On Contact: Climate fortresses
On the show, Chris Hedges discusses the building of climate fortresses with the author and journalist, Todd Miller.
Industrialized nations, among them the world’s largest polluters, are compounding one human-made crisis with another one. Rather than investing in technologies to end our dependence on fossil fuels, they are spending billions to construct climate fortresses ringed by border walls. There are already more than 63 border walls, manned by tens of thousands of guards. These nations, including the United States, are investing in technologies and equipment including robots, drones, surveillance cameras, iris recognition software, weapons, acoustic detection devices, and ready-to-eat meals to blockade and criminalize those fleeing war and the worsening climate emergency that is triggering famines, droughts, wildfires and declining crop yields. More than 44,000 people (a vast undercount, according to researchers of the International Organization on Migration) have died crossing borders between 2014 and 2020, in both the world’s deserts and seas. And tens of thousands of others are incarcerated in a global network of more than 2,000 detention centers, while companies in the border industry anticipate more profitable contracts with the intensifying climate crisis. For four decades, with virtually no public debate, a handful of large corporations such as Northrop Grumman, Elbit Systems, General Atomics, and Deloitte have driven up immigration enforcement budgets in the United States behind closed doors and beyond public scrutiny.
Todd Miller’s new book is ‘Build Bridges Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders’.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss the building of climate fortresses with the author Todd Miller.
TM: When a mining company goes into a place, they fly over the border at 35,000 feet, they can take over a whole--a whole swath of territory, they can poison the water supply but there’s no border patrol trying to stop this mining company from going in. There’s no ICE going to round up the mining company and expel them from the country or imprison the mining company. It’s precisely the opposite.
CH: Industrialized nations, among them the world’s largest polluters are compounding one human-made crisis with another. Rather than invest in technologies to end our dependents on fossil fuel, they are investing billions to construct climate fortresses ringed by border walls. There are already more than 63 border walls manned by tens of thousands of border guards. These nations, including the United States, are investing in technologies and equipment including robots, drones, surveillance cameras, iris recognition software, weapons, acoustic detection devices, and ready-to-eat meals to blockade and criminalize those fleeing war and the worsening climate crisis that is triggering famines, droughts, wildfires and declining crop yields. More than 44,000 people, and this is a vast undercount, according to researchers of the International Organization on Migration have died crossing borders from 2014 to 2020, in both the world’s deserts or seas. And tens of thousands of others are incarcerated in a global network of more than 2,000 detention centers, while companies in the border industry anticipate more profitable contracts with the intensifying climate emergency. For four decades, with virtually no public debate, a handful of large corporations such as Northrop Grumman, Elbit Systems, General Atomics, and Deloitte have driven up immigration enforcement budgets in the United States behind closed doors and beyond public scrutiny. Joining me to discuss the emerging world of climate fortresses is Todd Miller. Author of Build Bridges Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders. You open the book, you’re driving along the border with Mexico and I thought it was quite a powerful, kind of, vignette and you see someone on the side of the road and then you begin to reflect that what we really done is criminalize simple human decency and kindness. You actually end the book with a kind of reverse scenario but talk about that moment.
TM: Sure. Yeah. That moment was really were the book was born, Build Bridges Not Walls. It’s my--it’s actually my fourth book, so that moment served as a--and all of my other books have looked at the border in different ways and that--and that moment looking at it was--the man was from Guatemala, he had been walking through the desert for three days. I was rumbling down this dirt road and he, all of a sudden, he’s waving and in--with his hands in distress. And so I stopped the car, I rolled out my window, and I offer him a--I offer him water. And he drank--he drank a bottle of water and I--and I asked him, “Is there anything else I could--I could do for you?” And he then said, “Could you give me a ride to the next town?” And at that moment, I hesitated and that hesitation, one, was because of doing reporting on the border for over, you know, 15 years I knew what was all around me. I knew that nearby there was probably a green striped armored border patrol vehicle doing a patrol. There could be a surveillance tower as far as eight miles away that has us in their cameras. We could’ve tripped a motion sensor, there could have been a drone predator bee, as used--like used in Afghanistan and Iraq, flying overhead who had--who are observing us. I knew all of that stuff and then you combine it with the fact that if I were to be--if I were to give him a ride and the US Border Patrol were--was to pull me over, then I could be arrested and face, you know, years in prison. And so it was--it was a combination of a meditation really, of all these years of reporting and knowing what the law was that causes hesitation. But on the flipside of the hesitation, was ire, right? I was furious with the fact that I was--I was hesitating. And it was in that moment, like, when I look at, you know, all, you know, from all these, you know, values, I could say that I’ve been taught since I was a little kid, to help a person out in distress, that you just naturally do so, and I had to stilt that in that moment, and it was there, those, kind of, that friction, which sparked the really this--the book Build Bridges Not Walls.
