The iconic abolitionist activist Angela Davis once wrote that “walls turned sideways are bridges.” This creativity and openness to our fellow humans — this bridge-building — is what we need to do to address the unfolding crises of climate change, mass migration, and late-stage capitalism, according to investigative journalist and author Todd Miller. Miller has spent decades studying the politics of border regions, tracing the human and environmental toll of decades of militarization, forced displacement, and detention. His fourth and latest book on the subject, Build Bridges, Not Walls, from City Lights Books, makes an abolitionist case against borders.
In a recent phone conversation, Miller spoke to Teen Vogue about the personal, political, and spiritual case to tear down border walls.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Teen Vogue: How did you come to this book?
Todd Miller: When I was younger, I was doing a lot of solidarity work — going to Mexico, going to Chiapas, going to Zapatista territories. One of the first times that I went, I met a young man named Caralampio. We would play chess every afternoon. I eventually ended up going to his house and became good friends with him. While becoming friends, he talked a little bit about some of the struggles [his family faced] and how he thought about possibly going north. He asked me what I thought his prospects were.
The border was getting heavily militarized at the time, [in 1999]. This was through the “prevention through deterrence” doctrine, meaning that there was a huge effort to fortify the border with walls, barriers, technologies, and a hiring surge of border agents. All of this was deployed in cities, so people who were coming north were purposely funneled by the apparatus into the desert. It became impossible to cross at traditional places. The whole idea of the deterrence doctrine was that there would be a weaponization of the desert, because it’s impossible to carry enough water [or] food. And you’re forced to walk for many days. I told him that.
After I left the community, it was very difficult to keep in communication with him. But I remember to this day reading the email that told me of Caralampio’s passing [due to chronic malnutrition], and it was like eating broken glass. From that moment on, my outlook completely changed. I see now that this moment was pivotal. I really do believe that that’s what guided me to begin to look really in-depth into the border system, how it’s grown historically, expanded into the interior and exterior, and is a constant human rights violation. But even more, the border plays a role in maintaining systems of injustice. And, for this reason, the conclusion I draw after decades of reporting is that it needs to be eliminated.
TV: In a recent piece for The Nation, you note that the border industry “actually donated more money to the Biden campaign and the Democrats than to Trump and the Republicans” during the 2020 election. What’s happening at the border today?
TM: After the inauguration, there were a number of executive orders, all of them aimed at the reversal of Trump policies. There was optimism with the new administration to make some major changes on the border.
While there have been some things like that happening — like the [suspension of Trump’s] “remain in Mexico” protocol [for asylum seekers trying to enter the U.S. through the Southern border], and a concerted effort to reunite families who had been separated during the Trump years — what has not happened, and what was not addressed in any of the executive orders, was the very long-term, bipartisan build-up of the border.
If you were to look at the budgets of the border, from 1994 onwards, you see the most dramatic increase in fortification of the U.S. border and the immigration enforcement apparatus that we have ever seen in our history. Even if you take the Clinton administration alone, the budget went from about $1.5 billion to 4.2 billion by the end of his presidency — almost tripling. And the annual budget that the Biden administration has inherited, and the budget that it proposes for next year, hovers around $25 billion. That’s the budget that maintains and expands Border Patrol and [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] agents, walls, technologies, detention centers, the deportation regime. All signs point to the Biden administration continuing decades of fortification.
Biden [has] said that he was not going to build “another foot” of wall. The administration emphasized that it’s going to divert that money into technology. The technology seems to go along with this idea of a “more humane border,” when in reality the technology is part of what has been referred to as a “virtual wall,” part of a surveillance apparatus that reinforces the agents and the actual physical wall. In other words, it’s part of the same thing.
TV: The period around 1992 when the United Nations first recognized climate change as a serious issue was the same time that wealthy countries accelerated their construction of border walls. In other words, border walls became the policy solution to climate change. Can you explain how these historical forces reinforce one another?
TM: You can go to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) documents and assessments, you can go to the Pentagon assessments, you go to almost any assessment coming from the military, or the security or homeland security apparatus, about the future, about climate change, and there is great concern over displacement, especially in the global south. In the security world, climate change is often referred to as a “threat multiplier,” and by that they mean displaced people. The so-called solution is a border wall, or building up the border, or preparing borders for mass migrations, as the DHS has stated. There are now more than 70 border walls around the world. And some [researchers] forecast having as many as 1.2 billion people on the move by [the] year 2050. You can see the future clashes between the elites and the displaced. Thus, border building can be explained as sort of a climate adaptation program for the rich and powerful.
