Border Militarization, Neoliberalism, and Corporate Profit

Journalist Todd Miller, author of the new book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, discussed “Corporations Making a Killing as Billions Are Poured into Border Enforcement” in a recent segment on the Real News.

In Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, Miller explains that the

US Border Patrol is not just the ‘men in green,’ it is a much larger complex and industrial world that spans from robotics, engineers, salespeople and detention centers to the incoming generation of children in its Explorer programs,

drawing attention to the way in which the military-industrial complex has exploited anti-immigrant and xenophobic fervor in the US for huge profit.

An LA Times review of the book speaks further of these connections, writing that, in

his scathing and deeply reported examination of the U.S. Border Patrol, Todd Miller argues that the agency has gone rogue since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, trampling on the dignity and rights of the undocumented with military-style tactics.

In his interview, Miller speaks further to these issues—and more.

He begins noting the very interesting, and never-talked-about, history of border patrol:

From 1776 till 1924 there was no border patrol. And when it was formed in 1924, it was an agency. It was under the Department of Labor, and it was an agency that was, you know, maybe about 1,000. The growth was slow up through the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s. In the early 1990s, it was still an agency that was almost an afterthought to the U.S. federal government, and there was only 4,000 border patrol agents in the early 1990s.

What changed in the mid-1990s all of a sudden: this idea that that’s when you really started hearing about the term, actually, the term border security–of course, the term existed before then, but the idea in the media, the idea that we needed to have our borders secure, and thus many more agents are hired and concentrated in different urban areas along the border. That’s when you started seeing the walls, you know, the kind of 18-foot walls that people are probably familiar with that they’ve seen in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, especially in urban regions. You see all kinds of technologies concentrated in these areas. So, all of a sudden, by September 11, 2001, you have about 8,000 border border patrol agents.

So, briefly reflecting on the history here: From the founding of the country until the interwar period, before the Great Depression, Border Patrol didn’t even exist. When it was formed, it was a very small government agency (in terms of government agencies, 1000 employees is nothing). By the early 1990s, it had grown to the size of about 4000 people. So, in about 70 years, it grew to four times its original size—not a very large net growth, considering that, in this same period, the US population itself grew from 114 million in 1924 to approximately 250 million in 1990. In the mid 1990s, however, Miller notes, there was a “sudden” burst in growth. In just a few years, Border Patrol doubled in size, while the population itself only could have grown by about 10 or 20 million (4-8%).

My only problem with this history is it doesn’t take into consideration what was responsible for this “sudden” surge. It is as if it emerged from the void, in a kind of metaphysical anti-deus ex machina. Anyone even mildly familiar with the history of US border relations, however, will recognize the mid 1990s, or more specifically 1994, as a very important political moment: the creation and ratification of NAFTA.

NAFTA didn’t just come from nowhere. The architects of NAFTA were absolutely, positively aware of some of the primary effects it would have on poor and working-class Mexicans, especially agricultural workers. They knew it would lead to floods of immigration, as impoverished farmers were forced off of their lands, large agricultural corporations building profitable factory farms on it.

In his June 1994 article, “NAFTA and Migration,” published in National Forum, scholar Sidney Weintraub writes

Many opponents, particularly from California, argued that NAFTA—especially its provisions opening Mexico to agricultural imports from the United States—would stimulate undocumented immigration from Mexico. [This position is] evident from the record of the congressional debate on the agreement.

In a 2006 Common Dreams article, “Immigration Flood Unleashed by NAFTA’s Disastrous Impact on Mexican Economy,” the authors note

– NAFTA, by permitting heavily-subsidized US corn and other agribusiness products to compete with small Mexican farmers, has driven the Mexican farmer off the land due to low-priced imports of US corn and other agricultural products. Some 2 million Mexicans have been forced out of agriculture, and many of those that remain are living in desperate poverty. These people are among those that cross the border to feed their families. (Meanwhile, corn-based tortilla prices climbed by 50%. No wonder many so Mexican peasants have called NAFTA their ‘death warrant.’)

– NAFTA’s service-sector rules allowed big firms like Wal-Mart to enter the Mexican market and, selling low-priced goods made by ultra-cheap labor in China, to displace locally-based shoe, toy, and candy firms. An estimated 28,000 small and medium-sized Mexican businesses have been eliminated.

– Wages along the Mexican border have actually been driven down by about 25% since NAFTA, reported a Carnegie Endowment study. An over-supply of workers, combined with the crushing of union organizing drives as government policy, has resulted in sweatshop pay running sweatshops along the border where wages typically run 60 cents to $1 an hour.

