A tech wall at the border is just as dangerous as a physical one
Surveillance and drones are far less crude than Trump’s promised border wall, and they’re being deployed under Biden, too
Construction continues on a new section of barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border on Jan. 8, 2019 as seen from Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images)
Six years ago, when Donald Trump was campaigning for the presidency, the border wall emerged as a major theme. As he constructed a platform based on deep anti-immigrant sentiment, the “big, beautiful wall” was a ridiculous campaign promise.
Considering the actual logistical, financial and infrastructural demands of walling 2,000 miles while also getting the country of Mexico to pay for it, the whole thing seemed far-fetched. In the end he didn’t come close.
Arguably, the actual, physical wall project never mattered. Walls are scalable and penetrable, and do not address the issue that the most of the illegal activity on the border happens at the ports of entry. Yes, there are crimes associated with migrants crossing between the ports, an action known in legal terms as “entry without inspection,” but it gets murky when you try to identify those entries as illegal if the individuals are seeking humanitarian protection as so many border crossers are.
Not only is crossing the borders between ports of entry a perfectly prescribed way of asking for asylum under U.S. law, so is walking directly up to the port of entry and turning yourself into border officials. So even if the wall had been built, it would never have prevented an unrestricted number of asylum-seekers to wait in line at the port of entry to have their humanitarian claims processed.
Yet the wall has become a powerful symbol for people who favor stricter immigration controls on the southern border.
When I meet these people, they often reject my characterizations of their attitudes as racist, xenophobic or nationalist. Many people who want a higher and longer wall on the border don’t identify as anti-immigrant, because they believe that immigrants can be neatly divided into two categories: those who do it right, and those who do it wrong.
So when a wall purports to keep out the folks who are doing things the wrong way, it’s not about being anti-immigrant as much as it is about the rule of law and the moral battle between right and wrong.
The wall is also symbolic for people who favor a more humanitarian approach on the border. I cannot count the times during my career as an immigration lawyer and activist that people have come to me and proudly pronounced that they oppose a border, presenting that opposition badge of being Anti-Trump. As someone who also opposed the wall and most of Trump’s agenda, I am here for that high-five. I think that their resistance is important.
But my concern is that if we focus too much on the wall as a symbol, we may miss the fact that there is a different kind of wall being constructed on our border right now, arguably more powerful and out of the public eye and under a new president who campaigned on a promise to unravel the damage caused by Trump’s border rhetoric.
The Biden administration is building an impenetrable wall of surveillance on the border with Mexico. In the White House’s press release on the day of the 2021 inauguration, it lays out “Prioritizing Smart Borders” emphasized as a major priority.
This isn’t exactly new. Over the last few decades, tech played a major role in expanding the militarization of the border. During fiscal years 2017-2020, Customs and Border Protection alone received $743 million to expand surveillance technology.
What’s different now is that the public is being peddled the lie that the Biden administration is here to deconstruct walls and restore humanity at the border as they quietly construct a digital fortress meant to deter, detain and deport in the same way as a crudely constructed wall.
During the first week of February, a news release from the Science and Technology Directorate of DHS started making the rounds on Twitter. “Robot Dogs Take Another Step Towards Deployment at the Border,” it boasted. The release went on to describe how the office is offering a helping “paw” (their words) to CBP by developing drone dogs that can be used as surveillance tools in the place of agents. According to a spokesperson: “The southern border can be an inhospitable place for man and beast, and that is exactly why a machine may excel there.”
The southern border surely is an inhospitable place for man and beast — but, mind you, migrants were not included in these categories. Migrants are only alluded to as people who might be terrorists or those in possession of weapons of mass destruction, which is why we need robot surveillance dogs to track them, the spin goes.
But they are not mentioned as humans who are subject to the exact same elements that border agents are. They are things to be hunted. More than a few folks on Twitter drew analogies to slavers hunting down people with dogs.
Conservative estimates suggest that 9,000 migrants have died trying to cross the U.S. border since the earlier ’90s when the U.S. government started programs like Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Hold the Line. These programs fortified popular migrant routes and funneled people into inhospitable regions of the border where they could be more easily hunted — and where the risk of death was significant.
It’s telling that drone dogs are intended to protect government agents from the same environments that border militarization forces migrant families to encounter. Deterrence is deadly. At least 650 migrants died in the borderlands in 2021 alone.
Democrats and Republicans both support this “smart border.” It hides the violence of border deterrence, while simultaneously enriching the corporations that profit off of surveillance and militarization. Perhaps Democratic lawmakers are hoping they can decry inhumane physical barriers in one breath, and then turn and participate in granting enormous multimillion- dollar contracts to tech companies to build walls that are equally dangerous and dehumanizing.
True humanitarian solutions to increased migration will focus on safely processing people’s claims while enriching the communities on the ground in the borderlands. Until we start hearing about those solutions, it’s worth continuing to resist a wall — digital otherwise, and whether it is Trump or Biden building it.
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