A World of Bikes, Not Walls?: Demilitarizing the Border

From the mountaintops of southern Arizona, you can see a world without borders. I realized this just before I met Juan Carlos. I was about 20 miles from the border but well within the militarized zone that abuts it. I was, in fact, atop the Baboquivari mountain range, a place sacred to the Tohono O’odham, the Native American people who have inhabited this land for thousands of years. At that moment, however, I couldn’t see a single Border Patrol agent or any sign of what, in these years, I’ve come to call the border-industrial complex. On the horizon were just sky and clouds — and mountain ranges like so many distant waves. I couldn’t tell where the United States ended or Mexico began, and it didn’t matter.

I was reminded of astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s reaction when he gazed back at Earth from the moon: “It was [a] beautiful, harmonious, peaceful-looking planet, blue with white clouds, and one that gave you a deep sense… of home, of being, of identity. It is what I prefer to call instant global consciousness.”

A couple hours after my own peaceful moment of global consciousness, Juan Carlos appeared at the side of a dirt road. I was by then driving in a desolate stretch of desert and he was waving his arms in distress. I halted the car and lowered the window. “Do you want some water?” I asked in Spanish, holding out a bottle, which he promptly chugged down.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” I asked.

“Can you give me a ride to the next town?”

At that moment, my vision of a borderless world evaporated. Even though I couldn’t see them, I could feel the proximity of armed border agents in their green-striped trucks. Perhaps one of the high-tech surveillance towers in the area already had us in its scope. Maybe I had tripped a motion sensor and a Predator B drone was flying over the car. Unfortunately, I knew far too much about one of the most surveilled borders on this planet and how it’s designed to create a potentially deadly crisis for people like Juan Carlos who cross it.

Although this particular incident happened a couple years ago, the U.S. border strategy still regularly forces such migrants into the deep and dangerous desert, as has been true for the last quarter-century.

The reason I so palpably felt the surveillance system all around me was because I knew that I was risking a prison sentence if I gave a ride to Juan Carlos, who told me he was from Guatemala. So, I hesitated. The natural impulse to help a fellow human being was almost instantly overridden by a law making it a felony to transport him and in any way further his presence in this country.

My hesitation both infuriated me and reminded me of how borders can be internalized. I had to think about what the Border Patrol would notice if they pulled me over, particularly that Juan Carlos only spoke Spanish and that he had brown skin. They would assume he was undocumented. Such racial profiling is encoded in the border-security paradigm.

In the end, I wrote a whole book, Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Bordersas a kind of meditation on that moment of hesitation and how it acted like a prism through which I could reflect on my two decades of border reporting. But the book is also a reckoning with the border itself, based on conversations I had with refugees, migrants like Juan Carlos, Border Patrol agents seeking out those like him, border-industrial complex officials making money off such voyagers, journalists and scholars covering the never-ending “crisis” there, indigenous people watching their lands being walled off, and those among them who have visions of how all of this can work differently.

One of the most important conversations of all came with someone who will inherit this wall-plagued world of ours, my five-year-old son, William. One day, on a beach south of San Diego, a Border Patrol agent yelled at him as he ran toward the tall, steel-barred wall there at the border to greet people waving from the other side, in Tijuana, Mexico. I remember him sitting in the sand, trying to grasp why that agent wouldn’t let him go to the fence and be friendly. Later, when we talked over the incident, he asked me: “Why can’t we turn the wall into bikes?”

A good question and, with Donald Trump and his talk of a “big, fat, beautiful wall” gone, there’s been lots of news coverage about Biden-era immigration reform, about “fixing a broken system.”  While my expectations are low, there also couldn’t be a better moment to begin to demilitarize our border and turn it into something else. As my son suggested, another world, a world of bikes, not walls — both more humane and more sustainable — is not only possible, but essential to pursue.

Read the rest here as first published at TomDispatch.

We Are All at the Border Now, An Excerpt of Build Bridges, Not Walls in The Markaz Review

I see a man on the edge of the road. He looks both desperate and ragged and waves his arms for me to pull over my car. We are in southern Arizona, about twenty miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Behind the man is the Sonoran Desert — beautiful twisting saguaros, prickly pear, and cholla cacti — the living earth historically inhabited by the indigenous communities of the Tohono O’odham Nation. As I stop, the man rushes to my side of the car. Speaking in Spanish, he tells me his name is Juan Carlos. He tells me he is from Guatemala. He gulps down the water I offer him and asks if I can give him a ride to the nearest town.

Build Bridges, Not Walls  is available from  City Lights .
Build Bridges, Not Walls is available from City Lights.

Just an hour earlier, majestic saguaros and elegant ocotillos surrounded me as I hiked out of the Baboquivari Peak Wilderness with Tohono O’odham elder David Garcia. The night before, we had seen two heavily armed U.S. Border Patrol agents monitoring a trail we used to reach the peak of the mountain.

