But what if we used drones?

January 4, 2019 (2379 words) :: The US needs neither a border wall nor drones. Plus: a previously unpublished piece on 'illegal' immigration.
Tags: immigration, startups

This post is day 4 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I came across this Quartz article today: Drones would boost border security better than a wall ever could, by Adam Kaplan (apparently “the CEO of a drone software visualization company”) & Bradley Tusk (“venture capitalist who protects startups from political risk”).

As I tweeted earlier today, I assumed it was satire at first, both because of how abhorrent it is and because of how perfectly it reads as a parody of neoliberal rationality (think, “what if we monetized the rot”, but insert “what if we used drones”):

The goal of the wall, as we’ve been led to understand, is mainly to block the flow of people immigrating into the United States without permission. The wall isn’t intended to stop the flow of drugs or to deter invading armies: It’s to isolate those individuals crossing the border without proper documentation and turn them away.

Couldn’t you do that with drones? As the CEO of a drone software visualization company and a venture capitalist who protects startups from political risk, we believe that you not only can—doing anything else would be a massive waste of taxpayer money.

The concept here is pretty simple: identify and turn away. A wall doesn’t have eyes, and it certainly doesn’t have the perspective necessary to contextualize what is actually happening on the ground and alert the proper authorities immediately. Drones do.

There’s so much to be said about the inhumanity of the very concept of a border wall in a place where desperate refugees are trying to flee to safety, and you can find some writing on that in the recommended links lower down in this post. I won’t dwell on that here. Instead, I want to reflect a little more on the mindset of which this article is indicative. A sort of peak Silicon Valley mindset, one that optimises for economic efficiency at the expense of nearly everything else.

After all, approaches like the one laid out in the article aren’t exactly uncommon in the startup world. There is no dearth of would-be founders who, either having experienced a minor personal pain point (like doing their own laundry, or emailing someone to schedule a meeting) or having read the Wikipedia page of a potetial common pain point, think: I can use technology to make this more efficient. In this case, the border wall is criticised for being expensive. Well, it’s also criticised for being inhumane, and morally unjustified, but tech can’t solve those problems, so that’s out of scope. Let’s focus on making it more efficient by convincing the government to rely on privatised technology. That’s how to think like a real entrepreneur - that’s how you build the next billion-dollar company.

So this whole replace-the-border-wall-with-drones fantasy (suggested, in case you’d forgotten, by two people who would literally profit from this idea) is really the purest distillation of the Silicon Valley drive. If an industry is inefficient in any way, then make it more efficient with better technology! Doesn’t matter if it’s also inhumane, and maybe just shouldn’t exist in the form that it does - who cares about moral issues when VCs will shower you with money to disrupt the payday loans market using the blockchain?

[edited a few mins after midnight: On that note, check out this tweet from co-author Bradley Tusk, which I found only after the post initially went live, courtesy of my friend Chandler:

It’s truly a perfect specimen. I can only marvel. Forget about the morality, indeed; if we’re going to do this thing that may or not be moral (but who really cares), it might as well be efficient, right? Even if it’s a truly horrendous possibility, we might as well just assume that it’s going to happen and do the best we can in the circumstances - i.e., profit from it.]


One really interesting feature of this particular article has to do with the elision of violence - both the way it’s glossed over in the article, and the way the technology would actually shift the locus of its application:

[…] Drones can serve as razor-sharp eyes in the sky, seeing everything moving on the ground miles below, constantly feeding back information to Border Patrol. But even more important is that when outfitted with advanced visual intelligence technology, drones can process what they’re seeing and add relevant geospatial data in real-time, such as the identification of people, locations, and cargo.

When drone video footage with this type of insight can be delivered quickly to protective services, appropriate action can be taken. Border Patrol will know exactly what situation they’re walking into every single time. The application of this type of cutting-edge technology—which is already in the US government’s portfolio—could be used to protect the country and its people. And it’s a lot cheaper and more efficient than a wall..

Notice how much heavy lifting is done by the phrase “appropriate action can be taken”. What sort of actions are appropriate? Well, good news: the tech company who manages the drones doesn’t have to decide, or even feel morally burdened! They just have to pass on the details to ICE, and as we all know, ICE is a wonderful exemplar of taking “appropriate” action against the vulnerable. Out of sight, out of mind, etc.

[edited a few more minutes after midight: And don’t even get me started on the linguistic villainy committed by the use of “protect” in the phrase “protect the country and its people”. Protecting the country from what, exactly? From a backlash against an unstable geopolitical arrangement that the US has helped to construct, and from which it currently benefits? Any “protection” these borders confer is about as legitimate as a protection racket.]

There is a word for people who voluntarily and knowingly work on the technology used to inflict inhumane treatment on their fellow human beings. That word is complicit. Don’t let that be you.

I’m still really mad about this whole thing, but I haven’t fully worked out what I want to say and anyway it’s nearing midnight, so I’m just going to end it here.

