Guns, Tech, and Steel: The Wall Debate and Digital Technologies in Border Security
Once upon a time, policy discussions in Washington, D.C. reflected an understanding that achieving border security required more potent combinations of border agents, advanced technologies, and physical barriers. The demand of President Donald J. Trump for funding to build a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico jettisons this bipartisan approach and rejects arguments that better border security requires technology more than additional physical barriers. The president is aware of the technological tools used for border security purposes, but he apparently believes that technology, even combined with more border patrol agents, has reached the limits of its contribution to border security. Is the president right?
As in every policy area, governments all over the world have worked to integrate advanced, digital technologies into border security efforts. The suite of technologies deployed for this purpose include drones, powerful cameras, various detection devices and sensors, mobile communications, satellite imagery, biometrics, big-data analytics, and artificial intelligence. The information produced by these and other types of technologies allow border security officials and personnel to knit data together in order to provide heightened situational awareness of border activities that facilitates both tactical action and strategic adjustment. Better situational awareness provides border security with the flexibility to tailor deployment of personnel, technology, and physical barriers in accordance with key factors, including topography, climate, demographics, and patterns of migration and criminal activities.
Integrating advanced technological capabilities has been productive for border security operations, but the effects arise from how the capabilities plug and play with other changes in border security efforts, such as more agents and better infrastructure, including physical barriers. In 2015, Jeh Johnson, then secretary of homeland security, captured these synergies in stressing that “the massive investment in increased border security over the last decade—with drones, sensors, more than 600 miles of new fences and a doubling of the size of the Border Patrol—was showing results.”
As many have reported during the current debate about the wall, the number of people apprehended at the border for illegally entering the United States from Mexico has steadily fallen for two decades, with the most significant decline happening during the period border security policy scaled up the use of advanced technologies. This period began when Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 [PDF], which stressed the importance of “more effective use of personnel and technology, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar coverage, and cameras.” The act instructed the secretary of homeland security to reinforce existing border fencing and install additional physical barriers in specific locations in conjunction with the installation of sensors and “an interlocking surveillance camera system.”
Likewise, comprehensive border security and immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate in 2013 based its provisions on the strategic and tactical importance of integrating border security personnel, technologies, and physical barriers. It called for:
- an increase in the number of border patrol agents;
- deployment of “additional mobile, video, and agent-portable surveillance systems, and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Southwest Border region as necessary to provide 24-hour operation and surveillance”; and
- a “Southern Border Fencing Strategy” to identify where fencing, infrastructure, and technology should be deployed along the southern border.
This bill faltered in the House of Representatives because of its provisions addressing illegal immigrants already in the United States, not because of disagreement on the need for networking agents, technology, and physical barriers at the border.
The need to integrate people and technology with barriers in defending territory is, of course, as old as walls themselves. Walls—be they ancient, medieval, or modern—have always been strategic or tactical amalgamations of guards, the latest technologies, and physical materials. The wall debate has people scoffing at medieval wall-builders as if they were characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But, in their time, defensive walls were products of social organization, exploitation of cutting-edge technologies, and feats of engineering skill.
The president’s obsession that only more concrete slabs or steel slats can better secure the U.S. southern border fundamentally misunderstands what walls have always been. This failure goes deeper than his inability to accept the evidence that no security or humanitarian crisis exists along the border with Mexico. Worse, the wall debate is preventing policymakers from deliberating effectively on how to re-calibrate the utilization of personnel, technology, and physical barriers for improved border security. Where does information from enhanced situational awareness at the border converge with other data to support adding additional barriers or removing existing ones?
The course on which the president insists will, if taken, make border patrol agents and advanced technologies subservient to the physical barrier, rather than having agents, technologies, and barriers configured, networked, and deployed in the most effective ways to serve the various national interests and ideals touched by border security.