We Are All at the Border Now

14 May, 2021

Mexican artists are painting the border wall with the United States to make it disappear.

Mex­i­can artists are paint­ing the bor­der wall with the Unit­ed States to make it disappear.

Excerpt from Build Bridges, Now Walls: a Jour­ney to a World With­out Bor­ders by Todd Miller
City Lights (2021)
ISBN 9780872868342

Todd Miller

I see a man on the edge of the road. He looks both des­per­ate and ragged and waves his arms for me to pull over my car. We are in south­ern Ari­zona, about twen­ty miles north of the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. Behind the man is the Sono­ran Desert — beau­ti­ful twist­ing saguaros, prick­ly pear, and chol­la cac­ti — the liv­ing earth his­tor­i­cal­ly inhab­it­ed by the indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties of the Tohono O’od­ham Nation. As I stop, the man rush­es to my side of the car. Speak­ing in Span­ish, he tells me his name is Juan Car­los. He tells me he is from Guatemala. He gulps down the water I offer him and asks if I can give him a ride to the near­est town.

Build Bridges, Not Walls  is available from  City Lights .

Build Bridges, Not Walls is avail­able from City Lights.

Just an hour ear­li­er, majes­tic saguaros and ele­gant ocotil­los sur­round­ed me as I hiked out of the Babo­qui­vari Peak Wilder­ness with Tohono O’od­ham elder David Gar­cia. The night before, we had seen two heav­i­ly armed U.S. Bor­der Patrol agents mon­i­tor­ing a trail we used to reach the peak of the mountain.

The Babo­qui­vari Peak, where Gar­cia once fast­ed for many days to ask for guid­ance, is sacred to the Tohono O’od­ham. At points along the path up the slope, we could see lay­ers of moun­tains extend­ing for hun­dreds of miles, deep into Mex­i­co. When you are up there you do not see the Bor­der Patrol. You do not see the fleet of green-striped ground vehi­cles. You do not see the bor­der wall. From up there, the bor­der does not exist. Nations do not exist. The Earth appears as one unin­ter­rupt­ed land­scape. Absorb­ing such a view can alter one’s feel­ings and con­scious­ness in a way few things can.

Edgar Mitchell was the sixth per­son to set foot on the moon. He described see­ing the large, glow­ing globe of plan­et Earth as deeply mov­ing: “It was a beau­ti­ful, har­mo­nious, peace­ful-look­ing plan­et, blue with white clouds, and one that gave you a deep sense…of home, of being, of iden­ti­ty. It is what I pre­fer to call instant glob­al con­scious­ness.” See­ing the land with­out polit­i­cal bound­aries became an insight into what con­nects us to one anoth­er and the plan­et as a whole. The rev­e­la­tion was sin­cere and direct. High in the Tohono O’od­ham’s sacred ter­ri­to­ry, I felt some­thing sim­i­lar to what Mitchell describes.

Parked on the side of the road, Juan Car­los ask­ing me for the ride, aware­ness of our frac­tured world comes crash­ing back. I can’t see the agents, sur­veil­lance cam­eras, and sen­sors, but I know they are all around. I can feel them. Above, one of many drones in the U.S. arse­nal could be doc­u­ment­ing the moment and stream­ing data about our loca­tion and move­ments. Agents are armed not only with weapons and tech­nol­o­gy, but with laws. One such law for­bids me from giv­ing Juan Car­los a ride. Doing so would fur­ther his unau­tho­rized pres­ence in the Unit­ed States. If caught, I could be nailed with a fed­er­al crime, a felony. In essence, I could get prison time for show­ing kind­ness to a stranger.

But would­n’t it be a crime to leave some­body there, know­ing that doing so could lead to their death? And would­n’t refus­ing to help a per­son in dis­tress due to their eth­nic­i­ty be racism of the most bla­tant kind? This sort of racism is encod­ed into the very con­cept of “bor­der secu­ri­ty” and its regime of agents, tech­nolo­gies, poli­cies, bureau­cra­cies, and vio­lent vig­i­lantes. With no sign of any near­by town, I am forced to con­tem­plate Juan’s skin com­plex­ion, his disheveled clothes, and his Span­ish-only speech. As one offi­cial from the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty told the New York Times, “We can’t do our job with­out tak­ing eth­nic­i­ty into account. We are very depen­dent on that.”

