In February 2013, the Police Executive Research Forum, a highly-respected research organization led by prominent law enforcement officials from throughout the country, recommended that Border Patrol officers stop shooting at people doing nothing more dangerous than throwing rocks, that they stop putting themselves in the path of fleeing vehicles, and that they be instructed that deadly force is never justified only to protect property. Despite having commissioned the PERF’s study, the Border Patrol kept its existence secret for about a year. When word of PERF’s work began to leak, the Border Patrol tried hard to keep the report’s contents confidential. Finally, after enormous pressure lasting many months, the agency released the report in May 2014.
This is how law enforcement works on the front lines of the homeland security state. It is exceptional, deadly, obscure, and to a great extent insulated from public pressure. In his fascinating book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security (City Lights Books 2014), journalist Todd Miller takes us directly to the urban streets, vast dessert expanses, and convention halls where the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, its sibling interior enforcement bureau in the Department of Homeland Security, turn political platitudes about border security into concrete, militarized policy choices with enormous consequences for life, death, and seemingly unlimited expenditures of government funds.
Border security projects, Miller argues, have lobbed the rhetoric, strategies, and hardware of war to the nation’s boundaries, though with special emphasis on the border with México. One security industry entrepreneur told Miller that his company is “‘bringing the battlefield to the border’” (page 44). The Border Patrol’s reliance on the same drones used by the Defense Department—though without the missiles—and advanced radar deployed in Afghanistan certainly lends some credence to this claim (page 44). So too does a Border Patrol community liaison’s response to a member of the Tohono O’odham indigenous nation who asks about surveillance equipment installed without explanation on its reservation along the Mexican border by saying, “We don’t have to tell the nation anything about our operations” (page 148).
By tapping the federal government’s deep pockets and the private security industry’s unlimited ability to equip government agency for any task (even if that equipment ultimately proves ineffectual), “[b]order enforcement has become business as usual” (page 37). In the name of border security, the federal government has created a “white-collar Border Patrol regime” that annually transfers billions upon billions of dollars to the slew of companies and academic institutions that allow law enforcement agencies to police the border (page 41).
Miller clearly lays out the intricate border security network across its public and private pieces. For this he ought to be commended. But while the scope and details are new, this story’s broad strokes won’t catch the border observer by surprise, as he subtly acknowledges when he write that United States-México borderlands of the late 1990s “showed us the future” that we live today (page 284). Indeed, scholars from a variety of disciplines have chronicled the border’s evolution quite perceptibly—the geographer Joseph Nevins in Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S-Mexico Boundary, the sociologist Robert Lee Maril in his The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigrants Along the US-Mexico Border, the sociologist Timothy Dunn in his The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992: Low Intensity Conflict Doctrine Comes Home, and the historian Mae Ngai in her Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, to name only a few. To his credit, Miller openly relies on much of this body of scholarship.
Where Miller is at his strongest, however, is in his ability to wield the journalist’s eye to contextualize and humanize what is happening along the country’s borders. The days when the boundary was confined to an imaginary line across the dessert are gone. Under the guise of immigration violations, drug trafficking, and terrorism, the Border Patrol and ICE have extended the border. It is now everywhere, Miller claims. From well-known centers near the United States’ southern boundary, homeland security policing pops up in rural upstate New York (page 155), Miami bus stations (page 12), Southwest Detroit (page 161), and more.
The border’s omnipresence poses as many challenges as it does opportunities. It threatens to destroy lives like those of the woman who gets detained in Sodus, New York while on her way to the grocery store with her three-year-old daughter in tow (page 155). It destabilizes traditional ways of life that long preceded the border’s construction (page 149). And it clashes against values that the United States ostensibly cherishes, as the agent who vocalizes an appreciation of his Mexican heritage and his support for drug decriminalization learns when he loses his job (page 97). No one is immune from the homeland security state’s piercing view and its ability to identify those among us who are “un-American”—its power “to gate people into a world of clear and enforceable divisions,” as Miller writes (page 316).
Despite the distressing reports that Miller conveys, there are seeds of resistance that provide some hope. Immigrants’ rights advocates, for example, have organized call trees that are activated when immigration officials detain an activist, sometimes even leading to spectacular scenes in which activists engage in civil disobedience to prevent the government from removing migrants (page 312). Others have taken to the courts or to disrupting industry gatherings (page 316).
These resistance movements are operating in rich historical soil. The activists who use their bodies to physically halt deportations are tapping the model used by nineteenth century abolitionists who worked tirelessly to stop suspected slaves from being transported into the southern United States under the Fugitive Slave Act. Meanwhile, those who rely on litigation find their work resonating with the mid-twentieth century’s civil rights struggles. Like both of those historical predecessors to today’s immigrants’ rights advocacy, the trajectory to a more humane social and legal regime was anything but straightforward. What Miller shows, however, is that today’s advocates are in this fight for the long run, though with a view to making an impact in the short run as well. In conveying that hopeful story of resistance, Miller does us all a favor and for that reason everyone interested in immigration or runaway border securitization would do well to add Border Patrol Nation to their reading lists.
Find this information useful? Then let others know about crImmigration.com, as well as César’s Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn pages. And to make sure you don’t miss an update, subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the subscription box that appears on every page.