Trump’s Border Wall is a Multi-Billion Dollar Corporate Handout

By Nick Buxton, a communications consultant, whose publications include “Civil society and debt cancellation” in Civil society and human rights (Routledge, 2004) and “Politics of debt” in Dignity and Defiance: Bolivia’s challenge to globalisation (University of California Press/Merlin Press UK, January 2009) and Todd Miller, the author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security, who has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog Border Wars. Originally published at openDemocracy

Donald Trump is a master of distraction, but he is also an illusionist and there are few illusions bigger than his favourite obsession – the US border wall. On 1 October the New York Times reported that Trump told aides he would like to electrify his proposed wall and add to it a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators. Much of the wall that Trump fantasises about already exists – 654 miles of physical barriers – built long before he came to office. The existing border is also far more deadly in effect than even Trump’s own disturbed imaginings. A physical wall can be easily cut through, climbed over or burrowed beneath, but it’s more difficult to escape the violence of the US border regime already in place.

Trump’s wall is a clever sleight of hand. For his supporters, the wall has become a powerful symbol of hostility to outsiders, suppressing national pathologies, history and injustices. But it also distracts attention from those who have most to benefit from its construction – a small number of multinational corporations.

Since 2006, the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP), has issued 64,000 contracts to corporations worth a total of $27 billion. If you include the agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the US Coast Guard, the total figure is even larger – $80.5 billion.

A new report by Transnational Institute and No More Deaths, has identified 14 corporations that are the most significant players in border security: Accenture, Boeing, Elbit, Flir Systems, G4S, General Atomics, General Dynamics, IBM, L3 Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, PAE, Raytheon and UNISYS.

The list includes several of the world’s largest arms manufacturers as well as IT firms and the global consulting firm Accenture. Together, they have cashed in on border contracts that boomed long before Trump came to office. In the last 15 years, budgets for CBP and ICE have more than doubled. In 2009, Lockheed Martin landed a contract potentially worth more than $945 million for maintenance and upkeep of 16 P-3 surveillance planes equipped with airborne and surface-to-radar systems. This single contract was equal to the total entire border and immigration enforcement budgets from 1975 to 1978 (around $923 million).

Trump’s arrival has provided a further boost to these corporations’ healthy revenue streams. CBP budgets have increased by $2 billion ($14.4 billion in 2017 to $16.7 in 2019) and ICE has seen similar growth. The bonanza led US Border Patrol law-enforcement liaison Maurice Gill to exclaim, “It’s free money,” at the 2018 Border Security Expo.

A long view, however, shows that the border has provided free money for corporations for some time. Trump is merely adding fuel to the fire. His rhetoric is certainly more racist, toxic and dangerous, but neither his policies or budgets make any fundamental changes to the direction of US border policy in the last three decades.

Border militarisation is a bipartisan affair. This strategy began during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the first sophisticated surveillance systems, built by International Microwave Corporation (now L3 Technologies), were installed. Similarly, under Obama, there was a major expansion in surveillance, such as the installation of a network of 50 Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) built by Elbit – which use radar, thermal imaging and powerful cameras to spot adults up to 7.5 miles away.

There are a number of reasons for this bipartisan consensus, but one critical factor has been the role of corporations that most benefit from border contracts. Research in ‘More Than A Wall’ shows that these corporations have been very strategic in making donations to the key congressional committees responsible for legislation and budgets, notably the Homeland Security Committee and the Appropriations Committee.

Between 2006 and 2018, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Boeing contributed a total of $27.6 million to the Appropriations Committee and $6.5 million to members of the Homeland Security committee. They have backed this up with constant lobbying of government, advocacy for border security in media outlets, as well as regular meetings and exchanges with staff in key government border agencies. The most prominent of these are the annual Border Security Expos where corporations not only hawk their wares to government officials, but also develop industry strategies in seminars as well as network and build friendships over golf and drinks.

The relationships between government and industry have become so enmeshed that between 2003 and 2017, four Customs and Border Protection commissioners went onto homeland security corporations or consulting companies after leaving government. Some government officials apparently no longer see any distinction between the public interest and corporate interest.

At a border industry day in 2005, Michael Jackson, the deputy secretary of the department of homeland security, who had previously been Lockheed Martin’s chief operating officer, told the audience: “This is an unusual invitation. I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organisation.”

