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The Booming Business of Border Exclusion

Along US borders, private companies are cashing in on the creation of an unprecedented system of exclusion.

A section of border fencing along the border between Mexico and the US. The increasingly privatized market for border security has experienced an unprecedented boom period. (Photo: BBC World Service/Flickr)

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The GuardBot – a rolling, rubber sphere with surveillance cameras attached like small, domed ears – was first meant to explore Mars. Now, it’s showing off its ability to locate undocumented people on the blue carpet at events such as the Border Security Expo, the United States’ premier border policing conference.

At the primary debate this month, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared that he would build a wall on the Mexico-US border. However, Homeland Security has already built 700 miles of walls and barriers along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border over the past couple of decades. Now, the nation’s boundary-builders have gone beyond walls even to the space-age high tech, like the GuardBot. Indeed, the company’s junior engineer Philippe Vibien told Cronkite News that he envisioned 20 or 30 of these rolling balls working in a swarm around the desert borderlands.

In this tech-climate, where US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the largest federal US law enforcement agency and the burgeoning security industry get in bed with each other, their automated border patrol offspring are surely around the corner. These companies are feeding an increasingly privatized market in an “unprecedented boom period.”

Terrorized by Technology

The booming sale in militarized border technologies directly affects the life of Maida, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who can no longer visit her husband, Juan Jose. Sometimes loved ones, forcibly separated, meet at the border wall in places like Nogales and Douglas. They can hold hands, talk and see each other’s faces. But Maida told Truthout she no longer feels comfortable doing this. She is afraid of the cameras, the sensors, the drones and the Border Patrol checkpoints that pack the 75 miles between her and her husband.

Two years ago, US Homeland Security expelled Juan Jose from the country, like 400,000 other people on average per year, after police turned him over to Border Patrol. After seven months, he tried to reunite with his family – including his three children – by evading the built-up border apparatus and trekking through the desert for days without enough food and without enough water.

Juan Jose is back in Nogales. Border Patrol stopped him, arrested him, incarcerated and deported him.

“I feel trapped,” Maida says, describing the entire situation.

The Privatization of Border Policing

The most massive system of exclusion ever constructed in the United States is playing out in intimate spaces of government/private collusion, and somebody doesn’t want you to know about it. At a border policing conference in 2012, signs circled the convention center warning “No Protesting Allowed.” In 2013, after requesting press credentials, Truthout’s Mark Karlin received a one-word email answer: “No.” In 2014, management physically stopped a Northeastern Illinois University student group at the door of the exhibition hall within view of the dazzling displays of more than 100 companies – the cameras, the surveillance balloons, the miniature drones. They were asked to leave the premises.

In April, journalist Eva Lewis, Prescott College student Katrin Wolfe and I approached the registration table for press passes from media coordinator Kathy Scott of Eagle Eye Expos, the company that runs the Border Security Expo. She briskly told me she couldn’t give us access and, after Lewis clicked on her camera and began to film, called a security guard over. He ambled toward us, while Scott lectured us on “fair and honest” journalism under a gigantic banner that dominated the lobby from Elbit Systems of America, an Israeli company that received a big border contract in 2014.

“This is a private event,” she claimed.

When I pointed out that this was a public event, given that it involved the untold billions in the publicly funded Department of Homeland Security, she cut me off with a curt, “You need to leave.”

It’s no surprise that Scott was so jumpy about exposing the Border Security Expo to the eyes of journalists. Never before, anywhere on earth, has a country had so much capability to locate, arrest, incarcerate and expel hundreds of thousands of people, in what could be the largest sustained roundup of immigrants ever undertaken.

And never before have so many companies jumped into the brutal work of providing the tools for policing the border – what trade magazine Homeland Security Today has ominously called a potential “treasure trove.” The blurry revolving door of companies large and small, with names like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman, make it difficult to determine who is who, who is private, and who is public.

No wonder Scott has succumbed to a general confusion about what is private and what is public.

Consider the ambitious trajectory of former US Border Patrol agent, and now private sector Homeland Security rock star, David Aguilar, who offers seemingly omnipresent soothsaying advice at border conferences and tradeshows. He was a foot soldier more than 35 years ago when, at most, chain-link fences divided Mexico and the United States. By the time he became US Border Patrol chief in the 2000s, he watched the agency rise from insignificance to riding the wave of the largest expansion of the Homeland Security agency in its 88-year history. He oversaw a hiring surge; the organization’s promotion tactics included putting a Border Patrol car on the NASCAR circuit. From the early 1990s, when the expansion really began with the implementation of NAFTA, the Border Patrol quintupled in size from 4,000 to 23,000.

By the time Aguilar became CBP commissioner in 2011, the budget treasure trove had arrived. He administered not only the construction of hundreds of miles of walls (pay attention Trump), but also began setting the foundation of a technological fortress and surveillance web with 12,000 implanted motion sensors, more than 120 road-side checkpoints and countless high-tech cameras, surveillance balloons, and drones deployed across the 100-mile border enforcement jurisdiction zones not only with Mexico, but also along the 4,000-mile Canadian border and increasingly along the coasts.

The $18 billion budgets for border and immigration enforcement through DHS agencies CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are 12 times higher than the 1990s, which includes an incarcerating apparatus that locks up 34,000 undocumented people per day who face deportation. Add an additional $17 billion for the US Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration, and the business of scrutiny and exclusion – especially aimed at darker-skinned people who do not speak English – is roaring.

While still CBP head, Aguilar addressed a graduating class of future border patrol agents. They were “the future” he told them, with poetic reverence in his voice. They would be guarding the US borders and beyond, “to protect a way of life.”

Aguilar, who joined the private company Global Security & Intelligence Services in 2013 to advise clients on “a broad range of national homeland and international security matters,” personifies not only this way of life, but also what the White House’s director of Enforcement and Border Security, Ben Rohrbaugh calls “21st century border management.” Privatization is an intrinsic part of this process, Rohrbaugh said at a January conference in El Paso, Texas, and undergoing the “fastest change.” He explained that (private) “companies have a much larger responsibility in terms of security and in terms of compliance.” The post 9/11 era government/private industry nexus is not only growing, but more streamlined than ever before.

The Future of Border Security

In the moment that the media coordinator and reluctant bouncer are escorting us out of the Phoenix conference, CBP’s assistant commissioner and chief acquisition executive, Mark Borkowski, clicks on an image in his PowerPoint of three people in black ski masks. Two bear automatic weapons, the other wields a knife.

“This is what we do at CBP,” he says, according to footage of his talk supplied by other journalists, “We stop bad people.”

Borkowski is the liaison between Homeland Security and industry. His talks offer a glimpse into the future of border militarization.

Borkowski’s annual address at this event usually covers the same ground: the deployment of new technologies to strengthen the enormous US border surveillance apparatus.

His audience is representatives of private companies from all over the world, who hawk everything from biometrics to weapon systems. The mostly white men hung on Borkowski’s every word. After all, he is key to the contract.

As he paces back and forth, as seen in footage passed on to me from other journalists present, he holds the Customs and Border Protection 2020 strategy plan in his hand like a sacred text. “Innovation,” he stresses, is key, likening the shiny new inventions for surveilling women, men and children in border zones to the newest iPhone.

Borkowski explains that he wants to inhibit transnational criminal groups, he wants to stop drugs, he wants to protect intellectual property. He pauses: “Who was the frontline for Ebola?”

He says he wants to interdict undocumented people, whom he refers to as “illegal,” and he says he wants to save lives. “I want to know if there are people crossing the border illegally. I want to know who they are. And I want to have maximum options to go get them at my convenience.”

He lays out border infrastructure as if it were a conveyor belt of inclusion and exclusion. We need to “streamline the processing of people,” he says, pointing to a slide. “See that mass of people? Where’s the terrorist?” He asks, “That’s our requirement.”

“Streamline the processing of vehicles. By the way, find the terrorist.”

“Streamline the processing of cargo. By the way, find the WMD.”

It’s all about knowing “who’s coming and who’s going.”

According to the company Visiongain, there are three “interlocking developments” that account for a booming global border security market that was worth $23.72 billion in 2014: first, “increased pressures and risks” on international borders such as “illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration”; Second, more resources worldwide put into developing hardened border enforcement regimes; and third, the “maturation” of new technologies, such as GuardBot and its robotic flying counterparts.

