How the U.S. Southern Border Became a Militarized Zone

The Trump administration recently announced it will send 160 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. In February, the U.S. Border Patrol sent tactical units to sanctuary cities such as Detroit and Atlanta to support immigration arrests.

Even before these announcements, military-grade weaponry had been distributed to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been targeting migrants based on huge domestic surveillance operations. CBP was recently reclassified as a “security agency.” The U.S. southern border and communities from Los Angeles to New Orleans are experiencing levels of militarization that one would expect to see in one of our endless foreign wars—not within the United States.

While the arena may have shifted from overseas to inside our borders, one thing hasn’t changed—the companies who profit. The same military–industrial complex that for decades benefited from foreign wars are now benefiting from border militarization and the horrific treatment of migrants. These companies provide a lot more than just military services. The billions of dollars appropriated and diverted to fund Trump’s border wall have created a new border-industrial complex, in which the same weapon companies also manage the government’s IT systems, design systems of mass-surveillance, offer management and hiring services, and more. 

In some cases, these companies not only benefit from state violence but also drive policy.

While these contracts are a matter of public record, there has been little reporting on who profits from the militarization of immigration enforcement or the Congressional lobbying activities of those same companies. The American Friends Service Committee—a Quaker organization that has advocated for an end to violence and militarization for more than a century—has created a public, searchable database to expose the corporations and financial institutions complicit in state violence. Investigate tracks companies involved in border militarization, including the building and monitoring of walls and fences on the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrant detention, and the persistent surveillance of immigrants. The database also tracks companies involved in military occupations and mass incarceration.

In some cases, these companies not only benefit from state violence but also drive policy, because the technologies they develop determine what policy options are available. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

For example, Raytheon—the world’s second largest weapons manufacturer and the maker of a missile that killed more than 20 members of a wedding party in Yemen, has provided CBP with long-range surveillance sensors for its Predator drones. This technology allows CBP to arrest asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico Border and is the same technology that allows Predator drones to be equipped with laser-guided bombs and munitions. Although CBP has yet to arm its drones, the agency has considered doing so. Inside the U.S., Raytheon was developing technology to allow ICE to collect data and share information with local law enforcement agencies to surveil, track, report, and detain undocumented people.

Northrop Grumman, the world’s third largest weapons manufacturer, provides another example. Last year, the company was contracted by the Department of Homeland Security—the parent agency of ICE and CBP—to develop a new system designed to significantly increase the agencies’ biometric surveillance capabilities.

Called Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology, the system will store multiple forms of biometrics, “from face recognition to DNA,” of more than 500 million individuals and will make this information available to state and local law enforcement agencies. Also, DHS plans to use HART to collect information about people’s “relationship patterns” using social media to identify “political affiliation, religious activity, and familial and friendly relationships.” Northrop Grumman has also provided multiple technologies enhancing the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, including drones, airborne radar systems, and other surveillance tools. 

Some companies may never change, but a powerful divestment movement can succeed in isolating them and thus limiting their ability to influence policy.

Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer, has become, in essence, an arm of CBP’s procurement efforts. The company—which makes killer and surveillance drones tailored to the needs of the Israeli occupation of Palestine— helped introduce surveillance drones to CBP’s work back in 2004. Today, Elbit is erecting a network of surveillance towers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Many smaller manufacturers of surveillance technologies market their products to Elbit to be integrated into the company’s existing contract. 

These military companies spend millions of dollars on lobbying Congress each year, in a cycle that contributes to Congress’ appetite for increased militarization at home and abroad. In 2019, for example, General Dynamics lobbied Congress on funding for border technology and information systems, which it provides. The company has a $113 million contract with the Department of Homeland Security. 

Right now, the U.S. government is shifting even more public funds into the pockets of military contractors—continuing a long pattern of investment in the war economy at the expense of our communities. But this is not inevitable. Institutions and individuals who own stocks in these companies have a financial stake in their success, and therefore in the corporations’ operations. Divestment and other forms of economic activism have a long and powerful history of influencing both companies and states across the globe. 

Going up against corporate giants can seem impossible. But these companies can be incredibly susceptible to public pressure—if the public knows who they are and what they are doing.   

It is true, some companies may never change, but a powerful divestment movement can succeed in isolating them and thus limiting their ability to influence policy. The same divestment movement can force other companies, with less direct involvement, to exit harmful industries altogether.

We want our tax dollars spent on health care, education, and other vital social programs—not lining the pockets of military contractors, perpetuating endless wars, and militarizing borders and immigration agents. And the first step is for individuals and communities to hold the companies who drive these harmful policies accountable.                        

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Tori Bateman is the policy advocacy coordinator at the American Friends Service Committee. 
Noam Perry is the economic activism associate at the American Friends Service Committee.

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