Border Security Results Act: Border Militarization Disguised as “Accountability Measure” in House Reform Effort

On the morning of July 17 a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles swooped down on Congresswoman Candice Miller’s office in Macomb County, Michigan.  Eighteen inches long and made of cardboard, these mini-drones were part of a larger protest.  Supplementing the barely-hidden racial anxieties driving much of contemporary U.S. immigration policy, the inclusion of the northern border as an enforcement priority is grounded in a post-9/11 logic of pre-emptive surveillance and "security" at all costs.

Geoffrey Boyce 8/21/2013

On the morning of July 17 a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles swooped down on Congresswoman Candice Miller’s office in Macomb County, Michigan.  Eighteen inches long and made of cardboard, these mini-drones were part of a larger protest organized by Michigan United, No More Deaths, Mothering Justice, Presente and the Border Network for Human Rights, to mark a National Day of Action Against Border Militarization.

The protest at Miller’s office helped to highlight a troubling direction in the immigration “reform” legislation currently under discussion in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Unsatisfied with the already severe militarization of the Southwest borderlands, or the unprecedented escalation of enforcement included in the Senate’s immigration reform proposal (allocating $48 billion and doubling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol, among other provisions), House Republicans are proposing even more extreme enforcement measures, and refusing to consider any legalization program for undocumented immigrants until these measures are accomplished.1955

One of these enforcement proposals is the Border Security Results Act.  Introduced on April 8, 2013 by Candice Miller and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the Border Security Results Act would require greater reporting from the Department of Homeland Security on the status of its enforcement efforts, while simultaneously imposing a metric that would measure “security” and establish concrete benchmarks for the Border Patrol to meet.

Importantly, unlike the Senate’s Gang of Eight “border surge” proposal, the House bill would incorporate the U.S. / Canada boundary into its enforcement mandate.  Among other things, the bill would require DHS to accomplish 100% “situational awareness” (e.g. real-time surveillance) and a 90% “effectiveness rate” (the interdiction or deterrence of unauthorized entries) on both southwestern and northern U.S. land borders.

It is troubling that border hawks like Miller have succeeded in framing the Border Security Results Act as a reasonable, moderate effort to ensure fiscal accountability in Homeland Security spending.  In response to the July 17 protest at her office, Miller sent out a statement defending her position and denouncing the Senate immigration bill as “a massive bill of thousands of pages laden with special interest giveaways.”  During a committee hearing held July 23 Miller added: “I do think that additional resources will be needed to achieve situational awareness, operational control of the border and enhance security at the ports of entry.  But just spending additional resources without a strategy to secure the border or means to hold DHS accountable for a result creates conditions that are ripe for waste.”

Miller’s argument has widespread appeal, resonating with many progressive critics of border militarization who have argued that current spending is unnecessary and wasteful.  Her legislation has simultaneously been embraced by many immigration advocates as a reasonable alternative to the enforcement provisions included in the Senate’s “border surge” and the House Judiciary Committee’s SAFE Act.  As a result, in July the bill passed both the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security (which Miller chairs) and the House Committee on Homeland Security (chaired by McCaul) on unanimous, bipartisan votes.

Yet to frame the Border Security Results Act as designed to foster “accountability” is deeply misleading.  Supplementing the barely-hidden racial anxieties driving much of contemporary U.S. immigration policy, the inclusion of the northern border as an enforcement priority is grounded in a post-9/11 logic of pre-emptive surveillance and “security” at all costs.  As Miller’s District Director Karen Czernel insisted to activists following the July 17 protest, “the northern border is vulnerable. We have known cases of terrorists trying to come in from Canada.  When we talk to officials from Homeland Security they tell us that the northern border is wide open!”

Among other things, Miller and McCaul’s bill would reinstate DHS’s “operational control” framework – abandoned two years ago by the agency as both arbitrary and anachronistic.  In 2011, when last evaluated, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that although 44% of the Mexico / U.S. border met the agency’s highest criteria for “operational control,” only 32 miles – or about .7% - of the Canada / U.S. border, met this standard.

