Book Review: Border Patrol Nation, by Todd Miller
It’s hard not to assume what ideological track a book is going to take when it repeatedly uses the terms “militarization” and “social control” in its first chapters when referring to the U.S. Border Patrol. And indeed, author Todd Miller comes across as someone with a serious bone to pick as he portrays agents and officers working along our nation’s international borders as soldiers almost akin to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo.
He opens up his new book, titled Border Patrol Nation, by detailing U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) involvement in providing security for the past dozen or so Super Bowl games. This is not a huge secret; CBP publishes several press releases each year explaining how CBP works in collaboration with state and local police, as well as the Department of Defense, to enforce no-fly zones over the stadiums and conduct security checks of vehicles entering the stadium parking areas. The agency participates only at the request of the federal government, and it brings to the table many resources that the locals do not have or cannot acquire before the big game.
But because agents are enforcing federal immigration laws in Super Bowl locations like Miami and Phoenix, this somehow characterizes CBP’s role as one of an intrusive and human rights-violating paramilitary organization. Oddly enough, he highlights this unique mission in a way that says, Can you believe you didn’t know about this? Unfortunately for Miller, the fact that few people probably know about CBP’s involvement in Super Bowl security—and the dearth of irate liberal media coverage about it—implies that maybe their actions really are not intrusive at all. Considering how long they have been doing it, it’s interesting he comes across as the first to “break” this story, even though the media has written about it before.
This is just the start of a book that feels all over the place with regard to Miller’s criticisms of the border security “complex.” This is not to say that he does not provide solid information; he interviewed many of the same people I did for Border Insecurity, like Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol and Bruce Wright at the University of Arizona Tech Park. The interviews themselves and the statistics and descriptions of various aspects of border security, like the virtual border fence and border-related conferences, are accurate enough. He also does a good job of explaining the burgeoning border security industry, including the billions of dollars being spent on research and development of new technology and the growth of small companies seeking a piece of this ever-growing pie.
However, Miller’s liberal ideology frequently gets in the way of what had the potential to be a decent analysis of the expansion of Border Patrol’s presence in the United States. He provides a considerable number of anecdotes from illegal immigrants and residents of the Tohono O’odham Tribal Nation where they claim they were verbally or physically harassed or abused by Border Patrol agents, and the stories are very emotionally intense and convincing. Miller cites reports by the United Nations and human rights organizations that condemn the agency’s alleged excessive use of force, but he does not say if the victims he spoke to ever reported the incidents to other U.S. authorities or filed a formal complaint with CBP.
Despite the picture he paints of the Tribal Nation as being under the thumb of an oppressive border agency, Miller does give a factual account of the high rate of Nation residents involved in drug and human smuggling. When I worked as an intelligence analyst in northern California many years ago, I had already started hearing how the Nation would accept payments from the cartels to move drugs through the impoverished reservation, and how tribal police tended to be uncooperative with other law enforcement agencies. As a Tucson resident, those perceptions definitely persist, and I was disheartened to read about Tohono O’odham youth getting involved with smugglers, as typical this is for a cartel recruiting venture.
Unfortunately, Miller swings back to being ideologically one-sided when he moves into his chapter about the northern border. He writes extensively about Mexican and other minority populations being profiled and targeted by the Border Patrol in Detroit, but doesn’t cite any demographic statistics regarding the estimated population of illegal immigrants in the city. If 80 percent of Detroit’s illegal immigrant population were white and 70 percent of deportees were people of color, then Miller would have a serious point to consider. However, without context, we’re left to base our conclusions on Miller’s assumptions alone.
He also focuses his northern border chapter mostly on illegal immigrants and his view that DHS surveillance is seriously overreaching. But he never once touches upon the insane amount of illicit cross-border trafficking occurring along the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, to include illegal drugs and large volumes of cash heading in both directions. The “thumb” area of Michigan is notorious for small single-engine planes loaded with drugs flying across the border outside of national radar coverage, and the response time of CBP boats on the river often is not fast enough to tackle the heavy smuggling activity there. Miller mentions none of this in relation to the reason CBP has increased its presence along our northern border.
Miller is a good writer; that is definitely not the underlying problem with Border Patrol Nation. His stories are engaging and the reading is easy. However, structurally there is little to no flow, and he does not make any direct points or specifically state the main thesis of the book until the last few pages. Even then, his argument is that “according to today’s Homeland Security regime all but the all but the elite and all-powerful few should be monitored as a potential threat.” He states both implicitly and explicitly throughout the book that the existence and expansion of the Border Patrol is equivalent to an imperialistic and racist attempt to divide the American people in the “have and have-nots” and the “global North and global South.”
Furthermore, Miller wonders how our government can spend so much money on border security while looking away from the economy, poverty, and homelessness. He offers little to nothing by way of a solution, other than the generic “resistance.” He talks about a cyclist who lay down under a Border Patrol vehicle to protest the apprehension of an illegal immigrant. But his entire book merely sends the general message that “the Border Patrol is evil” without seriously acknowledging that violent drug smugglers and criminals are crossing our borders illegally every day, attacking US law enforcement on a regular basis, and raping and assaulting on US soil the very illegal immigrants he champions.
Ultimately, Border Patrol Nation comes across as a call for open borders, paints the U.S. Border Patrol as an agency filled with agents who have little regard for human and civil rights of both US and “non-citizens,” and offers no alternative to securing our borders from those who mean to do us harm other than protest or civil resistance. Miller’s pleasant writing style and expertise is overshadowed by his very clear bias, and he will turn off a lot of readers who could learn a lot from his work simply because he’s writing for an audience that shares his liberal viewpoint.
Follow Sylvia Longmire on Twitter @DrugWarAnalyst