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“Border Patrol Nation”: How US Creates War Zones at Boundaries With Mexico, Canada

Todd Miller, author of Border Patrol Nation (Photo: City Lights Books)

Todd Miller speaks with Truthout about his new book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security and about how the public is unaware that this country’s borders are being transformed into heavily militarized zones, north and south.

“Todd Miller’s invaluable and gripping book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security is the story of how this country’s borders are being transformed into up-armored, heavily militarized zones run by a border-industrial complex,” writes Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch. “It’s an achievement and an eye opener.”

Get a copy of Border Patrol Nation directly from Truthout for a minimum $30 contribution by clicking here now.

The following is the Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week interview with Todd Miller, author of Border Patrol Nation:

Mark Karlin: In the conclusion to your book, you state that “the very things we are supposed to fear from a foreign attack . . . [are] already part of Border Patrol tactics.” Can you explain the implications of that statement?

Todd Miller: In Border Patrol Nation, I document a number of instances that could seem as if they were a part of an area under a state of exception. I describe people pulled out of cars and handcuffed, as gunmen crouch with their rifles pointed. I describe a Native American man pepper-sprayed by agents, pulled out of his truck and knocked briefly unconscious with a baton. I describe instances of home invasions and the Homeland Security tactic of the early morning raids, pounding on people’s doors while they are still asleep, and handcuffing people who are still in bed and disoriented. In a way, you can describe the United States as a country in a constant low-intensity wartime posture, and if you fit a certain profile, if you have a certain skin complexion, an accent to your tone, are from a particular place in the globe, if you are associated with certain communities, or even carry certain political ideologies, you could be easily targeted by this enforcement regime.

In the conclusion, I also describe my hometown Niagara Falls, a city like many in the rust belt that has been left to disrepair, that has more than 5,000 derelict houses, buildings and churches, many collapsing before our eyes. There are potholes in some streets that look like craters, as if some bomb from above has already been dropped. A high poverty rate makes the streets, in places, look like they were filled with refugees. And likewise, there are some places in the city that look like it has already been blasted by the artillery, yet we still justify the billions and billions funneled into Homeland Security saying that the true, yet not-well-defined enemy, lurks on the other side of an international boundary line. In other words, it already looks like the war has come.

Who are some of the financial beneficiaries of militarizing our borders, the complex as you call it?

There has never been as much participation as there is now of private industry in boundary-building. One vendor I met was with a small Tucson-based company called StrongWatch. He was peddling a high-powered video camera, which fit into the bed of a truck, called Freedom-On-The-Move. Even though the vendor knew that I was a journalist, he described his product to me as if I were from the Department of Homeland Security, like I had the cash and power to buy it. Enthusiastically he said that “Freedom” could capture a border-crosser in the “last mile,” after perhaps they had walked for two or three or four days, when they were thirsty, hungry and weak – when they were easy to capture. The vendor spoke excitedly, as if he were looking into a crystal ball at a market only projected to expand and expand. In the United States, border and immigration enforcement budgets every year have only become larger and larger. The 18 billion dollars allotted to this in 2012 was higher than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Only a few years ago, StrongWatch was only selling its wares to the military. But now things have changed. StrongWatch is now just one example of many companies – including such monoliths as Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin – who are turning their attention to this border enforcement market that, according to one projection of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management market, will reach as high as $544 billion by 2018. Five hundred and forty-four billion. Another projection described the global border security market as being in an “unprecedented growth period.” As the StrongWatch vendor told me at the end of our conversation, “We are bringing the battlefield to the border.”

You have written about surveillance hi-tech trade shows that you have attended geared to obtaining government contracts for patrolling our borders. Can you recount what these are like in terms of making border enforcement a corporate profit center?