To accomplish its benchmarks, the Border Security Results Act would therefore ultimately mandate an unprecedented build-up of border enforcement infrastructure and personnel along both U.S. land borders, with a disproportionate impact on the northern border region. Moreover, because other reform provisions may be tied to accomplishing these objectives, congressional1956 and non-governmental advocates may become enlisted in supporting ever-more enforcement assets and infrastructure in order to ensure that these benchmarks are reached.

We needn’t speculate on what the impacts of this build-up would be.  The Border Patrol has already doubled in size twice over the past 17 years.  While the Southwest borderlands are saturated with enforcement personnel and infrastructure, a similar build-up along the northern border is already well underway.  Since 2001 the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents along the U.S. / Canada border has grown more than six-fold, from 340 agents to more than 2,200. Simultaneously, since 2006 the Department of Homeland Security has invested millions into new Border Patrol stations, surveillance towers, unmanned aerial vehicles and other equipment to be deployed in the northern border region.

Meanwhile, rather than targeting anyone actively attempting unauthorized entry into the United States, much of this enforcement apparatus has taken advantage of the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction within 100 miles of all U.S. land and sea borders.  This has facilitated U.S. agents scrutinizing and harassing immigrant workers and communities whose homes, workplaces or transit routes happen to lie near the Canadian border.

In response,  non-governmental organizations have released four distinct, major reports over the last three years detailing abusive practices by the immigration authorities.  These include: Border Patrol sweeps on trains and busses; monitoring and responding to local emergency 911 calls; racial and religious profiling; working hand-in-glove with local police; and the incentivization of frivolous arrests. Together, these practices lead to the prolonged detention of undocumented immigrants, tourists, legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens alike; thousands of families torn apart by detention and deportation; and whole communities living in fear.

Standing to benefit from an expansive new enforcement mandate are security and defense contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics.  In recent years, border and immigration enforcement have become a multi-billion dollar global industry, with annual trade fairs like Phoenix’s “Border Security Expo” where companies formerly invested in counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan hawk their wares to U.S. and international domestic police agencies.

As a result, military technologies like tethered aerostats, ground radar systems and unmanned aerial vehicles increasingly form the backbone of the U.S. Homeland Security arsenal.  That many of the above companies have facilities located in congressional districts like Miller’s – and make significant campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike – should not be overlooked in assessing the political calculations involved in current “reform” efforts.

Without the inclusion of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, many Democrats have said they will not support any of the enforcement bills currently making their way through the House.  But immigration advocates should be cautious about efforts to rebrand any new enforcement scheme as a “moderate” policy compromise.

After all, it was only in 2006 – the last time a “bipartisan” immigration reform effort had anything approximating its current momentum – when Democrats who had started off accepting greater immigration enforcement as a “compromise” position ended up passing the Secure Fence Act and adding 8,000 Border Patrol agents, without accomplishing any other reform objective.  The “enforcement first” logic reflected in the Border Security Results Act, the House’s SAFE Act and the Senate border surge proposal continue this path.

There are other reasons for caution as well, given the implications of massive new spending on domestic surveillance, Homeland Security, and immigration and boundary enforcement.  Although current and future immigrants certainly have the most at stake in the content of any immigration “reform” legislation, the technology, police powers, infrastructure, legal precedent and environmental impact involved in a build-up of border enforcement north and south promise also to have affects on many other important aspects of life in the United States.

Civil libertarians, privacy advocates, anti-war and environmental activists would do well to take heed.

  


 

Geoffrey Boyce is a PhD Candidate in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona.  He is also a long-time affiliate of the Tucson-based No More Deaths, and he writes and blogs on homeland security and immigration-related issues.  He can be reached at gboyce@email.arizona.edu.

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