Deadly border technologies are increasingly employed to violently deter migration

In late May 2024, I travelled to the United States-Mexico border to study the smart-wall addition to the border structure. I was accompanied by Arizona-based journalist and friend, Todd Miller, and we studied the wall as Customs and Border Protection trucks rumbled by and drones scanned the sky.

Makeshift memorial for 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, who was shot by U.S. Border Patrol for allegedly throwing rocks at the wall.
(P. Molnar), CC BY

We also watched as a young man scaled the rusty border wall and jumped down, right underneath a surveillance tower. With a quick look over his shoulder, he sprinted into a quiet neighbourhood in Nogales, Ariz., and disappeared.

I have been working on my book, The Walls Have Eyes: Surviving Migration in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, for six years. This work started by examining Canada’s use of algorithms in its immigration applications in 2018.

Since then, I have conducted ethnographic work at the fringes of Europe, East Africa, Palestine and at the U.S.-Mexico border. At each border and indeed, at virtually every step of a person’s migration journey, new technologies are changing the way people move. From the use of invasive biometrics in refugee camps, to discriminatory algorithms to assess visa applications,to drone surveillance instead of search and rescue operations, these projects are turning more violent.

The book is a global story — a dystopian vision turned reality, where matters of life and death are determined by algorithms. My research examines how technology is being deployed by governments on the world’s most vulnerable people, and with little regulation. I also show how borders are big business, with defense contractors and tech start-ups alike scrambling for profit in a multi-billion dollar border industrial complex.

Deadly digital borders

My book is about the people who are caught at the sharpest edges of high-risk and unregulated border technologies, like Elias Alvarado, a young husband and father from Central America who died while attempting to cross into the U.S. I visited his memorial site with James Holeman, a former U.S. Marine turned search-and-rescuer in the beautiful but deadly Sonoran desert. Holeman founded Battalion Search and Rescue, one of several groups that combs the desert for survivors. Often they find only bones.

a man digs into the dirt, an orange cross on the ground by his side
Search-and-rescuer James Holeman fixes an orange cross at the memorial site of Elias Alvarado, a young man who succumbed to the inhospitable Sonoran desert.
(P. Molnar), CC BY

And in one of the most surreal moments of my career — and I have had many over the years — while in the Sonora searching for people who had died during their crossings, I learned that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it was training “robot dogs” to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

Four-legged machines equipped with cameras and sensors would join a network of drones and automated surveillance towers. This is part of a worldwide trend: as more people are displaced by war, economic instability and climate change, more countries are turning to AI-driven technology to manage migration.

Technical solutions do not work

While presented as solutions to a so-called border crisis, border technologies as a deterrent simply do not work. In fact, they lead to an increasing loss of life. People desperate for safety — and exercising their internationally protected right to asylum — will not stop moving.

They will instead use more circuitous routes. Scholars like Samuel Chambers, Geoffrey Boyce and Sarah Launius have already documented a threefold increase in deaths at the U.S.-Mexico frontier as the smart border expands. And as surveillance increases, thousands of deaths have also been reported at European borders, both sea and land.

Responsible storytelling

Borders are violent. They are underpinned by historical discrimination, racial logics and imperial fantasies of exclusion. Yet they are also spaces of tremendous resistance and solidarity, often in very unexpected ways.

Storytelling and story sharing is one form of resistance, and a profound and crucial element in any attempt to illustrate the opaque world of border technologies. Over the years, people have been incredibly generous in sharing their stories with me, often in the most difficult of times.

With each conversation and growing relationship, I found issues of witnessing, extracting and capturing stories becoming more complex as I grappled with how best to convey the atrocities that continue to occur. It is my hope that the lived experiences of the people I encountered will help bring draw attention to these dangerous technologies.

Building a better world

A central ethos of my work is also the redistribution of resources directly into the hands of affected communities. I run the Refugee Law Lab’s Migration and Technology Monitor, a multilingual platform, archive and community. In 2023, we launched a first-of-its-kind fellowship program for people on the move to tell their own stories about the impacts of surveillance.

Ultimately, people with lived experiences of migration must be the ones interrogating both the negative impacts of technology and the creative solutions that innovation can bring to the complex stories of human movement.

Borders affect everyone

Everyone will, in one way or another, become affected by migration management technologies as we cross move around the world. While its greatest impact is on traditionally marginalized communities such as refugees and asylum seekers, migration management technologies affect everyone.

The robodogs running around the border? On April 11, 2023, the New York City Police Department announced it was bringing robodogs back to the streets, “to keep New York safe.” One machine had even been painted white with black spots to look like a dalmatian.

It is my hope that my book, and related work in this field, reveals the profound human stakes at borders globally by foregrounding the stories of people on the move and highlighting the daring forms of resistance that have emerged against these increasingly violent technologies.

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