In conversation about the “Border Surge” and 20 year militarization of the border with journalist Todd Miller who has been covering the southern border for the past 10 years. His forthcoming book is called Border Patrol Nation.
Everyone in our group of 52 people wakes up at 3 a.m. It’s Thursday, May 30, and we are at a campsite on the northern edge of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, approximately 25 miles from the international border and 40 miles southwest of Tucson. The group is used to getting up early, but on this day, with 16 miles to cover, we need to beat our normal 5 a.m. start.
We have already been walking for three days, but this is the toughest day of the Migrant Trail Walk—a 75-mile, seven-day hike from the U.S.-Mexico border at Sasabe to Tucson. This is the 10th annual walk, which brings participants from Southern Arizona and around the world to walk in solidarity with the more than 6,000 migrants whose remains have been recovered in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since the mid-1990s. The desert south of Tucson has been one of the deadliest places for unauthorized border-crossers.
On April 28, several women returned to their pod, or unit, in the immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona after dinner. There they found the body of Elsa Guadalupe-Gonzalez, a fellow detainee who had taken her life. Elsa was 24 years old and from Guatemala.
In March, Elsa had crossed from Mexico into the United States without U.S. government authorization. When Border Patrol agents captured her, she told them that her life was in danger if she were to return to Guatemala, a country of intense poverty that has seen an upsurge of violence in recent years. Nonetheless, by making a claim of political asylum, she was entering the world of the U.S. immigration control complex where her life would also be in danger, where death is part of the equation.
On April 16, the U.S. Senate’s so-called “Gang of 8” released their 844-page plan for comprehensive immigration reform entitled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. The border policing aspect of the bill (among many other things) envisions $3 billion for more surveillance systems, including unmanned aerial drones, $1.5 billion for more barriers on the boundary, and the addition of 3,500 more Customs and Border Protection agents (CBP includes the U.S. Border Patrol). This would be on top of the $18 billion (figure from 2012) that the U.S. government already spends on border and immigration enforcement per year, an expense that is more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
Arizona has been a hot-spot and laboratory for immigration enforcement for quite a while and would be significantly impacted by this proposed upsurge in border policing. This photo essay offers a glimpse into how this intensley border-controlled universe already looks in the Arizona borderlands, via two distinct perspectives. One is the emerging border control industrial cluster, and I photographed many of these companies displaying their wares at the 7th Annual Border Security Expo that took place in Phoenix, Arizona on March 12 and 13. Intermixed is another set of photos from a binational vigil that happened on the Mexico-U.S. border on April 10. It was the six-month anniversary of the killing of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, the 16-year-old who the U.S. Border Patrol gunned down through the border wall on October 10 in Nogales, Sonora—a casualty of the inevitable violence of the border policing apparatus that the Gang of 8 says must increase in the name of comprehensive immigration reform.
Razor wire was coiled around a rudimentary wooden shelter. Under it, a hunched man concentrated, looking into his laptop. Cameras and radar were set up on a retractable mast behind him and could detect any activity at long range, day and night. Desert camouflage covered this large mobile surveillance machine, which was surrounded by sandbags and desert shrubs.
Dressed sharply in a suit and tie, the man was not in a militarized border zone. The DRS Technologies salesman was in the Phoenix Convention Center, trying, as the midsize military and electronics company’s motto asserts, to draw “clarity from the clutter.”
This “bring the battlefield to the border” scenario (as another sales representative put it), was in play throughout the spacious exhibition hall at the seventh annual Border Security Expo on March 12 and 13. Almost 200 companies big (Raytheon) and small (Tucson-based StrongWatch), were competing for the multibillion-dollar border policing pie.
Before September 11, 2001, more than half the border crossings between the United States and Canada were left unguarded at night, with only rubber cones separating the two countries. Since then, that 4,000 mile “point of pride,” as Toronto’s Globe and Mail once dubbed it, has increasingly been replaced by a US homeland security lockdown, although it’s possible that, like Egyptian-American Abdallah Matthews, you haven’t noticed.
