Every few seconds the chatter in the lobby is punctuated by a succession of short, rapid cracks so loud I can feel the concussions in my chest. No one else seems to notice. The Phoenix Convention Center’s southern building is packed with hawkish-looking white men in muted suits who somehow continue networking amid the piercing sound. They’re all wearing convention badges around their necks that display their ominous affiliations: DOD, DOJ, DHS, Raytheon.
It’s the first day of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, where arms dealers and their government buyers come together in a feeding frenzy of defense contracts. There are only so many missile systems one can sell, so companies like Raytheon have found a way to keep revenue flowing with border security. I cut past clusters of men as I make my way toward the crackling, which seems to be coming from beyond the closed doors of the expo hall. I push one of them open just a bit and peek inside.
There’s a large flat-screen with white infrared images of a few men who look like ghosts, crosshairs hovering just above one of their foreheads. Between a couple of displays, a few rows back, is an SUV that’s taken several thousand rounds of heavy machine gun fire, and just before a guard comes over and tells me the hall isn’t open yet, I see the source of the noise. A man presses a stun gun to his chest and pulls the trigger, firing a blue arc of electricity, over and over, without any apparent effect. His company has developed a fiber mesh shirt that makes the wearer immune to Tasers.
We the taxpayers — which includes the vast majority of undocumented people in the country — are the customers. Despite Mexican migration to the United States hovering around net zero, $4.5 billion is up for grabs for contractors over the next half-decade to secure the border. The continued availability of this money hinges on a popular animus toward people like me.
In the late '80s, my 20-year-old mother, Yolanda, and I boarded a plane in Veracruz, Mexico, where I’d been born a year and a half earlier. When we exited, we were in Chicago, the city that we would tentatively make our home. My father, Martín, who’d moved there before us, met my mom and me at the airport. Long-distance calls were too expensive to make regularly, especially for someone earning minimum wage, so my parents’ relationship had been stretched about as far as it would go.
My mother had tucked photos of me, and the courtyard of my father’s family home, in the folds of her handwritten letters, which expressed week-old hopes, fears, anxieties, and sorrows. In addition to all the regular angst and jealousy of young love, this kind of distance and time had nearly been too much. The dates on the letters and the small photographic timestamps allowed me to reconstruct the back-and-forth on which my present reality hinged.
We had been able to fly into the United States, rather than walk through a stretch of desert or ride in the trunk of a car, because we’d gotten tourist visas by convincing an American consul that we weren’t poor. My mother had booked return flights to show that we had no intention of staying in Chicago, and after a few months, when our tourist visas expired, we entered into the precarious category commonly referred to as “illegal alien.”
This is all to give context to something very personal that I have always felt, and that I find many Latin American immigrants feel when they are speaking behind closed doors and in confidence: that individuals who come to the United States by whatever means available to them have done nothing wrong. People are fleeing the carnage of the drug war and of an impossible economic situation, both of which have as much to do with U.S. policy as with Mexican. I went to Phoenix for the 2014 Border Security Expo because I wanted to be able to face the harsh reality of what will come to pass. I wanted to stare into the faces of the men and women who look at me and see a problem for which they can engineer a solution.
The main conference room is a large gray rectangle with gray speckled carpeting, gray walls, and long gray tables. If someone happened upon the room, they might think they walked into a gathering of hostile accountants or patent lawyers, not arms dealers and their customers. I take a seat near the rear exit and notice there’s been background music playing over the loudspeakers the whole time, a bizarre 15-second motif that evokes gravitas and steel. As the first line of men walks out onto the stage, the somber tones match the stoic looks they project, and it all has the pageantry of bad television drama.
The conference begins with the event’s MC, a small round man in a nicely tailored suit, thanking Raytheon, the show’s main sponsor and the world’s largest producer of guided missiles, for “helping to advance our mission.” The mission, though, is never really defined beyond “protecting our sovereignty,” or “securing our freedom.” When the conference’s first real speaker, former acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Jayson P. Ahern, is introduced, it’s as a man who “led through times of great change, where our borders and sovereignty came under attack like never before.” The time is post-9/11, and almost every speaker will refer to it as proof that this gathering here today makes sense.
But of course it doesn’t. Or what kind of sense does it make that Ahern, the expo’s Advisory Board Chairman is also acting Principal of the Chertoff Group, a consultancy firm that works in partnership with Burson-Marsteller, the crisis PR firm whose client list has included Blackwater USA, the military junta of Argentina, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Union Carbide during the Bhopal disaster.
