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Is the US-Mexico Border Turning into a War Zone?

How surveillance cameras, drones, and armored helicopters are fueling immigration reform's military industrial complex.

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 10:31 AM PDT

The Laboratory
In early March, DRS Technologies set up its integrated fixed-tower technology at the University of Arizona's (UA) Science and Technology Park, just south of Tucson, an hour from the border, and very close to where Adira almost lost her life. The company was eager to show off the long-range surveillance technology it had been developing for borders in places like Egypt and Jordan.

It set up a mock operational control room to do a dog-and-pony show for the local media. Four of its IT guys then focused their cameras on an elevated railroad spur more than four miles away in the middle of the desert where two men were approaching each other to consummate a fake drug deal. One handed the other a backpack. It was all vividly watchable on DRS's video screens. Although the odds of such a scenario actually happening ranged from slim to none, the demonstration was a reminder of just how fertile the US-Mexico borderlands are for defense- and surveillance-related companies. It's here that new generations of surveillance technology are regularly born and developed.

For almost a decade, the Department of Homeland Security has been attempting to build a "virtual wall" along the border—not a physical barrier but a high-tech surveillance masterpiece, a complex web of technology, radar, unattended ground sensors, and camera systems meant to detect anyone crossing the border anywhere. The last attempt to install such an experimental system along part of the border was in 2006. Then the Department of Homeland Security awarded Boeing Corporation a multi-billion-dollar contract to develop such a "wall," known as SBInet. That contract was abruptly cancelled in 2011, after the costly and delayed program advertised as offering "unprecedented situational awareness" misfired regularly in the rugged terrain of the Arizona borderlands. Now, companies like DRS are standing in line for the next round of potentially lucrative contracts, as Homeland Security wants "to finish the job."

The UA Tech Park is one place in the southern borderlands where surveillance technology can be developed, tested, evaluated, and demonstrated. It has 18,000 linear feet of fencing surrounding its "solar zone," a solar-technology-centric research area ideal for testing sensor systems along a future border wall. On any of the roadways in its 1,345 acres, it can set up mock border-crossings or checkpoints to test new equipment and methods. It draws on faculty and graduate students from the college of engineering. In "rapid-response teams," they offer third-party evaluations of border control technology. Some of this same technology is also being created on the UA campus, thanks in part to millions of dollars in DHS grants.

Here, too, as Tech Park CEO Bruce Wright tells me, they can test new technologies "right in the field"—that is, on the border, presumably on real people. One of the tech park's goals, he says, is to develop the first border security industry cluster of its kind in the United States. In southern Arizona alone, they have already identified 57 companies, big and small, working on border policing technology.

The Tech Park's director of community engagement Molly Gilbert says, "It's really about development, and we want to create technology jobs in our border towns." These are sweet words for the economically depressed communities of southern Arizona, their poverty rates usually hovering at around 20%. With projected global revenues of approximately $20 billion in 2013 and a 5% growth rate that has withstood a worldwide recession, the global border security industry was flourishing even before the latest immigration reform proposal. Now, it's poised for a potential bonanza.

The key, as Wright stressed in a 2012 interview, is that the products developed for the US-Mexican borderlands be marketed in the future for the US-Canada border, where "defenses" are already being upgraded, for other international borders, but also for places that have little to do with borders. These might include the perimeters of utility companies and airports, or police forces with expanding national security and immigration enforcement missions.

"There's a huge market for this technology worldwide," Wright told me then, "because borders exist everywhere. There's the Palestinian-Israeli border, there's the Syrian-Israeli border, there's the German-Polish border... Take it around the world and wherever you want to go there are borders, so the technology is very adaptable and has a market worldwide."

The Surge
The word "surge," last heard in relation to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, actually fits the immigration reform bill perfectly. It's almost as if a domestic war is about to be formally declared.