It wasn’t a surprise to anyone when the New York state troopers turned Mexican Gabriela Gutierrez over to the U.S. Border Patrol after a traffic stop when she was going to the grocery store with her three-year-old daughter Lucy. The journey was only a little over a mile from her mobile home park but, according to John “Lory” Ghertner of Migrant Support Services of Wayne County, there have been more deportations originated from Sodus, New York than the Postville raid—an operation that generated considerable press attention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on an Iowa slaughterhouse that arrested nearly 400 undocumented workers in 2008.
“It just hasn’t happened at the same time,” Ghertner said. He stressed that there have been more immigration removals per capita in this 4,000 person small community in rural western New York state—just past Rochester—than any other place in the country.
In this sense, Gutierrez’s arrest was not a surprise at all, but it also wasn’t a surprise that she was stopped on the way to the grocery store. Since 9/11, and particularly in the last four years, Homeland Security forces have entered Sodus in a way that community members have never seen before, and, they say, they are targeting anything normal and routine, which includes the most basic places such as grocery stores, laundromats, and churches.
This article was first published on TomDispatch.
William “Drew” Dodds, the salesperson for StrongWatch, a Tucson-based company, is at the top of his game when he describes developments on the southern border of the United States in football terms. In his telling, that boundary is the line of scrimmage, and the technology his company is trying to sell – a mobile surveillance system named Freedom-On-The-Move, a camera set atop a retractable mast outfitted in the bed of a truck and manoeuvred with an Xbox controller – acts like a “roving linebacker”.
As Dodds describes it, unauthorised migrants and drug traffickers often cross the line of scrimmage undetected. At best, they are seldom caught until the “last mile”, far from the boundary line. His surveillance system, he claims, will cover a lot more of that ground in very little time and from multiple angles. It will become the border-enforcement equivalent of New York Giants’ linebacking great, Lawrence Taylor.
To listen to Dodds, a former Marine – Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001-2004 – with the hulking physique of a linebacker himself, is to experience a new worldview being constructed on the run. Even a decade or so ago, it might have seemed like a mad dream from the fringe of the US periphery. These days, his all-the-world’s-a-football-field vision seemed perfectly mainstream inside the brightly-lit convention hall in Phoenix, Arizona, where the sixth annual Border Security Expo took place this March. Dodds was just one of hundreds of salespeople peddling their border-enforcement products and national security wares, and StrongWatch but one of more than 100 companies scrambling for a profitable edge in an exploding market.
From December to April I was on the U.S. southern border travelling between Arizona and Texas. This is a collection of photographs I took during those months.
I begin this photo essay on the Tohono O’odham Nation, located in southern Arizona in tribute to the life of Alfonso Martinez Sanchez, whose body was found in mid-May on the Native American reservation. Sanchez was returning to California to reunite with his wife and five children (between five and 18 years of age), after his deportation in March. Hundreds of bodies have been found on the Nation, and thousands in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since the build-up of the border policing apparatus in the mid 1990s.
It’s true, Pérez Méndez doesn’t look 21. He has the soft facial features of a 14 year old child or younger, which make the interaction between him and U.S. Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Marshall in the Tucson federal courthouse even more painful to watch. Pérez Méndez’s crime occurred four days before when he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization. The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended him in the Arizona desert. And now he is in the courthouse—shackled on his wrist, chained around his waist, shackled on his ankles—along with 60 other people convicted for “illegal entry” into the United States.
The judge has singled Pérez Méndez out, and unlike the others who approached her in groups of five, this kid, obviously frightened, is the last one to shuffle up to the stand. He does it alone.
The judge explains to him that she has singled him out because “I don’t believe you are 21. We don’t lie in this court. That isn’t how we proceed.”
Pérez Méndez doesn’t say anything.
“Do you have any relatives? Parents? Brothers? Cousins travelling with you?”
“No,” he says. The judge looks at him suspiciously, trying to discover, I imagine, the motivation for his alleged lie.
The judge tells him that she has no other choice but to put him under oath. She explains to him what that means—if he were to lie, then it would be perjury. Perjury is a criminal offense carrying prison time. “Is that what you want?”