Reporter’s Notebook: A Photo-Essay from the Border Industrial Complex as Title 42 Lifts
What policy shift? It’s business as usual for the border-enforcement machine as shown at the Border Security Expo in El Paso.
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Reporter’s Notebook: A Photo-Essay from the Border Industrial Complex as Title 42 Lifts
What policy shift? It’s business as usual for the border-enforcement machine at the Border Security Expo in El Paso.
On May 10 and 11, I attended the 16th annual Border Security Expo in El Paso, Texas. Every year the expo brings together high brass from the Department of Homeland Security with hundreds of companies from the border-enforcement industry. But this year was different with the potent historic backdrop of the phaseout of Title 42 on May 11. As readers likely know, the expiration of the pandemic-era rapid-expulsion policy came with a plethora of heated (and sometimes apocalyptic) narratives. I will be writing a much longer article on this in the coming weeks, but first I wanted to give you a glimpse into my notebook and share some photos and observations.
This picture was taken on Friday, May 12, about 12 hours after Title 42 expired. So I can confirm that the wall didn’t get torn down. I took this picture on the U.S.-Mexico boundary right across from the colonia Anapra in Ciudad Juárez. Anapra has long been a neighborhood—one of the poorest in Juárez—where a good percentage of migrants and maquila workers live. Many of these factories, which pay abysmal wages and offer scarce benefits to line workers, are from the United States (there are 330 of them, to be exact).
Like the wall, the U.S. Border Patrol also did not disappear. I took this picture near the Smeltertown historical site in El Paso, near where the Rio Grande bends east and becomes the border. This picture was taken after a single man crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. You’ll need to look closely. Behind him, you can see the wall crawling up the hill. Unseen in the photo, but on the top of the hill, is a cross that marks where the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua come together. The truck, which appears to be from a private company (I’m still trying to figure this one out), tore through the dirt lot near where we stood, pursuing the man. Over the last several years, CBP has emphasized this sort of privatization of “security tasks.” From the truck jumped a man in a gray uniform who ran to stop the lone walking man, who raised his hands and did not resist. As we left the scene, a U.S. Border Patrol van pulled up presumably to make the final arrest. Despite this incident and the buzzing Border Patrol and its private partnerships, this day after Title 42 expired was one of “unusual calm,” according to journalist Alfredo Corchado.
Speaking of private companies, that was why I was in El Paso in the first place. On May 11 and 12, the Border Security Expo brought hundreds of companies to the city. As you can see in the photo, the primary sponsor was Anduril, a company that has 11 contracts with CBP and has deployed nearly 200 autonomous surveillance towers in the U.S. Mexico borderlands and along its coasts.
In a prerecorded video, the CEO of Anduril, the 20-something Palmer Luckey, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sporting a long goat patch on his chin, told attendees that “the tools to secure the border already exist.” These include Anduril’s Sentry towers and fly-faced Ghost drones, pictured above at the company’s booth in the exhibition hall. Luckey added that “a large contingent of my team will be at many of the expo events … so please,” he said offering a momentary glimpse into the industrial complex, “come see us and tell us what we should be doing.” The Anduril team, however, was not as keen on speaking with journalists. They vehemently told me I could not record an interview with them.
The vendor from Ghost Robotics—whose featured product was the robotic dog we have written a bit about at The Border Chronicle—was much less bashful about talking to the surprisingly few journalists who were on site. You might likely remember these “robots that feel the world” from last year’s expo. This year, the vendor showed me a video of how an operator sees via a tablet when the robotic dog is deployed and weaponized, and how artificial intelligence helps the robot find and follow a target, among other things. I will be writing about this in the aforementioned upcoming article.
During the two days, Border Patrol agents milled about the expo hall and talked with companies.
There were companies from all around the world. I first came across this one—Israel Aerospace Industries—at a homeland security drone conference in Tel Aviv in 2016. In that exhibition, IAI displayed two quite memorable pieces of technology: a massive drone known as the Heron and a hulking ground drone known as RoBattle. You can see the company’s slogan on the underbelly of its banner: “Where Courage Meets Technology.” According to the vendors, they still have no contracts with CBP but hope that will change soon.
In this picture a Border Patrol agent talks with representatives of Parsons, a company that has had 43 contracts with CBP. For border enforcement, the company claims to have “the experience to integrate a unique mix of technologies to fully capture all operational elements of prediction, deterrence, detection, identification, classification, and tracking.” Parsons has also received contracts to help build border systems, with U.S. funding, in other countries such as Jordan, Armenia, Lebanon, and Georgia (contracts worth over $100 million, according to the company).
The constant commerce of border enforcement.
Meanwhile, the CBP ramp-up for Title 42 was on. On May 11, officials deployed rows of coiling razor wire on the Paso del Norte bridge. Militarized border police units also prepared for an onslaught that was never to arrive. I snuck this photo as I crossed the border on foot.
People jogging on the Ciudad Juárez side along the border road, however, seemed unfazed.
As did this bird and several other birds—some of them migratory—who played in the polluted Rio Grande (last year El Paso was busted for discharging its sewage into the river), which snakes through the hyper-militarized border. Unmarked Border Patrol vehicles were everywhere.
If you squint, you can see security from the U.S. side yelling across the river to a police agent on the Mexican side about three hours before Title 42 was lifted on May 11. Not in the picture is a Humvee next to the two people on the U.S. side who I thought were either National Guard or Border Patrol. And on the Mexican side it looked like Federal Police. We couldn’t get any closer, nor hear what they were talking about.
The danger of crossing is well known. Right before taking the above picture, I talked to a woman from Colombia and two men from Venezuela camped out along the side of the road who were waiting to apply for asylum. They said they had been in Ciudad Juárez since December. They knew people who were in the immigration detention center that caught fire in March, killing 40 people.
This mural by Christin Apodaca greets you after you cross the Paso del Norte bridge back into the United States. After two days at the expo, and the excessive hype around Title 42, there was something about this mural. The face of the woman captured the borderlands much better than anything I had heard or seen over the last couple days.
At the expo, officials and industry stressed advancements in AI, in biometrics, in surveillance in general. They made clear that CBP and Border Patrol would be a force to be reckoned with and that industry was a big and important part of it. I continually sensed both the bravado and the banality of the increasingly digitized enforcement apparatus. Title 42 or no Title 42, the border-enforcement machine will keep arresting, detaining, and deporting. This was business as usual, and there was no sign that it will ever change.
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The border patrol agents look corpulent ... like cops.
I look forward to your longer article. That "where courage meets technology" is such an evocative slogan--and not in a good way . . . I can only see "courage" on the bad receiving end of whatever technology is being promoted.