9/11’s Border Legacy: Razor Wire, “Smart” Surveillance, and Billions in Security Contracts

Razor wire and a steel wall in Nogales, Arizona. Photo: Todd Miller.

Along the 20-foot border wall in Nogales, Arizona, six lines of coiling razor wire blanket the rust-colored bollards from top to bottom. Shortly after Joe Biden was inaugurated in January, Nogales mayor Arturo Garino asked that it be cut down. Although the wall itself predated the Trump administration, the razor wire was installed by the US military in 2019. Today, it is the most visceral reminder of Trump’s viciously anti-immigrant administration. But the concertina wire, and the wall, aren’t going anywhere. In February, the federal government issued a call for bids from private industry to maintain border wall infrastructure. As Garino said, “I know that the government has a tendency of, when they put something up, they always keep it up, doesn’t matter what administration is there.” Indeed, the maintenance of this flesh-slicing wire is but one layer of a complex and massive border apparatus and industry that Biden has inherited.

By “inherited,” I do not mean just from Trump. What I’m referring to is $332.7 billionthat the US federal government has dedicated to Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement since the Department of Homeland Security opened for business in 2003. This is nearly an eight-fold increase over the previous 19 years (1984–2002), which totaled $42.7 billion under the Immigration and Naturalization Service. When Trump took office in 2017, this cumulative juggernaut of federal money and private contracts formed an arsenal of more than 20,000 agents, 650 miles of walls and barriers, and billions of dollars in deployed technologies. Even though he spent his 2016 presidential campaign claiming there was no enforcement on the border, the annual budget for border enforcement had already ballooned to $17 billion under President Obama, having steadily grown every year since 2001. Trump’s own CBP/ICE budget in 2017 was $20 billion. The product of age-old xenophobic rhetoric about our southern border, Trump benefited from a bipartisan industrial complex, without which he could not have so easily torn children from their parents and incarcerated them in crowded cells or even have built hundreds of miles of a 30-foot wall.

Biden repudiated this cruel system during his campaign. “Trump has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants,” he said. “It’s wrong, and it stops when Joe Biden is elected president.”

At the same time, however, his campaign was collecting millions from the companies that build the surveillance towers, biometric systems, and detention centers—three times more than Trump. And with the $24.6 billion CBP/ICE budget for 2021, Biden has issued or awarded more than 7,000 contracts since January.

This summer, the Illinois-based United Tactical Systems received nearly $1.4 million to supply pressurized air launchers for “pepper balls,” the equivalent of a pepper spray grenade. You might recall that CBP launched pepper balls at people in a migrant caravan near the San Ysidro port of entry in November 2018. The Minnesota-based Vista Outdoor Sales received $24.4 million for ammunition sales to CBP and ICE, further validating constitutional lawyer and author John Whitehead’s characterizationof DHS as a “standing army on American soil.” In August, CBP spent more than $150,000 on license plate readers from the Virginia-based Thundercat Tech for use in San Diego and Spokane, Washington. Private detention companies CoreCivic and GeoGroup, also in August received millions in ICE contracts to run detention centers in Montgomery, Alabama, Houston, and South Texas.

Money talks, no matter the administration. From 2008 to the present, at least 108,214 contracts have been doled out by CBP and ICE worth a whopping $59.5 billion.

Ghost Drones and Smartphones

Biden has pledged to build “not another foot of wall.” But, as he told NPR, “I’m going to make sure that we have border protection.” For Biden that means “high-tech capacity.” Historically, Democrats have leaned toward building a “smart border,” which means emphasizing tech. This might sound more palatable, but it’s far more invasive than it sounds. For example, Anduril Industries was awarded a contract in June for $36.9 million (of a total of $83.1 million in contracts since 2019) to build more autonomous surveillance towers in the US-Mexico borderlands (the plan is to build 200). It’s still unclear if the company’s “ghost drones,” so named for their “near silent acoustic signature,” are part of this surveillance package, but they appear to be. As Tech Crunch explains, “Ghost drones are capable of staying aloft for long stretches and communicating what they see to a central AI-powered nervous system. They combine data with Anduril’s sentry towers … [and] relay it back to a software platform that flags anything of interest.”

This means, according to the outlet, that the system will “autonomously” identify “someone crossing the U.S. border” and send “a push alert to border agents.” The smartphone has met the border wall.

