Empire of Borders: On Security, Democracy and the Money Behind the Expanding Global Border System

An interview with Todd Miller

Todd Miller, winner of the 2018 Izzy Award for investigative journalism, has written three books about borders. On October 22, he gave a talk at Ithaca College on his newest book, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border around the World (Verso, 2019).

CUSLAR intern Daniela Rivero spoke with him about his book writing process and the greater implications of his findings. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Daniela Rivero: How did you get interested in writing about borders?

Todd Miller: I grew up in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and I remember waking up every day and looking at the border. Simultaneously, my grandmother is from the Philippines, so I heard stories about her life in the Philippines and how she came to live in the U.S. Then I lived in Mexico for a year, so those three things were foundational to my interest in borders.

DR: One of the main questions you grapple with in your book is, “What is the U.S. Border?” What threads did you follow, and what conclusions did they bring you to?

TM: I’ve written three books on borders, and in each of those I had some major concepts that I was looking into. The first book, Border Patrol Nation, looks at the post 9/11 expansion of the border. I could see all around where I lived in Tucson, Arizona that there was so much money being put into this border apparatus.

I looked at different angles that were powerful but weren’t being covered. Not just at the border itself, but expanding 100 miles into the interior of the country where Border Patrol has jurisdiction.

There are all kinds of private companies getting contracts, and there are these things called Border Security expos. I started going to those. Those events are wild, because you see vendors trying to sell high-tech cameras and drones, robots, biometrics and facial recognition technologies to government agencies all in one place. I started getting key interviews with people in those places. I would ask them, “Why are you doing this?” “Where is this industry going?” That was the concept for Border Patrol Nation: what does Border Patrol mean, and what are the facets of it?

The next book, Storming the Wall, is about the relationship between borders and climate change. There are assessments coming from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security showing that climate change is displacing people. But in their recommendations, there’s not much about a climate refugee status but rather of building up borders. So I started paying attention to that logic.

I went to the Philippines for the first time, to my grandmother’s island. I learned that it was slowly but surely being eaten by the sea. If the sea comes, then you can no longer live there. What does that mean in terms of global migration? What does that mean in a world where there were 15 border walls when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and now there are 77?

That book led me to this newest book, Empire of Borders. Here I’m asking, what is the global border system? What is the United States presence in it? How far does the U.S. border expand? Does it expand all the way around the world? After extensive research, my answer to all those questions was yes.

I followed the money: where it went, what programs it went to, where were these programs located, what were these programs doing in the places they were located. Why are they financing trainings by U.S. Border Patrol agents? Why are they bringing in armored cars from the United States? Why are they getting weapons and surveillance technology?

I went to Kenya looked at the border systems, and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol was there. I went to Israel and Palestine, I went to the Syria-Jordan border, the Philippines, the Mexico-Guatemala Border, the Guatemala-Honduran Border. CBP was everywhere. Why?

The most devious thing of it all is that it’s framed with this idea of border security, which is very accepted on a mainstream level. But when you look at borders, they don’t create security for anyone — they

make people’s lives insecure. Everywhere you look, borders are designed to make people’s lives more insecure. The security is not for people, it’s for a system. Its tentacles are going around the world causing upheaval in many places. And if you add ecological impacts, the assessments being done by DHS and the Pentagon are are looking at this global border system as a way of managing the blowback of their policies. So that’s the way we have to look at it, too.

DR: We are so used to sitting comfortably in the notion of the U.S. as democracy. What are the implications of writing a book about the U.S. Border system and titling it Empire of Borders?

TM: You have a territorial border of the United States, and then you have this other border, a bigger one, which expands way further, that you could call the border of the U.S. geopolitical and economic interests. The latter is where you see all these border programs going to. The Middle East is a perfect example. Oil reserves in the Middle East are pumping out oil, and the United States is in Jordan, they are bombing Syria, and then we have the brutal occupation of Iraq. So you have places that are the blowback of U.S. geopolitics and militarism, and those are the same places where you have the border systems going up.

You asked about the notion of democracy. Are we a democracy? We’re doing things in other countries that they can’t vote upon, and that in terms of electoral democracy is not very democratic. When you think of the border system, every year we see more and more money put toward the global border system without much public debate about it. I think of that as antidemocratic.

I wrote a report recently for the Trans National Institute looking into the corporations that are making money off of border contracts. Every time a budget appropriation cycle goes into effect, these corporations are all over the place, and they’re talking to the key appropriation committee members. So while there is a debate going on in terms of territorial border expansion and enforcement, it’s behind closed doors.