CH: It reminded me of Vasily Grossman’s great work Life and Fate, where he argues that under totalitarian systems, simple acts of human kindness become subversive when directed to those that totalitarian system is demonized.
TM: Yeah. That is exactly--that quote, I think, encapsulates really truly that moment. It’s--the--an act of kindness, it was an act--a very basic act of kindness that you’re taught that, you know, you go to any spiritual tradition at most religions and that’s fundamental and--but yet, like, according to the human law that was before me, it would be a criminal act and yeah, so that--so, yeah.
CH: Well, that’s what the parable of the Good Samaritan is all about. I want to talk about you talk early on in the book about the rhetoric of the Democratic Party, you say, opposition to the wall among Democrat’s seem 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. This is, you make the point in the book, is really a bipartisan effort, despite the rhetoric of the Democratic Party.
TM: That is--that is true. And really to look at the way that the border has been fortified over the years, over the--over the past three decades, particularly. Now there is--there was border build up before then, but I mean--but if you look at certain operations that happened in the mid 1990s, I’m looking at Operation Safeguard, Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold-the-Line, those are all operations coming out of the Bill Clinton administration. And really, that is what started what is known as a prevention through deterrence strategy. And that’s a strategy that was implemented at that time on the border and the strategy that still exists today. And so under the Clinton administration, one would think, you know, when you think of building walls, you know, most people probably think automatically to Donald Trump, right? But really, the first--I mean, there was a fencing along the border before the 1990s operations but what the 1990s operations did was they extracted the chain-link fences and put up these 15-foot walls made of landing mats from the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars and they put tons of money into building up the Border Patrol and then reinforced that with cameras, and surveillance systems, and technology. And the whole idea was to blockade people from going through what were traditional places from border one--from one border city to another, and then force them to circumvent around those areas making like the deserts--like the Arizona desert where I live deterrent and the idea was all people will not go through the desert because, like, in the case of Juan Carlos, the man that I was--that I ran into in the desert at the beginning of the book there would just be no way you could carry enough water, you could carry enough food, you’d have to walk for days and days and days. And so that’s the prevention through deterrence strategy started with the Clinton administration and then really--you look at the Clinton administration, which started with a 1.5, approximately, billion dollar border and immigration enforcement budget ended with a $4.2 billion border and immigration enforcement budget. So that was actually at the time the most dramatic increase that we’d ever seen. But put it--but then came 9/11, right? And the--and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which just opened up the floodgates for budgets. By the end of the George W. Bush administration in 2008, the border and immigration enforcement budget was about $15 billion dollars. So you can see it went from 1.5 billion to 15 billion at the end of the George W. Bush administration kept increasing during the Obama administration, didn’t go down at all, went up another 5 billion to 20 billion. So by the time Trump took office in 2017, there was a $20 billion, I’m look--when I--that figure I’m getting from Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement combined, $20 billion--$20 billion budget that was astronomical. So it was--it was after a dramatic increase of this border enforcement apparatus. So all the--all the kind of rhetoric that was going on at the time, right, that is from the Trump side, like, “Oh, there’s nothing on the border, I’m going to build a big wall.” Well, there was already 700 miles of walls and barriers that were built it--in--excuse me, in bipartisan fashion, right? If you look at the 700--like the wall projects of the Clinton administration and then there was a Secure Fence Act of 2006. And guess who voted for the Secure Fence Act without a problem? Joe--Senator Joe Biden, Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, right? So, that--so by the time Trump takes office there’s 700 miles of walls and barriers, billions and billions of dollars of surveillance technology and a border patrol force of nearly 21,000 agents. And so that--so the idea that it’s Trump, Trump, Trump with the border is a false idea and it was--it came from this sort of bipartisan history and then--and then, now as we look at the Biden administration who started 2021 with a $25 billion budget with CBP and ICE, so it went up another 5 billion during the Trump administration and with all indication that it’s just--that this administration is just going to carry on doing the--doing the same thing.
CH: You talk about the top border contractors and, of course, you know that they are heavy contributors to the Democratic Party. It’s interesting how many of them are also defense contractors, Northrop Grumman, Caterpillar, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and the two top prison management companies contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CEO Group and CoreCivic, donated $55 million, this is to the Democratic Party, is that correct?
