Todd Miller writes about modern empire and borders. His works tell of a US border security apparatus that extends into other nations around the world and provides various immigration police agencies in the United States to operate anywhere they please inside US borders. His descriptions of the surveillance technology and its uses are simultaneously fascinating from a scientific point of view and terrifying in their potential. The reports he includes about the human side of border and immigration policing is just frightening. The inference I have drawn from his descriptions is that even if an agent of the immigration or border police is inclined to act humanely when it comes to dealing with migrants, the very structure and mindset of the agencies makes such acts subject to discipline from above. The conclusion is a simple one—open borders to people, not just business.
Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders, is a new book from Miller. In it he utilizes his understanding of the US border regimes to inform a collection of encounters with those affected by that infrastructure. This includes border patrol agents, border abolitionists, academics and most importantly, migrants themselves. The reader meets Miller as he drives in the Sonora Desert about twenty miles from the US-Mexico border. He sees a man on the side of the road hoping for a ride. Although Miller gives the man a ride, taking him to a shelter run by a group established to assist immigrants without question, he acknowledges his hesitancy in doing so. The reason for Miller’s hesitation is the fear he could get stopped by law enforcement and charged with a felony for helping an undocumented migrant. The reader is barely five pages in when the question which propels this text becomes obvious: “what happens to our collective humanity when the impulse to help another is criminalized?”
The answers to this are hinted at throughout this slender book. Many of them are manifestations of something I would call evil; the evil of intention and the banality of bureaucratic evil. Sometimes the two find a home in one individual—a sadistic guard in a private immigration detention camp. Most of the time, however, it is an evil defined by its lack of passion or personal delight. It is the uniformed official doing their job or the bureaucrat issuing citations on their keyboard. Or it is the egocentric and sycophantic politician voting yes on laws that criminalize kindness and demonize children. It is this evil which informs the actions of a society with little self-reflection and an outsized sense of entitlement. It is a society so removed from its kinder impulses that locking up battered and abused people because their papers are not in order is justified by almost all those in control.
The humans J. Malcolm Garcia writes about live south of the US-Mexican border. However, they are not immune from the meanings that border proscribes. The effects of industrial and financial endeavors from companies and institutions to the North are the essence of his essays. His stories are of the multitudes in the migrant caravans escaping lives filled with violence and hunger. They are about families living in the aftermath of US-engineered coups and wars. Garcia reports from neighborhoods made of cardboard and tin next to refuse dumps, from refugee detention centers in Mexico and from the streets of cities throughout Central America. The people he talks to are nuns caring for abandoned children and fighting mines poisoning rivers and farmlands; children living on the fringes of gang-infested cities trying to go to school while taking care of siblings and other relatives. The pure horror of their lives goes unnoticed by most of the world, in part because the authorities hide it away but mostly because people do not want to look. Garcia’s text, titled A Different Kind of War: Uneasy Encounters in Mexico and Central America is but a small part of a momentum to force people to look; to look and do something about it.
His lyrical prose transcends its journalistic task. The lives he enters and modestly profiles are humble lives. The book features the aforementioned nuns devoting their selves to the wretched of the earth. It also describes what might be seen as an unwarranted hope in the hearts of children who, despite the objective despair of their situation, tell Garcia of their desire to be a doctor or a nurse. Beyond the desperate nature of the lives Garcia writes about lurks a spirituality that his writing fashions into a beautifully wrought verse.
Many of the pieces in A Different Kind of War were originally written for newspapers connected to a religious faith, as are most of Garcia’s subjects. It is within these people’s lives that Karl Marx’s description of religion as the ” sigh of the oppressed ” is made real. Spiritual belief is often the one of the few phenomena that gives them a reason to live; a hope that defies the despair of their lives. It is not something to be laughed at, but to be reckoned with. There’s a reason people turn to ministers for guidance. Quite often that guidance suggests acquiescence. In Garcia’s reports, the opposite is often true. Nuns and priests are engaged in the struggle for a more equitable existence; against the bloodshed and economic injustice they know so intimately—from their work and from their own lives.
The common thread in these two texts involves borders and capitalism. Both include profiles of individuals and communities struggling to make their lives better in the face of the obstacles placed in their way by borders and capitalism. Todd Miller provides an overview that discusses the political and economic system that profits from and enforce the regime of borders. J. Malcolm Garcia lets his wonderfully narrated stories speak for themselves. In both works, we find a beauty scuffling not necessarily to thrive, but to exist.