Seated at a comfortable café in El Paso less than a mile from the United States-Mexico border, Josiah Heyman becomes exasperated speaking about the border security news du jour. Heyman, an academic at the University of Texas at El Paso, has followed the border security story for decades. He takes a sip of coffee, sucks some excess brew from his overgrown moustache and recaps the issue.
Smugglers often tunnel under the 1954 mile/3144 km-long border to bring drugs, weapons, and people into the US. In one of the most significant tunnel operations, US border enforcement agents seized 32 tons of marijuana. While many of the tunnels are basic, professional engineers construct some of the more advanced underpasses, which can cost several million dollars to build. In the last 25 years, about 170 tunnels have been found.
Finding tunnels still largely requires old-fashioned intelligence work or luck and a keen eye, but the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) announced that they would begin using robots to search the tunnels they discover. The robots promise to keep CBP agents out of harm’s way, as tunnels often collapse and have poor ventilation, and CBP officials say they do the job more efficiently than a human.
For Heyman, it isn’t a question of whether the robots would work, but whether the growing fascination with technology along the border actually addresses the problems they aim to fix.
“It’s much easier to think that technology is going to solve the problems with tunnels – which are a real issue – than that millions of people are going to decrease their use of drugs”, he says.
Over the past several decades, securing America’s borders has become one of the hottest political issues in the US. Enforcement agencies have received unprecedented levels of funding, personnel and technology to seal off the borders. After the 9/11 attacks, the perceived threats have grown from drugs, criminals and unauthorised immigrants to international terrorists. Now, with the US war in Iraq over and that in Afghanistan drawing to a close, the US approach to its own border security seems fraught with many of the same issues the country faced during its two overseas wars.
Since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act created the beginnings of our current enforcement system, the US government has increased its spending on immigration enforcement to 15 times what it was then (adjusting for inflation). The last decade has seen some of the biggest influxes of resources. In the last eight years, the number of border patrol agents has doubled, and the US now spends more on immigration enforcement agencies than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
Among the growing resources given to those policing the border, a number of officials have turned to new technologies to stop the flow of unauthorised migrants and illicit goods. The US government has invested billions of dollars in high-tech camera systems and sensors to survey stretches of border difficult to patrol, drones that hover in the skies watching for suspicious activity, and now robots to explore smuggling tunnels.
Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided countless new technologies and improved existing devices that can be adapted for use along the border. Just as significantly, the defence contractors who manufacture and sell the equipment have used the last ten years to gain more traction in Washington. They are better positioned than ever before to find a new market for their wares by capitalising on the fervour to protect US borders. Missing from the debate is the question of whether any of these resources and new equipment will address the immigration and border security problems policymakers have long sought to solve.
“If you were really responding to 9/11, you’d shift more resources away from this border, because it’s never been a terrorist threat”, says Heyman.
Understanding how the US developed a campaign to seal off the border with technology, among other resources, requires an understanding of how the country has come to perceive its southern border as a low intensity conflict, and how military contractors with inflated influence after Iraq and Afghanistan capitalised on this sentiment.
Paving the way for wartime technology on US soil
When I first began reporting on border security issues, after covering West Asian wars for nearly seven years, a number of friends and family members came forward to share grave warnings about travel to the border region and Mexico. These same people never batted an eye when I mentioned trips into Syria at the height of the civil war, or the lawless tribal areas of Afghanistan, but they suddenly seemed unable to bear the idea of me driving to El Paso, Texas to meet with a couple of immigration activists.
“There is a portion of our political leadership as well as a good portion of the population that really believes that living next door to Mexico is akin to living next door to Pakistan”, explained Erik Lee, Associate Director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies.
One of the most striking elements of the militarisation of the US border is the perception that it has become a war zone. This perception makes it easier for Americans to tolerate the domestic deployment of military technologies. Yet in the years since the 9/11 attacks, often removed from the discussion is the fact that Mexico remains a key ally and major economic trading partner, and that the US cities along the border regularly feature among the safest in the country.
