The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Robotic dogs patrolling the U.S. border will not stop migrants. But they may lead to more deaths.

A Vision 60 robot dog at the southern border. (-/AFP/Getty Images)
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Geoffrey Boyce is academic director of the Earlham College Border Studies Program in Tucson. Sam Chambers is a researcher in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is experimenting with technology that would allow it to release a new creature into the Arizona desert: robotic dogs.

Headless, four-legged and made of metal, these 100-pound “ground drones” would be tasked with looking for migrants within the roughly 41,500 square miles that compose the U.S. Border Patrol’s area of operations within Arizona. They would augment a roughly 30-year investment the Department of Homeland Security and its predecessors have made in high-tech surveillance tools meant to catch migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and discourage others from trying.

But robotic dogs are the last thing we need to address the urgent needs of migrants, asylum seekers and residents of local communities.

The Border Patrol’s use of high-tech surveillance systems in the desert has already directly contributed to an alarming spike in migrants’ deaths — the result of a border-control plan that has failed to meaningfully curb or deter migration but has actively funneled migrants toward punishingly inhospitable terrain.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Border Patrol began pushing migrants toward the desert by pumping resources — significantly beefed-up patrols, physical barriers, surveillance technology and checkpoints — into cities and other possible areas of transit. Today, the main feature of the government’s surveillance system is a series of 80-to-180-foot-tall solar-powered towers, which include day and night high-definition cameras, thermal imaging sensors and radar. Coyotes — people who smuggle migrants through the desert — have a simple warning for those they shepherd: “If you can see the towers, the towers can see you.”

Our research has examined the relationship between the first generation of surveillance towers, which CBP began deploying in 2006, and the location and rate of mortality in Arizona’s desert borderlands. Since 2007, there has been a statistically meaningful shift in the location of human remains toward areas outside the visual reach of the towers. This shift corresponded to a roughly 643 percent increase in the rate of mortality between 2006 and 2020.

This relationship is easy to understand. The Arizona border region is one of the most rugged and dangerous areas in the United States — a space larger than Massachusetts where summertime temperatures routinely hit 120 degrees. There is little water. For migrants, avoiding surveillance often means longer and more difficult routes of travel that accelerate dehydration and extend exposure to the extreme desert environment.

To steer clear of the surveillance towers, people have pushed deeper into the mountains and now hunker down in arroyos and other crevices in the desert for longer periods of time. These conditions increase the likelihood of the body’s ability to regulate heat collapsing. As a person’s core temperature creeps beyond 104 degrees Fahrenheit, that person will experience cascading effects that include impaired cognition, organ failure and, eventually, death.

Last year set a record for border deaths in Arizona, with the recovery of 226 sets of human remains. Yet despite the fact that, annually, hundreds of people die crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, millions more continue to attempt this hazardous journey every year.

There is a simple reason Arizona border policy is failing: It does not take into account people’s motivations for migrating in the first place. Most, if not all, of the people who seek entry into the United States through the desert are out of options to obtain safety for themselves or for their children, to reunite with loved ones in the United States, or to find some other avenue toward a better life. If they could secure these by other means, they would not choose this treacherous journey. As it is, they approach the desert as just one more obstacle to overcome, among many others in their lives.

Over the past 30 years, the United States has spent billions of dollars on what is essentially an ineffective enforcement policy. Sinking millions more into a surveillance program involving robotic dogs is senseless.

That money could be better used to help address inefficiencies in the U.S. asylum system. It could be spent to address the root causes of violence, inequality, and political and economic instability in migrants’ countries of origin, with investments in infrastructures that would allow people on both sides of the border to not only survive but also thrive.

It’s time to call off the dogs and acknowledge the menace of high-tech surveillance in the desert. Any policies that actively lead to the deaths of some of the world’s most vulnerable people ought to be abandoned. Programmable pooches might someday do other good in the world, but they have no place along the Arizona border.

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