The billion-dollar industry of border security

Participants look over assault weapons on display at the Border Security Expo April 28, 2010, in Phoenix.
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(TomDispatch) William "Drew" Dodds, the salesperson for StrongWatch, a Tucson-based company, is at the top of his game when he describes developments on the southern border of the United States in football terms. In his telling, that boundary is the line of scrimmage, and the technology his company is trying to sell -- a mobile surveillance system named Freedom-On-The-Move, a camera set atop a retractable mast outfitted in the bed of a truck and maneuvered with an Xbox controller -- acts like a "roving linebacker."

As Dodds describes it, unauthorized migrants and drug traffickers often cross the line of scrimmage undetected. At best, they are seldom caught until the "last mile," far from the boundary line. His surveillance system, he claims, will cover a lot more of that ground in very little time and from multiple angles. It will become the border-enforcement equivalent of New York Giants' linebacking great, Lawrence Taylor.

To listen to Dodds, an ex-Marine -- Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001-2004 -- with the hulking physique of a linebacker himself, is to experience a new worldview being constructed on the run. Even a decade or so ago, it might have seemed like a mad dream from the American fringe. These days, his all-the-world's-a-football-field vision seemed perfectly mainstream inside the brightly-lit convention hall in Phoenix, Arizona, where the seventh annual Border Security Expo took place this March. Dodds was just one of hundreds of salespeople peddling their border-enforcement products and national security wares, and StrongWatch but one of more than 100 companies scrambling for a profitable edge in an exploding market.

Vivid as he is, Dodds is speaking a new corporate language embedded in an ever-more powerful universe in which the need to build up "boundary enforcement" is accepted, even celebrated, rather than debated. It's a world where billions of dollars are potentially at stake, and one in which nothing is more important than creating, testing, and even flaunting increasingly sophisticated and expensive technologies meant for border patrol and social control, without serious thought as to what they might really portend.

The War on Terror on the Border

Phoenix was an especially appropriate place for Border Security Expo.

After all, the Arizona-Mexico border region is Ground Zero for the development of an immigration enforcement apparatus which soon enough may travel from the southern border to a neighborhood near you.

The sold-out convention hall was abuzz with energy befitting an industry whose time has come. Wandering its aisles, you could sense the excitement, the sound of money being spent, the cacophony of hundreds of voices boosting product, the synergy of a burgeoning marketplace of ideas and dreams. General Dynamics, FLIR thermal imaging, and Raytheon banners hung from the vast ceiling, competing for eyeballs with the latest in mini-surveillance blimps. NEANY Inc.'s unmanned aerial drones and their water-borne equivalents sat on a thick red carpet next to desert-camouflaged trailer headquarters.

At various exhibits, mannequins dressed in camo and sporting guns with surveillance gizmos hanging off their helmets seemed as if they might walk right out of the exhibition hall and take over the sprawling city of Phoenix with brute force. Little imaginable for your futuristic fortressed border was missing from the hall. There were even ready-to-eat pocket sandwiches (with a three-year shelf life), and Brief Relief plastic urine bags. A stream of uniformed Border Patrol, military, and police officials moved from booth to booth alongside men in suits in what the sole protester outside the convention center called a "mall of death."

If there was anything that caught the control mania at the heart of this expo, it was a sign behind the DRS Technologies booth, which offered this promise: "You Draw the Line and We'll Help You Secure It." And what better place to express such a sentiment than Phoenix, the seat of Maricopa County, where "America's toughest sheriff," Joe Arpaio (now being sued by the Justice Department), regularly swept through neighborhoods on a search for poor people of color who looked like they might have just slipped across the line dividing the United States from Mexico.

Dodds and I stood a little more than 100 miles from that border, which has seen a staggering enforcement build-up over the last 20 years. It's distinctly a seller's market. StrongWatch is typical. The company, Dodds told me, was hoping for a fat contract for its border technology. After all, everyone knew that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was about to issue a new request for proposals to build its latest version of a "virtual wall" along that border -- not actual fencing, but a barrier made up of the latest in surveillance technology, including towers, cameras, sensors, and radar.

In January 2011, DHS had cancelled its previous attempt, known as SBInet, and the multi-billion dollar contract to the Boeing Company that went with it. Complaints were that the costly and often-delayed technological barrier was not properly tailored to the rugged terrain of the borderlands, and that it had trouble distinguishing animals from humans.

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Todd Miller has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog Border Wars, among other places. He is at work on his first book, "Border Patrol Nation," for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.