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The Border System Is Criminal

The modern border system is an oppressive structure that boosts corporate power and divides the haves and have-nots. We need to dismantle it.

US Army officers provide security alongside Afghan Border Police officers while patrolling a village on January 18, 2012 in Khost Province, Afghanistan. (US Army / Flickr)

On October 1, the New York Times reported on some of Donald Trump’s visions for the United States-Mexico border, including “a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators” and a wall with “spikes on top that could pierce human flesh”:

After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down.

Trump would quickly take to Twitter to decry the moat-alligator-spikes allegations as “Crazy,” although shooting people was apparently still fine in his book. As the president has often said to justify his wall fantasies: “Just ask Israel” — another border-obsessed entity that delights in deploying lethal force against unarmed civilians.

Given the present international landscape, Todd Miller’s Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World couldn’t have come at a better time. Fittingly, part two of the book — “The Global Pacification Industry on the Palestine-Mexico Border” — addresses Israeli contributions to manic US border fortification schemes and other lucrative security endeavors. Israel’s access to a captive Palestinian population on which to test various methods of barbarism gives it a unique advantage in sustaining “a US structure of power and domination” in a world where — as Miller quotes late US diplomat George Kennan’s candid forecast — “we have to accept a certain unchallengeable antagonism between ‘him that has’ and ‘him that has not.’”

Crossing Israel’s notorious Qalandiya checkpoint in the West Bank, Miller observes that it “felt like being strained through the metallic innards of the global classification system . . . Qalandiya was the prime example of the twenty-first-century breed of war, hidden behind the word ‘security.’”

Empire of Borders is hardly just about the “post-9/11 planetary expansion of US border enforcement,” although there is certainly plenty of evidence of the 9/11 Commission Report’s proclamation that “the American homeland is the planet” (how else do you explain things like the presence in Iraq of US Customs and Border Protection officials?). In the course of his exploration, Miller finds that “the harmonized global border system was not necessarily attached to the nation-state, but rather to the global economy; the elite world was not beholden to the flags of individual countries, but rather to the banner of Walmart, Boeing, Google, and the power structure that sustains such corporations.”

He continues: “Nation-states served to confine and control the masses, aided by the harmonized border regime and its patrols, while allowing the elites of the world to move in ‘happy flow.’” And the US border model itself has been “paramount to the scaffolding of the current order of the globe, managing the antagonisms . . . between the haves and have-nots.”

Armed with a US passport, Miller exploits his relative freedom of movement to document the oppressiveness of the modern border system. In Latin America, he shows how border militarization facilitates imperial pillaging while selectively criminalizing human movement. In everyone’s favorite unacknowledged colony, Puerto Rico, he uncovers the United States’ history of outsourcing detention and deportation (lest anyone assume Trump is a pioneer in this regard).

In Africa and beyond, he investigates the effects of climate crisis on migration, which according to the self-destructive logic of empire can be controlled by — what else? — more borders. In the Philippines, he finds “the cradle of the US surveillance state,” where, after the United States’ 1898 invasion, “the proper destiny of the [country] came to President William McKinley as a revelation after a conversation with God . . . ‘[W]e couldn’t leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government.’” Just over a century later, George W. Bush would receive similar authorization from above to annihilate Iraq.

Though certain sections of the book could have benefited from greater succinctness, others could have profited from more exposition: Miller might have used the post-9/11 view of the ubiquitous American “homeland” to delve into the role of US militarism in generating refugee flows against which borders must then be frenetically fortified. Considering the Pentagon’s distinction as one of the planet’s top polluters, this would have been relevant from the perspective of climate change, too.

To his credit, Miller ably outlines the functions of war in a “world whose battlefields are at the edges of where the rich and powerful meet the poor and marginalized, who must be managed, confined, and pacified.” (There’s also no shortage of simultaneously entertaining and horrifying anecdotes from arms fairs and security expos.) Plus, he illustrates time and again how neoliberalism is essentially a form of warfare itself, predicated on obscene inequality and the dehumanization and criminalization of masses of have-nots.

In an age of xenophobic hysteria, Miller deserves great praise for humanizing those who are typically “illegalized [and] randomly disenfranchised by the geographical location of their birth.” There’s Gerardo, the Guatemalan man who’s been deported three times in one month from Mexico and who shows Miller a photo of his son in the United States, whom he’s trying to travel to see. And there’s Mohammed, the Syrian refugee in Jordan who hosts Miller and his colleague Gabriel Schivone:

After we took off our shoes and sat on the cushions on the floor, Mohammed told me that we were welcome in his house.

He paused, then added that we were not only welcome now, but would always be welcome in his house for the rest of our lives.

For the next few hours he brought Schivone and me coffee, cakes, tea, and cold drinks. He invited us to dinner. He invited us to stay at his house. He invited us to stay a week if we wanted.

Miller goes on to remark that, having just spent days “dissecting the decidedly inhospitable border enforcement situation” in Jordan, Mohammed’s “hospitality felt not only refreshing but also almost subversive.”

Over the course of my own travels, I’ve also been on the receiving end of excessive forms of hospitality — as when, hitchhiking around Lebanon after the devastating Israeli war of 2006, my friend and I were picked up and carted home for meals and other kindnesses by hosts who would often insist that we stay the night/week/month/year. This despite my US passport and the fact that my country had spent the duration of the war merrily rush-shipping bombs to the Israeli military, to whom borders never apply.

By asserting humanity and empathy in the face of an antihuman system, Empire of Borders is subversive in its own right. You might say that it’s also subversive in offering a glimpse of hope — even to dedicated pessimists like myself.

In part seven of the book, “The US-African Border in the Anthropocene,” Miller posits that “perhaps today’s vastly unsustainable civilization is indeed what needs to die,” and finds in the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania an “alternative to our current dysfunctional, destructive national borders”: a model that would replace “colonially imposed lines of division” with movable borders “negotiated not only between different peoples but also between people and the animals, between people and the natural world.”

Of course, it’s easier said than done. As Mary Poole, a resident historian from Prescott College, tells Miller in Kenya: the United States has lived so long “in privatization that when people try to [set up] community households it takes ten to twenty years because nobody knows how to do it. All you know how to do is declare that it’s my yogurt.”

Now, as the borders of empire continue to expand and oppress — with or without alligator moats — Miller’s Empire of Borders is an excellent place to start thinking about tearing it all down.