Border Patrol Nation
Journalist Todd Miller explores life under the expanding watch – and lucrative industry – of Homeland Security.
In March 2012, journalist Todd Miller attended the Sixth Annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, where representatives from more than 100 companies peddled the latest in border-enforcement technology. One salesman, showing off a mobile surveillance system called "Freedom on the Move," excitedly told Miller, "We are bringing the battlefield to the border."
Arizona is a fitting location for such an event, given that during the last decade more than half of the US Border Patrol's arrests have taken place on the intensely policed perimeter the state shares with Mexico. One dissenter Miller spoke to, who works for the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign, noted the increasing militarization and marveled, "It's as if the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan and invading Arizona."
But it's not just Arizona, of course. At the start of his unsettling and important new book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, Miller observes that these days "it is common to see the Border Patrol in places – such as Erie, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York; or Forks, Washington – where only fifteen years ago it would have seemed far-fetched, if not unfathomable."
Miller travels to locations both expected and unexpected, offering vignettes that coalesce into a queasy portrait of our post-9/11 age, with its detention and deportation, humiliation and abuse, and erosion of civil liberties. He also makes clear that there's a strong economic incentive behind homeland security, which has no doubt served to dampen resistance: as the CEO of the University of Arizona's Science and Technology Park, which is active in developing new border-security gizmos, told Miller, "We can build an industry around this problem that creates employment, wages, and wealth for this region."
The statistics Miller has gathered are startling: the US government spent $18 billion on border and immigration enforcement in 2012, 24 percent more than the budgets for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives combined; Homeland Security is expelling more than 400,000 people annually from the United States; the 100-mile rule, which authorizes Border Patrol to perform warrantless searches on anyone within 100 miles of U.S. land or coastal borders, covers 190 million people, almost two-thirds of the citizenry. He's also dug up some jaw-dropping quotes, such as a Department of Homeland Security official saying in a speech that "the Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border." (The 9/11 Commission report was even more expansive, declaring, "The American homeland is the planet.")
But it's the stories the author tells that provoke the most visceral reaction. While the Border Patrol's mission has shifted to focus on preventing terrorists from entering America, Miller shows that it is still far more likely to ensnare the "brown-skinned people who pick our apples." For instance, in recent years the Border Patrol presence in the quiet rural Upstate New York town of Sodus has quadrupled, disrupting what had long been a functioning underground economy. Miller speaks to an undocumented farm worker who was stopped on her way to go food shopping with her three-year-old daughter. She was arrested and jailed for a month before being flown, with shackles around her wrists, waist, and ankles, to Mexico. She eventually crossed back into the United States through the Arizona desert to make her way back to her traumatized children in New York.
There are many more outrageous stories, such as the Dantean case of Mark Lyttle, a mentally ill American citizen of Puerto Rican descent erroneously deported to Mexico. Mexican officials in turn deported Lyttle, who speaks no Spanish and had no money, to Honduras, where he was imprisoned and detained. Upon his release he made his way to Nicaragua and then to Guatemala, where he was finally able to convince an embassy official that he was a U.S. citizen. Miller also met a Muslim-American lawyer, a native of Port Huron, Michigan, who was handcuffed, detained, and interrogated while reentering the United States after traveling to Canada for an Islamic studies conference. (Other citizens have had their computers and phones confiscated and searched.)
The next time he traveled to Canada the same thing happened, but this time the agent questioning him was a high school acquaintance. "You know who I am. I grew up here. I've been over this border a million times," the lawyer pleaded, to no avail. He was handcuffed, interrogated, and searched and told that were he to drive back to Canada the next day, he could expect the same treatment upon his reentry.
Miller, clearly impassioned about his topic, tells these stories with empathy. At times, perhaps, he might be over-empathizing, as he repeatedly uses his interviewees' body language to try to read their thoughts ("by the look in his eyes, that didn't sit well with Gerardo," "his smile seemed to say that immigration detention creates jobs"). These are unnecessary additions, for their words are vivid enough to spur readers to consider how much they're willing to give up in the name of national security. While the expansion of the border security apparatus has been remarkably uncontroversial, Miller reminds us that it is not inevitable.