Excerpt from Build Bridges: The Struggle for Empathy Within the Border Patrol’s “Culture of Cruelty”

One day in 2008, Border Patrol Agent Brendan Lenihan was working alone in southern Arizona when he received a dispatch to investigate a motion sensor that had been triggered nearby. The US borderlands with Mexico hold thousands of hidden sensors, and only Border Patrol knows where they are. Lenihan went up a narrow road into the Las Guijas Mountains, named for the 19th-century Spanish miners who searched for gold there. The closest community to him was Arivaca, Arizona, a small unincorporated town located about eleven miles north of the border.

Its population was concerned about the increasing number of people entering the town in distress or injured, or dying in the surrounding desert. When Homeland Security installed a checkpoint in 2006, people from Arivaca could not leave their community—to go to the grocery store, to go to the doctor, to go to school—on any paved road without going through a Border Patrol blockade. In a few years this imposition would cause a great deal of activism, including protests at the checkpoints themselves, and a petition signed by more than half of Arivaca’s 600 people demanding the blockades’ removal.

Lenihan’s green-striped truck scraped against mesquite branches as he drove up the narrowing trail between large rock faces. As he pushed farther in, he didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes the sensors expose people attempting to cross the border, other times they reveal stray cattle. The trail came to an end by an abandoned mine shaft close to the top of the ridgeline. With nowhere left to drive, Lenihan parked and got out of his car. He paused to survey the sweeping view of the San Luis Mountains, the Altar Valley, and the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, home to fleet-footed pronghorns, pumas, and more than 300 species of birds. To the west was Baboquivari Mountain with its pronounced, vivid peak—the region where I met Juan Carlos. Agent Lenihan told me it was a “beautiful spot,” as if he could have just sat there, staring out onto the borderless landscape, for the rest of his shift. He could see not only hundreds of miles, but millions of years, if you considered the lifetimes of the mountain ranges.

“Seen from space,” wrote retired astronaut Scott Joseph Kelly in 2020, following in the global-consciousness footsteps of his predecessors, “the Earth has no borders.” Among the “side effects of seeing Earth from the perspective of space, at least for me, is feeling more compassion for others.” Kelly’s words seemed to foreshadow what Brendan Lenihan was about to experience, one of the most powerful stories of empathy I’ve ever heard.

Read the rest here as published at Literary Hub.

The Greater the Disaster, the Greater the Profits: The Border Industrial Complex in the Post-Trump Era

In late February, I drove to see the Trump wall in Sasabe, Arizona. As soon as I parked, a green-striped Border Patrol vehicle stationed a quarter of a mile away began to creep down the dirt road toward us. Just ahead, a dystopian “No Trespassing” sign was flapping in the wind. It was cold as I stepped out of the car with my five-year-old son, William. The wall ahead of us, 30-feet high with steel bollards, was indeed imposing as it quavered slightly in the wind. Through its bars we could see Mexico, a broken panorama of hills filled with mesquites backed by a blue sky.

The Homeland Security vehicle soon pulled up next to us. An agent rolled down his window and asked me, “What are you doing? Joyriding?”

After I laughed in response to a word I hadn’t heard in years, the agent informed us that we were in a dangerous construction zone, even if this part of the wall had been built four months earlier. I glanced around. There were no bulldozers, excavators, or construction equipment of any sort. I wondered whether the lack of machinery reflected the campaign promise of the recently inaugurated Joe Biden that “not another foot” of Trump’s wall would be built.

Indeed, that was why I was here — to see what the border looked like as the post-Trump era began. President Biden had started his term with strong promises to reverse the border policies of his predecessor: families torn apart would be reunited and asylum seekers previously forced to stay in Mexico allowed to enter the United States.  Given the Trump years, the proposals of the new administration sounded almost revolutionary.

And yet something else bothered me as we drove away: everything looked the same as it had for years. I’ve been coming to this stretch of border since 2001.  I’ve witnessed its incremental disfigurement during the most dramatic border fortification period in this country’s history. In the early 2000s came an influx of Border Patrol agents, followed in 2007 by the construction of a 15-foot wall (that Senator Joe Biden votedfor), followed by high-tech surveillance towers, courtesy of a multi-billion-dollar contract with the Boeing Corporation.

Believe me, the forces that shaped our southern border over the decades have been far more powerful than Donald Trump or any individual politician. During the 2020 election, it was commonly asserted that, by getting rid of Trump, the United States would create a more humane border and immigration system. And there was a certain truth to that, but a distinctly limited one. Underneath the theater of partisan politics, there remains a churning border-industrial complex, a conjunction of entrenched interests and relationships between the U.S. government — particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — and private corporations that has received very little attention.

The small border town of Sasabe and its surrounding region is a microcosm of this.

The cumulative force of that complex will now carry on in Trump’s wake. Indeed, during the 2020 election the border industry, created through decades of bipartisan fortification, actually donated more money to the Biden campaign and the Democrats than to Trump and the Republicans. 

Read the rest here as first published at TomDispatch.

My appearance on Adam Conover’s podcast Factually! on my new book and the Border Patrol

“No feature of the American landscape is more absurd than the border. It cuts across natural landscapes, is highly militarized, and possesses the largest law enforcement agency in America. Why? Journalist and Author Todd Miller joins Adam to explain why the heck Border Patrol got involved with the BLM protests last June, what “check point trauma” means, and why we need to build solidarity, rather than division with the people who share the continent with us. Todd Miller’s book – Build Bridges Not Walls – is out at the end of March, and can be pre-ordered at citylights.com

Listen to it here!

Biden’s “business as usual” border regime

I co-authored this piece with Nick Buxton.

On January 19, then Department of Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas was asked what he would do about the migrant caravan of mostly Hondurans headed for the US southern border. He responded that the United States would respect the law on asylum. According to Mayorkas, if people were found to qualify “under the law to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly. If they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won’t.”

The day before, nearly 8,000 people had crossed the border from Honduras into Guatemala. Some were heading to Mexico, but most wanted to seek safety in the US. Many of the people in the caravan reported that they were headed north in the devastating aftermath of two successive category four hurricanes that hit Honduras and Nicaragua in November 2020. Upon arrival to Guatemala, the caravan was almost immediately broken up by US-trained military and police that forced them, sometimes violently, from the highway.

Since 9/11 the US has made a concerted effort to extend its borders abroad by training police and military and transferring resources to other countries. For the last ten years, there has been a special emphasis on Central America, seeking to stop refugees from even getting close to the US border. If, however, the refugees manage to pass these militarized road blocks and reach the US border, only a fraction of them will be likely to receive protection.

The number of successful asylum cases in the US, even before Trump, was notoriously low. Nor is there as yet any climate-related status for those displaced by environmental devastation. As Mayorkas would imply soon after being ratified by the Senate, the people in the caravan were not going to qualify. Not qualifying meant they would be blocked at the US border.

Read the rest here..

Biden’s Border: The Industry, the Democrats, and the 2020 Elections

I co-authored this policy briefing with Nick Buxton.

“This briefing profiles the leading US border security contractors, their related financial campaign contributions during the 2020 elections, and how they have shaped a bipartisan approach in favor of border militarization for more than three decades. It suggests that a real change in border and immigration policies will require the Democrats to break with the industry that helps finance them.”

Read more here.