Jackson’s comments reveal how the US border-industrial complex operates: a self-perpetuating corporate and state system oiled by money, influence and relationships and a shared belief that our border can never be over-militarised.

The result of this bipartisan consensus has played out in countless stories of pain and loss that afflict so many refugees and migrants who cross the border. When border policy and contracts are handed over to arms firms, the results are deadly. The militarisation of the border has led migrants to take ever more dangerous, and often fatal, routes across the border. The CBP’s own statistics show that 7,500 people have died between 1998 and 2018, a gross underestimate according to the many humanitarian groups such as No More Deaths who keep finding bodies in remote locations. Once caught, many refugees are detained in terrible conditions and deported, separating families and compounding the trauma.

That is why many in the Democratic Party have found it so hard to oppose Trump’s wall plans. Some seem to either forget or deliberately hide their party’s culpability in border militarisation. Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, recently said that his government neither separated families or caged childrendespite similar practices being usedunder the Obama administration.

Some Democrats might publicly reject the physical wall, but continue to support technological solutions that arms companies are hawking. Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, for example, writing for CNN in 2018, argued that “a more efficient use of limited tax dollars would be to invest heavily in state-of-the-art detection technologies”. What he failed to mention, however, is that his largest donors included GEO Group and CoreCivic ($55,690), Northrop Grumman ($13,000), Boeing Corporation ($10,000), Caterpillar Inc ($10,000) and Lockheed Martin ($10,000) – all of which would benefit from government investment in border security technologies.

Despite this, there is an unprecedented opportunity today to break down the bipartisan consensus that supports border militarisation. However effective Trump’s border wall rhetoric might be for his supporters, it has also greatly increased the awareness of the traumatic impacts of US border and immigration policy on migrants and their families. Movements against the inhumanity of US border policies continue to expand and organise – and more and more Democratic candidates are speaking out. If this public concern and outrage can be channelled away from Trump to the underlying border industrial complex that drives policy, we could see some significant change to the deadly US border regime. Like so many of Trump’s illusions, his demonisation of immigrants merely masks his support for the profits of corporations. In exposing the deceptions behind Trump’s border wall we must also expose the border-industrial complex that is profiting from people’s pain.

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  1. Titus

    The money quote as were is “The bonanza led US Border Patrol law-enforcement liaison Maurice Gill to exclaim, “It’s free money,” at the 2018 Border Security Expo.” This is not to put to fine a point on it, utter insanity. We can’t provide school lunches and there’s this. I’m thinking out loud here but, the ‘Jackpot’ strikes me not just as a place we end up but there is i.e., that first part – ‘and we did nothing about it’. I suggest the Jackpot represents a form of mental illness were the issue isn’t can we change but that we have completely lost the ability to change and now becoming full time nihilistic. It’s no longer greed, we think it is, but it isn’t, we know we can’t do anything useful so we might as well burn it all down. The southern border is another version of Vietnam by way of Joseph Conrad. Great ‽

  2. Butch

    Wait!!! What??? Politicians using their power and influence to line their and “theirs” pockets………..when did this start?

  3. notabanker

    This is what is wrong with Californians. They need “walls” instead of “grids”. If they just knew what to ask for, they would get plenty of dough to fix their electricity problems.

  4. The Rev Kev

    When you get down to it, building the wall is kinda like an infrastructure project but I was surprised to see the range of companies like Boeing, General Atomics, General Dynamics, IBM, L3 Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon that are involved. Must be the huge sums of money up for grabs. But it is still just a lousy wall. Now two or three years ago Trump was spruiking a private-governmental partnership for rebuilding America’s infrastructure with. So I began thinking what would have happened if Trump’s infrastructure program had gone ahead and how it would have played out using this wall construction as an example.
    So you live on a road that has major problems with pot-holes and drainage because no money has been spent on maintenance the past ten years as all your city’s money has gone into paying some billionaire to have his facility in your city and he does not want to pay taxes or build the roads to this facility but have the city do it for him. In the old days they would have stripped your road back to base and redone the road followed by a layer of bitumen. It would have been a pain for a few days but you would have a decent road for years to come as a result.
    But we are talking about private-governmental partnerships here so this is what is likely to happen. So they strip the road back and the nothing happens for a coupla weeks. You cannot complain as it is unclear who has the contract for the road. They finally start building the road and you are surprised to learn that a Silicon Valley corporation has the contract here. But then you learn that it is being built so that robot cars can use it but you notice that they never put back the pedestrian footpath. You then realize that your taxes are being used to make it easy for a tech company to get richer with. Another major corporation installs sensors every 10 yards and you find out that this is so cars going over it can be ID so that they can be taxed by the city by how many miles of road they travel down.
    Finally, instead of bitumen being used to finish the road a new high-tech experimental material is being used at $15,000 a mile. To your eye, the main material making up this materiel appears to be cornflakes but you are outraged to find that anybody that fronts this road will have to pay an extra city tax to pay for this new material. Maybe people should be glad Trump’s infrastructure plan never went ahead.

