The show opens on Auckland International Airport, where the protagonists—customs and immigration officers employed by New Zealand’s government—are greeted with yet another full day’s worth of cases. A couple from Fiji is found to be transporting thousands of pseudoephedrine tablets in what were supposed to be bags of kava powder. A package of methamphetamine located in the men’s restroom sets the airport on high alert as officers try to nab the person who deposited it before they make their exit. A pair of young Saudi men are detained and searched because their bags contain a children’s toy called Pop Pop, which officers believe might contain an explosive substance.
These are scenes from an episode of Border Patrol, a New Zealand-based TV series that has been on the air since 2004. The program revolves around customs and immigration agents at New Zealand’s ports of entry, whose job it is to intercept goods and travelers they deem “suspicious.” In the words of the show’s promos, the country’s borders are a “crucial line of defense” that is “constantly under attack” from “undesirable and unsuitable arrivals” with the potential to “destroy our economy and our whole way of life.”
Given Border Patrol’s explicitly anti-foreigner rhetoric, its popularity is troubling: The show was one of New Zealand’s top five most-watched shows in 2018 even after almost a decade-and-a-half on air. In 2006, Border Patrol won the award for best reality TV series at the New Zealand Screen Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Emmys. That win spurred the production of spinoff series in border-conscious Anglophone countries around the world: UK Border Force in the U.K., Stop, Search, Seize in Ireland, Border Security in Australia and Canada, and a double dose of immigration-focused programming for the United States: Homeland Security USA and the exceedingly disturbingly-titled Border Wars. Collectively, these shows have wielded the simplistic heroes-versus-bad-guys moral blueprint of the reality TV format in order to dehumanize migrants and normalize a militaristic, deeply conservative ideology around borders.
Reality TV shows like Border Patrol are not the first mainstream TV programs to deal with immigration-related themes. But by its very nature, the label of “reality TV” makes a claim to truthfulness that, say, a primetime drama or a Law & Order-style police procedural does not. Reality TV gives viewers the false sense that what they are viewing is accurate, objective, and complete. This is especially true of shows that take a documentary-esque, fly-on-the-wall approach. Other examples of reality TV (like RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Real Housewives spin-offs) consciously, often campily wear their contrivances on their sleeves, with fans of the former gleefully mapping out the “storylines” of real people online as though the contestants were characters in a soap opera. Border TV shows, by contrast, rely on the cultivation of an aesthetic of gravitas and authenticity in order to appeal to their audiences, to whom they promise a unique behind-the-scenes look into a world that is usually kept from view. But the documentary-like air of these shows is designed to keep viewers from thinking about the role of editing in shaping narratives, or the way that things like sound effects can emotionally frame a scene, or any number of other factors that can inject a slant into seemingly objective accounts. Outside of the occasions when a detained person addresses the camera and crew directly, it’s deceptively easy to forget they’re there.
A closer look at Border Patrol and its spawn reveals the ways its creators latch onto the tropes and techniques of the reality TV format in order to push a very specific agenda. If the border and border-enforcement systems are already fundamentally cruel, then the transformation and repackaging of the stories that take place at the border into fodder for thrills and entertainment adds yet another layer of dehumanization. In all of these programs, the experiences of migrants being intercepted at the border are repurposed as episode arcs, conflicts for the border patrol protagonists to overcome. They unfold to the accompaniment of tachycardiac drumbeats and thudding dramatic music, which gets the adrenaline pumping and helps create a sense that the individuals pursued by these officers are dangerous criminals. For the audience’s viewing pleasure, footage of the humiliation and deportation of migrants is chopped up, interwoven, and spaced out to maximize suspense. The sympathies of the viewer are universally assumed to be with the agents, who are explicitly cast as heroes and introduced to the audience via interviews and voiceover commentary. We learn these agents’ names, we hear their motivations, and we follow the thread of their “adventures” in episode after episode.
