Todd Miller

How Joe Biden out-border-walled Donald Trump

Todd Miller, Without Trump, the Border Is Still a Profitable Battlefield

For most Americans these days, our southern border with Mexico means just one thing: a political battlefield of the first order, Republicans versus Democrats, Us versus Them. After all, immigration — the nightmare of them invading us — has been a winner for the Trumpist Republican Party for years now. I’m sure you remember the Donald’s “big, fat, beautiful wall” that was going to leave even China’s Great Wall in the dustbin of history. During his 2016 run for the presidency, he swore he’d build it once in office, never stopped talking about it, and yet somehow it never got built, not really. No wonder the Liar-in-Chief of the House Republicans, Kevin McCarthy, the man who had evidently never heard of a tape recorder (until it recorded him), promptly headed for the border to lie and lie again when his own set of post-January 6th tall tales hit the media.

In a country whose history is in so many ways a story of immigrants — even the Native Americans arrived here by foot or boat once upon a distant time — not to speak of disputes about them and attacks on them, it should be no surprise that the border once again looms large in an election year. And in this century, on a planet where, thanks to war (both America’s recent ones and the present Russian one), economics, and climate change, all too many people have been forced from their homes and turned into refugees, it’s an issue that’s only likely to grow ever more poisonous in the coming years.

In election 2022, you’re bound to hear an awful lot of Trump-style ranting about how Joe Biden and crew are trying to fill our land with immigrants and even how they may use their illegal votes to steal elections. So it’s good to have a sane voice — yes, I’m speaking of TomDispatch regular Todd Miller, who also writes a weekly post for the Border Chronicle — remind us of a few salient border realities that have remarkably little to do with the political tirades we regularly hear.

As he explains today, by the end of its term in office the Biden administration will probably have — hold your hats! — pumped more money into border security than Donald Trump did. (Be shocked, truly shocked!) And amid all the endless uproar, the only ones for whom border security really seems to work (other perhaps than Republican politicians) are the companies that are part of what Miller has long-termed the border-industrial complex. They’re making money hand over fist from the “crisis” there and never want it to end. So why not spend a little time with Miller considering, up close and personal, what the real American border “crisis” is and who profits the most from it. Tom

The Border-Industrial Complex in the Biden Era – Robotic Dogs and Autonomous Surveillance Towers Are the New Wall

First, it was the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) vehicles speeding along on the road in front of our campsite. Then it was the Border Patrol’s all-terrain vehicles moving swiftly on a ridge above us. I was about 10 miles north of the border with Mexico, near Peña Blanca Lake in southern Arizona, camping with my six-year-old son and some other families. Like fire trucks racing to a blaze, the Border Patrol mobilization around me was growing so large I could only imagine an emergency situation developing.

I started climbing to get a better look and soon found myself alone on a golden hill dotted with alligator junipers and mesquite. Brilliant vermilion flycatchers fluttered between the branches. The road, though, was Border Patrol all the way. Atop the hill opposite mine stood a surveillance tower. Since it loomed over our campsite, I’d been looking at it all weekend. It felt strangely like part of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s panopticon — in other words, I wasn’t sure whether I was being watched or not. But I suspected I was.

After all, that tower’s cameras could see for seven miles at night and its ground-sweeping radar operated in a 13-mile radius, a capability, one Border Patrol officer told me in 2019, worth “100 agents.” In the term of the trade, the technology was a “force multiplier.” I had first seen that tower freshly built in 2015 after CBP awarded a hefty contract to the Israeli company Elbit Systems. In other words, on top of that hill, I wasn’t just watching some unknown event developing; I was also in the middle of the border-industrial complex.

During Donald Trump’s years in office, the media focused largely on the former president’s fixation with the giant border wall he was trying to have built, a xenophobic symbol so filled with racism that it was far easier to find people offended by it than towers like this one. From where I stood, the closest stretch of border wall was 10 miles to the south in Nogales, a structure made of 20-foot-high steel bollards and covered with coiled razor wire. (That stretch of wall, in fact, had been built long before Trump took office.)

What I was now witnessing, however, could be called Biden’s wall. I’m speaking about a modern, high-tech border barrier of a different sort, an increasingly autonomous surveillance apparatus fueled by “public-private partnerships.” The technology for this “virtual wall” had been in the works for years, but the Biden administration has focused on it as if it were a humane alternative to Trump’s project.

In reality, for the Border Patrol, the “border wall system,” as it’s called, is equal parts barrier, technology, and personnel. While the Biden administration has ditched the racist justifications that went with it, its officials continue to zealously promote the building of a border wall system that’s increasingly profitable and ever more like something out of a science-fiction movie.

As March ended, one week before my camping trip, I saw it up close and personal at the annual Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Texas.