DR: How does the global expansion of borders affect communities?

TM: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, you have the rise of this new economic world order of globalization and global capitalism. In the ’80s you start seeing neoliberal economic models being pushed around the world, and then in the ’90s you start seeing free trade agreements. It’s interesting to return to the history of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement,. Doris Meisner, commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), stood in front of a Congressional hearing in 1992 after NAFTA had been passed, and said, “We’re going to need to harden our borders because of NAFTA, because it’s going to cause immigration from Mexico.”

You could call her words prophetic because that’s exactly what happened. NAFTA was an open-border policy for corporations, written by corporations. Small farmers in Mexico who were producing corn had a guaranteed price and subsidies from the Mexican government, but that went away under NAFTA. Then companies like Cargill could go in and undercut these farmers. This caused displacement, so Meisner was correct.

Since she was the INS commissioner, her suggestion that they harden the borders was very much followed. So then you see operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line, Safeguard, and Rio Grande Valley happening in the 1990s. In Nogales, Arizona where I lived, in March of 1994, three months after the implementation of NAFTA, they took out the chainlink fence and put in the first version of the wall that we see today. And from there you see by the end of the Clinton administration unprecedented growth from $123 million to $4.2 billion in funding for immigration enforcement and border security.

Everywhere I visited, the border was an imposition. There wasn’t any real reason for a border to be there because they divided people with common cultures, and common languages. In Rantha, Jordan met a man who could no longer visit his grandmother. At the Kenya-Tanzania border, I learned that the border divided the Masaii people.

Everywhere you look, borders are an imposition. The African borders came from the Berlin conference of 1884, and not one person from Africa was invited to that conference. It was all European powers that sliced up Africa to their liking, dividing communities. And when independence movements happened in the 20th century, the borders stayed, and they’re still there. And even if they’re not all heavily enforced, they are debilitating.

With the U.S.-Mexico border, the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo seized half of Mexico’s territory. The word “treaty” undermines the brutal imposition that actually occurred. It split the Tohono O’odham land in half without ever consulting them, so the colonial nature of the border is very present. You could go to any border, and it’s a colonial imposition. No matter where you are, the border is imposed by some other power. Then we’re supposed to forget about that moment, and the border becomes sacrosanct. You can’t touch the border, and then this necessitates border security. These borders are not natural.

DR: One of the trends you illustrate in your books is a strong solidarity among the global elite in their push to develop a global border system. Do you also see solidarity among affected communities and people who are resisting? What possibilities are present?

TM: I always think about a Palestinian artist named Kalil Gerar. His art has been dedicated to turning walls and immigration enforcement into something more utilitarian. He’s one of the artists who took a sledgehammer to the Western Wall and started tearing it down himself. But really what he was doing was taking cement chunks and melting them down to make sculptures. One of his sculptures was of a soccer ball, bacause he was talking to Palestinian youth who said the wall had cut their soccer field in half. Gerar also did a film called The Infiltrators where he documented Palestinian resistance to the walls, and how every day thousands of Palestinians figure out how to get through the walls, around the walls, over the walls, and under the walls for different reasons.

The whole border system, at least in its current manifestation, is actually fairly new. In the ’80s, Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”.We were against walls. We went from a world that was more inclined to say “tear down this wall,” even coming from a Republican like Reagan, to one that is now galvanized by the rhetoric of “Build the wall!”

The idea of border security is said ad nauseum, and everyone nods their head at that. The word security is not unpacked. Who would be against security? That’s how it’s put forth not only to politicians but to the public. We need to unpack that word. Why are you telling us that security means putting up a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to stop somebody on the other side of the wall who’s going to take something from us, or kill us. We’re being told to fear something that’s elsewhere, so we need a wall. 

Simultaneously our children are drinking leaded water that is causing them harm. Affordable housing has been cut so much that when people have their homes foreclosed, they end up living on the streets. Forty million people in the United States live in poverty, and medical bills are driving people into bankruptcy. All of that causes massive insecurity in people. 

Those sorts of things are not put into the framework on security. When you’re talking about security, you’re talking about the wellbeing for all of humanity. You’re talking about eliminating divisions, and you’re looking at a world where everyone has their rights to education and health matched. That’s security. So when you think about it in that framework, the border system is dissolved. The world doesn’t have to be organized this way. 

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