The border figures prominently in the new ABC series, “Homeland Security USA”. From the grassy edges of Canada to the scrubby Arizona desert, the border serves as a framework for a series of vignettes that demonstrate the persistence and ingenuity of smugglers and the equal persistence and ingenuity of border and immigration officials.
Search dogs sniff for contraband along the ports of entry as radiation meters check for dangerous chemicals. Cocaine is found stashed in a car trying to enter from Canada while packets of marijuana are found in a car trying to enter from Tijuana into San Diego (I appreciate the producers’ efforts to show that bad things aren’t exclusively coming from our southern neighbor). A group of migrants don’t get far in their trek before being captured in the Arizona desert.
What’s amazing is that Homeland Security, an agency preoccupied with security on all levels, even considered doing a reality-style show. I suspect, however, that this may not be the best format to get a realistic point of view of border security. If the producers’ aim is to provide a sense of the sweeping role of DHS - from airports to borders and mail sorting centers – then the show does hit its mark. Personally, I want to know what makes these people tick and the human stories behind the intersections at the border where “good” and “bad” can get a little blurry.
To be fair, there are intrinsic limitations to how much information an agency like this can share on camera without creating damage to people and investigations. Yet without more context of the border as a character in its own right, the show becomes more about entertaining viewers with nuggets of information of what is allowed or not allowed to enter the country.
I know people who work for DHS who are intelligent and thoughtful in their approach to their jobs, but I couldn’t connect with the rotating agents in the show’s Tuesday night debut, especially when they used bureaucratic jargon (the use of “illegal alien” is also sure to offend some people). That may change as the series continues, but for now I continue to wait the DHS equivalent of “Traffic,” the movie that to me encapsulated the truth of drug trafficking along the border in a way that could only be done in fiction.
Listen to and read a story about Homeland Security USA by NPR’s Carrie Kahn, who used to be based along the border.
Read a New York Times review of the series here.