The Border Industrial Complex Goes Big Time

In the commercial during the NFL playoff game, the camera focuses on a researcher leaving her laboratory. Then on a dog. But the dog is not a dog. The dog is a robot. And the robot dog begins to wag its tail when it sees a robot hummingbird buzz in. From here it turns into an inspiring tale about how the robotic dog wants a pair of wings like the hummingbird, and another robot helps it achieve this.

As all this is going on, I can’t help but think about one of the biggest border technology stories of 2022, which was also a robotic dog. You probably remember. DHS announced it in February, and we wrote about it at The Border Chronicle. It seemed to symbolize the Biden administration’s emphasis on enforcement technology.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when at the end of the commercial it was revealed that the company was Accenture—not the company that made the robotic dog; that’s Ghost Robotics—but a top border contractor nonetheless. Not only a top contractor, but they’ve been there since the Department of Homeland Security was formed. In 2004, Accenture got a contract to lead the Smart Border Alliance to help construct the “virtual” or technological wall. But it still was a surprise. I was surprised to see that a company whose name I had associated with border conventions and biometric databases was competing with car and beer commercials during a prime-time game with millions of viewers.

This chart indicates the amount of border contracts issued by CBP and ICE from 2008 to present.

Had the border industrial complex gone big time? Well, maybe. It turns out that 2022 was by far the biggest year for CBP and ICE contracts, at $7.5 billion. This was over a billion dollars more than the previous record in 2020 ($6.2 billion) and up from 2021 ($6.02 billion). Generally, this follows a trend of a steady growth of contracts since 2014. Since 2008, CBP and ICE have issued 112,575 contracts for a total of $69.6 billion. Of course, Accenture’s revenue comes from many places, but the company is also part of this growing industrial complex.

Border Contract Trends in 2022

In the 9,001 contracts that CBP and ICE made payments on in 2022—that’s about 25 contracts a day—Accenture joins a host of other companies, such as Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, Elbit Systems, General Dynamics, Leidos, Anduril, Palantir, CoreCivic, and GEO Group, to name a few. Cadell Construction was awarded a $167 million contract for border infrastructure (that is, the wall), presumably following up on previous wall construction contracts in which they also made roads and deployed camera systems. If you were wondering about the digital border, contract obligations continue for Leidos (you might also recognize that name from airport screening machines), a company that provides CBP with equipment for Traveler Processing and Vetting Software, which screens over 1 million people (passengers and pedestrians) and a quarter-million vehicles every day. This system has a biometric database of 346 million people, with records of people’s travel history and immigration status. If you were wondering about drones, well the San Diego–based General Atomics is still getting paid to maintain CBP’s fleet of Predator Bs, which have been surveilling the U.S. borderlands since 2005.

As you might surmise from the robotic dog, however, Border Patrol is moving past the Predator Bs and expanding its drone systems, both in the air and on the ground. This was pointed out to me by the American Friend Service Committee’s Noam Perry and Dov Baum, the creators of Investigate, the most substantial database on border and immigration enforcement contractors (among other things) that I’ve seen. I contacted them this week to find out what struck them about border contracts in 2022. Did they see any trends, and what should we be paying attention to? The first thing they mentioned was an October contract with Vantage Robotics, Teal Drones, Atlantic Diving Supply, and W.S. Darley to supply the Border Patrol with small drones. These quadcopter drones were bought so the CBP can do field evaluations for future procurements. Border Patrol has previously bought small drones for “testing and missions” from Lockheed Martin, Teledyne Technology, and AeroVironment. On top of this, I would also mention the aerostats—such as the surveillance balloon that briefly hovered over Nogales, which The Border Chronicle wrote about in October. CBP plans to significantly increase their deployment on the border.

