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Journalist Todd Miller traveled to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas to uncover the reach of ICE and the military funding being pumped into the system

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Last month, U.S. immigration and customs enforcement, otherwise known as ICE, announced plans to construct a new 2,400 bed detention center in Texas. Now a group of tenn Democratic senators sent a letter to Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson, voicing their concern over the administration’s policy.

Here to talk about this and give us an update on the recent U.S.-Mexico border issues is Todd Miller. Todd is a journalist based in Tucson, Arizona, covering border issues, and he’s the author of the book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security.

Thanks for joining us, Todd.

TODD MILLER, AUTHOR, BORDER PATROL NATION: Thanks so much for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So, Todd, you recently wrote a piece for Al Jazeera America about a trip that you went to–you went to Mexico, actually, and you discuss what you learned about this close relationship between border patrol on the Mexican side as well as on the American side. Can you just tell us what you uncovered?

MILLER: Sure. Yeah. And it was late August, and I went to the southern state of Chiapas, which has a border with Guatemala. And what I was doing was there was–Mexico, in July–and everyone remembers, of course, during July, that was the heat of the kind of media attention towards the unaccompanied minors coming to the United States, approximately 70,000 unaccompanied minors, primarily from Central America, which represents this demographic shift of immigration coming from primarily the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

And so Mexico announced what they called the plan Forterasur in Spanish, which is the southern border plan, and wanted that their interior secretary or their–they actually–excuse me–their foreign relations secretary said, well, we’re going to–part of this plan is that we’re going to look at people coming through southern Mexico, undocumented border crossers, primarily from Central America, and if they don’t have permission to be in Mexico, and then he said, or permission to enter the United States, then we’re going to detain them and deport them. And I’m paraphrasing him, of course.

And I saw that and I said, what? Really? Did you actually say, if they don’t have permission to be in the United States? So the title of my article for Al Jazeera was “Mexico: The U.S. Border Patrol’s Newest Hire”. So I wanted to follow that line and see exactly what–and I say that in terms of the Mexican state–how much the Mexican state was doing in collaboration with the United States, and also looking–I was looking at this idea that the U.S.-Mexico border, as put by former borders czar Alan Bersin, who’s a high DHS official right now, that the U.S.-Mexico border has actually extended itself, that you can’t consider the U.S.-Mexico border only to be the border with Mexico in the U.S. Southwest, that it actually in many ways–and many literal ways as well–has extended to the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala, as put by Alan Bersin in 2012. So that’s why I wanted to uncover that.

And what I found was an enforcement–I went, actually, to the border line itself, where the Tapachula–where the border of Mexico and Guatemala–I went to the actual borderline. And then I went north. And to describe what I saw when I went North, because a lot of people crossing [from (?)] Central America, they come across Mexico. And it’s fairly easy to get across the actual borderline, but then there’s a kind of gauntlet, the United States gauntlet of checkpoints that are just about starting about ten miles inland in Mexico and going about 150 to 200 miles into the interior of Mexico. And so what people are doing–and I followed this trail, and I went on a bus, myself, and I found–and what people are doing is actually walking the 150 miles around these checkpoints. And what they’re trying to do is get to the town of Arriaga.

Arriaga is a small town of about 24,000 people, and it’s where the train begins. And I’m sure a lot of people have heard of the train. It’s often called “the Beast”. It’s called “the Beast”, or some people have called it “the train of death”, because it’s very dangerous. But a lot of Central American border crossers actually get on this train and they head North to Mexico City, even more north toward United States, and they use a train as a vehicle of transportation.

So one of the things–I went through this enforcement gauntlet. People are actually [incompr.] what a lot of people do: they walk around it, they go through very vulnerable areas. [incompr.] So, to make a long story short, I went to Arriaga, the town, and the locals there told me, oh, there’s a lot of–there used to be a lot of people in the train yards just getting on the train on the left. But there was no one. And I said, where are they? Where are the people? Where are the Central America border crossers? And people pointed way–you know, they pointed down to the rail. And I looked at the rails, and it just went way off into the distance. It’s a coastal town. It’s kind of broiling hot. And I started walking. They said go three, four miles down there and just start finding people.

