XXVIII.2 March - April 2021
Page: 100
Digital Citation

A conversation with Iván Chaar López

Sareeta Amrute, Iván López

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This second installment of the forum focuses on border-control technologies. While they seem very new, these technologies have a long history that wends its way through the problems of identification and verification as our border passes went digital. Iván Chaar López excavates these histories, the histories of the U.S.-Mexico border, and those of the bodies that traverse that political boundary. In his work, he shows us how border control is part of a long U.S. imperial project that creates security in one space and insecurity in another. These processes occur through engaging with differently surveilled bodies through multiple and ever new forms of watching.

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Sareeta Amrute: In your work, you trace the development of automated border control technologies to the 1970s. Many readers might be surprised at how far back data-enabled technologies of surveillance and control go. What was your purpose in bringing forth this older history?

Iván Chaar López: It was surprising to me as well. As I researched the development and use of drones by Customs and Border Patrol in the early 2000s, I learned about the efforts to automate border and immigration enforcement in the 1970s. I did not set out to take us to that period; rather, the archival materials I came across at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Reference Library forced me to make sense of those efforts. You could say that my historical approach led me in this direction, to think beyond our immediate technological practices. Oftentimes, public debate tends to construe present-day technological practices as new or as a complete transformation of previous practices. Yet this way of understanding technology is an example of a kind of compliant trust in cyberutopian discourse—information technologies as ever changing and improving, and always behaving as expected and designed. A historical approach centered on the materiality of infrastructures reveals both continuities, disruptions, and moments of emergence. While drone operations today surely generate new affordances, I argue these operations should be understood as connected to a moment in the mid-20th century when scholars, government officials, and technicians began exploring how the management of information could help actualize the administration of populations and produce the border. Actors from these communities helped establish what I call, in my forthcoming article in Critical Ethnic Studies [1], a regime of connectivity centered on data capture, storage, processing, and referentiality. It is partially in such a context that we should understand and interrogate existing automated border-control technologies.

SA: Many of us from immigrant backgrounds are intimately aware of the travails of the Green Card and the I-186 card. For those who might not know what these are, can you briefly explain them and their histories as technopolitical—as you call it—constructs? How are these cards related to the driver's license, a technology much more familiar to most?

ICL: The Green Card (Form I-151) and the Mexican Border Crossing card (Form I-186) are technologies of racial and class mobility. Both identifications were initially issued by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in the mid-20th century as a way to manage and control the presence of migrants within U.S. territory. Form I-151 governed those "alien" applicants that were allowed to reside and work in the U.S. The identification was produced in the aftermath of World War II efforts to register all alien nationals, though a major concern was discriminating between seemingly loyal and disloyal citizens. Discourses on loyalty were often informed by racializing imaginaries that posited Japanese citizens and U.S. citizens of Japanese descendants as duplicitous, impossible, and potentially "enemy" subjects of the nation. As a result, the Green Card has been entangled with the racial management of enmity. Form I-186 was meant to control the cross border movements of Mexican nationals who wished to enter U.S. territory to buy goods, visit family, or visit U.S. towns/cities. The Mexican Border Crossing card explicitly stated its possessor was not allowed to work; they were authorized to be in the country only for a period of not more than 72 hours and to travel within 25 miles of the southern border.

MQ-9 Reaper Drone at Creech Air Force Base. MQ-9 Reaper drone, Creech AFB (source: U.S. Air Force/Lance Cheung).

I studied these identifications as technopolitical artifacts because they were designed to enact specific political goals—I'm thinking here with the work of Gabrielle Hecht who studies the technopolitics of nuclear power. As technopolitical objects, migrant-identification documents require the existence of a regime of discourses, actors, and practices to bring them forth. Here again is where I see regimes of connectivity as producing a particular style of technopolitics anchored in the input, output, and processing of data. This is something I tease out further in my book manuscript, tentatively titled The Cybernetic Border.

