It was first the Customs and Border Protection vehicles speeding by on the road in front our campsite. Then it was the Border Patrol’s all-terrain vehicles moving swiftly on a ridge above us. I was about 10 miles north of the border with Mexico, near Peña Blanca Lake in southern Arizona, camping with my six-year-old son and some other families. The Border Patrol mobilization was growing around me like fire trucks racing to a flame. I could only imagine an emergency situation.
I started climbing to get better views and soon found my way alone on a hill with mesquite and alligator Junipers. Brilliant vermilion flycatchers flitted between the branches. Border Patrol was the only one on the road. A surveillance tower stood high above mine. Since it loomed over our campsite, I’d been looking at it all weekend. It felt strangely like part of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s panopticon — in other words, I wasn’t sure whether I was being watched or not. But I knew I was.
After all, that tower’s cameras could see for seven miles at night and its ground-sweeping radar operated in a 13-mile radius, a capability, one Border Patrol officer told me in 2019, worth “100 agents.” In the term of the trade, the technology was a “force multiplier.” I had first seen that tower freshly built in 2015 after CBP awarded a hefty contractElbit Systems, an Israeli company. In other words, on top of that hill, I wasn’t just watching some unknown event developing; I was also in the middle of the border-industrial complex.
During Donald Trump’s years in office, the media focused largely on the former president’s fixation with the giant border wall he was trying to have built, a xenophobic symbol so filled with racism that it was far easier to find people offended by it than towers like this one. From my position, I could see the border wall 10 miles south in Nogales. It was a structure of 20-foot-high steel bollards covered with razor wire and covered with coiled razorwire. This stretch of wall was actually built in reality. long beforeTrump was elected to the presidency.
What I was now witnessing, however, could be called Biden’s wall. I’m speaking about a modern, high-tech border barrier of a different sort, an increasingly autonomous surveillance apparatus fueled by “public-private partnerships.” The technology for this “virtual wall” had been in the works for yearsIt is, but the Biden administration has viewed it as if it were an issue. humane alternative to Trump’s project.
In reality, for the Border Patrol, the “border-wall system,” as it’s called, is equal parts barrier, technology, and personnel. While the Biden administration has ditched the racist justifications that went with it, its officials continue to zealously promote the building of a border-wall system that’s increasingly profitable and ever more like something out of a science-fiction movie.
One week before my March camping trip, I was able to see it up close at the annual Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Texas.
“Robots That Feel the World”
The golden chrome robotic canine walked right up to me while I was on the blue carpet at convention center hall. It sat at my feet and looked up as if he were a real dog, begging me to pet it. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, this “dog” will someday patrolOur southern border. The vendor was undoubtedly trying be cute when he made his dog move its tail back and forth, as if it were waving its tail. In reality, he had two thin, black antennae. Behind the vendor was a large sign with the company’s name in giant letters: Ghost Robotics. Below that was “Robots That Feel the World,” a company slogan right out of the dystopian imagination.
According to organizers, it was the most-attended Border Security ExpoIts 15-year-old history. About 200 companies crowded the hall, trying to lure officials from CBP, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, border sheriffs’ departments, and international border forces into buying their technologies, sensors, robots, detectors, and guns. As I was staring at this surreal dog the Teledyne Flir company showed me its video surveillance system. A giant retractable mast was sitting in the bed a black pickup truck. On the side of the truck were the words “Any Threat. Anywhere.”
Another company, Saxon Aerospace (its slogan: “Actionable Intelligence, Anytime, Anywhere”), had a slick, white, medium-sized drone on display. One vendor assured me that the drone industry had simply exploded in recent decades. “Do you know why?” I asked. His reply: “It’s like when a dog eats blood and gets carnivorous.”
Elsewhere, the red Verizon Frontline mobile command-and-control truck looked like it could keep perfect company with any Border Patrol all-terrain vehicle unit; while Dell, the Texas-based computer firm, displayed its own frontline mobile vehicle, promising that “whether you’re providing critical citizen services, innovating for the next generation, or securing the nation, we bring the right technology… and far-reaching vision to help guide your journey.”
