This episode’s guest is Todd Miller, an independent journalist and author. Todd has researched and written about border issues for more than 15 years. He has written four books and has been featured in a multitude of publications including The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Al Jazeera English. In this episode, we are in conversation about Todd’s book Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders (City Lights, 2021). Todd discusses the moral dilemmas he has faced while reporting on the border and where he has found hope in his observation of border issues.
Episode Transcription available here
Host: Ry O. Siggelkow
Producer: Adam Pfuhl
Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua
Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj
Episode recorded on September 19th, 2022.
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:00] Hello. My name is Ry Siggelkow and I am the director of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Today, I am delighted to have the opportunity to be in conversation with Todd Miller, an independent journalist and writer who lives in Tucson, Arizona. Todd has researched and written about border issues for more than 15 years. His work has appeared in The New York Times, TomDispatch, The Nation, San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Guernica, Al Jazeera English, among many other places. Todd is the author of four books, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Homeland Security with City Lights in 2014, Storming the Wall, Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security also with City Lights 2017, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World with Verso. And finally, his latest book and the book that I want to talk to you about today is called Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders Published with City Lights in 2021. Todd, thanks for being on the podcast with me today.
Todd Miller [00:01:18] It's great to be here. Thanks for having me, Ry.
Ry Siggelkow [00:01:22] I want to begin our conversation by asking to speak about the opening pages of your marvelous short book, Build Bridges, Not Walls. You say that the central question that your book seeks to address emerged from an experience you had in the Sonoran Desert at the US-Mexico border, when you encountered a man named Juan Carlos who asked you for a glass of water and a ride to the nearest town. In the book, you say that you found yourself hesitating in your response to his request and wondering about the causes of your hesitation. You say that you felt compelled in that moment into a decision to follow the law and be a border enforcer or to extend help to this person in need. You write, "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?" I suppose I wanted to begin our conversation by asking you to share a bit more about this experience that you had with us. What it reveals about the border regime and its power, and especially the kind of ethical and political questions that this experience raised for you about the place of compassion, care and kindness in the world we currently live in.
Todd Miller [00:02:52] Thank you so much for that question and how you framed it. I think it gets to an important kernel or a foundation of this book. One thing I'd like to mention is right before I had that experience, I was in the Sonoran Desert, maybe about 20 miles north of the US-Mexico border on the Tohono O'odham Nation, which is a Native American reservation that has about 70 miles of border with Mexico. And of course, the Tohono O'odham land actually goes deep into Mexico. And just before I met Juan Carlos, who was the the man that you just mentioned, Ry, who who came out to the road. I was driving down the dirt road, and he came to the side of the road waving his hands in distress. And right before that happened, I was with a Tohono O'odham Elder, and we were hiking up to the top of this peak at the Baboquivari Peak, which is actually a sacred site for the Tohono O'odham. But I still remember like having these thoughts as you're climbing the peak and I we go up and down through the switchbacks and I look behind me and you look through the saguaros. The saguaros are the big, beautiful cacti that you see in the Sonoran Desert and Ocotillo, which are these whip like plants that are almost as high as the saguaros, in some cases. And looking through them into this like gigantic sky and you could see miles and miles and miles and miles clearly into Mexico. Right. But I had no idea where that was. I couldn't see where the border was. There was no sort of demarcation there that I could see from from where I stood in that moment. And I remember having that that thought like, wow, I have a glimpse of seeing this world without borders. And it was not feeling an affinity to any sort of particular territorial space, but rather an affinity to the planet itself. And it's almost a liberating feeling because when you're on the ground on the border and and you see what the border is and how it's built up, and it has walls and barriers and lots of surveillance technology reinforcing it. And many Border Patrol agents, you don't have a doubt. It's very much marked. But from there, it was a whole other kind of experience. But then maybe 2 hours later, after coming down from the mountain and I was driving in the car and I was rumbling, I was probably thinking of something else. And then all of a sudden, boom, there's Juan Carlos. I didn't know his name at the time, and I immediately stopped. I knew. I immediately knew. I knew. I mean, I didn't know for sure, but I pretty much knew what was going on. He came up to the to the car as I asked him if there's anything I could offer him, and I actually had a bottle of water and I gave it to him and he chugged it. And he told me he had been walking in the desert for three days and that he was from Guatemala. It was