When Border Defense Becomes Border Offense

Militarized borders and military intervention are two sides of the same coin.


Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World, by Todd Miller, Verso Books, 304 pages, $29.95

Military contractors from across North America and the Middle East set up shop at a business park in southern Arizona, drawing up designs and testing their technology in the desert. Then they send orders to maquiladoras, factories just across the Mexican border, where workers assemble the drones and sensors to spec. Some of this equipment is shipped to the Middle East. The rest is deployed right on the Arizona-Sonora border, stopping the Mexicans who manufactured it from seeking better jobs a few miles north.

That is the dystopia that journalist Todd Miller presents in Empire of Borders: free movement for government officials and well-connected businesses, walls and surveillance for the rest of us. The scene in Arizona and Sonora is still just a proposal, a joint U.S.-Israeli venture that exists mostly on paper. But in other places that Miller visits, from Morocco to the Philippines, the dystopian future is already here. Millions of dollars in U.S. security aid, hundreds of American boots on the ground, and dozens of Washington diplomats are hardening the borders of countries all over the world.

Along the edges of the United States, Americans are subjected to a police state of constant stops, searches, and surveillance. In Puerto Rico, a territory Americans often forget is part of their country, federal agents go door to door collecting "intelligence" on Caribbean migrants. In Washington, D.C., members of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tell Miller bluntly that they're "exempted from the Fourth Amendment." Their main complaint is that other countries' forces are too "constrained."

So Washington is working hard to get other governments to beef up their powers in similar ways. In the Philippines, one anonymous trainer sent by the U.S. government complains to Miller that border officials are seen as simple "tax collectors," "hampered by the lack of regulations." Part of the trainer's job is lobbying the Philippine border agency to "move forward in increasing their authority so that they're able" to enforce their borders to America's satisfaction.

As one CBP official tells Miller, the agency "understands that the U.S. border does not start at the U.S. border."

Kenya, which did not have a dedicated border patrol agency before 2009, began taking U.S. security assistance after droughts and warfare caused an influx of refugees from neighboring Somalia. With the help of CBP advisors—who trained 15 departments in total across East Africa—and $53 million in U.S. security aid, the Kenyan state created a new militarized border police. Ten years later, Miller surveys the results: an intrusive system of internal checkpoints deep in the country, extending even to Somali neighborhoods inside the capital.

The CBP brags that its "personnel have been on the ground in Iraq for every twist and turn in the country's rebirth and recovery." An alphabet soup of federal agencies trains Jordan's border force in order to "wall off the increasingly important American base from the disintegration of Syria and Iraq." Morocco receives tens of millions in security aid from the United States and the European Union to stop African migrants—driven north, in part, by Western military interventions in Libya and the Sahel.

At a remote Guatemalan outpost, border guards initially expect Miller to give them security advice. After all, the previous American visitors had all come to provide "training sessions, consultations, more armored jeeps and guns." A U.S. officer stationed there, named Miguel-Angel Juarez, watches exercises of a fearsome Guatemalan special forces unit known for literally eating puppies as part of its training, an act meant to desensitize its members to violence.

Miller notes that foreigners never gave him trouble for being American or a journalist. Only the U.S. government ever did, projecting a "double image of dominance and inaccessibility" to the rest of the world while keeping its work opaque to the American public.

The new conservative nationalists, some of whom denounce overseas wars and call for closed borders in the same breath, might be surprised by Miller's findings. A closed American or European border is apparently impossible without the kinds of global interventions that "anti-globalists" supposedly abhor: rewriting foreign governments' policies to cull the worldwide flow of people from poorer to richer countries. For all the talk about American hegemony protecting globalization and "free trade," U.S. interventions have actually served to harden borders around the world.

More than once, Miller quotes a chilling line from The 9/11 Commission Report: "The American homeland is the planet."

The long arm of the U.S. border extends into peacetime middle-class life, too. At "pre-clearance" stations in Canada, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, and several Caribbean countries, passengers "cross the border" before they even get on a plane. Plainclothes U.S. agents roam foreign airports, ready to interrogate travelers, while the U.S. National Targeting Center spies on them through social media. (After the book was published, a Lebanese-Palestinian Harvard student became a cause célèbre when he was allegedly turned away at the airport because of his friends' social media posts.) CBP agents in Canada humiliated a gay man by showing him his history on dating apps. They banned a journalist coming from the same country for "classified" reasons after an hourslong ordeal in a Vancouver airport.

With a pilot program called Happy Flow, U.S. border officials plan to collect biometric data even further "down the chain," reaching into other countries to build what they envision as a database of every single human being on earth.

This "global caste system," in Miller's view, is both older and newer than we think.

On one hand, it started long before Donald Trump became president. The current expansion of border imperialism began after September 11 and continued through the Bush and Obama administrations. When Miller visited southern Mexico, two years before Trump's election, everyone was sure that the heightened border security was on "direct orders" from Washington. Parts of the surveillance and gunship diplomacy that uphold the global U.S. border go back further, to the Latin American interventions of the Reagan administration, the lesser-known post–World War I red scare, and even the U.S. conquest of the Philippines in the 1890s.

On the other hand, hard borders are a blip in human history. A century ago, as Miller notes, passports were rarely needed in peacetime. In most places, closed borders were imposed only from outside. Colonial empires pushed migrants "to seek the places where the extracted wealth of their lands had gone," as Miller paraphrases the work of investigative reporter Juan Gonzalez. But the imperial authorities couldn't allow that to happen unhindered, and the administrative boundaries they set up—which later became national borders—cut off the normal back-and-forth movement of communities. When capital can flow freely but workers can't move for better wages, who benefits?

Meitamei Olol-Dapash, a Maasai political leader, complains to Miller that the Kenya-Tanzania border drawn by Britain "disrupts the community's unity. It disrupts culture. It disrupts the political coordination of things." Major Juarez, his own family split by the U.S.-Mexico border, notes that the same is true for the Mayans living along the present-day Honduran-Guatemalan frontier. Closer to home, leaders of the Tohono O'odham Nation along America's southern boundary call the influx of Border Patrol agents an "occupation."

The colonized world, Miller says, "acquired its international boundaries without most people who lived there even knowing it."

For a vision of the future, Miller looks to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Oslo Accords of the 1990s created hundreds of "islands" of Palestinian autonomy in a sea of Israeli military control. Bright red signs from the military authorities warn Israeli civilians to avoid Palestinian zones or risk death. Palestinian commuters wait for hours at checkpoints that resemble a combination of airport security and livestock pens. Israeli officers sit in cubicle farms for 12-hour shifts, watching feeds from the thousands of motion sensors and cameras that dot the Israeli-Palestinian landscape. The region is a perfect "laboratory"—as one Israeli brigadier general tells a delegation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—for governments interested in bringing that kind of control to their own soil.

Despite such dismal images, Miller sees rays of hope. Thousands of ordinary people subvert border controls every day. Miller sits in a Mexican minibus with a Guatemalan family making their way north illegally. Realizing that his passengers don't have papers, the driver veers off road in a white-knuckle shortcut to get them around a looming checkpoint. They make it.

"It became apparent, even with the billions and billions spent, the investment, the technologies, the drug-sniffing dogs, the smart walls and checkpoints," Miller writes, how fragile the empire of borders really is.