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Biden Is Rejecting Trump’s Border Wall — But Favors His Own Technological Wall

A “smart” wall powered by artificial intelligence, facial recognition and drones may prove worse than a steel barrier.

An autonomous surveillance tower along the southwest border.
An autonomous surveillance tower along the southwest border.

President Joe Biden signed a number of immigration-related executive actions Tuesday continuing his reversals of former President Donald Trump’s harsh policies toward undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees as part the new administration’s effort to pursue a more humanitarian approach to immigration and border enforcement.

However, at least one of Biden’s proposals suggests that while he rejects Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” approach, he favors a different kind of “wall”: a ramping up of technology-driven surveillance at the border.

Biden terminated Trump’s national emergency declaration at the southern border and ordered a pause on all construction work on Trump’s wall on his first day — to the relief of border communities like those in Laredo, Texas, fighting to protect their lands and cultural heritage.

Still, Biden’s newly unveiled U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 provides clues to how he is likely to address border enforcement going forward, as construction machinery at the southern border sits idle. Instead of a steel barrier, Biden’s legislative proposal would deploy even more technology to the border, accelerating the creation of a “smart” wall powered by biometric data, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, aerial drones, infrared cameras, motion sensors and radar.

The legislation’s full text has yet to be released, but a fact sheet contains a section titled “Supplement existing border resources with technology and infrastructure,” which says the bill “builds on record budget allocations for immigration enforcement by authorizing additional funding for the Secretary of DHS to develop and implement a plan to deploy technology to expedite screening” and “enhance the ability to process asylum seekers.”

Additionally, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on January 21 that Biden’s approach to border security will be “multi-pronged. It is to do smart security — security that will help address and use technology to address key border crossings, address ports of entry more effectively and efficiently, and putting that oversight in the hands of the [DHS].”

Biden and other border-area Democrats like Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar have long favored a “virtual” wall over a physical barrier. In fact, Biden’s campaign immigration plan blasted Trump for failing to “invest in smarter border technology” and promised to invest in “cameras, sensors, large-scale x-ray machines, and fixed towers” at the southern border.

Immigrant rights activists, while praising Biden’s recent executive actions, have reason to be cautious when it comes to how his administration will handle technology and border enforcement. They have condemned Biden for partnering with and including a number of Silicon Valley executives in his administration.

“Overall, we were excited to see the Biden administration want to take decisive action on immigration, but I think there’s a lot of concerns and red flags about the way border security is framed and also the kind of very chummy relationships between the tech industry and the administration overall,” says Jacinta González, who is senior campaign organizer with Mijente, a grassroots organization which campaigns against tech companies that enable Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track and arrest undocumented people.

Congress has already appropriated $28 million to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to construct 30 additional “Autonomous Surveillance Towers” used for round-the-clock automated surveillance operations that identify people and vehicles at the border. Nearly $2 billion was allocated for additional border wall, but that funding is now being reevaluated during Biden’s 60-day pause, and is likely to be redirected toward virtual security technology.

“I really hope [the appropriations for border wall projects] do not go back to DHS, and the appropriations just kind of expire,” says Robert Lopez, who is racial and economic justice outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP). “One thing that hasn’t happened is a public forum about these technologies coming to our region…. [Immigrant rights activists] should be pivoting toward that call to action.”

The appropriations are part of a larger trend toward a virtual wall that has been decades in the making. According to journalist Todd Miller’s 2019 report, “More Than a Wall,” Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) began development of an automated biometric identification system as far back as 1995. That system, which gathered fingerprints, photos, biographical data and other information related to arrests of undocumented people, laid the groundwork for today’s more expansive systems that collect face scans, DNA, voiceprints, iris scans and palm prints.

Miller’s report identifies 14 companies that are giants in the border-industrial complex. The companies include Boeing, General Atomics, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, IBM, G4S and L3 Technologies, among others. Lockheed Martin and General Atomics alone have received contracts for surveillance planes and Predator drones that rival the entire border and immigration enforcement budgets for INS in the 1970s.

“This really isn’t new, and we kind of saw it coming this way since there’s been an increase in investment in surveillance tech,” Lopez tells Truthout. “We’ve seen this trend for a while, and I think maybe one thing we’ve missed out on as advocates is the opportunity also to push back against Democrats because they’ve continued to talk about needing an ‘effective’ method [of border control], when in reality when you take this all to its logical conclusion, it’s more effective in deterring people and sending them to more hazardous areas.”

Lopez says TCRP legal clients have filed court challenges against CBP’s surreptitious placement of hidden cameras on their properties without any forewarning or agreement. He worries this type of behavior will escalate into the placement of even more sinister surveillance technologies that could have serious privacy implications for land and property owners as investments in these technologies continue to balloon.

One firm servicing these booming CBP contracts that continues to fly under the radar is controversial defense technology startup Anduril, founded by Palmer Luckey, who has close ties to mass surveillance firm Palantir. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who maintains close ties to Trump administration officials, invests in both Palantir and Anduril though the Founders Fund venture capital firm. Like Thiel, Luckey is a brash Trump supporter and nationalist, and has fundraised for hardline immigration policies that serve to benefit his company.

In October, The Intercept reported on a CBP contract that would combine Anduril surveillance technology, likely autonomous surveillance towers, with Google Cloud technology to facilitate the use of artificial intelligence deployed by the CBP Innovation Team, known as INVNT, which works on technologies to build a virtual wall.