The other part is capitalism, or more specifically the neoliberal project and the impact that it’s had in the last three decades. Two things stand out: capitalism’s reliance on poisoning the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions, and how capitalism favors the rich over the poor. There are a little over 2,000 billionaires who have more wealth than 4.6 billion people. And if you’re looking at it from an elite perspective, where you want to keep making profits, where you want to keep extracting, the unsustainability has to be made stable in some sort of way. In this sense, hardened borders aimed at the poor create a scaffolding of the status quo.
TV: You write about how borders restrict the movement of the poor, yet note that “the U.S. military intelligence agencies and corporations all operate in a world of no borders.” How is that double standard embedded into this system, when we think of the movements of entities like the CIA and the United Fruit Company?
TM: With the idea of an open border, you immediately assume that the media means migrants and refugees arriving to the U.S. border. Rarely mentioned is the fact that there’s an open-border system already in place for corporate power, or the U.S. military for that matter with [some] 800 military bases around the world. In this open-borders world, executives travel over borders at 35,000 feet in airplanes.
You mentioned the United Fruit Company, which is a very good example. United Fruit, [now Chiquita Banana,] was behind the CIA coup d’etat in Guatemala in 1954 [after it’s fallow land was threatened by the democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz]. That then set the precedent for a decades-long military dictatorship in Guatemala that was often financed by the United States. There’s a brutality to this history that impacts Guatemala to this day — it was a military slaughter against the poor and mainly Indigenous people — caused in part by a selective open-border system for corporate power and elites.
TV: In the book, you refute many of the arguments for strong borders as xenophobic and racist, including talking points like immigrants are going to be a drain on “our” tax resources and change “our” culture. Can you talk about the case for closed borders and why you think it’s wrong?
TM: Studies show that undocumented communities are safer [than non-immigrant ones] and help debunk the myth that immigrants bring criminality into the United States. And then also there are the economic arguments, which I find to be comic. The undocumented population is given this tremendous power with the rhetoric that insists they’re driving down the wages when they don’t make any decision about the wages at all. And then on top of that, the “drain on the economy” arguments have also been thoroughly debunked. One report from ProPublica showed that for every 1% increase of immigrants into the United States, there is a 1.15% increase of the gross domestic product (GDP). This report came out in 2017, when Trump was promising that he was going to raise the GDP by 4%. And this ProPublica journalist quipped that, well, then you’d have to bring in 8 million immigrants, because that would then result in a 4% increase of the GDP. As the great border scholar geographer Reece Jones told me, to paraphrase, the counterarguments are pretty thin unless your argument is racist.
TV: You write about the relatively short historical period where borders, as we understand them today, have existed. Can you talk a bit about how they came about?
TM: I’m looking at a map right now as I talk to you, and what I see is color-coded shapes of countries all over the world. But if I look at Africa, for example, I don’t see Mount Kilimanjaro or the Nile, but shapes of countries that came out of the [1884-1885] Berlin Conference. And it was in Berlin, not the continent of Africa, where European powers sliced up the African continent, placing seemingly arbitrary yet powerful lines that usually cut through Indigenous territory, where people shared traditions, languages, like the Maasai in Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania.
Borders are unnatural, they’re divisive. You can look almost anywhere around the world and that is the case. They’re also a direct result of colonialism and maintain a neo-colonial worldview.
TV: You quote abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who has written that we must “abolish the conditions under which prisons become the solutions to problems.” Can you explain how this relates to your thinking about the border?
TM: What we want to do is create a world where prisons will no longer be the quote-unquote solution to the quote-unquote problem. And then if you apply that to the border, what is the solution? A world where people wouldn’t even be displaced in the first place. And that’s the whole idea of what Gilmore is saying, right? She’s talking about the creation of a world of justice: If a world is just and there’s justice in the world, the prisons fall; and then if you apply that to the border, well then maybe the borders will fall too. If the threat of chronic malnutrition was not a threat to Caralampio’s life, for example, then he would have never had to think about going north to begin with.
Source: Teen Vogue