Seeking Sanctuary: An excerpt from Tucson journalist Todd Miller’s new book, ‘Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders’


On a cold evening in January 2018, the very same night of Donald Trump's first State of the Union Address, several students and I visited the San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales, Mexico. In the shelter's chapel was a group of people, many recently expelled from the United States, seated in metal chairs. The funeral of a six-week-old baby from Honduras a few days before had left a somber mood that still weighed heavily in the space. The child had died of exposure to the cold. The baby's young, moneyless parents had just reached Nogales en route to the United States when the tragic death occurred.

After the students and I introduced ourselves, an older woman immediately asked: "Why are you here?" She paused. She had a blanket around her shoulders like a shawl, to fend off the cold evening air. "What benefit does it bring us?"

A long and uncomfortable pause followed, partly while I interpreted her question from Spanish to English, and partly because we had no immediate answer. Why were we there? Was it because we were simply a class, learning about border issues for a grade? Or was it something else all of us wished to be part of, was it that we wanted to learn how to topple the border barrier between us? Whatever it was, the woman seemed to carry a wisdom beyond us, leaving us speechless. A chair scratched against the floor, and a person in the back coughed. As the uncomfortable pause persisted, I realized that I, too, was baffled. The political and economic conditions appeared to be so entrenched that change did seem virtually impossible. Trump was about to roll out his plans on live television. He was about to make the claim that "open borders" were allowing "drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities," and to claim that "millions of low-wage workers" would "compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans." Trump may have even said this at the precise moment the woman asked her question, as we stood there looking at each other, hoping that somebody in the group might answer.

The thing was, at that moment there was no practical alternative to the long legacy of border militarization to even talk about. Opposition to the wall among Democrats seemed to gain prominence only after the 2016 election. But what they offered were simply different forms of the same "wall," such as so-called "smart walls," technology meant to monitor, sort and exclude people with even greater efficiency than a standard barrier. Just a week before, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar had penned an op-ed for CNN titled "The answer to border security is technology, not wall." The Texas Democrat characterized the wall as a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century challenge. "Instead of a wall," Cuellar wrote, "we should increase the use of modern technology, including cameras, fixed towers and aerial and underground sensors." This position has become a standard one for the Democratic Party and was reflected in the Joe Biden administration's immigration platform when he took office in 2021. Unmentioned in Cuellar's op-ed was that some of the top border contractors—companies such as Northrop Grumman, Caterpillar, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin—were lining his coffers to support his 2018 reelection campaign. And two of the top prison management companies contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement—GEO Group and CoreCivic—contributed a whopping $55 million to his war chest.

I suppose we could have repeated the cliché that the "immigration system is broken" and we have to fix it. But what if it really was functioning entirely as designed? We could have told her that we would push for reform. But what exactly is meant by the phrase "comprehensive immigration reform"? It is true that new laws might contain provisions for a better legalization process and a more permanent status for beneficiaries of Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival (DACA) who fit a certain set of criteria. But that would in no way help the people sitting before us on that cold night in Nogales. In fact, if the history of comprehensive immigration reform were any indication, any new policy would likely involve even more guns, guards and gates. The 2013 bipartisan "gang of eight" reform bill— the last one passed by the U.S. Senate but rejected in the House—had $45 billion going to the border over a 10-year period. The budget's intention was to double the forces of the Border Patrol and triple the capacity of its "zero tolerance" Operation Streamline, which incarcerates border-crossers by the tens of thousands each year. Hungry to tap the bulging purse, corporations lobbied for loads of border technology to be purchased as part of the reform. Three companies—Northrop Grumman, United Technologies, and EADS North America—pumped more than $70,000 per day into their lobbying efforts. This meant more VADER systems (man-hunting radar manufactured by Northrop Grumman), more Blackhawk helicopters (15 of them from United Technologies, a company then about to be bought by Lockheed Martin) and eight helicopters from EADS North America.

That is the long-term vision planned for the people in the shelter, and neither we nor they are invited to the planning sessions. It doesn't matter if you are on the move because droughts wilted your crops, hurricanes blasted your house, mines poisoned your water, or floods swallowed your land, or you are fleeing murderous persecution and extortion, or violent economic dispossession by corporate or local oligarchies. It doesn't matter if you are skipping meals for your children, or if you are fleeing for your very life.

