry in graduation robes and demanding that they be reunited with their families. They do this at great risk: incarceration and permanent banishment from the country.
Q: You grew up on the US border with Canada and have seen it change over the years in ways that have gone largely unreported to the nation as a whole. What should people know?
A: Our international borders have, in effect, become the laboratories for our future. In 1999 when noted anthropologist Josiah Heyman described the increasingly militarized border zone, he said explicitly that it was turning into a world of made of people who “work for the watchers, or are watched by the state." The fact that agents can board trains and busses in Rochester and Buffalo to check people for documents, with the power to pull people off, interrogate, and then detain them, just because of proximity to the border, should send chills down the spine of anyone who cares about basic human and civil rights. And that the University of Arizona is developing miniature drones for the purpose of monitoring people in our southern borderlands, and can experiment with this technology in the vast desert where so many people walk, underscore the idea of the border as a laboratory. There is nowhere else that has so much surveillance technology concentrated in on place, including 12,000 implanted sensors. It's also surprising to me that with so much discussion regarding the National Security Agency and its spying, how little attention is given to our borderlands where this idea of monitoring and spying on targeted groups is constantly being perfected. It's surprising to me with so much attention given to drones, little is discussed about these $4.5 billion surveillance robots are flying over the borderlands every day. Heyman's words were a prophecy.
Q: If you could change how our borders are maintained and protected, what would you do?
A: With so many under or unfunded programs to assist people with their basic needs, I think we need to seriously reevaluate what true security is. In the conclusion of the book, I go back to my hometown, Niagara Falls, New York, a place that is literally falling apart with limited-to-no funds for its schools, hospitals, housing, and the arts. The 2013 disaster budget cut pavers and plows, and youth summer programs. The fabric of what makes a place or person secure, including a home or a dwelling, disappears with hardly a word. Yet, we are told that we should fear an attack from a foreign enemy or evil doers who are penetrating our borders. We are taught to be in permanent apprehension of a perpetual enemy. As I show in the book, the border build-up is a result of a spending binge and private profit making, which will continue to promote its growth for the sake of growth. It is time to see this new industrial complex for what it is. To start the process of change, I would begin by gradually defunding the border security apparatus, and funnel the billions of dollars spent there into domestic programs and projects, which actually give people safety and security.