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Journalist Todd Miller unpacks the political and profit-driven reasons Republicans continue to push President Obama to close the Mexican-U.S. border

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

Ebola is in the spotlight all over the media, and some lawmakers were called back to Capitol Hill to discuss the U.S. response to the virus. On Thursday, a House panel questioned health officials from the Center of Disease Control about how to prevent an outbreak of the disease. And that turned some Republican members to question whether the U.S.-Mexican border is secure. Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn asked an official from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, if the U.S. closed its southern border, would it help the Ebola situation? She seemed to get a bit confused over the official’s testimony. Let’s take a look.



Dr. Frieden, I want to be sure I heard you right. You just said to Chairman Upton that we cannot have flight restrictions because of a porous border. So do we need to worry about having an unsecured southern and northern border? Is that a big part of this problem?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: I was referring to the border of the three countries in Africa,–

BLACKBURN: Oh, you’re referring to that border, not our porous border.

–Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

BLACKBURN: Mr. Wagner, would it help you all, the Border Patrol, if we secured the southern border and eliminated illegal entry?

JOHN WAGNER, OFFICE OF FIELD OPERATIONS, U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION: Well, travel is coming across the southern border like the northern border. We’re going to query their information in our databases; we’re going to ask them their travel history, where they’re coming from, how they arrived in the country they’re coming from.

BLACKBURN: Yes or no was sufficient.


DESVARIEUX: She didn’t seem to like that response.

Now joining us to help us put this into context is our guest, Todd Miller. He’s a journalist based in Tucson, Arizona, covering border issues. He’s also the author of the book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security.

Thanks for joining us, Todd.

MILLER: TODD MILLER, AUTHOR, Border Patrol NATION: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So, Todd, you just heard that clip from Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, as well as, you know, comments coming out of other Republicans, like the Republican candidate who’s running for the seat there in New Hampshire, Scott Brown. He’s come out saying that we should be closing the border, the U.S.-Mexican border, in order to sort of curb the spread of the Ebola virus.

What do you make of these type of arguments, Todd? And how are Republicans making the connection between Ebola and the border?

MILLER: Yeah, I’m somewhat baffled by them, to tell you the truth. I just spent the last week on the border, for example. I was in /dʌglɪsˌarbɜrpiˈɛta/ and /noʊˈmælɛz/. And you know how many people were discussing Ebola on the border worry I was? I didn’t hear anyone talking about it. And not because–Ebola’s definitely a very, very serious matter, and it’s a deadly disease, and it is already–it merits much concern, and I believe it has killed about 4,000 people already in Africa. But it has not–on the U.S.-Mexico border, you there’s not one case of Ebola that’s known about in Mexico, for example, nor Central America.

And so the idea that this–it makes me want to take a step back and look at, whoa, you know, what–you know, kind of frame it in a more broader perspective, look at it through a more broad lens, and look, hey, this narrative sounds familiar, right, it sounds familiar, the kind of what you could call a fear machine narrative that’s often used to then justify a further bolstering of the U.S.-Mexico border. For example, Senator Scott Brown, in his comments, he said–I think he said, we do nothing to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. When he says that, he’s not telling the truth. He’s simply not telling the truth. If you just look at the last 20 years, there’s been unprecedented growth of a border enforcement apparatus on U.S.-Mexico border. We’ve gone from 4,000 Border Patrol agents to 23,000. We’ve gone from a budget in the millions to a budget, an immigration and border enforcement budget that’s over $18 billion. We have technologies concentrated in all kinds of areas that go well back a hundred miles inland into the United States. There’s all kinds of surveillance cameras and drones flying overhead. There is a lot of money. It has not been neglected at all. I mean, obviously there’s–when–people can go to the 2,000 mile line and find areas where there aren’t Border Patrol right on the line, but then they’re not understanding the policy, which is sometimes people walk days and days and days through isolated areas and then are caught by the Border Patrol days later. So this idea that’s being promoted that we don’t have a secure border is a false one. And that’s what I see happening using a deadly–something that is very, very, very important to talk about and a deadly disease, but it’s put into a foreign, other-izing context that we–instead of looking for solutions in a way that we could be helpful, instead we’re retracting back and saying, oh, we’ve got to build up the fortress around the country.

DESVARIEUX: Todd, I’m glad you sort of took a step back. And I want to talk about the root causes of these sort of arguments. What’s at the heart of these arguments? Is this purely political? Is this about profits?

MILLER: There’s probably a number of different ways you can look at it. It seems there is a political angle, for sure. And when you think of–if you follow the narrative of, well, the more fear that people have, the more support there would be to build up a border apparatus, and looking at the ever-enlarging budgets that Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, etc., Department of Homeland Security has for this context and the private sector moving in–like, there’s–the last market projection I read, it said, well, border security’s in an unprecedented boom period. So, obviously, without anyone explicitly having said this but maybe just kind of looking between the lines or connecting the dots a little bit, you think, well, the more fear that’s generated, the more backing there is for this increased border enforcement, the more actual demand there is as if it’s a need, and the more profit–and extraordinary profit and ever-larger amounts of profit–that many companies in the private sector could the making.

DESVARIEUX: So President Obama has come out and responded to a lot of this critique the Republicans about closing the border. And he’s essentially said, no, we’re not going to close the U.S.-Mexico border.

But I want to present the counterargument that a lot of Republicans are saying. You know, the WHO has come out and said that part of the reason that the virus was able to be contained in places like Senegal was because they closed the border: the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, all of which share borders with at least one of the three most affected countries have closed their borders. So officials credit tighter border controls behind why they’ve been able to curb the outbreak in these countries. What do you make of that argument?

MILLER: Yeah, I can’t–I don’t know if I can comment on that, because I don’t have adequate information, necessarily. But I could comment–I know that Obama administration said that they decline to, you know, the idea of closing the borders off, because, I mean, the idea of closing the borders, even if you think about what former DHS secretary Janet Napolitano said, show me a 50 foot wall, I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder, right, the idea that we can have a completely sealed border is a bit of an illusion. It’s like–I read earlier in an article it’s like taking an immortality pill, like, you can–. So the idea of an entirely sealed-off border, for one (many, at least, argue, and I would argue too), is probably impossible. And two, I think the Obama administration was making the argument that, well, then, people might, I think, go to a third country or that actually sealing off the border could actually end up worsening the kind of spread of the virus. And that was their argument, because then people would be dispersed into more areas, or something like that.

So, like, without being able to adequately counter that argument, because I don’t know the reality, nor do I know how they were making the argument, with what sources they were using, this is what I understand from the Obama administration, and I tend to agree. The idea of sealing our 2,000 mile southern border with Mexico or our 4,000 mile northern border with Canada, if you look at it and look at it on the ground, it seems like, how on earth are you going to do that?

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Todd, we’re going to hit the pause button here, and in part two of our conversation I want to talk you about our trip. You went down to Mexico and you did some great investigative reporting on the border.

Todd Miller, thank you so much for joining us.

MILLER: Thanks 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".