This is hap­pen­ing in the Ari­zona desert, but I could have been talk­ing with some­one skirt­ing a check­point in south­ern Mex­i­co, or with a per­son cross­ing the Mona Strait from the Domini­can shores to Puer­to Rico in a rick­ety boat, or with peo­ple crammed in a car­go ship going from Libya to Italy or Turkey to Greece. This could’ve been a per­son cross­ing from Syr­ia to Jor­dan, from Soma­lia to Kenya, from Bangladesh to India, or from the Occu­pied Pales­tin­ian Ter­ri­to­ries into Israel. There are more peo­ple on the move, and cross­ing bor­ders, than ever before. Approx­i­mate­ly 258 mil­lion peo­ple are cur­rent­ly liv­ing out­side the coun­try of their birth, a sure under­count giv­en the dif­fi­cul­ty of count­ing undoc­u­ment­ed people.

Mexican artist  Enrique Chiu  (far right) with volunteers, paints border walls and argues for a

Mex­i­can artist Enrique Chiu (far right) with vol­un­teers, paints bor­der walls and argues for a “world with­out walls.”

A sim­i­lar scene could unfold with­in coun­tries too, since immi­gra­tion enforce­ment is hard­ly lim­it­ed to nation­al perime­ters. In the Unit­ed States, bor­der enforce­ment could take place on an Amtrak train in Rochester, Buf­fa­lo, Erie, or Detroit, where armed agents board trains and ask peo­ple for their papers. We could have been in any of count­less U.S. cities where Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment agents oper­ate twen­ty-four hours a day, hunt­ing for peo­ple who are here with­out autho­riza­tion. In Mex­i­co, immi­gra­tion agents reg­u­lar­ly board bus­es through­out the coun­try. For exam­ple, I once saw a man pulled off a bus after he said he lived in San Cristóbal de los Ange­les instead of San Cristóbal de las Casas. On anoth­er occa­sion, when I was on a bus in the Domini­can Repub­lic near the bor­der with Haiti, an immi­gra­tion agent asked every black pas­sen­ger for their papers, but ignored me even as I sat there atten­tive­ly with pass­port in hand. And then, in con­trast, at the edge of a Soma­li neigh­bor­hood in Nairo­bi I was stopped and inter­ro­gat­ed for half an hour as the immi­gra­tion agent sift­ed through my papers.

Now I am in the U.S. bor­der­lands with Juan Car­los, and forced to make a deci­sion. In Build Bridges, Not Walls: a Jour­ney to a World With­out Bor­ders, I reflect on why I hes­i­tate when Juan Car­los asks me for a ride. And as I search for an answer, I find that there is a much big­ger prob­lem to tack­le: Why am I forced to make such a deci­sion in the first place? Why am I com­pelled to be com­plic­it either with enforc­ing author­i­tar­i­an law or with uphold­ing our com­mon human­i­ty, with build­ing a wall or build­ing a bridge?
The book is a jour­ney through more than twen­ty-five years liv­ing and work­ing as a jour­nal­ist, writer, edu­ca­tor, and peren­ni­al stu­dent of and in the world’s bor­der­lands. In the process I have met many peo­ple who influ­enced my think­ing pro­found­ly —Tojo­la­bal Zap­atis­tas in south­ern Mex­i­co, a Fran­cis­can fri­ar in the Ari­zona bor­der­lands, a bor­der cross­er escap­ing the rav­ages of cli­mate change, an open-heart­ed Bor­der Patrol agent, and mod­ern-day abo­li­tion­ists, among many oth­er provoca­tive thinkers and doers in this world who dare defy con­ven­tion­al thought and boundaries.

In Build Bridges, Not Walls I look at the ways that divi­sions have been imposed, per­mit­ted, and accept­ed over decades, regard­less of who is the U.S. pres­i­dent. But I also exam­ine the nat­ur­al incli­na­tion of human beings to be empath­ic with one anoth­er, to forge sol­i­dar­i­ties with each oth­er, and how such incli­na­tions con­trast with the bor­ders that invoke and per­pet­u­ate chron­ic forms of racial and eco­nom­ic injus­tice. I wel­come you to the jour­ney in which you will find a call for abo­li­tion­ist resis­tance through kind­ness — a fugi­tive kind­ness that has edge, that shat­ters unjust laws and is based in sol­i­dar­i­ty. And you will find an aspi­ra­tion to cre­ate some­thing beau­ti­ful, some­thing human, from the bro­ken pieces.

checkpointsGreeceSyriaTurkeyUS-Mexico border

Todd Miller has researched and written about border issues for more than 20 years. He resides in Tucson, Arizona, but also has spent many years living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico. His work has appeared in the New York Times, TomDispatch, The Nation, San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English, among other places. Miller is the author of Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World (Verso, 2019), Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (City Lights, 2017), which was awarded the 2018 Izzy Award for Excellence in Independent Journalism, and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security (City Lights, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @memomiller.