“Robots That Feel the World”

The golden chrome robotic dog trotted right up to me on the blue carpet at the convention center hall. At my feet, it looked up as if it were a real dog expecting me to lean over and pet it. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, this “dog” will someday patrol our southern border. Its vendor was undoubtedly trying to be cute when he made the dog move its butt back and forth as if wagging its tail (in reality, two thin, black antennae). Behind the vendor was a large sign with the company’s name in giant letters: Ghost Robotics. Below that was “Robots That Feel the World,” a company slogan right out of the dystopian imagination.

According to its organizers, this was the most well-attended Border Security Expo in its 15-year history. About 200 companies crowded the hall, trying to lure officials from CBP, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, border sheriffs’ departments, and international border forces into buying their technologies, sensors, robots, detectors, and guns. As I stood staring at that surreal dog, behind me the company Teledyne Flir was showing off its video surveillance system: a giant retractable mast sitting in the bed of a black pickup truck. On the side of the truck were the words “Any Threat. Anywhere.”

Another company, Saxon Aerospace (its slogan: “Actionable Intelligence, Anytime, Anywhere”), had a slick, white, medium-sized drone on display. One vendor assured me that the drone market had simply exploded in recent years. “Do you know why?” I asked. His reply: “It’s like when a dog eats blood and gets carnivorous.”

Elsewhere, the red Verizon Frontline mobile command-and-control truck looked like it could keep perfect company with any Border Patrol all-terrain vehicle unit; while Dell, the Texas-based computer firm, displayed its own frontline mobile vehicle, promising that “whether you’re providing critical citizen services, innovating for the next generation, or securing the nation, we bring the right technology… and far-reaching vision to help guide your journey.”

And don’t forget 3M, which has moved well beyond its most famous product, Scotch tape, to provide “rugged and reliable equipment across DoD [Department of Defense], DoJ [Department of Justice], DHS [Department of Homeland Security], and U.S. state and local agencies.” Top defense contractors like Airbus (with a shiny black helicopter on display in the center of the expo hall) were also present, along with top border contractors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Elbit Systems.

Just the day before the expo opened, the Biden administration put out its fiscal year 2023 budget, which proposed $97.3 billion for the DHS, that agency’s largest in its two-decade history. The Customs and Border Protection part of that, $17.5 billion, would similarly be the most money that agency has ever received, nearly $1.5 billion more than last year. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement received just a marginal increase, it will still get $8.5 billion. Combine just those two and that $26 billion would be the highest sum ever dedicated to border and immigration enforcement, significantly more than the $20 billion that the Trump administration started out with in 2017. As DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas put it, such a budget will help secure our “values.” (And in an ironic sense, at least, how true that is!)

“Notably,” Mayorkas added, “the budget makes smart investments in technology to keep our borders secure and includes funding that will allow us to process asylum claims more efficiently as we build a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system.”

What Mayorkas didn’t mention was that his border plans involve ever more contracts doled out to private industry. That’s been the case since 9/11 when money began to pour into border and immigration enforcement, especially after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. With ever-growing budgets, the process of privatizing the oversight of our southern border increased significantly during the administration of President George W. Bush. (The first Border Security Expo was, tellingly enough, in 2005.) The process, however, soared in the Obama era. During the first four years of his presidency, 60,405 contracts (including a massive $766 million to weapons-maker Lockheed Martin) were issued to the tune of $15 billion. From 2013 to 2016, another 81,500 contracts were issued for a total of $13.2 billion.

In other words, despite his wall, it’s a misconception to think that Donald Trump stood alone in his urge to crack down on migration at the border. It’s true, however, that his administration did up the ante by issuing 87,293 border-protection contracts totaling $20.9 billion. For Biden, the tally so far is 10,612 contracts for $8 billion. If he keeps up that pace, he could rack up nearly $24 billion in contracts by the end of his first term, which would leave Trump’s numbers and those of every other recent president in the dust.

If so, the contracts of the Trump and Biden administrations would total nearly $45 billion, slightly surpassing the $44.3 billion spent on border and immigration enforcement from 1980 to 2002. In the media, border and immigration issues are normally framed in terms of a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. While there is certainly some truth to that, there are a surprising number of ways in which both parties have reached a kind of grim border consensus.

As Maryland Democratic Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, a member of the House appropriations committee, said ever so beamingly on a screen at that Expo conference, “I have literally put my money where my mouth is, championing funding for fencing, additional Border Patrol agents, and state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.” And as Clint McDonald, a member of the Border Sheriff’s Association, said at its opening panel, the border is “not a red issue, it’s not a blue issue. It’s a red, white, and blue issue.”

When I asked the Ghost Robotics vendor if his robo-dog had a name, he replied that his daughter “likes to call it Tank.” He then added, “We let our customers name them as they get them.” While we were chatting, a prospective customer asked, “What about weapons mountable?” (That is, could buyers weaponize that dog?) The vendor immediately assured him that they were already working with other companies to make that happen.

Later, when I asked Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz about the surveillance dogs, he downplayed their significance, stressing the media hype around them, and saying that no robo-dogs were yet deployed anywhere on the border. Nonetheless, it was hard not to wander that hall and think, This, much more than a wall, could be our border future. In fact, if the “big, beautiful” wall was the emblem of Donald Trump’s border policy, then for the Biden moment, think robo-dogs.

Border Security Is Not a “Pipe Dream”

The night before I stood on that hill in Arizona, I had heard people passing through the campsite where my son and I were sleeping in a tent. Their footsteps were soft and I felt no fear, no danger. That people were coming through should hardly have been a surprise. Enforcement at our southern border has been designed to push such border-crossing migrants into just the sort of desert lands we were camping in, often under the cover of night.

The remains of at least 8,000 people have been found in those landscapes since the mid-1990s and many more undoubtedly died since thousands of families continue to search for lost loved ones who disappeared in the borderlands. Those soft footsteps I heard could have been from asylum seekers fleeing violence in their lands or facing the disaster of accelerating climate change — wilted crops and flooded fields — or economic dispossession in countries where foreign corporations and local oligarchies rule the day. Or all of that combined.

For years, I’ve been talking to migrants who crossed isolated and hazardous parts of the Arizona desert to bypass the walls and guns of the Border Patrol.

I thought of them when, on the last day of that Border Security Expo, I watched Palmer Luckey, the CEO of Anduril, a new border surveillance company, step up to the podium to introduce a panel on “The Digital Transformation of the Border.” The 20-something Luckey, already worth $700 million, had floppy brown hair and wore a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. He told the audience of border industry and Homeland Security officials that he was wearing shades because of recent laser surgery, not an urge to look cool.

He did look cool, though, as if he were at the beach. And he does represent the next generation of border tech. Since 2020, his company has received nearly $100 million in contracts from Customs and Border Protection.

His introduction to the panel, which sounded to me more like a pitch for financing, offered a glimpse of how the border-industrial complex now works. It was like listening to a rehearsal for the lobbying appearances he and his company would undoubtedly make in Congress for the 2023 budget. In 2021, Anduril spent $930,000 lobbying on issues that mattered to its executives. It also gifted political candidates with nearly $2 million in campaign contributions.

Luckey’s message was: fund me and you’ll create a “durable industrial base,” while ensuring that border security will not be a “pipe dream.” Indeed, in his vision, the new border surveillance infrastructure he represents will instead be an autonomous “pipeline,” delivering endlessly actionable information and intelligence directly to the cell phones of Border Patrol agents.

I was thinking about his pitch again as I stood atop that hill watching the border apparatus quickly mobilize. I was, in fact, looking at yet another Border Patrol vehicle driving by when I suddenly heard a mechanical buzzing overhead that made me think a drone might be nearby. At our southern border, the CBP not only operates the sizeable Predator Bs (once used in U.S. military and CIA operations abroad), but small and medium-sized drones.

I could see nothing in the sky, but something was certainly happening. It was as if I were at the Expo again, but now it was real life. I was, in fact, in the middle of the very surveillance-infrastructure pipeline Luckey had described, where towers talk to each other, signal to drones, to the all-terrain vehicle unit, and to roving Border Patrol cars.

Then the buzzing sound abruptly stopped as a CBP helicopter lifted into the air, its loud propellers roaring.

The Real Crisis

After that dramatic helicopter exit, I wondered if there was indeed a border emergency and finally decided to get in my car and see what I could find out, leaving my son with our friends. As I rounded a corner, I came across Border Patrol agents and vehicles at the side of the road with a large group of people who, I assumed, were migrants. About four individuals had already been put in the back of a green-striped Border Patrol pickup truck, handcuffed and arrested. They had the tired look I knew so well of people who had walked an entire night in an unknown, hazardous landscape, had failed, and were now about to be deported. The agents of the ATV detail were lounging around in their green jumpsuits as their quads idled, as if this were all in a day’s (or night’s) work, which indeed it was.

I remembered then hearing those footsteps as my son slept soundly and thought: The border is not in crisis. That’s impossible. The border’s inanimate. It’s the people walking through the desert — the ones who crept past us and those in the back of that truck or soon to be put in other trucks like it, arrested so far from home — who are actually in crisis. And it’s a crisis almost beyond the ability of anyone who hasn’t been displaced to imagine. Otherwise, why would they be here in the first place?

The ongoing border-crisis story is another example of what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once would have called an “upside-down” world, so twisted in its telling that the victim becomes the victimizer and the oppressor, the oppressed. If only there were a way we could turn that story — and how so many in this country think about it — right-side up.

