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  Number 408 | Julio 2015
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Central America

The Mexico-US border: A very lucrative, inefficient business. Solid and liquid border vigilance (part 3)

Wars aren’t just extermination processes, they’re also armed surveillance.The US military complex is creating a war zone on the Mexican-US border, which is very evident in the treating of migrants as if they were enemies, in the patrolling that is increasingly conducted as a military action and in a border that is administrated as occupied territory… albeit with notorious inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

José Luis Rocha

To enter the United States, Central American migrants must pass through one of the most patrolled regions on Earth. They’re confronted by an armed legion of massive proportions at distinct levels of both the territory and the anti-migrant bureaucracy.

Not only are there about 20,000 Border Patrol agents. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has some 200,000 staff members, which journalist Todd Miller contends must be added to the 650,000 police officers trained or working under the command of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in order to get an idea of the immense army dealing with the country’s security. It has become a kind of second Department of Defense.

This army for domestic security can only be maintained through investments that nurture a network of companies, has quite rightly labeled the Border Security Industrial Complex. In the decade following 9/11 the US government spent $90 billion on border security, most of which came to rest in these companies’ bank accounts.

Why so much vigilance?

An interesting hypothesis by migration expert Juan Manuel Sandoval is that all this vigilance is “to have greater control over these migrant workers and maintain regulated migratory flows,” adding that “the United States has established mechanisms to regionalize its immigration policies, linking them with its national security policy and militarizing the borders.”

Obviously the US government hasn’t achieved this goal. The controls don’t appear to be just regulation mechanisms. Although the Border Patrol’s budgetary hike during the latest economic crisis (especially between 2008 and 2010 when the migrant flow could have triggered even more unemployment) seems to support this theory, the disproportionality between this investment and its results goes against cost/benefit analysis logic.

Also the fact that it hasn’t fulfilled Sandoval’s prediction of an ongoing increase in migration flows calls into question the well-regulated labor markets hypothesis because, on the one hand, unemployment in Mexico continues to be high while Mexican migration to the US has declined. On the other hand, wage increases in the US could be a paradoxical indicator that a larger labor supply is needed to keep wages low and mitigate structural inflation, according to the dual markets theory.

Regulation here seems to have been excessive. Further discrediting the theory linking vigilance and labor market regulation, Central Americans continue entering in large numbers despite the regulatory barriers; for them, the vigilance appears insufficient. This evidence suggests that labor markets and vigilance aren’t completely disassociated, but they’re obviously not connected by an unambiguous correlation, and thus the dynamo driving the vigilance and security devices may be something other than the desire to regulate labor markets.

The Border Security Industrial
Complex sponsors terror

Regarding migration, some people find this independent dynamo in the xenophobia/racism/intolerance/nationalism cocktail offered by conservative politicians to win votes from the anxious masses facing the uncertainties of the modern world and in need of scapegoats.

These masses are demanding the construction of order, based on the rule of law, which sees unauthorized migration as a threat to the body politic formed by the amalgam of law/territory/social power. It functions then as panic about losing control of the nation-state’s sovereignty or a globalized obsession with vigilance to exclude and maintain pariahs at a distance through a combination of the above-mentioned premises.

These are all incisive explanations and explore different facets of the vigilance: they show the cultural fibers that foster a growing willingness to monitor, even in a society where 90% or more of its members think individuals should control and grant permission for collecting personal information and decide who may collect this information. But within the framework of seeking what Aristotle called the efficient or motivating cause, there’s enough evidence to support that the architect of what now seems to be a kind of perpetuum mobile of surveillance is the Border Security Industrial Complex. Its companies sponsor terror, apparent in their lobbying to cry ‘Here comes the Bogeyman,’ referring to migrants not terrorists, in order to convince and to sell.

The Border Security Industrial Complex is a term that parodies Eisenhower’s oft-quoted speech at the end of his presidential term on January 17, 1961. The retired general warned about the “military industrial complex” and its “economic, political, even spiritual” influence, felt in every city and every federal government office.

He wasn’t giving away any secrets. Five years earlier the US Marxist sociologist Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962), in his now classic book The Power Elite, was concerned about the merger of the corporate economy and military bureaucracy, which took place during the Second World War and has continued right up to today. The government’s entire budget from 1789 to 1917, he tells us, amounted to US$29,500 million. In 1952 the military budget alone was US$40,000 million. The costs of the military apparatus went from US$2.25 per capita in 1913 to almost US$250 in 1952.

Since that time a tightly entwined braid of relationships has been created in which the executives of companies supplying military goods and services are at the same time military advisers to senior state officials, and retired generals have gone on to form part of these companies’ directive boards. Since then political decisions are made by elite cliques of senior military and business leaders.

Current ties between the Pentagon and private contractors—such as Lockheed Martin and General Atomics, who provided military equipment and services in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with Michael Furlong as the amphibious liaison between the Department of Defense and private contractors—are a small example of how we haven’t yet turned the page of history described by C. Wright Mills of well-oiled ties uniting the military and businessmen. Journalist Mark Mazzetti argues that “Furlong’s mastery of the Pentagon’s byzantine contracting system made him invaluable to defense companies.” The spy operations contracts he arranged flourished, protected by the almost non-existent restrictions of the Pentagon’s clandestine programs.

War helps generate fortunes

In comfortable 16th-century Parisian and German salons, the Swiss-French political activist Benjamin Constant proclaimed a vision of the world as it should be and not as it is: “When the commercial trend dominates, the warlike trend must weaken,” adding that “amongst the moderns, a victorious war invariably costs more than it contributes.” He concluded that war has lost its charm and usefulness: “Man no longer feels compelled to devote himself to it, from either interest or passion.”

Agreeing with Constant, the Austrian-American economist and political scientist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) argued that crises can’t always have a purely economic explanation, given that some of their causes, such as war, were alien to the economic arena. Schumpeter thought war upset all economic relations, destroyed the most important markets and affected data.

Nothing could be further from Marx’s point of view; he didn’t consider war at all external to the economy. War not only doesn’t destroy markets, it actually opens them. In the first volume of Capital he notes that in 1843 the Opium Wars opened the Chinese market to English trade. For Marx, violence is “itself an economic power” and “the midwife of history.” And this is both good and bad for the oppressed. Plebeians in imperial Rome sold their children as slaves due to the famine caused by war. In the 19th century workers received better wages when wars made labor scarce. There have not only been economies in war, but actually war economies: such as the one in the US that occurred in 1946—a year of massive military demobilization—described by former banker Charles R. Morris as the most catastrophic for economic growth.

Although he studied Marx, Schumpeter didn’t realize that war is also part of those creative destructive processes that he himself—daringly breaking with the classic view of the tendency towards equilibrium and free competition—introduced as inherent to the capitalist dynamic.

Nikolai Kondratiev was closer to Marx’s point of view, although this didn’t stop Stalin from ordering him shot to death. Almost a century ago, while formulating his theory about capitalism’s long-term cycles, Kondratiev found a correlation between periods of high tension in the expansion of productive forces and disastrous and extensive wars and revolutions. In other words: the bloodiest wars have coincided with economic highs. And while Kondratiev didn’t attribute more than an empirical character with no explanatory value to this correlation, he questioned the role of war in capitalism’s cycles. He reproached those who, considering war to be caused by arbitrary acts of individual personalities instead of perceiving its origin in specific economic circumstances, argued that war is an extra-economic factor that affects the economy. He concluded that although wars and revolutions are symptoms of longer cycles, once they have occurred they exert a powerful influence on the pace and direction of the economic dynamic.

The Sun Belt is now the Gun Belt

What’s been imposed on the southwest US border is a war economy. The Sun Belt has become the Gun Belt: The Costa del Sol is now the Costa de Colt, producing, selling and using weapons in its territory.

A small example to demonstrate sales: Congressional reports have determined that most of the weapons seized from drug traffickers in Mexico, including a growing number of extremely lethal ones, come from the United States. More than 20,000 weapons (87% of the 23,159 seized from drug traffickers and tracked between 2004 and 2008) left the United States for Mexico: 68% of them made in the US and 19% manufactured in third countries but first imported to the US, with 70% sold by gun shops and at gun shows in Texas, California and Arizona.

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the southwest border boasts 6,700 arms dealers, 12% of the 55,000 in the country as a whole. Of the weapons ATF officials were able to trace, 95% were obtained from legal sales. Senior officials of Obama’s government and even before were aware that the problem of drug violence is rooted in the US gun trade.

The launching and strategy of Operation Wide Receiver (2006-2008) and Operation Fast and Furious (2009-2011)—the ”controlled” sale of traceable weapons to locate the drug lords—only makes sense if it’s understood that the arms distributers in the US are the source of the problem.

Arms sales are so totally out of control that of the 1,961 guns sold as part of Operation Fast and Furious, only 710 were recuperated. Using the mechanism of the ATF’s brilliant operation, drug traffickers bought US$1.4 billion of military equipment right under its very nose, some of which were used to kill Mexican police and Border Patrol agents. In August 2011, in his debut as secretary of state, William Burns silenced the Mexican government’s criticisms of Operation Fast and Furious with the threat of refusing the $500 million contemplated in the Mérida Initiative to fight the drug lords.

The US is the world’s
largest arms dealer

With respect to state monopoly on legitimate violence, California and Texas stand out as the two states where employment and investment in defense have grown the most; and where there’s investment in defense, there’s naturally an attraction for suppliers and experts in this field. The most effective warmonger in helping to generate fortunes was 9/11 itself.

In 2002-2013, trade in guns and military services grew 45.5% worldwide, amounting to US$402 billion in sales. The United States is the world’s biggest dealer, absorbing more than half this trade. Six of the largest armaments and military services companies are headquartered in the US: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and United Technologies. A large part of their production is for domestic purchase—by the State—but not for domestic use: they’re for firing overseas.

Some of these companies have invested in lobbying for more stringent migration laws and include reinforcing border militarization. Dennis L. Hoffman, a professor at Arizona State University specializing in the defense industry’s future market potential, has concluded: “This push towards border security fits very well with the need to create an ongoing stream of revenue.”

Militarizing the border
is big business

The most brutal symptoms of this scenario change are the arms trade fairs selling surveillance and attack devices to provide border security. In March 2012, journalist Todd Miller attended the sixth Border Security Expo in Phoenix. A sign in huge letters on the entrance door read: “Because it’s not just your job, it’s your life.” Miller confirmed that these expositions spark no controversy: “Border enforcement has become business as usual.”

In April 2015 a two-day Border Security Expo was held in Phoenix where Applied Research Associates and RF Systems Lab, among other companies specializing in military equipment, offered their devices to improve border vigilance: armaments, robots, cameras, miniature planes and perimeter security sensors. There were foot-high cameras mounted on remote-controlled cars costing US$35,000. Some devices originally developed to crush Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Afghanistan are now offered to DHS to fight migrants. Dan Millis, an activist from the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team, told Miller: “It’s as if the US was coming out of Afghanistan and invading Arizona.” It’s no secret: Drew Dodds, the StrongWatch salesman, said at the Border Security Expo 2013: “We’re bringing the battlefield to the border.”

Safran manager Keith Raderschadt, who was there marketing its biometric identification apparatus for scanning passports, iris recognition and ten-digit fingerprints, declared to The Huffington Post: “It’s probably the only way that we can really secure the border in a true sense. Without doing the biometrics check, you really have no idea who is really crossing the border.” In a tropicalized echo of this surveillance trend, the governments of Guatemala and Honduras acquired similar devices for their airports, spending up to nine digits.

Weapons go out, drugs come in...

The armaments companies are chasing after the DHS budget: US$61 billion dollars in 2014. The DHS has been contracting them since at least 2006, the year Boeing was chosen to build a virtual wall on the border. In 2013, The New York Times showed a photograph of a Border Patrol agent alongside a tower with radar facility, a laser pointer and surveillance cameras that work day and night The ensemble was built and sold to the DHS by Boeing, the second largest armaments-producing company in the world and the largest producing military appurtenances and providing military services. It boasted of 168,400 employees in 2013 and a total sales volume of over US$86.6 billion, US$30.7 billion of it in armaments sales. Profits: US$4.585 billion.

The US armaments industry has suffered a decrease in sales since 2011 due to the decline in the Pentagon’s military spending. In this adverse climate, Boeing continued growing because it exploited another niche in the market: security on the southwest border. The same strategy was followed by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, which ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in global armaments manufacturing with respective sales of US$35.49, 21.95, 20.2 and 18.66 billion.

On the other side of the border, where Mexico has become an extended US border, another niche in the market has opened for these companies: the fight against drugs and the construction of “the 21st-century border.” Those are the core objectives of the Mérida Initiative, an aid package that reportedly amounted to US$2.5 billion between 2008 and 2015, earmarked to equip and train the Mexican anti-drug squads. As of 2014, US$1.3 billion of it had been transferred to the Mexican government and from there passed back to the US side and into the coffers of the armaments companies. It crosses the border as public sector and comes back as private sector. Last year Mexico’s National Defense Ministry (SEDENA) acquired 18 Black Hawk armed helicopters ($680 million), multi-purpose mobile land vehicles (VTMPM) and various kinds of firearms totaling over US$1.3 billion paid by the Pentagon to private contractors. An aid package that at one time was seen as a diplomatic scoop for President Calderón—because it apparently implied political support for his fight against drugs—ended as a scoop for the military equipment salesrooms, privileged beneficiaries of the war against drugs, whether waged by the PAN or the PRI.

/h2>Drones are the second qualitative
leap in military history General Atomics, ranked 44th in the military industry’s market, negotiated a US$443 million contract with the DHS in 2015 so that its reconnaissance drones—field tested in mapping Iranian military bases—could comb the border.

This company positioned its brand in the border security niche with the provision of Predator and Reaper drones, devices the CIA used in 2006-2013 against the Al Qaeda high command and over 1,900 insurgents in tribal areas of Pakistan. Its new contracts are a window to the future of border vigilance. General Atomics has already sold 10 Predators B to CBP at a cost of $4,500 million.

The cost of maintaining these drones in the air is US$3,234 an hour, bringing each one’s sustained flight for one year up to $28.5 million. CBP intends to have 18 drones in 2016 and 24 in subsequent years, according to the agreement signed in 2012 with General Atomics. Perhaps it’s banking on the 58% US public approval of the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, according to the Pew Research Center.

Reflecting on drone war approval and its potential carte blanche, Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman views unmanned drones as the second most important qualitative leap in military history after the replacement of compulsory military service with professional armies. They usher in what he calls war’s “post-heroic era”: they can see and destroy the enemy without being seen or destroyed, and the almost complete absence of collateral damage ensures a disconnect between the US public and the wars its government engages in. On the border, the disconnect will be between implementing vigilance and the tragedies of the migrants being tracked.

Also the universities

The universities have also been infected by what has been called the “immigration gold rush.” Pioneers in the development of military technology, they are cornering generous funding from the DHS.

In 2008 the University of Arizona received $17 million funding for six years from it to promote enthusiasm for border strategy among its students. Along with the Migration Policy Institute and RAND Corporation think tanks, it forms part of a consortium of 14 elite organizations comprising BORDERS, a DHS initiative to develop technologies and policies protecting the United States from terrorism and criminal activities.

The BORDERS funding is converting the University of Arizona’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering students into DHS laboratory workers designing miniature surveillance drones called Micro Air Vehicles. These mini-drones will reverse the see-be-seen dissociation Foucault finds in the panopticon that originally gave migrants the advantage: “in the peripheral ring, one is totally visible, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” The mini-drone operators can see and report on everything without the migrants realizing it. Higher education has ended up serving the panopticon (controls, walls and radars), which in its excluding version is the banopticon (control of information technology).

“Between dirty hands
and empty bellies”

The University of Arizona also has the Science and Technology Park, which contributes US$3 billion and 7,000 jobs to the state’s economy. Since 9/11 its venture into border security technology has gotten off to such a good start that it’s about to complete a virtual border wall with towers, cameras and underground fiber optic cables that can distinguish between cows and humans. The park houses or supplies some of the military industry and vigilance heavyweights: Boeing, Raytheon, IBM, DILAS, Pillar Innovations, Honeywell, Oracle, Canon and Motorola, among others.

In 1975, in what was perhaps her last judgment on the United States, Hannah Arendt gave a speech commemorating US independence in which she said: “It is no secret that the billions of dollars demanded by the Pentagon for the armaments industry are necessary not for ‘national security’ but for keeping the economy from collapsing. At a time when war as a rational means of politics has become a kind of luxury justifiable only for small powers, arms trade and arms production have become the fastest growing business, and the United States is ‘easily the world’s largest arms merchant.’ As Canada’s Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, when criticized recently for selling arms to the United States that were eventually used in Vietnam, sadly stated, it has all become a choice ‘between dirty hands and empty bellies.’”

The US arms dealers’ bellies—and those of their increasingly numerous employees—are quite full, thank you; in fact that’s the country where they are the most bloated. MarketsandMarkets, a market research company and consulting firm, calculated that the global revenue of private contractors offering their products on the border security market rose to US$20 billion in 2013. It estimates that the national security and emergency management market will go to US$544 billion in 2018 and the drone market will have created 70,000 jobs in 2016. In the United States alone, customs infrastructure contracts and products for coast guards and border security will increase from US$74.2 billion in 2012 to US$107.3 billion in 2020.

The lucrative prison industry

Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) included as wars both extermination processes and simple armed observation, which is what takes place on the border. That’s why it’s legitimate to point out that this war economy is creating war zones. That shift is evident in the treatment of migrants as enemies, patrolling increasingly being conducted as a military action and the border administered as an occupied zone.

This dynamic’s end isn’t in sight, fueled as it is by numerous economic interests. Border Patrol and its activities are only a part of this industrial chain. Its steel links must provide some detainees—raids and immigration courts provide others—for the prison-industrial complex’s thriving migration branch, filling beds mandated and budgeted for by law: 34,000 of them, on average. Reducing the number of detainees would result in budgetary reduction, which ICE wants to avoid at all costs. And, so far, the detainees are paying this cost, facing onerous bureaucratic procedures aimed at prolonging their captivity until Migration hunts down another one to fill the bed.

The private prison industry is investing in towns from New Mexico to New Jersey, which are eager for detention centers to be installed so federal money will flow their way, creating jobs. Many others are also involved in the border vigilance industry with solid—and also liquid—financial interests: the wall’s construction companies, those who train patrol officers, those who develop vigilance technologies and others. All prosper. However, some Border Patrol results are inversely proportional to their budgetary voracity.

Rousing panic about an unprotected border, the DHS makes scurrilous appeals on its webpage to raise public support for its corporate sustainability. A question emerges: Does curbing migration really depend on increased budget and patrols?

Border Patrol in the dock

In 1956 C. Wright Mills warned that the military “has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations now has the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain.”

Border Patrol presents this same clumsy efficiency of a sprawling domain. Its border vigilance has undergone qualitative transformation and obtained quantitative staff and budgetary support without achieving the promised increase in effectiveness. On the contrary, there’s been a remarkable decrease in its performance.

In 1926 Border Patrol made 22,326 detentions on the southwest border and apprehended 33,159 immigration law violators on both borders; with 104 agents at the time, that means a productivity of 319 apprehensions per agent. Productivity remained steady over the decades, with 322 in 1992 and 352 in 1993. Since then—precisely when the number of agents multiplied and its budget soared—productivity plummeted.

In two decades (1993-2012), the southern border’s number of agents and budget respectively increased 438.5% and 874%. In contrast, effectiveness recorded an inverse growth rate: in 2012, Border Patrol agents on this same border only made 29% of the 1993 captures and their productivity was only 5.5% of 20 years earlier, going from 352 to 18 per agent. This means that the cost of each capture went from $150 in 1993 to $2,754 in 2012, if calculations were based on a single agent’s $53,000 salary and immigrants were the Border Patrol’s exclusive mission. But the increased bureaucracy and the cost of the vigilance technologies provided by the large armaments companies, among other direct and indirect costs, means that the cost of each capture actually rose from $300 to almost $10,000. No private company could support such dire extravagance for long.

Why so many patrol guards?

The strongest and most sustained budget increase was between 2006 and 2013, which is also the period of greatest decline in productivity. Although Border Control had been showing signs of declining productivity since 1993, it was precisely in 2001—the 9/11 year—that its budgetary endowment parted company from effectiveness and crossed over to declining achievements and growing budget. Despite the much-vaunted Central American exodus, the fall in productivity continued. The average patrol agent needs almost two weeks to make an apprehension.

The apprehension rate varies according to sector and station, ranging from 50 apprehensions in Río Grande Valley to 4.2 in El Paso. In the latter, each agent needs three months to identify and detain an undocumented person, a rate presumably reflecting the migrant flow.

The hypothetical correlation between apprehensions and illegal crossings is the main premise in concluding that the decline in captures is due to a decline in migration flow caused by the economic crisis and the persuasive effect of border patrolling, a theory held by governmental consultants and echoed by civil society organizations. But if there’s truly a dwindling flow, why increase patrol agents?

The truth is that this theory doesn’t hold up if we compare apprehension figures and the number of undocumented persons as calculated by the Pew Research Center, an institution that bases its migration flow calculations on its own surveys and not on apprehensions. There is no such correlation. The numbers of undocumented migrants are decreasing not necessarily because fewer are arriving but because those who already did are gradually becoming legalized through temporary or permanent residence, through DACA, TPS, etc.

How can so much
ineffectiveness be explained?

Like any other figure concerning a somewhat clandestine population, this data has to be taken as a rough guide. And apprehension data must be taken with no less care: the figure shows events, not individuals.

Congressional consultants favoring migration controls contemplate that apprehensions may over-represent the number of people crossing, but seem to ignore that they may also underestimate it: migrants sometimes manage to use blind spots for a long time before Border Patrol detects them. They also sometimes make fewer crossings per year, as was the case with temporary Mexican migrants who changed status to being permanent migrants. They’re an example of why the number of unauthorized crossings can diminish but not the number of unauthorized migrants who cross each year.

Douglas Massey, a US sociologist specializing in immigration, noted that Mexicans have stopped visiting their families for Christmas and Easter. He also showed that in the 1990s one in every three migrants returned to Mexico every year, which implies that 70% of Mexican migrants returned within five years. Here we have an unsuspected and ironic effect of migration control: temporary migration changing into permanent settlement. The costs and dangers of crossing the border lead many migrants to opt for a permanent crossing. We would therefore have fewer migrants crossing but more unauthorized migrants.

More agents and fewer captures

An additional element in the fallibility of apprehensions as an indicator of flow is the fact that Mexico’s National Migration Institute recorded an increase of 121% in the flow of Central Americans between 2002 and 2005. Yet in that period, apprehensions of Central Americans by Border Patrol increased by only 26%. What was the real flow: 121% or 26%? From these figures and considerations we can infer an indisputable fact: if the flow has declined, it hasn’t necessarily done so in the same proportion as apprehensions. Other explanations for Border Patrol’s declining productivity are needed.

I’ll discuss some explanations by way of hypothesis. The first is a variant of what economists call the fallacy of composition, which in this case is expressed as the impossibility of 18,546 agents making 6.5 million apprehensions where 3,444 agents made 1.2 million. It isn’t only because the migrant flow isn’t that big or because inevitably there’s been a decline in flow—in which case the increase in agents would be superfluous—but because the increase in agents doesn’t directly and necessarily translate into more thorough and widespread coverage.

Irrespective of increases in the number of agents, inhospitable areas will remain poorly patrolled and migrants will continue entering using false or authentic but rented passports, or other fraudulent means of seeking vigilance-free access. A large staff increases the probabilities of agents being situated in safe areas and less rational use being made of man-hours. It’s proven that the number of agents doesn’t affect some crossing strategies (false documents, tunnels, secondary roads) and that not enough hours are spent patrolling the border.

Patrolling has many weak points. The checkpoints aren’t permanent and Border Patrol doesn’t even record the hours an agent spends at a specific checkpoint. Federal investigations have shown that migrants wait in the area covered by Border Patrol for the 8-hour closing—which takes place every fortnight—so as to cross without risk of being captured.

There’s no economic logic

Some writers argue that a mere increase in agents isn’t enough, because ICE is working flat out but lacks vehicles, and detention centers as well as the judges, lawyers and other migration laws operatives needed to increase deportations. But the reality is simpler: there aren’t enough detentions. It’s not just about a predictable decline of marginal utility—there wasn’t a proportionate increase in captures for each agent added—but of absolute utility: there’re more agents and fewer captures.

Only a vigilance-obsessed State can afford to ignore the curve of the marginal product of labor: the relationship between costs and the amount of labor. A rational businessman, eager to maximize his profits, would choose the number of employees whose marginal product of labor equals the market’s wage rate. Instead of that, Border Patrol increases the number of agents and uses new technologies that—against all predictions—need more staff: 20 Border Patrol agents are needed to operate a single drone and up to 2,000 analysts are required to process the information it collects. Border Patrol is in no way governed by capital’s logical paradigm: the cost-benefit calculation. Its possibilities of maintaining this sprawling domain policy is played out in an arena that has nothing directly to do with economic logic.

Central Americans’ entry routes

Added to the reasons given for the decline in apprehensions is that migrants and their coyotes are always searching for paths untraveled by agents. They relocate to areas where vigilance is more complicated. They take advantage of the reduction in air patrols. They find small roads and local byways where they can dodge the patrols. They change their routes faster than Border Patrol changes its strategies. And this partly explains why more agents and more migrants aren’t mutually exclusive: patrol agents weren’t situated on the migrants’ new routes, where there were more Central Americans.

