When Joe Biden took office in 2021, he had promised not to build “one more foot” of border wall. This promise seems to have been put to rest last week with the waiving of 26 laws that protect land and people to build a wall through Starr County, Texas, along the Rio Grande. Reactions ranged from disappointment to feelings of betrayal, especially among people who had opposed Trump’s border wall obsession. But in reality, the Biden administration has been quietly constructing and maintaining the border wall system since he took office.
In other words, it is time to set aside tired partisan narratives. Whether it is the Trump regime’s racist overtures to pump up a “big, beautiful border wall” or the Democrats’ calls for a humane yet orderly border, the result has been the same: rising border budgets year after year, increasing fortification, more physical and virtual walls, and more detention centers and deportations. The CBP and ICE budgets in 2023 have yet again eclipsed the highest previous amount, and they now include a record number of contracts to private industry (more on that below).
The border can’t be reduced to just partisan politics. This is not to say that partisan politics don’t matter, and certainly disinformation about the border is real. But the border also supersedes these narratives. It is a machine that is beholden to no political party, a point that becomes more important as we head into an election year.
If the border is a machine, then we have to look under its hood, inspect its motor, and understand how it functions. First, in the parlance of Customs and Border Protection, it is not a border wall but a border wall system. The system’s components include the physical barrier, but this is but one “layer” (the term that Border Patrol uses in its strategic plan). The system also includes surveillance technology—both on and away from the border—and armed agents from the U.S. Border Patrol, CBP’s Office of Field Operations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local police (state, county, city, and tribal) that work with (and receive financing for their border enforcement duties from) DHS. In the border wall system, technology does not offer a “humane” alternative to the physical wall; it works in tandem with it. Thus, the so-called smart wall.
Before we get to the smart wall, let’s contemplate a few things about the physical wall—since it has been such a source of ire and adulation. The one burning question I have is why, if the Democrats were dead set against the wall during Trump’s administration, didn’t they order it removed when they took over in 2021? I’m talking about the wall that Trump built during his tenure, not the 650 miles or so that was constructed under the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which Biden himself voted for when he was a senator. Taking down Trump’s wall construction, however, was never mentioned and didn’t seem within the realm of the possible. In the end, even though Biden ordered a “pause” on wall construction when he took office, CBP announced in September 2022 that it would fill in the “gaps.” In other words, the Biden administration was not going to tear down the Trump wall; in the weirdest and quietest way, it was going to finish it.
During his years as president, Trump also ordered the military to drape coils of concertina wire on the border wall from Brownsville to San Diego. It would seem like a no-brainer for Biden to remove this, since perhaps nothing represented Trump more than this curtain of ugly razor wire. Mayors in border towns were calling for its removal, so it would be uncontroversial. But the walls and the razor wire are still there, as entrenched as the bipartisan border machine. As Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino said in 2021, “I know that the government has a tendency of, when they put something up, they always keep it up, doesn’t matter what administration is there.”
Regarding the 26 laws protecting the earth and its people—which include the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Endangered species Act–the administration claims that it was bound to a 2019 appropriations process that required the border wall construction. Biden claims to have tried to reappropriate the money. Environmentalists, like Laiken Jordahl from the Center of Biological Diversity, insist that even if the administration’s hand were tied by the 2019 process, it was not required to waive the laws. But as we have seen for decades, people and their well-being in the borderlands will not get in the way of the militarized stomping ground (click here for more information on waivers and how they’ve been used in the past), especially as elections and campaigns loom.
And campaign promises are meant to be broken. In his nearly three years, Biden has built way more than one foot of wall, and there is more in the works. That’s the thing with the machine: there is always more in the works. The administration’s emphasis, however, has been the “smart wall,” technology. The Elbit Systems surveillance towers, for example, were installed according to a contract that started under Obama in 2014, and the last tower was constructed appropriately under Biden in 2022. The 50 integrated fixed towers fit into a surveillance web that operates in a much thicker border zone patrolled by other towers, cameras, motion sensors, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and drones. Camera systems are sending their feeds into command-and-control centers or, more and more, directly onto agents phones.
The border is a machine, and viewing it only through partisan politics will leave people analytically deficient. One thing I wondered when Biden took office in 2021 was whether there would be less national coverage of the border. I wondered if the border, so scrutinized under Trump, would drift off the radar. In many ways it has, even though this year’s border and immigration enforcement budget is the highest ever, at $29.8 billion (combining CBP and ICE budgets). To compare, in Trump’s last year in office (2020), the budget was $25.4 billion. In 2016, Obama’s last year, the total was $19.5 billion. Year after year, president after president, the budgets have increased since the early 1990s, when the Bill Clinton administration had a meager $1.5 billion ($3.9 billion in today’s dollars if adjusted for inflation).
On October 1, fiscal year 2023 ended with more issued contracts than ever before for border and immigration enforcement. There were 7,922 contracts, which works out to a daily average of 22 that went to CBP and ICE. The $9.9 billion spent on private contractors in 2023 is the highest ever recorded in U.S. history, dwarfing the second-highest year, which was last year (2022), with contracts amounting to $7.5 billion. For perspective, the most contracts recorded under Trump was $6.2 billion in 2020, which at the time was also a record number.
While the budgets and contracts tell one story, we are forced to live with fantastical tales of “open borders.” Most such border narratives die with a simple cursory glance at the real story told clearly and vividly by the money. It doesn’t matter who is president; the budgets rise and rise and rise and rise. It doesn’t matter who is president; the prevention-through-deterrence strategy, which started three decades ago and is designed to force people into dangerous territories, persists. And it continues to kill people. It doesn’t matter who is president; deportations continue (2,863,319 removals, returns, and expulsions between January 20, 2021 and March 31, 2023), migrants are caged, families are ripped apart, and untold suffering is levied against marginalized people—most often people of color. It doesn’t matter who is president; the industry is bending toward either side of the aisle with hopes that contracts will continue to be fruitful. (In 2020, Biden had three times more campaign contributions from the border industry than Trump.)
All in all, the partisan lens puts the actual, palpable solutions to the border problems far away in Washington, or Phoenix or Austin or Tallahassee or wherever. Perhaps a way forward might come from the people who populate the borderlands themselves, from those who constantly cross the border, who move from one side of the line to the other, the ones who see and feel firsthand what is happening. After all, these borderlanders are the very ones who will lose their environmental protections as bulldozers yet again tear up landscapes, threaten endangered species, and use up water in a thirsty land. It is time to turn to their guidance.
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