The long and frustrating quest for a “smart wall”

Every president since Bill Clinton has pursued this technological dream. A physical wall is expensive. Yet he still doesn’t measure up against a ladder. But one clever wall, a line of south-facing watchtowers, promises to seal the border through innovation. This would not only save money by reducing the number of officers needed to patrol the 2,000 miles of ruthless terrain, but it would also save lives. With a smart wall, migrants who got lost in the deserts and mountains along the border would be spotted, captured and safely deported.

At least that’s the vision Joe Biden is counting on.

On the first day of his tenure, President Biden released his 2021 U.S. Citizenship Bill. Between the asylum, visa, and Dream Act reforms was a section titled “Deploying Smart Technology to the Home Office. southern border ”. Technology, the bill said, was the only way to “manage responsibly” and provide “situational awareness” over an otherwise vast and remote border. “I’m going to make sure we have border protection,” Biden said last year, “but it’s going to be based on the assurance that we’re using high-tech capabilities to deal with it.”

For now, that high-tech capability will come from Anduril, which has a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to place 200 guard towers along the border in Texas, New Mexico and California. Luckey’s latest venture was successful – he sold Oculus to Facebook for $ 2 billion – but the story of America’s smart wall quest has been, to say the least, disappointing.

Over the past two decades, the United States has invested billions of dollars in towers 30 feet, if not 160 feet high, topped with radar, with night vision or thermal vision, and were built by the world’s largest contractors. defense of the world. Often times, these systems ended with laughable results. They were looking everywhere except downstairs, so migrants and smugglers were hiding under them. The software, designed to detect humans, falsely dispatched agents to apprehend grazing cattle. And sometimes the gear just succumbed to the punishing southwestern sun, wind and rain.

Despite this record of failure, both Democrats and Republicans clung to the dream. Even Donald Trump was hit. While he was campaigning publicly for his “great and beautiful wall”, his administration quietly signed the agreement with Anduril. Only a smart wall, James E. Clyburn, Democratic Majority House Whip, wrote approvingly, “can result in immigration and border security practices that advance justice and mercy everywhere.”

Biden needs to correct the border. A majority of voters thought Trump’s wall was stupid. But the majority of voters under Biden now believe the border is in a state of crisis that requires immediate attention. So Biden left in place Title 42, a 1944 public health law that Trump used during the pandemic to turn back asylum seekers. He half-heartedly fought Trump’s policy of remaining in Mexico and, like Trump, pressured the Mexican government to deploy its military to catch migrants crossing the north of the country to the United States. These strategies have succeeded in pushing back his progressive base and disappointing those who think he is too soft on the border. Biden must appear, at the same time, harsh but human. So, like presidents before him, he’s hit the smart wall. But if history could speak, it could temper Biden’s hopes.

“This dream of constant surveillance,” says Geoff Alan Boyce, director of the border studies program at Arizona-based Earlham College, “is being briefed by techies in the security world who really believe that, essentially, the border can be approached. as an engineering problem. Companies that profit from public procurement, he said, “are perfectly happy to make all of these operational promises of what they can deliver. But the history of border technologies is a little less impressive.

Not only is Anduril’s system unproven, but after 15 years Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of Border Patrol, hasn’t figured out how to measure what success looks like. Defense companies, Democrats and President Biden will also say that a smart wall is a human alternative to a physical wall. But those who have studied these systems believe the opposite: they have helped push the number of migrant deaths to historic levels. This result, according to critics, is a hallmark of the smart wall, whether it is equipped with the latest cameras, radars or artificial intelligence. Ultimately, the possibility remains that Anduril will deliver a product that is everything it is meant to be – innovative and technologically sound. But that doesn’t mean it will achieve the ambitious results that policymakers and politicians have long demanded.

“They try to present what they do as very different from anything that has been done before,” says Iván Chaar López, who studies border technology at the University of Texas at Austin. But it’s “not that different from what all those old systems did.”

CBP says it uses a mix of walls, agents and technology in each area depending on the needs of the border patrol. Thus, “attributing a reduction in migration to a single asset would be an oversimplification,” the agency says. But if CBP can’t say for sure that watch towers discourage migration, what has the government actually accomplished for all the money it has spent? To answer this larger question, I’ve read outdated government reports on our efforts to secure the border with technology that dates back decades. I traveled the deserts of Arizona, where old watchtowers had been operating since 2007, and crossed the border into Texas, New Mexico, and California to speak with dozens of people in the United States. United and Mexico, trying to understand the impact of these systems on migrants. And I spent hours with the innovators of Anduril where the belief in the ability of Big Tech to challenge history is palpable.

As I stood next to Steckman, the lights above shining on the graphite-colored mast of the guard tower, he turned to me. “AI controls where it wants to look, and AI can think and process at speeds unmatched for the human mind,” he said approvingly. “It’s constantly moving, and you’ll see it on the pitch. “

About Darnell Yu

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