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Todd Miller, the author of a new report on the border-industrial complex discusses how corporations drive border policy and the effect this policy has on immigrants.

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

This is part two of my interview with Todd Miller about the recently released report on the US-Mexico border and the industries that have been pushing for its militarization. Todd Miller is the author of the new report titled “More Than a Wall.” Thanks again, Todd, for being here today.

TODD MILLER: It’s great to be here. Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s turn now to what you and your report refer to as the “border-industrial complex.” First, who are the main players, and how has their role evolved in the last 20 or 30 years? And how and why has the management of border technology and border control shifted really, what seems like from the government to these private companies?

TODD MILLER: Yeah. One really impressive statistic that we bring out in the report, which actually I’ve been looking into the different companies and players in the border. I guess you’d have to call the border security-industrial complex now for close to eight or nine years. And by that, I mean, I’ve been going to different expos around the country, actually even around the world, and where do you see different companies display their technologies. It’s almost like going into a futuristic, scientific crystal ball in a way of how industry is imagining the future to be of the border.

And then of course, the border is often a proving ground for the rest of the country, right? But even so, when I was doing the research for this report, we came across the stat that there was – what was it? $27 billion worth of contracts that were given out by Customs and Border Protection between the year 2006 and 2018. $27 billion, I should say. $27 billion in contracts. And then what I did was I tallied the earlier annual budgets of the INS, or the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or what the border and immigration enforcement apparatuses is from 1975 to 1998, so you’re talking what 23 years’ worth of accumulated budgets? And it was $26 billion.

So there’s been more contracts given out in this period of time between 2006 and 2018 than there were for the entire accumulated annual budgets for a 22 year time period, not too long ago. That’s how much things have really, really, really shifted. The whole border and immigration enforcement apparatus when you look at those earlier budgets, there was some emphasis put on them by the federal government, but it was definitely not a priority at all. Then that really, really shifted in the post-9/11 era.

Then around 2005, that’s when you saw all these – more and more money just being poured into CBP— these new agencies, CBP and ICE, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And then lo and behold, there were companies that were willing and ready to accept contracts. One of the first turning points was a program known as the Secure Border Initiative and the technology aspect was SBInet. And that’s when you really could see that there’s going to be a turning point, that CBP was really going to go look for private companies. Even, there’s a quote and I’ll have to paraphrase from a higher up CBP official who told companies during industry day for Customs and Border Protection where he said, “We’re going to ask you how to do our job, right?”

Basically, the companies themselves –it’s like we’re going to put it in your hands what this border enforcement apparatus is going to look like. And then of course, Boeing got one of the first major, major contracts. Boeing, of course aerospace and a military defense company contractor who is very much involved with the broader military industrial complex, right? And they get a billion dollar contract with Customs and Border Protection. They design, what effectively we’re calling a virtual wall, which is the surveillance system that would be along the US-Mexico border.

And so that kind of jumpstarted what would be a number of companies getting all kinds of contracts and the Boeings of the world, Lockheed Martins of the world, the General Dynamics, Northrop Grummans, General Atomics. General Atomics is the company that also in 2005 got a contract for drones, or unmanned aerial systems. That’s when the drone program, or Customs and Border Protection started its drone program, and so there’s just a number of different companies that started to get contracts and the budgets kept rising, so there was more contracts. And then eventually, as I just mentioned, the number gets up to $27 billion worth of contracts. So that’s a lot of money going out to all kinds of private companies and a lot of them, the traditional arms dealers that we talk about when we talk about US military operations.

GREG WILPERT: Now when you call this a border-industrial complex, you’re clearly alluding to Eisenhower’s reference to a military-industrial complex. Now just how are these corporations involved in driving border policy? I mean, that’s the idea, I guess, of calling it a complex, that there’s a real tight integration between the companies and the government. Talk to us about how this integration works.

TODD MILLER: Yeah. All the companies have clout in Washington a lot. Really, a lot of it. The bigger a weapons’ company is— the Lockheed Martins, the General Dynamics— they just traditionally have a presence in the Beltway. They can get behind closed doors with key congressional figures. They have a lot of money that they can put towards campaign contributions. So in the report we do follow all of this. We follow how companies—And I want to stress, it’s not only the big defense contractors. There’s lots of newer security companies. There’s IT companies. IBM is one of the biggest contractors for CBP, for example.

But all these companies, and particularly the large arms weapons defense contractors, they have a lot of power in Washington. Again, they know how to – who are the key congressional people to funnel money to into their campaigns. So you file a campaign contributions into the House Homeland Security Committee and wow, there they are. They’re flowing in there. Or if you look at who’s the primary donators to key figures in the Appropriations Committee, you’ll find that the same companies that are getting border contracts are also the top companies that are making sure that the campaigns are well-financed of key people who are determining how the budgets go, what kind of money is doled out, who gets the money, and that sort of thing.

