Southern Arizona in the Crosshairs

The annual Border Security Expo shows off billions of dollars of technology coming soon to a desert near you

Razor wire was coiled around a rudimentary wooden shelter. Under it, a hunched man concentrated, looking into his laptop. Cameras and radar were set up on a retractable mast behind him and could detect any activity at long range, day and night. Desert camouflage covered this large mobile surveillance machine, which was surrounded by sandbags and desert shrubs.

Dressed sharply in a suit and tie, the man was not in a militarized border zone. The DRS Technologies salesman was in the Phoenix Convention Center, trying, as the midsize military and electronics company's motto asserts, to draw "clarity from the clutter."

This "bring the battlefield to the border" scenario (as another sales representative put it), was in play throughout the spacious exhibition hall at the seventh annual Border Security Expo on March 12 and 13. Almost 200 companies big (Raytheon) and small (Tucson-based StrongWatch), were competing for the multibillion-dollar border policing pie.

The exhibition hall was a bustling mall for the surveillance state. Uniformed Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel were among the civilians browsing the exhibitor booths. Products ranging from minisurveillance drones to self-heating meals (with a three-year shelf life) to semi-automatic weapons were on display. Overhead, a surveillance blimp kept an eye on everybody walking around. In the middle of the hall was a tower able to withstand a high-level blast. It looked like something from a military base in Afghanistan, but it's now envisioned for border control.

"It's as if the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan, and invading Arizona," said Dan Millis of the Sierra Club's Tucson-based Borderlands Campaign, which opposes any new border fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 2012, the U.S. government spent $18 billion on border and immigration enforcement agencies, more than on all other federal law enforcement agencies—including the FBI, DEA, Secret Service and several others'—combined. Tucson and Southern Arizona are front and center in this border policing bonanza, and it's one of the reasons the Washington D.C.-based DRS Technologies has also set up shop at the University of Arizona's Science and Technology Park on Rita Road.

The UA tech park has identified 57 border technology companies working in and around Tucson in what Bruce Wright, associate vice president for university research parks, called an "emerging industry cluster." Wright said that when you consider the international market for border technology, it is a booming industry approaching $20 billion in sales in 2013 and projected to reach $54.4 billion by 2018.

"Here we are living on the border—turning lemons into lemonade. If we are to deal with the problem, what is the economic benefit from dealing with it?" Wright said during a February 2012 interview. "Well, we can build an industry around this problem that creates employment, wages, and wealth for this region ... and this technology can be sold all over the world. So it becomes an industry cluster that is very beneficial to us in Southern Arizona."

The tech park is offering testing and evaluation services for border technology on its 1,345 acres, which includes a mockup with 18,000 linear feet of border fencing surrounding its solar farm. The tech park's business incubator helps startup border tech companies commercialize their products and gets them connected with the right people. At a March 1 event, when the tech park was showcasing DRS Technologies' integrated fixed-tower system (which included a command and control center), Wright said that "Southern Arizona could become the leading center in the world for the development and deployment of this technology."

This shouldn't be a surprise. Although in 2011 DHS canceled its contract with the Boeing Corp. for the previous technology surveillance plan known as SBInet, all eyes are still on the possibility of a virtual "wall" across Southern Arizona as part of an ever-expanding enforcement web. Many companies at the expo, including DRS, hope to make their debut in the Sonoran desert, outdoing Boeing's surveillance towers, which had difficulty with Arizona's rugged terrain.

At the expo, Mark Borkowski of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition assured anxious industry reps that the Arizona Technology Deployment Plan would happen. So expect to see more remote, mobile and fixed surveillance technology in the desert south of Tucson. Even with declining arrests of immigrants, Tucson continues to be the Border Patrol's busiest sector. The agency reports that there have been increased border-crossings in south Texas, where it also plans to concentrate new technology.

About the only thing dampening the upbeat mood of the border-protection industry was the sequester, the across-the-board federal budget cuts that went into effect March 1. However, according to Borkowski, the sequester touched very little of the money designated for technology. Companies at the expo were also enthusiastic about the improved prospects for immigration reform and the step-up in border policing that could come with the reforms.

Sarah Launius of the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths posed a question probably not widely considered at the expo: "When government and industry talk about 'border security' we have to ask 'security for whom?'" Since Sept. 11, the United States has spent $791 billion on homeland security, which outdoes the cost of the entire New Deal by (an inflation-adjusted) $300 billion. To answer one part of Launius' question: It certainly means a great deal of financial security for some of the companies selling cameras, sensors, drones, tanks and barriers in the buzzing exhibition hall in Phoenix.

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