Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially expand its surveillance infrastructure along its southern border.

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially expand its surveillance infrastructure along its southern border.

Terms

This resolution proposes a significant increase in border surveillance technology and capabilities along the U.S.-Mexico border. To analyze this resolution, we must first define some key terms:

“United States federal government” refers to the national government of the United States, comprising the executive, legislative, and judicial branches as outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

“Substantially expand” implies a considerable increase in scale, scope, or capacity beyond current levels.

“Surveillance infrastructure” encompasses the network of technologies, equipment, and systems used to monitor and detect activity along the border. This could include tools like cameras, sensors, drones, radar systems, and data analytics platforms.

“Southern border” refers to the international boundary between the United States and Mexico, which spans approximately 1,954 miles (3,145 km) from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Background

The controversy is grounded in how to best control the border.

Controlling the U.S.-Mexico border has become a major political and social issue in recent years, with heightened attention over the last two years.
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According to recent data, border encounters remain at historically high levels. In June 2024, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 60,509 encounters along the southwest border. While this represents a decrease from the record highs seen in late 2023, when encounters reached nearly 250,000 per month, it still indicates significant migration pressure.

The high number of border crossings has led to overcrowding at processing facilities and challenges in providing adequate care for migrants, especially unaccompanied minors. This has sparked debates about the humane treatment of migrants and the capacity of the U.S. immigration system to handle large numbers of asylum seekers.

The profile of migrants arriving at the border has shifted. In December 2023, 54% of encounters involved migrants from countries other than Mexico and the Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Although most are still entering through the “Southern Border,” notable increase in arrivals from Venezuela and China, has complicated border management and asylum processing.

The influx of migrants has economic implications for both sending and receiving communities. While some argue that immigration can boost economic growth and labor supply, others express concerns about the strain on local resources and job competition. The Congressional Budget Office projects that increased immigration could lead to higher economic growth, expanded labor supply, increased federal revenues, and reduced deficits over the next decade.

Immigration has become a deeply divisive political issue, particularly in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. President Biden has faced criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. In response, he has taken actions to address border security concerns while also providing pathways for certain undocumented immigrants. In June 2024, Biden announced a plan that could allow up to 500,000 undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens to apply for permanent residency. Simultaneously, he has imposed restrictions on asylum seekers at the southern border.

A significant portion of the American public views immigration as a top concern. Recent surveys indicate that 80% of U.S. adults believe the government is doing a poor job handling the situation at the border, with many considering it a crisis or major problem.

What’s up with Border Surveillance?

The U.S. already has significant surveillance capabilities along its southern border. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses a combination of physical barriers, technology, and personnel to monitor and secure the border. This includes cameras, sensors, drones, and surveillance towers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has mapped out more than 465 surveillance towers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Proponents of expanding surveillance infrastructure argue that it would enhance border security, improve detection of illegal crossings and smuggling activities, and allow for more efficient allocation of border patrol resources.

Privacy advocates, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), raise significant concerns about the expansion of border surveillance. They argue that it infringes on privacy rights, not just of migrants but also of U.S. citizens living in border areas. There are concerns about data collection, potential misuse of surveillance technologies, and the expansion of a “surveillance state.” The extensive surveillance network affects the daily lives of people living in border areas. Some residents report avoiding essential locations like grocery stores, hospitals, and polling places due to fear of encountering border patrol.

Critics also warn of “technology creep,” where surveillance systems initially deployed for border security might be repurposed for broader law enforcement or monitoring of U.S. citizens. Many surveillance technologies were first tested at the border before being implemented more widely across the country.

There’s ongoing debate about the effectiveness of expanded surveillance in achieving border security goals and whether the high costs associated with implementing and maintaining these systems are justified. Some argue that increased surveillance may push migrants to take more dangerous routes, potentially leading to more deaths and suffering.

Benefits of Border Surveillance

Optimizing border control.  Expanded surveillance technologies can significantly enhance border management efficiency and cost-effectiveness through strategic resource allocation. This approach leverages real-time data and advanced analytics to optimize operations and reduce overall costs while maintaining robust border security.

One of the key benefits of enhanced surveillance is the ability to provide border patrol agencies with a comprehensive, real-time view of border activities. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has embraced Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning to analyze vast amounts of data collected from various surveillance technologies. This allows for rapid identification of patterns, trends, and potential threats, enabling more informed decision-making and resource deployment.

