Maria lived in the United States for eighteen years. She worked multiple jobs while raising two sons, a daughter, and several grandchildren. On her way home from church one Sunday, she was stopped at a checkpoint outside her trailer park. Lacking the requisite papers to be in the country, her car was seized, and she was thrown into the merciless and well-greased US deportation mill.
About her forced removal and subsequent separation from her family, she said, “I became so sad I could barely move.”
Todd Miller, veteran journalist and author of Border Patrol Nation, uses Maria’s tragedy to show the incredible geographic and psychological reach of the Border Patrol and its proxy agencies — which now include local police forces who enforce immigration violations far from the border, and the first-ever state-run Border Patrol, South Carolina’s Immigration Enforcement Unit. The “border,” once a contested hot zone in the Southwest, has become a mobile vacuum, ready to disappear undocumented immigrants and devastate communities from Niagara Falls, New York to Miami, Florida.
Immigration enforcement has become especially draconian and pervasive since 9/11. Institutionalized racial profiling, hate-seeding, community targeting, the dismantling of due process, the widespread destruction of families, prolonged detention in “squalid conditions,” a culture of impunity and violence — all are being applied with an ever-broader reach.
The money involved in the “border security industrial complex” will balloon, according to estimates cited by Miller, from $74.5 billion in 2012 to $107.3 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, “thanks to the militarization and expansion of the ‘border’ region, 197 million Americans now live within the jurisdiction of US Customs and Border Patrol” — what Miller and others have called a “Constitution-Free Zone.”
Maria’s deportation is emblematic. Her checkpoint stop took place not in Arizona or southern Texas, or any other southwest border state, but in Ridgeland, S.C., on what criminologist Nancy A. Wonders calls the “elastic border.” The “sheer fear of brushing up against the state or its surveillance technologies,” or being discovered by citizens trained to “see something, say something” drives residents outside of public spaces and into hiding. Miller interviewed a young man who, out of fear of being apprehended, hadn’t left the trailer park (the same one where Maria lived) for an entire year.
Miller opens Border Patrol Nation with a description of a rather pathetic Border Patrol operation in Miami during the 2010 Super Bowl. Despite ostensibly being tasked with providing security, despite having de facto deputized eight thousand citizen volunteers, and despite the boats and the helicopters and the mobile command stations — as well as the “millions of dollars and thousands of law enforcement authorities” turning the stadium parking lot into what seemed “an honest-to-God international point of entry” — Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operations at Super Bowl XLIV resulted in the detention of just one person: a Jamaican-born resident of Chicago.
The detention itself occurred twelve miles from the station, after Border Patrol agents boarded a Greyhound bus at the Miami bus station and demanded to see people’s papers. All of this occurred more than fifteen hundred miles from the US-Mexico border.
With their skyrocketing budget, military-scale operations, advanced technologies, stop-and-frisk-Latinos policy, and metastasizing jurisdiction, the Border Patrol is stamping its presence into ever-wider swaths of the homeland, grinding in fear and diving communities along racial lines. If you don’t have papers, or if you look like you might not have papers, your legitimacy is suspect.
In detailing the effects of this enveloping border, Miller hears the confessions of an ex-Border Patrol officer who worked for years in the Western New York/Niagara sector; interviews a Border Patrol officer fired for mentioning to a co-worker that legalizing marijuana might be an effective tool against drug trafficking and that he still feels ties to Mexico (the agent, like many, was Mexican-American); and finds a toy model Border Patrol truck on the desk of a colonel of the Land Border Security Special Forces Unit in the Dominican Republic.
The Department of Homeland Security, Miller discovers, was directly involved in the creation of the Dominican Republic’s border policing force.
CBP opened its Santo Domingo office in 2007. It now has offices in twenty-one countries, including Kenya, Turkey, and Thailand. But if the Border Patrol is increasing its international reach (“more than 15,000 foreign participants in more than 100 countries have taken part in CBP training sessions since October 2002”), its domestic presence is still even more pernicious.
The most convincing examples that CBP has penetrated our country and culture are contained in the book’s two most startling chapters: on the Border Patrol’s increasing presence on Tohono O’odham land in Southern Arizona and its marketing and propaganda efforts via Border Patrol Explorers youth programs.
Miller spends time with a number of members of the O’odham Nation who have been repeatedly harassed and intimidated by Border Patrol agents, as well as seriously concerned about the increasing traffic of migrants and drug-smugglers, diverted onto O’odham land after the Border Patrol shut down previous crossing routes and the government built new fences around border cities.
The border divides the O’odham Nation’s land, where for over a thousand years they travelled freely. Now, however, “scope trucks and surveillance towers have become a regular part of the landscape.” And, despite working with some of the tribal leaders (the US government pays and paves for cooperation), “never in the history of Tohono O’odham contact with European powers had their lands been filled with so many armed federal forces.” Given the history of colonization and genocide in the Southwest, it’s a jarring fact.
In his chapter on the Border Patrol Explorers Programs, Miller finds the agency inculcating its racist esprit de corps into children along the US-Mexico border. The agency sponsors weeks-long youth camps in which attendees are trained to track, chase, handcuff, and do “take-down” moves on each other while mimicking Border Patrol agents chasing border-crossers. The kids also learn about immigration law and Border Patrol codes of ethics.
But while they are working with children in order to smooth over their relationship with border communities, the Border Patrol espouses a philosophy (“to detect and prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States”) that is fundamentally suspect.
They are protecting lands that were seized by war and slaughter. They are enforcing the criminalization of people who are migrating in search of freedom and dignity, often displaced by the forces of US-superintended global capitalism. They are perpetuating racial imperialism. And they are terrifying communities across the country and across the globe. Any understanding achieved between the agents of such tyranny and the subjected communities should begin with the complete and immediate cessation of all tyrannical practices, not new race-car sponsorship and candy for the kids.
After dirtying its hands abroad, after being found to perpetuate a culture of cruelty, and after shooting a sixteen-year-old boy in the back with impunity, we should regard the Border Patrol as little more than lethal bouncers for global capitalism.