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US Quietly Ramps Up Security Along the Canadian Border

Drones, surveillance towers, and other markers of a security state are on the rise in the north.

| Thu Feb. 7, 2013 7:17 PM EST

A Constitution-Free Zone

In 2012, the US government spent more on the Homeland Security agencies responsible for border security than all of its other principal federal law enforcement agencies combined. The $18 billion allocated to Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement significantly exceeds the $14.4 billion that makes up the combined budgets of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service, the US Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. In the years since 9/11, more than $100 billion has been spent on border security. Much of that went to the southern border, but now an ever larger chunk is heading north.

On that northern border, things have come a long way since North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan in 2001 held up an orange cone and said, "This is America's security at our border crossing... America can't effectively combat terrorism if it doesn't control its borders."

Now Predator B drones, sometimes in the air for 20 hours at a stretch, are doing surveillance work from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Spokane, Washington. Expensive surveillance towers equipped with night-vision cameras and sophisticated radar have been erected along the St. Clair and Niagara Rivers in Michigan and western New York state. Homeland Security built a $30 million border security "war room" at Michigan's Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which, with its "video wall," is worthy of a Hollywood action flick. This "gold standard" for border protection, as the CBP dubs it, is now one of many places where agents continuously observe those rivers of the north. As at Selfridge, so many resources and so much money has been poured into the frontlines of "homeland security," and just upstream from cash-starved, post-industrial Detroit, the poorest city of its size in the United States.

In addition, the CBP's Office of Air and Marine—essentially Homeland Security's air force and navy—has established eight US bases along the border from Plattsburgh, New York, to Bellingham, Washington. While such bases are commonplace on the southern border, they are new on the Canadian frontier. In addition, new state-of-the art Border Patrol stations are popping up in places like Pembina, North Dakota (at the cost of $13 million), International Falls, Minnesota ($6.8 million), and other places. This advance of the homeland security state in the north, funded and supported by Congress, seems both uncontroversial and unstoppable.

Don't think that the eternal bolstering of "border security" is just a matter of fortifying the boundary line, either. Last November, the CBP ordered an additional 14 unmanned aerial vehicles. (They are, however, still waiting for Congress to appropriate the funding for this five-year plan.) With this doubling of its fleet, there will undoubtedly be more surveillance drones flying over major US urban areas like Detroit, Buffalo, Syracuse, Bangor, and Seattle, places the ACLU has classified as in a "Constitution-free zone."

That zone—up to 100 miles from any external US border—is the area that the Supreme Court has deemed a "reasonable distance" in which to engage in border security operations, including warrantless searches. As in the Southwest, expect more interior checkpoints where federal agents will ask people about their citizenship, as they did to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in 2008. In the zone, you have the developing blueprint for a country not only in perpetual lockdown, but also under increasing surveillance. According to the ACLU, if you were to include the southern border, the northern border, and coastal areas in this zone, it would contain 200 million people, a potential "border" jurisdiction encompassing two-thirds of the US population.

It's October 2007 when I get my first glimpse of this developing Constitution-free zone in action at a Greyhound bus station in Buffalo, New York. I'm with Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, a Mexican lawyer who is brown-skinned and speaks only Spanish. As we enter the station, we spot two beefy Border Patrol agents in their dark-green uniforms patrolling the waiting area.

I have to blink to make sure I'm not seeing things, to remember where I am. I'm originally from this area, but have lived for years along the US-Mexican border where I've grown used to seeing the "men in green." I can't remember ever seeing them here.

Before 9/11, Border Patrol agents on the southern border used to joke that they went north to "go fishing." Not anymore. The 2001 USA Patriot Act mandated a 300% increase in Border Patrol personnel on the northern border, as well as the emplacement of more surveillance technology there. Further legislation in 2004 required that 20% of the agency's new recruits be stationed on the Canadian divide.