Ahern sums up the room’s “dual mission set” within the first minute of his speech. “Protecting our borders and advancing economic prosperity go hand in hand.” Everyone in the audience perks up.
“We have been looking closely at Border Patrol agents' use of force, and I believe Chief Fisher has set the right tone.” Ahern motions toward Michael J. Fisher, chief of the United States Border Patrol, who is sitting in the crowd wearing a dark green Border Patrol uniform; he turns to the crowd and nods.
A week before the expo, a Border Patrol agent had come upon a woman and two girls in the desert. According to investigators, he sexually assaulted the woman and slashed her wrists. He sexually assaulted her 14-year-old daughter and attempted to break her neck. Somehow they both survived. He then took the other girl home, tied her up, and returned to work to finish his shift. Around midnight he went home and sexually assaulted the other girl. When authorities arrived at his home, he shot himself dead.
I step out into the hallway as the room applauds for Chief Fisher. I want to beat the crowd to the coffee station, but lingering around the carafes is a large group of uniformed law enforcement personnel of various sorts. I jolt when I see them, which they all seem to notice.
The moment is brief — the cops just look at me and then turn away — but the thick feeling stays with me. It feels like there’s something fluttering in my throat, and I find myself looking at their guns. I know I’m not in any immediate danger because we’re in here, and I’m wearing khakis and an oxford, but I can’t help thinking about how this would be different if I were wearing something else and we found ourselves alone in the silence of the desert, and about how it does end differently for so many people. The cops look terrifyingly human. One of them splashes scalding coffee on his hand while pumping it out of the carafe. Another hesitates before he takes the last blueberry muffin from a tray. If I’d been in a room with any of these men as a child, it would have meant my family and I were being uprooted again and expelled from the United States for good. I'm still not used to the fact that that is no longer the case.
When I was growing up, the answers my parents gave for why we’d left Veracruz changed almost every time I asked. They tended to be vague when I was young — because someone you knew, a cousin, a friend, neighbor, someone’s older brother, was going to the United States — and remained vague but became bleak as I got older — because there was nothing there, because there was no way to do anything, because there was no way to live. In the early '80s, Mexican officials, in cooperation with their Northern minders, laid the groundwork for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and a few years later Reagan declared war on drugs, which justified more aggressive so-called interventions throughout Latin America. Life became increasingly unlivable for my parents. My dad says that when he and my mom found out she was pregnant, it became perfectly clear what they needed to do.
The next speaker’s name doesn’t roll off the MC’s tongue. Alejandro Mayorkas, a short, light-skinned Cuban-American, walks out onto the stage. He’s the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and he was born in Havana. He’s the first foreign-born person to run DHS since it was founded shortly after 9/11, and the fact of his foreignness helps ameliorate the image of DHS as a white institution that keeps nonwhite foreigners out. As Los Angeles Magazine reported in 2000, his father, a Cuban Jew, and his mother, whose family moved to Cuba from Romania fleeing Nazi persecution, arrived in California as refugees before Mayorkas’ first birthday. During a 2009 Senate committee hearing, Mayorkas, a Democrat, said the following about his experience: “My father lost the country of his birth, and my mother, for the second time in her young life, was forced to flee a country she considered home. But our flight to security gave us the gift of this wonderful new homeland. I know how very fortunate I am.”
He takes the podium and delivers a keynote address that sounds like a corporate training video. “We must strengthen our transparency to understand what our greatest challenges are,” he says. I look around the room trying to discern whether what he’s just said means anything to anyone. The tall white-haired man sitting next to me seems to be taking copious notes. I sneak a peek at his notepad out of the corner of my eye and see that he hasn’t written one word, but has instead been meticulously drawing a series of concentric circles. I take a sip of my coffee as Mayorkas says Arizona can be a “tremendous model” for the state “strengthening partnerships with the private sector” and I almost choke. In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the biggest operator of private prisons in the country, brought in nearly $1.7 billion in revenues. A quarter of that money came from the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for incarcerating noncitizen migrants in the United States. Arizona has six CCA facilities.
As NPR reported in 2010, Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was conceived, refined, and made into a model bill during meetings for ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose members include the National Rifle Association, ExxonMobil, and (until 2010) Corrections Corporation of America. In December 2009, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, a representative from CCA and dozens of others met in the Washington, D.C., Grand Hyatt conference room, discussed verbiage for the model bill, which was then voted upon. None of this is illegal; it’s a “public-private partnership.” Not surprisingly, many of the legislative co-sponsors of SB 1070 received hefty donations from CCA and other prison companies, as well as their lobbyists.
