Border Control & Technology

June 16, 2015

The following resource utilizes articles, images and videos that describe the use of sophisticated technologies to control migration at the border between the United States and Mexico. The goal is to encourage students to understand how technology is not neutral, but functions in complex political and economic contexts, often to foster exclusion of certain racial and ethnic groups.


Debates over illegal migration often invoke the use of technology as a solution to control migration and to enhance security. Consequently, increasingly sophisticated and expensive technologies have been developed to monitor the external borders of nation-states. For example, the 2,000 mile border along the United States and Mexico has become increasingly militarized and monitored through the application of various technologies. However, the sophistication of the technology and the increased danger of illegal border crossings have not deterred migrants from risking their lives in order to get into the United States. An exclusive focus on 'technological fixes' to border control ignores the economic realities, partially induced by the North American Free Trade Agreement, that have devastated livelihoods in Mexico and increased pressure to migrate.

While border surveillance is designed to attempt to keep some migrants out of the United States, other technologies, such as the NEXUS program at the US and Canada border, are used to facilitate the migration of privileged economic classes. As a result, these technologies effectively separate groups of migrants, and raise significant questions about equity and human rights. Finally, technologies used for migration control are not exclusively focused on the external borders of nation-states. Passports, biometrics, identity cards all enable border control to occur within the boundaries of nation-states. Although technology can be useful, it is important to understand that it does not exist as a neutral device. Technologies of border control are linked to power relations, exclusionary politics and globalizing economic forces.


The following resources focus on how technology is used to control the border of the United States and Mexico, and how migrants respond to changing border management. 

  1. An article published by the Christian Science Monitor which provides details on "Project 28," a United States program that attempted to create a virtual fence along 28 miles of the border with Mexico.
    Wood, Daniel. 2008. Arizona's 'Virtual' Wall Gets Reality Check. Christian Science Monitor. 

  2. An audio file by National Public Radio, describing the results of a new virtual surveillance program in Texas, the Texas Border Watch project, which broadcasts live video footage of the border on the internet and requests that the public report suspicious activity.
    National Public Radio. 2007. Texas Tests Cameras Along Mexican Border.

  3. A PBS video, entitled Mexico: Crimes at the Border, which shows how smugglers and migrants change their border-crossing strategies in response to the increased surveillance and militarization of the border. 
    PBS. Mexico: Crimes at the Border.

  4. A New York Times article, describing how a migrant was shot and killed at the border fence, as well as the reactions to the killing in Mexico.
    McKinley, James C. Jr. 2006. A Border Killing Inflames Mexican Anger at U.S. Policy. New York Times.

Discussion Questions

  1. What difficulties did 'Project 28' encounter, and what are the implications of the outcomes of this project for further utilization of more complex and expensive technologies to control border spaces? What impact does this have on migrants trying to cross the border? How do smugglers in the PBS video circumvent increased use of technology and surveillance?
  2. What are the perspectives on the militarization of the border in Mexico, as described in the New York Times article? How does the militarization of the border reflect broader racial and ethnic tensions?
  3. The US-Mexico border has also become increasingly monitored by vigilante groups, but in the case of the Texas Border Watch project, the state called on its citizens to monitor the border on the internet. What are the implications of calling on civilians to monitor the border and how successful was this technology?

Suggested Reading

Sparke, Matthew B. 2006. A neoliberal nexus: Economy, security and the biopolitics of citizenship on the border. Political Geography, 25, no. 2:151-180.