The U.S. Border as a Zone of Profit and Sacrifice

Yves here. This post provides an important reminder that while Trump has fetishized having US borders be even more openly hostile to foreigners, having our land borders be militarized frontiers well predates Trump and got a meaningful ratchet up under Obama. A bristling barrier is another excuse for military spending. But it’s also another pretext for conditioning Americans to accept ever more intrusive surveillance and inspections. Even though it’s not a focus of this article, recall that the Border Patrol has no restrictions on searches and seizures, and now considers it reasonable to inspect and even seize smartphones and laptops. If I ever go abroad, since I have two laptops, I wonder if I should remove my hard disk before I return and ship it home, and run the risk that the border cops will seize my dead machine out of pique.

By contrast, when my mother was in college (she graduated in ’49), a girlfriend drove her from Detroit over the bridge into Windsor, Canada. My mother was such a naif that she was unprepared for the US immigration authorities to ask for proof that she was a US citizen when they returned. She didn’t even have a drivers’ license on her. They decided to accept her library card as ID.

By Todd Miller, who has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. His latest book is Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. You can follow him on Twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at Originally published at TomDispatch

At first, I thought I had inadvertently entered an active war zone. I was on a lonely two-lane road in southern New Mexico heading for El Paso, Texas. Off to the side of the road, hardly concealed behind some desert shrubs, I suddenly noticed what seemed to be a tank. For a second, I thought I might be seeing an apparition. When I stopped to take a picture, a soldier wearing a camouflage helmet emerged from the top of the Stryker, a 19-ton, eight-wheeled combat vehicle that was regularly used in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He looked my way and I offered a pathetic wave. To my relief, he waved back, then settled behind what seemed to be a large surveillance display mounted atop the vehicle. With high-tech binoculars, he began to monitor the mountainous desert that stretched toward Mexico, 20 miles away, as if the enemy might appear at any moment.

That was in 2012 and, though I had already been reporting on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border for years, I had never seen anything like it. Barack Obama was still president and it would be another six years before Donald Trump announced with much fanfare that he was essentially going to declare war at the border and send in the National Guard. (“We really haven’t done that before,” Trump told the media on April 3rd, “or certainly not very much before.”)

Operation Nimbus II, as the 2012 mission was called, involved 500 soldiers from Fort Bliss and Fort Hood and was a typical Joint Task Force North (JTF-N) operation. Those troops were officially there to provide the U.S. Border Patrol with “intelligence and surveillance.” Since JTF-N was tasked with supporting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the border, its motto was “protecting the Homeland.” However, it was also deeply involved in training soldiers for overseas military operations in ongoing American wars in the Greater Middle East.

Only weeks before, 40 Alaskan-based Army airborne engineers had parachuted into nearby Fort Huachuca as if they were part of an invasion force landing in Southern Arizona. That border operation (despite the dramatic arrival, all they did was begin constructing a road) “mirrors the type of mission the 40 soldiers might conduct if they were deployed to Afghanistan,” JTF-N “project organizers” told the Nogales International. As JTF-N spokesman Armando Carrasco put it, “This will prepare them for future deployments, especially in the areas of current contingency operations.”

So seeing combat vehicles on the border shouldn’t have surprised me, even then. A “war” against immigrants had been declared long before Trump signed the memo to deploy 2,000-4,000 National Guard troops to the border. Indeed, there has been a continuous military presence there since 1989 and the Pentagon has played a crucial role in the historic expansion of the U.S. border security apparatus ever since.

When, however, Trump began to pound out tweets on Easter Sunday on his way to church, Americans did get a vivid glimpse of a border “battlefield” more than 30 years in the making, whose intensity could be ramped up on the merest whim. The president described the border as “getting more dangerous” because 1,000 Central Americans, including significant numbers of children, in flight from violence in their home countries were in a “caravan” in Mexico slowly heading north on a Holy Week pilgrimage. Many of them were intending to ask for asylum at the border, as they feared for their lives back home.

