Trump’s Dream of a Border Wall, Twisted Into a Sci-Fi Nightmare

Sometime around 2018, a teenager in a blazer and bluejeans stood in desert scrubland near Las Vegas and made a pitch for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to use an army of drones equipped with electroshock weapons. These drones, he explains in a short video recently unearthed by The Intercept, could help monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. Agents could use the drones to interrogate unauthorized travelers from a distance and to incapacitate subjects who refused to comply with their demands. “There’s no wall here,” the teenager says, “and it probably wouldn’t work anyway, because of the rough terrain and eminent-domain issues. But there is a solution.” He calls it “the wall of drones.”

The video dramatizes how such a wall might work. A quadcopter flying over a stretch of desert displays a red alert when it detects an “anomaly” walking among the bushes. It’s an olive-skinned man wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses and a windbreaker. The drone swoops down to confront him. “This is U.S. Border Patrol,” a voice booms through the drone’s speaker. “Identify yourself.”

“My name’s José,” the man shouts back in accented English.

“What are you doing out here?”

“Taking walk.”

“Do you have any identification on hand?”

“This is my identification,” José yells, pulling a gun from under his jacket and pointing it at the drone. Then, inexplicably, he turns his back and walks away.

“Stop moving,” the drone warns, “or you will be tased.” But José continues walking. “Taser! Taser! Taser!” the drone shouts as wired darts shoot from the quadcopter and hit José in the back. He falls face forward into the sand. Presumably he will lie in the scorching heat, unmoving, until agents drive into the desert to locate him and take him into custody.

This can’t be serious, I thought the first time I saw the video. It has the same cheap production values and odd juxtapositions as a late-night comedy skit. The drone’s charging bay screeches ridiculously as it opens. The spokesman is a teenager with wildly untrimmed curly hair; he looks like a gamer on his way to an Art Garfunkel look-alike contest. The video ends with the company’s name, Brinc Drones, and if a “Saturday Night Live”-style tag line had appeared beneath it — Tasing migrants for a profit! — I might have laughed uncomfortably, the way you do when a joke nails the dark center of a prejudice.

I had seen versions of this fantasy before, wrapped in different sorts of comedic packaging. As of 2015, for instance, a video game called Border Patrol had been played more than 12 million times on the website NerdNirvana. A rudimentary first-person shooter, Border Patrol invited players to place their cross hairs on three different kinds of cartoon characters: a “Mexican Nationalist” wearing a bandoleer, a tattooed “drug smuggler” in a wide sombrero and a pregnant “breeder” holding two children by the hands, one wearing a diaper, the other a little sombrero. The backdrop showed a river cutting through a cactus-dotted desert. The players’ job was to shoot these brown-skinned characters as they tried to cross the river; each kill was recorded with a bloody splat. The “breeder” was worth more points, presumably because you also killed her children, born and unborn. “There is one simple objective to this game,” the opening sequence declared. “Keep them out … at any cost!”

The Brinc video was neither a game nor a joke. It seemed to spring from sincere technocratic opportunism — the hope of starting a company that could capitalize on President Donald Trump’s dream of building a wall, any wall, on the border. The person speaking is Blake Resnick, who turned 18 while filming the video and recently made Forbes’s “30 under 30” list after Brinc drew some $27 million in funding from investors. Before the company’s official launch, Resnick pivoted away from taser-drones and toward products for first responders; he has disavowed the video, calling it “immature” and “deeply regrettable” and stressing that the taser-drone was never produced. “Adhering to Brinc’s ethics and core values,” he now says, “the company will never create any lethal or weaponized drones.” That presumably includes the provisional patent he filed for in 2017, covering a “Drone Implemented Border Patrol” that could include a taser, sponge grenades or even a particle-beam weapon.

When experts talk about the causes of immigration, they often speak of “push” and “pull” factors. Those on the left like to emphasize push factors — things that drive people to leave their countries, like violence, natural disasters or destitution. Those on the right focus on pull factors — things that attract migrants to the United States in particular, like employment or universal K-12 schooling. Each side tends to dismiss the factors identified by the other, leading to very different policy proposals. On the right, the idea that migrants enter the United States mostly because life here is so wonderful has fed support for a constellation of policies known as “attrition through enforcement”; these are designed to make the lives of undocumented immigrants so uncomfortable — by limiting their access to public education, say, or denying them driver’s licenses — that they will, in theory, leave voluntarily.

A narrow focus on deterrence, however, can abet the popularity of “solutions” that display all the ethical sense of a first-person shooter: What could be a bigger deterrent than losing your life? At a 2019 rally in Florida, Trump spoke of migrants at the Southern border and asked, “How do you stop these people?” Someone in the crowd shouted back, “Shoot them!” There were some laughs and some uncomfortable looks, until Trump chuckled, shook his head and said, “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” which provoked the audience to erupt in laughter and cheers.

But the problem with guns and tasers as solutions is not simply that they are morally repulsive; it’s also that many unauthorized migrants are already staring down death. That is precisely why they have trekked to the border, risking rape, kidnapping and murder along the way, to face a desert many will die trying to cross. Last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, some 650 migrants died near our Southern border, many killed by heat in a region where summer temperatures routinely hit 115 degrees. In August, on a day when temperatures near Yuma, Ariz., reached 119, C.B.P. agents found three unauthorized migrants: A woman and her 10-year-old daughter were dead from heat-related illness; next to the mother was one survivor, her 2-year-old son, who was rushed to a hospital. Agents rescued approximately 13,000 migrants from the desert last year, though the organization No More Deaths has uncovered evidence that agents also destroy hidden caches of water and often ignore emergency calls from the desert. (C.B.P. denies ignoring calls.)

Resnick’s teenage video suggests that after José is incapacitated, agents will arrive promptly to take custody of “the perpetrator.” But even in ideal circumstances, with agents devoted to rescuing migrants in danger, a man left lying in the boiling sand is a man likely to never get up again. Watching the video, it’s hard to tell: Is this just another logical error, like José’s fluent English? Or has the idea that migrants must be deterred “at any cost” become so familiar that death can be blithely overlooked?

Source photographs: Screen grabs from YouTube

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