“The president remains committed to comprehensive immigration reform,” Mayorkas says. Somehow he says it with a straight face despite Obama’s deportation total recently passing 2 million, and despite government spending on border enforcement totaling more than all other criminal law enforcement spending combined. Even the so-called liberal reform being proposed by Democrats increases border spending and spending for private prison companies. Mayorkas ends with an anecdote with which I believe he intends to demonstrate compassion. He relays his experience on a guided tour of “the border” by saying that he visited Nogales and then went on a helicopter ride through the desert, during which he had a very fruitful tête-à-tête with the pilot about which helicopters are best suited for rescuing stranded families in the desert.
I pack up my things. In the lobby, the doors to the expo hall are still closed, and the sound of a man tasing himself repeatedly still echoes in the space. The empty restroom, though, is silent except for the faint buzz of neon bulbs. The line of spotless white urinals is unoccupied, but I feel the need to go into a stall and close the door.
In the summer of 2012, I spent several weeks in the desert of southern Arizona volunteering with a humanitarian aid group that leaves water for migrants. I witnessed Border Patrol agents interacting with people suspected of unauthorized entry in the desert. They were clearly in need of immediate medical attention, but they weren’t even offered water because the agent didn’t have any in his truck. By the end of my time there, through my interactions with long-term volunteers and local residents, it was clear that no one who spends more than an afternoon in the desert believes the Border Patrol rescues anyone. In fact, the group No More Deaths had gathered data for a report regarding the abuses migrants face in short-term Border Patrol custody, which it published in 2011. In March 2012, volunteers testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, sharing their data, which painted the clear picture of “an institutional culture of cruelty and impunity,” with rampant offenses ranging from verbal abuse to torture.
I make it back to the conference room just in time to see Nelson Balido, chairman of the Border Commerce & Security Council and former president of the Border Trade Alliance, finish his speech and stand at the podium radiating his television preacher smile. The Border Trade Alliance was one of the main lobby groups that pushed for the passage of NAFTA, the complex of trade liberalization policies that displaced millions of Mexican laborers who had little choice but to look for work in the United States.
I think about a series of black-and-white photographs I’d seen a few weeks before coming to this expo. Taken on a sunny afternoon in 1971, they are of first lady Pat Nixon on the occasion of the inauguration of Friendship Park in Imperial Beach, California. The series follows the first lady, dressed in a pristine white skirt suit, her bouffant high and tight, as a member of her security detail cuts the few strands of barbed wire that used to mark the international borderline between Imperial Beach and Tijuana. In the photos, she walks across the sand to shake the hands and kiss the babies of the Mexican nationals who had gathered to watch the inauguration of a park meant to be symbolic of binational friendship. “I hate to see a fence anywhere,” she’s quoted as saying as she squeezed an indifferent-looking Mexican toddler. “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.”
Forty-three years later, those few strands of barbed wire have turned into an abject landscape. I’d visited in 2013. Two fences now bifurcate the beach. The first, mostly chain-link, extends a few thousand feet in both directions. There is a steel pylon that leads to a secondary wall, a succession of 20-foot-tall rusted iron posts that extends westward a few hundred feet into the Pacific and winds over the horizon to the east like the spine of a huge rotting fish. Below the sea, steel posts are buried in tons of concrete and reinforced by railroad ties from old Californian railways that were laid by Mexican laborers midcentury. Looming overhead is an 80-foot surveillance tower topped with infrared cameras and ground surveillance radar, and soaring even farther above are the newest General Dynamics and General Atomics drones testing their capabilities in a race for defense contracts. Standing in Friendship Park does not feel like standing in a park; it feels like being in a prison yard.
My level of anxiety has been steadily climbing all morning, and my frequent trips to the coffee station are not helping. There have been times in the past when, at least momentarily, I’m able to forget the circumstances into which I was born, forget that I was born on the wrong side of a geopolitical line. I thought that when I became an American citizen in July 2011, these respites would be more frequent and enduring, but I was wrong. The world isn’t short on reminders. For more reasons than I could name, I’ve always known that the place I consider home considers me alien, not least of which is the legal designation of resident alien under which I lived for most of my adolescence. It meant that I could have been deported for many nonviolent offenses that are part of any teenage experience.