On the eve of the 2001 terror attacks, despite heightened immigration enforcement policies following the passage of the 1986 bill, the US maintained a strikingly open border policy. US agencies did little to monitor those who were granted legal entry into the country, and every year 25 million people entered through Mexico and Canada, facing almost no scrutiny. President George W Bush came into office in 2001 with plans to build stronger ties between the US and Mexico.
All of this changed on 11 September 2001. As the nation clamoured for security measures to ensure that such an event could never happen again, government officials sought ways to create a balance between new security requirements and the policy of openness that once defined US borders. But, in his book The Closing of the American Border, Edward Alden writes that “the way Bush defined the post 9/11 war on terrorism – as a global struggle for survival with a foe he deemed as menacing as Nazi Germany or the nuclear armed Soviet Union – made a nuanced and proportionate response all but impossible.” In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security absorbed control of border enforcement agencies, tightened travel restrictions, and made security procedures much more severe. By the time Bush left office he’d constructed 700 miles/1100 km of fencing along the border, rather than building ties with Mexico, writes Alden.
Although Mexico has seen a considerable level of drug-related violence and other violent crime, little of it crosses the border. “All of this debate that started right after 9/11, all of these debates about the southern borderline became more and more artificial”, says Fernando Garcia, Founding Director of the Border Network for Human Rights, in El Paso. “It became more a debate about political gains and ideology and certain groups trying to advance an agenda.”
Still, the perception of the Southwestern border as a virtual war zone with vital national security interests has played a critical role in justifying the use of expensive military technologies along the border.
The proliferation of contractors
To understand how the US government has developed such a strong interest in using new technologies along the border, it’s important to examine the disproportionate role defence contractors and manufacturers have come to play in US defence policy.
Military and defence contractors have been a part of the US even before it officially became a nation state. During the Revolutionary War, contractors made up an estimated one sixth of the Continental Army, doing everything from providing food to driving supply wagons. Since then, defence contractors have always played a role in the American military, particularly during wartime. As a percentage of the fighting forces in a conflict, the number of contractors did not vary dramatically, except in cases such as World War I, where the number of soldiers far surpassed the number of contractors involved.
In the 1990s this began to change. In an effort to shrink the government’s footprint, President George H W Bush began to lean more heavily on contractors. The US intervention in the Balkans saw Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) win its first billion-dollar contract to construct bases for North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops. In the face of an ever larger role for contractors, the Clinton administration took steps to impose more oversight measures that would bar hiring contractors with a history of environmental, labour or federal-trade violations. A month later, President George W Bush took office and repealed the changes.
In the decade that followed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created the most significant expansion of the role of defence contractors in US history. Between 2001 and 2010, the amount of money designated for DoD contracts more than doubled, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that detailed defence contracting trends between 1990 and 2010. A separate report found that between 2002 and 2011, the profits for the five largest US defence contractors increased by nearly 450 percent. The Iraq war alone presented defence companies with USD 138 billion worth of contracts.
In 2007, American-paid contractors in Iraq outnumbered troops. At the time, the US troop surge increased their numbers to 160,000, but that was still less than the 180,000 contractors brought in to support them. In 2009, the war in Afghanistan followed suit and contractors made up 57 percent of the Pentagon’s personnel on the ground. Today, for each American soldier in Afghanistan there are 1.6 contractors. The growth of the defence industry has been aided in large part by a US military that has done away with the draft. Instead of enlisting soldiers to wash laundry and serve ice cream in the cafeteria, the DoD can now outsource the chores to military contractors.
Pratap Chatterjee, author of Halliburton’s Army, says that “The fundamental problem is that the government has no capacity to do things itself, it is struggling to manage a volunteer army, it’s trying to provide them with amenities that will support the soldiers and encourage them to stay”. Chatterjee adds that the DoD’s reliance on contractors led to a willingness to overlook problems such as fraud and other contract violations, providing the firms supplied the military with what they needed to operate. The lack of oversight and accountability was cited as a major factor that led to USD 8 billion (13.3 percent) of the total spending on reconstruction in Iraq being wasted, according to the final report issued by Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction. Additionally, some of the most notorious contractors such as Blackwater – which changed its name twice, first to Xe Services and then to Academi – continue to win government contracts.
