In response to President Donald Trump's insistence on the need for a border wall to keep the country safe from drug dealers, people smugglers, and illegal immigrants, Congressional Democrats have been bandying about a more moderate-sounding solution: better border security technology.
In her brief televised response to Trump's Tuesday Oval Office address, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that "we can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation; we can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border; we can fund more innovation to detect unauthorized crossings."
This theme was picked up by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D–Texas) in an article for CNN titled "The answer to border security is technology, not wall."
"Instead of a wall, we should increase the use of modern technology, including cameras, fixed towers and aerial and underground sensors," writes Cuellar. "We can't double down on a 14th century solution to a 21st century challenge if we want a viable long-term solution."
As one of the first acts of the new Congress, House Democrats—with the aid of five Republicans—passed a funding measure for funding the Department of Homeland Security that precluded wall funding but included $336 million for new border security technology.
Lost in this sales pitch is that many of the same things that make a physical barrier undesirable also apply to new surveillance technology—as we can see from the current efforts to deploy these technologies along the southern border.
The 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act gives border patrol agents the power to warrantlessly enter any private lands within 25 miles of the border "for the purpose of patrolling the border to prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States." In recent years, the Border Patrol has adopted an insanely broad definition of "patrolling" that includes placing cameras and sensors on private property without the permission of the owner.
Take Roberto Palacios, a rancher and attorney who owns a property near the Texas-Mexico border. He found a surveillance camera installed on a mesquite tree near his house in November 2017. When he removed the camera, both the Border Patrol and the state police demanded it back and threatened to charge Palacios with theft if he refused.
In February 2018, Palacios sued Texas state law enforcement and Customs and Border Protection—which oversees the Border Patrol—for criminal trespass and violating his Fourth Amendment rights.
Also suing the federal government over the placement of sensors and cameras on its land is the North American Butterfly Association, a nonprofit that operates the National Butterfly Center, a wildlife refuge for butterflies along the Texas-Mexico border. Border Patrol refuse to tell the center where the cameras and sensors they've planted are, so staff and visitors are potentially under federal surveillance anywhere they go in the park.
These are hardly the only folks to have surveillance devices placed on their land. In 2012 the State of Texas launched Operation Drawbridge, which has seen it place more than 5,000 cameras along the Mexican border. They feed images to state and federal officials in real time.
Nor are these the only technologies threatening privacy near the border. The use of drones and surveillance blimps has proliferated in the region, while folks passing through legal ports of entry have been subject to everything from facial recognition technology to having their fingerprints run through error-prone terror watchlists.
The "digital border fence" may be less unsightly and less expensive than Trump's wall, but it presents many of the same problems for privacy and property rights. Democrats who call for more of this are showing that they care more about opposing the symbolism of a border wall than actually guarding against its negative effects.
Bonus video: Check out ReasonTV's report on the Butterfly Center's lawsuit: