Editor’s note: The following transcript is from grantee Lydia Emmanouilidou’s report, which begins at the 29:03 mark.
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Around the world, governments are increasingly turning to technologies to guard their borders. At the Arizona U.S. border with Mexico, authorities are using a slew of systems to rein in illegal immigration. Surveillance towers, cameras, and even robot patrol dogs are among the technologies already in use or being considered. U.S. authorities say these systems are a better alternative to physical barriers and can be used to aid migrants in distress in remote and hard-to-reach areas. Journalist Lydia Emmanouilidou has been looking into how these technologies impact border communities and migrants. This report was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: On a morning in late January, I make the bumpy drive through a section of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, a few kilometers away from the U.S. border with Mexico. I’m with Joel Smith of Humane Borders, an aid organization that maintains water stations in the desert.
Joel Smith: And there’s our water station there.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: Above the water station a blue flag waves on an eight-meter flag pole. It's tall enough that people crossing can see it from far away. Smith does some repairs on the flag pole, and he checks the water in the tank.
As we drive to another of the roughly 45 water stations throughout the desert, we encounter some of the technologies U.S. authorities have deployed in recent years to monitor the border and prevent illegal activity. Smith points to a surveillance tower made by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. There are more than fifty of these in Arizona, some standing as high as 55 meters tall. They have infrared cameras, radar, and sensors that U.S. authorities can monitor and maneuver in real time.
Joel Smith: We see drones out here occasionally.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: There are motion sensors—some hidden below the ground—cameras, mobile surveillance trucks, and Border Patrol checkpoints. We hit one of these checkpoints when we get off the main road, heading inland. As we approached, Smith explained some of the technologies around us and on the agents.
Joel Smith: They have all sorts of cameras now, pointing at you: cameras on the shed, they have overhead cameras, they have radiation detectors on their belts.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: These are some of the systems making up an expanding virtual border wall stretching more than 3000 kilometers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Smith says this digital wall initiative is not new. It began nearly two decades ago under the George W. Bush administration.
Joel Smith: But now it's back again, and the technology is very sharp and crisp now.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: At the Arizona border alone, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars to procure and pilot high-tech border systems. In neighboring states like Texas, border technologies, including ones that use artificial intelligence and can make determinations on their own, have also expanded.
For humanitarian workers and residents, the surveillance is palpable.
Liz Wallace: And that's the back of the property, there.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: Liz Wallace shows me around her property in Arivaca, Arizona, a stone’s throw away from the border. She can see two of the surveillance towers from her yard.
Liz Wallace: It bothers me that people can watch me. It's not right, but it doesn't stop me from doing anything humanitarian.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: Wallace volunteers with the group People Helping People. They leave backpacks with food and first aid supplies out in the desert. So far, she says she has not felt targeted for her work.
Liz Wallace: I'm not saying it couldn't get to that point, but yeah, it's not that bad yet.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: Other humanitarians, though, say they feel authorities tightening their grip on aid work. And the technology is playing a role.
James Holeman: They want us to know that we're being watched.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: James Holeman is a former Marine who runs a search-and-rescue group, and he says recently he and his comrades have had more run-ins with authorities during their missions in the desert.
James Holeman: We’re in the middle of frickin’ nowhere. There's no way, you know, that anybody knows that we're out there. And all of a sudden, boom, a border agent will appear in a quad and they'll freely say, “Oh yeah, you guys were tripping sensors, and we spotted you in some cameras,” with swagger, you know, with this like kind of arrogance. So, they're just boys with big toys showing off. But it's a deadly game.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: The U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona said they could not arrange an interview with me while I was there, but they have stressed that they see border technologies as a more effective and humane alternative to physical border barriers.
Sam Chambers at the University of Arizona says these systems can be deadly. He studies how migrants are changing their routes in response to new surveillance.
Sam Chambers: To cross and not be found, intercepted, locked up, or deported, you have to walk through these remote areas of the desert in the mountains for a much longer distance, maneuvering around the surveillance.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: And that can mean death by hyper and hypothermia, dehydration, and other causes. To track and map deaths in the desert, Chambers relies on data from the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. That's where the remains of suspected border crossers found in Arizona are taken for analysis and identification. Jennifer Vollner is a forensic anthropologist there.
Jennifer Vollner: We say, hey, you know, we have an individual coming into our office. We believe them to be a migrant. And this is what we can tell you about them.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: In the past 20 years, the office has logged about 3,600 deaths of border crossers. The true number is believed to be much higher, and in recent years it has hit new records. Experts say it's not just one thing, but a confluence of policies and factors leading to the spikes in deaths.
At the medical examiner's office, Vollner shows me the locker room where they store belongings found on or near people who perished, organized by year.
Jennifer Vollner: 2018-2019. This one already has stuff in it, so.
Lydia Emmanouilidou: By late January, there are already items in the locker room marked 2023. A letter written in Spanish, an ID, and a photo of a kid that a man found in the desert was carrying.
For Monocle Radio, I’m Lydia Emmanouilidou, reporting from the Arizona-Mexico border.