Last week, San Antonio hosted the Border Security Expo, a two-day trade fair and conference in the Texan city that provides a showcase for companies in the sector to present their products to border officials and government agencies. Unsurprisingly, the main topic of conversation at this year’s event was Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the US-Mexican border.
At last year’s event, the general consensus was that at a time when the numbers of people crossing illegally into the United States was falling, a wall was both too costly and largely unnecessary: a physical barrier might be useful in towns and cities, but that the combination of hostile terrain and advanced surveillance technology would be enough along large parts of the 3,201-kilometer frontier.
A year later, the mood is very different: if the president of the United States wants a wall, he shall have one. With an executive order issued to build the wall, there will be 5,000 new Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers, plus 10,000 men and women set to join the ranks of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the same time, Trump has ordered all people without papers to be detained.
Arrests of migrants crossing the border illegally have fallen in the first three months of 2017
“The expectation is that border security will be a priority of the new administration,” said Robert Bonner, a security consultant. “The future will depend on how literally we take that,” he added.
The CBP is taking the policy literally, albeit with a measure of caution. Its new boss, Ronald Vitiello, mentioned the wall in his address to delegates at the trade fair, noting: “Cement helps if you have it.” But he added: “A physical barrier alone isn’t enough. When more is built as a result of the president’s order, it has to be paid for and it has to be maintained in the long term.”
Mark Borkowski, the CBP’s Chief Acquisition Officer, told delegates that Trump’s executive order requires “permanently preventing” illegal immigrants from entering the United States, which means arresting anybody who tries to enter without the right paperwork and bringing them before a judge who will likely deport them on the spot.
“If we carried out a survey right now everybody would have an opinion about whether this is the best way to protect this country or not,” Borkowski told his audience of border security professionals. “Everybody would have an opinion about whether this is the way this country wants to present itself to the world. I have a boss, who is the president of the United States. I haven’t been elected, but he has, and these are his orders. We’re going to obey those orders as we obeyed Barack Obama’s and those of any other president,” he said.
David Aguilar, a former CBP deputy commissioner and now a lobbyist for the sector, believes the Trump administration is listening to the experts and is being more realistic about its plans for a wall. “Two weeks ago, they were insisting they wanted 2,000 miles of wall. Now they have backtracked,” he said. Aguilar doesn’t believe a wall in itself will solve the problem of illegal migration: “Infrastructure is useful depending on how it is done, where it is done and the maintenance it needs. Additional measures will be needed to help the wall, such as immigration judges, officers, prosecutors, and cooperation with Mexico.”
Senior police officers who a year ago were highly suspicious of Trump now seem to accept that his aggressive anti-immigration policy has put many would-be migrants off, noting that the number of arrests along the border has fallen between January and March for the first time anybody can remember.
The expectation is that border security will be a priority of the new administration
Robert Bonner, security consultant
There were no cement manufacturers or construction materials firms among the 200 or so exhibitors at the 12th edition of Border Security Expo, but there were plenty of companies offering radar systems, all-terrain vehicles, communication networks, license plate readers and drones.
Among the first-time exhibitors was Squire Tech, a company that makes portable communication towers that can be set up in remote areas. “We are investing in this,” explains company representative Michael B. Zalle. “The budget has been low for many years and we think it’s going to increase. This is what everybody is talking about. Money follows words. We follow the money.”
Nevertheless, many delegates said that what Trump says is one thing, and what Congress lets him do is another. “The executive is just one branch of government and has influence up to a point. Congress makes the budget,” said Scott Pearson of Vigilant Solutions, a facial recognition software company.
English version by Nick Lyne.