Perry and Baum also mentioned that CBP has been moving toward a new biometric system known as the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology, or HART. This transition has been going on for a number of years now. The HART system would more than double the capability of IDENT (the old system), making 720,000 “transactions” on an average weekday—which means collecting data, mostly from noncitizens but not exclusively, at ports of entry and exit, as well as at Border Patrol stations using primarily facial recognition and digital fingerprinting. (IDENT currently makes 350,000 such transactions each day). On top of that, HART will bolster databases with “at least seven types of biometric identifiers, including face and voice data, DNA, scars and tattoos,” and—according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation—it would include biographical data about each person (from commercial and social media sources) and their “relationship patterns,” including information that can be used to “identify political affiliations, religious activities, and familial and friendly relationships.”

In 2022 the HART system became partly but not completely operational as had been anticipated. (Northrop Grumman was contracted to do the original design of HART, but it is now run by another company called Peraton.) CBP will keep IDENT running, and it has issued a contract to the military monolith General Dynamics to do so. So there are two biometric systems in place.

The Investigate team also pointed out that ICE has a contract with the credit agency Equifax. In 2022, ICE paid the company $40,977 (as a part of a broader $119,386 contract) to supply agents with its databases to help the agency locate and target people for deportation. Equifax collects data on millions of U.S. residents with information such as credit history, financial assets, previous employment, telecommunication, and utility payments, as well as mortgages, child support, and social services.

Lobbying and Campaign Contributions

Many of the same companies getting contracts were also lobbying around homeland security in 2022. Companies spent $603 million in lobbying on this issue, according to Open Secrets—a group that tracks money in politics and how it affects elections and public policy. In 2022, the private prison company GEO Group led the lobbying charge, spending $720,000. The other private prison company and top ICE contractor CoreCivic made it clear that it was lobbying about “issues pertaining to the construction and management of privately-operated prisons and detention facilities.” The company then stressed, and the caps are theirs, that “CORECIVIC, INC. DOES NOT LOBBY FOR OR AGAINST ANY POLICIES OR LEGISLATION THAT WOULD DETERMINE THE BASIS FOR AN INDIVIDUAL’S INCARCERATION OR DETENTION.” GEO Group and CoreCivic are the core private companies involved in the U.S. immigration detention system, which the Detention Watch Network calls the “world’s largest.” (In 2021, 250,000 people were detained in a network of 200 jails across the country.)

Along with lobbying, many companies supplied campaign contributions to key congressional figures during the 2022 election cycle, such as Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. Appropriations, of course, is the committee that has tremendous influence in determining budgets for CBP and ICE. In 2022, Roybal-Allard received contributions from border contractors such as Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, Anduril Industries, Boeing, General Dynamics, Leidos, and Motorola, among others. Ranking member Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee) was certainly not left out, receiving contributions from GEO Group, Lockheed Martin, Anduril, Leidos, Boeing, and Raytheon.

Accelerating Change

In Accenture’s case, $16,000 of its campaign contributions went to members in the House Homeland Security Committee and $13,000 to members on appropriations. The company also spent $2.8 million on lobbying budgets. Readers might remember Accenture from the contract that CBP gave it during the Trump administration to hire 7,500 new CBP agents. After public pressure, that contract was canceled in 2019, when it was revealed that they had processed only two hires. Even so, the company still has hefty contracts from DHS, especially to support CBP’s National Data Center in Springfield, Virginia.

The lobbying and contributions seem to have worked. This year will come with the highest-ever combined budgets of CBP and ICE at $26 billion, up from $24.3 billion last year, and $24.7 billion in 2021. And the global homeland security market forecasts project at a 10 percent growth rate for the industry. The world that Accenture envisions in its commercial is the one we can expect moving forward, one—as the company boasts on its website—of “accelerated change.”

There is, however, one last thing to keep an eye on as we begin 2023, according to Investigate’s Perry and Baum. Early this year, Microsoft is expected to release an independent human rights assessment of its law enforcement and surveillance contracts (including with CBP and ICE), thanks to investor pressure within the company. This potentially game-changing document is the first of its kind and could provide new guidelines for companies moving forward.

This story first appeared in The Border Chronicle.

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