The border, in the abstract, can seem like a simple, objective thing, just a line on a map that gives a country its shape. And because securing and enforcing that line—what people call border security—can seem just as obvious and self-evident, people of very different political stripes can find themselves taking the border for granted, as something natural and normal and given.
Journalist Todd Miller’s Empire of Borders is about how dramatically and completely this easy simplicity can mislead us about what the border really is, where it is, and where it is going. Borders aren’t just there. Not only were they made (often arbitrarily and with great cruelty and violence), but the US border, in particular, extends far beyond the frontier line that separates one country from another, even far beyond the 100-mile range that Homeland Security considers the border zone. The US border is a massive global apparatus, an interconnected network of partnerships, funding, multinational industries, and international agreements, stretching across every continent and saturating the world. Most important, it’s still growing. With a climate-changed future on the horizon—and the prospect of climate refugees from around the globe growing exponentially—walls and fences and towers are proliferating, as the global border security industrial complex accelerates its efforts. From his home in Arizona, Miller tracks the border from Guatemala and Honduras to the Caribbean, Israel, the Philippines, and Kenya, interviewing subjects on every side of that multidimensional line.
I recently spoke with Miller about tracking the border and reporting on it. Our conversation has been edited for style and content.
Aaron Bady: How did you start working on this topic?
Todd Miller: The idea first occurred to me in 2012, when I was on the west coast of Puerto Rico, on a research trip for my book Border Patrol Nation. I saw the same green-striped Border Patrol vehicles roving the west coast as in southern Arizona, where I live. When I learned that Border Patrol could legally operate only 30 miles away from the Dominican coast—since the Mona Island was a US territory—I thought, “Wow, this thing, the border, is so much more extensive than I realized.” Mind you, this was all happening a thousand miles from the US mainland. Then, when I went to the Dominican Republic to investigate US funding and training of the DR’s border patrol, for the border with Haiti, I really began to see the multiple, widespread, programs that were, as officials would say, pushing out the border.
AB: What does that mean, “pushing out the border”?
TM: Well, the idea that the US border is just the boundary line with Mexico, for example, is not true. It’s much bigger and more expansive. In 2004, [Customs and Border Protection] Commissioner Robert Bonner talked about “extending our zone of security where we can do so, beyond our physical borders—so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense.” And during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly said that “border security cannot be attempted as an endless series of goal line stands on the one-foot line at the ports of entry or along the thousands of miles of border between this country and Mexico.”
“The defense of the southwest border,” he said, “starts 1,500 miles to the south, with Peru.”
AB: But it also blurs borders into one another, into one single, continuous, global border regime. You write about the “Palestine-Mexico” border, for example, the way technologies, techniques, and even laws are being standardized across the world, the way border control is a kind of globalization.
TM: The Palestine example is a good one to demonstrate how this works. “Smart wall” technology gets tested out in the occupied Palestinian territories first, like the West Bank wall. “Smart wall” means walls that are either equipped with or reinforced by sensor systems, cameras, radar systems, drones, and linked to command and control centers. These are technologies of segregation, of apartheid. But if a company can show that their technology is effective, like the Haifa-based company Elbit Systems claims in the West Bank, they can then sell it to other countries for their own border and homeland security enforcement systems. It’s field-tested. If it works in the occupation of Palestine, the argument goes, then it can work everywhere else.
And that is exactly what is happening. In 2014, Elbit got a contract from US Customs and Border Protection to build 52 surveillance towers in southern Arizona, for the border with Mexico. But now that those towers are being deployed, they get showcased to other countries as a model of what US border enforcement is. This also leads to another big part of the US pushing out the borders—sending officials to the other borders around the world so they can diagnose the problems with that border and give recommendations that result in trainings and resource transfers and suggestions for technology deployments. They can suggest, for example, that other countries adopt smart walls that were first developed in occupied Palestine, modeled in Arizona, but coming to a country near you. So this is a way that the global border system propagates and standardizes itself, a globalization of essentially oppressive technologies of exclusion and division for profit.
AB: Though this book is journalism—you go places, talk to people, and report—it’s also an effort to reframe and redefine what we’re talking about when we discuss something as innocuous-sounding as border security. For example, would it be fair to say this book makes an argument that “border security” is another name for “empire”?