In high school most of my friends existed in starkly different realities than I did; many were the sons and daughters of wealthy, powerful Chicagoans, while my parents worked like animals to pay for my prep school education, which was already lessened by scholarships. Some of my more fortunate friends drunkenly wrapped their luxury vehicles around telephone poles after parties, some sold drugs for fun, some shoplifted because it was something to do, and because of who they were, charges were always dropped and records were always scrubbed clean. In this kind of environment I lost the perspective necessary to know that I couldn’t afford to behave in these ways because, beyond not having the kind of parents with expensive attorneys on speed dial, my parents couldn’t afford to keep all of our utilities on all of the time, and there was also the fact that I, unlike my friends, could face permanent expulsion from the only country I’d ever known.
Having this knowledge is a double bind. It can be stifling in very real ways. More important than the added paranoia when smoking joints after school were the ways this knowledge made me police myself. The constant awareness that I was subject to much harsher punitive measures because of my immigration status effectively gagged any civic voice I may have developed as a young man. The first form of direct action I ever participated in was well into my twenties, after I had become a United States citizen. This kind of vulnerability, which is inscribed at the border, renews itself constantly in the lives of immigrants with or without documentation, and it’s precisely this kind of vulnerability that makes migrant labor so exploitable, thus so desirable.
Anh Duong, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Borders and Maritime Division, talks passionately about drug tunnels, transnational criminal organizations, and submersibles full of cocaine. She and everyone on her panel stress the violence constantly threatening to spill across the border despite the fact that most border cities on the U.S. side have lower crime rates than the national average. El Paso, directly across from Juárez, for example, is consistently ranked among the safest cities in the United States.
Duong, like Mayorkas, was a refugee. In 2007 she was awarded the National Security Medal for her contributions to Operation Enduring Freedom, namely that she and her team of scientists developed a new type of thermobaric warhead just after 9/11. The BLU-118/B, as it’s come to be known, went from concept to manufacturer in 67 days, a process that usually takes years. Her bomb was significant because it increased lethality inside confined spaces like caves by disbursing fine aluminum powder into the atmosphere, causing the air to burn. Anyone who isn’t immediately incinerated can suffer crushed inner ear bones, blindness, and organ rupture from the waves of extreme pressure. A study conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency on thermobaric weapons similar to Duong's found that, during all this, it’s likely that many of the unfortunate recipients of Duong's contribution would remain conscious during their last agonizing moments of burning or suffocating.
Duong keeps coming back to submersibles full of cocaine, and how her department is constantly looking for “new solutions” to the problem of narcotics pouring across the border. Despite growing opposition to the drug war tactics that began during the Reagan administration, and mountains of empirical evidence that those tactics don’t work, Duong seems steadfast in wanting hard solutions. She is utterly disinterested in reasons; she knows that evil exists and that it is on the loose.
A tall woman in a dark gray suit appears holding a microphone, and she announces that there will be a question-and-answer session. I feel the overwhelming urge to launch some kind of salvo at the panel, something to break up the uninterrupted flow of bullshit, if for no other reason than to exorcise some of the impotence I feel. But what?
The woman with the microphone goes to someone else, who asks something inconsequential. In a frenzy, I try to jot something in my notepad, something not easily sidestepped, something with a jagged barb. I decide to put my hand up before they end the Q&A, and the woman with the microphone notices. She smiles to let me know she’s seen me, and I immediately regret raising my hand. As she starts in my direction I can feel myself becoming increasingly out of breath, and it feels like I might vomit.
When she gets to me I somehow manage the following accusation posed as a question: “Some would say that an enforcement and technology approach to a public health issue creates the black market demand that in turn creates a need for more enforcement and technology. And since the number of drugs coming in hasn’t been significantly impacted by all of these solutions and technologies, what concrete indicators are there that this approach is ever going to solve this problem?”
Anh Duong and Chris Thompson, who works for Raytheon, and has been, for the most part, quietly sitting next to Duong the whole time, push their chairs back from the table and partially cover their microphones with their hands. The woman with the microphone who’d smiled to acknowledge that she’d seen my hand now stares at me like I’ve somehow betrayed her. Thompson, who looks like a younger Matt Lauer, comes back to his microphone first.
“You’ve asked a very political question,” he says smiling ever so slightly. They back away again and whisper to each other before Thompson approaches his microphone again.
“I am trying to respond to what a customer is asking of me,” he says. “I’m just trying to fill a customer's need.”
