At a time when migration across the U.S.’s southern border continues to grow and a new administration looks for different solutions, Todd Miller’s fourth book, Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders, seeks to reframe the issue. The book makes clear that our border “problem” is endemic, transcending whichever party is in power. But rather than pointing the finger at migrants or even individual decision-makers, Miller takes aim at the border apparatus itself: a relic of colonialism that divides nations, communities and families alike, and which may have outlived its usefulness.
YES! Senior Editor Chris Winters spoke with Miller from his home in Arizona. This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.
Chris Winters: You’ve written about borders before, and you’ve got a lot of personal experience living on both sides of our southern border. But why did you choose this time around to write about not just “the border,” but about borders in general?
Todd Miller: The previous work that I had coming up to this book was looking at borders from different angles. My first book was called Border Patrol Nation, so I was looking at the post-9/11 expansion of the border apparatus. The second one was Storming the Wall, which looks at climate change and displacement and how borders are playing a part in that. And then I looked at also the internationalization of the U.S. border in the third book, called Empire of Borders. …
There’s a lot of in-depth reporting, and looking at all these different aspects, all these different angles, and really getting to know intimately what is exactly going on: unpacking this apparatus, looking at all the different components of it, looking at the strategies—for example, the strategy on the southern border. “Prevention Through Deterrence” is a strategy to inflict suffering on people. That’s what it is, it’s purposely blockading certain areas, so that people circumvent them and go through the Arizona desert where I live. And the idea is that the suffering or potential of death of going through those areas will deter people, that the word will get back. And that’s been the strategy for 25 years.
My argument is that border security is not about security at all.
And then watching … the $1.5 billion budget for border and immigration enforcement [in 1994] going to $25 billion today. … So I’ve lived on both sides of the border, and just watching this thing just build up, build up, build up, build up with all kinds of technologies—drones, surveillance towers, motion sensors—it’s just a militarization of the border, really. And this is what just really led to this book: What is this thing that we’re told is sacrosanct? That we’re told that you can’t question?
Winters: In the book, you somewhat rhetorically ask the question, “What if we just showed up at the border and started taking it down?” We like to talk about the cliché of a world without borders, but what could it mean in reality?
Miller: You can look at the U.S.-Mexico border, and then you can look at the border systems around the world, and there’s 70 border walls in various countries. There are border patrols in a lot of different places. My argument is that border security is not about security at all. Or you have to ask the question, what does it secure? Whose security is it for? And then when you come down [to] that question, then it’s like, oh, the border is almost formed like a scaffolding to keep a status quo, to keep a business-as-usual world where, it may be overly simplified, but I’ll say it: like the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
When we look at the 21st century, you have problems of inequality that are just yawning gaps between, what, there are 2,000 billionaires that have more wealth than 4.6 billion people, right? The fact that people are going to get be on the move more than ever before due to climate change, those are the some of the things we have to look at. So the global border system is designed to keep this kind of world in place. And [it’s] a world also where, for example, U.S. companies can go to Mexico and get cheap labor, so there’s a whole labor component to it. And so my argument is this: This is a completely unsustainable world. But it’s getting more and more pressured by all these different changes and, for a world of justice, a world of equality, a world where we would respect all those values, the borders inhibit those forms of justice from happening. …
It’s time to look holistically at the border, to have an actual conversation about one of the things that’s problematic… : You can’t question this thing. But it’s time to put it into a question: Is this the best way to go about things as we move into the 21st century, with its challenges, like climate change, where there will be tons of people on the move? Or is there a better way that we can organize the world? …
Winters: One of the issues that you also talk about in the book is the idea that there’s an underlying deterrence strategy that feeds into this notion of the border industrial complex. But the actual strategy underneath that, and the physical manifestation of that, which is the wall, tends to monopolize conversations about the border. It’s a question of either building the wall here or over there. How can we keep our focus on the broader issue?
Miller: When you think of the Biden presidency, that was a worry, obviously. With shifting from Trump to Biden, I was worried that the [attention] would go away from the border. And strangely, there has been a little bit of a focus on the border of late, especially with unaccompanied minors. And so there has been more reporting than actually I thought there would be. …
Biden comes out with some really nice-sounding executive orders, very much intent upon reversing some of the most egregious Trump policies, which everyone is probably happy with. And yet, at the same time, there’s almost no admission that there was anything going on before Trump, right? There’s no acknowledgment of this bigger issue, that bigger arc, what the border apparatus is, how many years that it’s been built up how it’s been built up in bipartisan fashion.
