Recently, President Trump declared war on undocumented immigrants heading for the southern border -- you know, all those marauding "rapists" and their pals -- and, as seems appropriate in any "war," he promptly ordered the mobilization of the National Guard. Troops from its ranks were to be dispatched border-wards permanently, or at least until his Great Wall could be funded and built by someone or other. ("We are going to be guarding our border with our military. That's a big step," he said proudly, in announcing the move.) Up to 4,000 National Guard troops are officially to take on the task, except that so far only a scattered 900 or so from the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona have actually made it to the border -- with another 400 promised by California Governor Jerry Brown, as long as they fulfill none of the anti-immigrant duties that Trump has in mind for them. Are you with me so far? Add to this the fact that the troops going into battle will be doing so unarmed and with no authority to act directly in any way in relation to immigrants of any sort. (As the memo that Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed put it, the National Guard troops will not "perform law enforcement duties or interact with migrants or other persons detained by U.S. personnel.")
Think of this as Syria in the Southwest. In response to presidential tweets and boasts, the U.S. military is searching for a way to visually fulfill his promises -- oh, those missiles sent into Syria, more than twice as many as the last time! -- while actually doing as little as humanly possible to achieve his goals. Mission accomplished! In fact, those National Guard troops could essentially hit the border and twiddle their thumbs, while the endless advanced systems of high-tech surveillance implanted in our ever more fortified and militarized borderlands do most of the work for them. TomDispatch regular Todd Miller, author most recently of Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, has been following all of this for years now and today offers a sense of how ordinary -- despite all the hype -- Trump's military moves have actually been in the context of recent American border politics. It's a grim tale without an end in sight. Fortunately, Miller is on the job. Tom
The Border Fetish
The U.S. Frontier as a Zone of Profit and Sacrifice
By Todd Miller
At first, I thought I had inadvertently entered an active war zone. I was on a lonely two-lane road in southern New Mexico heading for El Paso, Texas. Off to the side of the road, hardly concealed behind some desert shrubs, I suddenly noticed what seemed to be a tank. For a second, I thought I might be seeing an apparition. When I stopped to take a picture, a soldier wearing a camouflage helmet emerged from the top of the Stryker, a 19-ton, eight-wheeled combat vehicle that was regularly used in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He looked my way and I offered a pathetic wave. To my relief, he waved back, then settled behind what seemed to be a large surveillance display mounted atop the vehicle. With high-tech binoculars, he began to monitor the mountainous desert that stretched toward Mexico, 20 miles away, as if the enemy might appear at any moment.
That was in 2012 and, though I had already been reporting on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border for years, I had never seen anything like it. Barack Obama was still president and it would be another six years before Donald Trump announced with much fanfare that he was essentially going to declare war at the border and send in the National Guard. ("We really haven't done that before," Trump told the media on April 3rd, "or certainly not very much before.")
Operation Nimbus II, as the 2012 mission was called, involved 500 soldiers from Fort Bliss and Fort Hood and was a typical Joint Task Force North (JTF-N) operation. Those troops were officially there to provide the U.S. Border Patrol with "intelligence and surveillance." Since JTF-N was tasked with supporting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the border, its motto was "protecting the Homeland." However, it was also deeply involved in training soldiers for overseas military operations in ongoing American wars in the Greater Middle East.
Only weeks before, 40 Alaskan-based Army airborne engineers had parachuted into nearby Fort Huachuca as if they were part of an invasion force landing in Southern Arizona. That border operation (despite the dramatic arrival, all they did was begin constructing a road) "mirrors the type of mission the 40 soldiers might conduct if they were deployed to Afghanistan," JTF-N "project organizers" told the Nogales International. As JTF-N spokesman Armando Carrasco put it, "This will prepare them for future deployments, especially in the areas of current contingency operations."
So seeing combat vehicles on the border shouldn't have surprised me, even then. A "war" against immigrants had been declared long before Trump signed the memo to deploy 2,000-4,000 National Guard troops to the border. Indeed, there has been a continuous military presence there since 1989 and the Pentagon has played a crucial role in the historic expansion of the U.S. border security apparatus ever since.
When, however, Trump began to pound out tweets on Easter Sunday on his way to church, Americans did get a vivid glimpse of a border "battlefield" more than 30 years in the making, whose intensity could be ramped up on the merest whim. The president described the border as "getting more dangerous" because 1,000 Central Americans, including significant numbers of children, in flight from violence in their home countries were in a "caravan" in Mexico slowly heading north on a Holy Week pilgrimage. Many of them were intending to ask for asylum at the border, as they feared for their lives back home.
Fox & Friends labeled that caravan a "small migrant army" and so set the battlefield scenario perfectly for the show's number one fan. The end result -- those state National Guards caravaning south -- might have been as ludicrous a response to the situation as a tank in an empty desert pointed at Mexico, but it did catch a certain reality. The border has indeed become a place where the world's most powerful military faces off against people who represent blowback from various Washington policies and are in flight from persecution, political violence, economic hardship, and increasing ecological distress. (Central America is becoming a climate-change hot spot.) Yet these twenty-first century border "battlefields" remain hidden from the public and largely beyond discussion.
The Fetish of the Border
As I moved away from the Stryker that day, I wondered what that soldier was seeing through his high-tech binoculars. It's a question that remains no less pertinent six years later as yet more National Guard troops head for the border. Even today, such forces aren't likely to ever see a caravan of 1,000 refugees, only -- possibly -- tiny groups of crossers moving through the U.S. borderlands to look for work, reunite with family, or escape potentially grave harm. Such people, however, usually travel under the cover of night.
Even less likely: anyone carrying drugs into the United States. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the majority of illicit narcotics that cross the border into the world's largest market (valued at approximately $100 billion per year) arrive through legal ports of entry. Least likely of all: a person designated as a "terrorist" by the U.S. government, even though that's became the priority mission of Joint Task Force North and Customs and Border Protection. A flood of money has, in these years, poured into border budgets for just such a counterterrorism mission, yet no such person, not a single one, has been reported crossing the southern border since 1984. (And even that incident seems dubious.)
Indeed, the most likely thing to glimpse along that divide is evidence of the countless billions of dollars that have been spent there over the last 30 years to build the most gigantic border enforcement apparatus in U.S. history. You would be quite likely, for instance, to see armed U.S. Border Patrol agents in their green-striped vehicles. (After all Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, the Border Patrol's parent outfit, is now the largest federal law enforcement agency.) You might also catch glimpses of high-tech surveillance apparatuses like aerostats, the tethered surveillance balloons brought back from American battle zones in Afghanistan that now hover over and monitor the borderlands with long-range cameras and radar.
Those binoculars wouldn't be able to see as far as the small town of Columbus, New Mexico -- the very town that Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa so famously raided in 1916 -- but if they could, you might also see portions of an actual border wall, built with bipartisan support after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 passed, with votes from Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Chuck Schumer. Those 650 miles of walls and barriers cost an average of $3.9 million per mile to build and additional millions to maintain, money that went into the coffers of the military-industrial complex.