This sort of “smartphone” rhetoric sets up a narrative that effectively justifies increased border enforcement: the physical, imposing wall is pitted against what appears to be a kinder technological alternative. Omitted from this framing is that the border strategy is based on a three-pronged “border wall system,” as a CBP spokesperson, Jacob Stukenberg, told me in a 2019 interview. This is “a very solid system,” he said, made up of three components: “barriers, technology, and personnel.” In other words, the technology is not opposed to, but rather is a part of, the wall.

And the construction of this system has been going on for nearly three decades, since the mid-1990s, during the Bill Clinton administration, which first established the prevention through deterrence doctrine. The idea was that by building walls, doubling the Border Patrol, and reinforcing it with technology in border cities like Nogales, El Paso, and San Diego, people would be forced to cross into more deadly and dangerous areas, like the Arizona desert. A big part of this strategy was the Clinton-era technology plan ironically named ISIS (Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System). By the end of Clinton’s term, migration routes had shifted from the safer urban areas to more dangerous and remote desert crossings.

But it was the post 9/11 terrorism-fueled budgets that really boosted the new border security industrial complex. In what would be the most dramatic surge of border budgets in US history, the George W. Bush administration hit all three areas of the border wall system. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 bulldozed land and constructed walls and barriers along 650 miles of the US-Mexico boundary, and a hiring surge from 2007 to 2009 brought in an additional 6,000 Border Patrol agents, that eventually reached 21,000 in 2012. CBP hired PR firms to cultivate a new post-9/11 brand. One hiring brochure decorated its front cover with the outline of the United States with “Protected by the U.S. Border Patrol” stamped in the middle. Inside, it explained that agents were “on the front line in the war on terror.”

With all the money flowing in, the $2 billion contract the Bush administration awarded to the Boeing Company signaled the advent of the industrial complex. Boeing was tasked with building a wall of surveillance towers, ground-sweeping radar, and implanted motion sensors. This was the largest contract ever issued by a US immigration agency. Immediately, Boeing subcontracted to other companies, such as L3 Communications (now L3Harris) and the Israeli company Elbit Systems, which has since become one of CBP’s biggest contractors.

When I first began reporting on this burgeoning border industry in 2012, the combined budgets of CBP and ICE ($18 billion) were already larger than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, including the FBI, the DEA, the Secret Service, and the U.S. Marshals Service. That year I attended the Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona, where more than 100 companies congregated to sell their science-fiction-inspired robots, drones, biometric systems, guns, sunglasses, ready-to-eat meals, and portable latrines. Outside the convention hall a sign warned ‘No Protesting Allowed’. Many company representatives shared with me their desire to jump into the lucrative border security market, especially as US military contracts dried up in Iraq and Afghanistan. One such vendor put it to me this way: “We are bringing the battlefield to the border.” At the time, the global market forecasts for homeland security and emergency management predicted the industry would reach $544.02 billion by 2018. In 2021, another report by the same company, MarketandMarkets, estimates that the same market will increase from $668.7 billion to $904.6 billion by 2026. “Dynamic climatic conditions” and “rising natural calamities,” according to the new forecasts, are among the primary drivers of the projected profits.

Anduril Industries’ sentry towers and ghost drones are just one of $2.4 billion and $1.6 billion worth in contracts doled out to CBP and ICE, respectively, from Biden’s inaugural month to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. But one thing is the contracts themselves; another is the contractors’ influence in Washington.

Through the Revolving Door

In January, Alejandro Mayorkas was sworn in as the Biden administration’s secretary of Homeland Security and lauded as the first Latino to hold that position. He had previously disclosed that from 2018 to 2020 he earned $3 million from a variety of companies, including top border contractors Leidos and Northrop Grumman. Mayorkas is just the latest in a long line of DHS and CBP top leaders who have passed through the revolving door of private industry and government. The list is long and includes former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff (under Bush, 2005–9), who now runs his own private security consultancy Chertoff group, and former secretary Jeh Johnson (under Obama, 2013–17), who is on the board of the defense-industry giant and top border contractor Lockheed Martin. Money and influence cross party lines with ease.