    1. DHG

      Cant have anything that will help the people of America, these idiots cannot see one inch in front of their nose, they will have no income once the infrastructure actually fails.

    2. Synoia

      …Boeing, General Atomics, General Dynamics, IBM, L3 Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon…

      Pigs, meet Trough

  5. Jim A.

    copy edit:
    “…airborne and surface-to-radar systems…”
    I believe the phrase you’re looking for is “Air-to-surface radar systems”

  6. Synoia

    Not one question about WHY people are willing to walk from Honduras to the US, thousands of miles, carrying children, to an uncertain future. aka A Root Cause analysis.

    No action or US program I’ve read about designed to improve their condition at home to encourage them not to take such are arduous and perilous journey.

    Or hive I just misread the news?

    1. Alex Cox

      I imagine people flee Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador for the same reasons they flee the ruins of Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

      It would have been more sensible and humane of the West not to wreck those countries in the first place, but as this article shows it has been good for business.

  7. John Wright

    As a measure of the concern both political parties have for citizens of other nations, I find it worthwhile to compare the Peace Corps’ budget with the Defense department budget.

    One could suggest that the Peace Corps is a USA program to improve the lives of citizens of other lands.

    Peace Corps’ Budget: “The President’s FY 2017 request of $410 million would mark level funding for the agency.”

    Defense Department Budget: “The approved 2019 Department of Defense discretionary budget is $686.1 billion. It has also been described as “$617 billion for the base budget and another $69 billion for war funding.”

    These numbers put the Peace Corps budget at 0.06% of the defense budget.

    One could suggest that much of the CIA/NSA funding should be added into the defense budget, making the relative funding of the Peace Corps a smaller number.

    These budget figures could suggest that the USA does not view improving the lives of citizens of other lands as a high priority.

    One could even suggest that the USA elite political actions (healthcare, endless wars, trade bills, abetting corporate outsourcing, education industry and financial industry coddling, and decaying infrastructure) indicate that improving the lives of USA average citizens in also not a high priority.

    But “Defense” is.

  8. earthling1

    The wall is not to keep murderers, rapists, and drug dealers out. That is just a distraction.
    The real reason is to stop the flow of regime change victims and ultimately become a barrier to climate change refugees, which will number in the tens of millions.
    This is just sensible pre-planning by TPTB.

  9. getting the bigger picture

    For more context check this recent book: ‘Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border Around the World’ by Todd Miller – solidly researched and annotated.

    ‘The highly publicized focus on a wall between the United States and Mexico misses the bigger picture of strengthening border enforcement around the world.

    Empire of Borders is a tremendous work of narrative investigative journalism that traces the rise of this border regime. It delves into the practices of “extreme vetting,” which raise the possibility of “ideological” tests and cyber-policing for migrants and visitors, a level of scrutiny that threatens fundamental freedoms and allows, once again, for America’s security concerns to infringe upon the sovereign rights of other nations.

    In Syria, Guatemala, Kenya, Palestine, Mexico, the Philippines, and elsewhere, Miller finds that borders aren’t making the world safe—they are the frontline in a global war against the poor.’

  10. Ashburn

    I was not surprised to see the mention of Michael Jackson, former deputy secretary of the department of homeland security, associated with this public/private debacle. Prior to his role at DHS he was deputy secretary at the Department of Transportation and after 9/11 became the chief architect of the bureaucratic disaster known today as the Transportation Security Administration. I was unfortunate enough to observe first hand how TSA and later the entire Department of Homeland Security became a feeding trough for government contractors. While this took place under the Bush 43 administration, nothing changed at all during Obama’s terms in office.

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