What the Border Security Industrial Complex Reveals: A Review of Border Patrol Nation

Jun 26, 2014
5:12 PM

“After 9/11, the word ‘homeland’ took the country by surprise,” writes Todd Miller in the pages of his new book Border Patrol Nation. Furthermore, the notion of an American “homeland” materialized into our public psyche at just the exact moment when the country seemed to be at its most vulnerable. The main effect of that inception was a nation that could never feel safe enough.

In addition to exploding the limits of the American frontier —the 9/11 commission report notably expanded the definition of the homeland to encompass “the planet”— our government’s post-9/11 anxiety led to a massive buildup of the Customs and Border Patrol, now “by far the largest federal law enforcement agency in the United States,” receiving government dollars than all other federal agencies combined. It is also, arguably, the most powerful, with the authority to stop and search any American simply for living within 100 miles of an international border.  Miller spent ten years reporting deep in the belly of the border security industrial complex, a fact that imparts credence to both his observations and his darker analyses of the security state’s future.


Miller grew up along the US-Canadian border, in Niagara Falls, now a deindustrialized wasteland where the Border Patrol has ridden into town as the panacea for joblessness (as it has throughout the Rust Belt and Southwest). Full disclosure: I too was reared in a border town, though on the other side of the nation, in southern Texas. There are obvious personal reasons for Miller and I to take such an interest in the department, but given its seemingly limitless expansion, it deserves the attention of anyone concerned with domestic militarization or the surveillance state.

“The Border Patrol Nation convinces the country to comply with the expensive notion that we need to be protected from these dangerous outsiders coming for our safety,” writes Miller in his culminating thesis. Where that paranoia has been sowed, he found that a billion-dollar border surveillance and defense industry has cropped up. Defense corporations are dumping their war technology along the expanse of America’s international borders, machinery traded in a border security market expected be worth $107.3 billion by 2020. The boom radiates outward from the University of Arizona’s Science and Technology Park, which the Department of Homeland Security showers with millions in grant money to study the locust flight patterns for the development of micro-drones, among other tools of social control. The University is regularly commissioned for research and development by defense firms like Raytheon.

When he visited the University Park, Miller encountered an atmosphere that’s a cross between Silicon Valley and the Manhattan Project: technopeneurship for the defense of the homeland. What begins there eventually ends up at the annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, where public relations ambassadors rhapsodized to Miller about “commercial possibilities largely untapped” and of the hunger of governments and corporations around the world have for more totalizing surveillance gear. Cataloguing the expo among the rest of his border reporting experience, Miller writes, “…This is the first time I have met with people who speak with such enthusiasm about the border and the immensity of money to be made from its protection.”

That line reveals more about the reporter than he might have thought when he wrote it: Miller obviously leans left, away from moneyed interests and corporate militarism, and it’s almost mystifying how far he traversed within the innards of the border security complex given his politics. His tone throughout the book is sometimes self-deprecating and always unpretentious, and perhaps it was this unimposing, nerdish nature that won him access to dozens of Border Patrol agents and members of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Sometimes the soft shell exterior works against him, like when a Border Patrol agent tried to intimidate Miller by firmly asking for identification in Detroit:  “I know that he wants to hear me stutter. And I stutter, worried he won’t believe me.”

In the end, though, Miller uncovered a lot from his conversations with agents, whether active, retired or disgraced. His most alarming discovery is that a certain degree of racism motivates agents in their hunt for migrants. It’s a banal, dehumanizing, wartime kind of racism, couched more in an institution than individual hearts. American GI’s called their small brown enemies “gooks” in Vietnam and “hadji” in Iraq; the Border Patrol uses the term “tonk,” for the sound of a rifle butt smashing into an immigrant’s skull. Agents informed Miller that racism against “tonks” is not merely tolerated, but at times a rallying point for agents on the job. One agent remarked that the Border Patrol has a serious “gun culture,” and as recent events have shown, there are consequences when institutional racism and gun fetishism collide: the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found in February 2014 that 8 migrants have been fatally gunned down by agents since 2010 for tossing rocks across the border. None of the shooters have faced any retribution.

Perhaps accusations of a racist esprit de corps are too strong (though they come from the agents themselves). Call it what you will—xenophobic, callously professional. Whichever term one prefers, it’s the spiritual oil greasing the deportation machine that rings in millions of migrants and flings them back to the Global South. The steep rise in deportations is mainly the result of an interlocking system involving local law enforcement and xenophobic whites in areas with high concentrations of minority populations. In one of his most poignant encounters, Miller visited a migrant community in South Carolina whose members were literally trapped in their homes for fear of apprehension and harassment. The journalist couldn’t even drive away from one source’s trailer home without being tailed by an officer of the border patrol police state.

In his final analysis, Miller observes that it is the lowliest and most desperate among us—those already criminals by virtue of their “illegal” status, on whose backs the elite hoist the new American gilded age—that are the targets of the new technologies spawned from our deformed concept of a homeland. Poor immigrants are not only the right’s go-to scapegoat for capitalism’s endemic problems, but also the test subjects for the state’s newest instruments of social control. And we are all complicit in the mania for security, writes Miller: “The country complies by handing over liberty, privacy, and free speech, so that those in authority can maintain constant surveillance…[on] almost everyone outside the upper echelons of political and monied power…” If examined closely enough, the swollen border security complex also reveals who watches and who is watched. Miller has done us all a great service by helping to expose this dichotomy.


Aaron Cantú is a Brooklyn-based journalist @alternet @truthout @thenation. A “revolutionary generalist” who focuses mostly on drug law, criminal justice, and [misc], you can follow Aaron on Twitter@aaronmiguel_ or visit his site: aaronmiguel.com.