- Interview by
- Ashley Smith
Since coming into office, the Trump administration has launched unrelenting racist attacks on immigrants and refugees. He seems determined to build his wall by any means necessary and has unleashed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to conduct raids, arrest people, throw them in concentration camps, and deport them.
Facing impeachment, he will only double down on this witch hunt in a desperate attempt to consolidate his base and deflect popular attention from his naked service of the rich. But, contrary to widespread liberal illusions, Trump did not start this war on migrants, but only intensified it.
In fact, as Todd Miller demonstrates in his new book, Empire of Borders, politicians in both major parties have collaborated over the last few decades to construct a massive border regime that polices migrants not only in the United States but throughout the world. In this interview with Jacobin contributor Ashley Smith, Miller discusses the origins and features of this new imperial strategy — and the international resistance against it.
Trump has intensified the assault on immigrants and pressured Mexico and other states to do the same. What has he done and what has been the impact?
People probably remember Donald Trump’s campaign promise that not only would he build a wall, but that he would make Mexico pay for it.
While Mexico certainly hasn’t financed the construction of a physical barrier on the US southern border, it has continued to enforce its borders with resources and training, under pressure from the United States.
Mexico has in fact been doing this for a while.
In 1981, as just one example, US Border Patrol chief Larry Richardson admitted that “the United States ha[d] quietly been paying Mexicans to deport Central Americans to Guatemala,” right when US-funded wars were ravaging Central America. More recently in 2012, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for international affairs Alan Bersin said, “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border.”
And in 2014, with funds from the US military aid package known as the Merida Initiative (its “Third Pillar” in its project to “Create a 21st Century Border Structure”), Mexico announced that it would further bolster that same border with what it called the Southern Border Program.
So by the time Donald Trump arrived at the White House in 2017, Mexico had already significantly ramped up enforcement on its southern border and, since 2015, had been deporting more Central Americans than the United States. The Trump administration has simply consolidated this longstanding dynamic with the somewhat surprising cooperation of Mexico’s new, and left-leaning, government headed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
In the strangest of developments, AMLO, as Obrador is popularly known, is now helping Trump “build the wall” in two very concrete ways. First, the creation of a National Guard, which Mexico deployed to its southern border with Guatemala in June under reported pressure from Trump. And second, the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forces people seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico for their hearings.
The entire country of Mexico has essentially become the “border wall.” If people are able to get past Mexico’s US-funded border apparatus in the south and reach the United States and ask for asylum, then they are forced back into Mexico to wait for their hearings.
Trump has thus intensified what borders and their inherent violence have always brought humanity’s most poor, vulnerable, and marginalized: family separations, incarceration, and disappearance or death.
One of the points you make throughout your book is that this border regime did not begin with Trump but has been a feature of the United States from its founding. How has the US state internationalized its border regime over the last few decades, and how does it operate today?
The US state established its borders through colonization, dispossession, genocide, slavery, and exploitation. This is especially true of its border with Mexico in the nineteenth century.
That violent process of conquest is too often legitimized by mainstream historians when they use innocuous-sounding phrases like “westward expansion,” dress up imperial bullying like the Gadsden Purchase as “agreements,” and craft self-congratulatory accounts of the Mexican-American War.
But there is no way to make the white supremacy of “manifest destiny” palatable. The United States seized land, planted its flag, and killed anyone that resisted, especially indigenous peoples, all in the name of God and European civilization.
It expanded its border regime through its imperial seizure of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines in the 1898 Spanish-American War. By the early twentieth century, the United States had established its territorial border, set up semicolonies, and policed seemingly independent states in its hemisphere with “gunboat diplomacy.”
Even knowing this history, it took me a while to understand that the US border extended well beyond its mainland. I think the first time I grasped this was while covering the migration out of Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010. I quickly realized that this was not a migration story but a border story.
Shortly after the earthquake, as hundreds of thousands of people were still in the rubble of their homes, a US jumbo jet flew overhead blasting out an announcement from the Haitian ambassador. He warned in Creole, “If you think you will reach the United States and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. They will intercept you right in the water and send you back home where you came from.”