For example, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging can provide real-time aerial surveillance of large border areas. This technology allows border patrol agencies to monitor vast stretches of terrain with fewer personnel, directing ground teams only when and where they are most needed. This targeted approach significantly reduces the need for constant physical patrols in low-risk areas, leading to more efficient use of human resources and reduced operational costs.

Furthermore, advanced data analytics can help predict migration patterns and identify high-risk areas for illegal crossings. The Canada Border Services Agency has implemented a data analytics strategy that enables evidence-based decision-making and allows for more effective resource allocation. By applying similar strategies, U.S. border agencies can anticipate surges in border crossings and proactively deploy resources to manage these situations more effectively.

The integration of various surveillance technologies also allows for more efficient screening at ports of entry. Biometric identification devices, such as facial recognition systems and fingerprint readers, can quickly process large numbers of travelers, reducing wait times and allowing border agents to focus on high-risk individuals. This not only improves security but also facilitates legitimate trade and travel, contributing to economic benefits.

Moreover, the use of AI-powered video analytics can significantly reduce the cognitive load on human operators. Instead of manually monitoring multiple video feeds, AI systems can automatically detect and flag suspicious activities, allowing human agents to focus on verifying and responding to potential threats. This force-multiplier effect allows border agencies to cover more ground with existing personnel, leading to cost savings and improved operational efficiency.

While the initial investment in advanced surveillance technologies may be substantial, the long-term benefits in terms of operational efficiency and cost savings can be significant. The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2025 includes substantial investments in border security technology, recognizing the potential for these technologies to enhance border management capabilities while optimizing resource utilization.

Organized crime/terrorism. One of the key benefits of enhanced border surveillance is the increased capacity to identify and intercept individuals with criminal backgrounds or terrorist ties. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data, in Fiscal Year 2023, they arrested 35,433 illegal aliens with criminal convictions nationwide, including 598 known gang members. Even more concerning, since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2021, 294 individuals on the terrorist watchlist have been apprehended at the Southwest border between ports of entry. These numbers underscore the importance of robust border surveillance in preventing potentially dangerous individuals from entering the country undetected.

Advanced surveillance technologies such as drones, sensors, and cameras significantly enhance the capabilities of border patrol agents. For instance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with high-resolution cameras and thermal imaging can provide real-time aerial surveillance of border areas, detecting unauthorized crossings and other suspicious activities. Ground surveillance radar systems can detect and track movements over large areas, even in challenging terrain and weather conditions. These technologies allow for more efficient allocation of human resources and enable faster response times to potential threats.

Moreover, the integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms with surveillance systems can greatly enhance the analysis of vast amounts of data collected. This integration helps identify patterns, predict potential threats, and improve decision-making processes. For example, automated license plate recognition (ALPR) systems can quickly scan and analyze vehicle license plates, enabling authorities to track movements and identify stolen or suspicious vehicles crossing the border.

The implementation of biometric identification technologies at border crossings further strengthens security measures. Facial recognition, fingerprint scanning, and iris recognition systems can verify travelers’ identities and detect individuals on watchlists. The CBP reports that from June 2017 through November 2021, they processed more than 117 million passengers using their Biometric Facial Comparison technology, demonstrating the scale and effectiveness of these systems in enhancing border security.

By leveraging these advanced surveillance technologies, border patrol agencies can create a more comprehensive and effective border security strategy. This not only helps prevent unauthorized entries but also serves as a deterrent to potential criminals and terrorists. The ability to monitor and respond to threats in real-time significantly reduces the likelihood of dangerous individuals slipping through undetected, thereby enhancing overall national security.

Economics/Jobs.  Enhanced border surveillance can indeed play a role in addressing concerns related to illegal labor markets and their potential impact on American workers, though the economic effects are complex and multifaceted.
One of the primary arguments for increased border surveillance is that it can help reduce unauthorized entries, thereby limiting the supply of undocumented workers in the U.S. labor market. Proponents argue that this could potentially benefit American workers, especially those in low-wage sectors where undocumented immigrants are more likely to be employed. A report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that some economists believe illegal immigration has had at least some negative effects on the wages and employment of workers in the low-skill labor market, though the magnitude of this effect is debated.

However, it’s important to note that the relationship between immigration and wages is not straightforward. A Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of Americans (77%) believe that undocumented immigrants mostly fill jobs that U.S. citizens do not want. This suggests that the impact on American workers may be limited in certain sectors.

