ATTENDEES AT THE BORDER SECURITY EXPO DID NOT KNOW WHAT WOULD HAPPEN, BUT HOPED TO BENEFIT FROM IT.
The US-Mexico border was filled with uncertainty in the days leading up to May 11. Title 42, the health mandate created by the Trump government used millions of times to prevent migrants from crossing the border, was about to expire and no one knew what to expect. Many predictions were exaggerated and sensationalized: a desperate mob would enter the country, flooding the border towns first, then pushing its way north.
“Right-wing media say 700,000 migrants are headed here,” a friend texted me from the border city of El Paso. “And if it’s true?” (It was not). The Biden government sent 1500 soldiers to help with anticipated influx. Border Patrol Agents handed out brochures urging migrants sleeping on El Paso sidewalks to turn themselves in to authorities.
Just down the road, in the midst of all that angst and preparation, another mob gathered at the El Paso Convention Center. These outsiders also did not know what would happen, but they hoped to benefit from it. For a few heady days, just steps from the trench where the Rio Grande cuts a watery line between Mexico and the United States, officials and vendors played with virtual reality headsets and surveillance gadgets, spinning visions of a militarized and totally impenetrable border.
Among the speakers at the Border Security Expo Several luminaries from the Department of Homeland Security were present, such as the head of the Border Patrol, Raúl Ortiz; senior Border Patrol sector chiefs and various Department of Homeland Security officials whose titles included words like “purchases,” “contracting,” and “acquisitions.”
Billed by the organizers as “a valuable opportunity to demonstrate products, speak with experts, and establish strategic alliances,” the expo was, at heart, a vast marketplace. It could have been a dystopian Tupperware suburban party or a tidier version of a Yemeni gun market: a place where you could buy everything from infrared rifle scopes to spyware, plus services. of security contractors and materials for border fence sensors.
If this confluence of events seems strange to you—the anticipated real humanitarian crisis as a trade show backdrop for crises to come—it’s because you haven’t spent enough time at the border.
I first covered the border in the late 1990s, when the wall was not part of the national debate and Border Patrol agents roamed deserts and rivers in a seemingly arbitrary game of cat and mouse. The national immigration debate looked at jobs and the economy and our collective values and, more quietly but still palpably, changing racial demographics.
Then would come the attacks of September 11, 2001. The term “border security” caught on. The nation’s attention was focused on the fear of terrorism and everyone was talking about controlling the borders. But it was only a phrase; at the border there was little expectation that real control could be established or that such a thing would actually be wanted.
Of course, the border is the actual border where two nations meet, the manifestation of the laws, regulations, and paperwork that govern the international movement of people and things. But the Americans have not given it the necessary importance for a long time.
One thing is certain: if you are hearing about the border, chances are someone is trying to scare you. Generally speaking, Republicans want you to be afraid of immigrants and Democrats want you to be afraid of Republicans. Our obsession with terrorism has waned, but if that era of fear has left us with anything, it’s the habit of thinking of the border as a security risk to be mastered.
The feared post-Title 42 migrant boom did not happen. In fact, encounters between Border Patrol agents and migrants decreased by 50 percent after the expiration of said mandate. But that does not mean that everything is going well. The Biden administration has put in place a new set of tougher border measures, which may or may not overcome a legal challenge by organizations that defend the rights of migrants and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Despite all these maneuvers and stopgap solutions, the United States lacks a coherent immigration policy, and politicians lack motivation to debate the issue honestly. Along with the rest of the world’s rich countries, we flip our laws so we can evading our treaty obligations in order to receive refugees.
But we don’t talk about that; instead, we talk about the border. Our southwestern border is not just a geographic region; it is a concept into which we put all our concern and insincerity about immigration, asylum and the economic future. We clothe those complicated issues with stories of smuggling and encounters with immigrants, we illustrate them with images of exhausted foreigners and badge-wearing agents.
On May 11, a congressman advertisement in the House of Representatives that the border was lawless and American civilization was threatened. In March, Ortiz caused controversy when admitted that his agency it did not have absolute operational control over the border. And we know that’s true. We have never been able to control the border.
So there’s a need—or the perception of a need—and contractors and vendors are rushing to fill that gap. The carnival-like images of the Border Security Expo, captured here by Mike Osborne, portray one more way in which we imagine the border: as a business, as a playground for entrepreneurs, a corporate profit center in which to get rich. in direct proportion to popular fear.
The client is you. The clients are us. And we are surrounded by advertising.
This article originally appeared on The New York Times.
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