US Calling: Of Indian American candidates and the politics of the Mexican border wall – The Indian Express

Written by Poonam Khaira Sidhu

Election fever has set in the US, even though the 2024 presidential election itself will take place on 5th November 2024. Nominating contests called primaries in each state and territory will take place from March 2024 to June 2024, while the Republican and Democratic conventions will take place in July and August 2024, respectively to finalise the candidates.

However, as a lead up to the primaries, the televised debates have begun. The first Republican Presidential Debate was held last week on Fox News on 23rd August, drawing 11.1 million viewers. According to Nielsen, it was the most watched cable telecast of the year. The frontrunner in opinion polls for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump was absent but in his absence two Indian Americans held centre stage – Nikki (Nimrat Randhawa) Haley with roots in Punjab and Vivek Ramaswamy. Niki Haley was Governor of South Carolina from 2011-2017 and the 29th US Ambassador to the United Nations. Vivek Ramaswamy a Harvard biologist and Yale Law graduate with an estimated net worth of 950 million USD in August 2023 from biotech and financial businesses he established is a newbie in politics.

The US Mexican border wall was a key issue in the debate. And I take it up this week because border walls are significant in the Indian security landscape too.

The US- Mexico Wall has been a hotly debated topic for years, with Republicans and Democrats often taking opposing sides. The 1,954 miles border traverses across deserts and urban areas. Republicans argue that the wall is necessary to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs, while Democrats have often taken the stance that it is a waste of money and ineffective as undocumented workers and drugs will still find their way across any barrier the administration ends up building. On the other hand remittances from immigrants enable human and economic development throughout the country, and this in turn reduces the incentives for further migration to the United States.

The wall’s history is thus complex and mired in controversy. The first sections were built in the early 1990s, and reportedly made out of leftover helicopter landing mats from the Vietnam War. U.S. President George H. W. Bush, a conservative, approved the initial 14 miles of fencing along the San Diego–Tijuana border. In 1993, President Bill Clinton a progressive democrat, signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which authorised further barriers and reinforcement of the wall. The Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed into law by President George W. Bush authorised construction of 700 miles of physical fence along the Mexican border. This was opposed by Laredo, Texas, City Council. Laredo Mayor Raul G. Salinas famously said, “These are people that are sustaining our economy by forty percent, and I am gonna close the door on them and put [up] a wall? You don’t do that. It’s like a slap in the face.”

The Trump administration made the wall a central part of its immigration policy. Trump said that, if elected, he would “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it” but could not do enough. Executive Order 13767, titled Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements, was issued in 2017 and directed that a wall be built along the border. In December 2018, the federal government went into a shutdown due to Trump’s demand for $5.6 billion in federal funds to begin work on the wall making it the longest in US. history. In 2019 National Emergency Concerning the Southern Border of the United States (Proclamation 9844) was declared on February 2019, and Trump ordered the diversion of funds that had been appropriated to the U.S. Department of Defense for military construction. Later U.S. president Joe Biden terminated the national emergency in January 2021 and halted construction of the wall, cancelled all border wall projects that were being paid for with diverted funds.

An unpublished memo from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leaked in March 2022 revealed that the “impenetrable” border wall had been breached more than 3,200 times from October 2018 to September 2021. A sharply divided U.S. House passed a border security package in May 2023 dubbed the Secure the Border Act, on the same day Title 42, a pandemic-era public health order that allowed authorities to quickly expel migrants without letting them request asylum, was scheduled to expire. House Republicans and Democrats, as well as the White House, had been concerned that the end of Title 42 would lead to a dramatic increase in migrants crossing the border with Mexico, overwhelming nearby communities.

In July 2022, the Biden administration announced it would fill four wide gaps in Arizona near Yuma, one of the busiest corridors for illegal crossings. Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. visited Yuma and described the crisis as a “dystopian nightmare” and “unsustainable.”. He saw migrants from Peru, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere and said Border Patrol agents in the sector have encountered migrants from 117 nations in the last few years. “They’re put on buses and they’re brought to the Border Patrol station where they’re processed. After 4 or 5 days, they’re released and most of them are never seen or heard from again,” he said. If elected he promised to make the border “impervious”. Debates over the US-Mexico border wall are poised to continue as a focal point of immigration policy during the 2024 election.

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Private contractors have demonstrated how they would build a cheap virtual border fence, with Spin cameras positioned atop the fence which would use facial-recognition technology, and underground fiber optic cables which could detect and differentiate between human activity, vehicles, tunnelling, and animals. More recently the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has reportedly contracted a Tech defence company and installed several Autonomous Surveillance Towers (AST) along the border that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect “objects of interest”. They scan the environment with radars to detect movement, orient a camera to the location of the movement detected by the radar, and analyze the imagery using algorithms to autonomously identify items of interest such as humans or vehicles. The cameras pan 360 degrees and can detect people from 1.7 miles away. When they identify an object, the towers send a notification to border agents.

And that is probably the future of border walls- discreet yet effective. And a pointer perhaps for India with its long and porous borders. Border walls are an urgent call to action if drugs and illegal immigration impact security and sovereignty.

(The writer is a former IRS officer presently in the USA)

First published on: 02-09-2023 at 13:49 IST

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