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.

Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol stands along the section of fencing right in front of his 104-acre compound.
Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol stands along the section of fencing right in front of his 104-acre compound

Photo by David Weigel.

HEREFORD, Ariz. – Glenn Spencer wakes every day in pitch dark, at 3 a.m., a habit he picked up in the last couple of years. “I do my best thinking in the morning,” he explains. The early morning is also when he usually gets an audio tape intercepting chatter between U.S. border patrol agents, which he edits for public consumption. He always uses this information to plot a map of border crossings. Spencer’s group, American Border Patrol, will release all of this online.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

I wake up at 4 a.m. in the “Coronado house” that Spencer opens for visitors to his 104-acre property on the U.S.-Mexico border. The property abuts a border fence that sinks 6 feet into the ground and shoots up 18 feet above it. I got there at sundown the day before, which meant turning off Arizona State Route 92, past a wary border patrol agent, and driving five miles of dirt roads past dozens of ranches.* All of them sport sturdy fences around the dirt and brush. Many of them are for sale.

Years ago Spencer bought this compound from one of those sellers, a retired colonel who couldn’t put up with the drug cartel shootouts. Four years after the construction of that fence, there aren’t any shootouts. It’s a “gated community,” a “little Shangri-La,” says Spencer. The rehabbed guesthouse sits in front of a landscaped pond, and Spencer keeps a sound system and laptop outside, piping jazzy covers of pop-rock hits. At night the only light comes from the stars, the Mexican mining town of Cananea, and from a border patrol floodlight so intense you could sit on your porch and read by the glow.

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But this isn’t what wakes me up. Spencer owns seven German Shepherds, and some of them have started howling for attention. At 7 a.m. sharp, Spencer drives from his place to the guesthouse on an ATV. Seventy-five years old, with the cheerful look and vocal rasp of Santa Claus in some Rankin/Bass animation, he speculates that the dogs staying with him were disagreeing with the dog staying with me. The dog that spent the night in my quarters is covered in black-and-white spots and named Migra—as in la migra, immigration police.

“She doesn’t get along with the others,” says Spencer.

Spencer, who has devoted the last 20 years of his life to the immigration wars, kicks his doors wide open for the media. When the Southern Poverty Law Center designates you “anti-immigrant” and a “vitriolic Mexican-basher,” what choice do you have? He’s showed up to legislative hearings in Phoenix and Democrats have walked out. He’s been in touch with the office of his congressman, Democratic Rep. Ron Barber, but apart from that he’s “persona non grata.”

So he talks to the press—and, he says, to defense contractors. Spencer initially invited me to the border to watch a trial run of a new gyroscopic surveillance drone designed by his team. The nucleus of the Spencer operation is actually Border Technology, Inc., headquartered a short walk from the guesthouse (just past a horse stable), and made famous in 2003 and 2004 when it started running homemade Border Hawk planes on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico fence. Two years ago, Spencer buried seismic sensors, the kind that he used to find oil deposits in his private sector days, to test whether they could trace border movements.

“I was a good systems engineering thinker,” he says. “That’s what I’m applying right now. Here I am trying to present technology trying to solve the border problem, and the whole thing is about what a hateful guy I am! What the hell is happening in this country?”

What Spencer thinks is happening is that waves of illegal immigrants from Mexico have weakened America, and could weaken it further. This is specifically why he bothers the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the 1990s, while living in his native California, Spencer worked to pass Proposition 187 (which denied state benefits to the undocumented), and recoiled in horror when it was stymied by politicians and the courts. He started warning of a “Mexican takeover of the southwestern United States,” and in 2001 he delivered a homemade video about this, Immigration: Threatening the Bonds of Our Union, to every member of Congress.* DVDs of Spencer’s videos about “Aztlan” sit around Border Technology’s workrooms, right next to the CubeX 3-D printer the company just bought, to make plastic components for the new drones.

Glenn Spencer stands near a five foot "Normandy-style" fence near his property, on the US-Mexico border.
Glenn Spencer stands near a five foot "Normandy-style" fence near his property, on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Photo by David Weigel.

“I moved here because it was clear that California was just gone,” says Spencer. His old state went socialist, thanks to immigrants who grab at benefits, hospital care, and food stamps that we pay for. “Here’s a question. Why are 50 percent of the students at UCLA from Asia? Why are they not 70 percent Latinos? That’s because of a different attitude [toward] education. Instead of being launched into a brave new world of science and technology, we’re going backward. We keep this up, we’re going to be a Third-World country—the only one with nuclear weapons. Nobody’s ever thought of that? Us, turning into a third world country?”

This is rhetorical: Plenty of people have thought about that. That’s why the grand project of closing down the border with technology is such a risk. The senators currently trying to legalize millions of immigrants are in on the plan—not Spencer’s plan, exactly, but an impressive-sounding matrix that borrows from what we’ve learned in foreign wars. If they get their way, we’ll have a secure border and a growing immigrant population.

So Spencer and his team keep the discussion to two main topics: The reality of the border and the technology that could close it. The American Border Patrol’s compound is a short walk from the border itself, separated by rough red desert, bushes, and tufts of brown grass.

They estimate that the Identiseis project, the burying-sensors-in-the-ground plan, would cost $100,000 per mile. Sensors could be buried up to 6-feet deep, run on solar power—a massive green jobs initiative that tracks the footsteps of people trying to walk from Mexico into Texas or Arizona. The total price tag—maybe $200,000,000 to secure the entire border—sounds ludicrous, and apart from the defense contractor that Spencer can’t name (“one of the big five”), no one could verify it, but it’s roughly 5 percent of the cost of the border fence, and less than Boeing was going to ask for its own scheme—known as the Secure Border Initiative—had it actually worked before a disappointed Department of Homeland Security scrapped it in 2011.