October 20, 2014

Insecurities

By Roberto Ontiveros

by Todd Miller.

City Lights

$16.95. 300pp.

Whatever your feelings about how okay or intolerable things have become in our post 9/11 world, whatever airline etiquette has become and what a high school civics class might mean to kids in an age of ever encroaching domestic spying, one thing seems obvious and true: that which was once mundane, legitimate check point border crossing, has now become militarized.

“In one way or another,” says Todd Miller, author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, an enraging expose on the trampling of civil rights and civilized culture, “it seems that the climate is always escalating.

“They [The Department of Homeland Security] are always talking about adding more agents, not reducing the current number. They are always talking about getting new technology, more fencing, more robots, more drones.” There is, to Miller’s mind, “a steady stream of resources that constantly build and add to this apparatus.” And he is quick to add that the current state of super surveillance is already bigger, more outsourced, than it has ever been. “Take Elbit Systems, the Israeli company that was just awarded a multi-million dollar contract by DHS to build high-powered surveillance towers in Arizona.”

Ours is a situation of sprawling over-security that is no longer centered around the southern checkpoints.

“In the southwest people joke about the northern border,” explains Miller. But this no joking matter. Miller states that: “in the north there are evermore Border Patrol agents, often patrolling train and bus stations. There are more and more checkpoints, like we see all over the southwest. There are more and more surveillance towers like those set every few miles on the St. Clair river. There are more and more operation control rooms, with large video screens, watching these rivers flow by. “

As a journalist who in order to fund his research employed a successful internet kickstarter that reached its $4000 goal within a couple of weeks Miller has seen some sobering stuff: a hard working BP agent getting the boot for overheard political views while native Americans are harassed on their own reservation, but the most shocking news came to him from a former Puerto Rican police commander for FURA (the PR police’s border security unit), who had had a number of stories about the yolas (rickety boats) coming across the Mona Strait from the Dominican Republic. “In one occasion, he told me, that 10 people were kept alive in a yola because one of the women aboard had just given birth and fed everyone from her breast.”

Most depressing to Miller is the “suppression of movement and violence and death so often associated with hardened border enforcement. It is clearly one of the ways that the world is divided now, more often than not between rich and poor, between the disproportionately white and the disproportionately people of color.”

Miller, whose work has appeared in the Nation and the New York Times, has been tracking border issue for years now and has seen drones and check point delays and all the usual border deterrents, but was stunned to find a tank along the US Mexico border, and decided to investigate deeper, expressing his concerns thusly: “The borderlands are where so many U.S. policy thrusts meet–such as the wars on terror, drugs, and immigration—and an area where the surveillance and monitoring of targeted people is not abstract at all, it is in your face. This leads to, in my opinion, journalism that is not only raw and full of vibrant stories (as it grapples with a racialized national security clampdown), but also a journalism that is essential to understand, and maybe transcend the world.”

Border Patrol Nation details how the United States-Mexico border has become a war zone, how American citizens are routinely harassed and arrested in Constitution-free areas that extend 100 miles from all borders, how it has in become a normal thing to look up into the Arizona sky and to see Blackhawk helicopters and fixed-wing jets overhead, and how now even a farmer irrigating his land in pajamas can be considered a threat.

What is also measurably alarming in Border Patrol Nation is the shift in mindset that has gone along with this militarization, how acclimatized Americans have become to this new standard of security. The BP is in effect invaded the culture. And so much of what is striking in the world Miller illustrates is the change in mindset, how acclimatized citizens have become to a world of spying, cameras, and intrusion, and even surveillance-oriented entertainment, most notably National Geographic Channel’s Border Wars. “Having seen a number of Border Wars episodes I can’t help but to think that it comes off as a combination between a Hollywood movie and a Border Patrol recruiting video,” says Miller. “There is the intense music. There is the drama. The whole good guy vs. bad guy thing. And to me that is the key. Such television shows parcel the world into good guys and bad guys. And if this good/bad world is successfully transmitted—a world where we need more and more surveillance and agents to fend off evil-doers– then half the public-relations battle is done.”

One of the more distressing points brought to light in Miller’s research is how young people are being essentially conditioned to accept a world of increasing and ever expanding border security.

“I have seen no efforts to curb the trend of Border Patrol involvement with youth,” says Miller, who brings up the fact that in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora there is a vibrant movement and grass-roots push for justice around the shooting death of 16 year old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez (an unarmed boy who died on the Mexican side of the International Street by Border patrol fire) but stipulates that there is little pushback against Border Patrol youth programs, such as the Explorers Academy, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection fitness and training program for young men and women between the ages of 14-21 that bills itself as a bridge to “the job of serving as the guardians of our nation’s borders, America’s frontline.” Explorers get to take field trips, and assist in crowd control while gearing up future careers in the CBP. “As one Border Patrol agent told me during my research, the kids have become “key” to Homeland Security’s relationship with the community.”

Given that the move toward militarized border policing is a sure factor in any U.S. economic future, that many people are banking on the financial pay offs – jobs in BP as well as the sales of weapons tech — of the border security industry, what steps might be taken to counter this trend?

“One big and immediate step could be to take these sort of economic incentives out of any immigration reform bill,” says Miller. “The Senate bill, for example, in June had $46 billion relegated to militarized border policing, which of course creates a lot of economic interests eager to cash in. Also, certainly people should be aware of annual federal budget proposals. For example, if border and immigration enforcement is getting more dollars than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined—including the DEA, the FBI, the U.S. Marshalls—then shouldn’t there be more noise and push-back around that.”

If his investigations have led to alarm Miller has found optimism in the warmth everyday people show in a world that keeps attempting to build more and more walls. “This kindness, hospitality, and ultimately community can inspire people to do extraordinary things, such as stop a deportation bus or offer water to someone in need. It is from here that I can see a new world forming.”

Miller is heartened by what he sees as people finally getting sick of all the detention and deportation. “There is more evidence of people becoming fed-up. An eventual critical mass of people could certainly begin the winds of change.”

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