Sensors, scanners and surveillance: at the expo to outfit Trump's border wall
The Raptor ground surveillance radar has “werewolf positioning” to detect a human being up to seven miles away. The quantum sensor uses seismic-acoustic energy to provide “360 degrees spheres of awareness”. The astrophysics x-ray scanners make “hidden threats visible”. The long range acoustic device lets you shout “highly intelligible warnings” across a desert plain.
Welcome to America. Or not, if you’re crossing illegally from .
In that case you may encounter border patrol agents racing towards you in a Prowler multi-mission configurable light tactical all-terrain vehicle or a 20-tonne CT Defense mobile tactical unit, and if you’re very unlucky you may find yourself shot by CZ-USA’s latest Scorpion sub-machine gun.
All this was but one small part of this week’s in San Antonio, Texas, a three-day product showcase and networking jamboree for the architects and enforcers of ’s immigration policies.
Sales pitches zinged around the exhibition hall, the booths staffed mainly by men with crew cuts, chinos and a sense that Christmas, in the form of federal dollars, has come early.
“Everyone needs a tower,” said the tower booth guy. “Trusted technology for a tactical advantage,” said the Telephonics Corporation banner. “With this you can always communicate what the enemy is up to,” said the RolaTube vendor, flicking out a 23ft camouflaged antenna.
It would be easy for some to mock the three-day event, which concludes on Thursday with a demonstration day and shooting contest involving “clearing a simulated building of bad guys” and “looking for well armed coyotes along the trail”.
Coyotes very seldom carry guns. Illicit border crossings are at . Crossers these days tend to be women and children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who surrender and .
Yet the gathering in San Antonio had a sense of urgency and giddiness that the border security industry’s time had come.
“We had to be here,” said David Schnell, whose company sells powerful speakers with cameras and lights, a deterrence-surveillance combo priced from $5,000 to $120,000. “We’re included in some of the bids for the wall.”
CT Defense also felt compelled to attend even though it makes its hulking trucks in Oaxaca, Mexico, home to many migrants who try to dodge border patrol. “Ironic? I don’t think so. This is what we do,” said Raul Fernandez.
The notion of a 2,000-mile wall has inspired scorn – a Trumpian folly of ego and hubris to rival Ozymandias.
The expo delivered a sobering riposte: the wall is on its way and set to transform immigration policy, with potentially grave consequences for millions of undocumented people.
“I’m a career civil servant. My boss is the president. He was elected, I was not. He has given me an order. We’re following that order,” said Mark Borkowski, head of acquisitions for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Borkowski looks the quintessential bureaucrat: balding, bespectacled. He is smart – a former rocket scientist, in fact. He left open the possibility that the wall is daft. “It’s a fair debate over whether this is how the US should spend its treasure,” he told journalists afterwards.
But he intends to integrate a physical barrier into a system which delivers “operational control” along the border. Metrics showed barriers were cost-effective ways to achieve “persistent impedance”, he said.
The Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall worked, he said, as long as they were defended. The US would apply that lesson by combining the barrier with personnel and technology.
Vendors trailed Borkowski around the expo, pitching him and plying business cards in hope of a share of CBP’s $13.9bn budget. Asked if vendors viewed him as a cross between a sugar daddy and a Santa Claus, he nodded. “Absolutely. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We want jobs and people employed.”
Congress may yet slice Trump’s proposed budget, but the exhibitors expressed confidence about nabbing federal money. “You need tech. Show me a 15ft wall and I’ll show you a 20ft ladder,” said John Warner, of Blackwing Holdings. He thinks the radars he sold US forces in Afghanistan will work on the border, ideally one every five miles. They cost $300,000 to $600,000 each.
The murmurs during panel discussions, lunches and huddles (“coffee breaks sponsored by Unisys, securing your tomorrow”) ranged from technical arcana – drone wingspans, facial recognition biometrics – to backslapping and gossip. It was the sound of US bureaucracy and capitalism putting bones on a policy conjured in June 2015 when the future president glided down a Trump tower escalator and .
The US could further bolster security by applying British-style sanctions against companies and landlords which employed and housed people in the country illegally, Tony Smith, the former head of Britain’s Border Agency, told the Guardian, after speaking on a panel. Post-Brexit Britain, in turn, should apply US-style electronic pre-clearance for inbound travellers: “We have to learn from the Americans.”
Nathalie Asher, a senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) official, said lower apprehensions at the border would shift the focus of the hunt for undocumented people to the US interior, and to people who consider the US home. “These individuals have more at stake,” and fight deportation harder, she said. So let’s beef up immigration courts to ease backlogs, she urged.
Attendees alluded to “illegals” and “targets” within earshot of Latino waiters and cleaners in the Henry B Gonzalez convention centre and in their hotels.
“For Latinos to have to put on a smile and host this event, no,” said Nohemi Acosta, 23, a housekeeper in the Grand Hyatt, which abuts the centre. “Labelling humans as legal and illegal and making money out of it – it’s shameful.”
Acosta’s father was deported in 2007 and she lived in fear until obtaining a green card in 2012, and becoming a citizen last year. On election day, a man in a Starbucks leaned into her and shouted “Go Trump”, she said. “A lot of us here say we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
was part of Mexico until 1836.
Expo organisers held a reception in the nearby Alamo, the fortress where Davy Crockett and other defenders fell to Mexican troops. It made for a striking tableau: border patrol and Ice officials, and corporate allies, eating tortillas while a mariachi band played boleros.
“They stole something that belonged to Mexico. Now we feel like outsiders in our own territory,” said one service employee, who requested anonymity.
In contrast Mary Buentello White, who staffed the bar, lauded the guests. “As a Mexican American I think what the border patrol does is great. My son wants to join. He thinks it’s an amazing job.”
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