Fox & Friends labeled that caravan a “small migrant army” and so set the battlefield scenario perfectly for the show’s number one fan. The end result — those state National Guards caravaning south — might have been as ludicrous a response to the situation as a tank in an empty desert pointed at Mexico, but it did catch a certain reality. The border has indeed become a place where the world’s most powerful military faces off against people who represent blowback from various Washington policies and are in flight from persecution, political violence, economic hardship, and increasing ecological distress. (Central America is becoming a climate-change hot spot.) Yet these twenty-first century border “battlefields” remain hidden from the public and largely beyond discussion.

The Fetish of the Border

As I moved away from the Stryker that day, I wondered what that soldier was seeing through his high-tech binoculars. It’s a question that remains no less pertinent six years later as yet more National Guard troops head for the border. Even today, such forces aren’t likely to ever see a caravan of 1,000 refugees, only — possibly — tiny groups of crossers moving through the U.S. borderlands to look for work, reunite with family, or escape potentially grave harm. Such people, however, usually travel under the cover of night.

Even less likely: anyone carrying drugs into the United States. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the majority of illicit narcotics that cross the border into the world’s largest market (valued at approximately $100 billion per year) arrive through legal ports of entry. Least likely of all: a person designated as a “terrorist” by the U.S. government, even though that’s became the priority mission of Joint Task Force North and Customs and Border Protection. A flood of money has, in these years, poured into border budgets for just such a counterterrorism mission, yet no such person, not a single one, has been reported crossing the southern border since 1984. (And even that incident seems dubious.)

Indeed, the most likely thing to glimpse along that divide is evidence of the countless billions of dollars that have been spent there over the last 30 years to build the most gigantic border enforcement apparatus in U.S. history. You would be quite likely, for instance, to see armed U.S. Border Patrol agents in their green-striped vehicles. (After all Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, the Border Patrol’s parent outfit, is now the largest federal law enforcement agency.) You might also catch glimpses of high-tech surveillance apparatuses like aerostats, the tethered surveillance balloons brought back from American battle zones in Afghanistan that now hover over and monitor the borderlands with long-range cameras and radar.

Those binoculars wouldn’t be able to see as far as the small town of Columbus, New Mexico — the very town that Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa so famously raided in 1916 — but if they could, you might also see portions of an actual border wall, built with bipartisan support after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 passed, with votes from Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Chuck Schumer. Those 650 miles of walls and barriers cost an average of $3.9 million per mile to build and additional millions to maintain, money that went into the coffers of the military-industrial complex.

In 2011, for example, CBP granted the former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (a company known for its profiteering in Iraq) a three-year, $24.4 million contract for border wall maintenance. And you can multiply that so many times over since, year after year, bigger and bigger budgets have gone into border and immigration enforcement (and so into the pockets of such corporations) with little or no discussion. In 2018, the combined budgets of CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement amount to $24.3 billion, a more than 15-fold increase since the early 1990s, and a $4.7 billion jump from 2017.

So, in those desert borderlands, that soldier was really looking at a market, a profit zone. He was also viewing (and himself part of) what sociologist Timothy Dunn, author of the pioneering book The Militarization of the U.S-Mexico Border, 1978-1992, calls the “fetishization of the border.” That Stryker — the “Cadillac of combat vehicles” made by General Dynamics — fit the bill perfectly. The slick armored beast, which can travel at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, could track down just about anything, except the real forces that lay behind why people continually arrive at the border.

Low Intensity Doctrine and the Hidden Battlefields

In 2006, George W. Bush’s administration sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border during Operation Jump Start, the largest military deployment there of the modern era. Those troops, however, were meant as no more than a placeholder for a post-9/11 enforcement apparatus still to be organized. Before then, as Timothy Dunn told me in an interview, there had normally been only 300 to 500 soldiers in border operations at any given time, whose justification then was the war against drugs.