The current economic climate, characterized by concerns over unemployment and wage stagnation, adds urgency to these discussions. Data from the Economic Policy Institute shows that wage growth for most American workers has been slow and uneven over the past few decades, with factors such as globalization, technological change, and policy choices contributing to this trend.

Proponents of enhanced border surveillance argue that by better regulating the labor market, the government can help address these issues. They contend that reducing the supply of undocumented workers could potentially lead to improved wages and job opportunities for American workers, especially in sectors with high concentrations of undocumented labor.

However, it’s crucial to consider the broader economic impacts of such policies. Research from the Center for American Progress suggests that removing all undocumented workers from the U.S. economy could lead to a significant reduction in GDP and job losses across various industries. This highlights the complex role that undocumented workers play in the U.S. economy.

Moreover, recent research has shown that offering more lawful pathways for immigration can actually reduce unlawful border crossings. A study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that increases in opportunities for lawful crossing led to reductions in unlawful crossings, suggesting that a comprehensive approach to immigration policy might be more effective than focusing solely on border enforcement.

Social services.  From a social services perspective, the influx of immigrants, particularly in major cities, has placed significant strain on various public resources and systems. While immigration can bring economic benefits, rapid and uncontrolled immigration can overwhelm social services, leading to calls for more effective border control to manage immigration levels.

One of the primary areas impacted is the education system. A study on the effects of immigration on urban communities found that in cities with high foreign-born populations, schools often struggle to accommodate the influx of new students, many of whom require additional language support. This can lead to overcrowded classrooms, stretched resources, and challenges in providing quality education to all students.

Healthcare systems in major cities are also feeling the strain. Research on the impact of immigration policies on health status indicates that immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, often rely on emergency services for primary care due to lack of insurance or fear of deportation. This puts additional pressure on already overburdened emergency departments and can lead to higher healthcare costs for the community.

Housing is another critical area of concern. In cities with large immigrant populations, there is often increased demand for affordable housing, leading to overcrowding and potential strain on public housing resources. The same study on urban communities found that cities with high foreign-born populations had lower homeownership rates and higher levels of overcrowding in housing.
Social welfare programs are also impacted. A report from the Center for Immigration Studies found that immigrant households use welfare programs at significantly higher rates than U.S.-born households, particularly in states with more generous welfare systems. This increased usage can strain program budgets and potentially affect the availability of services for all residents.

Law enforcement and public safety resources can be stretched thin in areas with high concentrations of undocumented immigrants. A House Judiciary Committee hearing examined how uncontrolled immigration can overwhelm local law enforcement, emergency services, and other community resources.

Proponents of stricter border control argue that managing immigration levels would allow cities and states to better plan and allocate resources for social services. The Biden administration’s budget proposal includes increased funding for border security and immigration enforcement, recognizing the need to balance humanitarian concerns with the capacity of social service systems.

However, it’s important to note that the relationship between immigration and social services is complex. A report from the New York City Comptroller’s office argues that immigrants also contribute significantly to the local economy and workforce, potentially offsetting some of the costs associated with providing social services.

In conclusion, while immigration can bring numerous benefits to communities, uncontrolled levels can indeed strain social services in major cities. Effective border control and immigration management could help ensure that cities can adequately plan for and provide necessary services to all residents, including immigrants. However, any policy decisions should carefully consider both the challenges and benefits that immigration brings to urban communities.