US corporation-owned maquiladoras, sweatshops where workers toil for mere pennies an hour, in poisonous, squalid, dangerous conditions, have become some of the only sources of employment for many Mexicans. Many more are forced to flee elsewhere, in search of work.

A 2012 The Nation article describes “How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration,” and how NAFTA completely ravaged the Mexican economy (and people). It writes, of how Mexicans, “[i]mpoverished by NAFTA” must cross the border to work in the US, whether they are now “condemned as ‘illegals.'”

The article explains how Mexican small businesses were forced out of operation by NAFTA’s liberalization policies, which allowed large US corporations to quickly push them out of the industry by dropping prices precipitously. Many of these workers, given their skills and a lack of employment opportunities, were then forced to work for these corporations—sometimes in Mexico, sometimes in the US. The goods they previously made were often exported . If that isn’t illogical, I don’t know what is. But it shouldn’t be surprisingly, frankly; as much as economists claim to the contrary, capitalism is an incredibly illogical system.

The piece also notes that that

In a 2005 study for the Mexican government, the World Bank found that the extreme rural poverty rate of 35% in 1992–94, before NAFTA, jumped to 55% in 1996–98, after NAFTA took effect… This could be explained, the report said, “mainly by the 1995 economic crisis, the sluggish performance of agriculture, stagnant rural wages, and falling real agricultural prices.”

By 2010, according to the Monterrey Institute of Technology, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty—half the country’s population. About 20 percent live in extreme poverty, almost all in rural areas.

And, given it was the World Bank conducting the study, the rise in poverty was probably even higher.

It is not a coincidence that Border Patrol grew so rapidly in these few years. Miller fails to address this crucial historical point; Miller fails to make these connections, although they are absolutely indispensable to any analysis of border militarization.

This is only the first part of the story, nonetheless. After 9/11, the Border Patrol story gets even more complex.

Miller continues:

In the post-9/11 era, the kind of expansion that we’ve seen with border patrol is unprecedented. And that’s–it was a part of the–it went from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice, but, of course, after 9/11 it went to the Department of Homeland Security. And with this, these changes, departmental changes, you see this massive expansion. …the border patrol itself went from 8,000 to 15,000 to 20,000 to 23,000. …it grew five times the amount it was in the early 1990s. And now it’s under customs and border protection. Customs and Border Protection is 60,000 agents. It’s a parent agency of Border Patrol. Its 60,000 is a significant number, because that’s double the size of the Army of Ecuador, for example. Customs and border protection is–it’s, of course, a customs agency you see at the different ports of entry, but it also has its own air force.

So, in a direct illustration of the militarization at work, we can see how an agency previously based in the Department of Labor ends up in the Department of Homeland Security.

This, the expansion, so, with this expansion, of course, comes increasingly large budgets. For example, if you look at the fiscal 2012 budget of border enforcement and immigration enforcement, it was $18 billion. And that was more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, and that includes the DEA, FBI, U.S. Marshals, all these big agencies. So this has become a priority mission for the U.S. federal government.

And with all these–and the budgets have only been increasing. So there’s been more and more private interests that have been looking at what one magazine, a trade magazine, called a treasure trove. And what they’re referring to is the border security market.

As a part of the research of my book, Border Patrol Nation, I went to many trade shows across the country, particularly here in Arizona, where I’m based, and one of the things is that–one of the significant things that we’re seeing are companies–you know, you go to a trade show and you see representations of companies that everyone probably recognizes, like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing. And these companies are, as wars wind down abroad, as wars wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more companies are looking towards a border security market. That, as one projection just stated, is in an unprecedented boom period. It’s growing at a 5% rate. And one projection has a homeland security global market at $544 billion by 2018. It’s growing, and companies are taking notice, and more and more are jumping into this market. And they’re getting contracts from the Department of Homeland Security. They’re getting departments from law enforcement that have grants from Homeland Security that are working on border and immigration enforcement missions. And they’re also working with countries around the world who are also increasing their border enforcement apparatii.

So, once again, the military-industrial complex comes front and center. The border patrol industry is becoming more and more lucrative; business is booming.

And, fundamentally distinct from the surge we saw in the ’90s, we should recognize that the surge in the past decade has been of a categorically different variety. The growth in the ’90s was justified as a response to a flood of immigration. This recent surge in militarization has been justified as an “anti-terrorism” mechanism.