The most important annual border trade show in the United States is called the Border Security Expo, and it takes place each year in Phoenix. Not only do the big shots from Homeland Security agencies normally make an appearance, but so do more than 100 companies, big and small, to show off their products in a large exhibition hall. Entering the hall is like going into a pavilion of science fiction, a world that could have only been described in a novel 20 years ago. But the world is changing fast. A surveillance balloon looks down at you overhead, able to read the notes scrawled in your notebook with its high-powered camera if given a chance. Perhaps a mini-drone, that can fit in a backpack, will be flying around in a demonstration. And then there are the barrel cacti, hollowed-out and filled with unsuspected surveillance cameras, on display to your side. Who on earth ever knows when they are being watched?

One year the masterpiece was an antiballistic tower, centered perfectly in the middle of the exhibition hall, like the artistic masterpiece of the technology show. Large poster-sized pictures showed it withstanding a massive ball of fire, as if this were a common-place occurrence in places like Douglas, El Paso, Nogales and San Ysidro. The media, normally local television stations, describes this with an air of technological fetishism – “look at that cool thing,” as if it were all beyond critique. Through the variety of booths and displays amble border patrol types, other law enforcement, people in suits, and people from all over the world. There is a strange feeling of being in a high-tech surveillance mall, a Best Buy designated for the NSA, as smiling faces talk about how to build bigger walls, both real barriers and virtual ones involving surveillance drones, implanted motion sensors, integrated fixed towers, and war rooms in Border Patrol posts throughout the US southwest, increasingly in the north, and more and more throughout the world. There is plenty of money to be made.

How much has the Border Patrol grown in the last 30 years? What are Border Patrol agents being used for in addition to chasing down and harassing nonwhites in the border zone with Mexico?

In the early 1990s, there were less than 4,000 US Border Patrol agents. Now there are approximately 22,000. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the parent agency of Border Patrol (and now the largest federal law enforcement agency at 60,000), didn’t exist. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, now at 20,000 agents, didn’t exist. The types of border and immigration enforcement programs that these Homeland Security agencies have, with their “force multipliers,” more than 650,000 state and local police nationwide – didn’t exist.

What has been created since a number of US border operations in the 1990s, such as Hold-the-Line and Gatekeeper, and in the post 9/11 era, is an national security force of a size and magnitude that we have never seen before. Although presented as if this type of hard-lined boundary enforcement has been present, it has not. It is very new.

And now a counterterrorism mission has merged with drug interdiction and immigration enforcement, melding the three top US foreign policy initiatives into one domestic federal mission. One lawyer I interviewed in Buffalo, New York, called the Border Patrol the “National Security Police.” In one sense the concentration of Border Patrol agents and surveillance technology along the 2,000-mile borderline with Mexico represents the most massive concentration of the surveillance apparatus that we have ever seen in the United States and is now a blueprint, “to track a marked population” for the rest of the country. The result is significant. We are turning into a country of watchers and those who are watched, a country of police and those thought to be thieves.

What is the role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in keeping the “beast” of the detention and deportation complex fed?

In the early 1980s, the United States only deported a couple thousand people per year on average. Now on any given day, a US Congressional mandate obligates ICE to have 34,000 beds filled in the more than 250 immigration detention prisons across the country. ICE wants you to say “centers” but I say prison because with the coils and coils of razor wire surrounding these facilities, and the cells inside, how can you think anything else? Many of these prisons are run by private corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) or Geo Group, companies that make, according to the Detention Watch Network, an average of $124 per night per bed, through government contracts with Homeland Security. Yes, $124 per night, per bed – is more than a hotel. Multiply that by 34,000, and maybe you will wonder if this money might be better spent on education, housing or public transportation.

The kicker is that the detained noncitizens are NOT serving a criminal charge. They are detained to insure that they will be present in their removal proceedings. Now the immigration incarceration apparatus and deportation regime has grown so massive that the United States is expelling an average of 400,000 people per year. We have surpassed two million deportations during Obama’s tenure alone. Before the immigration detention explosion, CCA was floundering. Now it is flourishing, a growing industry in the United States.

