A US Border Patrol agent looks out over Tijuana, Mexico, behind, along the old border wall Thursday, June 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
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The first thing I did at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix this March was climb the brown “explosion-resistant” tower, 30 feet high and 10 feet wide, directly in the center of the spacious room that holds this annual trade show. From a platform where, assumedly, a border guard would stand, you could take in the constellation of small booths offering the surveillance industry’s finest products, including a staggering multitude of ways to monitor, chase, capture, or even kill people, thanks to modernistic arrays of cameras and sensors, up-armored jeeps, the latest in guns, and even surveillance balloons.
Although at the time, headlines in the Southwest emphasized potential cuts to future border-security budgets thanks to Congress’s “sequester,” the vast Phoenix Convention Center hall—where the defense and security industries strut their stuff for law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—told quite a different story. Clearly, the expanding global industry of border security wasn’t about to go anywhere. It was as if the milling crowds of business people, government officials, and Border Patrol agents sensed that they were about to be truly in the money thanks to “immigration reform,” no matter what version of it did or didn’t pass Congress. And it looks like they were absolutely right.
All around me in that tower were poster-sized fiery photos demonstrating ways it could help thwart massive attacks and fireball-style explosions. A border like the one just over 100 miles away between the United States and Mexico, it seemed to say, was not so much a place that divided people in situations of unprecedented global inequality, but a site of constant war-like danger.
Below me were booths as far as the eye could see surrounded by Disneyesque fake desert shrubbery, barbed wire, sand bags, and desert camouflage. Throw in the products on display and you could almost believe that you were wandering through a militarized border zone with a Hollywood flair.
To an awed potential customer, a salesman in a suit and tie demonstrated a mini-drone that fits in your hand like a Frisbee. It seemed to catch the technological fetishism that makes Expo the extravaganza it is. Later I asked him what such a drone would be used for. “To see what’s over the next hill,” he replied.
Until you visit the yearly Expo, it’s easy enough to forget that the US borderlands are today ground zero for the rise, growth, and spread of a domestic surveillance state. On June 27th, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. Along with the claim that it offers a path to citizenship to millions of the undocumented living in the United States (with many stringent requirements), in its more than 1,000 pages it promises to build the largest border-policing and surveillance apparatus ever seen in the United States. The result, Senator John McCain proudly said, will be the “most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
This “border surge,” a phrase coined by Senator Chuck Schumer, is also a surveillance surge. The Senate bill provides for the hiring of almost 19,000 new Border Patrol agents, the building of 700 additional miles of walls, fences, and barriers, and an investment of billions of dollars in the latest surveillance technologies, including drones.