A half a millennium ago, Europe was still recovering from the Black Plague, Catholics and Protestants were fighting homicidally, and the continent was wracked with worry. Among both the faithful and the political schemers, a movement spread to name the cause of the anxiety and quash it. Women eventually were denounced as the source of the trouble — women witches. A formidable bureaucracy emerged to identify, imprison, prosecute and kill them. The hunt for threatening women later spread to some of the American colonies.
Theologians were one sector of the bureaucracy. They railed against females and their sexual consorts with Lucifer, their filthy incubi and succubi, even their slaughter and cannibalism of infants. From the pulpits, God’s servants thundered.
The other members of the bureaucracy were the technicians. Calmly and with little fuss, they traveled from town to town brandishing the investigative manual Malleus Malificarium, and sophisticated enforcement methodologies.
One was measured use of the “rack” — the application of excruciating torture, followed by interrogations, then more torture, and then additional questioning. Cutting-edge “medical research” was also employed. In the colonies, suspected witches were compelled to submit to genital exams to find “devil’s marks.” One woman was found to have “an apparent teat in her secret parts.” Another had a strange growth similar “in shape to a dogs eare.” Seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse, in Salem, Massachusetts, had “a preternatural excressense of flesh between ye pudendum and Anus.” Nurse was hanged.
The only thing missing from this crazed and deadly bureaucracy was a Witch Hunt Security Expo, with keynote speeches, plenaries, PowerPoints, breakout sessions, and booths of vendors hawking their wares.
Well, that was then, this is now, and today we’ve got an annual event in San Antonio: the Border Security Expo.
Both times that the expo has taken place since Trump’s inauguration, it has featured an emotional Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and a hyperventilating Department of Homeland Security (DHS), plus an array of tranquil techies who hope to sell their products to the feds. They’re especially pumped up now that DHS has proposed that Congress swell CBP’s and ICE’s budgets for the coming year. Last year their combined budget totaled $20 billion. For 2019 the White House has just proposed a budget of $18 billion for a border wall, and $23 billion for security and enforcement. The $23 billion includes $1.6 billion for CBP to add massive surveillance technology and equipment to achieve “operational control” of the southern border — “opcon,” as CBP calls it. The wall will probably get far less than Trump has requested. Opcon could get more.
Sugarplum visions of all those billions danced at the Expo a couple of weeks ago. But as I listened to speakers and picked up exhibitor swag, I thought less about fairyland than about cauldrons, broomsticks and bonfires — about the big hunt at the San Antonio Expo for our nation’s new witches: Immigrants.
Attendees listen to a panel discussion at the 2018 national Border Security Expo.
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Manny Padilla is the Border Patrol sector chief for the Rio Grande Valley. Along with most CBP biggies at the expo, he moved like a tin soldier, in full, starched, green uniform.
In his keynote presentation, Padilla noted that his agents these days — and indeed, agents all along the southern border — are catching far fewer immigrants than they have for decades. (On average, one Border Patrol agent working an entire month and earning about $6,000 during that time catches two immigrants). The Trump intimidation factor is one reason for the decline in people trying to cross the border without documents. But, as Padilla explained, Mexico’s birth rate is falling, and job opportunities in that country have improved. The current problem for his agency, Padilla said, is the children and families identifying as refugees and seeking asylum.
He was referring to the people fleeing Central America because of the growing violence directed against civilians by gangs, with the complicity of police. These migrants are “non-impactable traffic,” as Padilla put it — they can’t be deterred by walls or more enforcement. This is because they literally walk up to Border Patrol agents and beg to be taken. During an interview with Border Patrol union podcast hosts after his talk, Padilla said of the Central Americans, “We’re not arresting them; they’re arresting us!”
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One might have expected some speaker at the expo to characterize these families as “vulnerable.” After all, they are at great risk of being hurt or killed if they stay in their nations. They make long, dangerous trips through hostile countries and terrain, with children on their hips.
But, no. No one called them “vulnerable.” Instead, as DHS Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke put it during her talk at the expo, these parents and kids were making the United States vulnerable — presumably because Americans of all political stripes actually feel sympathy for them. No normal human being, regardless of his or her political views, wants to see mothers and little children suffer or die. Under Trump, legal protections for immigrants are being mercilessly whittled away. But when “unaccompanied children” and “family units” arrive at the border, they’re still afforded some protection from being summarily ejected from the U.S.
So, what to do about these dusky, decidedly un-Norwegian, and dangerous “vulnerabilities”? “Push out the borders,” said Duke, and several other officials at the expo. By this, she means working with — and directly inside of — countries south of the border, including Mexico. (“We have 65 attache,” one official bragged). Doing so impedes the “vulnerabilities” from ever getting here in the first place.
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I got a taste of the “push” a few months ago, after hearing that CBP agents working at border bridges were denying migrants their legal right to claim refugee status and asylum. To investigate, I went to the pedestrian path of an international bridge connecting Reynosa, Mexico with Texas. A fresh-faced, buff young man stood on the Mexico side, wearing a polo shirt on which the little alligator was replaced with the logo of Mexico’s migration secretariat — equivalent to our Border Patrol.
“I’m here looking at people walking to the US side, headed for the office there,” he said cheerily. “I look. And if they don’t appear to be Mexican, I stop them and turn them back.”
According to expo speakers, this young man’s colleagues are not just turning people back a few feet from the border. They’re also using hi-tech methods to classify and reject migrants before they get anywhere near a bridge. So far, they’re doing this by fingerprinting people stopped in Southern Mexico. The U.S. wants Mexican officials to use facial recognition, iris scanning and voice recognition technologies.