This is a clear example – with a slight variation on targeted populations (in this case immigrants) of what Michelle Alexander describes in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander offers a call to action: “All of this, all of these systems of racial and social control, and the entire system of mass incarceration all rest in one core belief . . . It’s the belief that some of us, some of us, are not worthy of genuine care, compassion and concern. And when we effectively challenge that core belief, this whole system begins to fall right down the hill.”

Many people in the United States do not think of the Border Patrol playing a heavy-handed role on the Canadian border, but you prove otherwise. What is happening in terms of tactics on the US’ northern border?

Very few people probably associate the small town of Sodus, New York, with the US Border Patrol. I mean where is the international boundary for this town so close to Rochester, New York? Well, it’s the shore of Lake Ontario and thus a section of the 4,000-mile-long northern border, the same one that officials insist would be easier for terrorists to cross.

Before 2005, Rochester didn’t have a Border Patrol station. And before 2008, there was rarely a green-striped vehicle in Sodus. Sodus is located in Wayne County, a place known for its rich soil and apple orchards. Each year, 8,000 farmworkers, many undocumented, come during harvesting season.

And then on Sundays in 2011, New York state troopers started setting up a vehicle checkpoint right in front of the laundromat. Accompanying the checkpoint always was one Border Patrol vehicle, just in case somebody they stopped didn’t have documents. And then there was the instance of Border Patrol agents entered the Catholic church during Spanish language mass. And more agents chased people into the grocery store. Or they would stake out the small store specializing in Mexican food products called Mi Ranchito, questioning people going there to shop.

Turns out the same thing is happening in the state of Washington, in Southwest Detroit; and in Erie, Pennsylvania, there is often a Border Patrol agent waiting as the Greyhound bus pulls in. Throughout the rust belt, agents are getting on Amtrak trains, questioning people about their citizenship, pulling people off the transportation if they don’t have the correct documents. Gone are the days in the north of orange cones in the ports of entry between Canada and the United States. The rate of growth of the border enforcement apparatus in the north, in terms of personnel, outpaces the southern border. There are still many more agents on the US southern border, but more than 3,000 now stretch from Maine to Washington, working alongside their “force multipliers.”

Even senior US Senator Patrick Leahy was asked at a checkpoint to get out of his car by a Border Patrol agent in northern New York state. “Under whose authority?” Leahy asked. The agent pointed to his gun: “This is all the authority I need.”

What role does skin color or religion play in crossing borders into the US?

In Border Patrol Nation, I document the story of an Egyptian-American man who was returning from an Islamic conference in Toronto. He was from the Michigan border town of Port Huron and had crossed the border “a million times before,” so it never occurred to him that he and his friends would be pulled out of their car, detained and interrogated for more than two hours. According to complaints received by the Council of American Islamic Relations, the interrogation that included questions about his religion, his mosque and his Imam follow a pattern experienced by many Muslim-Americans on the international boundary between Ontario and Michigan, so much that CAIR Michigan has filed a lawsuit against CBP.

The vast majority of the Border Patrol’s hundreds of thousands of annual arrests are undocumented people of color and poor. During transportation checks in Rochester, NY, between 2005 and 2009, agents classified their arrests by skin complexion. The results were 71.2 percent of medium complexion and 12.9 percent black. Only 0.9 percent were of people of “fair” complexion. Although Border Patrol claims not to racially profile, the racial divides in their arrests tell a story that should have much more investigation in the national media.

You devote a chapter to the Border Patrol invasion onto the remaining lands of the Tohono O’odham Native-American tribe. How does this serve as a symbol of the US empire’s violation of the rights of indigenous populations?

The Tohono O’odham reservation (Southeast Arizona) now has an overwhelming presence of Border Patrol, including its towers and high-powered cameras. There are the Border Patrol Forward Operating Bases, once only designated for wars abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are Blackhawk helicopters and Predator B drones flying overhead. And all of this to enforce an international boundary that the Tohono O’odham people did not agree to, and a boundary that bisected their aboriginal land.