I’ve written about this before. In my August 2013 CounterPunch article “Human Rights Need Not Apply,” I wrote

The “War on Terror”—terror in response to Uncle Sam’s much greater terror in the “Muslim world”—justifies frenzied xenophobia, racism against all immigrants, which allows a crackdown on all immigration, insuring a steady flow of (mostly Latino) “illegal” slave labor into private prisons.

This is the exact case that we are seeing here. The immigrants entering are almost entirely South American. But the xenophobia generated by the “War on Terror” has demonized all immigrants.

Miller states

One of the–one important thing to state is the priority mission of the border patrol in the post-9/11 era, when it became a part of the Department of Homeland Security, is one of terrorism, of stopping terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from crossing our borders, our 2,000 mile-long sounding border and our 4,000 mile-long northern border. And since 9/11, since these changes, they have not captured–not one–at least that’s been publicly stated–not one person that’s been affiliated with a terrorist organization. So in that sense, no. I mean, as the justification for all this buildup, there’s, you know, the priority mission of terrorism. But at the same time, not one so-called terrorist has been caught crossing the border.

While Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike (not that there’s much difference), shout about national security, however, Miller points out that it’s not this simple. He says

…I believe that in the United States right now we’re kind of on automatic. The idea of border security, even the terminology border security might come across as a little bit of state speak, so to speak. What we’re seeing on the border is much more complicated. The idea that border security is a necessary thing is definitely questionable. And so my point is that it’s on automatic.

What we see on the ground, the reality of the matter, is very complicated. It’s not, at the heart of it, about “security.” The term “border security,” as he points out, is a kind of “state speak.” Instead of having a serious discussion about what exactly we mean by border “security,” however, Miller points out that we’re “on automatic.” Our government just keeps throwing money at the problem—a problem that it doesn’t even quite recognize.

For years and years and years now, the budgets have only been increasing. There’s only been–we have to put more on the border, we we have to put more resources, we have to bring in more agents, we have to have more technologies. Now there’s drones flying over the border with surveillance technologies. You know, where does it end? Well, there’s going to be cameras that can see seven miles, you know, away. You know, there’s night vision cameras. There’s sophisticated technology. When does it end? Because the sort of thing that we’re seeing right now, there’s not a debate about it. And my argument would be that with so much money being spent on homeland security and border security, that at the very least we need to have a much more holistic debate, a nation-wide debate, that doesn’t automatically knee-jerk think that we just have to put more and more resources on the border.

Just to entertain the notion, if only briefly, let us assume that securing the border is important for our “security,” “safety,” and/or “well-being.” Alright, well, we must then ask ourselves what are the opportunity costs of investing in this form of security? The money needed to do this obviously must come from somewhere, and, given it ultimately comes from the state’s coffers, we are the ones who ultimately have to bite the bullet. Miller draws attention to this issue:

So one question: why is this–for example, if all these billions of dollars that I was just mentioning, you know, as far as a border and immigration enforcement budget, if they’re so important, you know, and at the same time we’re told by the U.S. government that we have to cut other, you know, basic services, you know, services such as food stamps, such as housing, such as, you know, really, you know, basic stuff–education, health. And when you have people, especially when you’re looking at the economic recession that hit the country and that there are still effects of that, and when people are losing their homes–. You know, if you think about it, a house, a roof over somebody’s head, has to be in the cornerstone of somebody’s security. And yet that’s being cut. And at the same time, you know, these budgets for border security and this idea that, you know, there’s somebody evil with bad intentions lurking on the other side of the international boundary that’s out to get us while at the same time there are people actually falling through the cracks, there are people that do need security, those are the questions that I would raise. I would say, woah, you know, if we’re really looking at that the idea of security holistically, then maybe we should, you know, re-think of how we’re spending our money in these budgets that we have.

Such is the neoliberal state: the country is militarized, private contractors siphoning billions of our taxdollars into their already bulging pocketbooks, while the rest of the country must endure the torturous, acidic reign of austerity.

The billions upon billions of our taxdollars spent on border “security” would obviously be much better spent on securing housing, food, healthcare, and more for American citizens. But the militarization of the border must continue—not because we need it, but because it simply must. Our economic system dictates this need.

At the end of the day, the most important thing—by far the most important thing—is that corporations continue to increase profits. Corporate lobbyists and donors choose politicians in this country, in this “democracy”—not citizens. And border security is a profitable new industry—a very profitable new industry. Lives might be destroyed, lost, but there is money to be made. And lots of it.