The Border Industrial Complex

Photograph Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection – Public Domain

It was summer and the sun was beating down. Josh Garcia, a supervisor for the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Youth Council, was driving two teenagers back to their homes on the San Xavier reservation near Tucson. It had been an exhilarating day. They had climbed and sung to a sacred mountain and gotten a glimpse of a mountain lion walking in the distance.

And now a Border Patrol agent was screaming at them. “Get back!” the agent yelled after forcing Garcia out of his truck. They were standing in the secondary inspection area at a Border Patrol checkpoint near the small town of Three Points, just outside the reservation, about 40 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nearby stood a group of armed employees of G4S, a transnational company with headquarters in the UK. They wore gray uniforms and black boots. One of them tossed the apple he was eating to the ground, Garcia told me afterward*, as they advanced behind the green-uniformed Border Patrol agent. What sparked the border agent’s anger, and led the battalion of G4S agents to advance, was that Garcia had said, “We don’t consent to a search.”

Garcia had been through the checkpoints and often faced this type of harassment. But that day the menacing G4S employees were something new. Employees of a multinational corporation were stationed on the only road from the O’odham reservation to Tucson because the company had contracts with Customs and Border Protection, 25 of them signed from 2008 to 2019 and collectively worth $653.3 million. The company’s nondescript white van that was parked off to the side was in fact a moving jail cell in which they transported arrested migrants (and, for that matter, possibly Garcia). “We understand the bigger picture and challenges of keeping borders secure,” the company boasts on its website.

But there is something more to G4S than simply forming part of the border industrial complex. The company both contributes to and benefits from climate change displacement. In a 2014 report to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), G4S described extreme weather as a “potential source of business,” citing a UN projection of “50 million” future climate refugees. G4S wrote, “Climate change presents a risk to people and infrastructure across the globe. As an organization that specializes in managing risk, we recognize that the threat of climate change is an important and growing concern for our group, our customers, and communities.” At the same time, for decades fossil fuel corporations have also contracted prominent border security companies, such as G4S, to protect oil pipelines and shipping routes, among other things. Both the oil companies and the world’s highest-emitting countries hire these private security firms to maintain the polluting business as usual while preventing the migration of those who are displaced by this catastrophic status quo.

G4S isn’t the only global corporation betting on climate catastrophe for larger profits. Raytheon, for example, also told CDP that climate change might cause “humanitarian disasters, contribute to political violence, and undermine weak governments” and that “demand for its military products and services” may arise “as results of droughts, floods, and storm events.” And Cobham, a British company that sells surveillance systems (Australia being one of its top contractors), said that “changes to countries [sic] resources and habitability could increase the need for border surveillance due to population migration.” What these corporations are saying is reinforced in market forecasts. A 2021 growth projection by MarketandMarkets describes the homeland security market as “ripe” ($668.7 billion in 2021 to $904.6 billion by 2026), partly thanks to “dynamic climatic conditions” and “rising natural calamities.”

Some of the largest and most polluting fossil fuel firms behind these “rising natural calamities” — the top 20 are responsible for 35.45 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions from 1965 to 2018 — are hiring firms like G4S to keep their operations secure. G4S’s résumé includes guarding the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, very close to the Standing Rock resistance encampment. The company also oversawsecurity at the Basrah Gas Company in Iraq, jointly owned by Shell, Mitsubishi, and South Oil Company. And through a previous iteration (Defense Systems Limited), the firm was implicated in the use of torture and intimidation in Colombia while protecting a 500-mile pipeline run by British Petroleum, the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

In a report titled Global Climate Wall, which I coauthored for the Transnational Institute, we examine this growing synergy between border security firms and fossil fuel corporations. Another vivid example of this was ExxonMobile’s hiring L3 Harris to “provide maritime domain awareness” in the Niger Delta, West Africa’s largest oil producer at 2 million barrels per day. From just environmental damage, let alone the emissions, the Niger Delta has experienced tremendous displacement because of oil spills that have leaked into rivers, killed fish, and robbed livelihoods. In the delta, L3 Harris operates a system known as Vigilis, which is equipped with a command-and-control center—reminiscent of many other border-surveillance systems across the world—where agents watch video streams in a small room packed with monitors. “Vigilis monitors the movement of vessels around identified risk areas and regions to improve security and safety, protecting against and alerting to collisions, hostile vessels, smuggling, piracy, illegal immigration, obstruction of sea-lanes, and pollution.” Likewise, from 2008 to 2019, L3 Harris received 26 contracts worth $894 million from U.S. Customs and Border Protection for night surveillance systems, “night conqueror” cameras, sensor technology, and maintenance and logistical support for CBP surveillance aircrafts.

As May Boeve, executive director of the climate justice advocacy organization, put it, “Climate campaigners must understand that the fossil fuel industry are not the only firms cashing in on the climate emergency. As the impacts of a warming world deepen, profiteers will expand their efforts to lead governments into adopting costly and disastrous but lucrative response strategies.”

On that hot summer day in southern Arizona in 2015, a glimpse of this climate border industrial complex came into focus at the checkpoint as Garcia and the two teenagers faced off against the Border Patrol agent. The agent flicked open a billy club and pointed it at Garcia, screaming, “Get the fuck back.” Behind him loomed the sea of gray G4S agents, also at the ready. “We don’t consent,” Garcia tried again. They were U.S. citizens. But that didn’t matter. The agent raised his club and pushed forward at Garcia as if he were about to strike, while shouting obscenities. Garcia stepped backward. The teenagers followed, bracing as if they were about to be assaulted by grown armed men. “Sit down,” the agent barked. The kids immediately sat on the burning asphalt, followed by Garcia. Part of what Garcia did in the Youth Council, he told me, was help the youth get back in touch with O’odham traditions and better know the beautiful land where they live and come from. This was also to develop resilience in the coming generations to the climate turmoil. As they all sat on the hot pavement, the Border Patrol ransacked the truck, now with a dog.

One G4S agent, satisfied that things had calmed down, picked up the dropped apple and took a bite, according to Garcia. Over the years G4S has repeatedly been accused of harsh treatment in its border and immigration work. These giant companies can take on the class action lawsuits that come their way (like the one in Australia, which G4S settled for 70 million Australian dollars after it was accused of harsh and dangerous treatment of migrants in detention). Meanwhile, it lobbies governments and doles out campaign contributions to politicians. Another impact of global warming is a growing climate border industrial complex fraught with human rights abuses and awash in profit — designed to stop migrants and border residents from freely moving. When the Border Patrol finally told Garcia that they could leave, Garcia asked for the badge number of the agent who assaulted him. The supervisor denied that anything had happened.

“I was standing out here this whole time,” he said, “and I didn’t see an assault.”

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