The Baboquivari Peak, where Garcia once fasted for many days to ask for guidance, is sacred to the Tohono O’odham. At points along the path up the slope, we could see layers of mountains extending for hundreds of miles, deep into Mexico. When you are up there you do not see the Border Patrol. You do not see the fleet of green-striped ground vehicles. You do not see the border wall. From up there, the border does not exist. Nations do not exist. The Earth appears as one uninterrupted landscape. Absorbing such a view can alter one’s feelings and consciousness in a way few things can.

Edgar Mitchell was the sixth person to set foot on the moon. He described seeing the large, glowing globe of planet Earth as deeply moving: “It was a beautiful, harmonious, peaceful-looking planet, blue with white clouds, and one that gave you a deep sense…of home, of being, of identity. It is what I prefer to call instant global consciousness.” Seeing the land without political boundaries became an insight into what connects us to one another and the planet as a whole. The revelation was sincere and direct. High in the Tohono O’odham’s sacred territory, I felt something similar to what Mitchell describes.

Parked on the side of the road, Juan Carlos asking me for the ride, awareness of our fractured world comes crashing back. I can’t see the agents, surveillance cameras, and sensors, but I know they are all around. I can feel them. Above, one of many drones in the U.S. arsenal could be documenting the moment and streaming data about our location and movements. Agents are armed not only with weapons and technology, but with laws. One such law forbids me from giving Juan Carlos a ride. Doing so would further his unauthorized presence in the United States. If caught, I could be nailed with a federal crime, a felony. In essence, I could get prison time for showing kindness to a stranger.

Read the rest in The Markaz Review here.

U.S. Empire and the Global Border Industrial Complex, Interview on the Geopolitics & Empire Podcast

“Author Todd Miller sheds light on the Border-Security-Complex and how it relates to U.S. Empire. He reveals how the industry is in reality bipartisan in spite of how the media makes it out to be (e.g. Trump’s border wall) and that the same border policies have been going on under both the Democrat and Republican parties. He discusses how America’s borders are fortifying and extending globally and how different “border sets” from around the world are scaffolding and coming together to form a global border security state which allows transnational corporations and the wealthy to seamlessly traverse borders while keeping the poor locked down in a caste system, waging what is known as a “securocratic war”. He touches on the economic policies and environmental problems exacerbating migration and diluting the sovereignty of foreign countries such as Mexico, and looks toward some solutions.”

Please listen to my interview on the Geopolitics & Empire podcast here!

Imagine a World Without Borders. Excerpt in Yes! Magazine

“Below us in Nogales, the agent abruptly halted his lecture and tore up the hill again, spitting gravel from his wheels. I was relieved, because you never know how such a scene might play out. Every day such displays of asymmetrical power take place, small acts of aggression that never make the news. Before long, the agent returned to his perch under the camera post, an elevated spot providing unobstructed views of the surrounding area. This whole scene would not have happened before 1994, when there was only a chain-link fence with big holes through which people would cross back and forth. According to longtime resident and musician Gustavo Lozano, back then the only worry was the occasional presence of a kid at the hole asking for pocket change. When Lozano occasionally got caught by the Border Patrol and thrown back into Mexico, there was no incarceration, no formal deportation on his record. He told me that he would often cross from Mexico into the United States to pay a bill at a department store for his mom, to play basketball with his cousins, to hang out with his family. As late as the 1980s, on holidays such as September 16—Mexican Independence Day—officials opened the borders completely and a parade zigzagged back and forth as if the international boundary simply didn’t exist.

Ambos Nogales is one place that exists on both sides of the U.S.- Mexico border. Ambos means “both,” and as the name suggests, communities on both sides of the border share deep familial, community, social, economic, and political ties. They also share common infrastructure. As Ieva Jusionyte writes in her book Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border, “extending from northern Sonora to southern Arizona, the railway, the highway, even the sewage pipeline facilitate dense ties between the two sides of the border. It becomes impossible to disentangle one town’s everyday logistics from the other’s.” The border cannot stop the roots of trees and the vast mycelium networks symbiotically entangled with them from reaching across to the other side.

At Ambos Nogales, the border is not designated by a mountain, lake, or river. This border first came into being as an imaginary line in the sand with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, that is, if a transaction at gunpoint can be considered a “purchase.” Officials from both countries put up the first permanent fence in 1918 after what was known as the Battle of Ambos Nogales. The battle resulted from spiking tensions after the implementation of passport requirements by the United States, which included limiting the number of times Mexican citizens could cross the border. Repeated shootings by U.S. Customs agents and military, including the killing of two Mexican citizens, precipitated the combat. In his book Violent Borders, geographer Reece Jones argues that borders are implicitly violent, often from their very inception.”

Read the rest here as it appeared in Yes! Magazine.