TM: Yes, that’s fair. I think the term “border security” needs to be eliminated. At the very least, journalists should stop using it because it’s inaccurate. And it’s been repeated so many times that it’s lost its meaning. It sounds nice because there’s the word “security” in it, and who could be against that? But who is border enforcement providing security for? Certainly not border crossers. A prevention through deterrence strategy is explicitly designed to make crossings as dangerous as possible. And it’s certainly not for the people who live in the border zones, which become a militarized zone where you can’t go to the doctor, grocery store, or your middle school without going through Homeland Security checkpoints.
On top of that, the term “border security” creates the delusion that the US is fending off evil from the other side of the border, paying no attention to the US’s political, economic, and military policies that are impacting the magnitude of displacement. I mean, who would think that free trade pacts that privilege US companies, elite oligarchies, and rely on a ferocious marginalization of large swaths of population around the Americas and the world, would impact people being displaced? So, yes, I think that border security should be synonymous with “empire.” It’s not just one line of division, like the international boundary with Mexico. It’s a global system of borders. The expansion of the US border, in cooperation with other countries, forms a scaffolding through which business as usual can continue, keeping in place the status quo of a world of frightening inequalities and in ecological collapse. And, of course, the people that suffer the most are kept in line.
In a sense, what border control is best at is punishing and controlling people born on the wrong side of the wall, creating a hierarchical system, even a caste system. In Bridget Anderson, Nandita Sharma, and Cynthia Wright’s essay “Why No Borders?”—which I highly recommend—they argue that “any study of national borders needs to start with the recognition that they are thoroughly ideological. While they are presented as filters, sorting people into desirable and non-desirable, skilled and unskilled, genuine and bogus, worker, wife, refugee, etc., national borders are better analyzed as molds, as attempts to create certain types of subjects and subjectivities.”
AB: You describe the George W. Bush administration’s paradigm shift from conceiving the border as a line or wall around the US toward policing and preventing the movements of entire peoples. But it also is a line, just a line imprisoning particular countries, around the global poor.
TM: Well, it’s both. The border functions as a line, but when you think about interior or international expansion, it becomes a set of lines, layers of lines, line after line after line, becomes omnipresent. This is especially true after a border crossing, because it redefines you and your relationship with the state. If you are unauthorized, the border will follow you. Cross the US border, you’ll still have to cross the 100-mile zone. Past the 100-mile zone, you’ll still have to deal with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. The border keeps going with you, in different manifestations—bureaucratic lines, judicial lines, DMV lines, all emanating from the international border line. I don’t know how you can call it anything else than state-sanctioned xenophobia.
But the same thing happens if you cross into Mexico without papers from, say, Guatemala. Your unauthorized status will force you to avoid 200 miles of checkpoints into the interior of Mexico, but there is also the US’s seemingly odd but very standardized relationship with Mexico. Though Mexico’s citizens are heavily policed by the United States, Mexico polices Central Americans on behalf of the United States. There’s a hierarchy of policing, with the global poor policing the global poor.
AB: There’s a lot of overlap between your books. Storming the Wall is a climate change book, for example, but because you wrote Border Patrol Nation, you approach the subject in a very distinct way.
TM: Empire of Borders is a global version of Border Patrol Nation that advances the climate analysis and reporting from Storming the Wall. When I was finishing Storming the Wall in late 2016 and early 2017, I was learning about how the 7,000-island Philippines is facing sea-level rise, flooding, and storms of unheard-of destruction, but I was also learning how the US cooperates with the [Philippine] Coast Guard, like the $20 million maritime command center in the Manila Bay, financed by the United States and built by Raytheon. It was simultaneous.
AB: How much do you think the global security complex is driven by its awareness of climate change and anticipation of future climate refugees?
TM: You hear climate change mentioned more and more in homeland security market forecasts, explicitly cast as one of its drivers. And in the 25 years the UN has had global climate summits, border walls around the world have increased from 15 to more than 70. Every Pentagon assessment in the future has climate change front and center, and DHS recognizes this too in its action plan and quadrennial reviews/mission statement. DHS also calls climate change a “black swan.” With the climate crisis, there are potentially situations that are much worse than we are anticipating now and that DHS, and particularly its border and immigration enforcement apparatus, will have to react to.
AB: I wonder how aware the border security industry is about the future we’re facing. If we look at how the climate is changing and think about how that will likely impact global migration, if 100 million or 200 million people are displaced by 2050, for example—a conservative projection—then you could argue that only the far right is really preparing for a post–climate change world by building walls, camps, and xenophobic legal regimes.