Soon after, sixteen Coast Guard cutters came right up to the Haitian shore to stop the flight of any refugees. Then Washington contracted the private prison company GEO Group for “guard services” (presumably in a tent city in Guantánamo Bay) to in effect jail the victims.
At once I saw that the US border was: 1) geographically removed from where I normally had thought it was; 2) elastic and able to extend at will very far from the US mainland; and 3) not passive, but aggressive. In a nutshell, the border was much bigger — much, much bigger — than I ever thought it was.
For example, in 2012, when I was on an investigative trip to Puerto Rico, I learned that the tiny Mona Island — a mere thirty miles from the Dominican shore — was also literally part of the US border.
So when a sinking boat carrying Haitians to another destination crashed onto the shores of that small island, they were absorbed by the US border: detained, arrested, incarcerated, and eventually deported by the US Department of Homeland Security back to Haiti.
This is just one instance. Another is the Dominican Border Patrol, which the United States trained and equipped after its creation in 2007. And a third is Guatemala’s new Chorti border patrol, which the US Embassy, one commander told me, helped create to police its Honduran borderlands.
This wasn’t limited just to the Western Hemisphere. On other trips I found out that US funds created a Kenyan border patrol and a massive surveillance system on the Jordanian-Syrian border. And this is just scratching the surface.
To understand this, I think it’s important to go back to the 9/11 Commission Report’s paradigm-changing statement: “The American Homeland is the planet.” Since 2003, CBP has created twenty-three embassy attaches from Nairobi to Tokyo to Berlin to Brasilia and is at work in nearly one hundred countries through various border programs — creating, essentially, an empire of borders.
While the United States has always had such international border operations, it dramatically expanded them after 9/11. When I asked one CBP official at its Washington headquarters to describe with one word how much they’ve grown since then, he answered: “exponentially.”
So that’s how the United States controls the global flow of people. How do its policies cause migration to begin with?
Washington’s climate, economic, and military policies bear an enormous responsibility for creating the conditions that drive people from their countries. The United States has long been history’s top emitter of greenhouse gases (since 1900 it has emitted nearly seven hundred times more than Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador combined), driving up temperatures, causing desertification, raising sea levels, exacerbating preexisting situations (often of intense poverty, especially in rural areas), effectively making it a force behind displacement.
While borders have been hardened to deter, arrest, incarcerate, expel, and ultimately sort and classify the world’s most vulnerable people, destructive forces that cause migration can go where they please. One example of this is the “open border” policy in place for the US military.
With its forces deployed in over eight hundred bases around the world, Washington has conducted countless military interventions and coups, leading people to flee to other countries for safety. For example, in 1954 the United States intervened in Guatemala to overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, resulting in a thirty-six-year armed conflict and brutal military repression.
Another example is Washington-driven neoliberal economics. It has forced indebted countries to privatize state-owned companies, slash their welfare states, and open up their economies to US multinationals. While that made money for local and international capitalists, it wrecked the lives of small farmers and workers, many of whom left their countries for the United States and other advanced capitalist countries to find work as criminalized cheap labor.
And if countries didn’t agree to neoliberalism, the United States often forced it upon them at gunpoint. If you look in Central America, Mexico, all around the world, this convergence of military and neoliberal policies has both done considerable damage and caused massive displacement of people.
As the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman wrote so presciently and unselfconsciously in 1999, for the “hidden hand of the market” to work you need the “hidden fist” of the military to back it up and enforce it. And part of that hidden fist is the border regime that polices the migrants and refugees at its borders.
This border regime, as you argue in your book, has generated a booming new industry in border security. What does this look like, and how does it intensify the attack on migrants in the United States and throughout the world?
The US empire of borders has spawned a whole new dimension of carceral capitalism. It’s raking in enormous profits off the proliferation of walls, surveillance technology, checkpoints, and detention facilities.
When I was traveling in Israel and Palestine in 2017 with an international group, a man from South Africa told me that what we were seeing was worse than apartheid era in his country. He made the point that in South Africa, while it was bad from 1948 to the early 1990s, there weren’t all the checkpoints, walls, armed agents and soldiers, and technologies that we were seeing in the occupied territories.