What Purpose Does a Border Serve? An Interview With Yes! Magazine

“At a time when migration across the U.S.’s southern border continues to grow and a new administration looks for different solutions, Todd Miller’s fourth book, Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders, seeks to reframe the issue. The book makes clear that our border “problem” is endemic, transcending whichever party is in power. But rather than pointing the finger at migrants or even individual decision-makers, Miller takes aim at the border apparatus itself: a relic of colonialism that divides nations, communities and families alike, and which may have outlived its usefulness.”

YES! Senior Editor Chris Winters spoke with Miller from his home in Arizona. This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.

Chris Winters: You’ve written about borders before, and you’ve got a lot of personal experience living on both sides of our southern border. But why did you choose this time around to write about not just “the border,” but about borders in general?

Todd Miller: The previous work that I had coming up to this book was looking at borders from different angles. My first book was called Border Patrol Nation, so I was looking at the post-9/11 expansion of the border apparatus. The second one was Storming the Wall, which looks at climate change and displacement and how borders are playing a part in that. And then I looked at also the internationalization of the U.S. border in the third book, called Empire of Borders. …

There’s a lot of in-depth reporting, and looking at all these different aspects, all these different angles, and really getting to know intimately what is exactly going on: unpacking this apparatus, looking at all the different components of it, looking at the strategies—for example, the strategy on the southern border. “Prevention Through Deterrence” is a strategy to inflict suffering on people. That’s what it is, it’s purposely blockading certain areas, so that people circumvent them and go through the Arizona desert where I live. And the idea is that the suffering or potential of death of going through those areas will deter people, that the word will get back. And that’s been the strategy for 25 years.

My argument is that border security is not about security at all.

And then watching … the $1.5 billion budget for border and immigration enforcement [in 1994] going to $25 billion today. … So I’ve lived on both sides of the border, and just watching this thing just build up, build up, build up, build up with all kinds of technologies—drones, surveillance towers, motion sensors—it’s just a militarization of the border, really. And this is what just really led to this book: What is this thing that we’re told is sacrosanct? That we’re told that you can’t question?

Read the rest here!

Interview with Leonard Lopate on Build Bridges, Not Walls

"(4/27/21) By the time Todd Miller spotted him, Juan Carlos had been wandering alone in a remote border region for days. Parched, hungry and disoriented, he approached Todd and asked him for a ride. While his instinct was to oblige, he hesitated; aiding an unauthorized person’s entrance into the US is a federal crime. Todd has been reporting from international border zones for over 25 years. In his new book Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders, he invites readers to join him on a journey that begins with the most basic of questions—what happens to our collective humanity when the impulse to help one another is criminalized? Join us for a discussion of abolishing international dividing lines in this installment of Leonard Lopate at Large on WBAI."

Listen here!

Conversation with Nick Estes on Build Bridges, Not Walls

“Todd Miller has been reporting from international border zones for over twenty-five years. In Build Bridges, Not Walls, he invites readers to join him on a journey that begins with the most basic of questions: What happens to our collective humanity when the impulse to help one another is criminalized? A series of encounters—with climate refugees, members of indigenous communities, border authorities, scholars, visionaries, and the shape-shifting imagination of his four-year-old son—provokes reflections on the ways in which nation-states create the very problems that drive immigration, and how the abolition of borders could make the world a more sustainable, habitable place for all. Is it possible to create a borderless world? How could it emerge, and how might it be better equipped to solve the global emergencies threatening our collective survival? Build Bridges, Not Walls is an inspiring, impassioned call to envision—and work toward—a bold new reality.”

Watch here.

A Conversation about Build Bridges, Not Walls on the Honduras Now podcast

“Drones, walls, extreme surveillance, racism, and tension are some of the things you will experience when near the US-Mexico border. How have border walls become the solution to a crisis that isn’t really a crisis but a human-made US policy problem that must be fixed? 

Today, we speak with author and independent journalist Todd Miller, who recently published a book called “Build bridges, not walls: A journey to a world without borders.” With over a decade of research, conversations, and visits to many border walls around the world, Todd Miller explains the impacts of a border mentality and how we can create the conditions for a world without borders.”

Listen here!

A lucrative border-industrial complex keeps the US border in constant ‘crisis’

I’ll never forget Giovanni’s blistered feet as an EMT attended to him on the Mexico side of the US-Mexican border in Sasabe, a remote desert town. On the back of one foot, his skin had been rubbed away and the tender, reddish, underlying tissue exposed. One toenail had completely ripped off. Giovanni, who was from a small Guatemalan town near the Salvadorian border, had just spent days walking through the Arizona desert in the heat of July.

When I think of the “border crisis”, I think of Giovanni’s gashed feet. Stories of death and near death, of pain and immense suffering like this, happen every single day. This displacement crisis is not temporary; it is perpetual.

This is something that I’ve witnessed in my own reporting for more than two decades. The border by its very design creates crisis. This design has been developed and fortified over the span of many administrations from both political parties in the United States, and now involves the significant participation of private industry.

Read the rest here as it appeared in The Guardian.