I have gone to conferences and conventions involving companies and government in Phoenix, Paris, Tel Aviv, Mexico City, San Antonio, El Paso, and Washington, D.C., to observe how the long-term vision is monetized and dehumanized. There are lots of carpeted convention centers filled with vendors hungry to sell robots, drones, surveillance cameras, radar systems, license plate scanners, facial recognition systems, iris recognition software, guns, sunglasses, ready-to-eat meals, and insta-latrines. I remember one man selling a portable, easy-to-deploy metal barrier capable of stopping a truck at high speeds. The material it was made of was on display at the expo. When I asked the salesman if the stuff could really stop a Mack Truck, as his sales video indicated, his response was, "You better believe it. This is evolution. This is the future." When I saw him again later that day, he called me over with semi-anxious eyes and asked me where he could find buyers for his product. Startled that he was asking me, I could only point to my name tag indicating that I was a journalist. A few hours later, I was in front of a Raytheon salesman who was hawking the latest technology for acoustic detection that, and I couldn't get this out of my mind, looked like the sad, maligned Christmas tree from Charlie Brown.

"It's to detect where bullets are shot from," he told me.

"Bullets are flying over the border?" I asked, knowing the answer to my own question.

"You'd be surprised," he told me, "not every day, but every other day." He left it to the world of long-cultivated assumptions as to who was doing the shooting.

While pointing to his product—a desert-colored pole with microphones extending from its top in all directions—he said that it could be mounted on the border wall "every quarter mile or so." The vision was tangible and precise, the raw imagination of the constantly churning border-industrial complex. Within constraints, it is constantly imagining how to monetize a future world of increasingly militarized compliance, caste, exclusion, and hierarchy, with next to no pushback or dissent.

Most of us are not involved in debating the future marketed at these sales conventions, we're not at the closed-door meetings, the hotel rooms, the golf courses where future borderscapes are mapped out, and where money begins to line the pockets of influential policy-makers. This is especially true of the people sitting at the shelter, the people who are targets of the acoustic detection systems, Mack Truck–stopping walls and infrared goggles. For 40 years, border and immigration enforcement budgets have gone up, year after year, with little or no public consultation or debate.

It has been amazing to me, as I've traveled the country for the past decade or so speaking on these topics, to see the general lack of awareness about how much these border and immigration enforcement budgets have increased over the last four decades. At the advent of the Ronald Reagan presidency in 1980, the annual border and immigration budget was $349 million, through the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 2020, the combined budget of its superseding agencies, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), exceeded $25 billion. That is a 6,000 percent increase.

These increases are fueled by rhetoric that uses the seemingly incontestable term "security," with no debate at all. But when I began to examine the appropriations process—the one through which budgets like that of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are determined, including how much money is earmarked for certain contracts and certain companies—I found the level of public ignorance less startling. In fact, the debate about the future happens every year; it's just that most of us are not invited. Big corporations such as Northrop Grumman, Elbit Systems, General Atomics, and Deloitte show up in throngs, but behind closed doors that keep you and me out.

The absence of public involvement was on full display in 2006 when Michael Jackson, an official with CBP, stood before private industry representatives. When discussing the new technology program on the border, known as SBInet, he said: "This is an unusual invitation. I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We're asking you. We're inviting you to tell us how to run our organization." As a former executive with Lockheed Martin, Jackson knew how corporations and the U.S. government interact, free from public oversight. And after Jackson made that comment, from 2006 to 2018, CBP and ICE doled out 99,000 contracts worth approximately $45 billion, equivalent to the accumulated border and immigration enforcement budgets from 1975 to 2002. That's 27 years of budgets combined.

The U.S. government and multinational corporations project enforcement scenarios decades into the future, imagining a world increasingly destabilized due to mass migrations caused by catastrophic climate change. Countries such as the United States and Australia need to envision erecting "defensive fortresses" in response, according to a 2003 Pentagon report. In March 2013, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, said that global warming was the greatest threat the United States faced. Mass destabilization, he said, "is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen [to] cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about."

Today, as the scientific basis for catastrophic climate change has become hard to avoid even for its most fervent deniers, officials are explicitly placing weather and environmental events in the same threat landscape as terrorism or organized crime. As Admiral Craig Faller, commander of Southern Command, said during a July 2020 hearing titled National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activity in North and South America, "The ability to rapidly respond to events, whether it's a weather event, or an environmental event, a terrorist attack, [or a] transnational criminal organization, is important. So we continue to watch that closely and ensure that our exercise programs, our security cooperation programs, emphasize the partners' capacity to do that, because as we see in some of these massive hurricanes, no one nation has the ability to do that alone." The seemingly bland term "security cooperation programs" means that the United States is redefining its border, training border guards and sending armored patrol vehicles and guns and other resources not only to Central American and Caribbean countries, but also deep into South America, with CBP attachés now in Brasilia and Bogotá. As with the war on drugs and the war on terror, there is now a war on climate change, aimed not at mitigating carbon emissions in the biosphere, but at erecting "defensive fortresses" against the people most impacted, the people on the move. As author, scholar and activist Harsha Walia writes, emphasizing the need to reframe the conversation around borders, there isn't a border crisis, there is a "displacement crisis."

