Today the Weekend Reader brings you Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security by Todd Miller. Miller has been researching immigration and border issues for the past 15 years and denounces the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. In Border Patrol Nation, Miller sheds light on the reality of border wars with interviews and on-the-ground research from both sides of the divide.
You can purchase the book here.
In that vast, brightly lit cathedral of science fiction in Phoenix, it isn’t the guns, drones, robots, or fixed surveillance towers and militarized mannequins that startle me most. It is the staggering energy and enthusiasm, so thick in the convention’s air that it envelops you.
This day, I have no doubt that I’m in the presence of a burgeoning new multibillion-dollar industry that has every intention of making not just the border but this entire world of ours its own. I can feel that sense of excitement and possibility from the moment Drew Dodds begins explaining to me just how his company’s Freedom On-the-Move system actually works. He grabs two water bottles close at hand and begins painting a vivid picture of one as a “hill” obstructing “the line of sight to the target,” and the other as that “target”—in fact, an exhausted person migrating “the last mile” after three days in the desert, who might give anything for just such a bottle.
I have met many people in Dodds’s “last mile”—hurt, dehydrated, exhausted in the Arizona “killing field,” a term coined by journalist Margaret Regan in her book The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands. One man’s feet had swelled up so much, thanks to the unrelenting heat and the cactus spines he had stepped on, that he could no longer jam them in his shoes. He had, he told me, continued on anyway in excruciating pain, mile after mile, barefoot on the oven-hot desert floor. Considering that the remains of more than 6,000 people have been recovered from the borderlands since the process of militarization began in the mid-1990s, he was lucky to have made it through alive. And this was the man Dodds was so pumped about nabbing with Freedom On-the-Move’s “spot and stalk” technology; this was his football game.
In the end, though, he abandoned football for reality, summing up his experience this way: “We are bringing the battlefield to the border.” Dodds is echoing the words of Dennis L. Hoffman—an economics professor from Arizona State University who studies future markets for the defense industry—who told the New York Times, “There are only so many missile systems and Apache attack helicopters you can sell. This push toward border security fits very well with the need to create an ongoing stream of revenue.”
However, Dan Millis of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign sees this in an entirely different light. As he told me: “It’s as if the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan and invading Arizona.”
Underscoring Millis’s point is the Border Patrol’s use of the Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER) system (manufactured by the company Northrup Grumman) on one of its Predator B drones. The U.S. military has used this “man-hunting” radar system in Afghanistan to locate potential roadside bombers. From October 1, 2012, to January 17, 2013, CBP did its preliminary border-testing phase of the VADER. The surveillance system was incorporated into a drone that made overflights of the Arizona Sonoran desert. As with enemy combatants in Afghanistan, it looked to detect border-crossers in the desert. According to Border Patrol’s “internal reports,” with VADER’s help the agency arrested 1,874 people. The expensive, loud, and buzzing drones over the Sonoran desert in the United States have begun to resemble more and more the ones over the Dashti Margo desert region in Afghanistan, and from the halls of U.S. Congress they are asking for more.
The Border Security Expo was the first of many visions of what the military-industrial complex looks like once it’s transported, jobs and all, to the U.S.-Mexico border and turned into a consumer mall for the emerging national surveillance state. You can sense it in the young woman from RoboteX, who looks like she has walked directly out of her college graduation and onto the floor of the expo. She loans me her remote control for a few minutes and lets me play with the micro-robot she is hawking. It looks like a tiny tank. The Oakland police and their SWAT team are already using it, she tells me.
It is the breathless excitement of another young man, the University of Arizona graduate student who describes to me the “deception detection” technology the university is developing, along with a “communication web” that would allow drones to communicate without human mediation. His nerdish command of intricate technological vocabulary, his ability to pour out these words in massive quantities, rising and falling in tones of utter and complete excitement, reminds me of the talk of a video-game buff or a sports fan. It gets to a point that I just want to stand there and listen to him talk, even though I can only pick up fragments of what he is saying. It is as if I were desperately trying to understand a foreign language. He has blond curly hair and a boyish face and is dressed in a pressed white button-down shirt and black pants. He is a believer, almost in the religious sense. Everything is possible. The sky is the limit.
And why wouldn’t he be so enthusiastic? He is a part of the DHS Center for Border Security and Immigration, known as BORDERS. He is supported by powerful institutions, and there is a future, and possibly employment, in what he is doing. The University of Arizona is the lead school of the R&D component of this homeland security endeavor. In 2008, the university received a $17 million, six-year grant to develop such enthusiasm for border security with its students. BORDERS leads a consortium of fourteen “premier institutions” consisting of not only universities spanning the country but also the RAND Corporation and the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. BORDERS, according to its mission statement, is meant to develop “innovative technologies, proficient processes, and effective policies that will help protect our nation’s borders from terrorists and criminal activity, facilitate international trade and travel, and provide deeper understanding of immigration dynamics and determinants.” It is one of the places where the technologies seen at that Phoenix convention center are born.
The BORDERS research at the University of Arizona covers a wide range of technologies from surveillance to “deception detection,” according to Elyse Golob, the program’s executive director. For example, UA Aerospace Mechanical Engineering students are studying locust wings in order to develop miniature surveillance drones that they call Micro Air Vehicles. “The flight of birds and insects is still not well understood,” an unnamed researcher tells the reporter for KVOA, Tucson’s NBC affiliate.
Another graduate student explains further, while holding a micro-drone that has wings. “You can have one Border Patrol agent execute a program launching twenty of these, and you can fly twenty trails at once and he can be watching a video display and basically be doing the job that otherwise would take far more Border Patrol agents.”
The reporter is impressed. He gushes that these “toys,” which can make pinpoint stops and move through thin crevices, could someday “help secure the U.S.-Mexico border” by going after “terrorists, drug smugglers, and other intruders.” But the reporter ignores the bigger story: the University of Arizona has become a laboratory for the Department of Homeland Security.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Excerpted from Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security by Todd Miller, just published by City Lights.