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The Big Business of Border Control

The border control industry in Arizona is flourishing more than ever.

| Thu Jun. 7, 2012 1:31 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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.


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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 US-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 US 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'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 US-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.

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