Friendship Park in Tijuana on July 18, 2021.
A surveillance tower on the U.S. side can be seen from Friendship Park in Tijuana July 18, 2021. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Federal immigration authorities are ramping up their surveillance capabilities with plans to install dozens of new surveillance towers in San Diego County over the next couple years. 

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection plan includes 22 new towers for its station in Imperial Beach, four for its station in El Cajon and three for its station in Chula Vista. Another six will go to the Brown Field station in San Diego. The large, metal towers project into the air between 33 and 80 feet, and are affixed with cameras and other types of sensors. 

The agency said the towers will reduce demands on agents and further its mission of predicting, detecting, tracking, identifying, classifying and responding to the unlawful movement of “items of interest,” meaning people and vehicles. 

But while CBP describes the technology as a “force multiplier” to unmask networks of illegal activity, immigration advocates argue that digitizing border infrastructure pushes desperate people into more dangerous terrain. One study published in 2019 found a significant correlation between the location of border surveillance, the routes taken by migrants and the locations of recovered human remains in the southern Arizona desert. 

CBP’s media representatives for Southern California didn’t return a request for comment. 

In addition to buying new devices, the agency wants to upgrade 18 existing towers deployed by its stations in Chula Vista and Imperial Beach. Depending on the size and model, these towers can detect objects up to seven miles away and classify objects up to 3 miles away. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, released a map Monday showing the locations of more than 290 towers already in operation throughout the Southwest, as well as the locations of some proposed towers by CBP and automated license plate readers at Border Patrol checkpoints. It took a year to compile and is still a work in progress. 

One of the existing towers is located on private property near Del Mar Dog Beach, several miles north of where a suspected smuggling boat overturned and killed at least eight people this month. Another is located near Friendship Park, a few feet from the Pacific Ocean. 

Both towers were built by Anduril, which declares on its website: “The battlefield has changed. How we deter & defend needs to change too.” The company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying federal officials, according to the Guardian, and in a promotional video boasts that its technology never sleeps, never takes a break, never blinks

The devices do this by scanning the environment with radar to detect movement, then positioning a camera to analyze the imagery using algorithms and send an alert. 

“Using artificial intelligence, the towers continuously monitor wherever is needed, sorting out what are real concerns and what comes back as a false positive,” CBP wrote in its own magazine.  

border patrol san diego
The seal of U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Photo by Adriana

Friendship Park was designed so people separated by the border could meet and communicate, but it has also been the site of protests over the U.S. government’s plans to construct new barriers. Though the park has been heavily monitored for decades, some feel the towers bring a militarized aesthetic that contributes to the tension on the ground and raise questions about the effect on privacy and civil liberties. 

“It’s extremely worrisome, because it’s placed where people usually gather,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S./Mexico Border Program. “That’s certainly a concern San Diegans should be thinking about.” 

Tower systems — combined with other technology like drones, ground sensors, license plate readers, even robot dogs — have long been characterized as a “virtual wall” running parallel to the physical one for many miles inland, what President Joe Biden has dubbed “smart security.” 

Past rollouts of surveillance towers have generated public outcry. By 2010, CBP had spent about $1 billion on tower systems in Arizona. But as Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted in a blog post, the agency bought a variety of towers that couldn’t interact with one another, and the Government Accountability Office couldn’t say for sure whether Border Patrol’s “mission benefits have been fully realized,” questioning the effectiveness of the technology. 

Though the digitizing of border infrastructure is a bipartisan project stretching back decades, a group of U.S. representatives urged leaders in the House and Senate last year to stop writing CBP a blank check. As they noted in a letter, Congress allocated $743 million between fiscal years 2017 and 2020 for border surveillance, and another $425 million in fiscal year 2022. 

With the new deployment of towers and upgrades, CBP is trying to consolidate its various tower systems under a single program. The total cost of this integration is budgeted at $132 million in fiscal year 2024, on top of the $68 million that federal authorities set aside in fiscal year 2023 for the purchase of 51 autonomous surveillance towers.  

Towers have traditionally been placed in rural areas, so it’s not yet clear how close new ones may end up being to more urban parts of the region. As CBP noted in an October 2022 briefing, the final number, type and locations “will be determined by collaboration with key stakeholders.” 

The boundaries of some local stations slated to receive new towers extend over vast areas. The Imperial Beach station covers 135 square miles and the El Cajon station covers 467 square miles

Still, officials in both cities said they were unaware of the federal government’s plans.

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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