The fence through Nogales was built as part of the Se Fence Act of 2006, which earmarked $1.2 billion for 670 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly all of that’s been built, split roughly half and half between the wire mesh, steel picket, and solid panel fences styles designed to prevent people from walking through, and the lower, heavier barriers designed to stop cars or trucks (but not people).

That leaves a sweeping 1,320 miles of southern border unfenced.

The stretches of unfenced land get the fence fetishists awfully hot and bothered. As conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt admits, what he wants – what he really, really wants – is “a fence, a long, tall, strong fence.”

So it was no surprise that the fence fetishists went berserk when they realized that the Senate immigration bill includes language giving DHS discretion not to build a fence in any particular location “if the Secretary determines that the use or placement of such resources is not the most appropriate means to achieve and maintain effective control over the Southern border at such location.” The various House proposals don’t mention the fence at all.

How did all this sensibleness happen?

Turns out, a long, tall, strong fence from San Diego, CA to Brownsville, TX must contend with two heretofore unforeseen challenges, called “geography” and “weather.”  During southern Arizona’s monsoons, for example, water and debris pool up against the fence, causing it to collapse.

Building the fence has also involved a good deal of seizing private property, anathema for many of the very conservatives who initially supported the fence. Enough people and institutions put up a fight – including the City of Eagle PassUniversity of Texas-Brownsville, and a group of pissed off Texans – that DHS has had to think twice about pushing forward.

But the primary cause for any sensibleness regarding the fence may be because something new has come along to grab the hearts and wallets of border hardliners. He’s smarter and more sophisticated than the border fence. Flashier. A bit mysterious. He’s the newer, hotter thing. His name is surveillance.

Not that the fence has been dismissed outright. It’s just been replaced as the border security crowd’s main squeeze. As McCain put it,“Fencing is important. Surveillance is more important.”

A small segment of the fence at the eastern end of the border gives the story in miniature. When DHS demanded that the University of Texas-Brownsville hand over a chunk of its land in order to build one of those 18 footers the woman in Nogales jumped over, the University refused.  DHS sued UT-Brownsville and the University fought the lawsuit. Finally, after a year of negotiations, the two sides settled on an agreement: DHS would allow the University to simply bolster the existing perimeter fence so long as DHS is permitted to use the site “to test and study technological alternatives to a physical barrier to curb illegal immigration.”

By “technological alternatives,” DHS means surveillance. Writ large from the few thousand feet at UT-Brownsville, this testing and studying of alternatives to the fence is a boondoggle for military contractors looking for a new war.

By boondoggle, I don’t mean to imply that the military contractors are amateurs, without a track record. Far from it. Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, et al have all developed some pretty amazing technological innovations. Each has a version of a device, for example, capable of sucking quadrillions of dollars out of the tax coffers, even when there is no money available for repairing bridges and building schools.

For Boeing, this device continues to work even after the company sucked up $1 billion from 2005-2010 to develop a virtual fence and produced…nothing at all. Boeing blamed the total failure on “geography” and “weather.”  So troublesome, those two! Despite its starring role in the SBI-Net disaster, Boeing is right up there with the other military contractors making a move in this latest round of surveillance funding.

(Voyeurs who want to watch this romance play out between DHS and the military contractors can set your Google alerts to “IFT Integrated Fixed Towers program” and “RVSS Remote Video Surveillance System,” the two big projects currently under bid.)

For the military contractors, though, the $1.5 billion set aside for developing the latest version of a virtual fence is a pittance compared to the $46 billion or so that may rain down if Congress passes an immigration bill with language linking “effective control” of the border to a certain apprehension rate.

In the Senate bill, DHS is required to deploy a plan to take “effective control” of the US-Mexico border before Registered Provisional Immigrants (RPI) can adjust to green card status. “Effective control” includes both “persistent surveillance” and an apprehension rate of 90% or higher.  The two are related. To calculate the apprehension rate, you need to know the denominator: how many people tried to enter the country without authorization. To count the people who didn’t get caught, you need persistent surveillance.

Northrop Grunman, with its Predator drone mounted VADER sensor, and every other military contractor with gyrocams, ground sensors, and battery operated nosy neighbors are already vying for a piece of the action, showing off just how super it is at surveillance.

To be clear, the military contractors don’t care about immigration policy. If the Senate bill offered $46 billion for a system that greets people at the border and makes dinner reservations for them, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon would be on it. But as it is, members of Congress seem sweet on surveillance, so this is what the contractors will develop.

The more money is put on the table, the harder the contractors will compete with one another to put the border region – including cities and towns – as completely as possible under 24/7, total surveillance. The more complete the surveillance, the harder it will be to reach a 90% apprehension rate, possibly delaying the adjustment of status date long past ten years. And whatever’s developed in the border region, will most certainly be packaged and sold to keep an eye on people living everywhere else.

Something of a creep, this surveillance fellow. It makes you a bit nostalgic for that old fence guy.

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