And don’t forget 3M, which has moved well beyond its most famous product, Scotch tape, to provide “rugged and reliable equipment across DoD [Department of Defense]DoJ [Department of Justice]DHS [Department of Homeland Security], and U.S. state and local agencies.” Top defense contractors like Airbus (with a shiny black helicopter on display in the center of the expo hall) were also present, along with top border contractorsGeneral Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Elbit Systems, and others.
Just a day before the expo opened the Biden administration published its fiscal year 2023 Budget. $97.3 billion for the DHS, that agency’s largest in its two-decade history. The $17.5 billion for Customs and Border Protection would be nearly $1.5 billion more than last fiscal year. Even though Immigration and Customs Enforcement received a slight increase, it will still receive $8.5 billion. These two combined would bring in $26 billion. This is significantly more money than the $20 billion the Trump administration started with in immigration enforcement. 2017. As DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas put it, such a budget will help secure our “values.” (And in an ironic sense, at least, how true that is!)
“Notably,” Mayorkas added, “the budget makes smart investments in technology to keep our borders secure and includes funding that will allow us to process asylum claims more efficiently as we build a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system.”
What Mayorkas didn’t mention was that his border plans involve ever more contracts doled out to private industry. That’s been the case since 9/11 when money began to pour into border and immigration enforcement, especially after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. The process of privatizing oversight of our southern borders grew significantly under President George W. Bush’s administration. (The first Border Security Expo took place in 2005. However, the Obama era saw the process accelerate. The process was accelerated during the four first years of Obama’s presidency. 60,405 contracts(Including a huge $766 millionLockheed Martin, a weapons-maker, was issued a total of $15 billion. For a total of 81,500 contracts issued between 2013-2016, $13.2 billion.
In other words, despite his wall, it’s a misconception to think that Donald Trump stood alone in his urge to crack down on migration at the border. It’s true, however, that his administration did up the ante by issuing 87,293 border-protection contracts totaling $20.9 billion. Biden’s total contract count so far is 10,612 $8 billion. If he keeps up that pace, he could rack up nearly $24 billion in contracts by the end of his first term, which would leave Trump’s numbers and those of every other recent president in the dust.
If this is the case, the contracts between the Trump administration and Biden administrations will total almost $45 billion. This would slightly exceed the $44.3 million spent on border enforcement. 1980 to 2002. Media often portrays border and immigration issues as a partisan issue between Democrats and Republicans. Although there is truth to this, there are surprising numbers of ways in which both sides have reached a sort of grim border consensus.
As Maryland Democratic Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, a member of the House appropriations committee, said ever so beamingly on a screen at that Expo conference, “I have literally put my money where my mouth is, championing funding for fencing, additional Border Patrol agents, and state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.” And as Clint McDonald, a member of the Border Sheriff’s Association, said at its opening panel, the border is “not a red issue, it’s not a blue issue. It’s a red, white, and blue issue.”
When I asked the Ghost Robotics vendor if his robo-dog had a name, he replied that his daughter “likes to call it Tank.” He then added, “We let our customers name them as they get them.” While we were chatting, a prospective customer asked, “What about weapons mountable?” (That is, could buyers weaponize that dog?) The vendor immediately assured me that they were already working closely with other companies to make it happen.
Later, I asked Raul Ortiz from Border Patrol about the surveillance dogs. He downplayed the significance of the dogs and stressed the media hype. He also said that no robot-dogs had been deployed at the border yet. It was difficult not to wander the hall and think. This could be our border future, and it is more than a wall.. In fact, if the “big, beautiful” wall was the emblem of Donald Trump’s border policy, then for the Biden moment, think robo-dogs.
Border Security Is Not a “Pipe Dream”
I had heard voices the night before as I stood on the hill in Arizona. They were passing by the campsite, where my son and me were sleeping in a tent. I felt no fear or danger as their footsteps were soft. It shouldn’t have been surprising that people were passing through. Our southern border has been well enforced. designedTo push border-crossing migrants into desert lands, often under night cover.
The remains of at most 8,000Since the mid-1990s, people have been discovered in these landscapes. Many more have undoubtedly died since thousands of families continue looking. searchFor loved ones who have disappeared at the borderlands. Those soft footsteps I heard could have been from asylum seekers fleeing violence in their lands or facing the disaster of accelerating climate change — wilted crops and flooded fields — or economic dispossession in countries where foreign corporations and local oligarchies rule the day. Or all of it.
