Bringing the Battlefield to the Border

William “Drew” Dodds, the salesperson for StrongWatch, a Tucson-based company, is at the top of his game when he describes developments on the southern border of the United States in football terms. In his telling, that boundary is the line of scrimmage, and the technology his company is trying to sell — a mobile surveillance system named Freedom-On-The-Move, a camera set atop a retractable mast outfitted in the bed of a truck and maneuvered with an Xbox controller — acts like a “roving linebacker.”

As Dodds describes it, unauthorized migrants and drug traffickers often cross the line of scrimmage undetected. At best, they are seldom caught until the “last mile,” far from the boundary line.  His surveillance system, he claims, will cover a lot more of that ground in very little time and from multiple angles.  It will become the border-enforcement equivalent of New York Giants’ linebacking great, Lawrence Taylor.

To listen to Dodds, an ex-Marine — Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001-2004 — with the hulking physique of a linebacker himself, is to experience a new worldview being constructed on the run.  Even a decade or so ago, it might have seemed like a mad dream from the American fringe.  These days, his all-the-world’s-a-football-field vision seemed perfectly mainstream inside the brightly-lit convention hall in Phoenix, Arizona, where the seventh annual Border Security Expo took place this March. Dodds was just one of hundreds of salespeople peddling their border-enforcement products and national security wares, and StrongWatch but one of more than 100 companies scrambling for a profitable edge in an exploding market.

Vivid as he is, Dodds is speaking a new corporate language embedded in an ever-more powerful universe in which the need to build up “boundary enforcement” is accepted, even celebrated, rather than debated. It’s a world where billions of dollars are potentially at stake, and one in which nothing is more important than creating, testing, and even flaunting increasingly sophisticated and expensive technologies meant for border patrol and social control, without serious thought as to what they might really portend.

The War on Terror on the Border

Phoenix was an especially appropriate place for Border Security Expo.

After all, the Arizona-Mexico border region is Ground Zero for the development of an immigration enforcement apparatus which soon enough may travel from the southern border to a neighborhood near you.

The sold-out convention hall was abuzz with energy befitting an industry whose time has come.  Wandering its aisles, you could sense the excitement, the sound of money being spent, the cacophony of hundreds of voices boosting product, the synergy of a burgeoning marketplace of ideas and dreams. General Dynamics, FLIR thermal imaging, and Raytheon banners hung from the vast ceiling, competing for eyeballs with the latest in mini-surveillance blimps. NEANY Inc.’s unmanned aerial drones and their water-borne equivalents sat on a thick red carpet next to desert-camouflaged trailer headquarters.

At various exhibits, mannequins dressed in camo and sporting guns with surveillance gizmos hanging off their helmets seemed as if they might walk right out of the exhibition hall and take over the sprawling city of Phoenix with brute force. Little imaginable for your futuristic fortressed border was missing from the hall.  There were even ready-to-eat pocket sandwiches (with a three-year shelf life), and Brief Relief plastic urine bags. A stream of uniformed Border Patrol, military, and police officials moved from booth to booth alongside men in suits in what the sole protester outside the convention center called a “mall of death.”

If there was anything that caught the control mania at the heart of this expo, it was a sign behind the DRS Technologies booth, which offered this promise: “You Draw the Line and We’ll Help You Secure It.” And what better place to express such a sentiment than Phoenix, the seat of Maricopa County, where “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio (now being sued by the Justice Department), regularly swept through neighborhoods on a search for poor people of color who looked like they might have just slipped across the line dividing the United States from Mexico.

Dodds and I stood a little more than 100 miles from that border, which has seen a staggering enforcement build-up over the last 20 years. It’s distinctly a seller’s market.  StrongWatch is typical.  The company, Dodds told me, was hoping for a fat contract for its border technology.  After all, everyone knew that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was about to issue a new request for proposals to build its latest version of a “virtual wall” along that border — not actual fencing, but a barrier made up of the latest in surveillance technology, including towers, cameras, sensors, and radar.

In January 2011, DHS had cancelled its previous attempt, known as SBInet, and the multi-billion dollar contract to the Boeing Company that went with it.  Complaints were that the costly and often-delayed technological barrier was not properly tailored to the rugged terrain of the borderlands, and that it had trouble distinguishing animals from humans.

But the continued fortification of the border (and the profits that accompany it) caught only one aspect of the convention’s reality. After all, the Arizona portion of the U.S.-Mexican border has not only become Ground Zero for every experiment in immigration enforcement and drug interdiction, but also the incubator, testing site, showcase, and staging ground for ever newer versions of border-enforcement technology that, sooner or later, are sure to be applied globally.