then when I asked, is there anything else I can do for you? And then he asked me for it if I could give him a ride to the next town. And that's where the hesitation came. My thoughts were immediately like, yes, of course, you know, that's my first thought, right? Because of course, I want to give this man a ride. I know. You know, I've been reporting on the border for many, many years. He'd been walking for three days through the desert. He was obviously in distress. He had the look of it. In the US-Mexico border lines, There's been more than 8000 people that we know about whose remains have been found. No More Deaths is a humanitarian aid organization that put out a report recently that they calculate that 3 to 10 times more people they think have perished since the 1990s. And I know about like the policies, the border policies of why I happened to run into Juan Carlos. But there's probably hundreds of other people, many in groups, maybe some who are stranded from that group. Maybe that was the case of Juan Carlos. I never found out if he got lost from his group or or it was something like that. But I knew that's the way the policy is designed, that you cannot get through the the cities. You cannot get through urban areas. If they cross in, they have to circumvent those areas and go through the desert. So it was a very common thing to see Juan Carlos right? So I knew the policy. I knew that even like when the policy was announced and I should mention and give a little background that prevention through deterrence is the name of the of the strategy that's been in place on the US-Mexico border since 1994. And that's basically the build up of the cities of fortification, walls, agents and technology and literally forcing people to go out into the desert. You know, I was thinking of all of that. I also knew that it was against the law to further somebody's presence within the United States. And so if I were to get caught by the Border Patrol, for example, and I was transporting Juan Carlos, I could face years in prison. I could get a smuggling charge, a felony. And that was the hesitation, right? I was weighing those two things. And in my mind, after he asked the question and I stood there in silence, I sat there in silence. And then the silence after the silence, I was consumed by an ire and anger, even that I had to contemplate that to begin with. I really even thought to what I had been taught as a as a young kid. How I treat other people. It came to that basic of a place like I was taught to be nice to other people. I was taught to help somebody in distress. If somebody is hurt, I was taught to help that person. Really, really simple stuff, right? Really just basic stuff that then if you go further, it's reflected in our many spiritual and religious traditions. And so you have those two contrasts of things and I can't tell you what I did, but I can let you guess what I did or what my decision was. Oh, and then I should add one more thing. As I was contemplating it as part of the ire, I as a journalist who has been looking at the border for many, many years now. I knew what was around me. I knew that there was a whole border apparatus. I knew that the possibility of running into the Border Patrol was fairly high. They patrol that area quite regularly in their green stripe vehicles. I knew that there were surveillance cameras around that possibly could see seven or eight miles away that could see me without me seeing them. And that includes drone systems and unmanned aerial systems that might be flying 30,000 feet over me that could see me taking a person into the car. All that stuff I was thinking about right in that moment and that really set up what that became the book, right? That moment that became the seed of the book. It came from that moment where I took that moral dilemma. But I even want to say, why does it have to be a dilemma at all? And then I brought that question to so many people, just a wide range of different people to ask them about the border. What they thought about the border, what they thought about these sorts of issues and what we should do about the border.
Ry Siggelkow [00:12:15] Yeah. I mean, you're recounting that story again. I mean it, you know, and then listing the numbers of people who die in the desert, how much of how difficult of a journey that can be and how that's, you know, part of this prevention by deterrence. And it reminds me of the story recently back in June, when we heard of the deaths of 53 people on a tractor trailer in San Antonio, which is, as far as I know, the largest mass death of migrant people in United States history. It hasn't gotten a lot of coverage. But I know there has been some amazing responses to the event. There's these beautiful memorials and something like six feet tall crosses with every person's name where they died. And recently we've seen now that the people who had been driving the tractor trailer will be the ones who are facing trial, some of whom might actually be sentenced to death. It's interesting to me how punishment is being meted out here. Who is made to bear the responsibility for these deaths? I mean, we need to be able to name the reality of these deaths for what they are. This is a form of state violence. I mean, it's not the result of people moving right? And needing to find a place to live and moving through the desert. But it's actually a result of the border regime itself. And I wonder about the kind of focus on the folks that are the so-called smugglers as opposed to focusing on the real problem. Which is this border regime. And it it really did I mean, it came down to people needing water, people needing air to breathe. I guess I'm struck by how basic these needs are and how callous the power of the border and its violence is in relation to ordinary human beings. And I wonder if you have any thoughts on this and the recent mass murder, really?
