Militarizing the Border

The sun was strong and so was the rhetoric, as President George W. Bush headed to Yuma, Arizona on April 9 to tackle the problem of illegal immigration. Flanked by uniformed border agents, national guardsmen and members of local law enforcement whose stiff formality emphasized his bare-armed enthusiasm, the president asserted that “securing the border is a critical part of a strategy for comprehensive immigration reform Congress is going to take up the legislation on immigration. It is a matter of national interest and it’s a matter of deep conviction for me.”

The president rolled up his shirt sleeves and blamed a host of problems on illegal immigration: it “puts pressure on the public schools and the hospitals drains the state and local budgets brings crime to our communities.” He also urged Congress to get behind a tangle of proposals ranging from more border patrols and a guest worker program to stiffer penalties for illegal immigrants and the people who employ them. But the heart of President Bush’s effort against illegal immigration is the multi-billion dollar Secure Border Initiative (SBI).

As with so many other pressing issues — from terrorism to oil dependency — the White House is turning to the military industrial complex for a solution. SBI is the plan of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to erect a “virtual fence” of monitors, sensors, unmanned planes, and communications to help border agents catch illegal immigrants crossing the southern border.

In September 2006, DHS awarded initial contracts — worth upwards of $2 billion — for the high-tech surveillance technology along border region to weapons giant Boeing. The Chicago-based manufacturer beat out rivals Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman to gain a foothold in the lucrative realm of homeland security. Boeing was the Pentagon’s second largest contractor in 2006 with $20.3 billion in deals and now finds itself well positioned to receive the billions in contracts that DHS is doling out. It leads a team of more than half a dozen companies developing and deploying a network of advanced systems that could — if it all works and is funded — give DHS patrols a clear picture of everything that moves across almost 2,000 miles of border territory.

What is missing is a clear picture of exactly how many billions it will cost. Last November, Richard Skinner, the inspector general of DHS told lawmakers that estimates for this advanced surveillance network are all over the map: from the low end of $2 billion to a high of between $8 billion to $30 billion. Skinner testified that “our frustration right now is that we don’t know what it’s going to cost. We just don’t know what the big picture is.”

DHS answered that frustration with the Secure Border Strategic Plan the following month, stressing that “it expects to complete the SBI investment need to gain control of the Southwest land border by the end of FY 2011, although we certainly expect to gain substantial control of the border prior to that time.” The report put the estimate of total costs for equipment, logistics, and manpower at $7.6 billion though 2011. But, the Department admits it “does not as yet have a wholly satisfactory methodology of determining whether a portion of the border is considered under control.”

In Yuma, President Bush praised the personnel patrolling the border, but he saved rapturous prose for the Predator drone, a $40 million piece of hardware. “When I landed here at the airport, the first thing I saw was an unmanned aerial vehicle. It’s a sophisticated piece of equipment. You can fly it from inside a truck and you can look at people moving at night. It’s the most sophisticated technology we have and it’s down here on the border to help the border patrol agents do their job.”

At a January 2006 briefing, Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson told contractors interested in Homeland Security business, “We’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business.” Now Boeing has come back with its answer — give us the money and don’t think too much.

Luckily, some members of Congress are not accepting that. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and his staff are looking into the issue of contractor oversight, pointing out that “60 of the 98 people overseeing the border project are contractors.” A February 8 memo from his staff alleged that “at least one contractor hired to engage in contract oversight on the border project — Booz Allen Hamilton — may have a conflict of interest with Boeing” and suggested that because the technology consulting firm has teamed up with Boeing on a number of other contracts, it cannot provide effective and impartial oversight. Booz Allen Hamilton executives rejected this suggestion.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, in a press conference following President Bush’s speech, was quick to assert the Secure Border Initiative’s judicious use of resources: “We’re not just going to say, ‘Oh, this looks like some neat stuff, let’s buy it and then put it on the border.'” However, a look at some of the systems military contractors are proposing demonstrates that “buying neat stuff” is exactly what may happen.

For 2008, the president is requesting $46.4 billion in funding for DHS, an 8% increase over 2007. And with President Bush’s belated focus on border security and immigration reform, it is likely that more money will be spent in a hurry. In border security, a new focus on high-tech solutions follows on a wave of failure and money wasted. A $425 million system of cameras and sensors was installed improperly and never worked effectively, and a $6.8 million unmanned aerial vehicle patrolling the border crashed and was destroyed.

In Iraq, military contractors wasted billions of dollars of reconstruction aid. Boeing, meanwhile, is no stranger to corruption scandals: its chief financial officer went to jail in 2005 for wrongdoing in securing Pentagon contracts. To put military contractors, particularly Boeing, in charge of building SBI is a recipe for disaster.

But the issue of militarizing the border goes beyond questions of accountability. In order to craft truly effective, humane and “comprehensive” immigration reform, the president is going to have to do a lot more than show up in his shirtsleeves once in a while. He has to learn that the border is not a war zone, Mexicans are not combatants, and military contractors are not the solution.

FRIDA BERRIGAN is a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus and Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. Her primary research areas with the project include nuclear-weapons policy, war profiteering and corporate crimes, weapons sales to areas of conflict, and military-training programs. She is the author of a number of Institute reports, most recently Weapons at War 2005: Promoting Freedom or Fueling Conflict. She can be reached at: