It turns out Mexico may actually pay for an expensive U.S. border wall after all, but certainly not in the way former president Donald Trump would have hoped.
Following a wide-ranging meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden this week, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador agreed to spend some $1.5 billion over the next two years investing in so-called “smart” border technology. The agreement amounts to both a departure from the contentious Trump-era political bickering between the two countries and a continuation of border surveillance efforts, which digital rights activists told Gizmodo could do more harm than good to vulnerable border communities.
Though neither president provided concrete details on where the new funds would be allocated, previous smart border and smart wall pushes generally refer to a patchwork of facial recognition, drones, sensors, license plate readers, dog-like robots, DNA collection, and other emerging surveillance technologies that all strive to keep constant tabs on anyone entering or leaving the U.S.-Mexico border. Though these so-called smart solutions seemingly offer an attractive alternative to sprawling physical barriers—particularly among Democratic lawmakers—they’ve simultaneously drawn intense scrutiny from academics and civil liberties groups who warn the technologies are ripe for abuse.
Gizmodo reached out to the White House for more details on Mexico’s new smart border investment but hasn’t heard back. The two presidents did release a joint statement, however, where they said they were, “committed like never before to completing a multi-year joint U.S.-Mexico border infrastructure modernization effort for projects along the 2,000-mile border.”
In an interview with Gizmodo, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn spoke critically of the investment, which he claimed would likely rely on inaccurate and invasive technologies.
“Wasting billions of dollars on invasive tech will do nothing to address the realities of immigration,” Fox Cahn said. “Rather than trying to turn the southern border into a high-tech fortress, we need to meet our legal obligation to protect those fleeing violence abroad. Past technologies have not only been biased and error-prone, but they have put Americans in harms ways, like when Customs and Border Protection’s facial recognition data was hacked just a few years ago.”
Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t just limited to high-tech solutions either. According to CBS News, Biden and López Obrador also agreed to expand the total number of work visas issued by the U.S., create a working group for labor migration pathways and worker protections, and continue joint patrols for human smugglers along the shared border. They also reportedly discussed increasing the number of refugees admitted to the U.S.
The agreements and cooperative tone of the meeting drew a stark contrast to the Trump era, where the former U.S. president regularly antagonized the Mexican government and people and vied, ultimately pressuring Mexico into paying for the multi-billion dollar project. Ironically, now Mexico literally is paying for the wall, albeit in the form of largely substituting mortar with data. Some experts have argued traditional physical walls are infective compared to the more robust monitoring technologies currently being deployed by Customs and Border Protection and other law enforcement agencies.
The dream of smart, virtual border walls brimming with the latest new tech has ushered in a booming market filled with startups less averse to pursuing controversial defense contracts. Possibly the most famous, or notorious, of those eager startups is Anduril Industries, the brainchild of former Occulus founder and well-known shoe hater Palmer Luckey. During the last year of Trump’s presidency, Anduril received a five-year contract to deploy hundreds of its looming AI-powered surveillance towers scattered throughout the border. Anduril did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Biden, who vowed to end the construction of the Trump-era physical border wall during his presidential campaign, has been pilloried by activist groups who’ve accused him of reneging on that promise and continuing to expand controversial surveillance technologies. A coalition of more than 40 rights groups including Fight for the Future, Mijente, and S.T.O.P pushed back against Biden last year in an open letter opposing the president’s efforts to expand border surveillance tech funding as part of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. Expanded border surveillance, according to those groups, represents a, “continuation of the Trump administration’s racist border policies, not a break from it.”
“The harms of border technology go far beyond the border and disproportionately impact Black, indigenous, and people of color communities,” the group wrote. “Border enforcement policies have long served as a testing ground for military-grade surveillance at the border and far into the interior.”
Other civil liberties groups like the ACLU warn unchecked use of these technologies could expose certain border groups to unequal levels of monitoring.
“Warrantless use of these technologies comes at an unacceptably high cost,” the ACLU said in a 2019 statement. “They allow the government to track, surveil, and monitor individuals indiscriminately and with precise detail. Individuals in the border zone should not be subject to near-constant surveillance that intrudes on the most intimate aspects of their lives.”