After all, the bill would come close to doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, bringing their ranks to 40,000—the size of a small army—stationed, according to Senator Lindsey Graham, every 1,000 feet along the nearly 2,000-mile border. To put that in perspective, the Border Patrol, created in 1924, took close to 70 years to reach 4,000 agents. In 2006, at 10,000 agents, it had its first major hiring surge, doubling its numbers. Many of the new agents were veterans from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This new surge will mean collateral benefits for all sorts of businesses—more uniforms, more guns, more vehicles, more maintenance. And that's just to scratch the surface of what's likely to happen.

As Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy put it, this will be the "Christmas wish list for Halliburton," and the border security industry, as at this year's Border Security Expo, is visibly licking its chops.  Senator Marco Rubio laid out the following list or, as the trade magazine Homeland Security Today called it, "treasure trove" of products that it expected to be ordered if the bill passed: 86 integrated fixed towers, 286 fixed camera systems, 232 mobile surveillance systems, 4,595 unattended ground sensors, 820 handheld equipment devices, 416 personal radiation detectors, 104 radiation isotope identification devices, 62 mobile automated targeting systems, 53 fiber-optic tank inspection scopes, 37 portable contraband detectors, 28 license plate readers, 26 mobile inspection scopes and sensors for checkpoints, nine land automated targeting systems, and eight non-intrusive inspection systems.

In addition, Rubio said, the immigration bill would include "four unmanned aircraft systems, six VADER radar systems, 17 UH-1N helicopters, eight C-206H aircraft upgrades, eight AS-350 light enforcement helicopters, 10 Blackhawk helicopter 10 A-L conversions, five new Blackhawk M Model, 30 marine vessels, 93 sensor repeaters, 90 communications repeaters, two card-reader systems, five camera refresh, three backscatters, one radiation portal monitor, one littoral detection, one real-time radioscopy, and improved surveillance capabilities for existing aerostat."

The reform package calls for "persistent surveillance" and 24/7 drone flights, although the areas of these flights are not specified. Even before the Senate reform bill came into view, San Diego-based General Atomics was awarded a contract that would add 14 more drones to the current fleet of 10 used by Customs and Border Protection (CBP, the parent agency of the Border Patrol). CBP plans to have 18 drones in flight by 2016 and 24 in the years to follow patrolling US skies over cities such as San Diego, Tucson, and El Paso—not to speak, in the north, of Seattle, Detroit, and Buffalo.

Some of these drones will be equipped with the VADER "man-hunting" radar system, made by Northrup Grumman, used to detect roadside bombers in Afghanistan. Now, even more of this technology will be put to use in the borderlands, where, according to CBP, it is aready locating unauthorized border-crossers. Recently declassified documents also show that CBP has been considering upgrading its drones with "non-lethal" weapons to be able to take down "targets of interest."

According to the New York Times, other military-industrial behemoths like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are actively looking for "revenue flows" as "wars wind down." Teams of lobbyists, including former New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato, have been pressing the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of their corporate clients. D'Amato lobbies for the United Technologies Corporation, which stands to make millions off an immigration bill that will okay the purchase of 15 of its Blackhawk helicopters. This is but one example of the increasingly powerful set of corporate interests eager to see immigration reform pass now in the House of Representatives. A vote could come as early as Labor Day.

But whatever happens, it's time to stop thinking of all this as "immigration reform." It represents what may be the most intense concentration of the surveillance state in a single location ever witnessed—a place where the Constitution has an asterisk, which means that anything goes and dystopian worlds of all sorts can be invented.

The Los Angeles Times has written that, if passed, the bill "would also be a boost to defense contractors and an economic stimulus for border communities, creating thousands of jobs that could raise home prices and spur consumer spending around border security stations." It sounds like Keynesian economics, but of a whole different sort.

In a world where basic services are being cut, an emerging policing apparatus in the borderlands is flourishing. As Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman reported at TomDispatch in February, since September 11, 2001, the United States has spent $791 billion on "homeland security" alone, an inflation-adjusted $300 billion more than the cost of the entire New Deal.

In those borderlands, we are seeing the birth of a military-industrial-immigration complex. It seems destined to shape our future.   

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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