Todd Miller [00:14:24] Sure. Probably too many. I immediately recall that when that happened in June, the San Antonio incident, mass death, as you say. That the president, Joseph Biden, he tweeted pretty much just really blaming the smugglers and saying we're going to go after the smugglers and like you were just saying, I took issue with that characterization. And because what happened in San Antonio was clearly a part of a border regime, a border apparatus that has been built up with billions and billions and billions of dollars for decades now. And if you want to go to the prevention through deterrence, really, there was a memorandum announcing the strategy in 1994. So if you go and look at 1994 and you just look at the budgets of $1.5 billion for border and immigration enforcement in 1994, and then in 2023, the anticipated budget is going to be $26 billion for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those are annual budgets. So you can see how they've incrementally gone up year after year after year over close to 30 years. It's getting close to 30 years. And all of this with the strategy of making it more difficult, or even as the first memorandum about prevention through deterrence that could cause mortal danger. They use those terms of Border Patrol, mortal danger. It's been built up with that strategy. That's the strategy in mind. So whether it's people like Juan Carlos, who I just mentioned, walking through the desert or people crossing the border and other clandestine sort of ways, like being in a tractor trailer like what happened in San Antonio. But in both cases, people are evading the border regime. And that's the reason why without the border regime, it's really that simple that people would not die. Because they would not have needed to cross in trucks or in the middle of the desert. So if we want to look at these sorts of incidents holistically, you have look at that first and foremost. And then the other thing I should mention,I write a weekly post for what's called the Border Chronicle and we have a podcast as well. And two weeks ago, I interviewed an expert on smuggling, Gabriela Sanchez, and she went pretty in-depth into this particular incident. And she even talked about the people, the smugglers who were in the tractor trailer. And remember that both of them were kind of blue collar. One of them worked at a Wal-Mart. So her point was that even the kind of smuggling industry or whatever, however you want to put it, comes as like almost a contractual job for people that know the area as a result of a border regime. In other words, her point was to look at instead of demonizing the smuggler, understanding why people are smuggling to begin with. Instead of demonizing the smuggler, trying to understand and having compassion and looking at why people do the things that they are doing. Often for economic reasons. I remember I had a good friend in Nogales who, you know, one week I was in Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico. I went and I would hang out with them. And we just set up at his house and have conversations. And he was a really nice guy. He was a carpenter. And then one week I went there and he was gone. I'm like, what happened? And I found out that he had, I had no idea that he did any of this, but he had crossed the border on a smuggling mission. And he was carrying marijuana. And he was in prison. And he'll probably be in prison for seven years in Chicago. And then I find out that his carpentry business wasn't quite making it. That he could make more in doing that in like a couple of weeks and you can make more in one day than in a month or something like that. I forget the exact but there's so many factors and the way that they get characterized is so often so reductive. And it doesn't lead to understanding the situation with the depth that we need to understand it to really start thinking about. Really how to address these issues and how to treat like a mass killing or a mass death experience like we had in San Antonio.
Ry Siggelkow [00:19:52] In the book, you argue that Borders, this is a quote "now largely serve as a neocolonial scaffolding for a planet divided into exploiting and exploitable countries and peoples". You also speak to the psychological impact of the border, and I think you kind of talked about that with regard to this sort of disjunction between how you wanted to respond to Juan Carlos versus kind of the power of that border on your psyche and, you know, almost determining how you're going to respond by the backing of violence and the law behind it. So I guess I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how the border and how borders, and I don't think it's just the US-Mexico borders, but the borders around the world, how they create and reinforce bordered thinking and bordered imaginations. And you speak about this in your book with the language of wall sickness and your experience of feeling wall sickness. I wonder if you could talk about how borders shape our imaginations.
Todd Miller [00:20:57] Sure. Wall sickness is very interesting, I encourage any listener to look into that. There's the first literature on Wall Sickness came from the Berlin Wall in Germany, and I believe it was a psychologist or psychiatrist. But they were noticing a pattern of behaviors by people who lived near the Berlin Wall and feelings of anxiousness and feeling confined. I quote a few a few of these people in Build Bridges, Not Walls. You can feel that power of the border and that sense in the psychological sense like it would carry, I think one person, if I remember correctly, even when they weren't next to the wall, they carried the wall to other places and that sort of idea. That's the idea of wall sickness, that it's very confining. It has even some sort of physical traits to it. And I see it as almost a claustrophobic limiting of the imagination. And you can see it on what is described from the Berlin Wall. You can see it on the US-Mexico border, or many other borders that I've been to. But I'll say the US-Mexico border for now, like the way, you know, right now in some places there's a 30 foot wall. In some places there's a 20 foot wall, and some places there's barriers, but there's always a wall. It's always demarcating something. The walls are more often than not going right through places that where communities are unified, right where where brothers and sisters live across across the border from each other, aunts and uncles, cousins, families. And it's interesting because I've traveled and visited borders all around the world. And the political borders that we have now, almost every single one of them are manifest through a colonial process. Like the most obvious examples, Africa and the Berlin Conference of 1884 and how European powers were what sliced up Africa into their countries and when Africa had their independence. Those countries, the shapes of the countries, as you see them now, like there's many straight lines. You can go to southern Kenya and you'll see a straight line cutting right through it and you go, oh, that's Kenya and that's Tanzania. But in reality, the Maasai people are from both sides of the border. And Tanzania and and Kenya since it was a colonial process that divided the Maasai people in half. One good friend of mine actually who is Maasai, his mother was born in Tanzania. The way that you can organize politically is divided because of the border. Because you can only be on one side. If you're in Tanzania, you can only organize in Tanzania for some sort of political organizing. So it has very, very, very concrete limitations it puts on people and what they can do and how they can organize. If that is, if you totally buy into this being limiting. And the political systems and governments as they're set up in a sort of nation state sort of system, that's what we have. And then it's so interesting to me, like, I cross the border quite a bit on the US-Mexico border. And when I cross, when I go into the Mexican side, all of a sudden it's like the news comes from someplace else. Like all the papers El Imparcial from Hermosillo which is the big one if I go to Nogales, that's the big capital city from the south. Whereas in Nogales, Arizona the paper comes from maybe Tucson or Phoenix, as you just see the news coming just from completely different places. And it’s really striking sometimes, you know, if you don't have the ties and there's plenty of people that don't have the ties in southern Arizona in Tucson and Phoenix, for example, you don't know what's going on in Mexico, which is right across the border. So those are some of the things that are very interesting to me. There's a kind of ignorance that's created by the border itself. I would say that really is almost not the fault of whoever is living on the side of the border. It's basically what's offered to each imagination on each different side. And it creates like really powerful separation and divisions. But that then contrasts the way that borders are always set across communities that are ultimately unified, which shows the unification at the same time. So there's a struggle, right? Like there's the border and then there's this constant struggle against the border. So there's the wall sickness, right? To go back to that. But there's the constant attempting to heal the wall sickness. And that's where I think things are very interesting. And that's where I think perhaps we can find hope.
Ry Siggelkow [00:26:38] There are those ordinary acts, every day acts on border towns where people are going back and forth and sharing and in community sharing each other's culture. And so there's this sort of ordinary, everyday resistance to bordering, to bordering practices. And we can see then the kind of artificiality, the way that that's constructed and almost needs to be reinforced for people, right? This kind of constant reminder of of the need. Now you're separate. You are them, right? We are us. Keep things in place. And I'm thinking about the work that people have done to provide sanctuary. And you were talking about when you were even just as something as simple as offering someone a ride into town that even that kind of act is criminalized. Right. We know that organizations like No Mass Muertes have had ICE and CBP cut holes in their water jugs that they're offering to folks just giving water to folks in the desert. And so these ordinary acts of kindness, of support, of sanctuary, you might say, have been criminalized. And, of course, sanctuary is a theological term. And you talk about this in your book, and it has a rich history. But I wonder if you could speak to how you understand the meaning of sanctuary as a praxis. And perhaps describe for us where you see profound acts of sanctuary work being enacted today, and maybe even if you could speak to the role of faith movements in that work.