As I was mulling all of that over, I suddenly noticed the omnipresent “eye” of the Elbit Systems tower “staring” at me again. Its superpower cameras were catching the whole scene. Perhaps its radar had detected this group to begin with. After all, the company’s website says, “From the darkest of nights to the thickest of brush, our border solutions help predict, detect, identify, and classify items of interest.” Not people, mind you, but the handcuffed “items of interest” in the back of that truck.

As I watched the scene unfold, I remembered a moment at that Expo when a man from the Rio Grande Valley asked a panel of Department of Homeland Security officials a rare and pointed question. Gesturing toward the hall where all the companies were hawking their wares, he wondered why, if there was so much money to be made in border security, “would you even want a solution?”

The long uncomfortable silence that followed told me all I needed to know about the real border crisis in this country.

A moment of hesitation and the absurdity of the border

From the mountaintops of southern Arizona, you can see a world without borders. I realized this just before I met Juan Carlos. I was about 20 miles from the border but well within the militarized zone that abuts it. I was, in fact, atop the Baboquivari mountain range, a place sacred to the Tohono O'odham, the Native American people who have inhabited this land for thousands of years. At that moment, however, I couldn't see a single Border Patrol agent or any sign of what, in these years, I've come to call the border-industrial complex. On the horizon were just sky and clouds — and mountain ranges like so many distant waves. I couldn't tell where the United States ended or Mexico began, and it didn't matter.

I was reminded of astronaut Edgar Mitchell's reaction when he gazed back at the Earth from the moon: "It was [a] beautiful, harmonious, peaceful-looking planet, blue with white clouds, and one that gave you a deep sense… of home, of being, of identity. It is what I prefer to call instant global consciousness."

A couple hours after my own peaceful moment of global consciousness, Juan Carlos appeared at the side of a dirt road. I was by then driving in a desolate stretch of desert and he was waving his arms in distress. I halted the car and lowered the window. "Do you want some water?" I asked in Spanish, holding out a bottle, which he promptly chugged down.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" I asked.

"Can you give me a ride to the next town?"

At that moment, my vision of a borderless world evaporated. Even though I couldn't see them, I could feel the proximity of armed border agents in their green-striped trucks. Perhaps one of the high-tech surveillance towers in the area already had us in its scope. Maybe I had tripped a motion sensor and a Predator B drone was flying over the car. Unfortunately, I knew far too much about one of the most surveilled borders on this planet and how it's designed to create a potentially deadly crisis for people like Juan Carlos who cross it.

Although this particular incident happened a couple years ago, the U.S. border strategy still regularly forces such migrants into the deep and dangerous desert, as has been true for the last quarter-century.

The reason I so palpably felt the surveillance system all around me was because I knew that I was risking a prison sentence if I gave a ride to Juan Carlos, who told me he was from Guatemala. So, I hesitated. The natural impulse to help a fellow human being was almost instantly overridden by a law making it a felony to transport him and in any way further his presence in this country.

My hesitation both infuriated me and reminded me of how borders can be internalized. I had to think about what the Border Patrol would notice if they pulled me over, particularly that Juan Carlos only spoke Spanish and that he had brown skin. They would assume he was undocumented. Such racial profiling is encoded in the border-security paradigm.

In the end, I wrote a whole book, Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders, as a kind of meditation on that moment of hesitation and how it acted like a prism through which I could reflect on my two decades of border reporting. But the book is also a reckoning with the border itself, based on conversations I had with refugees, migrants like Juan Carlos, Border Patrol agents seeking out those like him, border-industrial complex officials making money off such voyagers, journalists and scholars covering the never-ending "crisis" there, indigenous people watching their lands being walled off, and those among them who have visions of how all of this can work differently.

One of the most important conversations of all came with someone who will inherit this wall-plagued world of ours, my five-year-old son, William. One day, on a beach south of San Diego, a Border Patrol agent yelled at him as he ran toward the tall, steel-barred wall there at the border to greet people waving from the other side, in Tijuana, Mexico. I remember him sitting in the sand, trying to grasp why that agent wouldn't let him go to the fence and be friendly. Later, when we talked over the incident, he asked me: "Why can't we turn the wall into bikes?"

A good question and, with Donald Trump and his talk of a "big, fat, beautiful wall" gone, there's been lots of news coverage about Biden-era immigration reform, about "fixing a broken system." While my expectations are low, there also couldn't be a better moment to begin to demilitarize our border and turn it into something else. As my son suggested, another world, a world of bikes, not walls — both more humane and more sustainable — is not only possible, but essential to pursue.

"An Element of Absurdity"

It was a hot day in 2008 when the Border Patrol dispatcher radioed agent Brendan Lenihan, telling him that a motion sensor had been tripped in a rugged mountain range about 30 miles from where I met Juan Carlos. Thousands of such sensors have been implanted along the U.S.-Mexico border, even miles inland where Lenihan slowly drove to an empty mine shaft at the top of a mountain. There, as he got out of his truck, a man appeared waving his arms in distress and talking rapidly in Spanish.