But what about those crafty “vulnerabilities” who somehow do make it across the Rio Grande? Rumors have been floating for months that DHS is poised to shut down the family detention centers that hold these crossers, not in order to release families on bond, but, instead, to separate children from parents and lock them up apart from each other.
At the expo’s “Biometrics in Border Security” panel, DHS and CBP officials said they want to clear legislative and legal hurdles so that they can do other things to punish families, like taking DNA swabs from cheeks to verify their relationship.
Before Trump took office, DHS was forbidden from doing this. Now, according to DHS, it’s just a matter of time before the government starts doing 90-minute rapid testing in order to ferret out families who are lying about the children being theirs.
Imagine the effect on these families, of a DNA exam revealing the skeletons in a family closet. Say a mother once had an affair without her husband knowing. He’s always believed he’s the dad, and acted like a dad. But now, after a quick swab in detention, he finds out otherwise. Or what of a Guatemalan child whose mother gave him up to cousins or friends because of dire poverty, and now, with the swab, the child discovers that the people he knew and loved as parents are what the government denounces as liars.
Imagine the government prosecuting those liars for “smuggling.” Or worse, “trafficking.”
The "POLICE" lettering is a recent addition to the Border Patrol uniform.
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In the main expo hall, vendors displayed drones; camouflageable cameras; and a monster, two-story, telescoping tower. One vendor from a Middle Eastern country (“a shithole,” he quipped) displayed a huge computer with a multi-screen, telephoto-capable view of graduation festivities this past spring at New York University.
Three or four decades ago, a Border Patrol agent published a guide to the venerable skill of following immigrants through the wild by interpreting their footprints in the dirt. Tracking, the skill was called. As practiced by this agent, it was funkily Cormac McCarthyesque, and racist. When you encounter human feces in the sand, the agent advised, poke at them with a stick. If you see red chili in the excrement, it means the person is a Mexican. Keep tracking.
Today, all you need is polychrome thermal night-vision imaging, radar, aerostats, license-plate-reader systems, and “force multiplier” ground sensors. You don’t even have to be federal to get this stuff. One expo panel exhorted local sheriffs, constables, and cops working near the border (and not so near — as far as three counties up) to apply for “Operation Stonegarden,” a federal money pot that is set to double, from $55 million a year to $110 million, so that local law enforcement can buy gadgets, and pay their officers salaries and overtime, to catch border crossers and smugglers.
Several months ago, I was sent almost 200 pages of “Stonegarden Daily Reports” from the small, Rio Grande Valley town of Alamo.
The reports showed that police were not catching drug Mafiosi via Stonegarden, nor smugglers of humans, or anyone else who might be putting the border in danger. Instead, police were getting paid overtime to pick rowdy drunks off the streets, and errant youth with doobies in their pockets.
No matter. “It’s free money!” said a Border Patrol honcho at the expo.
No one at this panel or any other talked about the lowest tech of all: fluids to rehydrate immigrants found collapsed and dying each year during their perilous crossings through the badlands of Texas, Arizona and California; and body bags for the hundreds each year who don’t make it.
These items were not on display at the expo.
Members of the Color Gaurd on display at the expo.
Instead, another low-tech product was displayed, by an official who said he was modeling the latest in agency apparel. It was a green vest with letters spelling out not just “Border Patrol,” but also a newly added word: POLICE.
Currently, over three percent of the world’s population is in a state of migratory flux. In the United States, an equal proportion of our own people are undocumented, or one person in every 33 of us.
Today, paperless immigrants are as necessary to our demographics and commonweal as women always have been in Europe. Today, study after study shows that immigrants, including the undocumented, are productive and energetic—a boon.
Is there any point to repeating and re-repeating these obvious facts? Who’s listening? We are hard in the middle of a moral panic, and moral panic always trumps fact. Today we no longer fear Protestants versus Catholics, or the plague or Cotton Mather. Today we are shaken to our bones by the worn out nation-state.
It’s worn out because as money surges north to south, east to west and every vice-versa which way, traditional borders are dying. Those of us fortunate enough to be settled may not consciously understand this. But the wanderers do: those three percent who’ve been upended by wandering capital, with its resulting land and job loss, its war, catastrophic weather, and the grotesque violence of its gigantic black markets. The people trying to escape this mayhem cannot be stopped, regardless of how much money we waste building walls, or how much our leaders throw down the toilet of Border Security Expo tech.
There could be another response. We could embrace the migrants, fold them into the bosom of our civic life, celebrate them, make with them a new, post-nation-state world.
Instead, the Expo hawked rhetoric and gizmos as crisp and yet disposable as adult diapers, velcroed onto the shrunken loins of a senile old thing we call the “homeland.” To maintain this ghoul on life support, as well as semblance of vitality, Border Patrol recruiters attend professional bull riding events. They’ve chosen to pitch jobs there because, as one official at the Expo put it, bull riding fans tend to be “patriotic.” They also look for people who, as another honcho said, wish to defend “the American experience.”
Meanwhile, the techies dream up more sophisticated means of tormenting migrants who, in the American homeland — though it’s considered overkill to draw such analogies— are now inarguably quaking in their homes, much like Art Spiegelman’s mice, afraid to go out on the street. Their fear is the flipside of our fear. It’s the fear of those women in Salem, whose American experience ended with hanging.
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