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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 2:31 PM EDT

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 US 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 US" 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 US grain giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland for whom NAFTA proved a free pass into Mexico. US 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 three and a half 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 US-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 US 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 US-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. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch, join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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