As you consider Brendan's story, which he told me long after, keep in mind that our closed but porous borders are also an enormously elaborate system of death-by-design. Yet even mentioning the concept of "open borders" usually brings, at best, polite rejection and often instant ridicule. From the more courteous side, a common argument is that open borders would be a threat to this country's stability. Yet Brendan's story not only illustrates the border's violence and — his word — "absurdity," but also the way in which borders actually maintain instability in a world of immense inequality.

That day, when Lenihan pulled his assault rifle over his shoulder and followed Rogelio — a name he would learn later — he had no idea what he was heading into. He was a new agent, taken on during a post-9/11 hiring surge when the border suddenly became a "counterterrorism" priority mission and the fiscal faucets opened wide for U.S. Customs and Border Protection under the newly minted Department of Homeland Security. Never had there been more Border Patrol agents.

Descending the ravine, he came across a scene that would only become more common in an age of increasing border "enforcement." An older man, Miguel, was gently rocking a younger one, his cousin and Rogelio's brother, Roberto, like a baby. Roberto's eyes, when open, were rolled back and white. The situation was clearly dire. Brendan radioed for help, but a helicopter couldn't land in the ravine.

By clasping their arms, Rogelio and he formed a human stretcher. Roberto started to vomit. Black bile oozed from one corner of his mouth. As they climbed up that ravine under a burning sun, the strain and sweat made their hands slip and Brendan became ever more aware that Rogelio's callused hands were locked in his. It was, he would later tell me, "strangely intimate," holding hands with someone he would normally arrest. Then he simply forgot who he was. The border disappeared. With it went his uniform, his badge, and his gun. Looking down at Roberto, he saw only a young man in his arms and, for a long moment, felt as if he were carrying his own brother.

Suddenly, his radio crackled and he came back to his senses. He was still a Border Patrol agent. The border itself had never gone away. At that very moment, it was, in fact, killing Roberto. Now, however, Brendan found himself moving with a new sense of empathy. To experience this was little short of miraculous, given his intense Border Patrol training, given that the border, by its very nature, is anti-empathetic.

As it happened, the Border Patrol EMT unit was unable to revive Roberto. At a bar later that night, seeing that he was upset, Brendan's fellow agents assured him that such a tragedy was just part of the "border game." And callous as it may have sounded, it was true. The border, by its very nature, by its strategy, by the way the border-industrial complex had developed it, was indeed death by design and most of them had already experienced that all too vividly.

The next day, Brendan's supervisor called him. Don't worry, he said, they were nothing but "drug mules." When Brendan relayed this to me, he looked exasperated and added, "What did I care?"

"It didn't matter to you that they were allegedly smuggling drugs?" I asked.

"To me," he said, "it doesn't make a difference. They just seemed like regular guys. And who knows what kind of job I would have had if I grew up with them in their situation in life. It could have been me. I could have been one of them."

Shortly after that call from his supervisor, he noticed the scent of marijuana coming through his apartment window. "And now," he added, "my neighbor is smoking the very thing I'm trying to stop. There's an element of absurdity to it all."

Yes, indeed, when it comes to the border and its many "crises," the absurdity runs deep. Take those claims about immigrants and drugs. In reality, more than 80% of all illicit drugs making it into the United States arrive through regular ports of entry, not the vastness of the desert. Along the same lines, the usual claims that immigrants are likely to be criminals or prone to crime are simply untrue, as study after study after study has shown.

And by the way, other studies clearly indicate that, far from depressing the economy, higher rates of immigration bolster it. An analysis from the investigative news site ProPublica, for example, indicates that, for every 1% increase in immigration, there was a simultaneous 1.15% increase in the gross domestic product. In other words, if President Trump actually wanted to achieve the 4% economic growth he swore, in 2016, that his presidency would bring, the one surefire way to do so, as ProPublica's Lena Groeger suggested, would have been to stop building that wall of his and let eight million immigrants into the country.

No less important, as Brendan Lenihan's experience implicitly suggested, this country's ever more fortified borders have little to do with global stability. In fact, they play a key role in maintaining the instability of a world in which 2,153 billionaires (many of them American) have more wealth than the poorest 4.6 billion people on this planet. We're talking, of course, about a place where forecasts of climate displacement suggest that, by 2050, as many as one billion people could be desperately on the move.

Borders, at least as presently imagined, are an impediment to a sustainable world based on empathy and equality.