Moreover, with their focus on individuals crossing the border with drugs or illegal goods, these programs perpetuate the myth that foreigners are criminals, often violent ones, who represent an existential threat to the societies they seek to infiltrate. Agents unzip gym bags to reveal blocks of cocaine, or the remains of endangered animals, or masses of counterfeit currency. When suspects are questioned, their excuses and explanations are often played for laughs and openly mocked by the agents and the narrator. This bumbling gang of dishonest criminals, the subtext reads, is no match for the intellectually and technologically superior agents of the state. Paralleling Umberto Ecco’s observation that fascist rhetoric portrays its enemies as simultaneously strong and weak, these programs vacillate between extremes as they see fit, casting the individuals they oppose as either dangerously cunning—capable of endlessly inventing new schemes for evading detection—or hopelessly outmatched, relying on paper-thin cover stories and incapable of proper forethought.
Individuals intercepted by the “protagonists” of border patrol TV shows are also frequently denied basic human privacy. In some (non-US) countries, privacy laws mean that the accused at least get their faces blurred or cropped out of the shot, but measures like these don’t necessarily eliminate voyeurism. In one episode of Stop, Search, Seize, a woman is strip-searched for drugs after being flagged by a sniffer dog: the camera crew is unable to go into the examination room, but they circumvent this minimal privacy restriction as best they can, lingering creepily on a close-up of the door while an audio recording of the search plays. The denial of these individuals’ rights to privacy is just one tool in these programs’ broader rhetorical strategy to win support for border regimes by dehumanizing its victims.
While the different international incarnations of the border TV phenomenon may have their separate flavors—UK Border Force spotlights officers poking CO2 detectors into trucks crossing the English Channel at Calais, while Border Security: Australia’s Front Line features stings on workplaces as well as the usual airport footage—militarism, machismo, and anti-immigrant rhetoric combine nowhere more clearly than in the American Border Wars, which ran from 2010 to 2016 on the National Geographic Channel. (A short-lived drug dog-themed spinoff, K-9 Border Wars, also aired in 2017 and featured such groan-inducing episode names as “In Dog We Trust” and “To Sniff and Protect.”) Unlike its New Zealand predecessor, which devoted a great deal of attention to stopping the entry of food, plants, and animals that could harm New Zealand’s isolated ecosystems (one episode includes a scene where officers searching through baggage find a two-headed budgie), the focus of its American cousin is on cartels, weapons, and migrants. In “City Under Siege,” the opening voiceover describes Nogales, Arizona as being “under constant threat” from “illegal immigration, smuggling, and terrorism.” With episode titles like “Last Defense,” “No End in Sight,” “The Front Lines,” and “Fog of War,” the show frames the agents it follows as soldiers in a high-stakes battle between good and evil. This openly hostile stance is given dangerous weight by its association with a respected household name like National Geographic, whose programs I and many of my friends eagerly (and credulously) watched as children.
Part of what makes Border Wars so pernicious is that the flaws, failures, and violence of the border enforcement system are all kept out of shot, propping up the notion that the enforcement mechanisms of the border patrol apparatus are fair, just, and flawless. We aren’t shown the armed groups of militia members who patrol the U.S.’s southern border, taking the harassment and detention of migrants into their own hands. We aren’t shown the holding cells that migrants are kept in while waiting for their cases to be processed, where they are subjected to sleep deprivation, humiliation, and physical abuse, before being coerced into signing their own deportation orders. We aren’t shown instances where the sniffer dogs so frequently highlighted in these programs cause the wrong person to be accused of drug-smuggling—even though multiple studies have seriously called the accuracy of this evidence into question, highlighting the degree to which unconscious cues from their handlers may prompt the dogs to make false positives. We aren’t shown instances where an innocent person has been wrongfully branded as a suspect due to endemic racial profiling. The simplistic moral universe of reality TV allows for no complexity, and so any counter-narrative that might work against the shows’ lionization of border guards, garner sympathy for border crossers, or sow doubts about the methods used to keep people divided from people is consigned to the cutting room floor.