I like to look from the beginning of the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy on the U.S.-Mexico border in 1994, which is, of course, during the Clinton administration, and Operations Hold the Line, Gatekeeper, Safeguard, and others. And just looking at the budget then [in ’94], which was $1.5 billion for border and immigration, 4,000 Border Patrol agents. And then you look at the end of the Clinton administration: $4.2 billion, about 8,000 Border Patrol agents. And then you look at the beginning [and] the end of the George W. Bush administration with 9/11 happening, [which led to the creation of] the Department of Homeland Security, and the Customs and Border Protection and ICE. And it goes from $5 billion to $15 billion. … All of a sudden, you just have the money faucet just opening up, a flood of money going into this thing. …
Winters: You mention the concept of “wall sickness” in the book. What is that, exactly?
Miller: Well, wall sickness came from the Berlin Wall, and from I believe psychiatry and psychology, from looking at how people experience psychologically living so close to the wall. The conclusions that were drawn were that there was a sort of narrowness, that people [experienced] increased anxiety, that people would have a sort of “dis-ease”—and they want to put the hyphen there—by being so close to a wall. …
They’re impediments that are put down, physical barriers, but they also have these profound psychological impacts on people in many different ways. And in the end, the conclusion is breaking down the walls is therapeutic. The prescription is to break down the wall to alleviate the wall sickness.
Winters: Do you see that wall sickness is a thing that’s not confined to the geographic area surrounding the wall?
Miller: Oh, yeah. You can definitely see that it’s spread throughout the United States, in certain degrees. I mean, [it’s been] particularly evident in the last four or five years, the kind of fervor. It’s almost a sickness and a religion at the same time. And I base this off Trump and Trump’s constituency, and the constantly mentioning of the wall and the fervor behind the wall.
I remember I was reporting on the Trump campaign in 2015, or ’16, one of those years, and Mike Pence came to Tucson to do a talk and, and I went there and it was a full house. And I was in the back and no standing ovations the whole time. And then Pence mentioned, they’re going to build this great big wall on the border, and then just people just rose like, into this huge standing ovation. It was quite the scene, and to me, when I think of wall sickness and how it spreads, we’re well past the walls. When you’re near it, it’s almost like you’re against it, because it’s so confining.
Winters: Do you find, where you live, that geographic separation is part of it, in the sense that the communities that are down there on the border, are less enthusiastic about it than the people who are up in Phoenix or are further north?
Miller: Yeah, that’s truly the case. There’s a poll, a Pew poll that came out a couple of years ago that the in-from-border counties that showed that people were against the wall and border counties, it was a pretty high percentage, too, I believe it was over 70% [opposed the wall]. I didn’t see a counter-poll in the interior. So yeah, there’s this tendency towards, the farther away you [are] from the border, if you’re of a certain mindset, the more you might say we want a wall.
With a more humane world, do you cease to need borders at all?
And in the borderlands here in Arizona, where you have some ranchers who were in media a lot 10-15 years ago for being fervently anti-immigrant, now they’re anti-Border Patrol. It’s shifted, mainly because the [migration] routes shift a lot and now the Border Patrol’s going into their land and cutting their fences. And the ranchers don’t like going through the Border Patrol checkpoints. Nobody likes it. It doesn’t matter who you are, what your political party, no one likes the checkpoints.
Winters: You chose to include your kids in the book, and anecdotes with them, whether it’s your 5-year-old son urinating on a piece of DHS concrete barrier on the beach in San Diego, or watching a Border Patrol vehicle squash an iguana in Puerto Rico. What might we as readers experience through that inclusion, of having them along for the ride?
Miller: There’s a number of reasons. One, just seeing the world through their eyes offers this really incredible perspective to me. But I think one of the main reasons is … I’m part of a world [that is] handing off the world to another generation. When I was writing about William and Sofia, I was also thinking about the generations beyond them, the generations and generations that will be inheriting this planet, and what is being left to them. And I mean that in the sense of the bad, of course, but also of the good. What are possibilities for them to do something different? … Just being able to open up the imagination to something new, especially, it almost grounds it for me when you start thinking of these future generations.
[When] I’m with William, he has had these incredible insights and moments around the border. Because I bring him down to the border all the time. And, and I quote him in the book, and he says, “Why can’t we turn the border wall into bikes?” And then he says, “Why can’t we turn the border wall into houses for people?” And then other [times he’ll say] “Why can’t we turn the border wall into rails for trains?” And to me, those are some of the most profound insights. …
You know that quote about tearing down the wall in the book, like why can’t we just go tear down the wall? What’s interesting is when, in the last part of the book I do put the border in conversation with some of our some of our most well-known prison abolitionists, like Ruthie Wilson Gilmore. When she’s talking about prison abolition, she talks about abolition as “presence.” So maybe it’s 1% about destroying the prisons, this idea of destruction, but it’s 99% about creating a new world … where prisons aren’t an answer, or a solution to a problem.
So, I really tried to put the border in conversation with that. How does the border apparatus become a solution to the problem? And are the right questions even being asked? And then when you start to ask the right questions, then the solution, from an abolitionist approach, is a more humane world. And then with a more humane world, do you cease to need borders at all?
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.