Further reading

I highly recommend the following pieces on similar topics, all of which are much more eloquent and detailed than mine:

An unpublished article on “illegal” immigration

Finally, I wanted to share a previously unpublished semi-personal piece I wrote about “legal” vs “illegal” immigration. I first wrote it in September 2017 and pitched it (via cold email) to Novara Media. It took about two months before I heard back from an editor, and the piece underwent a few edits before both myself and the editor seemed to realise that the piece wasn’t a great fit for Novara in its current form. I never ended up finding a home for the piece, and soon after I transitioned to writing mostly about tech anyway, so it’s been languishing in Google docs since then. It’s a little dated, and I wrote it at a time when my views on immigration were much less informed than they are now, but I do still mostly agree with the sentiments of the piece.

In September [2017], the Home Office announced it was stepping up its efforts to create a hostile environment for illegal immigrants, this time by closing the bank accounts of those identified as residing illegally. Most of the backlash centered around concerns with implementation, due to fears that legal immigrants would mistakenly be affected as well. But what about the illegal immigrants? Who’s speaking up for them?

This summer [of 2017], I moved from Canada to the UK on a two-year Tier 5 visa. The immigration process involved: a lengthy online form asking me to remember, among other things, all my home addresses and international trips over the past ten years; a five-hour train ride to the interview centre; proof that I had £1,890 in my bank account; and paying over £500 in application fees, not including travel costs. All in order to get a sticker in my passport and a plastic card that says NO PUBLIC FUNDS on the back.

This is probably the easiest UK immigration process that one can expect as a foreigner without any right to abode. As a Canadian citizen under the age of 30, I was lucky to have access to a category that the vast majority of immigrants simply aren’t eligible for. Nearly every other visa is significantly more cumbersome to obtain, in terms of eligibility criteria, required documentation, and fees.

The marriage route, which is often considered one of the easier paths to legal immigration, is especially difficult. If you wish to sponsor your non-EEA spouse, requirements include a minimum income of £18,600 (plus £3,800 for the first child, and £2,400 for each additional child); filling out a 79-page form; providing copious documentary proof of the relationship; and paying £993 in fees (plus £993 for each child). What’s more, the visa only lasts 2.5 years; afterwards, you must repeat the process to apply for a 2.5-year extension. Only after 5 years can you apply for indefinite leave to remain, which has the same financial requirements and an even higher fee of £2,297 (plus £2,297 for each child).

Why is this process so unwieldy? Why does it get more expensive each year? The bureaucratic burden is so high that it’s hard not to see it as a kind of performance theatre, designed for the express purpose of reducing immigration: the higher the barriers, the fewer migrants that are eligible, and so the Home Office can breathe a sigh of relief. But the corollary of high barriers is high enforcement; in order to uphold the legitimacy of the rules, there need to be heavy penalties for those who break them. When viewed through that lens, the hostile environment for illegal immigrants seems almost necessary, an inevitable consequence of strict immigration policy in a desirable nation.

This, of course, raises the question of why there is so much desire to immigrate in the first place. Most of that desire can be attributed to the much broader phenomenon of global inequality. Certainly economic inequality—compare the GDP per capita of the UK with that of, say, Somalia—but other types of inequality play a role as well, in terms of social stability, cultural primary, and environmental factors. This is a level of inequality that wealthy nations like the UK play no small role in maintaining, via both the historical legacy of colonialism and contemporary corporate exploitation that is just colonialism by another name. Thus the seemingly unstoppable flow of immigration to wealthy nations like the UK is really just a reaction to this larger, structural problem. But governments are unequipped, and often unwilling, to address the root causes, and so—frightened by the possibility of an influx of poor and racialised migrants—they draw an arbitrary line to separate the deserving from the undeserving, and thus manufacture the concept of the illegal immigrant.

I always marvel at just how arbitrary the line is. I, at least for now, have the right to be in this country, and so I walk free. Marcin Gwozdzinski didn’t, and so he died in a detention centre. Someone, at some point, decided to draw a line between someone like me and someone like Marcin, and somewhere along the way that line has become an unyielding wall of reified law. It’s become so normalised that even when the media writes critically about the “hostile environment”, the sympathy is primarily reserved for “people who have a right to be here”: for those who at least tried to follow the rules, and thus are on the right side of the line. We’ve gotten so used to existence of that line that it seems like a part of nature, outside the realm of things that can be changed.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. After all, there is nothing natural about the rules defining legal immigration. No one has an immanent right to live on a particular patch of soil. The line separating illegal and legal immigrants—or, hell, native-born citizens—is composed entirely of human decisions, decisions which reflect the various prejudices in existence at the time. Whether we prioritise our adherence to a bureaucracy over our allegiance to other human beings is a choice. There is always an alternative.

Ultimately, as long as global inequality persists, there will always be people trying to move to where life is less unbearable, even if they know they won’t be welcomed. The only solution that is both sustainable and humane requires an exceptionally audacious task: reconfiguring the entire world socioeconomic order such that open borders are viable. This is obviously not going to happen overnight, and in the meantime, we should do what we can for our fellow human beings who aren’t lucky enough to be here legally. Even more than compassion, we need to feel solidarity. Only then can we build a better world for all.

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