Contractors vie for border money
With the war in Iraq over and that in Afghanistan winding down, contractors have been exploring new markets to fill a void that has already begun forming. The security industry has looked at everything from unexplored markets in the developing world to niche consumers such as doomsday preppers. At home, however, one of the most promising markets could be beefing up America’s boundaries.
“[Border security] is viewed as the new cash cow for some of these companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Atomics. They’re more interested now because the Pentagon budget is coming down”, says William D. Hartung, author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. “From the point of view of the contractors, what used to be an increasing business will now be leveling off so they are looking for any way they can get a new pot of money to go after.”
The political climate strongly favours the shift to the militarisation of the border, facilitated by defence contractors. Members of Congress seem increasingly bent on addressing immigration by attempting to seal off the border, rather than by creating more complicated but potentially more effective policies that would address the root causes of illegal immigration. In the immigration bill it passed in summer 2013, the Senate added the Hoeven-Corker amendment. This called for an increase of 20,000 border patrol agents and a specific list of technologies to police the border, including VADER radar systems, drones, mobile surveillance systems and many other items. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat-Vermont) called the amendment a “Christmas wish-list for Halliburton”. If the House of Representatives passes the bill and the President signs it into law, it would generate a USD 46 billion opportunity for contractors. “I am sure there are federal contracting firms high-fiving at the prospect of all of the spending demanded by Senate Republicans in this amendment. The litany of expensive services, technology, and hardware mandated by this package is combined with an inexplicable waiver of many normal contracting rules. This is a potential recipe for waste, fraud and abuse. It is astounding to me how far in the past the hard lessons we learned in Iraq appear to be,” wrote Senator Leahy in an official statement.
The bill must pass through the House, but it appears unlikely that they will take up the issue of immigration anytime soon. Indicating that security measures on the border are unlikely to face much scrutiny or change, Speaker John Boehner has said the House will not take up immigration until Obama demonstrates he can better secure the border.
Regardless of the bill’s future, the border remains a significant opportunity for contractors. During the previous fiscal year, the nearly USD 18 billion received by immigration enforcement agencies exceeded the budget of federal criminal law enforcement agencies by 24 percent, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute.
Until recently, border enforcement agencies had traditionally struggled to get new, high-tech equipment. A number of projects offering to use technology to tighten security along the border suffered significant technological setbacks. There is much reluctance among lawmakers and many in government to use new technologies along the US-Mexico border because if the gadgets fail, the untested hardware systems ultimately waste taxpayers’ money. Now, however, America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have provided the ‘test lab’ necessary to break in many new technologies.
After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the procurement process may be much easier for border enforcement agencies to navigate. The wars have produced a number of new technologies that underwent significant development, use, and testing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, equipment developed to fight wars can be re-marketed as border surveillance equipment. Radar systems designed to monitor roadside bomb emplacement can be used to watch for illegal crossings, or improved night vision and thermal imaging equipment can be offered to Customs and Border Protection agents. Border enforcement agencies can bid on off-the-shelf military technologies, ‘field tested’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of this technology from America’s overseas wars could create unwanted competition for contractors. Already CBP has absorbed USD 30 million-worth of hand-me-down equipment from the US Department of Defense as it downsizes war efforts. Still, top CBP officials have indicated that if they want to implement widespread use of the second-hand gear they’re receiving, they’d likely have to begin purchasing new equipment. Whether they get the budget for that, however, will have to be determined by the US Congress.
The question remains: can technology, even effective technology, make a difference along US borders? There remains no reliable means for monitoring the number of people crossing the border. The figures available are ambiguous at best. Without clear statistics, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to measure any returns on investment.