That Bush deployment was, as Dunn put it, “the first to have them out there in high-profile, explicitly for immigration enforcement.” Still, what those soldiers could do remained largely limited to reinforcing and supporting the U.S. Border Patrol, as has been the case ever since. As a start, the U.S. military operates under grave restrictions when it comes to either making arrests or performing searches and seizures on U.S. soil. (There are, however, loopholes when it comes to this, which means that National Guard units under state control should be watched carefully during the Trump deployments.) What those troops can do is perform aerial and ground reconnaissance, staff observation posts, and install electronic ground sensors. They can supply engineering support, help construct roads and barriers, and provide intelligence — in all, Dunn reports, 33 activities, including mobile teams to train the Border Patrol in various increasingly militarized tactics.

However, the Border Patrol, already a paramilitary organization, can take care of the arrests, searches, and seizures itself. It is, in fact, the perfect example of how the Pentagon’s low-intensity-conflict doctrine has operated along the border since the 1980s. That doctrine promotes coordination between the military and law enforcement with the goal of controlling potentially disruptive civilian populations. On the border, this mostly means undocumented people. This, in turn, means that the military does ever more police-like work and the Border Patrol is becoming ever more militarized.

When Bush launched Operation Jump Start, Washington was already undertaking the largest hiring surge in Border Patrol history, planning to add 6,000 new agents to the ranks in two years, part of an overall expansion that has never ended. It has, in fact, only gained momentum again in the Trump era. The Border Patrol has increased from a force of 4,000 in the early 1990s to 21,000 today.  The Bush-era recruitment program particularly targeted overseas military bases. The Border Patrol, as one analyst put it, already operated like “a standing army on American soil” and that was how it was sold to future war vets who would soon join up. To this day, veterans are still told that they will be sent to “the front lines” to defend the homeland.

The Border Patrol not only recruits from the military and receives military training, but uses military equipment and technology prodigiously. The monoliths of the military-industrial complex — companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Elbit Systems — have long been tailoring their technologies to homeland security operations. They are now deeply involved in the increasingly lucrative border market. As one vendor told me many years ago, “we are bringing the battlefield to the border.”

Much like the military, the Border Patrol uses radar, high-tech surveillance, complex biometric data bases, and Predator B drones that fly surveillance missions across the Southwest, at the border with Canada, and in the Caribbean. Such forces operate in 100-mile jurisdictions beyond U.S. international boundaries (including the coasts), places where they essentially have extra-constitutional powers. As one CBP officer told me, “We are exempt from the fourth amendment.” Border zones, in other words, have become zones of exception and the DHS is the only department the federal government permits to ethnically profile people in such areas, a highly racialized form of law enforcement.

By deploying heavily armed Border Patrol officers, building walls, and using surveillance technologies in urban areas that traditionally had been crossing spots for the undocumented, such migrants are now forced to traverse dangerous and desolate areas of the southwestern deserts. It’s a strategy that anthropologist Jason De Leon has described as creating “a remote deathscape where American necropolitics are pecked onto the bones of those we deem excludable.”

Instances of overt violence on the border, the sort that might be associated with increased militarization, sometimes make the news, as in multiple incidents in which Border Patrol officers, deputized police, or even military troops have shot and killed people. Most border crossers, however, are now funneled away from the television cameras and reporters to those distant desertscapes where hidden “battles” with the elements remain unseen and so are no longer a political problem. According to Dunn, this is the low-intensity-conflict doctrine at work.  

Along the U.S. border with Mexico, 7,000 corpses have been found since the early 1990s and a reasonable estimate of the actual death toll is triple that number. Thousands of families still search for loved ones they fear lost in what journalist Margaret Regan has termed the Southwest “killing fields.” Recently, while I was giving a talk at a New York state college, a young man approached me, having realized that I was from Arizona. He told me that he’d last seen his mother in the desert near Nogales and asked if I had any idea how he might search for her, his eyes brimming with tears.

