Reporter's Notebook: This Year's Border Security Expo in San Antonio Was the Biggest Ever: “Why Would You Even Want a Solution?”
Robo-dogs, ghost drones, Palmer Luckey, and protestors outside, plus other observations from my week at the Border Security Expo in Texas
For the past two days, I have been at the 15th annual Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Texas. What follows are excerpts from my notebook and a photo essay, focusing on the expo floor, where nearly 200 companies gathered to sell their wares to the Department of Homeland Security. I will be writing a much longer piece on the expo, analyzing its many aspects, including how the border industrial complex looks on the ground now in 2022, and what to expect in the future. For now, I just want to give you a glimpse of the last few days in pictures, with some interesting quotes from people and some initial observations.
At The Border Chronicle we want to regularly do this type of on-the-ground reporting, but really need the funding to do so. Please consider helping us with a paid subscription— it’s just $6 a month or $60 annually. We also welcome founding members for $125, who get four free subscriptions along with their subscription, and our undying gratitude! Thanks for your support!
At the end of the panel “Drivers That Have Led to an Increase in Mass Migration,” on the morning of March 29 at the San Antonio convention center, a man approaches a microphone set up in the aisle for people to ask questions. The convention hall is packed with people in business suits, mainly from the border industry. According to organizers, almost 1,500 people have come this year, making this the best-attended Border Security Expo in its 15 years. There are bright lights on the panel, where five men sit, including former Customs and Border Protection commissioner Robert Bonner and former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan. It is dark in the audience, so it is difficult to see the man when he begins his question. He says he’s from South Texas, the Rio Grande Valley. He says his son is in the Border Patrol. He repeats a point that the panelists had made earlier, that cartels are making a lot of money on the other side of the border. But, he says, the expo floor here is filled with companies, so there are evidently a lot people making money on this side of the border too.
“Why,” he asked, “would you even want a solution?” There is an audible hush in the audience and a prolonged silence among the panelists, many who themselves have gone through the DHS revolving door and now work for private companies (including Homan and Bonner). The pause goes on for so long that the man has to step forward to the microphone again and ask, “Would someone be able to address that question?”
For the next two days as I saw panels in the convention hall and walked through an array of technologies on display on the expo floor, that question remained on my mind. What follows is a photo essay and initial observations about my time at this year’s Border Security Expo.
Above on the big screen is Clint McDonald, executive director of the Southwest Border Sheriff’s Coalition/Texas Sheriff’s Coalition. Also on the opening keynote panel (the panel right before when the man asked the question) were former Border Patrol chief Carla Provost, current chief Raul Ortiz, and the executive associate director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, Corey Price. When I took the picture of McDonald, he was expressing frustration that the border is so often framed as strictly a partisan issue. “It’s not a red issue, it’s not a blue issue,” he said. “It’s a red, white, and blue issue.”
The next day in another panel, beamed in on the large screen from Washington, Democratic congressman from Maryland Dutch Ruppersberger said the same thing. Ruppersberger told the audience that he was on the congressional appropriations committee, the one that helps decide how much goes to border and immigration enforcement. “I have literally put my money where my mouth is,” he said, “championing funding for fencing, additional Border Patrol agents, and state-of-the-art surveillance equipment.”
This was the entrance to the expo hall. At least 191 companies displayed their wares on the floor. The All Domain Situation Awareness Booth from Elbit Systems of America (subsidiary of the Israeli company Elbit Systems) welcomed attendees with the above banner. Their booth was the first one you saw walking into the expo hall, as you’ll see in the next photo.
Elbit Systems became a top border contractor for CBP when it received the much-sought-after contract for Integrated Fixed Towers in 2014. According to Elbit, there are now 50 such towers deployed in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, mainly in southern Arizona. These towers—which come equipped with sophisticated high-powered cameras and ground-sweeping radar—were first deployed and tested in the West Bank in Palestine, before CBP contracted the company. What did they mean by “Anytime. Any threat. Anywhere?” On its website, the company says, “From the darkest of nights to the thickest of brush, our border solutions help predict, detect, identify and classify items of interest.”