In the chapter I argue that the Homeland Security presence on the Tohono O’odham land has the impact of the United States finishing the conquest began in the 19th century, in the context of the post 9/11 era. When I go to the Tohono O’odham Nation and talk to the people, they tell me about Border Patrol driving at high speeds throughout the reservation. They talk about Homeland Security pulling them over, or spotlighting them at night. They talk about Border Patrol pulling them out of their vehicles. Some talk about agents pepper-spraying them or beating them with batons. Others talk about home invasions and interrogations on their private property.

Perhaps there is no other place in the country where our post 9/11 world is so vivid and stark.

You state: “This is the crux of the situation: according to today’s Homeland Security regime all but the elite and all-powerful few should be monitored as a potential threat.” What are non-elites crossing a border a threat to? We just had several militias stand down the US government at the Cliven Bundy and then commandeer policing the roads as rogue military forces. They were a real threat to national security, but with all the billions and billions of dollars spent on antiterrorism and border enforcement they were allowed to defy the US government with firearms. Could there be a more searing image of hypocrisy than this?

I think the whole official framing around border policing has to be challenged. The word “border security” is state speak and implies that a border build up is to protect “us” from something heinous, a terrorist, a criminal, something less than civilized. But as your point about Cliven Bundy underscores, maybe it isn’t about that at all. Maybe it is more about the fact that we live in a world that is so vastly and even criminally unequal, that many of the 80 percent of the globe who earn less than $10 per day feel pushed to find employment in other places, often crossing borders without papers, to make the most basic of ends meet.

It isn’t the Cliven Bundys of the world with their firearms that the US government is after necessarily, it is these people looking for jobs who are by far the vast majority of Homeland Security arrests, including – as we are seeing now – more and more children. Not talked about is corporate globalization, the neoliberal economic model, the NAFTAs and CAFTAs of the world and what these dynamics have done to drive people from their livelihoods, from their communities, from their homes. Not mentioned is the fact that only a small amount of the people in the world can travel. Most have to deal with impediments and barriers, and if they surpass them without papers, the idea of “illegality.”

The hypocrisy you mention might indeed reveal what border policing – in the United States and across the globe – is really about. It is about policing inequality, policing a vast economic divide, in the age of climate change that could thrust thousands more into migration. It is to “protect” a very small percentage of the world from its vast majority.

You describe in Border Patrol Nation acts of resistance and call for more such actions at the end of the book. Can you outline how people can become effective activists in stopping the momentum of surveillance state militarized borders?

Right now there is a lot of buzz around the National Security Agency (NSA) and its snooping in the private lives of people, including domestically in the United States. I think it is high time to place our militarized borders – and the intense concentrated surveillance regime and incarceration apparatus that accompanies it – in the same category. Along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, there are 12,000 motion sensors, there are hundreds of fixed surveillance towers and mobile surveillance trucks, there are vehicle checkpoints and Homeland Security vehicles everywhere. Right now as I write my answers to the interview, there is a family of three who are staying at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, because this very apparatus wants to tear this family apart, by deporting the father. It is not an unusual case.

There are more and more people and organizations standing up to this, to an apparatus that has grown to be gigantic. There are people blocking Border Patrol vehicles with community members caged inside. Activists are blocking deportation buses, putting their bodies on the line. This points to the emergence of a new type of civil rights movement. But at the same time it seems that many in the United States aren’t aware that this is happening, and thus the dots are still not yet being connected.

There isn’t much clamor about the fact that we have surveillance drones flying over our homes in the Southwest or cameras constantly pointed at us beyond the US borderlands, beyond the US – Mexico border region. The point of Border Patrol Nation is that this reality that we’ve been seeing now for years of the watcher and the watched is now spreading to the north and the interior of the United States. It’s from the same forces that assert US militarism abroad, it is from the same forces behind the ever-expanding surveillance regime of the NSA. It’s high time that more people follow the lead of resistance of groups such as NDLON, Puente and others to step up and challenge it.

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