As that buzzing convention floor made clear, the anything-goes approach to immigration enforcement found in Arizona — home to SB1070, the infamous anti-immigrant law now before the Supreme Court — has generated interest from boundary-militarizers elsewhere in the country and the world. An urge for zero-tolerance-style Arizona borders is spreading fast, as evidenced by the convention’s clientele. In addition to U.S. Border Patrol types, attendees came from law enforcement outfits and agencies nationwide, and from 18 countries around the world, including Israel and Russia.

In theory, the Expo had nothing to do with SB1070, but the organizers’ choice of controversial Arizona governor Jan Brewer as keynote speaker could be seen as an endorsement of the laissez-faire climate in the state.  It is, in other words, the perfect place to develop and even test future technology on real people.

Brewer first assured convention-goers that the “immigration issue isn’t about hate or skin color… it’s about securing the border and keeping Americans safe.”  That out of the way, she promptly launched into one of her usual tirades, blasting the federal government for not securing the border. “America’s failure to understand this problem at a national level and to deal with it,” she insisted, “has haunted borders like mine for decades.”

In fact, as Brewer well knows, the very opposite is the case. Arizona’s rise to immigration importance has gone hand in hand with the creation of a border version of the very homeland security state she criticizes.  In reality, federal resources and Department of Homeland Security dollars have been pouring into Arizona as part of a tripartite war on “illegals,” drugs, and terrorism.  Her continual complaints about a “porous border,” enhanced by exaggerated tales of “decapitated bodies,” only ups the pressure for ever more building blocks to Fortress USA.  Brewer’s are sweet words to the companies who hope to profit, including DRS Technologies, StrongWatch, and Boeing.

The governor is hardly alone.  Politicians from both parties are loath to acknowledge (as is the much of the mainstream media) how drastically the enforcement landscape along the U.S.-Mexican borderlands has been altered in recent years.  As geographer and border scholar Joseph Nevins sums the matter up: “The very existence of lines of control over the movement of people is a very recent development in human history.”

Al-Qaedizing Immigrants

Anybody revisiting Nogales, El Paso, San Ysidro, or Brownsville today would quickly realize that they look nothing like they did two decades ago. In 1993, there were only 4,000 Border Patrol agents covering 6,000 miles of Canadian and Mexican boundarylands, and only flimsy chain-link fences along the most urbanized stretches of the southern border separated communities on either side.

Now, 16-foot walls cut through these towns. An array of cameras peer over them into Mexico sending a constant flow of images to dark monitoring rooms in Border Patrol stations along the 2,000 mile southern border, where bored agents watch mostly pedestrian traffic. Stadium-style lighting rises over the walls and shines into Mexico, turning night into day as if we were indeed in salesman Dodds’s football game.  For residents whose homes abut the border sleep is a challenge.

Border Patrol forces, still growing, have more than doubled in the years since 9/11.  As the new uniformed soldiers of the Department of Homeland Security, close to 20,000 Border Patrol agents now occupy the U.S. Southwest.  Predator drones and mini-surveillance blimps regularly patrol the skies. Nevins says that it is a “highly significant development” that we have come to accept this version of “boundaries” and the institutions that enforce them without question.

The Border Patrol became part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 and was placed under the wing of Customs and Border Protection, now the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country with 60,000 employees.  In the process, its “priority mission” became “keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S.” Since then the Border Patrol has not netted a single person affiliated with a terrorist organization nor a single weapon of mass destruction.

It has, however, apprehended millions of Latin American migrants coming north, including a historic number of Mexicans who were essentially victims of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  No terrorists, they were often small farmers who could no longer compete with subsidized U.S. grain giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland for whom NAFTA proved a free pass into Mexico. U.S. officials were well aware that the trade agreement would lead to an increase in migration, and called for the enforcement build-up. In the post-9/11 world, under the rubric of “protecting” the country from terrorism, the DHS, with the help of state governments and local police, has enforced what is really a line of exclusion, guaranteeing eternal inequality between those who have and those who do not.

These lines of division have not only undergone a rapid build-up, but have fast become the accepted norm.  According to anthropologist Josiah Heyman, the muscling up of an ever more massive border enforcement, interdiction, and surveillance apparatus “has militarized border society, where more and more people either work for the watchers, or are watched by the state.” Heyman’s words may prove prophetic, and not just along our borders either.

As any migrant, protester, or activist in the United States knows, the “watchers” and the “watched” are proliferating nationwide. Geographer Matthew Coleman says that the “most significant yet largely ignored fallout of the so-called war on terrorism… [is] the extension of interior immigration policing practices away from the southwest border.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is another 20,000-strong agency sheltered under the expansive roof of the Department of Homeland Security.  It draws from a pool of 650,000 law enforcement officers across the country through deputization programs with innocuous names like 287(g) and Secure Communities. ICE effectively serves as a conduit bringing the borderlands and all they now imply into communities as distant as Utah, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

More than one million migrants have been deported from the country over the last 3½ years under the Obama administration, numbers that surpass those of the Bush years.  This should be a reminder that a significant, if overlooked, part of this country’s post 9/11 security iron fist has been aimed not at al-Qaeda but at the undocumented migrant. Indeed, as writer Roberto Lovato points out, there has been an “al-Qaedization of immigrants and immigration policy.” And as in the Global War on Terror, military-industrial companies like Boeing and Halliburton are cashing in on this version of for-profit war.

