There are many ways I wish I’d spent my last days of freedom before the coronavirus’s inexorable and deadly advance through the US began last year, but attending the 2020 Border Security Expo was not one of them. On March 9, 2020, President Trump told us the flu was more deadly than coronavirus and that nothing would be shut down. “Think about that!” he tweeted. On March 13, he declared the pandemic a national emergency. In the days between, I flew to San Antonio, Texas, to attend the Expo in an attempt to better understand the border security industry and its links to government. I soon found myself squeezing through dozens of suited men with buzz cuts clapping each other on the back and scarfing bagels at the catering table, with scant mention of the coming catastrophe.
Instead, the focus was on how best to spend the ever-increasing budgets of the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which had discretionary spending allocations that totaled $27 billion. Together, that was up 20 percent on the previous year’s budgets; and for decades now, under Democrats and Republicans alike, the border security industry has generally received more and more money each year. For the first time in years, the agencies’ latest combined budget records a modest reduction, of $1.5 billion (though the expenditure on ICE continues to grow unchecked).
President Biden is working to undo some of the most violent anti-immigrant policies of his predecessor, including lifting the travel ban on thirteen nations, almost all in the Middle East or Africa, and working to end the Migrant Protection Protocols, which forced some 25,000 asylum seekers to stay in Mexico as they awaited their day in court. He has also created a task force to reunite families separated at the US–Mexico border and has already sent a comprehensive immigration reform bill to lawmakers. And he has halted construction of Donald Trump’s notorious border wall.
Does this all signify that he is ready to consider taming the vast militarized machine that is the border security industry? Or will he, like Democratic presidents before him, quietly continue to expand it?
Despite the loud refrain of “Build the wall” from Trump supporters over the past five years, a combination of thirteen border security companies’ executives and top employees contributed three times more to Joe Biden’s presidential election campaign ($5,364,994) than they did to Trump’s reelection effort ($1,730,435). A report just published by the Transnational Institute raises concerns about the Democratic Party’s relationship with the border security industry. After a colossal and sustained influx of money following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Border Patrol more than doubled in size, from 9,200 agents that year to 21,000 by 2011, in President Obama’s first term. Speaking to Politico, Richard Skinner, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general at that time, recalled, “If President Bush asked for 100 agents, Congress would add 200. You have to remember how scared everyone was. The mentality was we need more boots on the ground.”
In 2018, the Los Angeles Times reported historically low numbers of apprehensions at the southern border, the most common measure of illegal immigration. In the fiscal year that ended that September, border authorities apprehended 521,090 people, down from the annual million-plus a year throughout the previous decades. Despite that, President Trump mandated a further steep increase in CBP staffing, up from 19,627 border patrol agents to 26,370 by the end of 2021. The current total in fact remains at just under 20,000 because the agency has a high rate of attrition and severe difficulty recruiting enough candidates—an issue that was the focus of much discussion at the conference in San Antonio. Despite their relatively small size, the CBP and ICE officers’ unions played an outsized role during the Trump administration, gaining political clout by supporting him early and often.
That call for “boots on the ground” in relation to the Border Patrol is common from both sides of the aisle. President Obama himself used the phrase, in a 2013 speech about immigration, when he boasted that “We put more boots on the ground on the southern border than at any time in our history.” The phrase’s military connotations might make one forget that Border Patrol is not a military organization. Nevertheless, some of the merchandise I saw on sale at the conference was branded “battle ready” and “war ready,” and much of the equipment used by Border Patrol could very well be used by a militia. On display at the Henry B. Gonzales convention center were all manner of sensors, thermal-imaging equipment, biometric products, unmanned vehicles for ground and air, and, of course, guns, lots of guns. While some Border Patrol agents have a background in military service, many of the Expo attendees were either high-level CBP officials or people from industries that sell to the agency. Often, these roles are interchangeable, with the same men—I use the word advisedly; they almost all are men—moving from private industry to public service and back again.
Between 2003 and 2017, at least four CBP commissioners and three DHS secretaries went onto homeland security corporations or consulting companies after leaving government. Jayson Ahern is just one example: he was CBP’s acting commissioner for almost a year before he retired; now he’s a principal at the Chertoff Group, a global risk management company, for which he advises clients on “border security management.” Given the agencies’ supportive unions, this corporatist alliance of business and workers seems to have effective control over this vast government apparatus. The report from the Transnational Institute shows that between 2008 and 2020, CBP and ICE issued 105,997 contracts worth $55.1 billion to private corporations, stating: “The industry is now deeply embedded in US government bodies and decision-making, with close financial ties to strategic politicians.”
