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The billion-dollar industry of border security

These lines of division have not only undergone a rapid build-up, but have fast become the accepted norm. According to anthropologist Josiah Heyman, the muscling up of an ever more massive border enforcement, interdiction, and surveillance apparatus "has militarized border society, where more and more people either work for the watchers, or are watched by the state." Heyman's words may prove prophetic, and not just along our borders either.

As any migrant, protester, or activist in the United States knows, the "watchers" and the "watched" are proliferating nationwide. Geographer Matthew Coleman says that the "most significant yet largely ignored fallout of the so-called war on terrorism... [is] the extension of interior immigration policing practices away from the southwest border."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is another 20,000-strong agency sheltered under the expansive roof of the Department of Homeland Security. It draws from a pool of 650,000 law enforcement officers across the country through deputization programs with innocuous names like 287(g) and Secure Communities. ICE effectively serves as a conduit bringing the borderlands and all they now imply into communities as distant as Utah, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

More than one million migrants have been deported from the country over the last 3 1/2 years under the Obama administration, numbers that surpass those of the Bush years. This should be a reminder that a significant, if overlooked, part of this country's post 9/11 security iron fist has been aimed not at al-Qaeda but at the undocumented migrant. Indeed, as writer Roberto Lovato points out, there has been an "al-Qaedization of immigrants and immigration policy." And as in the Global War on Terror, military-industrial companies like Boeing and Halliburton are cashing in on this version of for-profit war.

Bringing Arizona to You

Surprisingly enough, in that vast, brightly-lit cathedral of science fiction in Phoenix it wasn't the guns, drones, and robots, or the fixed surveillance towers and militarized mannequins that startled me most. It was the staggering energy and enthusiasm, so thick in the convention's air that it enveloped you.

That day, I had no doubt, I was in the presence of a burgeoning new industry which has every intention of making not just the border, but this world of ours its own. I could feel that sense of excitement and possibility from the moment Drew Dodds began explaining to me just how his company's Freedom-On-The-Move system actually works. He grabbed two water bottles close at hand and began painting a vivid picture of one as a "hill" obstructing "the line of sight to the target," and the other as that "target" -- in fact, an exhausted migrant walking "the last mile" after three days in the desert, who might give anything for just such a bottle.

I have met many migrants in Dodd's "last mile" -- hurt, dehydrated, exhausted. One man's feet had swelled up so much, thanks to the unrelenting heat and the cactus spines he had stepped on, that he could no longer jam them in his shoes. He had, he told me, continued on anyway in excruciating pain, mile after mile, barefoot on the oven-hot desert floor. Considering the thousands of dead bodies recovered from the borderlands since the massive build-up of Border Patrol forces and technology, he was lucky to have made it through alive. And this was the man Dodds was so pumped about Freedom-On-The-Move's "spot and stalk" technology nabbing; this was his football game. In the end, though, he abandoned football for reality, summing up his experience this way: "We are bringing the battlefield to the border."

That caught it all, offering a vision of what the military-industrial complex looks like once it's transported, jobs and all, to the U.S.-Mexican border and turned into a consumer's mall for the post-9/11 American era. You could sense it in the young woman from RoboteX, who looked like she had walked directly out of her college graduation and onto the floor of Border Security Expo 2012. She loaned me her remote control for a few minutes and let me play with the micro-robot she was hawking. It looked like a tiny tank and was already being used by the Oakland police and its SWAT team.

It was the breathless excitement of the University of Arizona graduate student describing to me the "deception detection" technology the university was developing, along with a "communication web" that would allow drones to communicate with each other without human intervention. Perhaps training students for this rising industry was part of the University of Arizona's thought process in accepting a multi-million-dollar grant from DHS to create a Center of Excellence on Border Security which will work in tandem with its Tech Park on Science and Technology. That center, in turn, was to develop the newest border enforcement technologies, as part of a consortium of several other universities.

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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.