Guest Column: Border security problems come at a great price

Six thousand and 74. Those are two numbers that should immediately come to mind whenever anyone tries to tell you about the importance of securing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Six thousand is a recent estimate of the number of migrants who have died crossing into the United States since the mid-1990s when border enforcement picked up dramatically. Since 2000, nearly 2,500 of them have died near here, in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.

Seventy-four is the percentage by which the street price of a gram of pure cocaine in the United States has fallen in the last 30 years, despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on the border and elsewhere to stop the trafficking and cultivation of narcotics, which is to say nothing of the shocking human costs of our country’s manic prohibitionism.

When it comes to slowing undocumented migration and the flow of drugs northward, U.S. policy on the border has been a tragic failure. However, when it comes to endangering the lives of migrants and lining the pockets of contractors, it has been a resounding success.

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As these inexcusable policies grow at taxpayer expense, the UA has positioned itself to both perpetuate and benefit from them.

In 2008, the UA received a six-year, $17 million Department of Homeland Security grant to help create the National Center for Border Security and Immigration, or BORDERS. The program’s mission statement says that it is “dedicated to the development of innovative technologies, proficient processes, and effective policies that will help protect our Nation’s borders, foster international trade, and enhance long-term understanding of immigration determinants and dynamics.”

The list of currently funded projects listed on their website, which includes the development of lie-detecting avatars, mini unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and advanced biometric identification technology, makes it clear that security-centric thinking dominates.

That grant only strengthened and expanded the work already happening at the UA’s Science and Technology Park, which is now a major research and development hub where border enforcement tech companies enjoy cheap access to infrastructure and streamlined connections to the government agencies thinking about adopting their technology.

With the border tech market pegged to grow to $25 billion by 2020 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq more or less winding down, southern Arizona is fast becoming a hotspot for defense contractors looking to guarantee future profitability. Mike Crosby, the CEO of Aria International, a military contractor with extensive experience in the Middle East that recently moved its headquarters to the Tech Park here in Tucson, put it bluntly: “We want to be right here in the heart of it. As they say, ‘Follow the money.’”

Some at our university have shown great enthusiasm for getting in on this increasingly lucrative game. But many of my peers and I do not want our university staking its financial future on the continuation of policies that are irretrievably inhumane and profoundly wasteful. Instead, we want our university to think beyond borders and prioritize helping to make the world a better place for everyone, not just a more profitable place for a select few.

As one of many students on campus concerned by the woeful state of migrant human rights and the boondoggle that is the War on Drugs, I think we need to be asking these questions more: How do we prevent 6,000 migrant deaths from becoming 7,000? How do we change drug policies so that we stop wasting billions of dollars on gadgets and border infrastructure that drug cartels quickly outsmart? Probably not with lie-detecting avatars, unmanned drones and biometric stations.

As current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said in 2005, in one of those priceless moments of elite candor, “Show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That’s the way the border works.”

To satisfactorily answer these questions, we need to move beyond the security-centric thinking that has dominated border discourse for decades, and the academy has an important role to play in that process.

At best, such thinking pushes concern for the human rights of migrants to the background and casts migrants as national security threats, and at worst results in their baseless demonization. The fact that the proportion of migrants dying in the desert has been increasing while the total number of migrants crossing into the United States has been decreasing is grim evidence of this.

To be sure, there is a lot of outstanding social science research happening here at the UA that contests and points beyond the security framework, some of which I’ve had the tremendous pleasure to be a part of. But I can’t imagine there’s much DHS money supporting such work.

I know that these are trying times for public universities and I’m beginning to appreciate the marathon that is securing grant money for research. However, all money comes with strings and we need to think about where those strings lead and whether we want to be a part of that.

— Murphy Woodhouse is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Latin American Studies. He can be reached at murphywoodhouse@email.arizona.edu .


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