Todd Miller [00:28:21] Yeah, it's interesting. Like I live in southern Arizona was one of the first places to enact the sanctuary movement of the 1980s when people were fleeing often U.S. backed regimes and Central America and particularly, you know, people from Guatemala and El Salvador and who are coming north up into Arizona. In fact, we still have in our community many, many people who ended up here, who are part of our community now, and their kids are part of our community. Their kids go to school with my kids, they came through this sort of seeing almost more, even more. Well, I don't even know if I want to, like, compare, because I was going to say even more extreme examples than what I saw with Juan Carlos, because people are fleeing massacres often and military aggression of the worst kind. Civil war. But then again, anyone crossing a border now or then are fleeing conditions. And they're fleeing for their lives and it could be not being able to make ends meet. Which is huge. It's like that silent war that that's constantly going on. And that's what I think the border often is. It's like that silent war against the poor in a world that's structured where just to simplify it, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And oftentimes the the crossing of these borders, as happened in the 1980s with the sanctuary movement when sanctuary movements started, I should say, and then now is invisiblized. Like it happens in clandestine fashion. It happens away from public, the public's eyes for the most part. It happens away from TV cameras, but it doesn't happen away from the eyes of people who have their nose to the ground and who are understanding what's happening. And like the Quaker, Jim Corbett and in Southern Arizona in the 1980s, and John Fife, the pastor from the Southside Presbyterian Church, who decided and brought many other people into it, that they were going to help people get across the border, you know, do the Juan Carlos thing. And it comes from that very deep spiritual place and a deep religious place. And it matters who you know, who you're talking to, really. But almost commonly it comes from that religious deep of hospitality of those, you know, offering people the base sanctuary, offering people sanctuary like a place where they can be safe when they're in fear. And so I think that's huge. And the sanctuary movements, whether it was from the eighties or now, is that kind of coming together in community to offer hospitality to other people who are coming across the border, often in community, you know, it offers this really incredible space. And I also wanted to add another dimension to it that I talked to you. I interviewed a Nigerian philosopher named Báyò Akómoláfé, who talks a lot about sanctuary. And his definition of sanctuary even goes beyond that as a place as a place where almost, you could say a radical imagination can be born, where a place where new worlds can be imagined, where new possibilities can be thought of. That kind of, he describes, that is almost like people coming together as fugitives and the fugitives. And he means that the word fugitive in a very empowering way but a fugitive from a system. People migrating are fugitives in a way to a system that doesn't support them and they're fugitives. And then people who do sanctuary, if you want to put it on one side or a border on the other, are also fugitives going against a set of human laws. That have been constructed to make what they do illegal. And so there's a coming together of fugitivity, in a way, and that that fusion of fugitivity could bear the fruit of something new and beautiful. And so I found myself attracted as well to those sorts of visions of sanctuary. Yeah, I'll just leave it at that for now.
Ry Siggelkow [00:34:13] Thank you for sharing all that. I mean, I guess we're talking about love, right? I mean, these are people who are seeking to love in a world in which it's difficult to love. And I know you cite Paulo Freire that line, then, you know, how do we make the world a place where it's easier for us to love one another? So there are less obstacles in the way of that. But that sanctuary work that work of joining right across borders, that work of building bridges, that work of solidarity, that work of hospitality is transformative as well. That it's through that praxis that a new imagination can be born, I think. I mean, it emerges from the praxis itself. One of the most powerful stories in your book and I want to ask you about this is about a Border Patrol agent named Brendan Lenihan, who had this remarkable experience that really led to a change of heart, indeed what we might even call a conversion to a higher law, to use your language. When I read your book with students last semester, this story really resonated with them, and it became a way to talk not only about the possibility and power of empathy, but also of the possibility for somebody to change. And in a time when it seems as though there is a widespread suspicion of empathy and a cynicism about the possibility of people to change, perhaps particularly Border Patrol agents. This strikes me as a really important story. I wonder if you could share a bit about Brendan's story with us and why you think it's so important.