As with Anduril, the Leidos and Northrop Grumman contracts were signed during the Trump years, and each has a “smart border” emphasis. In 2021, Northrop Grumman continues to work on the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART), a 21st-century upgrade to CBP’s previous biometric system (known as IDENT), which adds “modalities” for identification, meaning it can recognize not only faces and irises but also scars, tattoos, and potentially DNA. But that’s not all, according to the privacy watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Other data DHS is planning to collect—including information about people’s ‘relationship patterns’ and from officer ‘encounters’ with the public—can be used to identify political affiliations, religious activities, and familial and friendly relationships.” Leidos Traveler Processing and Vetting Software, for which the company received a $960 million contract in 2020, will create more biometric information to feed into HART.

The personal connection to Mayorkas’s income notwithstanding, the defense industry behemoth Northrop Grumman also made its overtures to the Biden administration in other ways. For example, in a report titled Biden’s Border: The Industry, the Democrats and the 2020 Elections,which I coauthored with Nick Buxton for the Transnational Institute in February, we found that Northrop Grumman gave $649,748 to the Biden campaign, nearly double the amount it gave to Trump, which followed the company’s general trend favoring Democrats 56 to 44 percent in 2020. This was a complete reversal of the 60-40 Northrop Grumman contributed in favor of Republicans in 2016. And while Northrop Grumman relies on its military contracts for much of its revenue, it was also the top contributor to members of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Other top border contractors have similar amorphous qualities and can slide to either side of the aisle when it suits them. Besides Leidos and Northrop Grumman, in the report we looked at 11 other top contractors, including CoreCivic, Deloitte, Elbit Systems, G4S, General Atomics, General Dynamics, GEO Group, IBM, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, and Palantir. In total these companies contributed $5,364,994 to Biden and $1,731,435 to Trump. And in general, these companies contributed a total of $22,225,133 to Democrats and $17,950,187 to Republicans. Unlike people casting votes on Election Day, industry hedges its bets and votes for all candidates while leaning toward whoever they think is in the lead, a win-win.

September 11

Twenty years ago, as I crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, on September 14, 2001—three days after the devastating attacks of 9/11—I never could have imagined that the attacks would lead to a border lined with automated towers and “ghost” drones, reinforced by a surveillance system capable of mapping my relationships, and an armed agency with tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition.

At the time, driving to Nogales from Tucson was a regular part of my job with the binational organization BorderLinks, where I had just started working to help delegations from US universities and churches learn about economic globalization and how it was impacting border communities. The hope was to cultivate cross-border solidarity. Even though I crossed the border frequently, it was still always jarring to see the wall, made of rusty landing mats, snaking up and down the hills, imposing itself between the two picturesque border towns.

When I crossed into Mexico, I headed to a neighborhood known as Flores Magón (named after the revolutionary brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón) which was located high in the hills on the outskirts of the city of 400,000, where I sat in a friend’s living room in a house made of wood pallets and cement blocks. Most of the houses in the neighborhood used cardboard for insulation. With the friend, and some neighbors, we sat watching TV news footage of the World Trade towers fall repeatedly on a small black-and-white television with a still fresh sense of foreboding and shock. Many of the residents had come to Nogales after NAFTA made rural life more difficult, especially as small subsistence farmers were pit against large U.S. grain corporations such as Archer Daniel Midland and Cargill. Many of the residents in Flores Magón worked in maquilas (factories) making Q-Tips, suitcases, Master Locks, or electronic components for unlivable wages ($6–$7 a day) with next to no benefits.

None of us knew that where we sat would become a focal point of the global war on terror, that by 2021 the remains of nearly 8,000 people would be found in the borderlands’ deserts, and millions more during that period would be arrested, incarcerated, and expelled from the United States. Or that during those 20 years the top border companies would make 20,000 lobbying visits in Washington to insist on, and usually get, larger budgets to bring more weapons and more detention centers. Our main concern as we sat in that house was for the well-being of the people in New York and Washington DC.

If the Biden administration wants to craft a humane response to the border, it will have to come to terms with one of the biggest impediments to making that happen, that is, 9/11’s most palpable legacy in the borderlands, a lucrative border security industry. For now, the coils of razor wire will remain on the towering border wall in Nogales despite the mayor’s plea that the miles of lethal wire be taken down. It will stay because the industry says so.

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