Core Problems of Surveillance

  1. Privacy infringement: Critics argue that expanded surveillance along the border infringes on the privacy rights of both U.S. citizens and migrants in border regions. There are concerns about potential misuse or overreach of surveillance capabilities. The ACLU has documented numerous privacy violations at borders and checkpoints, including suspicionless searches of electronic devices.
  2. Impact on border communities: Increased surveillance is disrupting the daily lives of people living in border areas. A report by the ACLU of Texas found that residents’ mental health was significantly affected by surveillance, whether assumed or real. Many people avoided essential locations like grocery stores, hospitals, and polling places due to fear of encountering border patrol.
  3. Pushing migrants to more dangerous routes: As legal options for entry become more restricted, heightened surveillance may force migrants to take more perilous paths. Research has shown that increased border enforcement has led to more migrant deaths as people attempt to cross through remote desert and mountain areas to avoid detection.
  4. Civil liberties concerns: There are worries that expanded surveillance could lead to increased racial profiling or discrimination against border communities. The ACLU has documented how Border Patrol’s interior enforcement operations, including at checkpoints, have resulted in civil liberties violations.
  5. Questionable effectiveness: While significant funds are being invested in surveillance technology, there is limited evidence of its efficacy in addressing immigration issues. Critics argue that most migrants enter the U.S. legally without trying to evade authorities, so extensive surveillance may not be necessary.
  6. Environmental impact: The implementation of surveillance infrastructure, particularly physical installations like towers, could disrupt local ecosystems and wildlife habitats along the border. Environmental groups have raised concerns about the impact of border security measures on sensitive habitats.
  7. Cost concerns: Implementing and maintaining advanced surveillance systems is extremely expensive. The Government Accountability Office has reported on the high costs and challenges associated with border technology programs. Some argue these funds could be better spent on other border security measures or addressing root causes of migration.
  8. Technological limitations: Surveillance systems can be affected by weather conditions, terrain, and other factors that may limit their effectiveness. They may also be vulnerable to countermeasures or hacking attempts, as highlighted by security experts.
  9. Humanitarian crisis response: Critics argue that surveillance technology does not address the root causes of migration or help manage humanitarian crises effectively. For example, surveillance towers are not needed to identify asylum seekers camped under bridges.
  10. Lack of transparency: There are concerns about the lack of clear information on the effectiveness and impact of border surveillance programs, making it difficult to assess their true value and consequences. Advocacy groups have called for greater transparency in border surveillance practices.

Philosophical Problems with Border Surveillance

Foucault’s concepts of biopower and governmentality provide a framework for understanding how border surveillance functions as a mechanism of population control and management. As Foucault argued, modern states exercise power not just through overt force, but through techniques that monitor, shape, and regulate populations. Border surveillance exemplifies this by creating systems to track, categorize, and control the movement of people. Foucault’s notion of the security apparatus is particularly relevant, as border technologies form an interconnected network of surveillance and control.

Agamben builds on Foucault’s ideas but takes a more critical stance, arguing that practices like border surveillance reflect a state of exception where normal legal and ethical constraints are suspended. For Agamben, border zones become spaces where individuals are reduced to “bare life” – stripped of political rights and exposed to sovereign power. This creates a condition where migrants and refugees exist in a state of legal and political limbo, subject to detention, deportation, or abandonment.Both thinkers highlight how border surveillance goes beyond simple security measures to shape social and political realities. Foucault emphasizes how surveillance creates systems of knowledge and control, while Agamben focuses on how it suspends normal legal and ethical protections. Their perspectives reveal the deeper power dynamics and biopolitical implications of intensifying border surveillance regimes.

Related philosophical problems —

  1. Violation of human dignity: Extensive surveillance at borders can be seen as dehumanizing and a violation of human dignity. Philosophers have argued that treating people as objects of constant suspicion and monitoring fails to respect their inherent worth and autonomy as human beings.
  2. Erosion of trust: Pervasive surveillance can erode trust between the government and its citizens, as well as between nations. This erosion of trust can have negative consequences for social cohesion and international relations.
  3. Chilling effect on freedom of movement: The knowledge of being constantly watched may deter people from exercising their right to freedom of movement, even when they have legitimate reasons to cross borders. This chilling effect can be seen as an infringement on personal liberty.
  4. Disproportionate impact on marginalized groups: Border surveillance often disproportionately affects marginalized communities, raising concerns about equality and non-discrimination. This can perpetuate existing social inequalities and reinforce systemic biases.
  5. Technological determinism: There’s a philosophical concern that increasing reliance on surveillance technology leads to a form of technological determinism, where societal problems are increasingly viewed through a technological lens rather than addressing root causes.
  6. Ethical implications of AI and machine learning: As border surveillance increasingly relies on AI and machine learning, there are ethical concerns about algorithmic bias, lack of transparency, and the potential for automated decision-making to infringe on human rights.
  7. Conflict with cosmopolitan ideals: Increased border surveillance can be seen as conflicting with cosmopolitan philosophical ideals that advocate for a more open and interconnected world with fewer barriers between nations and peoples.
  8. Securitization of migration: The emphasis on surveillance contributes to the securitization of migration, framing human mobility primarily as a security issue rather than a complex social phenomenon. This can lead to overly restrictive policies and neglect of humanitarian considerations.
  9. Privacy as a fundamental right: Many philosophers argue that privacy is a fundamental human right, essential for personal autonomy and democracy. Extensive border surveillance may infringe on this right, even for those not crossing borders.
  10. Ethical use of resources: There are philosophical questions about the ethical allocation of resources – whether the significant funds spent on border surveillance could be better used to address root causes of migration or other pressing social issues.