Arriving the same fall as hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria devastated parts of the U.S. mainland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands, this book serves both as bellwether and call to action against two linked global challenges: desperate people fleeing climate change-related disasters, and the increasingly militarized borders confronting them.
Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security is the second of three books on global migration and security by Tucson-based journalist Todd Miller. Published by City Lights, these books examine forces behind the recent rise in the number of refugees fleeing poverty, violence and starvation, and the wealthy countries’ cruel responses to their plight.
Most since WWII
Some 60 million people are displaced worldwide today – the most since World War Two. While many are fleeing war zones, Storming the Wall shows how environmental devastation and crop failure brought on by climate change – including fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes and typhoons – are underlying causes of many current, and likely future, conflicts.
The vast majority of these refugees — 86 percent, according to Oxford researcher Ruben Andersson — remain in poor countries. The few who do risk their lives attempting to make it to the rich countries face a gauntlet of oceans, deserts, mountains, rivers, fences, border guards, bandits, and, if not death, probable detention and eventual deportation back to their countries of origin.
Thousands die every year now in the Mediterranean Sea and along the U.S.-Mexico border, among other places, while tens of thousands more languish in detention camps, awaiting their fate.
Migration, climate and security linked
Miller’s first book, Border Patrol Nation (2014), described the security-state apparatus that’s been erected in and around U.S. borders to keep out undocumented migrants and other “threats.” The second, the current Storming the Wall (2017), links the increase in global migration to climate change. The third, as Miller said at a recent book signing in Tucson, will further examine the extension of border security states to neighboring countries, an issue he touched on in Border Patrol Nation.
In Storming the Wall, Miller’s on-the-ground reporting reveals the reach of this “global classification system,” and how quickly one’s status in it can change. He visits his ancestral homeland of the Philippines to see the impact of Typhoon Haiyan. He meets people whose families, homes and livelihoods had all been washed away, and learns some survivors have been murdered for their political and environmental activism in the wake of the storm.
Miller goes on to be charged by Paris police when caught in a protest outside climate-change talks, and he spends time on the Mexico-Guatemalan border with Honduran farmworkers preparing to ride the notorious bestia (beast), a freight train that crosses Mexico, toward el norte. He notes how Mexican officials are paid and trained to detain and deport these men, and all other non-Mexican undocumented migrants, long before they reach American soil.
Preparing for mass migration
Through a detailed examination of defense department and other agency documents, Miller also shows that, even as leading U.S. politicians deny that humans are contributing to global warming, the U.S. and other rich nations are taking the threat of climate change-related migration seriously.
They are preparing for massive influxes with tent cities and practice drills, and investing in a variety of equipment, such as drones, sensors, fixed and mobile electronic systems, and other sophisticated devices with military-grade capabilities. Miller and others have documented how the U.S.-Mexico border serves as a proving ground for much new surveillance technology.
Miller’s first child was born as he was writing Storming the Wall, and he looks for positive stories where he can. Nevertheless, the book’s overall effect is alarming. The bleak future he portrays is, is in many ways, already here, and voices calling for environmental justice for the poor and humane treatment of migrants are few indeed.
One hopeful image Miller returns to several times is something he saw about a quarter-mile south of the border near Douglas, Arizona: a broken piece of old border fence, washed away by Hurricane Odile, overgrown by purple flowers, slowly disintegrating into the ground.
This symbolic destruction of the wall (a sturdy new one had of course been erected in its place upstream) leads into one of the few truly encouraging stories in the book, about border residents on the Mexican side using giant wire cages filled with rocks, called gabions, to help retain water in local streambeds. I wish Miller had included more positive developments like that. Perhaps they’re hard to find.
Here’s another one: At least 130,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida since Hurricane Maria devastated their island. They are U.S. citizens, and registering to vote in large numbers. Republicans fear that these new voters, unhappy with President Trump’s handling of hurricane relief efforts and disparaging remarks about Puerto Ricans, will tip the state toward the Democrats.
While getting voted out of office by climate change migrants would be a fitting end for climate change deniers in Congress, this book shows how much more needs to be done, and soon, if we are to avert large-scale environmental and social disaster.