TM: Yeah, Democratic Party. Well, so if we’re looking at, I think the actual figure is--well, there’s a couple of different figures, one that 50--I think its a $55 billion figure if you take out--if you look at the contracts between 2008 and 2020 and that I don’t know if that’s the figure you’re looking at or not. But there’s--this figure to me really stands out. It’s $55 billion worth of contracts given to--but you’re--I think you’re talking about the campaign contributions, right?
TM: Is that correct?
CH: Yes. Which results as 55 million.
TM: Fifty-five million, yeah, so.
CH: You make a very important point. I lived in Central America for five years in El Salvador and am acutely aware because I was there of what we did to these countries to create the crisis, of course, we are the major contributor towards greenhouse gases, and rising temperatures, and the climate catastrophe. But we also rendered these countries, dangerous--very dangerous countries like Honduras, the--backing the 2009 coup that overthrew the Honduran President Zelaya and his wife, it looks like just has been reelected or been elected finally after a very right wing government. But you talk about--I think it was a really good point, you talk about how, there are no restrictions on border crossings for corporations and for Southcom and--but speak about that issue, because it’s a really good point.
TM: Yeah. So, one thing that I--that I always notice that if you talk about the idea of open borders, for example, the very first thing--if I--if I say that right now, I imagine that, people imagine people coming up to our border coming--displaced, probably coming from places like El Salvador, or Guatemala, or Honduras but we’re not thinking about what already has open borders. The open borders, like, as you mentioned, the US military going in to Central America, Central America like El Salvador is a really great example, either going in or training military generals and the--Guatemala is another example, the coup in Honduras in 2009 that ousted Zelaya, who’s the President. Put it, you know, installed the kind of US-backed military or right wing dictator really for the last 10 years. Guatemala is a really good example as well, especially the 1954 coup that was instigated by the Central Intelligence Agency ousted the democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz who then--and then 36 years of conflict with a military dictatorship and oppression and you can’t--and you look at these--all these scenarios, and the United States involvement in those scenarios and the military--the slaughter, like in Guatemala--in El Salvador and Guatemala, the figure in Guatemala, I think it was 200,000 people killed at the end of this 36-year conflict, 90--more than 90% done by the--by the military, many who are trained by the United States and armed by the United States. And so, all that stuff, I mean, that’s, you know, when you look at borders and what the border is, like, this idea that there’s open borders, like, there’s--for--another example is--and I think I gave this example in the book on when a, you know, when a mining company, say, and there’s a lot of extractive industry going on all throughout, like Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, when a mining company goes into a place, they fly over the border at 35,000 feet, they can take over a whole--a whole swath of territory, they can poison the water supply, but there’s no border patrol trying to stop this mining company from going in. There’s no ICE going to round up the mining company and expel them from the country, or imprison the mining company. It’s precisely the opposite. So they’re--so the world--the world is being designed so there’s an open border system for corporations, for corporate power, for military power, for really, if you want to look from the United States perspective, US hegemony, US Empire even. And at the same time, the people--the very people that would be displaced by these things and I--we should include the climate crisis, climate change, what’s going on, especially when you look--consider the United States as responsible for what? Like 30% of historic greenhouse gas emissions. And then the very people displaced by all the--this convergence of--these convergence of dynamics, that are often one of the things that happens as people are displaced, and they will migrate and then those are the people we--we’re always looking at when we’re thinking about borders.
CH: Great. When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the emerging world of climate fortresses with the author and journalist Todd Miller.
CH: Welcome back to On Contact, we continue our conversation about the emerging world of climate fortresses with the author, Todd Miller. So, you make a point that the entire discussion about how to respond to this increasing migration is done behind closed doors with the many of the corporations that I just mentioned earlier, and we are not part of the discussion. I couldn’t help thinking of the COP meetings, the latest one being in Glasgow, which are public and completely ineffectual, largely, and where the real centers of power and policy lie.