Efforts to advance comprehensive immigration reform take place today against this background of increasingly dystopic security forecasts. Despite the fact that the U.S. Border Patrol and ICE remain sacrosanct, with ever more resources, a movement to abolish ICE emerged in 2018 and began to pry open this locked door. However, Democrats—as is often their way—voiced support and watered it down at the same time. For them, it became a call for reforms. Democrats have avoided taking on CBP in any substantial way (though U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a notable exception), because questioning territorial boundaries and their enforcement apparatus remains far beyond the party's parameters of acceptable debate. The debate is usually silenced by one phrase—"every country has the right to protect its borders"—and it's left for the crickets to guess who and what actually gets protected and how.

The difficulty of collaborating on long-term alternatives became apparent to me when the nonprofit Institute for the Future (IFTF) invited me to a workshop in 2019. The purpose of the workshop was to think systemically and imaginatively about the future of immigration. The IFTF invited experts from across the country, many people working on the front lines, and many who were undocumented and refugees themselves, to imagine different possible futures for immigration, from most desired to worst-case scenarios. One revelation that emerged at the beginning of the conference was that front-line workers weren't able to think at all about the future, let alone strategize. There was no time. The demand of dealing with constant emergencies in real time overwhelmed them.

At the 2018 State of the Union Address, President Trump said, "The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, the underprivileged all over the world. But as president of the United States, my loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America's children." Surely not words the people in the Nogales shelter would find comforting.

Simultaneously, there was something liberating about standing on the other side of the U.S. border, in a space where there was little to no awareness that the State of the Union was even happening. For just a moment we were free from U.S. discourse and its claustrophobic parameters of what was considered debatable and what was not. In this sense, being there freed us from our own preconceptions, from the scrolling confines of smartphones, from headlines based on whatever view we were supposed to hold. As the pause continued, we could feel the cold Nogales night seeping through the cracks, but also something more glorious, a conversation that was going to challenge not only the walls enclosing the United States, but also the walls within ourselves. It was as if questions that are never asked publicly in the United States were suddenly freed and could be voiced earnestly and directly.

Before anyone took a stab at responding to the woman's question—What benefit does your presence bring us?—a man broke the prolonged silence, saying: "We do all your labor." He paused, as if waiting for somebody to inject dissent. "All of it."

"You call us criminals," he said. "People are making sacrifices for their families"—he gestured to the people sitting around him on the metal folding chairs, bundled up in jackets, all focused on his words—"so their children can have a taco."

He continued with building emotion: "We are now separated from our children and you still call us criminals." Many people in front of us nodded in agreement, moving others to comment on the atrocity of children torn away from their parents. This was five months before Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions gave his "zero tolerance" speech, and forced family separations became a daily feature in the news cycle. But they were talking about separation policies that long predated Trump.

Back at his State of the Union monologue, Trump was announcing his "four pillars" of immigration reform that would "fully secure the border," and end the "visa lottery" and "chain migration" while associating border-crossers—like all the people before us in the shelter—with the violent MS-13 gang.

Indeed, while an awkward tension persisted, people began to talk, and the conversation became more pregnant with possibility, creating a sort of bridge between us. Suddenly the border meant nothing. Indeed, the very conversation challenged not only the militarized borders imposed between us, but also the way they suffocate debate and discourse. We could feel, as the profound Nigerian thinker and writer Bayo Akomolafe would say, the composting of such notions. With the awkwardness came something else: an understanding that how things are named, acknowledged and funded were choices that perpetuate unjust realities and preventable suffering. Change is also a choice, and to drive it, we need new language, one that acknowledges and asserts a sovereignty and solidarity greater than any wall. By committing to such choices, we enter what Akomolafe calls the sanctuary.

In conversations with me from his home in India, Akomolafe explained the difference between refuge and sanctuary. Refuge is a place where you can be safe, where safety is the goal. Sanctuary, however, is an "invitation to lose shape, to become something different." The shelter that night in Mexico felt like it was hovering in between those two spaces.

From Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders. Copyright (c) 2021 by Todd Miller. Reprinted with permission of City Lights Books.