Reviews | Fear is for sale at the US-Mexico border
The US-Mexico border was fraught with uncertainty in the days leading up to May 11. Title 42, the health order crafted by the Trump administration that had been invoked millions of times to turn migrants away from the border, was about to expire, and no one knew what to expect. Many of the predictions were grim and sensationalized: masses of desperate people would pour into the country, flood the border towns first, then head north.
Right-wing media say there are 700,000 on the way, a friend texted me from the border town of El Paso. And if it was true ? (It was not.) The Biden administration sent 1,500 troops to help with the expected influx. Border Patrol agents handed out flyers urging migrants sleeping on the sidewalks in El Pasos to come into custody.
Just up the road, amidst all the angst and scrambling preparations, a different kind of crowd gathered at the El Paso Convention Center. These strangers also didn’t know what was coming, but they hoped to make a profit. For a few heady days, just steps from the trench where the Rio Grande traces a line of water between Mexico and the United States, law enforcement and vendors played with virtual reality headsets and gadgets of surveillance, spinning visions of a militarized and utterly impenetrable world. border.
Speakers at the Border Security Expo included various luminaries from the Department of Homeland Security, including Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz; prominent Border Patrol Sector Chiefs; and various Department of Homeland Security officials whose titles included words such as acquisition, contracting, and procurement.
Touted by organizers as a valuable opportunity to demonstrate products, talk to experts and form strategic partnerships, the show was, at heart, a sprawling marketplace. It could have been a dystopian suburban Tupperware party or a more orderly version of a Yemeni arms market, a place to buy everything from infrared riflescopes to spyware to security contractors and materials for border fence sensors.
If this confluence of events seems odd, the expected humanitarian crisis in the flesh as the backdrop for a trade show for crises to come, you haven’t spent enough time along the border.
I first covered the border in the late 1990s, when walls were not part of the national debate and Border Patrol agents roamed deserts and river waters in a seemingly arbitrary game of tag and mouse. The national debate on immigration has focused on labor and the economy, our collective values and, in a quieter but still palpable way, changing racial demographics.
Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001. The term border security became popular. The attention of nations was captured by the fear of terrorism, and everyone was talking about border control. But it was only a sentence; at the border there was little expectation that real control could ever be established or even sincerely desired.
The border is real, of course, the edge where two nations meet, the manifestation of the laws and regulations and red tape that govern the international movement of humans and things. But Americans have long played it like a game.
Here’s the truth: if you hear 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 fixation on terrorists has faded, but we have retained, as a legacy of this time of fear, the habit of considering the border as a security risk that must be controlled.
The dreaded post-Title 42 push didn’t come. In fact, encounters between Border Patrol agents and migrants dropped by 50% after the order was lifted. But that doesn’t mean all is well. The Biden administration has now implemented a tough new set of border measures, which may or may not survive a legal challenge from immigrant rights organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Behind all these maneuvers and palliatives, the United States has no coherent immigration policy, and politicians have little motivation to discuss the issue honestly. Along with the rest of the rich countries of the world, we are bending our laws so that we can evade our treaty obligations to take in refugees.
But we’re not talking about that; instead, we’re talking about the border. Our southwest border is not just a geographic region; it is a concept into which we cram all our apprehension and bad faith about immigration, asylum and the economic future. We dress these complicated questions with stories of trafficking and encounters with migrants, illustrating them with images of exhausted foreigners and agents with badges.
On May 11, a representative rose in the House and announced that the border was dissolved and that American civilization was threatened. In March, Mr. Ortiz caused controversy by admitting that his agency does not have full operational control over the border. And of course, it’s true. The border has never been under control.
And so there is a need or a perception of a need and entrepreneurs and vendors are rushing to fill that void. Carnival-like images from the Border Security Expo, captured here by Mike Osborne, depict yet another way of imagining the border: as a business, a playground for entrepreneurs, a corporate profit center where you can get rich. in direct proportion to popular fear.
The customer is you. The customer is us. And ads are everywhere.
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Mike Osborne is a photographer based in Austin, Texas. Federal Triangle, a collection of his photographs taken in and around Washington, DC, was published in 2019.
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