In response to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to sign executive order promoting artificial intelligence Trump’s new Syria timetable raises concern among key anti-ISIS allies Trump officials considering Mar-a-Lago for next meeting with China’s Xi: report MORE’s demand for $5.7 billion for a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, and his threat to shut down the government again on Feb. 15 if Congress doesn’t provide it, Democratic Congressional leaders are promoting an alternative they refer to as a “smart border.” This is essentially an expansion of existing technologies like remote sensors, integrated fixed-towers, drones and other surveillance assets.
On Jan. 29, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in the House, wrote an op-ed in The Hill arguing that this kind of “smart border” is preferable to a physical wall because it will “create a technological barrier too high to climb over, too wide to go around, and too deep to burrow under,” resulting in an “effective, efficient and humane” alternative to Trump’s border wall. Meanwhile, the “opening offer” announced on Jan. 31 by the Democrats in bipartisan budget negotiations included $400 million for this “smart border” surveillance package.
In a recent peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Borderlands Studies, we raised fundamental questions about these kinds of “smart border” technologies, including their humanitarian implications. Using geospatial modeling and statistical analysis, we show how previous “high-tech” border solutions failed to deliver on their operational objectives; instead of preventing unauthorized crossing, the surveillance network simply shifted migration routes into much more difficult and remote terrain, with a measurable impact on the geography of migrant deaths in the southern Arizona desert.
From 2006 to 2011 the United States appropriated $3.7 billion for the SBInet system, intended as a high-tech network of ground sensors connected to integrated fixed towers mounted with infrared, high-resolution cameras and motion-detecting ground radar. Experimentally deployed southwest of Tucson, Arizona, the surveillance network aimed to provide the Border Patrol “complete situational awareness” through the real-time, automated integration of multiple sources of surveillance data.
The outcomes delivered by the SBInet program fell well short of these aspirations, however. In 2010 the Government Accountability Office concluded that the Department of Homeland Security had “yet to identify expected benefits from the [program], whether quantitative or qualitative.” After continuous operational shortcomings and delays, in 2011 the Obama administration quietly canceled the program.
Simultaneously, the area where SBInet was deployed has become a “land of open graves,” according to anthropologist and 2017 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Jason De León. From 2006 to 2011, at least 1,267 people died in southern Arizona attempting to cross the border. A significant majority of these deaths were the outcome of exposure to the elements: dehydration, hyperthermia and exhaustion. Meanwhile, during this same period the rate of death (the number of deaths / 100,000 Border Patrol apprehensions) skyrocketed, nearly tripling between 2008 and 2011 alone.
These deaths are the result of many factors. But our research shows that significant among these has been the expansion of border surveillance technology. Using Geographic Information Science, we analyzed the mapped location of human remains pre- and post-SBInet. We then plotted the visual range of the SBInet system using publicly-available information on the location of the towers and the operational reach of their various components.
Next, we created a model using variables like vegetation, slope and terrain to measure the physiological difficulty associated with pedestrian transit along different routes of travel. We found a meaningful and measurable shift in the location of human remains toward routes of travel outside the visual range of the SBInet system, routes that simultaneously required much greater physical exertion, thus increasing peoples’ vulnerability to injury, isolation, dehydration, hyperthermia and exhaustion.
Our research findings show that in addition to its monetary cost and its questionable operational efficacy, the “smart border” technology presently being promoted by the Democratic congressional leadership contributes to deadly outcomes.
Based on these findings there is a need to reconsider the premise that surveillance technology and infrastructure can provide a “humane” alternative to Trump’s border wall (a proposal we also consider to be wasteful and destructive). Instead, we’d like to see a shift in U.S. border policy that genuinely prioritizes the protection of human life, regardless of a person’s citizenship or immigration status.
This kind of shift, of course, would require reforms not just to the Border Patrol and its enforcement strategy, but to U.S. immigration policy overall, allowing people to seek safety or reunite with family and loved ones without risking their lives crossing through the desert.
Geoffrey Alan Boyce, Ph.D., is academic director of the Earlham College Border Studies Program based in Tucson, Arizona.
Samuel N. Chambers, Ph.D., is a research associate in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona.
Sarah Launius, Ph.D., is an independent geography and development researcher.