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  • Border Research, Border Gestures:The Transborder Immigrant Tool
  • Ricardo Dominguez (bio)

The Tijuana–San Diego border has always been a site for staging military research. From 1968 until 1973, the US military spent close to one billion dollars a year on a new research program intended to end the war in Vietnam by establishing a computerized border field of networked sensors called Operation Igloo White. Igloo White was funded by ARPA (now DARPA), the Defense Department's edge technology sector, and the research was done by forty-five scientists from Research I US universities called "the Jasons" (after Jason and the Argonauts). The Jasons would gather every summer in La Jolla, California, where the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is located. While the project failed to end the Vietnam War with its virtual fence, and was never able to capture the movement of North Vietnamese soldiers crossing into South Vietnam, Operation Igloo White and its technologies were teleported to the US in the early 1970s, where they rapidly staged technologically driven actions against drug cartels, smugglers, and most specifically, immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. This history echoes a number of the issues around the Trumpian border now, with its symbolic wall and his administration's more direct amplification of US racist immigration policies without any ethical boundaries. Meanwhile, a wider call for supporting a smart fence or virtual fence, rather than the above, has gained favor again, and no doubt both systems will fail again while the desert will continue to be used to kill people the old-fashioned way.

In 1993 Sandia National Labs became a hired gun for the national vision of an expanded reborderization project. Sandia was originally a military research facility named Z Division in 1945, a weapon-testing arm of Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 1991 it was commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to assess US–Mexico border enforcement efforts because it was considered an expert in designing high-end physical security systems. In 1993 it issued a report titled Systematic Analysis of the Southwest Border, recommending a shift from "interdiction" policies to a new anticipatory strategy of "prevention through deterrence." These recommendations were then [End Page 1053] implemented with the launch of Operation Blockade (1993) and Gatekeeper (1994). The new virtual border would allow it to "effectively apprehend and … track … illegal entrants."1 Furthermore, the physical environment itself was mobilized as a tool of border enforcement. Believing that crackdowns in populated areas would reroute arrivals into "hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement," and that natural barriers, whether rivers, mountains, or vast tracts of the Sonora Desert, would amplify the difficulty of crossing and deter future transgressions, former US Immigration and Naturalization Service director Doris Meissner claimed that if urban areas could be effectively controlled, "geography would do the rest."2

Like Operation Igloo White, Meissner called for an augmentation of "technological resources" that would teleport the border into the twenty-first century. In 1995 the Border Research and Technology Center (BRTC), operated by Sandia National Laboratories, was opened in San Diego. BRTC works with Homeland Security, the US Customs Service and Border Patrol, the US Attorney offices, and law enforcement agencies to strengthen technological capabilities and awareness on US borders. BRTC also works on joint ventures to identify technologies that will stop the flow of undocumented people crossing the Mexico–US border and has also been participating in a project to detect the heartbeats of people concealed in vehicles or other containers.

The US–Mexico border regime used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to shift US Border Patrol from the Department of Justice to the new hyperpolicing structure of Homeland Security. With this switch, the acceleration of border control technology dependence and border wall reinforcement continued to echo Sandia's 1993 recommendations, but with some core differences: border enforcement would no longer be framed as a War on Drugs but instead as part of the War on Terrorism and was (re)branded as "prevention through deterrence" and as "defense-in-depth."3 This extended the US border inland by fifty to one hundred miles, and it also reached to the...


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