During that trip we went to one of the biggest weapons and technology conferences in Israel. In the Tel Aviv convention center, Israeli companies pitched “proven” technologies, which they boasted had been tested on Palestinians under occupation, to governments from all over the world to police their own borders and oppressed populations.
At another homeland security expo in Tel Aviv I saw the demonstration of the Orbiter III, which they called the “suicide drone.” The weapons dealer said that it could conduct surveillance on a target, and then, if they so decided, dive-bomb it and utterly destroy it.
Even though Israel is the “homeland security/surveillance capital” of the world, as scholar Neve Gordon put it, the industry has metastasized throughout the world. I have been to similar border regime bazaars in San Antonio, in Paris, and in Mexico City.
This whole industry has boomed as states across the globe have built more than seventy border walls (up from fifteen in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall), spent billions on surveillance technologies, and hired hundreds of thousands of armed agents to guard the jagged frontier of the Global North and Global South. Corporations are profiting off border policing, adding crass capitalist interest to crude state repression.
What are the domestic impacts of the border regime in the United States? How has it created a new caste division in the working class, deepened racial divisions, and built a state more prepared to repress its population?
Border regimes, by their very nature, are systems of exclusion. They are enforced not only by guards but bureaucracies that oversee elaborate rules intended to make noncitizens work hard for their papers as if they were gaining membership to an exclusive club.
In this sense, the border is much more than the international boundary line. In the United States, the border zone, or jurisdiction, extends a hundred miles inland along the 2,000-mile Mexican border, 4,000-mile Canadian border, and both coasts. That’s a good swath of country where Homeland Security forces operates in what the American Civil Liberties Union has called a “constitution-free zone.”
Over 200 million people, approximately two-thirds of the US population, live in this zone, where the Border Patrol can set up checkpoints, do roving patrols, work with local and state police, and racially profile and target people for arrest, detention, and deportation. Over the last twenty-five years,
the number of agents has ballooned from 4,000 to 21,000, and annual budgets have gone up from $1.5 billion in 1994 to $23 billion in 2018. Detention centers now exceed 250 and can be found throughout the country.
This massive apparatus is only growing larger and becoming more invasive. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has been testing new small- and medium-sized drones with the ability to “fly unnoticed by human hearing and sight” along a “predetermined route observing and reporting unusual activity and identifying faces and vehicles involved in that activity comparing them to profile pictures and license plate data.”
All of this amounts to a gargantuan, and profitable, exclusion apparatus, effectively creating a modern caste system that extends throughout the country and indeed the globe.
Amid the struggle to close down Trump’s concentration camps, activists are again debating what we should demand. Why should we call for an end to the border regime and open borders?
I was just listening to a podcast featuring Vox founder Ezra Klein, who said that he would be open to an argument for open borders if it were shown that it would not destabilize the country. Of course, Klein isn’t the only one with that view, it’s a mainstream one in many ways.
However, what I think is the exact opposite. Hardened borders exist and are proliferating to police a world precisely because the global situation is already precarious and unstable. As I mentioned before, Washington’s climate, economic, and military policies (and to take it further, those of border-building Western regimes such as the European Union and Australia) have wrecked whole sections of the world.
When the United States responds to these people by militarizing the border, it only exacerbates the instability. It doesn’t solve the causes of migration but locks them in place; creates chaos at the border, especially for migrants; stimulates corporate investment in the border regime; compromises our civil rights and liberties; and encourages demagogues like Trump to whip up xenophobia and racism.
I think of the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar who, after removing a piece of the US-Mexico border wall near San Diego, said “I will not accept that this wall is in my face.” The whole purpose of Jarrar’s art is not only to dismantle a border apparatus, but also to transform into something more utilitarian.
For example, he pounded a sledgehammer into the concrete wall that separated west from east Jerusalem, took out chunks of cement, and turned them into sculptures of soccer balls and cleats to give back to the kids whose soccer fields the wall had taken away. I often think of Jarrar’s question: why do we accept that these borders are in our face?
It is akin to accepting a global caste system, a system of segregation long rejected by civil rights movements and internationally condemned by anti-apartheid movements. The one silver lining in the age of Trump is that his racist attacks on refugees and migrants has produced a new movement to challenge and dismantle the global border regime.