On May 15 an overflow crowd pressed into the community center of Arivaca,
an isolated Sonoran desert town 13 miles north of the Mexico-Arizona border.
Over 100 people—most of the town’s citizens—turned out to tell the border
patrol and other Homeland Security representatives they don’t want a 96-foot-high
Boeing surveillance tower snooping on them from the edge of town. There
were people who were concerned about protecting the yearly influx of Mexican
bats from the radars and with the impact on humans and other species of
the 130 decibel alert horn; a citizen from Tubac, 25 miles away, wanted
proof that radio frequency waves would not interfere with the three space
observatories on surrounding mountain tops. But the unanimous concern was
about the 24-hour video cameras pointed directly at their town.
In recent months, it has become clearer that the placement of the Boeing
Corp tower as part of a network to hunt migrants crossing the border would
allow federal agents to watch people’s everyday activities around the clock.
Resistance to this government intrusion in the town’s life turned to rage
when local people learned in April that Boeing’s site selection for the
government-sponsored project was irreversible and not subject to public
review. The tower was going up whether they liked it or not.
As one might imagine, life on the Sonoran desert is difficult. There is
little water, thorny brush vegetation, and temperatures can climb to over
100 degrees most days. At least 80 undocumented immigrants died in the
first five months of 2007 (eight of them right before this meeting). Local
people take their independence and their freedoms seriously. As one middle-aged
woman told the uniformed government agents, “We have been losing our rights
in this country back at least since the time of the Reagan presidency and
you are telling us to trust you when you declare we have no say over your
spying on us in our own town? I am outraged.”
Tensions increased when a Border Patrol-Immigration-Homeland Security representative
responded that the entire SBInet 28 (Secure Borders Initiative) project
is aimed at defending the town and the nation from dangerous intruders.
“Since 9/11, we have to worry about terrorists,” he declared, provoking
an audience-wide groan of disbelief.
Among other routes through the desert, migrants pass through the two drainages
near town. They get help from some and are treated less favorably by others,
but none of the 30 or more citizens who spoke out think the growing web
of surveillance is going to stop migration, none voiced fear of the desperate
thousands trying to make their way north into or back into sustainable
lives in the U.S., and all viewed the tower as government intrusion into
their own lives.
Later in the discussion, after Boeing and federal reps had insisted the
surveillance radar and cameras would be looking south to the border and
away from town, an apparently knowledgeable man stood to tell them that
the line of sight of the radar and cameras could not see south or into
the dry washes because of land elevations south of site 29. The feds were
non-plussed. Speakers pointed out that the radars would be constantly sending
back false alarms because the 29 site is frequented by hunters, cattle,
walkers, bikers, joggers, campers, and children playing. The government
representatives remained undaunted, saying they’d work out the bugs. When
challenged by a woman as to how each of them would feel if cameras were
being set up outside their homes, all six responded that they had no problem
with the idea because the benefits of protection from the “bad guys” outweighed
the negatives of intrusion.
Driving back to Tucson, Steve Johnston, an activist with No More Deaths
(an immigrant rights group which runs a summer training camp southeast
of town) summed up the gathering. “It was a great meeting, but there was
an unspoken elephant in the room,” he said. “Both the Federales and the
Arivacans know the purpose of the tower is to watch them day and night.
Other towers are the new high-tech approach to trying to stop people from
coming across the border, but this one is different. A lot of marijuana
comes through Arivaca and that’s what the feds are targeting here.
“These are good people,” Johnston asserted. “They have a hard, tough life.
When they found some folks running a meth lab here a few years ago they
literally ran them out of town. But the intermittent marijuana trade helps
people to survive out here. The feds talk about bad guys. They talk terrorism
and homeland security, about closing the borders to protect us. But the
whole Homeland Security thing is a ruse to watch the town.”
Then he chuckled. “These people are tough, though. They have other plans
for this tower.”
Marc Sapir is the executive director of Retro Poll.