The pattern of spending is familiar to anyone who followed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where success was often measured in dollars spent and equipment provided rather than results produced. It also relies on a narrative where a problem is presented as so dangerous – US soldiers getting killed because they lack proper equipment, or drug cartels bringing violence over the border – that the government readily provides resources with limited investigation or oversight. “Anything and everything can be justified in the name of border security, particularly at the southwest border”, says Jennifer Johnson, a senior associate at the Latin America Working Group.
The post-9/11 militarisation of the border has created an environment that makes it nearly impossible to measure success. There are a number of measurable indicators by which the programs are struggling to produce the intended results. Immigration, however, remains at lows not seen for years. The recession in the US and a steadily improving economy in Mexico have played major roles in reducing those numbers, but increased enforcement measures have also contributed. Migrants trying to cross illegally have now been pushed into more remote and hazardous areas (such as southern Texas) that remain difficult to fence or expensive to monitor with technologies.
“It’s hard to say what’s been the impact of technology and what’s simply been the impact of more fencing and more of a human, boots-on-the-ground presence”, says Adam Isacson, a senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s hard to distinguish that from the impact of more border patrol stopping people’s vehicles… more checkpoints and the actual use of sensors or gamma ion scanners. It’s harder to measure.”
Policymakers often fall into the trap of measuring outputs, such as the number of hours drones spend flying over the border, rather than inputs, like the number of immigrants and drugs they interdict, and whether or not it justifies the cost. For an elected official, this dynamic presents an appealing option: whenever concerned constituents confront them, voting to use new technologies to police illegal immigration and smuggling provides a readily available show of what has been done to secure the border.
“If your voting record is all about more and more border security, I think you’re going to be safer than if you vote on more nuanced policies”, says Philip Wolgin, a senior policy analyst specialising in immigration at the Center for American Progress. “A lot of this has been more of a political point than a smart policy. It hampers the idea of actually fixing the problem.”
A focus on new technologies also diverts attention from the root of the actual problem. Consider that 40 percent of those now unauthorised to be in the US entered the country on legal visas and simply overstayed once their visas expired. They pursued legal means to enter the country before becoming unauthorised immigrants. Additionally, with the exception of marijuana, the vast majority of illegal drugs – well over three-quarters of cocaine and methamphetamines – enters the US through official ports of entry, not the barren stretches of desert between border crossings. Further, if the aim of DHS is to stop terrorists from entering the US, a report by Susan Ginsburg, who served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, found that those engaging in terrorism are more likely to bring operatives in through legal means than illegally over the border. They have traditionally relied on traveling with fake documents or incognito through official ports of entry.
No matter how effective or what methods it used, a 100 percent successful solution that sealed off the borders would only stem the flow of 60 percent of unauthorised immigrants at best. It would also have a marginal effect on the amount of illicit drugs smuggled in, and it would likely have no impact on stopping international terrorists from crossing into the US.
For those actively involved in supporting immigration reform, one of the most widely agreed upon enforcement alternatives remains reinforcing official points of entry with additional staffing and equipment. Simply expanding CBP staffing at official crossing points would allow agents a chance to inspect more than the five to ten percent of shipments they currently have time to, and examine travelers’ documents more closely, potentially catching more illegal activity. So far, lawmakers have been slow to embrace the idea. “In Congress it’s much sexier to get money for border vehicles than it is to get more people sitting in booths asking questions”, says Isacson.
In San Diego, Christian Ramirez, a prominent voice on immigration and border security, and human rights director at Alliance San Diego, has lost faith that the situation will change soon. “The militarisation of the border has followed this empty argument that the only way to address concerns of the border is through military might,” Ramirez says. “I think this will make it much more difficult to remove that narrative, especially now that we have a lot of people speculating on how much money they can make on a conflict that was really created in the minds of politicians.”
*The reporting of this story was supported by the Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship.
~This article is a part of Reclaiming Afghanistan: web-exclusive package.
~Tom A Peter currently covers border security and immigration in the US. Previously, he spent seven years covering West Asia and Afghanistan for The Christian Science Monitor and other periodicals.