Shifting Shapes

Soon enough, my son's mind would turn from bikes to other possibilities. Why, he wondered, couldn't the wall be made into houses or rails for trains, anything more useful for us human beings and the health of the planet (one of his growing concerns). When, like him, I begin to imagine shifting the shapes of things in our world, I often think of budgets. From 2003 to 2021, the federal government spent $332.7 billion on U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — on, that is, our designated border and immigration control agencies. Those sums would translate into nearly 700 miles of walls — built not just by our last president, but over multiple administrations — as well as more than 20,000 armed agents, billions in high-tech border surveillance technology, and at least 200 detention centers.

When it came to actual human security and wellbeing, however, that money was distinctly ill-spent. As Flint, Michigan, has shown, for instance, contaminated water is a tangible and major threat to human health. Imagine if some of that border-fortification money had been directed not to ludicrous walls on our southern border, but to producing cleaner, safer water or better health care. Wouldn't that have brought stability in a way another mile of border wall or the latest surveillance tower never does? Imagine, for instance, a world in which such money was used not to purchase medium-sized drones with facial recognition capabilities, but to help alleviate the crisis in (un)affordable housing.

And mind you, 1,000 border walls won't stop climate change, the "biggest threat that modern humans have ever faced," as British naturalist David Attenborough told the U.N. Security Council. Imagine the carbon that might sooner or later be gone from this world if our 21,000 Border Patrol agents planted one tree every day for years to come. Turning such agents into gardeners and foresters might sound silly, but it might prove crucial for future generations. Maybe demilitarizing the border and turning it into a lush garden would bolster human security more than any wall, guard, or gun.

Facing the Displacement Crisis

I never had a chance to ask Juan Carlos how or why he had found himself lost and desperate by that desert road. Still, I did know that he wasn't part of a "border crisis" but, as Harsha Walia puts it, a "displacement crisis." As she writes, "Migrants and refugees do not just appear at our borders. They are produced by systemic forces."

Looking back, I have no doubt his request at that moment was also part of that very displacement crisis and U.S. policy had played a significant role in producing it. I mean, how else can you think of his country, Guatemala, where the CIA instigated a coup in the name of the United Fruit Company in 1954 and our government trained homicidal generals responsible for atrocity after atrocity in the 1980s? There's a whole forgotten history of what this country helped create in Central America, as historian Aviva Chomsky has made all too clear, one that's intrinsically tied to today's ongoing immigration disaster.

Any future border freedom of movement policy would be the twin pillar with another fundamental right, the right to stay home and live a dignified life. A fortified border falls, in other words, with the creation of a more humane world.

Perhaps Juan Carlos had been a farmer whose harvest never came in thanks to the increasing Central American droughts associated with a warming globe. I know my country was far more responsible than his for the greenhouse gas emissions now in the biosphere creating that overheated world. Or he could have been displaced by the transnational influx of extractive industries in his country intent on taking its natural wealth, part of a long legacy of dispossession by foreign companies in what still passes for a free-market economy. Or maybe his trip north was thanks to persecution from military and police units (many U.S.-trained) or organized crime and gangs, or both at the same time. I had no way of knowing.

What I did know was that there were no border patrols trying to stop the mining companies, the military-security assistance crews, the economic dispossessors, or the greenhouse gas emitters. The border patrols were reserved for the displaced, not those responsible for their displacement — those, that is, who really live in a world of open borders.

And so, as I sat there, infuriated by my own fear, my hesitation about giving Juan Carlos a ride, I realized — as had Brendan many years before — that I was the one who actually needed help. I was the one who needed Juan Carlos to orient me when it came to what a more humane world might be like. I was the one whose spirit was thirsty and needed a drink. I was the one who needed to imagine a world in which such human-made, fortified, militarized borders melted away amid a new global consciousness and solidarity.

So, I looked at Juan Carlos, who needed that lift to the nearest town and knew that, to get to such a world of solidarity and global consciousness, it would be necessary to break the law. And though after that morning, I never saw him again — somehow, he remains with me to this day.

Copyright 2021 Todd Miller

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, 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 Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders. You can follow him on Twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at toddmillerwriter.com.

Here are the dark forces of the border-industrial complex fueling a never-ending 'crisis'

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 voted for), 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.

The Complex

In the 12 years from 2008 to 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dolled out 105,000 contracts, or a breathtaking average of 24 contracts a day, worth $55 billion to private contractors. That sum exceeded their $52 billion collective budgets for border and immigration enforcement for the 28 years from 1975 to 2003. While those contracts included ones for companies like Fisher Sand and Gravel that built the 30-foot wall my son and I saw in Sasabe, many of them — including the most expensive — went to companies creating high-tech border fortification, ranging from sophisticated camera systems to advanced biometric and data-processing technologies.

This might explain the border industry's interest in candidate Biden, who promised: "I'm going to make sure that we have border protection, but it's going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it."

Behind that bold, declarative sentence lay an all-too-familiar version of technological border protection sold as something so much more innocuous, harmless, and humane than what Trump was offering. As it happens, despite our former president's urge to create a literal wall across hundreds of miles of borderlands, high-technology has long been and even in the Trump years remained a large part of the border-industrial complex.