Left out, too, are the voices of the people these border patrol officers are paid to hunt and capture. Let’s take an arc of one episode of Border Wars, in which officers are dispatched to Agua Fria after reports of two “suspicious people.” In order to ratchet up the suspense of the agents’ pursuit, the program makes much of the fact that these men may be armed and dangerous. But when the agents box the duo in, the two men surrender immediately. In the process of interviewing these two “suspicious people,” the officers learn that they are merely poor (and unarmed) men searching for jobs up north. One of them hopes to join his wife in Bakersfield. At this point, one could imagine a very different arc for this episode, in which the arrestees, and not the arresting officers, take center stage. One could imagine a program that delves into the heartbreak of enduring prolonged separation from one’s spouse, the physical hardship suffered in the process of crossing, the hopes and dreams that these men hold for the future. Taking it a step further, one could imagine a different kind of border TV program, with a narrator who contextualizes how the economic woes of Mexico and Central America today are largely due to structural adjustment programs undertaken after receiving unworkable loan packages from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, or gives a history of how U.S. foreign policy has seeded political violence in the region. But producers are uninterested in that kind of narrative: Instead, we are simply told via voiceover that, barring any criminal records on the part of the two men, they will in all likelihood be deported that same evening and labeled “voluntary returns,” a success story for these agents.
Another strategy that TV shows like Border Wars employ is to portray its officer-protagonists as humanitarian forces for good—in one episode, agents are dispatched in a helicopter to rescue a group of migrants who had crossed the border and are now lost without water in the desert. By depicting the patrollers as kind-hearted heroes, the show papers over the fundamental cruelty of the apparatus these officers uphold. Meanwhile, the ultimate fate of these individuals is never shown—we do not see what happens to them when they are sent back, nor do we learn the circumstances that drove them from their homes in the first place. The camera is only concerned with them for the brief period of time in which they function as a plot element—but there is no before and certainly no after. This logic makes it seem as though border crossers autospawn like NPCs in a video game. The programs’ failure to give any thought to the ultimate fate of the people its protagonists deport is particularly cruel, given that so many individuals who cross the border are fleeing extreme violence and economic hardship. Yet shows like Border Wars do not touch on the notion of asylum seekers at all, instead confining their narratives to cartels and coyotes. Viewed in this light, the show’s tacit disavowal of any real moral responsibility rings of “I wash my hands of this.” Their belief in the necessity and fundamental goodness of borders is untinctured by even the slightest thought of what suffering they might cause.
Justifying his decision to deport one of the two “suspicious people” he’d given chase to in Agua Fria, the arresting officer turns to the camera and says, “He just seems like a poor guy that’s going to see his wife and get a job, but we’re doing ours and I’m not gonna feel guilty about that at all.” Quotes like these highlight the ways in which borders wall off not only land, but also hearts and minds, the ways in which their ideology constrains our capacity for human empathy.
The structure of the show helps to promote a number of general misconceptions about immigration. Border Wars focuses on undocumented people who cross the southern border on foot or by car, failing to account for the estimated 40 percent or more of cases where individuals enter the country on legally obtained visas and then overstay them, or cases where people arrive via plane (scenarios that Trump infamously dismissed when Univision reporter Jorge Ramos brought them up during a press conference in 2015, an event that had earlier seen Ramos forcibly ejected). This latter omission is significant, as it helps prop up a skewed image of the undocumented as being largely poor and uneducated people of color, a demographic that has long been demonized and feared by the right.
What’s more, in practice, Border Wars’ narrative often runs immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime all together, muddying the distinctions to the degree that the uncritical viewer could easily come away with the dangerous impression that intent to do harm—and not economic necessity, family reunification, or threat of violence—is the most common motivator of border crossers. Frequent mentions of terrorism seem intended to cast Mexico as a dangerous battleground of the War on Terror, creating the impression that places like Nogales are a hotbed of shoe-bombings and hijackings. In this way, the show propagates pernicious stereotypes against Latinx people, for which the Equal Justice Society (a non-profit based in Oakland that focuses on the intersection of race and the law) publicly decried Border Wars as “foster[ing] prejudice, hatred, and violence toward all immigrants, regardless of legal status, that lead to hate crimes like the deaths of Luis Ramirez in Pennsylvania and Raul and Brisenia Flores in Arizona.”