Judging by the apprehensions of non-Mexican undocumented migrants—of which Central Americans are the majority—the Río Grande Valley sector (which covers McAllen and Brownsville) has risen in importance as a port of entry: 10,742 to 192,925 captured by border patrols in 2000 and 2014. The Tucson sector—whose main customs point is in Nogales—rose from 2,201 to 19,045. Laredo jumped from 3,336 to 17,509. The Río Grande Valley sector is also, along with Big Ben, the one with the highest percentage of known successful entries: 39% in 2009 and 31% in 2013.

Migration hasn’t shown the same flexibility in moving its troops: it stubbornly stays in Tucson, where it had 4,052 agents in September 2014, and doesn’t patrol much in the Rio Grande Valley sector, where it only placed 3,064 agents. Guided by the volume of apprehensions in 1998-2012—a period when Tucson was the main unauthorized port of entry—Border Patrol placed 22% of its agents there in 2014 and made 18% of its captures, while the 17% of its agents placed in the Rio Grande Valley were responsible for 53.5% of the apprehensions on the southwest border.

In 2003-2006, the numbers of Mexicans captured averaged over 1 million a year and in 2014 just 226,771. But in 2003-2014, captures of Guatemalans went from 10,355 to 81,116; Hondurans from 16,632 to 91,475 and Salvadorans from 11,757 to 66,638. Those of Nicaraguans rose from 1,055 to 2,712 in 2003-2013. In 2014, the numbers of Central Americans apprehended exceeded those of Mexicans for the first time in Border Patrol history. If captures are an indication of flow, as the official position claims, Border Patrol should have located its agents at the crossing points of the group of nationalities with increasing entries. But it continues over-patrolling Tucson, as in the old days (1995-2010) of high Mexican migration and numerous crossings in this area.

Corruption and attrition abound

Another far from negligible element explaining Border Patrol’s poor performance is corruption, facilitated by the fact that agents usually patrol alone and their closest colleague may be 10-20 miles away.
Border expert Tony Payán argues that US agents’ corruption—although less widespread and systematic than in the Mexican police—has a huge impact: one corrupt Border Patrol agent is enough to enable the introduction of tons of drugs generating hundreds of millions of dollars for a cartel. The corruption of US agents is much more profitable than that of Mexicans.

If we apply Payán’s findings about drug trafficking to migrants, we can see that one agent making deals with a few coyotes can clear the way for thousands of migrants in a matter of days or even hours. This is the subject of the film “The Border” (1982), where agent Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) faces a group of corrupt Border Patrol colleagues in El Paso who have a trafficking network and detain and kill the competition’s traffickers.

Attrition among patrol agents has shown an upward trend since 1995, adding more than a little grain of sand to Border Patrol’s desert of effectiveness. The dropout rate averaged 5% in 1990-1994 but exceeded 10% in 1995-2001. The following year it jumped to 18%. In 2005 it fell to 4%, only to rise back to 10% in 2007-2009. The slight increase in agents in 2011-2013 and decrease from 2013 to 2014 wasn’t scheduled but followed the impact of attrition: the new contracts didn’t add agents; they merely replaced those who had decided to stop being “the US frontline” and “protecting the United States against terrorists and the instruments of terror.”

A congressional investigation identified four main reasons for desertion: dissatisfaction with the type of work, low wages compared to other enforcement branches, poor working conditions and a lack of vertical and lateral mobility.

Abuse and dissatisfaction

There’s evidence that abuse and the climate of mistrust are other, not insignificant factors. For example, in July 2009 agent Bryan González became victim to Border Patrol’s prevailing climate of mutual vigilance, Cold War and partisan thinking. He was dismissed for commenting about how the demand for drugs in the US boosts drug trafficking in Mexico and other opinions indicating a certain level of sociological thought and comprehension of the migrants’ motivation.

Agent Baxter described to Todd Miller the customary physical abuses to which agents are subjected during training and the pressures over the course of their working life. In December 2014, as it does every year, the State’s personnel management office surveyed employees of the 74 federal agencies about job satisfaction. Of the big agencies, the DHS came in last, as it also does every year. Subdividing the agencies into their 314 subcomponents, ICE was ranked 314th and CBP 293th. Patrolling the border is a job that satisfies very few and many escape when the opportunity arises. High levels of negligence are to be expected in a job where the conditions are as described.

Commercial vertigo
caused by NAFTA

Finally, I offer another important factor bringing down Border Patrol’s effectiveness: the dramatic evolution of the southwest border. Borders aren’t static: they expand and contract according to economic, social and military dynamics, in keeping with the pressures of capital and xenophobia.