Todd Miller [00:35:53] Yeah. I'm glad you asked the story about Brendan right after talking about, you know, sanctuary and praxis because you can really view his story that he shared with me, as a former Border Patrol agent now, through those lenses like in a way what happened was that as a Border Patrol agent, there was a moment of sanctuary and in a way and a praxis of the most of them. So I should tell the story a little bit. It still is, I think, one of the most incredible stories of empathy I think I've ever come across. And the story I'll just sort of summarize that, but I'll try to hit the good parts of it. The story itself happened when Brendan was patrolling. He was near the town of Arivaca, about ten miles north of the US-Mexico border. He gets a call from Border Patrol dispatch and they say that a motion sensor has been tripped, meaning that they think people were walking in a certain area. And then they sent Brendon the GPS codes. So they figure, so, mind you there, the border lands are filled with these motion sensors. There's like thousands of them throughout, you know, that's another part of the technological apparatus. But anyhow, Brendan went up this like kind of steep mountain road. He gets to the top of this mountain, to this empty mountain mineshaft. And he sees all these footprints on the ground. He's like, oh, yeah, people have been through here. So he gets out of his Border Patrol vehicle. He starts calculating what he's going to do. He starts thinking he's going to radio the dispatch person and say he's going to go on foot and try to track the path. That's what they say. They try to quote unquote follow sign. That's the Border Patrol lingo for this. When he's doing that, a man emerges from a ravine in front of him and he's kind of waving his arms in distress. Whenever Brendan says that, it reminds me of Juan Carlos, actually, that story I shared at the very beginning that I start Build Bridges, Not Walls, with kind of waving his arms in distress. And Brendan like he's talking in pretty quick Spanish. And so Brendan like understands that some family member is hurt. But he tells me at first he said normally as an agent, I wouldn't follow somebody that I didn't know into a ravine. That's not Border Patrol like. Usually you check for their papers and arrest them and maybe check it out afterwards. But he decided something already was happening with him and he decided to follow the man into the ravine. He did put on an assault rifle. But he followed him to the bottom of the ravine. And lo and behold, the man's brother was in distress. He was at the bottom of the ravine. He was laying back and his cousin and he was older. The two brothers are younger men and the cousin was a little bit older, was holding his brother's on the young man in distress. The brother,I’ll just call him. The brothers head and just kind of rocking it back and forth as if like he was an infant, you know, like trying to just help him alleviate the pain. And as so, Brendan describes the scene, his eyes are shut when he opens his eyes. The brother, when he opens his eyes, all he can see is the whites of his eyes. There's bile starting to come out of the side of his mouth. He knows that the situation's pretty bad. And so he calls dispatch and tells them that they need a helicopter. They say they're going to bring a helicopter in, but they can't go into the ravine. So they have to bring the brother out of the ravine. So how they do that was they literally kind of built a human bridge to do it or that's a way you can look at it, I guess. Because Brendan, the Border Patrol agent, had to clasp hands with the brother of the brother who's really sick to in order to form like a human stretcher, so they can carry the brother up through the ravine. And so they did that. They grasp their arms at their elbows and they started walking up the ravine while the cousin held the head of the brother. And as they're walking and it's a hot day at September. Right now it's September in Arizona, it's probably almost, you know, the same date as today. That's almost 100 degrees today. So we don't really cool down here until October. And so they're sweating. And Brendan describes sweating. He describes this assault rifle that's heading up against his neck and those arms start to slip and then all of a sudden he's walking and he's holding hands with the brother. And so he's holding hands with the brother. And he describes the situation as. And that by the brother, I'm sorry, I have to use the brother so many times. The brother who is carrying the other brother. So he's holding hands and he says it's awkward, you know, because it feels intimate. It feels, he says, strangely intimate and then even thinks he said, well, at least he says this to me in the interview. He said, this man I would normally have arrested up on the hill, I'm holding hands with him now and holding his brother. And then he says something. He looked at the brother the other brother vomited on and he looks at the brother. And then he forgets who he is. He forgets who he is. And he thinks that the brother is his own brother. The brother that they're holding in their arms is his older brother. And he sees them as if he's his own brother. And so they're walking and he has this moment. It's a long moment, at least the way he describes it in an interview, and then his radio cracked. And when his radio cracked by cracking, I mean, like the dispatcher came back on, he just sat back and he reminded himself he is a Border Patrol agent. And so he came back, but he lost sense of who he was. So that's long story short, they get to the top of the hill. And what happened was that the brother died. And I go into the story much, much more detail in the book. But the brother passed away probably as they were carrying him. And the way that Brendan describes the story, he himself went into a distress about the whole story. He doesn't say he quit the border patrol because of it, but he did eventually quit the Border Patrol. And, you know, the story is pretty strong. And he said that that night he tried to, you know, drink it off. He went off. He went to a bar with some other Border Patrol agents. And the agents actually tried to comfort him. And they told him, well, this is just part of the border game. And they were probably telling the truth. That death is a part of the border game, like all those agents probably have seen dead people. And that wasn't the first dead person that Brendan had seen. So in a way, it is a part of the border game. But they were saying it in a way that they knew that he was suffering because of this experience and that this young man had died in his arms. And then he got the day off the next day, and a supervisor called him. The supervisor knew that he was in distress. And he said when the supervisor called them, he said, don't worry, we found out that their drug mules. So when when Brendan told me that part of the story, he looked at me and said, what? What the f did I care if they're drug mules. That's what he told me. Like the point is that he no longer saw them as some sort of reductive, dehumanized person. Like he even he said during the interview, he said, I imagine, like what I would do in certain situations, like what my brother would do and he talked a lot about his brother in those sorts of situations. You know would I smuggle drugs across the border? If that's true that this trio of people turned out to be drug smugglers. You know, he asked me all those questions as a former Border Patrol agent, and I thought that was just very enlightening. Just to go back to as a praxis there in a sanctuary, you know, as transformative and I believe and he doesn't say this, I don't want to put words in his mouth. But it's implied by his sharing that his imagination, his way of thinking about things, his worldview was altered in those moments. And he couldn't see things the same way. And he's a Border Patrol agent. And one more word about that. You know, like he was a Border Patrol agent, like many, just because he was looking for a job. Like he didn't go there with, oh, I want to stop people from crossing the border like those sorts of motives. Of course, that's what you do when you get there. And it's more like, Oh, that's a federal job, I'm going to get this job. But then when you get there, you have to do all these things. And so often it's just like somebody who has a GED because you can start with 70 grand and have a GED and start in the Border Patrol. And then the Border Patrol themselves are just one the most visible part of a border apparatus that's so much bigger than just them, that like there's so much complicity in it. And there's a complicity that goes way beyond. There's a white collar part of it. There's an industrial part of it, there's a media part of it. There's just the citizen part of it. I think like Brendan's Story can bring us to that to think about these in more profound ways not in like self-flagellating ways, but in ways that are like, okay, this is something that's big and that we're all playing a part in and that we can have some transformations and really think about things differently and maybe even do things differently.
Ry Siggelkow [00:47:11] Yeah. I mean, it's the systemic and the structural and these powers and forces that compel Brendan to do those things as a Border Patrol agent. And it's also what compelled you to consider perhaps not bringing Juan Carlos to the the closest town. Because these are the ways that the border and the law and the violence behind it shapes our political imagination and really restricts us from being fully human in relation to one another. And I love that story about Brendan because it is a story of of conversion, of change. And yet, you know, we also had that, you know, you shared about the the sounds of the the walkie talkie that came through right then it triggered him back into the again bordered way of thinking. Well, thank you so much, Todd, for this conversation. This has been absolutely incredible. I'm really grateful for you for taking the time to meet with me today to talk about this book, Build Bridges, Not Walls. And I really encourage listeners to pick up a copy and to follow Todd's work. What was the website again that that you write on?
Todd Miller [00:48:33] The Border Chronicle. Borderchronicle.com.
Ry Siggelkow [00:48:37] borderchronicle.com. You can follow Todd's work as he writes about things going on at the US-Mexico border and I just I'm just very grateful, again, for you taking the time to to meet with me today. Have a wonderful day.
Todd Miller [00:48:56] Yeah, you too. It was my pleasure. Thanks a lot. It was a great conversation.
Ry Siggelkow [00:49:00] Thanks, Todd.