TM: Yeah, that’s good. I think those parallels. But when you’re thinking about border and immigration budgets even more so that at least with the COP meeting in Glasgow or the COP meetings--the yearly COP meetings, there is a lot of press and, you know, there’s different governments or people making different statements when it comes to the border and immigration budgets, like you say, those very companies, I remember like before I really started looking into the industry, thinking, wow, these--you know, looking at the budgets, and they go up year, after year, after year for border and immigration enforcement, I’m like, well, there’s no--there’s not really much to talk about it. It just seems to happen. It seemed like it was on automatic. And then when you start looking just--and--to see what was actually going on, this idea that there was--there isn’t it just is on automatic, it’s not quite true. The--there’s many people behind closed doors, you know, talking about what, you know, you can’t--I wish I could be a fly on the wall in some of those meetings with key congressional members of the Appropriations Committee or the Homeland Security Committee, or how different legislation as well as is brought up. Like, and the same holds true for comprehensive immigration reform and I want to bring that up, because that’s a buzzword for the Democrats. There’s a constant--we want comprehensive immigration reform, the word is thrown out there and we’re just supposed to think, “Oh, that’s going to automatically be great.” Until you start examining what these different comprehensive immigration reform packages have been and the last one that passed through the Senate in 2013, if you look at the thousand pages, you’ll see that for--I believe the number was $45 billion was given to the border in the--along with other--among the other things, like a legalization program, but 45 billion given to the border, given to Customs and Border Protection to hire more border patrol agents, to bring in more surveillance technology, including certain companies being earmarked to certain, you know, different technologies, our Black Hawk helicopters, Sikorsky was in there. You--and this was all a part of the comprehensive immigration reform bill. And so those are the things that happen behind the closed doors that aren’t--that aren’t seen but happen year, after year, after year as these budgets go up. And it should go alongside the different UN summits on climate change because this is--this is one of the primary United States or probably you could say the world’s elite countries response to climate change or one of the biggest responses or their primarily climate adaptation programs is to build these walls, and borders, and surveillance systems to stop people.
CH: You talk about the concept of wall sickness, can you explain that?
TM: Yeah. Wall sickness came from the Berlin Wall really and some psychologists and psychiatrists were noting a dynamic that was happening with people, particularly in East Berlin, who were living near the wall and looking at some of the psychological impacts, including a feeling of more paranoia, feelings of narrowness, confinement, and that sort of thing. So, what I did and what other researchers are doing, but what I did in this book, looking at that sort of research and taking that concept and looking at it at a world now where there’s more walls than there have ever been. And I think you noted it at the very beginning, Chris, that there are sixty-three border walls and when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 there were six. So this has been massive expansion, I think there’s even more, there’s probably 70 or above now because the 63 goes up to 2015. In 2015, there were 15 new border walls built. So we’re looking at a--at a world where there’s more and more border walls, more and more people living near border walls. Where I live in Tucson, just down the road here in Nogales and there’s this 20-foot border wall with razor wire and many people just live right up against it. And this idea that the wall sickness is--it like pervades the, you know, the people that live right near it, but I--though the concept that I was trying to look at or I was--I was theorizing about in Build Bridges Not Walls, is that this idea of wall sickness seems to be much more pervasive, even in places far away from borders, even this, kind of, conviction that, oh, a wall is needed, we need a wall that the--like I mentioned earlier, the Democrats voting for the wall in 2006. Like it’s going--this wall can protect us from something and usually some sort of--some sort of “threat” that only can be on the other side of the wall, while at the same time neglecting the very threats like clean--like people drinking poisoned water or not enough affordable housing or whatever way you want to look at it within the country. So, that’s what I, you know, I think it’s a concept that’s--that started with this confining idea of a wall. But now is much more--much more amplified.
CH: One of the myths you implode or that these walls stop the importation of illicit drugs, but as you point out, they don’t come in through the desert, 90% is reported by the US federal government comes from the legal ports of entry, there could be no other way to supply the annual $150 billion demand in the United States. But that’s often used as an excuse for these walls.
TM: Oh, just--it’s a justification. It’s just--it’s every year, after year, after year, we got to stop drugs, drugs, whatever comes along with drugs. And then, oh, there’s more walls and not only walls, surveillance technology and this surveillance technology and more border patrol and more checkpoints. And technically, the border--the border apparatus can expand a hundred miles from the boundary. So this--we’re talking about a pretty big swath of territory, which drugs is still a go-to. If you hear like CBP officials, they’ll get on the mics and talk about why more and more is needed, while drugs are passing coming across the border. And then when you look at the stats that’s coming from the very same US federal government, as you say, most drugs are coming through the ports of entry, which then would lead us to a hundred other questions like the idea that, “Oh, there’s only coming from Mexico.” For example while not this idea that divide--it’s almost a bordered analysis, right? For drugs to pass, there has to be a cooperation on both sides of the border, there’s many things that need to happen, especially when supplying the--a gigantic--a gigantic huge market, the biggest market in the world for drug--illicit drugs as we have in the United States.
CH: I just want to close, you make this point that since 9/11, the US kind of wall industry, these corporations that I mentioned is right, has been stretching its border to approximately a hundred countries on every continent via training and resource transfers. Washington use anti-terrorism rhetoric, for example, to justify the United States involvement with border work in Jordan. Through the US Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a combat support agency, Raytheon was contracted to construct a massive border surveillance system on Jordan’s border with both Syria and Iraq. This is an industry that we are exporting. We’re going to have to stop there. That was Todd Miller, author of the book Build Bridges Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders.