Donald Trump is a master of distraction, but he is also an illusionist and there are few illusions bigger than his favourite obsession – the US border wall. On 1 October the New York Times reported that Trump told aides he would like to electrify his proposed wall and add to it a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators. Much of the wall that Trump fantasises about already exists – 654 miles of physical barriers – built long before he came to office. The existing border is also far more deadly in effect than even Trump’s own disturbed imaginings. A physical wall can be easily cut through, climbed over or burrowed beneath, but it’s more difficult to escape the violence of the US border regime already in place.
Trump’s wall is a clever sleight of hand. For his supporters, the wall has become a powerful symbol of hostility to outsiders, suppressing national pathologies, history and injustices. But it also distracts attention from those who have most to benefit from its construction – a small number of multinational corporations.
Since 2006, the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP), has issued 64,000 contracts to corporations worth a total of $27 billion. If you include the agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the US Coast Guard, the total figure is even larger – $80.5 billion.
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A new report by Transnational Institute and No More Deaths, has identified 14 corporations that are the most significant players in border security: Accenture, Boeing, Elbit, Flir Systems, G4S, General Atomics, General Dynamics, IBM, L3 Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, PAE, Raytheon and UNISYS.
The list includes several of the world’s largest arms manufacturers as well as IT firms and the global consulting firm Accenture. Together, they have cashed in on border contracts that boomed long before Trump came to office. In the last 15 years, budgets for CBP and ICE have more than doubled. In 2009, Lockheed Martin landed a contract potentially worth more than $945 million for maintenance and upkeep of 16 P-3 surveillance planes equipped with airborne and surface-to-radar systems. This single contract was equal to the total entire border and immigration enforcement budgets from 1975 to 1978 (around $923 million).
Trump’s arrival has provided a further boost to these corporations’ healthy revenue streams. CBP budgets have increased by $2 billion ($14.4 billion in 2017 to $16.7 in 2019) and ICE has seen similar growth. The bonanza led US Border Patrol law-enforcement liaison Maurice Gill to exclaim, “It’s free money,” at the 2018 Border Security Expo.
A long view, however, shows that the border has provided free money for corporations for some time. Trump is merely adding fuel to the fire. His rhetoric is certainly more racist, toxic and dangerous, but neither his policies or budgets make any fundamental changes to the direction of US border policy in the last three decades.
Border militarisation is a bipartisan affair. This strategy began during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the first sophisticated surveillance systems, built by International Microwave Corporation (now L3 Technologies), were installed. Similarly, under Obama, there was a major expansion in surveillance, such as the installation of a network of 50 Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) built by Elbit – which use radar, thermal imaging and powerful cameras to spot adults up to 7.5 miles away.
There are a number of reasons for this bipartisan consensus, but one critical factor has been the role of corporations that most benefit from border contracts. Research in ‘More Than A Wall’ shows that these corporations have been very strategic in making donations to the key congressional committees responsible for legislation and budgets, notably the Homeland Security Committee and the Appropriations Committee.
Between 2006 and 2018, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Boeing contributed a total of $27.6 million to the Appropriations Committee and $6.5 million to members of the Homeland Security committee. They have backed this up with constant lobbying of government, advocacy for border security in media outlets, as well as regular meetings and exchanges with staff in key government border agencies. The most prominent of these are the annual Border Security Expos where corporations not only hawk their wares to government officials, but also develop industry strategies in seminars as well as network and build friendships over golf and drinks.
The relationships between government and industry have become so enmeshed that between 2003 and 2017, four Customs and Border Protection commissioners went onto homeland security corporations or consulting companies after leaving government. Some government officials apparently no longer see any distinction between the public interest and corporate interest.
At a border industry day in 2005, Michael Jackson, the deputy secretary of the department of homeland security, who had previously been Lockheed Martin’s chief operating officer, told the audience: “This is an unusual invitation. I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organisation.”
Jackson’s comments reveal how the US border-industrial complex operates: a self-perpetuating corporate and state system oiled by money, influence and relationships and a shared belief that our border can never be over-militarised.
The result of this bipartisan consensus has played out in countless stories of pain and loss that afflict so many refugees and migrants who cross the border. When border policy and contracts are handed over to arms firms, the results are deadly. The militarisation of the border has led migrants to take ever more dangerous, and often fatal, routes across the border. The CBP’s own statistics show that 7,500 people have died between 1998 and 2018, a gross underestimate according to the many humanitarian groups such as No More Deaths who keep finding bodies in remote locations. Once caught, many refugees are detained in terrible conditions and deported, separating families and compounding the trauma.
That is why many in the Democratic Party have found it so hard to oppose Trump’s wall plans. Some seem to either forget or deliberately hide their party’s culpability in border militarisation. Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, recently said that his government neither separated families or caged children – despite similar practices being used under the Obama administration.
Some Democrats might publicly reject the physical wall, but continue to support technological solutions that arms companies are hawking. Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, for example, writing for CNN in 2018, argued that “a more efficient use of limited tax dollars would be to invest heavily in state-of-the-art detection technologies”. What he failed to mention, however, is that his largest donors included GEO Group and CoreCivic ($55,690), Northrop Grumman ($13,000), Boeing Corporation ($10,000), Caterpillar Inc ($10,000) and Lockheed Martin ($10,000) – all of which would benefit from government investment in border security technologies.
Despite this, there is an unprecedented opportunity today to break down the bipartisan consensus that supports border militarisation. However effective Trump’s border wall rhetoric might be for his supporters, it has also greatly increased the awareness of the traumatic impacts of US border and immigration policy on migrants and their families. Movements against the inhumanity of US border policies continue to expand and organise – and more and more Democratic candidates are speaking out. If this public concern and outrage can be channelled away from Trump to the underlying border industrial complex that drives policy, we could see some significant change to the deadly US border regime. Like so many of Trump’s illusions, his demonisation of immigrants merely masks his support for the profits of corporations. In exposing the deceptions behind Trump’s border wall we must also expose the border-industrial complex that is profiting from people’s pain.