TM: I think that’s correct, regarding the military, DHS, and the surrounding industries. Efforts on climate change are in constant stall mode. Is it real or not? Human caused or not? It creates a smokescreen that limits public debate. But the Pentagon, border forces, and their surrounding industries are looking into and planning for that future. Think about it this way: The Pentagon has teams of skilled risk assessors, and there’s no way they’re going to deny the 97 percent consensus of scientists as they contemplate the world 10, 20, 30, 50, or 100 years into the future. So while they’re actively working to create future battlegrounds and borderscapes, the rest of us are debating dynamics that should have been and were settled in the 1970s.
AB: How do border security people think about the future? There’s a strange casualness you record when these people are talking about Big Brother–type surveillance, even using those kinds of words.
TM: Going to the expo halls where private industry peddles their surveillance wares sometimes seems like walking into a great cathedral of science fiction, of drones, robots, facial recognition, all inspired by the very dystopic futures of hard science fiction. But rather than fear, they fetishize the technology that will “solve” our problems. On one reporting trip, I went to the 2017 Border Security Expo, and David Aguilar—the former Border Patrol chief and CBP commissioner who now works for a private company, GSIS—stood before an audience of Border Patrol types and corporate executives, and after a discussion of all the biometric technologies being implemented, he said, “Wasn’t this getting kind of Orwellian?” And then, like he was letting us all in on the secret, “We have Big Brothers and Sisters all over the place.”
AB: What was the audience’s reaction?
TM: Oh, it was a collective chuckle. “Yes, exactly that!”
AB: What’s it like to interview people whose positions you fundamentally disagree with? Or with whom you have a basic lack of shared perspective about the problems they’re addressing?
TM: I go into every interview with an open mind. With officials or agents or other workers of the apparatus, like from the private sector, I want to learn as much about them as possible, as much about the nature of the apparatus they work for as I possibly can. I want to hear their justifications and reasoning. It is important to me, especially when asking digging questions, not to be antagonistic.
AB: Of course, sometimes they don’t want to talk. I was struck by the sentence “If you get too close to the security apparatus, they will interrogate you.” Does the border resist being reported on?
TM: It happened to me in Kenya. I was interviewing a commandant from the Kenyan police who had worked on the borders, and there were two or three times when I was no longer interviewing him. Suddenly, he was questioning me: How did I get to Nairobi from the Maasai Mara? How much money did I spend to do that? Did I register with the embassy? Who are you? You seem nice, but how am I to be sure what your intentions are? etc. Another time when I went to interview a CBP agent in Detroit, the agent immediately asked me for my credentials, then asked me for a list of pieces I had written. On his phone, he began to Google me as I sat there directly in front of him.
The border apparatus absolutely resists being reported on, unless it’s on its own terms, which is basically its public relations line. Since the nature of the work they do is both inescapably violent and clandestine, this means that some of the most hypersurveilled places on planet Earth—including deadly borderscapes and incarceration camps—never reach a TV screen or a news report.
AB: Do you think emphasizing what’s novel about Donald Trump’s border policies can distract in a counterproductive way from the longer history of US exclusion through the Cold War to 9/11?
TM: I think it’s very important to tell the long story. Trump didn’t make the heinous immigration enforcement apparatus we’ve had for so many years. He’s a manifestation of it. But an interesting thing Trump has done is denormalize what had been normalized in previous administrations. Many people are seeing the utter brutality of the border and immigration apparatus for the first time, when it has been going on for so many years. Certainly, Trump is ratcheting part of it up, like forcing families apart right on the border. And he’s doing it in front of TV cameras, like a performance for his constituency.
But there is a danger of treating Trump like an anomaly, which is what much of the media seems to be doing. Erasing the long history also erases how this bipartisan system of exclusion was created, the countless billions invested in it since Bill Clinton took office in the early 1990s, how the Border Patrol went from 4,000 to 21,000, how 650 miles of walls and barriers have already been constructed, how more than 30,000 people have been incarcerated on any given day in an assortment of prison camps, and 400,000 people expelled and banished from the country per year, not to mention the 23 CBP attachés around the world. That long predates Trump. If you think this border immigration apparatus only came when Trump took power, the solution then seems to be as simple as voting Trump out. It’s not that simple.