He goes on to invoke a version of the orders are orders defense, except this time orders means purchase orders from a customer; if leadership chooses to address this matter in this way, it’s his responsibility to find solutions. He washes his hands publicly, or maybe this is what he tells himself too. He tells himself that he’s just filling orders, and who could blame him? It is, after all, perfectly legal, and within the logic of transaction it makes cold hard sense.
Duong is less cautious. She fumbles through her answer, but her tone is decidedly irate. She prefaces by saying that she only has one comment, and “it’s just personal, because like, um, uh, I think all the panelists on this stage here are not, um, how do I say, authorized, nor should comment on policy, um, issues.” Duong means to suggest that the activities and technologies at this expo can and should be addressed apolitically, that somehow these machines and their effects aren’t inextricably political, and that my question is wholly out of place here. It is around this time that I expect to have someone grab me by the arm and eject me from the building, or tase me from behind, but it doesn’t happen.
Duong goes on to say that drugs are just the best way for transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs, to make money right now, and that if we legalize drugs, they’ll “go to the next level,” which she specifically names as transporting weapons of mass destruction into the United States. “What we catch them today, yes, what we find, usually, is marijuana or cocaine, actually for submersibles a lot of time we find cocaine, but that doesn’t mean that,” she takes a long awkward pause, “that if we legalize marijuana then somebody might not hire a TCO to bring WMD into the US.”
I quickly exit the building. My phone buzzes inside my pocket, but I don’t answer because it’s my mother and I lied to her about where I was traveling. I didn’t want her to worry that I would be arrested or beaten or put on some list.
I leave the convention center and walk down the nearly abandoned downtown street. I look out toward a sliver of horizon that’s visible between buildings and see the pink mountains that contour the desert. It’s still early, but I lock myself in my hotel room because I need the safety of a small empty box where you can see all the walls. I draw the curtains and get into bed. I lie in the same position for what seems like hours. I watch a mote of dust particles floating within the changing light, from orange to pink and finally red, before it goes dark. I’m too tired to move, but also too tired to tip into rest, and when my eyelids finally begin to flicker, a faint glow penetrates from outside. The phone rings and a voice tells me it’s 6 a.m.
Because I haven’t slept, things progress oddly on day two. Time is off: The progression of one moment to the next seems normal until I check and notice that an inordinate amount of time has passed with me staring blankly in one direction. In the lobby I pick up a magazine with the silhouette of a man armed to the teeth advancing on something out of frame. I open to a random page that tells me Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” is the song most listened to by soldiers riding into combat. I can hear the haunting refrain: “Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor.”
I have somehow gotten a ticket to attend the industry luncheon. My table is full; there’s an older woman to my right, and an older man in a tan suit to my left. Across the table there are two light-skinned Mexicans with chunky, expensive watches who speak only to each other. Sitting next to Tan Suit, whose name tag I haven’t been able to read yet, is another man, this one younger, wearing khakis and a navy blue jacket. He sends a message on his iPhone and then takes a BlackBerry out of his inside coat pocket, plugs in an earphone, and puts the receiver in his ear. The only thing I can read on his name tag is MacLean.
The table is awkwardly silent until the MC points to Tan Suit and identifies him as Kirby Klein, the man in charge of procuring emerging technologies for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of DHS. The entire room turns and stares at him with hammy smiles. He returns one nervously, with a wave. This is a man whose signature is tied to an absurd government budget that will only swell if so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” passes. The border is already a testing ground for domestic militarization where wartime technologies aren’t just stockpiled in a warehouse collecting dust, but are deployed on people not unlike you and me. The militarization of certain zones and the official policy of using brutal topography as a deterrent has resulted in approximately 6,000 migrant deaths over the course of the last two decades.
A man sitting across from Kirby chuckles to himself and asks if Mr. Klein isn’t interested in unleashing a “Kraken” on the border. The Kraken, named for the mythic cephalopod with endless tentacles, is a surveillance and weapon system currently in use at Forward Operation Base Pashmul South in Southern Afghanistan. Also known as the Combat Outpost Surveillance and Force Protection System (COSFPS), the Kraken combines radar, unmanned seismic sensors, 11 cameras arranged to cover a full 360-degree view, perimeter lights, and remote-controlled machine guns with laser tracking into one fully integrated, partially automated system able to be controlled from two laptops.