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) tripled trade between the United States and Mexico, with border crossings multiplying in the last 20 years. In 2010 some 300,000 Mexican workers (“trans¬national citizens”) crossed the border every day or at least once a week with work permits and thousands more crossed with border passes. Between 1995 and 2014 the number of trucks checked on the US borders with Mexico and Canada went from almost 8 to over 11 million and pedestrians from 33.5 to 41.6 million. More than $1 billion in merchandise crossed the border every day. Binational trade by land went from $71 billion in 1995 to $255 billion in 2010.

To avoid losing control of this dynamic, Border Patrol increased its agents from 4,945 to 20,863 at that time, a privileged and exceptional situation in a state agency that nationally reduced its employees from 4.4 to 4.2 million. This body of patrol guards and their colleagues in CBP have had a sustained increase that in recent decades has no correlation with border movement.

After 9/11, the flow of merchandise and passengers shows a sharp decline: from 49.6 to 41.6 million pedestrians between 2003 and 2014. The slight increases in other areas are offset by the increase in agents, so that if in 2003 a CBP official oversaw 72 loaded containers, 471 trucks and 2,129 pedestrians, in 2014 he was only dealing with 34 containers, 188 trucks and 699 pedestrians. However, these flat figures don’t reflect qualitative changes: 678,941 people entered every day in 2014 by one or other of the land borders.

With more border miles to cover and very diverse activities to be monitored—from controlling disease in imported meat to finding cocaine, from intellectual property rights to permits for importing pharmaceuticals and the neutralization of Osama Bin Laden’s disciples—the processing of these entries was the responsibility of 59,544 officials spread over 328 ports of entry.

Too much border for these agents

Land vigilance’s profusion of functions has produced changes on the border. It hasn’t just become longer with respect to passengers and miles to be covered; it’s also become more banoptic, armed, metallic and multicolored: traffickers, smugglers, migrants, drug dealers, terrorists, etc. In 2005, Border Patrol agents only had effective coverage of 288 miles (15% of the border) while in 2010 it was increased to 1,107 miles (57% of the border), a figure that arouses confusion about the decline in apprehensions.

The issue isn’t just about geographic coverage. In record time and with minimal training, Border Patrol agents had to stop being like a conventional telephone—not even wireless, to make matters worse—amd become like a smartphone, with functions for word processing, showing videos, playing music, taking photos and communicating. Now, they have to be a Jack-of-all-trades, but still with minimal training.

A Border Patrol agent receives just 633 hours of training over 16 weeks: of which 214 hours (32%) are spent learning Spanish, 191 (29%) are on legal and operational matters, 125 (19%) on physical training, 67 (10%) on handling weapons and 44 (6.6%) on driving lessons. Too much ham for a couple of eggs! Agents are overwhelmed by the profusion of tasks. CBP’s performance hasn’t just diminished in the capture of migrants; its air and sea sections have also had poor results: in 2012-2014 its cocaine seizures fell from 3,964 pounds to 992 and those of smuggling from US$454,670,297 to US$253,541,555.

The growth of the border and Border Patrol’s post-9/11 tasks makes the scrupulous check-ups—on which territorial control depends—materially unfeasible or at least incompatible with the demands for accelerated mobility of merchandise.

Crossing drugs and
still crossing migrants

In 1995, a senior Migration officer said of the not yet so congested border: “If we examined every truck for narcotics arriving into the United States along the southwest border… Customs would back up the truck traffic bumper-to-bumper into Mexico City in just two weeks…. That’s 1,177 miles of trucks, end to end.”

It’s no secret that NAFTA greatly boosted the cocaine trade. Let’s bear in mind that over 70% of the colossal Mexican-US trade crosses the border in trucks. NAFTA paved the way for illegal drugs to cross into the United States in those thousands of trucks, and Border Patrol is only able to inspect a very small fraction of them.

The same is true of migrants, who not only enter through the blind spots—now almost non-existent because of the new technologies—but also hidden in trucks or very visibly in cars, waving from the passenger seat, showing their false passports or rented real passports, putting themselves in the hands of fate and the border lottery.

In the fourth and final part of these reflections we’ll see how, despite Border Patrol’s inefficient performance, the lucrative business of border vigilance is maintained with a high dose of drama.

José Luis Rocha is a member of the envío editorial council and of the Institute of Sociology at Philipps-University Marburg.

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