One pivotal moment for that complex came in 2005 when the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Jackson (previously Lockheed Martin's chief operating officer), addressed a conference room of border-industry representatives about creating a virtual or technological wall. "This is an unusual invitation," he said then. "I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We're asking you. We're inviting you to tell us how to run our organization."

Of course, by then, the border and immigration enforcement system had already been on a growth spurt. During President Bill Clinton's administration (1993-2001), for example, its annual budgets had nearly tripled from $1.5 billion to $4.3 billion. Clinton, in fact, initiated the immigration deterrence system still in place today in which Washington deployed armed agents, barriers, and walls, as well as high-tech systems to block the traditional urban places where immigrants had once crossed. They were funneled instead into dangerous and deadly spots like the remote and brutal Arizona desert around Sasabe. As Clinton put it in his 1995 State of the Union address:

"[O]ur administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens."

Sound familiar?

The Clinton years, however, already seemed like ancient times when Jackson made that 2005 plea. He was speaking in the midst of a burgeoning Homeland Security era. After all, DHS was only created in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, during George W. Bush's years in office, border and immigration enforcement budgets grew from $4.2 billion in 2000 to $15.2 billion in 2008 — more, that is, than during any other presidency including Donald Trump's. Under Bush, that border became another front in the war on terror (even if no terrorists crossed it), opening the money faucets. And that was what Jackson was underscoring — the advent of a new reality that would produce tens of thousands of contracts for private companies.

In addition, as U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq began to wane, many security and defense companies pivoted toward the new border market. As one vendor pointed out to me at a Border Security Expo in Phoenix in 2012, "We are bringing the battlefield to the border." That vendor, who had been a soldier in Afghanistan a few years earlier, smiled confidently, the banners of large weapons-makers like Raytheon hanging above him. At the time (as now), an "unprecedented boom period" was forecast for the border market. As the company VisionGain explained then, a "virtuous circle… would continue to drive spending in the long term based on three interlocking developments: 'illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration,' more money for border policing in 'developing countries,' and the 'maturation' of new technologies."

Since 9/11, border-security corporate giants became big campaign contributors not only to presidential candidates, but also to key members of the Appropriations Committees and the Homeland Security Committees (both House and Senate) — all crucial when it came to border policies, contracts, and budgets. Between 2006 and 2018, top border contractors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon contributed a total of $27.6 million to members of the House Appropriations Committee and $6.5 million to members of the House Homeland Security Committee. And from 2002 to 2019, there were nearly 20,000 reported lobbying "visits" to congressional offices related to homeland security. The 2,841 visits reported for 2018 alone included ones from top CBP and ICE contractors Accenture, CoreCivic, GeoGroup, L3Harris, and Leidos.

By the time Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, the border-industrial complex was truly humming. That year, he would oversee a $20-billion border and immigration budget and have at his disposal nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents (up from 4,000 in 1994), 650 miles of already built walls and barriers, billions of dollars in border technology then in place, and more than 200 immigration-detention centers across the United States.

He claimed he was going to build his very own "big, fat, beautiful wall," most of which, as it turned out, already existed. He claimed that he was going to clamp down on a border that was already remarkably clamped down upon. And in his own fashion, he took it to new levels.

That's what we saw in Sasabe, where a 15-foot wall had recently been replaced with a 30-foot wall. As it happened, much of the 450 miles of wall the Trump administration did, in the end, build really involved interchanging already existing smaller barriers with monstrous ones that left remarkable environmental and cultural destruction in their wake.

Trump administration policies forced people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico, infants to appear in immigration court, and separated family members into a sprawling incarceration apparatus whose companies had been making up to $126 per person per day for years. He could have done little of this without the constantly growing border-industrial complex that preceded him and, in important ways, made him.

Nonetheless, in the 2020 election campaign, the border industry pivoted toward Biden and the Democrats. That pivot ensured one thing: that its influence would be strong, if not preeminent, on such issues when the new administration took over.

The Biden Years Begin at the Border

In early January 2021, Biden's nominee to run DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas disclosed that, over the previous three years, he had earned $3.3 million from corporate clients with the WilmerHale law firm. Two of those clients were Northrop Grumman and Leidos, companies that Nick Buxton and I identified as top border contractors in Biden's Border: The Industry, the Democrats and the 2020 Election, a report we co-authored for the Transnational Institute.

When we started to look at the 2020 campaign contributions of 13 top border contractors for CBP and ICE, we had no idea what to expect. It was, after all, a corporate group that included producers of surveillance infrastructure for the high-tech "virtual wall" along the border like L3Harris, General Dynamics, and the Israeli company Elbit Systems; others like Palantir and IBM produced border data-processing software; and there were also detention companies like CoreCivic and GeoGroup.