For years, I’ve been talking to migrants who crossed isolated and hazardous parts of the Arizona desert to bypass the walls and guns of the Border Patrol.
They came to mind when I saw Palmer Luckey, CEO of Border Security Expo, and I thought about them. Anduril, a new border surveillance company, step up to the podium to introduce a panel on “The Digital Transformation of the Border.” The 20-something Luckey, already worth $700 millionHe wore a Hawaiian shirt, cargo pants, and flip-flops with floppy brown hair. He explained to the border industry and Homeland Security officials that he was wearing shades due to recent laser surgery and not because he wanted to look cool.
He looked cool, however, as if at the beach. He does represent the next generation border tech. His company has received almost 500,000 dollars in funding since 2020. $100 millionIn contracts from Customs and Border Protection
His introduction to the panel sounded more like a pitch for funding and gave me a glimpse into the current workings of the border-industrial complex. It was almost like listening to a rehearsal of the lobbying appearances that he and his company would make in Congress for 2023. In 2021, Anduril spent $930,000Lobbying issuesIt was important to its executives. It also gifted political candidates nearly $500,000 $2 millionContributions to campaigns
Luckey’s message was: fund me and you’ll create a “durable industrial base,” while ensuring that border security will not be a “pipe dream.” Indeed, in his vision, the new border-surveillance infrastructure he represents will instead be an autonomous “pipeline,” delivering endlessly actionable information and intelligence directly to the cell phones of Border Patrol agents.
As I stood on top of the hill, I thought about his pitch and watched the border apparatus rapidly mobilize. I was actually looking at yet another Border Patrol vehicle when I suddenly heard an overhead mechanical buzzing that made me believe that a drone might have been nearby. The CBP is responsible for the operation of the large southern border. Predator BsThis was once used in U.S. military operations abroad and CIA operations at home, but small and medium-sized drones.
Although I couldn’t see much in the sky above me, it was clear that something was happening. It was almost as if I was at the Expo all over again, but this time it was real. I was, in fact, in the middle of the very surveillance-infrastructure pipeline Luckey had described, where towers talk to each other, signal to drones, to the all-terrain vehicle unit, and to roving Border Patrol cars.
The buzzing sound stopped abruptly as a CBP helicopter was lifted into the air, its loud propellers revving.
The Real Crisis
After the dramatic helicopter exit, my mind wandered to the border emergency. I decided to get in my car, leave my son and our friends, and go look for it. I came to a stop at a corner and saw Border Patrol agents, vehicles, and a large group of people on the side of the road. I assumed they were migrants. Four people had been handcuffed and taken into custody by a green-striped Border Patrol pickup truck. They had the tired look that I know well from people who had walked for hours in a dangerous and unknown landscape. The agents of the ATV detail were lounging around in their green jumpsuits as their quads idled, as if this were all in a day’s (or night’s) work, which indeed it was.
I thought back to those footsteps that my son had made as he slept soundly, and I heard them again. The border is not in crisis. That’s impossible. The border’s inanimate. It’s the people walking through the desert — the ones who crept past us and those in the back of that truck or soon to be put in other trucks like it, arrested so far from home — who are actually in crisis. And it’s a crisis almost beyond the ability of anyone who hasn’t been displaced to imagine. If they weren’t here, what would have happened?
The ongoing border-crisis story is another example of what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once would have called an “upside down” world, so twisted in its telling that the victim becomes the victimizer and the oppressor, the oppressed. If only there were a way we could turn that story — and how so many in this country think about it — right-side up.
As I was mulling all of that over, I suddenly noticed the omnipresent “eye” of the Elbit Systems tower “staring” at me again. Its superpower camera was capturing the entire scene. It could have detected the group by its radar. After all, the company’s website says, “From the darkest of nights to the thickest of brush, our border solutions help predict, detect, identify, and classify items of interest.” Not people, mind you, but the handcuffed “items of interest” in the back of that truck.
As I watched this scene unfold, I thought back to a moment at the Expo where a man from Rio Grande Valley asked a panel of Department of Homeland Security personnel a very pointed question. He looked towards the hall, where all the companies were hawking products. wondered why, if there was so much money to be made in border security, “would you even want a solution?”
The long, uncomfortable silence that followed was all I needed to learn about the true border crisis in this country.