Focusing on “unmanned systems, biometrics and perimeter surveillance,” the Visiongain projection might only be scratching the surface of the border and immigration regime that has grown in the United States and worldwide.

Homeland Security Research projects the US domestic Homeland Security and Public Safety market will rise from $51 billion in 2012 to $81 billion in 2020. Globally, the research firm MarketandMarkets projects this same market to be valued at $544.02 billion by 2018. The reasons for this, they explain – and here they are talking Borkowski’s talk – is “the threat of cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent” and “separatist movements.”

Another private security force arrives to completely remove us from the area of the Expo. “It’s a private event,” the security guard tells us. And that’s the thing – he is probably telling us the truth, even though it’s our tax dollars footing the bill.

Protesting the New Surveillance Technologies

In May, a group of border activists stood on top of a hill at about 4,500 feet of elevation, which offered a spectacular view of the high-desertland canyons and hills that rolled into the horizon south into Mexico. Twelve miles north of the Nogales border, they were on the original land of the Tohono O’odham people. In front of a green-striped US Border Patrol vehicle, the activists – who came from a number of grassroots border groups in the region – were protesting these technologies used both in Israel/Palestine and the Mexico-US borderlands to suppress, control, inhibit or stop completely the mobility of people deemed unwanted by the state.

Around them, the same border technologies that had been displayed at the Border Security Expo were ominously deployed. Behind, the Mobile Video Surveillance System, which looked like a gigantic robot whose globular camera buzzed around, frantically eyed the protest, as if with a heightened sense of anxiety.

At the Border Security Expo, Borkowski told industry that the new frontier for border technology was “biometrics.” Could it be that the panicked surveillance system was snapping pictures of our faces that would be put into a gigantic database to be processed with facial recognition technology? A local Phoenix newscaster called this “the type of technology that might creep you out.” That is the kind of world envisioned by the 2020 strategic plan.

Below, through a cluster of whip-like stems of Ocotillo plants, was an Elbit Systems tower. In January, journalist Max Blumenthal paired a picture of this tower with another Elbit tower in Palestine, and they looked like long lost twins. The attached high-powered cameras and radar would be, according to Borkowski, “all fused and integrated into a central command unit,” in tandem with seven other towers also to be constructed by Elbit. The Border Patrol will spend the summer getting comfortable with their “virtual wall,” Borkowski said, and then Elbit will start constructing in the next region – the Tohono O’odham Nation with a contract that could be worth up to $1 billion.

After the activists from the Southern Arizona Boycott Divestment Sanctions Network congregated around the now-frantic mobile surveillance system, unveiling a banner that read “From the Borderlands to Palestine,” it was only a matter of time before a US Border Patrol agent, on an All Terrain Vehicle, zipped up the hill at high speed, kicking up dust and gravel. Although we were standing on public land, the agent seemed like he was in aggressive pursuit.

Militarized border zones are treated like permanent crime scenes. As author Harsha Walia puts it, these zones are places where “practices of arrest without charge, expulsion, indefinite detention, torture, and killings have become the unexceptional norm.”

A Violent System of Surveillance and Entrapment

Juan Jose and Maida, the undocumented immigrants who can no longer visit each other across the US-Mexico border in places like Nogales and Douglas, are the true targets of the words that Borkowski delivers as he paces back and forth at the Border Security Expo.

Borkowski, using a grotesque vocabulary that encourages technological fetishism, is describing the most massive technological surveillance system of entrapment and exclusion that we have ever had in the United States. It not only stops and monitors, it also terrorizes and kills people. And death is part of this preordained policy of “deterrence,” which has been in effect on the US divide since the 1990s – a time period when more than 6,000 remains of people have been recovered in the borderlands.

Meanwhile, Maida said, “Even going to the grocery store is hard” in this new era of surveillance. And due to the privatization of border security and the boom in border technology sales, the government is in the process of implementing even more technology to track her and her family than ever before.

“I can’t just go in, I have to circle around to make sure police or immigration aren’t there,” she told Truthout. “They are wolves waiting for us.”

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