To our surprise, these companies had given significantly more to the Biden campaign ($5,364,994) than to Trump ($1,730,435). In general, they had shifted to the Democrats who garnered 55% of their $40 million in campaign contributions, including donations to key members of the House and Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees.

It's still too early to assess just what will happen to this country's vast border-and-immigration apparatus under the Biden administration, which has made promises about reversing Trumpian border policies. Still, it will be no less caught in the web of the border-industrial complex than the preceding administration.

Perhaps a glimpse of the future border under Biden was offered when, on January 19th, Homeland Security secretary nominee Mayorkas appeared for his Senate confirmation hearings and was asked about the 8,000 people from Honduras heading for the U.S. in a "caravan" at that very moment. The day before, U.S.-trained troops and police in Guatemala had thwarted and then deported vast numbers of them as they tried to cross into that country. Many in the caravan reported that they were heading north thanks to back-to-back catastrophic category 4 hurricanes that had devastated the Honduran and Nicaraguan coasts in November 2020.

Mayorkas responded rather generically that 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." Given that there is no climate-refugee status available to anyone crossing the border that meant most of those who finally made it (if they ever did) wouldn't qualify to stay.

It's possible that, by the time I went to see that wall with my son in late February, some people from that caravan had already made it to the border, despite endless obstacles in their path. As we drove down Highway 286, also known as the Sasabe Road, there were reports of undocumented people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico all traveling through the rugged Baboquivari mountain range to the west of us and the grim canyons to the east of us in attempts to avoid the Border Patrol and its surveillance equipment.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans against what he dubbed "the military-industrial complex" in 1961, he spoke of its "total influence — economic, political, even spiritual… felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government." Sixty years later, something similar could be said of the ever-expanding border-industrial complex. It needs just such climate disasters and just such caravans (or, as we're seeing right now, just such "crises" of unaccompanied minors) to continue its never-ending growth, whether the president is touting a big, fat, beautiful wall or opting for high-tech border technology.

For my son and me, the enforcement apparatus first became noticeable at a checkpoint 25 miles north of the international boundary. Not only were green-uniformed agents interrogating passengers in any vehicle heading northwards, but a host of cameras focused on the vehicles passing by.

Whether they were license-plate readers or facial-recognition cameras I had no way of knowing. What I did know was that Northrop Grumman (which contributed $649,748 to Joe Biden and $323,014 to Donald Trump in the 2020 election campaign) had received a valuable contract to ensure that CBP's biometric system included "modalities" of all sorts — face and voice data, iris recognition, scars and tattoos, possibly even DNA sample collection, and information about "relationship patterns" and "encounters" with the public. And who could tell if the Predator B drones that General Atomics produces — oh, by the way, that company gave $82,974 to Biden and $51,665 to Trump in 2020 — were above us (as they regularly are in the border regions) using Northrup Grumman's VADER "man-hunting" radar system first deployed in Afghanistan?

As we traveled through that gauntlet, Border Patrol vehicles were everywhere, reinforcing the surveillance apparatus that extends 100 miles into the U.S. interior. We soon passed a surveillance tower at the side of the road first erected by the Boeing Corporation and renovated by Elbit Systems ($5,553 to Biden, $5,649 to Trump), one of dozens in the area. On the other side of that highway was a gravel clearing where a G4S ($49,233 to Biden, $33,019 to Trump) van usually idles. It's a mobile prison the Border Patrol uses to transport its prisoners to short-term detention centers in Tucson. And keep in mind that there was so much we couldn't see like the thousands of implanted motion sensors manufactured by a host of other companies.

Traveling through this border area, it's hard not to feel like you're in a profitable version of a classic panopticon, a prison system in which, wherever you might be, you're being watched. Even five-year-old William was startled by such a world and, genuinely puzzled, asked me, "Why do the green men," as he calls the Border Patrol, "want to stop the workers?"

By the time we got to that shard of Trump's "big, fat, beautiful" wall, it seemed like just a modest part of a much larger system that left partisan politics in the dust. At its heart was never The Donald but a powerful cluster of companies with an active interest in working on that border until the end of time.

Just after the agent told us that we were in a construction zone and needed to leave, I noticed a pile of bollards near the dirt road that ran parallel to the wall. They were from the previous wall, the one Biden had voted for in 2006. As William and I drove back to Tucson through that gauntlet of inspection, I wondered what the border-industrial world would look like when he was my age and living in what could be an even more extreme world filled with ever more terrified people fleeing disaster.

And I kept thinking of that discarded pile of bollards, a reminder of just how easy it would be to tear that wall and the world that goes with it down.

Copyright 2021 Todd Miller

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, 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 Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders. You can follow him on Twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at toddmillerwriter.com.

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