Who makes up the US “border-industrial complex”?
US border policy since the 1970s has been more and more about treating those who want to enter as criminals. It’s not a rational nor a humane response to people who have to flee political, economic, and personal disaster — and it’s not an accident.
One strong driver of the border’s militarization has been the confluence of massive campaign contributions, lobbying, and access to government officials on the part of arms, high tech, and security and detention corporations, particularly in the post 9/11 era. These border security corporations and their government allies form a powerful border-industrial complex.
How much has the budget for border control grown?
These annual budgets rose from $350 million in 1980 and $1.2 billion in 1990 to $10.2 billion in 2005 and $23.7 billion in 2018. In other words, budgets have increased by more than 6,000 percent since 1980. Between 2008 and 2020, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the infamous ICE — issued 105,997 contracts worth $55.1 billion to private corporations, familiar companies ranging from Boeing and Lockheed Martin to Raytheon and Deloitte.
The militarization of the border became most dramatic after 9/11 with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. That opened the faucets to “secure” the border even though the 9/11 attack had nothing to do with the Mexican border.
To find out what these companies have to offer, you’ve gone to many “Border Security Expos.” What has that been like?
It’s like stepping into some kind of futuristic sci-fi movie. You see endless displays of drones — including drone boats — and robots, infrared cameras, and motion sensors. One guy demonstrated an aerostat for me — a surveillance and communications balloon. He had it zero in on my notebook from high above, and the words showed up clearly on a screen right in front of him.
All the vendors talk unabashedly about the profit-making possibilities. At the 2017 Expo, I heard a guy say, “We’re going to hit the jackpot now!” He was presumably anticipating contracts from the Trump administration. Another vendor, from a company that normally sold to the military, told me “we are bringing the battlefield to the border.”
Biden has made promises — and is indeed improving — the situation for immigrants. Will that change border policy?
The overall border strategy known as prevention through deterrence has not changed, whether Democrats or Republicans sit in the White House. For the 2020 election, border security companies spent more than $40 million on campaign contributions to key politicians. Biden actually took in three times more money in campaign contributions — $5,365,000 — from security companies than Trump.
Presumably, these companies were making the calculation they already had Trump in their pocket, so they needed to grease the wheel with Biden. It’s an election in which your vote wins no matter what.
The Biden administration seems intent on reversing some of the most egregious Trump policies, but the situation on the border remains the same as ever. Many people have been turned back so that they must, as usual, risk their lives crossing the Rio Grande or the Sonoran desert. And while Biden has stopped the construction of the wall, he has expressed support for the ever-profitable surveillance technologies.
What do you think needs to happen at the border?
The climate crisis has and will cause major upheavals around the world and will displace an extraordinary number of people. A global militarized border system currently keeps intact this unsustainable world of business-as-usual environmental catastrophe and endemic inequality. Containing and separating people exacerbate these global problems and prevent solutions that require cross-border cooperation and solidarity.
With COVID and climate change as two gigantic issues people are facing everywhere, perhaps this moment can give us the space to imagine a world without borders.