And the industry’s revolving door of personnel and policy-making keeps spinning. In the 2020 electoral cycle, the same companies that bet on Biden also donated heavily to both Republican and Democratic members of chief legislative committees that oversee and fund border security: the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, and the House Homeland Security Committee. The Transnational Institute also points out that some border security companies historically prefer one political party to another. Detention-related companies, in particular CoreCivic, G4S, and GEO Group, strongly favor Republicans, as do the military contractors Elbit Systems and General Atomics; auditing and IT companies with significant border security business, such as Deloitte, IBM, and Palantir, overwhelmingly back Democrats. Lobbying on homeland security—which includes greater border militarization and involves many of the border security corporations—has increased significantly over the last two decades. In total, from 2002 to 2019, there were nearly 20,000 reported lobbying visits related to homeland security.
The report’s authors continue:
Biden is opposed to the wall-building of Trump, but has along with many Democrats voiced public support for a more hidden “virtual wall” and “smart borders,” deploying surveillance technologies that will be both more lucrative for the industry and more hidden in terms of the abuses they perpetrate.
It’s those hidden parts that are important to uncover. Other policy moves by Democratic administrations have helped lead us to where we are today. While President Clinton was signing the NAFTA trade deal with one hand, enabling the free movement of goods, information, and, of course, capital, his other hand was clamping down on the free movement of informal labor, playing to nativist and restrictionist sentiment. Under his watch, the Democrats, including then Senator Biden, approved the 1994 Prevention Through Deterrence strategy and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Arguably, the Democrats’ neoliberal compromises of those years fueled some of the resentments in formerly Democratic-voting, blue-collar, pro-union communities, helping to pave the way for Trump’s America First combination of trade protectionism and even harder-line immigration policy. Certainly, Clinton’s choices sped the pace of both border militarization and deportations. Continuing that approach, twenty years later, Obama became the first president to deport nearly three million people.
Although there is a long and bipartisan history in this country of forcing unwanted migrants out of sight and out of mind, this is not to say that Democrats and Republicans are interchangeable when it comes to immigration policies. Demonstrably, they are not, particularly over the past four years as Stephen Miller, the architect of the most virulently xenophobic immigration policies in decades, held sway. As we’re seeing, a great part of the Biden administration’s task is to undo these very policies—and the latest wrangling over the wall at the southern border is a good example of the political parties’ respective approaches.
In their 2019 book Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration, authors Michael Shear and Julie Davis reported on the bizarre and disturbing impulses that drove the Trump administration’s approach: “Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh.” For all that—and the billions of dollars he siphoned away from the Pentagon under the pretense of a national emergency—his “big, beautiful wall” expanded hardly at all. All the same, this year’s DHS budget stipulates spending of $2 billion for the “Construction of approximately 82 miles of new border wall system. Funding supports real estate and environmental planning, land acquisition, wall system design, construction, and construction oversight.”
Significantly, President Biden has not committed to dismantling the physical barriers that have been built in recent years—650 miles of which he voted for back in 2006. Biden is adamant that his administration will shift resources to technological measures—cameras, sensors, X-ray scanners, and the like. The question really is, will this type of wall, compared with Trump’s, make a difference not only in preventing people from attempting to cross the border, but also in preventing them from taking ever more dangerous risks in the attempt?
Two phrases that appear in the work of anthropologist and social theorist Nicholas De Genova floated through my mind repeatedly during my time at the Border Security Expo. One was “killing from a distance”; the other was “made to die.” People trying to cross the desert or the river have been driven to do so, and if they die—which they do at a rate calculated by De Genova of almost one person every day between 2000 and 2016—he explains it this way:
Rising numbers of border deaths are no mere coincidence or accident of geography, therefore, but rather a predictable result of U.S. immigration law-making, as well as a systemic feature of the routine functioning of the increasing physical fortification of the border and the increasing militarization of border enforcement tactics and technologies.
Throughout his long political career, President Biden has a mixed voting record on border policies. There are many times he has shown some support for immigrant rights, but on the issue of border security, he has approved legislation that largely enabled the mass deportations under President Obama (in the administration in which he, of course, served as vice president). Biden also supported the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which extended the border’s physical barriers long before Donald Trump even descended the gilded escalator and declared his presidential candidacy.
Today, we see President Biden pushing for a more humane immigration system: proposing sweeping reforms that would allow a new path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants, promising to welcome more refugees, and devoting resources to the immigration courts’ huge backlog of cases. He has proposed a $4 billion four-year plan that aims to decrease violence, corruption, and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the Central American origin countries of many of the migrants who have arrived at the US–Mexico border to seek asylum in recent years.
At the same time, though, President Biden has done little to rein in the enforcement agencies ICE and CBP as they continue to expand and consolidate power within the federal government. Rather than working to demilitarize the border, will he simply tidy up his predecessor’s worst follies and excesses, making it easier for us to look away and not think about the billions of dollars we spend there every year? Above all, will the Democratic Party be strong enough to break the golden handcuffs it has allowed the border security industry to place on it?