Glenn Spencer’s American Border Patrol is waging a high-tech campaign to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and stop illegal immigrants from crossing into Arizona.

How Right-Wing Groups Are Waging a High-Tech War on Immigration

How Right-Wing Groups Are Waging a High-Tech War on Immigration

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 6 2013 5:37 AM

The Fence Junkies

Right-wing defenders of America’s southern border aren’t giving an inch. And their high-tech gadgets are part of almost everyone’s solution.

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Standing on the porch as Migra trots around the yard, I get the full spiel from Mike White, Spencer’s business partner and designer for 10 years, an athletic guy sporting a soul patch and wearing a polo shirt from his side job as a paramedic.

“For what we gave Boeing for that SBI disaster,” says White, “you could run this along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. And the Canada border. And you could take the rest of the money and retire. I don’t know why they’re not banging our doors down.”

“If the people who wanted legalization were thinking straight,” says Spencer, “they’d drive up to American Border Patrol and they’d bring out signs and start chanting. ‘We want this! We need this!’ They’d do that if they wanted to stop the drug trade? Right? Wouldn’t they?”


White laughs. “You wonder if they really want this secured. They land things on Mars, you know? How can they not secure our border?”

“They can find life on Mars, but they can’t find life on our border,” says Spencer.

“If people with water bottles and a backpack with no training can walk into this country without being detected,” White continues, “what would stop people with guns and bombs from doing that?”

Once, to prove how bad the security truly was, American Border Patrol staged a “terrorist” border crossing. White created a faux suitcase nuke, put it in a backpack with a prominent nuclear symbol, and snuck across the border. Twice. Spencer gives me an ATV tour of the area they were able to sneak past, which has changed plenty. He cuts a path between two 18-wheeler-sized plywood signs:


The words are spelled out by miniature American flags. Attached to each flag is a message from one of the group’s donors—“Thank you for what you do” or a quote from some patriotic text. Twenty thousand of these flags are arrayed between the full text of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase. “When we get another 20,000 of these from American citizens, we need to think of a new sign,” he says. “Maybe: Good fences make good neighbors.”

We drive on and park at the fence. Spencer happily takes credit for it: He started filming the action on the border in 2003, and by 2009, presto, contractors were putting up the rust-colored barrier. “You can still see the flags we put on the old barbed wire fence,” says Spencer. The new fence curves west to a low mountain range where Spencer and other watchers used to spot migrants, clambering up old mining paths on ATVs. Going east the fence tapers off, replaced by a “Normandy fence.” It’s a run of X-shaped metal girders, about five feet high, hard but not that hard to clamber over. Grazing cows meander on the other side of the barrier. More of them stroll along the shallow river where the fence stops. A border patrol agent keeps his eye on the river. He waves at us as we take some photos.

An under-construction gyro copter drone designed by Glenn Spencer's team at Border Technology Institute.
An under-construction gyro copter drone designed by Glenn Spencer's team at Border Technology Institute

Photo by David Weigel.

When we’re done, Spencer and White set up the dry run of the seismic test. The drone test won’t happen, because they flew it yesterday, and after a few minutes the helicopter banked too hard and plummeted to the ground. The designers speculate that a flawed battery placement brought it down, something that can be easily fixed once they get more material for the 3-D printer.

So we wait for the seismic test, as a stiff wind whips the high desert. “Normally the sensor would work within 600 feet,” says Spencer, “but this might cut to 400. If it’s raining, you’d see it get cut to 300.” Three of Spencer’s some-time employees, including the guy who landscaped the lovely guesthouse pond, stroll out to the border fence past markers denoting every 200 feet. They wait for the signal.

“Go now,” says White.

They walk at a normal pace and barely hit the 600-foot marker before the foghorn sensor goes off. “That’s great, that’s better than I thought,” says Spencer. “Isn’t that amazing? That seismograph was buried for two years. The manufacturer says it can work for 10 years without maintenance. I’m telling you, when we have this thing ready, in another 30 days, this sensor will work and the chopper will pop up, fly, and take pictures. We will do that. We will do that.”

It’s time to check out of the guesthouse. I add my name to a rundown of foreign journalists, state senators, and Tea Party activists who’d stayed in the house since the renovation, and I drive to the suburbs of Tucson two hours up the road. Sen. John McCain is holding the second of two town halls in mostly-hostile territory. One high schooler asks him why we should let border-crossers become citizens “when one in five has a criminal record.” (McCain points out that this isn’t true.) But he disarms the critics.

“In Iraq, we developed incredible technology, Gen. Petraeus did, because of the IED problem,” says McCain. “They developed a radar which not only surveils the types of people doing things, but believe it or not, this radar tracks them back to where they came from. We need to have this radar all across our border, and the sensors and the drones, so we can assure the people of this country, the people of Arizona, that we have effective control of our border.”

McCain keeps coming back to that point. Mike Wilson, an activist with the Tohono O’odham nation near Tucson, listens politely. He’s “wearing his tribal hat” today, he tells me, but he works with the Border Action Network, one of several groups that tries to assist immigrants crossing from Mexico by leaving supplies for them in the desert. He is about as far away from Glenn Spencer’s worldview as anyone can get. He supports what McCain’s doing—“we need to get the immigration train out of the station.” And although he’s not convinced that the militarization of the border is the answer, his nation is convinced.

“They live in fear of drugs coming across,” says Wilson. “I have to acknowledge that. I have to honor those fears. When I go down there and try to talk to human rights violations, they tell me: You don’t live here. You live comfortably. You don’t have to worry about your kid getting off at a bus stop in the desert and walking half a mile as drug cartels are moving past them.” They don’t have any problem with border drones or militarization? “They want it,” says Wilson.

Spencer wants it, too. He wouldn’t mind if his technology becomes the backbone for the barrier, and he scores a contract. (“You want to know how to make a small fortune on the border?” he says. “Start with a large fortune.”) But he’s most interested in getting illegal border crossings below 20,000 per year, down from the high six figures that try crossing now. There are supporters of pure open borders, sure, but in politics there’s no real disagreement anymore about locking down the border with whatever technology it takes. Either the restrictionists win, and the solution stops there, or the legalizers win, and the immigrants who’ve made it to Spencer’s side of the border get to stay there.

*Correction, May 6, 2013: This article misstated the name of the Arizona highway David Weigel turned off to get to Glenn Spencer's property on the U.S.-Mexico border. It is Arizona Route 92. It also misstated the name of the homemade video Spencer delivered to members of Congress. It is called Immigration: Threatening the Bonds of Our Union, not Bonds of Our Nation.