It's Official: America Is Militarizing the Mexican Border

Border security on steroids.

Jun 28 2013, 2:00pm
CBP agents practice fast-roping in border patrol training. Credit: Flickr/CBP Photography

As the US draws down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress has turned its jingoistic instincts inward, and is now moving forward with plans to dramatically expand surveillance along the Southern frontier, a militaristic remedy to the perennial flow of immigrants and drugs across the US-Mexico border.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted 69-29 in favor of the so-called "border surge" proposal, an amendment to the Gang Of Eight's comprehensive immigration reform bill that would shove tens of billions of dollars into border surveillance, fencing, and enforcement. The legislation, authored by Republican Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, cleared the way for the Senate’s passage of the overall comprehensive immigration reform Thursday afternoon, locking up support from 14 GOP Senators.

In exchange, the compromise attempts to allay Republican concerns about border security, calling for a state of "persistent surveillance" along the border with "continuous and integrated manned or unmanned, monitoring, sensing or surveillance of 100 percent of southern border mileage or the immediate vicinity of the southern border." To accomplish that, the legislation would pour unprecedented resources—$46 billion in total—into border security, including:

  • $30 billion to double the number of Border Patrol agents along the Southern border, from about 18,000 today to 38,405. That's about 19 agents per mile.

  • $8 billion to complete and reinforce a 700-mile pedestrian border fence.

  • $4.5 billion in high-tech surveillance technology, including 24/7 use of unmanned aerial drones; six "Vader" (Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation Radar) radar systems developed for the military in Afghanistan; 40 new helicopters; 30 marine vessels; 4,595 unattended ground sensors with seismic, imaging, and infrared capability; 86 towers; and hundreds of cameras, night-vision goggles, fiber-optic inspection scopes, and mobile surveillance systems.

  • $1 billion to expand the E-Verify System, a computerized data network that allows employers to check the immigration status of potential workers, and build a "photo tool" that allows a company to match applicants to photos in the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services Database. (Just 7 percent of employers are currently using the E-Verify system, but the bill calls for the system to be rolled out to all employers within four years.)

  • Development of "fraud-resistant, tamper-resistant, wear-resistant, and identity theft-resistant social security cards."

Nearly everyone agrees that these measures are excessive. Even the amendment’s author, Sen. Corker, has said that the border security deal is “almost overkill.” More than securing the border, the primary goal of the amendment is political—the Gang of Eight needed to make big promises on border security to get the Republican votes they need to pass the bill later this week.

“Is it more than I would have recommended? Honestly, yes,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said last week. “But we’ve got to give people confidence.”

Blackhawks patrol the Southwest border. Credit: Flickr/CBP Photography

Beyond the political calculus, it’s not clear how effective the measures will be at achieving the elusive dream of 24/7 surveillance of all 1,954 miles of the US-Mexico border.

For one thing, apprehensions at the border are at historic lows, a trend that researchers attribute to declining fertility rates and improved economic conditions in Mexico. In fact, data compiled by the Customs and Border Protection shows that since 1993, apprehensions at the Southwest border have been steadily declining, while the number of border patrol agents has skyrocketed. That data suggests that more Border Patrol agents is probably not the most effective solution for border security.

The biggest problem at the border continues to be cartel trafficking, and the feds are in a constant high-tech arms race with cartels operating along the Mexican border (strangely, this issue goes unmentioned by Corker and Hoeven).

Theoretically, the $4.5 billion injection into new technologies should help the U.S. government gain an edge. But the Department of Homeland Security has had quite a bit of trouble with the tools it already has.

Take drones, for example. CBP already has a fleet of seven unarmed Predator drones and three unarmed Guardian drones. A May 2012 report from the DHS inspector general found that the agency was "significantly underutilizing" its existing fleet of drones—of 7,336 scheduled mission hours, CBP flew just 3,909.

The Corker-Hoeven amendment attempts to rectify this problem by calling for DHS to hire 160 new crew and personnel to service and fly unmanned aircraft systems. The law would also increase flight hours to 130,000 annually.

But even with these measures, there's little evidence to suggest that drones are very effective at securing the border. A 2012 Center for International Policy report found that since surveillance drones were first introduced along the border in 2006, the equipment can be credited with a measly 0.001 percent of total border apprehensions.

Beyond drones, the immigration bill calls for major new investments in other high-tech surveillance equipment to fulfill its “Comprehensive Border Security Strategy.” The details of the strategy would be worked out by bipartisan commission, but basically it represents the latest attempt to build a virtual border fence, the Holy Grail of border security.

Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has made several attempts to build a virtual border fence, but has never been able to get it quite right. (Motherboard’s Brian Anderson has the details on that windmill-chasing shitstorm.) While technology has developed, and DHS has hopefully learned from its past mistakes, the problems that plagued its past border surveillance efforts—massive costs, lack of integration, faulty technology—will likely pose similar challenges to any new virtual fence efforts.

Of course, the big winner of this security buildup is the booming border-industrial complex. Big defense companies, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics are falling over each other to secure lucrative DHS contracts to supply the military radars, long-range camera systems, and other equipment mandated by the immigration bill. Meanwhile, Northrop-Grumman would get a huge windfall from the Corker-Hoeven amendment, which would require DHS to purchase six of the Vader radar systems the company developed for the US military in Afghanistan.

The proposal “reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said last week. “I am sure there are federal contracting firms high-fiving at the prospect of all of the spending demanded by some of our friends on the other side in this amendment.”

Two drones from CBP's rapidly expanding fleet of unmanned surveillance aircrafts, via Flickr/CBP Photography.

Unsurprisingly, civil liberties groups are also less than thrilled by the prospect of mass surveillance suggested in the immigration bill.

To begin with, the border security deal would create a “drone zone” within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border (with the exception of the California sections, where drones would only be allowed to fly within a three mile radius of the border. While US border patrol agents are already allowed to stop vehicles at checkpoints within 100 miles of the border, privacy advocates say that the bill provides little guidance on where the surveillance drones would be allowed to fly, and what kind of surveillance data they would be allowed to gather from private citizens operating on private land.

Beyond drones, civil liberties groups have raised concerns about the expansion of the E-Verify system and the centralization of biometric data that could possibly be used to spy on US citizens.

“We remain concerned about the inclusion of a mandatory employment verification system,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement on the Corker-Hoeven amendment.“ Under the best case scenario, this system will result in hundreds of thousands of workers being forced to visit government offices before they can get approval to work while doing little to stop unscrupulous employers who currently hire workers under the table.”

The organization added: “The bill takes significant steps toward a 'cardless' national ID system which could be used to track and limit Americans’ movements and activities.”

On the bright side, the expanded border security measures have made it much more likely that Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US. The bill passed the Senate 68-32 on Thursday with strong bipartisan support. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives—and the border security deal reached by the Senate could be just the tip of the iceberg once House Republicans get through with it.