Globally, since 2014 the International Organization on Migration has recorded 25,000 migrant deaths — a figure, the group writes, that “is a significant indicator of the human toll of unsafe migration, yet fails to capture the true number of people who have died or gone missing during migration.” On such hidden battlefields, the toll from the fetishization of the world’s borderlands remains unknown — and virtually ignored.

Securing the Unsustainable

At a global level, the forecast for the displacement of people is only expected to rise. According to projections, when it comes to climate change alone, by 2050 there could be between 150 million and 750 million people on the move due to sea level rise, droughts, floods, super storms, and other ecological hazards. Former Vice President Al Gore’s former security adviser, Leon Fuerth, wrote that if global warming exceeded the two degree Celsius mark, “border problems” would overwhelm U.S. capabilities “beyond the possibility of control, except by drastic measures and perhaps not even then.”

At the same time, estimates suggest that, by 2030, if present trends continue, the richest one percent of people on this planet may control 64% of global wealth. In other words, what we may have is an unsustainable world managed with an iron fist. In that case, an endless process of border militarization and fortification is likely to be used to control the blowback. If the booming border and surveillance markets are any indication, the future will be as dystopic as a Stryker in the beautiful desert highlands of New Mexico — a world of mass displacements that leave the super-rich hunkered down behind their surveillance fortresses.

Pouring billions of dollars into border zones to solve political, social, economic, and ecological problems is hardly a phenomenon limited to the United States. The border fetish has indeed gone global. Border walls now commonly zigzag between the global north and south and are being built up ever more as a rhetoric — caught perfectly by the Trump administration — focusing on criminals, terrorists, and drugs only ratchets up, while the huge forces that actually fuel displacements and migrations remain obscured.  Borders have become another way of making sure that nothing gets in the way of the sanctity of business as usual in a world that desperately needs something new.

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  1. Jen

    I live within one of those 100 mile jurisdictions – 100 miles from Canada to be precise. From 2005 ish until 2008, the border patrol routinely set up shop on I91 or I89. If you were anything but a white US citizen you learned to avoid the highway when they were around, which is pretty easy, but inconvenient. We have quite a few foreign students, faculty, and staff at our small liberal arts college. Our office of visa and immigration services staff had to be on call 24/7 during this period.

    At first their presence was mildly irritating to this middle aged white woman. It was stupid – there are dozens of little side roads that can take you from the border to pretty much anywhere. As the years dragged on, the border patrol started to feel like an occupying army. Instead of smiling blandly as I drove through the check points, I found myself glaring. I could do that, of course, without fear of reprisal. And the agents glared back. They didn’t want to be there. We didn’t want them there. Oh, except one local town was hoping they’d establish a permanent base because, you know, jobs.

    Our local muckraking columnist made a regular feature of calling out abuses at the checkpoints, and asking the border patrol to disclose whom they’d kept us safe from. They, naturally, declined. He hounded them mercilessly.

    If I recall correctly, Senator Patrick Lahey grilled Michael Chertoff about the efficacy of the border patrol check points in Vermont. Chertoff mentioned something about how effective they were in Arizona. Lahey replied something to the effect of: “Mr. Chertoff, here in Vermont we do not have thousands of Canadians streaming across the border because they envy our economy and our healthcare system.”

    Once Obama was elected, the border patrol check points disappeared.

    Also – a co-worker has a camp up on the Canadian border, and she said they have to let the border patrol know when they’re having company.