Bringing Arizona to You

Surprisingly enough, in that vast, brightly-lit cathedral of science fiction in Phoenix it wasn’t the guns, drones, and robots, or the fixed surveillance towers and militarized mannequins that startled me most. It was the staggering energy and enthusiasm, so thick in the convention’s air that it enveloped you.

That day, I had no doubt, I was in the presence of a burgeoning new industry which has every intention of making not just the border, but this world of ours its own.  I could feel that sense of excitement and possibility from the moment Drew Dodds began explaining to me just how his company’s Freedom-On-The-Move system actually works.  He grabbed two water bottles close at hand and began painting a vivid picture of one as a “hill” obstructing “the line of sight to the target,” and the other as that “target” — in fact, an exhausted migrant walking “the last mile” after three days in the desert, who might give anything for just such a bottle.

I have met many migrants in Dodd’s “last mile” — hurt, dehydrated, exhausted.  One man’s feet had swelled up so much, thanks to the unrelenting heat and the cactus spines he had stepped on, that he could no longer jam them in his shoes. He had, he told me, continued on anyway in excruciating pain, mile after mile, barefoot on the oven-hot desert floor. Considering the thousands of dead bodies recovered from the borderlands since the massive build-up of Border Patrol forces and technology, he was lucky to have made it through alive. And this was the man Dodds was so pumped about Freedom-On-The-Move’s “spot and stalk” technology nabbing; this was his football game. In the end, though, he abandoned football for reality, summing up his experience this way: “We are bringing the battlefield to the border.”

That caught it all, offering a vision of what the military-industrial complex looks like once it’s transported, jobs and all, to the U.S.-Mexican border and turned into a consumer’s mall for the post-9/11 American era. You could sense it in the young woman from RoboteX, who looked like she had walked directly out of her college graduation and onto the floor of Border Security Expo 2012.  She loaned me her remote control for a few minutes and let me play with the micro-robot she was hawking.  It looked like a tiny tank and was already being used by the Oakland police and its SWAT team.

It was the breathless excitement of the University of Arizona graduate student describing to me the “deception detection” technology the university was developing, along with a “communication web” that would allow drones to communicate with each other without human intervention. Perhaps training students for this rising industry was part of the University of Arizona’s thought process in accepting a multi-million-dollar grant from DHS to create a Center of Excellence on Border Security which will work in tandem with its Tech Park on Science and Technology. That center, in turn, was to develop the newest border enforcement technologies, as part of a consortium of several other universities.

In the next three years, the homeland security market in the United States is expected to reach $113 billion, according to a report by Homeland Security Market Research, and a significant chunk of that money will be dedicated to boundary building. Pretty soon the idea of border security as part of a Fortress USA will be so entrenched in the system that no one will be able to shake it loose — and then, of course, like all such systems, it will proliferate.

It has been fashionable to treat the state of Arizona as an American fringe phenomenon, simply a bunch of lunatics hell-bent on passing bluntly racist anti-immigration laws. However, as Border Security Expo indicates, something far more sinister is at work.  There’s nothing fringe about the companies in the convention hall eager to build up the homeland security state, and funded by the federal government.

In Arizona, industry leaders are calling for the formation of the first “global cluster” of private companies on border security in the United States. Already 50 businesses, large and small, have been identified as possible participants. Bruce Wright, vice president of the University of Arizona Tech Park on Science and Technology, says that many of them have set up shop in the park, and that the university has the facilities to incubate both start-up companies and subsidiaries for more established military or aerospace corporations as they enter what he calls “the border tech realm.”

“Here we are living on the border — turning lemons into lemonade. If we are to deal with the problem — what is the economic benefit from dealing with it?” Wright asks, referring to immigration enforcement, trade, drug interdiction, and the war on terror. “Well, we can build an industry around this problem that creates employment, wages, and wealth for this region… And this technology can be sold all over the world. So it becomes an industry cluster that is very beneficial to us in Southern Arizona.”

Wright’s vision is likely to prove far more powerful than SB1070 will ever be. As Arizona defines the line of scrimmage for U.S. border security strategy, it is also preparing the way to export its products of social control not only abroad, but also to your hometown, or to wherever a boundary needs to be built between the rich and poor.

Todd Miller has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog “Border Wars,” among other places. He is at work on his first book, Border Patrol Nation, for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books.

This article was originally published by TomDispatch

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.