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Immigration Law

After Years of Tribal Resistance, DHS Finishes its “Virtual Wall” on the Tohono O’odham Nation

Todd Miller, The Border Chronicle, Sept. 1, 2022

"When I come across surveillance towers in the borderlands, I first look to see if there are any communities, towns, or houses in its view. I did this on Monday, on the Tohono O’odham Nation in the southern Arizona borderlands, when I found an “integrated fixed tower,” built by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. It took me, two other journalists, and O’odham member Raymond Daukei all day to find it. I could see that homes in Topawa—a community of 380 people backed by the verdant western side of the muscular Baboquivari mountain range—were easily in range of the tower’s sophisticated camera system, which can see up to seven and a half miles. From where I stood amid creosote and cholla cacti, the sweeping view was not to the south toward the border, but to the east and the interior of the reservation, which is the size of Connecticut.

This wasn’t any tower; it was the last tower. The Tohono O’odham Nation is the final region of—and had put up the most resistance to—the construction of about 50 IFTs across southern Arizona under a contract that Customs and Border Protection issued to Elbit Systems of America in 2014. During the proposal period, Elbit advertised itself as having “10+ years securing the world’s most challenging borders,” an oblique reference to the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

The IFTs were designed to be the backbone of the U.S. border surveillance system, referred to sometimes as the “virtual wall” by officials, a layer of technological enforcement purposely positioned in the interior, usually five to 10 miles (and sometimes further) from the border. They were equipped with night vision and thermal cameras and a ground-sweeping radar system. In 2018 Border Patrol agent Jacob Stukenberg told me the radar was “far superior than anything else we’ve had before,” and that “one agent can surveil an area that it might take 100 agents on foot to surveil.” The feeds from these towers, other camera systems, and motion sensors were displayed on monitors in command-and-control centers located along the U.S.-Mexico border (and increasingly on agent’s individual cell phones), and they were supported by drone surveillance.

We came to the Tohono O’odham Nation because, as far as I could see, there had been no reporting about the construction of these new towers, even though they had been quite controversial. We wanted to see them with our own eyes....."