So I walked three or four miles. I walked past a cemetery. I was walked past the cement factory. And I get way deep into the kind of woodland area, and I find this group of men. So there’s about ten men. They’re all from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. And there are several teenagers. The teenagers all have pretty terrified looks, like they’ve been sitting there for about two or three days. They were sitting on cardboard.

And I talked to this butcher. He was a butcher from Chimaltenango, Guatemala. And he pulled out a picture of his son and he said, “I’m going to Miami.” And I said, “Oh?” And he said showed me the picture of his son. “I’m going to Miami because of him. And this is a picture of us from some 2006.” It was from eight years ago, so he hadn’t seen his son since he was ten years old. He was 18.

And what’s significant about this man’s story is that he told me in the last month, because of these operations, he had been deported three times. This was his fourth attempt. He actually opened up his wallet, said, look, “I have no money. I’ve been deported so many times, and I’ve had my money stolen, and have no money. But I’m going”–and he held up this picture of his son–“I’m going to Miami no matter what.”

DESVARIEUX: Todd, I think it’s really important, whenever we’re talking about the border, is to unpack why people are trying to come to United States to begin with and what role the United States played in sort of fueling people coming from places, like, in Central America and trying to cross the border. Why are they coming?

MILLER: Yeah, that is the question of the year, and it definitely needs to be unpacked. There are many, many reasons why people are coming. And if you look through the lens of U.S. policy or U.S. historical intervention in Central America, you can find endless examples of what the situation we find many Central American countries to be in right now. I mean, you go to–I mean, U.S. militarism has been present in Central America since the 19th century, since there’s–you have to look at some of the–even the recent past of civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador and the kind of U.S. support of the military. And both of those occasions, peace accords are reached in 1996 or 1992. So these are very–you know, relatively speaking, very recent situations. In Guatemala, the Civil War was called the Mayan Holocaust, because about approximately 200,000 people were killed, primarily by the Guatemalan army, which was in many ways supported by the United States. If you look at that history of militarism, of coups, military coups, there was one in Guatemala done by the CIA in 1954. There was another one in Honduras, not in 1954, but in 2009. Wow. You look at–and that is really relevant what we’re seeing now.

There have been high rates of immigration coming from El Salvador and Guatemala. But the rate of immigration from Honduras, particularly since 2009, particularly since the coup–and one really key element to mention about the military coup in Honduras is that the fact that the former president, Manuel Zelaya, he was suggesting a very minimal minimum wage reform. And many people point to that as one of the reasons that he kind of irritated the elite. And he was ousted because of that. And then, while it was facilitated in many ways by the United States, Uit was a new kind of ironfisted rule in Honduras. And you see all kinds–you know, of poverty going up, extreme poverty going up, violence just out of control in Honduras. There’s power–there’s both organized crimes, there’s power vacuums. And you hear, you know, when you talk to many of the unaccompanied minors fleeing, like, situations of violence, it’s often, you know, there’s three awful stories with organized crime. There’s also state violence as well. There’s lots of activism in Honduras, and the iron fist has come down on activists, on journalists, on people in unions, on LGBT folks.

So there’s so much to unpack as far as looking at some of the root causes. And it’s not like people are leaving Central America out of a vacuum, out of ahistorical vacuum. There are real reasons. And one of them, too, just to end this little segment, is that this–the economic systems, too. The Central American free trade agreement. Why aren’t we talking about that? Why aren’t we talking about lack of opportunities or unemployment or the fact that lack of opportunities are what in many ways drive people to other opportunities which might be crime? So there needs to be a serious unpacking of some of the root reasons that drive people to leave their homes, like places people do not want to leave in the purse first place.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And we’re going to continue to try to answer some of those questions and unpack some of these issues.

But, Todd Miller, really a pleasure having you on. Thank you so much for joining us.

MILLER: Thank you so much for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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".