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.
"The U.S. 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," Miller writes in "Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security."
Miller is not an armchair theorist. He has reported on border issues for a decade, including for the New York Times, Mother Jones and Al Jazeera English. He writes of the people he sees as the victims of the Border Patrol's abrasiveness and also of the cruel deportation policy of the Obama administration that breaks up families. The chapter on that policy is called "Feeding the Monster."
Among the policy's victims, as Miller sees it, is a 12-year-old boy in Tucson who watched in horror as his father was taken away for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. His father's only crime is that he did not have the appropriate documents to remain in the U.S. "When he sees his mother's shocked, panicked, and sad face, he explodes into tears. Neither of them has any idea about what might happen next."
Miller's book arrives at a moment when it appears that part of the Homeland Security apparatus is backpedaling by promising to tone down its tactics, maybe prodded by investigative journalism, maybe by the revelations of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The Times reported Feb. 27 that an independent review of Border Patrol tactics found an unreasonable use of force. Days later the agency unveiled a policy calling for restraint.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has accused the CIA of snooping on the computers of the Senate's intelligence committee. On March 25, The Times reported that the Obama administration will ask Congress to overhaul the NSA's controversial phone records program, ending its policy of collecting and holding years' worth of call information (but also giving it access to cellphone information).
Add to all of these events the debate in Congress about reforming the nation's immigration policies and "Border Patrol" is quite possibly the right book at the right time to stimulate debate, if not agreement.
In the fear that descended on the country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Miller argues, elected officials called for greater enforcement and greater intelligence gathering with little thought of the consequences. The result is that the agencies under the Homeland Security umbrella have become out-of-control growth industries. "This clamor of politicians from both the major political parties fuels this world by always insisting that we need 'more boots on the ground,'" Miller writes. "This world has a high-powered lobbying machine working for a border-policing technology industry and its incarcerations apparatus, poised to mushroom for decades to come."
He argues that since Sept. 11 federal law enforcement has taken on the high-handed demeanor of an occupying force, not just on the border with Mexico but throughout the country and to the border with Canada. The book draws parallels between the raids of the U.S. military looking for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and the raids of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents looking for those who are ripe for deportation.
"Predawn house raids have become a routine tactic for ICE," Miller writes. "It's a time when most people are at their most vulnerable: at home and unconscious."
"Border Patrol Nation" casts a harsh light on instances of Border Patrol agents acting in a needlessly brusque manner, including showing disrespect to the Tohono O'odham Indian tribe in southern Arizona.
But the book shows surprising sympathy for many agents who are required by their jobs to be enforcers of a tough system: "In many important ways the agents of the U.S. Border Patrol too are dehumanized. …They are either glorified heroes 'securing' the border, or uniformed thugs trampling human rights."
To be sure, "Border Patrol Nation" is a polemic, not what most journalists would consider an even-handed approach to a complex, evolving topic.
Will it convince the average reader? Maybe not, but Miller's strong, passionate stance and his gritty on-the-ground reporting makes his argument difficult to ignore.
Border Patrol Nation
Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security
City Lights: 299 pp., $16.95 paper