The Tangled Web of US Border Security Around the World

THIS SUMMER, photos surfaced of a father and daughter from El Salvador who had died while trying to cross the Río Grande from Mexico and Texas. The image of their drowned bodies went viral, circulating across the mainstream press and even warranting mention in that week’s Democratic debates. Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, at the US-Mexico border became two more names on a list of thousands who have perished weathering the treacherous journey from Mexico and Central America seeking the United States.
Their deaths were not an anomaly, but rather, the outcome of decades of exclusionary immigration policy, known as prevention through deterrence, established in the early 1990s, which sought to make the migration journey so difficult it would stop people from coming. This policy implicates the US government in these deaths and thousands more. Between 1998 and 2016, the US Border Patrol counted nearly 7,000 migrant deaths along the border.
Curiously, El Salvador’s new president, center-right Nayib Bukele, who’d won the election in a landslide on a campaign that promised “new ideas,” responded to the death of his country’s citizens by saying, “It is our fault.”
And on September 11, 2019, he sent hundreds of soldiers to the El Salvador-Honduras border to deter migrants before they reached the US-Mexico border. These soldiers will join the special forces stationed at the Guatemala-Honduras border and Mexican National Guard and border patrol at the Mexico-Guatemala border. Each of these forces are to some extent funded and trained by the United States, and have been named in numerous cases of human rights abuses.
The deployment of these forces at each of these borders is the most immediate example of how the United States has managed to push its borders outward, to influence the border and migratory policies of other sovereign countries. Together these forces make up rungs of a multi-country, multi-layered global border security regime, one that treats crossing from one border to another as “an act of war,” as Todd Miller puts it. The wide reach of US border policy is the subject of his new book, Empire of Borders: How the US is Exporting Its Border Around the World, out this fall from Verso Books.
Miller argues that in order to fully understand US immigration policy, we must go far beyond the borders of the United States itself and much further back in time than the Trump era. His investigation takes him from Hispaniola and the Philippines to southern Mexico to Central America to Jordan, from sub-Saharan Africa to Israel — through which he paints a portrait of a convoluted web of enforcement training programs, technologies, and strategies, guided and often funded by the United States. These efforts intend to stop would-be migrants or border-crossers long before they reach the United States itself.
The sheer geographic scope of the book is a feat in and of itself that immediately sets Miller’s book apart from much of the literature on the US-Mexico border.
“[T]he evidence of U.S. international border expansion is everywhere,” Miller writes. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has offices in 48 countries. The International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau is active in 90 countries. The US Border Patrol’s special forces and tactical unit, BORTAC, has conducted trainings of border police in at least 20 countries, by Miller’s count.
For example, in Puerto Rico, he writes, Customs and Border Protection officers knock on doors in search of undocumented Haitians and Dominicans. Meanwhile, the US Coast Guard intercepts boats of Haitians and Dominicans landing on Mona Island coming from nearby Hispaniola. As a US territory, Puerto Rico serves as a “lily pad” for US enforcement efforts, allowing it to expand geographically.
And thousands of miles away, the Philippines, where the United States has funded a multimillion-dollar Coastal Watch Center, also acts as such a “lily pad,” a legacy of its colonization of the islands after the Spanish-American War. During the 35-year colonial government instituted by the United States, the US established the blueprint for some of the same surveillance and intelligence-gathering efforts it today uses to control its own borders.
Nearly everywhere he travels, Miller meets with border security forces and officials, the vast majority of whom tell Miller they have participated in some kind of training program in Miller’s home state of Arizona. In Guatemala, the Kaibiles, an elite military unit that plays a role in patrolling the Guatemala-Honduras Border, receive an annual “dosis,” or “dose” of training from Customs and Border Protection, one soldier tells Miller.
At one point, Miller describes a testy exchange between an officer and official at the CBP International Affairs office in Washington, in which one refers to US transfers of equipment, vehicles, trainings, and personnel to Mexico as “gifts.” The other sharply corrects his colleague: “They are not gifts. We, in fact, expect a return on our investment.” The exchange illustrates how such investments outsource the work of enforcing the US border, involving numerous countries in doing the dirty work of deterring migrants, as well as the quid-pro-quo relationship and power differentials that characterize the relationship with the United States.
Perhaps the only country whose border security reach and capabilities can give the United States a run for its money is Israel, a “dominating force in the border enforcement global industry.” Miller interviews Danny Tirza, the Israeli colonel who masterminded the wall on the West Bank, whose colleagues have been contracted to develop the first prototypes for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall. According to Tirza, “It’s not enough to construct a wall. You have to construct a whole system around it.”
Israel is a “laboratory” for testing security technologies, its proponents proudly insist, which are often then deployed in the US borderlands. In one memorable passage, Miller describes the unsettling start-up tech bro culture surrounding the development of these technologies, where young engineers work with professors to develop drones and unmanned vehicles, such as the Border Protector, which Miller describes as “the ultimate U.S.-Israeli hybrid, enshrining not only the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries but also the synergy of their private interests.”
The private security industry, Miller notes, has become extremely lucrative in the global bid for so-called border security. At the border security expos Miller attends in Arizona, Tel Aviv, and Paris, security companies breathlessly detail the ways that surveillance — which its champions insist should be called “high-risk overwatch” to avoid negative connotations — mark a new era in countries’ abilities to identify would-be travelers across databases.
This empire of borders, Miller writes, is also an “empire of partnerships, involving foreign governments, client regime, and the private sector, to ensure the free flow of Western civilization.” Security companies involved in contracting border solutions across the globe, for example Raytheon, “have deployed border ‘solutions’ in more than 24 countries across Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, North America, and South America, covering more than 10,000 miles of both land and maritime borders.”
With the help of such public-private partnerships, the number of international travelers CBP keeps in a database has increased from 10 million to 212 million. But scrutiny does not apply to everyone. “Implicit in the dream” of biometric data-sharing “are open borders for the elite and a caste system for everyone else,” writes Miller. Interviews with the “true believers” of border security are revealing and perverse. The same ideas many readers will immediately see as disturbing, the true believers celebrate uncritically. This gap in perspectives is perhaps as hard a line to bridge as the layers of security separating Israel and Palestine.
The boom of the “border security” industry reflects a paradigm shift. The 9/11 Commission Report, quoted by Miller, attests, “the American homeland is the planet” — a phrase that ominously vests the United States with the authority to export its border enforcement strategies across the globe. The explosion of this massive security industry goes hand-in-hand with the rise of inequality and solidification of global systems of apartheid.
Another contribution that Miller’s book makes is in outlining the colonial and imperial roots of these processes. Border enforcement fortifies the lines imperial powers arbitrarily drew across large parts of the Global South to determine the boundaries of modern nation-states. Many previously colonized places — from the Philippines to Kenya — stand to weather the most destructive and immediate effects of climate change.
While exploring the deep historical roots of the oppression wrought by the borders of modern nation-states, Miller’s book is also forward facing. Climate change is a central component of the work, echoing the theme of his previous book, Storming the Wall. Climate change, he writes, “offers the most complete and coherent argument for dissolving our world’s hardened militarized borders and to imagine something new.” In a world where more people than ever are on the move, this is an urgent, crucial proposal that demands a change not only in policies, but in systems and the oppressive structures that drive them.
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Laura Weiss is an editor and writer. She has a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from New York University.
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