Todd Miller’s powerful prose belies what one hopes is a growing sense of outrage at the inhuman and racist goals of U.S. border enforcement. His journeys from place to place and the complexities he presents within the Border Patrol itself provide the reader with a comprehensive picture of what’s wrong in the United States.
Todd Miller. Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security. City Lights Books, 2013.
These are wild times to be a border cop. They have big salaries, new toys, and all kinds of powers to roam the country racially profiling people, and detaining those without proof that they crossed the border legally. An increasing number of agents are returned combat vets who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, who bring warlike attitudes to their work in the U.S. But this (mostly) boy’s club is not without its drawbacks: it is also a place permeated by a culture of militaristic racism where having a different opinion can get you blacklisted.
Border Patrol Nation, Todd Miller’s first book, is an in-depth look at how border enforcement has expanded drastically following 9-11. Since then, he reports, the government has spent $791 billion on Homeland Security, the agency responsible for border control. Miller convincingly argues that the expanding phenomenon of militarized border control is something that should concern all of us. He reports that in 2012, “The $18 billion spent on border and immigration enforcement outdoes all other federal law enforcement bodies combined including the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.” The money is also flowing outside of the U.S., to agents and client states in order to tighten their borders and prevent migration north.
The statistics are staggering. Border Patrol Nation details that prior to 1986, there were rarely more than 2,000 people deported each year. “By the late 1990s, the U.S. government was deporting more than 40,000 people annually, still only a fraction of what we see today. By the early 2010s, Homeland Security was expelling well over 400,000 people per year from the United States.” This drastic increase in deportations has taken place just as a variety of U.S. states, most famously Arizona, but also Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah have passed laws obliging local and state police to enforce immigration law.
Though much of the book is devoted to documenting the work of the border warriors, Miller also meets with a wide range of families and communities affected by racist border policing. He documents their stories with great care, and succeeds in showing the cruel absurdity of a massive police force dedicated to criminalizing and deporting hardworking people who are mothers and fathers, and their children, simply because they do not have residency. As in Canada and elsewhere, Miller notes that people who open the door to their home even just a crack give border police license to force their way in without a warrant.
Miller effectively reveals how the issues faced by undocumented people in the United States are almost totally removed from the experiences of white America. In one scene, he describes a conversation he had with an undocumented 17-year-old in a town called Sodus, outside of Rochester, New York. The young man did a poll at his high school to determine how many of the white kids there knew what was happening with immigration raids and detention locally. His finding? “They don’t have a clue what is happening to us, to the Hispanic population.”
Though he’s based on the U.S.-Mexico border, Miller takes us to various border worlds. The book starts and ends at the Super Bowl, which he likens to a showpiece for public-private policing and for the creation of entertainment from border enforcement. He takes us to his hometown of Niagara Falls, which is across an increasingly policed line from Canada. He brings us to the sovereign lands of the Tohono O’odham nation, where locals estimate that the majority of resident have suffered abuses at the hands of border agents. He also takes us to the Dominican Republic, where U.S. Customs and Border Patrol plays a role in ensuring the border with Haiti is strictly enforced.
It is at a checkpoint along the river between the Dominican Republic and Haiti that Miller powerfully explains how massacres are often part of border building. There, Dominican forces under U.S.-supported dictator Rafael Trujillo killed an estimated 20,000 people in 1937. “The expulsion of Haitians and the massacre—which mostly targeted Haitians but also included dark skinned Dominicans—were the acts that imposed the Dominican-Haitian border,” he writes.
But lest we believe that such barbaric acts took place only in locations on the edges of empire, Miller reminds us of the history of the borderlines in the continental U.S. “What happened in 1937 could’ve been anywhere. It could have been the tens of thousands dead and wounded during the Mexican-American war, strewn in what is now the U.S. Mexico borderlands with the blood of Manifest Destiny. It could have been the slaughter of 5,000 during the War of 1812, establishing only a small portion of the international boundary between the United States and Canada, and the imposition of U.S. territory on the Iroquois,” writes Miller.
Todd Miller’s powerful prose belies what one hopes is a growing sense of outrage at the inhuman and racist goals of U.S. border enforcement. His journeys from place to place and the complexities he presents within the Border Patrol itself provide the reader with a comprehensive picture of what’s wrong in the United States. This is a book that should not be ignored.