CBP awarded Anduril contracts for its Autonomous Surveillance Towers program, which is reportedly worth $250 million. According to The Intercept, “$35 million for the project was disbursed in September by the Air and Marine division, which also operates drones.” Moreover, Anduril has already received more than $60 million in DHS contracts, including for pilot programs working to test pattern-recognition software and laser-equipped cameras at the border.

The Anduril founder has openly campaigned for increased partnership between Silicon Valley tech companies and the military — even admonishing Google for abandoning a Pentagon initiative known as Project Maven over concerns about human rights abuses. He has personally donated at least $1.7 million to Republican candidates in the last election cycle, including hosting former President Trump at his Orange County, California, home in October.

“We’ve seen [Anduril] start to grow exponentially, and so there’s a lot of concern there,” Mijente’s González says. “There’s communities that have been living in border areas for centuries, and these are communities who are now having to face increased militarization and increased surveillance, with no supervision of how those technologies are being used.”

She tells Truthout that Mijente, in addition to working to defend Biden’s 100-day deportation moratorium against attacks like that of Texas Judge Drew Tipton’s temporary freeze, is also pushing the Biden administration to evaluate the ways in which ICE and CBP are able to capture undocumented migrants’ information as part of its 100-day review of enforcement policies.

“Our intention is to work to ensure the voices of those directly targeted by deportation machinery are able to talk about the ways technology and data companies are now creating an even more aggressive and more unaccountable surveillance network,” González says. “We know that ICE has contracts with companies like Clearview that are doing facial recognition technology based off of images they’ve scraped from internet.”

Mijente is also pressuring the Biden administration to look at the ways ICE and CBP use third-party data brokers as a way of circumventing Fourth Amendment due process protections. DHS buys consumer phone geolocation data to track undocumented migrants trying to cross the border from the commercial market in order to avoid obtaining a proper warrant. Unregulated data gathering and sharing further enable immigration agents to access federal databases to monitor undocumented people with few limitations, and sometimes even in violation of sanctuary policies.

Moreover, González and other immigrant rights activists say a virtual wall is likely to continue moving into the interior of the country. Advanced border security technology already extends 100 miles inland along Border Patrol’s notorious “Constitution-free zone,” where immigration agents retain expanded search and seizure rights. This virtual checkpoint moves the border into highways, backyards and airports — as even travelers on domestic flights may soon be subject to CBP’s proposed facial recognition entry/exit system.

An unidentified CBP officer recently told The Nation that they had concerns about the growth of virtual border wall technologies, saying the agency is “expanding its capabilities and training its armed personnel to act as a federal police.” Indeed, elite agents with the Border Patrol Tactical Unit were deployed this summer alongside other federal police to attempt to suppress uprisings over the police-perpetrated killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. CBP even flew an unarmed Predator surveillance drone over Minneapolis.

“When you build up a federal police force that is at the hands of the president, it can be used in ways that are incredibly dangerous and in ways that are very unaccountable to the American public,” González says. “What we’ve seen over and over again is, a lot of these companies, they start to create new technologies for war zones, they bring them to a militarized border, and then they start to use them across the U.S. We then start to see these technologies normalized and brought to local police departments.”

Mijente and other allied immigrant rights groups have been pushing to defund ICE and CBP budgets in part, she says, over concerns about how their missions have increasingly crept beyond even the 100-mile “Constitution-free” zone. Looking ahead, González points out that if Biden is able to pass a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S., some may be deterred from that legal pathway if immigration agencies begin to collect ever-increasing amounts of their biometric data.

ICE and CBP have “been corrupt and have been getting bigger and bigger for a very long time, and so this is a time to not only review policies, but to make sure that there are the necessary budget cuts so that they are no longer able to get access to these kinds of technologies that are detrimental to communities but are also very expensive to the American public even though they’re actually not providing any sort of real output in terms of public safety,” she tells Truthout.

Immigrant rights advocates are also urging Biden to repeal a controversial Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that has allowed immigration authorities to bypass the immigration system and expel nearly 200,000 asylum seekers without any sort of hearing. They fear the pandemic may also provide a pretext for combing immigration and medical databases, and increasing the use of AI-equipped thermal cameras to detect fevers.

“What we’ve been tracking, and what’s incredibly concerning is when you start to see how companies like Palantir are not only custom-making software for ICE, but they’re also custom-making software for … Health and Human Services. That’s how they created the ‘Protect Now’ [COVID-tracking system],” says González. “So what we’re seeing is that these private companies have access to most of our information, and we don’t really have ways of monitoring or ways to control how they use that information, or how it’s going into different databases.”

The Biden administration has made nods to protecting privacy in its immigration plans. The fact sheet related to the U.S. Citizenship Act, for instance, notes that “to protect privacy, the DHS Inspector General is authorized to conduct oversight to ensure that employed technology effectively serves legitimate agency purposes.” But González and others interpret that rhetoric as hollow, as the internal culture of ICE and CBP has allowed agents to violate their own privacy policies, including DHS’s Fair Information Practice Principles, for decades.

“The thing about ICE and CBP is they’re incredibly rogue agencies,” González says. “They’re barely held accountable for their actions.”