Viewed through the warped lens of Border Wars’ cameras, rational human responses become curiosities. Nervousness becomes suspect. A man’s flight from the approach of gun-bearing agents is seen as an obvious admission of guilt instead of a natural sign of fear. In perhaps the starkest example, agents note several times the oddity of the fact that their activity is monitored by cartels across the border (a fact made easier due to what they call the “tactical advantage” of Nogales, Mexico, which sits at a slightly higher elevation than its American twin). Yet they themselves—with their helicopters and plainclothes agents and teams of drug-sniffing dogs—represent a surveillance apparatus on a massive scale. The cognitive dissonance here reveals something about the psychology at work: The American state is meant to have a monopoly on power and spying.
The rah-rah jingoism of these programs may seem obvious, but this hasn’t stopped the hellspawn of New Zealand’s Border Patrol from clinching ratings pay dirt. National Geographic’s Border Wars garnered the highest debut ratings in the channel’s history when its first episode aired in 2009. At the time of this writing, Border Security: Australia’s Front Line is slated for an 18th season. Box sets of Border Wars are available for purchase at Walmart, and the back catalogue of these programs is easily available online when reruns or new episodes aren’t currently being aired. Online comments attest to the impact that these programs have on the real world. “Border Wars on National Geographic needs to be shown to every college student. Studied. Maybe even make them take a class on border wars,” wrote one poster in r/The_Donald, a subreddit devoted to the cult of Trump. Five-star Amazon reviews frequently comment on the show’s perceived “truthfulness,” referring to it as a “documentary series” without any consideration of the possibility of bias or manipulation. “Every American needs to see this! They would soon see why the open borders ‘welcome wagon’ approach to illegals is a BAD idea,” wrote one reviewer. Another: “Ignore the media and watch this series!! Well done. You will want a wall after watching this!” The success of these programs is in part due to the rising anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States and other wealthy countries—but these shows in turn serve only to bolster the very sentiments that created them.
The slanted nature of the narratives portrayed in popular media is often explained away by apologists as “just what makes good TV.” Networks need good ratings, the thinking goes, and so who’s to blame them for playing to what they know will sell? Latent in this kind of statement is an excessively narrow understanding of the meaning of “good” in “good TV.” Good for whom? For the viewers watching from the comforts of their living rooms, perhaps, but certainly not for the subjects. What if instead of always equating “good TV” with “compulsively watchable, advertiser-friendly TV,” we were to say that good TV can also mean TV that promotes deep empathy and social harmony? Or TV whose content is not misleading? Or TV that grapples with how to put an end to racial hatred? What’s more, if shows like Border Patrol, Border Wars, and their ilk are reflective of post-9/11 hypersecurity around travel and the public discourse’s growing focus on “illegal immigration” since the early 2000s, it’s also true that the existence of these shows on major networks helps to normalize and perpetuate these attitudes as well. It’s noteworthy that a show like Border Wars was still on air when Trump was elected on a virulently anti-immigrant platform; it’s noteworthy that a country where Border Security: Australia’s Front Line can run for 18 seasons would also breed a man so violently xenophobic that he would murder 51 people in a mosque in his adopted home of Christchurch. I’m hardly suggesting that these shows are solely responsible for the worldwide flare-up of xenophobia and white nationalism. But what I am suggesting is that when programs like these are beamed into the living rooms and computers of millions of viewers worldwide, without any other context or popular counter-narrative, then they become an element in the feedback loop of hatred and dehumanization. They can, in their own way, help lay the foundations for the Wall.
Illustration by Ben “Skutch” McGehee
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