Then, when you look at different reform, or immigration reform, and I said that with a little hesitancy because every immigration reform package, if you notice, has a lot of border militarization packed in there. Every time there’s some sort of immigration reform or a package comes to light, for example, the 2013 gang of eight, you had immigration reform pass through the Senate. You look at that time and you see all kinds of companies just lobbying and lobbying and lobbying every single day, sending people to lobby. And then when that bill comes out, there’s nearly $45 billion that is designated towards it. The bill never passed of course, but it came out, there’s $45 billion designated towards bolstering the border and even specific technologies named in the bill that would go to certain companies and the very companies that were doing the lobbying.

So that’s what we tried to follow. We would follow this, “Well, okay. These companies are getting the contracts, but of course they want more contracts, and since they want more contracts—” So try to follow that, the whole idea of a complex, that this thing is working on its own, right? It’s growing for the sake of growth. That definitely seems to be the case with what I would call—It’s clearly not the military-industrial complex. That’s even bigger and more massive budgets, but it’s definitely a branch of that, that’s coming to be. And really, that’s something that we need to reckon with.

GREG WILPERT: Well, briefly, one interesting aspect of your report is also this idea of the revolving door. Now, in theory, there should be laws or there are laws actually that are supposed to prevent people from moving from the industry to government, and from government to the industry. But your report seems to have found that this doesn’t seem to be working. Tell us a little bit more about that.

TODD MILLER: No, not at all. You can look at many of the former Commissioners of Customs and Border Protection, it seems like they “retire” from CBP, and the next day they start their new job at a private firm. There’s a lot of examples of this. One particularly big poignant example is Chertoff Group. Michael Chertoff was, of course, DHS Secretary. And so immediately after he retired from the Department of Homeland Security, ba-boom, here’s this “consulting security operation” known as the Chertoff Group, and then he hires on a former CBP Commissioner to head the border part of it, right?

All of a sudden you have all these people with all kinds of insider information, especially in these governmental organizations, who just really seamlessly moved from the public sector to the private sector. And of course – and sometimes it’s the case that they’ll move from the private sector back to the public sector. The revolving door, if there’s any impediments or any sort of laws trying to impede that from happening, whatever they are they’re not strong enough. People are definitely going through that revolving door without too much problem at all.

GREG WILPERT: Now finally, what have been the consequences of the militarization of the US border for the actual people who they’re trying to control? That is, for the immigrants.

TODD MILLER: The consequences are dire. The prevention through deterrence, the whole point of prevention through deterrence is to stop people from crossing traditional places, and then force them into places that would not be – what are too dangerous, desolate. You can’t carry enough food. You can’t carry enough water. You just – it’s really difficult to cross. One of the threats of crossing through those areas, of course, is death, right? When that prevention through deterrence policy first came to be in 1994, they actually use the word mortal threat as a deterrent, right?

So if somebody died, then the word would get back to people in Mexico or people in Central America. “Don’t do that because you might die.” And of course, so many people have died. Over the years, and I’ve been working on these issues for years and years here in Southern Arizona, I’ve met—I mean, I met one woman who had been out in the desert for 26 days. She was really lucky to be alive. The only reason why she is alive is because she found a puddle, and she drank out of a puddle for several days, and finally somebody found her.

I have met another person who, she said she was walking through a rocky mountain range and they ran out of water. They ran out of food. Then she said she eventually started seeing hallucinations, and then they arrived at a road. She described a scene at the road where she looked around her and she described several of the people that she was with in her group, their noses spontaneously bursting with blood. Then she passed out, and when she woke up she was in a hospital. According to her, she thought, “Well, I was connected to like a machine that probably brought me back to life,” when she told me the story. So she was actually one of the lucky ones, right? Because so many people do not survive.

Of the 8,000 people of the remains that have been found, close to 8,000, there’s thousands of other people who are looking for lost loved ones who they think perished in the desert. The desert is so vast. And that’s one of the biggest issues that when we start thinking about all this militarization of the border, and all these companies cashing in on it, right? They’re making money off of a system that really literally pushes people into these really dangerous and desolate areas, and people are dying. If they’re not dying, they’re getting arrested, put into prison. They’re going to private prisons and private prisons are making money, so there’s a lot of money being made on either death or suffering of people who are crossing the border.

GREG WILPERT: Okay, well we’re going to leave it there for now. We’ve been following this story of course for a long time now, and continue to do so. I was speaking to Todd Miller, author of the Transnational Institute report “More Than a Wall.” Thanks again, Todd, for having joined us today.

TODD MILLER: Thank you very much. It was great.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Todd Miller is a journalist based in Tucson, Arizona covering border issues. He is the author of "Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World", "Storming the Wall", and "Border Patrol Nation".