If you, like many Americans, believe that the United States Border Patrol—tasked with fighting terrorism, illegal immigration and drugs—operates primarily along the border between the United States and Mexico, you’ve got another think coming. As Todd Miller explains in his explosive new book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security, the “Border Security Industrial Complex” has grown rapidly since 9/11, using billions of taxpayer dollars to fund surprising projects including watching construction workers in South Carolina; protecting the Super Bowl; recruiting teenagers; and even monitoring international borders, like the one between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
In fact, reports Miller, the $18 billion spent on border and immigration enforcement per year 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. While acknowledging that the massive expenditure of money seems “uncontroversial and unstoppable” to most people, Miller’s approach in Border Patrol Nation is to offer a glimpse into the secretive operations of the Border Patrol, reporting with a journalist’s objectivity and nose for a good story. Miller’s book is full of facts, and it’s clear he’s outraged, but he gives voices to people on every side of the issue.
Miller’s book is a fascinating read. His profiles of individuals, like a committed border agent who was expelled for mentioning that he is proud of his Mexican-American identity, are compelling and bring the work of Susan Orlean to mind. And when introducing readers to, for example, the Explorer Academy, which operates nationwide to teach teens the fundamentals of Customs and Border Patrol work, like chasing and handcuffing illegal immigrants, Miller strives to understand both the appeal of these programs and their sinister implications.
Unlike many reports from the border, Miller talks to both guards (who often just want a job that pays the bills—and strive to feel proud of their work) and frightened immigrants. He meets with politicians and people on the street. As we become engaged with the lives of Miller’s subjects, we are moved to consider the issues at play—a winning strategy to encourage critical thinking about the ways America is becoming a “Border Patrol Nation.”
Miller has written about border issues for 15 years. The first work of journalism he ever published was a photo of the Army Corps of Engineers constructing the border wall in Douglas, Ariz., in 1998. Before then, says Miller, border issues had been described as more of a “crisis terminology.” Even the border guards in the Arizona desert, he explains, saw the problem as a humanitarian one: People were dying in the desert trying to reach the U.S., and “something wrong was happening.” After 9/11, however, Miller began to see an abundance of money and technology being aimed at the issue, leading to an enthusiasm—a sense that border issues were an exciting problem to be solved and a huge new source of jobs and revenue). As a surveillance camera salesman puts it in Border Patrol Nation, “We’re bringing the battlefield to the border.”
In Border Patrol Nation, Miller takes readers inside numerous unexpected situations, like the sold-out Seventh Annual Border Security Expo, held in a Phoenix convention hall in 2012. “In Arizona, there was once a time when copper mining drove the state’s fiscal prosperity,” he writes. “In many ways, that economic force has been replaced by the business of border control.” And what a business it is! We meet William “Drew” Dodds, who cheerily sells “Freedom-On-The-Move,” a mobile video camera setup. The vast array of thermal imaging systems, ready-to-eat pocket sandwiches (with shelf lives of three years), unmanned aerial drones and Brief Relief plastic urine bags comes to vivid life.
The borders being monitored are no longer just between the U.S. and other countries. At the expo, Miller sees a sign behind one booth reading, “You Draw the Line and We’ll Help You Secure It.” Miller writes that it is “as if the lines in question could be placed anywhere by whoever has the power to do so.”
Miller visits some unexpected border outposts where the might of the CBP seems disproportionate to the possible threats and where cutting-edge technology is largely being used to hassle immigrants. In the small town of Ridgeland, S.C., agents set up checkpoints outside of the trailer parks that house the construction crews who “sculpted and landscaped gigantic gated communities built around golf courses and fake waterfalls.” Miller reports from Miami, Fla., during the Super Bowl, where armies of Customs and Border Protection agents practice rappelling from helicopters in bulletproof vests and scour the coastline. (In one failed mission, they intercept a “large vessel crammed with old mattresses bound for Haiti.”)
Miller was used to seeing Border Patrol vehicles around his home along the southern border in Arizona. But seeing the “sleek, shiny, green-striped vehicles” in other places like Niagara Falls; Erie, Pa., and many of the Rust Belt cities struck him as “shocking.” These are places, says Miller, where “industry has shrunk, people are leaving, yet border patrol and homeland security is actually growing.” When Miller interviews a CBP spokesperson in Detroit about what they are doing at the northern border, the spokesperson answers, “Deterring terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction.” Miller tells me, “I've never, ever heard of a weapon of mass destruction crossing the border.” And though his subjects also admit they’ve never caught a terrorist crossing at the northern border, some say terrorism arrests might be kept secret for national security reasons. Miller recalls a story of a Czech would-be immigrant who was caught trying to swim across a lake to Rochester, N.Y. “They nabbed him dripping wet in his Speedo,” Miller chuckles.
There’s a grim fascination readers may feel reading about a “Border Patrol Nation” that seems surreal, but it is hard to be hopeful. “Eradicating border violations is given higher priority than eradicating malnutrition, poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, unemployment and all other serious needs that communities in so many places like Niagara Falls have,” Miller writes. Still, Miller believes that as Americans become more aware that they are putting billions and billions of dollars into an ill-defined “border war” while losing their houses and basic services, the misguided effort will encourage critical thought. Border Patrol Nation spurs such awareness. “That would be my hope, at least,” Miller says.
Amanda Eyre Ward’s new novel, Homecoming, takes place along the Texas-Mexico border and will be published in 2015.