The number of US Border Patrol agents on the northern border went from 340 in 2001 to 1,008 in 2005 to 2,263 in 2010. Now, the number is approaching 3,000. That's still small compared to the almost 19,000 on the southern border, but significant once you add in the "force multipliers," since Border Patrol works ever more closely with local police and other agencies. For example, according to immigration lawyer Jose Perez, New York State troopers call the Border Patrol from Interstate-90 outside of Syracuse about a suspected undocumented person about 10 times a day on average. "And we aren't even in Arizona."

On that day in Buffalo, the two agents made a beeline for Miguel to check his visa. A moment later, the hulking agents are standing over another brown-skinned man who is rifling through a blue duffle bag, desperately searching for his documents. Not long after, handcuffed, he is walked to the ticket counter with the agents on either side. Somehow, cuffed, the agents expect him to retrieve his ticket from the bag, now on the counter. There are so many people watching that it seems like a ritual of humiliation.

Since 2007, this sort of moment has become ever more usual across the northern border region in bus and train stations, as "homeland security" gains ever more traction and an ever wider definition. The Border Patrol are, for instance, staking out Latino community centers in Detroit, and working closely with the police on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state, leading to a much wider enforcement dragnet, which looks an awful lot like round-ups of the usual suspects.

After 9/11, the Border Patrol's number one mission became stopping terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from coming into the country between the ports of entry. The Border Patrol, however, is "an agency that doesn't have limitations," says Joanne Macri, director of the Criminal Defense Immigration Project of the New York State Defender Association. "With police officers, people have more due process protection." Since 9/11, she adds, they have become "the national security police."

And from what we know of their arrest records, it's possible to grasp their definition of national security. Just in Rochester, New York, between 2005 and 2009, the CBP classified 2,776 arrests during what it terms "transportation raids" by skin complexion. The results: 71.2% of medium complexion and 12.9% black. Only 0.9% of their arrests were of "fair" complexion. And agents have had incentives to increase the numbers of people they sweep up, including Home Depot gift certificates, cash bonuses, and vacation time.

Macri tells me that it is now ever more common for armed national security police to pull people "who don't belong" off buses and trains in the name of national security. In 2011, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton, there were more than 47,000 deportations of undocumented people along the northern border.

Too Close to Home

The next time Abdallah Matthews crosses the international border, a familiar face asks him the normal questions: Where did you go in Canada? What was the purpose of your trip? Matthews is already in the same CBP waiting area, has already been handcuffed, and can't believe it's happening again.

The CBP agent suddenly stops. "Do you remember me?"

Matthews peers at him, and finally says, "Yes, I played soccer with you." They haven't seen each other since high school. They briefly reminisce, two men who grew up together along the St. Clair River before all those expensive surveillance towers with infrared cameras and radar went up. Although Matthews and the CBP agent were once friendly, although they lived in the same small town, there is now a boundary between them. Matthews struggles against this divide. He pleads: "You know who I am. I grew up here. I've been over this border a million times."

This is, of course, only one of thousands of related stories happening along US borders, north and south, in a universe in which, as anthropologist Josiah Heyman puts it, there are increasingly only two kinds of people: "the watchers and the watched." And keep in mind that, with only "32 miles" under operational control, this is just the beginning. The US border enforcement apparatus is only starting its migration north.

Matthews's former high-school acquaintance guides him to the now-familiar room with the counter where three interrogators are waiting for him. They tell him to spread his legs. Then they order him to take off his shoes. It's hard to take them off, however, when your hands are cuffed behind your back. The two interrogators in front are already shouting questions at him. ("What were you doing in Canada?") The one behind him kicks his shoes. Hard. Then, after Matthews finally manages to get them off, the agent searches under his waistband.

When they are done, Matthews asks the agents what they would do if he were to circle around, reenter Canada, and cross the border again. The agents assure him that they would have to do the same exact thing—handcuff, detain, and interrogate him as if his previous times had never happened.

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. He is at work on his first book, Border Patrol Nation, for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books.

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