‘Virtual fence’ at Mexican border to grow

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2009

US/Mexico border at TijuanaThe Obama administration is pushing ahead with the expansion of a pilot project launched by the outgoing Bush gang – a ‘virtual border fence’ of cameras, sensors and communications hardware designed to enable a more rapid response to Mexican illegal immigrants from the Border Patrol.

What is different, DHS officials said, is that they have learned lessons from the technical problems that dogged the Bush administration’s first, 28-mile pilot project south of Tucson. What remains unclear is whether the ambitious technology will encounter fresh setbacks that would embarrass President Obama, who has urged Congress to streamline the immigration system and work out a way to deal fairly with the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, analysts said

[…]

On Monday, U.S. officials began erecting 17 camera and radio towers on a 23-mile stretch near Tucson, and they expect this summer to add 36 others over 30 miles near Ajo, Ariz. If testing goes well and DHS approves, plans call for covering the 320-mile Arizona border by 2012 and the full border with Mexico — except for a 200-mile stretch in southwestern Texas where it is difficult to cross and expensive to monitor — by 2014.

[…]

The government has made many changes since a $20 million pilot rushed off-the-shelf equipment into operation without testing, relied on inadequate police dispatching software and ignored the input of Border Patrol officers, who found that radar systems were triggered by rain, satellite communications were too slow to permit camera operators to track targets by remote control, and cameras had poor visibility.

It remains to be seen how much of an improvement the new systems will be, but the cynic (and science fiction reader) in me doesn’t find it hard to imagine new methodologies being developed by border-jumpers and those who make a living helping them cross, which will quickly render the new hardware inadequate, if not obsolete. That said, it’s a much less crass and weird idea than allowing unpaid volunteers from around the world make a sport out of border surveillance.

The only way to make any border truly impermeable is to remove all incentive for people to cross it; that suggests to me that all the high-tech gadgets and fences in the world won’t stop people trying to immigrate across the Mexican border with the US. All it will achieve is more deaths, more imprisonment of people whose ‘criminal’ motive is to make a better life for themselves and their families, and more hypocrisy from those who deplore the notion of immigrant labour while enjoying the low costs it provides. But hey – why treat the illness when you can rub snake-oil on the symptoms, right? [via SlashDot; image by superfem]


New Aussie drinking game – “spot the wetback”

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2009

Texas-Mexico border fenceHere’s an odd twist on crowdsourcing; the publicly-accessible cameras along the Texas-Mexico border have attracted amateur border guards from a number of the southern states… and beyond. In fact, it seems to be quite the international pastime:

So far, more than 100,000 web users have signed up online to become virtual border patrol deputies, according to Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs’ Coalition, which represents 20 counties where illegal crossings and drugs and weapons smuggling are rife.

“We had folks send an email saying, in good Australian fashion, ‘Hey mate, we’ve been watching your border for you from the pub in Australia’,” he said.

Not everyone is quite so impressed, however, especially considering the system’s cost measured against its successes:

Opponents have dismissed the project as “the perfect Google border” and say the cameras do little to deter criminal activity. “Border security deserves trained professionals, not pub-goers in Perth,” said Eliot Shapleigh, a state senator from El Paso, Texas, who claims that the programme has resulted in only a handful of arrests. “It’s wholly ineffective for the governor’s stated goal of security, it panders to extremists for political purposes and it’s not an effective use of $2m for just three apprehensions.”

One has to wonder whether all the people who’ve signed up to watch the border are sincerely interested in reporting transgressions rather than turning a blind eye to them; the barriers to entry are pretty low, after all, and not everyone wants to take America’s side these days. [image by Daquella manera]

But what interests me most about this story is that it seems to highlight one of my current obsessions, namely the fragmentation of nation-states into parts that borders on a map just can’t represent. If an Australian is voluntarily watching a piece of land at the edge of Texas (which, a long time back, was part of Mexico) to make sure that no Mexicans (or Guatemalans or Hondurans or anyone else) cross that fence-line, could he not be considered a temporary US citizen? Or is he merely a form of contractor, or neither?

Think about it – to enforce a geographical boundary, the US is using tools that contribute to the ongoing erasure of geography; meanwhile, non-citizens on the other side of the globe do work that a citizen would need to be security-screened for… and do it for free, or for kudos. What does being a citizen actually mean, beyond defining who you pay your taxes to? Where does citizenship actually take place – on the ground, in our own minds, or in the network of mutual assumptions that we call society?

Isn’t it possible that one day that one way to cross the conceptual border of the US and become a citizen thereof would be to have spent a considerable amount of time and effort ensuring that other people didn’t cross the geographical border?

[26/03/09 – Note: it has been brought to my attention that the term ‘wetback’ is a lot more fundamentally racist than I – unused to some of the subtleties of US slang – initially thought; had I thought it referred to anything more than person who attempts to cross the Rio Grande, I wouldn’t have used it, and I’d like to apologise for any offence caused.]