April 27, 2014

Book examines Homeland Security’s heavy hand

Journalist reports that the U.S. Border Patrol has gone rogue since 9/11.

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 has reported on border issues for a decade, including for The New York Times, Mother Jones magazine 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.

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 United States. “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 that part of the Homeland Security apparatus is promising to tone down its tactics, maybe prodded by investigative journalism, maybe by the revelations of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

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, 2001, federal law enforcement has taken on the high-handed demeanor of an occupying force, not just on the border with Mexico but also throughout the country and on 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.

Border Patrol Nation casts a harsh light on instances of agents acting in a needlessly brusque manner, including showing disrespect to the Tohono O’odham Indian tribe in southern Arizona.

But the book also 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.

Tony Perry reviewed this book for the Los Angeles Times

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