The representative at the booth who I talked to focused on the company’s products becoming more autonomous, saying that Border Patrol agents now have “Team Awareness Kits.” When their autonomous towers and radar detect people, he said, it appears directly on an agent’s cell phone. Fewer agents staring at monitors in command and control centers, and more agents in the field. That technology is a “force multiplier” was a huge theme stressed repeatedly throughout the expo.
As I walked the expo floor, there was a feeling of constantly being watched by giant eyes, whether from these infrared cameras or a host of cameras on display everywhere throughout the spacious hall. Some of the cameras were attached to long masts that could extend from the bed of pickup truck or attached to a tethered drone that buzzed above me at the company Axon’s booth. There were also the unmanned ground systems, such as the robotic dogs, as you’ll see in the following picture, which received a lot of press (including from The Border Chronicle) after DHS wrote an article about them in February.
When I asked Border Patrol chief Raul Ortiz about these robo-dogs during a “pad and paper” meeting with some journalists on Tuesday, he told me that the media had overhyped them. They were only in testing phase. They had not been deployed. He told me they could possibly be used in underground smuggling tunnels or to do rescues. This was another constant theme throughout the two days. Ortiz and many others continually pointed out the “humanitarian” aspects of CBP’s work, and now the robotic dogs—which could be weaponized—were fit into that narrative. I followed up the question for Ortiz, asking whether Border Patrol is looking for more Unmanned Ground Systems (ground drones) or UGRs. “Yes,” he said, “we are looking for whatever it is that can help us.” The Ghost Robotics representative at the booth told me, however, that these robots were already “working on the border,” although he didn’t clarify what he meant by that.
It’s sometimes difficult to figure out what a company is doing or trying to do on the border. Another such example is Verizon. What (the hell, I wanted to add) is Verizon doing on the border? I asked at their booth. At first, no clear answer. Representatives talked about “Frontline” mainly in terms of disaster relief, such as hurricanes, where they could arrive ahead of time and set up cell service in places of need. What did that have to do with the border and why were they at the Border Security Expo? “We also helped,” another representative finally told me, “with unaccompanied … people.” He said Verizon agents could help CBP set up phone service so they could do their work in remote places where they detained kids.
Representatives from the company Saxon told me that although CBP had no contracts with them (yet), the government of Mexico was searching for cartels with this drone. One of the reps had an interesting metaphor to describe the explosion of the drone industry over the last four to five years (excluding the first pandemic year, when business everywhere plummeted). “It’s like when a dog eats blood and gets carnivorous,” he said. I have been going to this expo for 10 years, and there were more drone systems than I’d ever seen. Such as this next one, Anduril’s autonomous drone known as Ghost.
Perhaps no company has gotten more hype for its border contracts during the last year than Anduril. According to the representatives at this booth, there are 175 of these autonomous Sentry towers on the border. In the far-left edge of this picture, you can see Palmer Luckey, Anduril’s 20-something founder and CEO—with sunglasses on (he said he just had laser eye surgery when he spoke on a panel earlier that day), a Hawaiian shirt, and cargo shorts. In 2019, the Los Angelese Times reported that Luckey said, when explaining his company’s name, that “Anduril means Flame of the West. And I think that’s what we are trying to be. We’re trying to be the company that represents not just the best technology that Western democracy has to offer, but also the best ethics, the best of democracy, the best of values that we all hold dear.”
Outside the expo hall and the convention center, however, there was a group of people who had a much different idea.
“Nobody should go home today feeling good that they profit off of death,” said one protester in front of the convention center. Organizers from a coalition of different groups (including the Southwest Workers Union and the Autonomous Brown Berets de San Antonio) were collecting signatures for a petition to send to the mayor and to the San Antonio City Council demanding that they stop allowing the Border Security Expo to be held in the city. Afterward, protestors marched to the Alamo, where the Border Patrol Foundation was sponsoring a dinner for expo participants.
In other words, much like the man who asked the question: “Why would you even want a solution?” on the first day of the expo, what is going on at the Border Security Expo, and its accompanying border industrial complex, is both questioned and contested.