OCTOBER 17, 2021
IN NADINE GORDIMER’S 1989 short story “Once Upon a Time,” a happy white South African family, fearing race riots, decides to protect their home. They start by installing a system of surveillance cameras. Feeling that to be insufficient, they end up cordoning off their house behind a concrete perimeter wall topped with a snarling coil of barbed wire. Their son, curious, climbs up the wall from the inside, where he becomes trapped in the thicket, bleeds out, and dies. Walls, we realize, can hurt the people they “protect” as well as those they’re designed to exclude.
It’s not a bad way to think about borders, either. Millions of people each year are beaten, caged, separated, shackled, disappeared, humiliated, or killed while caught up in the global border regime. But borders can also harm those on the other side of the divide — distracting us from the roots of our problem and preventing solidarity across class and racial lines. This corrupting influence of borders is one of the central forces behind journalist Todd Miller’s new book, Build Bridges, Not Walls, which grew out of a chance encounter with a migrant.
After finding a Guatemalan national lost in the Sonoran Desert, Miller gave the man water but hesitated when the man asked for a ride to town: doing so would be considered human trafficking and therefore a felony under United States law. Under what conditions, he later reflects, is a simple act of kindness deemed punishable with years in prison?
The answer gained traction during the #KidsinCages outrage of the Trump era, but the mainstream public failed to embrace it. The root of border violence isn’t bad-apple racists guarding the border or a lack of “smart technology” to better police it. Border violence is caused by the mere existence of the border itself, propping up a world order of racialized geographic exclusion and inequality that only grows with the deepening crisis of climate change. Because such a world order is bound to force people to move, the only way to seal the borders against undocumented migrant flows — to protect their “sovereignty” against the “illegals” — is through the deployment of state violence.
Miller has been investigating the border as a journalist for 10 years. In that time, he’s written crucial interventions puncturing the sclerotic discourse on immigration in the United States, where scholars and experts can critique how the border is policed — Virtual walls are better than metal ones! has become an exhaustingly common refrain — but never question the border itself.
In his first book, Border Patrol Nation, Miller illustrated the expansive post-9/11 militarization of the United States’s most unhinged police force. (To put it in context, from 1980 to 2020, the annual immigration budget grew from $349 million to $25 billion, a 6,000 percent increase.) Three years later, Storming the Wall showed how the Pentagon had understood the threat of climate change well before petroleum interests openly admitted it but responded to the crisis by pushing for a retrenchment of militarized borders to hold off the now-surging waves of climate refugees. Then in Empire of Borders, he delineated how the US border has been exported around the world through local police border patrol trainings and “securitization” technology sales.
Build Bridges departs from the investigative nature of his previous works and into the territory of the extended essay, an idiosyncratic combination of lyricism and memoir — inspired, in large part, by the questioning model of his five-year-old son, William. Unlike adults, a kid William’s age hasn’t yet been conditioned to believe that the planet should be divided into geometrically partitioned nation-states, that some people should have limited ability to travel based on their place of birth, that you should be able to kill or cage others for crossing an artificial line whose creation was itself predicated on lawbreaking and bloodshed. A five-year-old is more likely to see the absurdity in a metal wall rocketing across the landscape or to question the “green men” who tell him to not run toward the border wall in San Diego. “Children, like artists and revolutionaries, see things not only as what they are, but what they can become,” Miller writes. Adults would be wise to heed their younger contemporaries.
The border serves less as a way to protect American workers from criminals (immigrants have continuously been shown to have lower crime rates) than as a backstop to allow the workers’ bosses to set up shop further south, across the river, in Juárez and Tijuana, and instead pay Mexican workers less. People south of the border clearly don’t benefit from the militarized line.
Some of the most moving passages in Build Bridges come from Miller’s recollection of his time as a solidarity activist in besieged Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas. The region remained akin to a warzone through the ’90s with the Mexican military regularly sending troop convoys through rebel communities in search of their leadership. The Zapatistas, despite this, were seeking to create better society from the bottom up out of the wreckage of the wrenching poverty of neoliberalism — a world only possible to maintain through bordered containment.
I thought about this recently when, while reporting close to the Guatemalan border with Honduras, where I live and work, I saw a group of men who’d just been deported from Mexico. The Biden administration had recently furthered the program of “externalizing” the US border by arranging to have 1,500 more Honduran soldiers, already known for extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses, to deploy to their US-facing border in an attempt to stop migrants.
The young men — quiet, morose, sweating in the boiling morning heat — seemed defeated in a way I doubt I’ll ever fully understand. It’s likely they tried to leave Honduras to flee urban slums where the scale of violence far surpasses most Americans’ imaginations. If not that, to get some sort of economic opportunity that’s otherwise impossible to achieve in Honduras. It’s young men like them, I thought, who are painted by the US government as gang members and criminals and who are the targets of billions of dollars in weaponry and manpower to stop freedom of movement.
Miller presciently writes about the effect that the Berlin Wall had on residents of East and West Berlin and the similar pathologies it has created here, the psychological effects that he calls “Wall Sickness.” Before taking a call on a radio program in 2016, Miller had recounted the story of a man who’d traveled all the way from Guatemala to the borderlands of northern Mexico in search of his twentysomething daughter, who was supposed to call once she crossed the desert to Arizona but was never heard from again; the father traveled to Mexico to find her himself. “How do you know the man isn’t simply lying?” the caller asked, with a well-rehearsed xenophobia anyone from the United States knows by this point. “I don’t,” Miller said, “but I know that I would do the exact same thing that father did.”
The best way forward, he argues, is to dismantle the carceral security state, which uses violence to stop the movement of the poor, and to redirect funding to the policies that have gathered dust: universal health care, education, the Green New Deal.
William, for one, has an idea on what to do with the wall: take the metal used for the barrier and turn it all into bikes. It can seem like a quaint recommendation from a five-year-old at first, but given the recent history of what the border has represented, the idea, I must concede, doesn’t seem like much of a bad start.