    1. MK

      Here in upstate ny, they don’t do many checkpoints, but the board greyhound buses and Amtrak trains asking for papers.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Just to put a weird spin on this topic, I am wondering if these new Mexican border walls constitute America’s Aurelian Walls. Sorry, but I will have to explain this remark. For two centuries America has been safeguarded by its geography. On both sides are vast oceans, to the north is a sparsely-populated, friendly (mostly) white neighbour while to the south an isthmus bottlenecks those coming from South America. In fact, the last time America was invaded was back in the 1860s when a Fenian force crossed over the border from Canada. That, I believe, has enabled America to have a feeling of security being so far removed from the rest of the world and it has embedded itself in the collective consciousness.
    Two thousand years ago the Romans felt the same about the city of Rome itself and took pride in the fact that it needed no fortification walls because of the Pax Romana that they had established and the Roman Army. However, during the 3rd centuries it became apparent that due to barbarian tribes, that this was no longer true. So, for the first time in several hundred years, a new set of fortifications was built called the Aurelian Walls and Rome was never the same again. I think that we are seeing the same here with America. For some time America has been feeling more and more vulnerable with the results that it explains what you see on the US/Mexican border and American’s willingness to give up rights for security no matter what the cost. It explains too such things as Star Wars programs and missile defense weapons (even if they do not work). It didn’t help when the admin was saying that now North Korea could hit America with nuclear weapons. Trump’s walls are merely the latest manifestation of a general feeling of angst which is why I refer to them as possibly America’s Aurelian Walls.

    1. Scott

      My understanding of Roman history isn’t great, but didn’t the lack of an army and defensive walls around Rome and other major cities in Italy contribute to the fall of the republic? It was hard to for the Senate to raise an army when a certain general decided to march on the city.

    2. Wukchumni

      A similar story to the Romans, is in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park and Mesa Verde NP, farther up north.

      There were no defensive walls around the periphery of the great houses in the wide open in Chaco Canyon, whereas Mesa Verde was all about protection and stealth, the building of which happened as Chaco Canyon was abandoned in the midst of a 50 year long drought.

  3. Louis Fyne

    — If I ever go abroad, since I have two laptops, I wonder if I should remove my hard disk before I return and ship it home,–

    Even regardless of CBP, take a barebones-sacrificial laptop with only essential software—one can get decent used Wintel ones from eBay for <$100. Used Apple <$300. Carry encrypted data on an encrypted USB or encrypted on a cloud provider.

    As I imagine most of us have had baggage/goods lost, damaged, misdirected, or even stolen during a trip whether in the US or abroad.

    I’ve seen decent, cheap, fully functional laptops at garage sales and pawn shops.

    Spare used hard drives are inexpensive on eBay as well (or at the local indie computer store).

    Unfortunately this advice may bit a bit impractical if you need a higher-end machine for crunching numbers/programming.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks a lot, but the problem is it takes time and expertise to find and set up yet another machine. I have no slack time whatsoever. I barely leave my apartment. And I don’t use or trust “the cloud” at all, even though I understand the logic of an off-site backup.

      1. John

        If you have two identical laptops you can clone the hard drives with something like acronis. That takes care of all setup and software installation. Then just wipe any personal data from it and take a snapshot with that as your base state. Perpetually clean machine you can revert to clean image st any time, all personal data encrypted on cloud. Once setup easy to maintain

  4. Wukchumni

    During the 1979 faux oil crisis, my wife would drive from Buffalo, over the border to the Gulag Hockeypelago, where there were no restrictions on go-juice. She told me the customs officials would ask where she was going, and she merely said “to get gas”, and that was that.

    Simpler times~

  5. BrianC

    How things have changed…

    When I was a kid we lived in St Mary MT. My dad was a ranger in Glacier Park. From 1965 to ~1968 I attended 2nd through 5th grade in Cardston, Alberta. We would car pool north to the border, and because it was “closed” we’d walk through to catch the school bus on the other side. Riding the bus back south, to the border, on the return trip; then walking back across to get in the car and ride home. By then the US border station was open, but they’d just wave us through. Those were long days for a little kid. I think we got up at 5:30am and didn’t get back to the house until around 5:00pm.

    I remember we had to sing “Oh Canada” every morning, and because Cardston was rather conservative we sang *the whole* thing. With “God Save the Queen” on special occasions… All the kids played hockey and no one knew anything at all about football. The Stanley Cup was a big deal. Then we moved to the other side of the divide and I attended 6th grade in West Glacier. Where no one knew anything at all about hockey, because football was king.

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