I look down at my plate of cold food. Thin fibers of chicken meat lie smothered in gelatinous, translucent gravy that’s congealed from my inattention. I can’t keep eating because halfway through the meal I notice that Kirby Klein is meticulously removing blue cheese crumbles from his wedge salad and lining them up at the edge of his plate. MacLean cuts all his meat into uniform little squares before eating anything. Kirby Klein looks at me, and I look at him. His features slowly start swimming around his skull. I look at the pair of wealthy Mexicans; their faces begin to morph too. The MC says something that elicits laughter; lips peel up exposing teeth, heads toss back, and the room is filled with cackling. And then all at once the room goes silent and they all turn toward me, their eyes blank. Unlike their cartel counterparts, whose icon is the Santa Muerte, they worship with obfuscated relic, ritual, and icon. Theirs is a kind of syncretism; angels with black wings, the black hood, and the sickle are replaced with corporate logos and government seals. I stand up, backing away from the table. Several men go for my seat immediately. I sidestep until I reach the door, and just as I slip away, the crowd that had been slowly advancing swarms over Klein like dogs.
A man guides me toward the open doors of the expo hall. The room is a din of industry cross-chatter; I can barely hear the man tasing himself repeatedly over the networking. A large screen displays an infrared image: white ghosts with black teeth, white crosshairs hovering inches from a face.
A few yards down is a black armored truck that looks like it was designed for brutality. It’s called a BearCat, and it seems impossible that this thing could exist, but much to my chagrin the enthusiastic representative informs me that these vehicles are already rolling around countless local police precincts. Months later I’ll watch footage of police pointing assault rifles at civilians in Ferguson, Missouri, from atop these war machines.
A few booths down is Elbit Systems, the Israeli defense contractor that developed surveillance technology for the apartheid wall in the West Bank. In one of their promotional videos for the U.S.–Mexico border, their “experience” in the West Bank is used to sell: “PROVEN TECHNOLOGY, PROVEN SECURITY” and “ FIELD-PROVEN C2 ARCHITECTURE 10+ YEARS SECURING THE WORLD’S MOST CHALLENGING BORDERS.” The occupation of the West Bank is a selling point, and it works, because a few weeks before the expo, Elbit was awarded a $145 million contract by DHS.
A drone about the size of a Labrador is mounted on wheels. The body looks decidedly dick-like. It even becomes bulbous at the tip.
“Can I touch it?” I ask the man wearing a Textron Systems badge.
“I don’t see why not,” he responds.
A small black drone that looks to be made of plastic is mounted on a table. The salesperson says it’s called the Nighthawk and an operator in the field can launch it just by throwing it into the air.
My image appears on several screens. A man tells me my face has just been captured and scanned. He motions over to a command center that is just a keyboard and mouse. There are a dozen or so new faces captured every few seconds. He clicks mine, and the box around it goes from a light blue to a dark blue. It says I was captured one minute ago. On another screen my face, along with several dozen more, cycle through as raw data, which is then organized into information in a panel below. My face becomes part of a pie chart that displays the gender distribution of visitors to the room. It tells us there have been 182 visitors, 27% of them female and 73% male. On another panel there is a graph that outlines age distribution in 15-minute intervals. The man says the system has assigned me a number and it will track me in real time as I move throughout the hall. Neat, huh? He hands me a brochure with eight multi-ethnic people on the cover. Each one has a green ring around their face with a corresponding question: When did he enter? How old is she? Is this valued customer Sara Smith? Was she here this month? How many people are in the lobby? Is it too crowded in this area? Is he a known shoplifter? When were they last seen together?
Rows of booths display the weapon systems of the body: the machines made to draw blood, displace organs, and bore holes through tissues. Beside them are the weapon systems of order: algorithms, cameras that recognize individual faces, long sequences of ones and zeros. Some of the shadowy figures that shape law and policy are here too, marveling at the arsenal they’ve helped create. This is a booming industry. All proposed immigration reforms include increases in so-called security spending.
This seems to be the global trend. The expo hall is full of men and women ready to sell us a militarized conflict zone where death and suffering is normal, and it seems that enough of us have been led to believe that this is what security requires. As I walk toward the exit I watch two young white men pick up large assault rifles from plastic display mounts and point them into huddles of people. They chuckle as they make long horizontal sweeping motions with the firearms. When they put them down, they high-five before walking away. No one seems to notice.
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Corrections Corporation of America had a single, non-voting representative present at the 2009 meeting wherein model language for the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was drafted and voted upon. CCA has not been a member of ALEC since 2010. A previous version of this story implied there were multiple members of CCA present and that they had voting power.