Migrant identification documents are similar to driver's licenses and passports for the ways in which they govern mobility: who is allowed to move from one space into another, and the conditions through which such movement is possible and authorized. As identification documents, they also attempt to standardize the process of identification by establishing objective criteria that are separate from the subjective process of verifying someone's identity. In the U.S. context, who has been allowed to move and for what purposes has all been informed by the country's involvement with the development of racial capitalism.

Border Patrol modern communications center during the first 50 years. Modern communications center ca. 1974 (Source: [7]).

SA: One of the most important facets of your work, in my reading of it, is how you connect locations in the Global South (like Vietnam and Mexico) and the populations who reside there with the history you tell of data-backed U.S. imperialism. Can you draw out for us what you find out about borders and surveillance when you think from these sites? What is surprising or new in what you've discovered?

ICL: U.S. empire exists through a range of practices that set out to demarcate its boundaries of belonging—materially and symbolically. By closely following certain artifacts like migrant identification documents, the "electronic fence," and drones, I retrace the networks of imperial formations. This is not an effort to follow the export model of empire—how artifacts produced by empire are shipped to faraway destinations and how they shape those spaces. Instead, what I try to show is how these artifacts and others return to shape empire. So, it is in the demarcation of borders between the foreign and the domestic that we find some of the core processes making and unmaking imperial formations and their subjects. What kinds of exceptions are made in the production of boundaries—who is a citizen/noncitizen, an enemy/ally? Who is included in and who is excluded from these boundaries? How are these boundaries produced? What are the infrastructures of imperial formations and how do they coproduce each other?

Let's take, for example, the development of the electronic fence during the 1970s—something I tackle in an article in American Quarterly [2]—an antecedent to contemporary calls for smart walls. The electronic fence was developed initially to help the U.S. military forces control border-crossing movements in the northern border of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The research and development of this surveillance system relied, in part, on the material infrastructure of U.S. settler colonialism when testing was done at Fort Huachuca, a former late-19th-century outpost in the violent "settlement" of the U.S. southwestern frontier. Known as the McNamara Wall, it was then shipped to South Vietnam, where it was plagued by failures. The technology then returned to the U.S. Southwest when the Border Patrol worked with the Department of Defense to use it for border-enforcement operations and the racialized control of Mexican migration. By following the electronic fence, we slowly begin to see how U.S. imperial formations have sought to police the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion through the management of enemies to control (Native Americans, the Vietcong, Mexicans). This is not to say that the contexts for construing these populations as enemies were the same, but we can see the critical role of defining enmity in the construction of the U.S. nation.

US electronic battlefield diagram from the Vietnam War. Electronic battlefield diagram ca. 1971 (source: [8]).

Borders are always in the process of being made; they are becoming. They are not naturally occurring phenomena but rather porous and contingent constructs. Even when so-called natural boundaries like rivers are designated as (geopolitical) borders, they require such designation as well as a constant and continuous production. Even as the foreign is demarcated, it becomes entangled with the domestic in unexpected ways.

Borders are always in the process of being made; they are becoming.

SA: The title of this forum is After Veillance, a designation that is trying to get at all the ways populations are surveilled, from the visual to the biometric. What does your story about the integration of informatics into the artifacts of border crossing tell us about the multiple kinds of monitoring that take place when borders are crossed, and in being crossed, are made?

ICL: First, that not all bodies are surveilled the same. On this point, my work is in conversation with a vast and growing literature that includes critical work by Cass Adair, Ruha Benjamin, Simone Browne, and Jackie Wang. It is not enough to say that we are all subject to biometric surveillance at international ports of entry. In the words of the Precarity Lab, "We were born under surveillance, but not all of us are equally seen" [3]. Second, that we should think historically by asking how today's conditions of possibility were produced. While informatics might seem like a new domain with unique practices, many of these are irremediably entangled with older processes. Many biometric identification systems in the U.S. today build on past techniques that include documentation, standardization, photography, encryption, and computing. I don't want to suggest that past and present are all the same, or that there aren't any new and unique techniques. But we must beware of buying into discourses of technological promise and of taking as true what they sell. To examine our contemporary moment, we must find a distance from it—not merely over time but estranging ourselves from it. As Giorgio Agamben says, we hold a contemporary relationship with that which we can perceive not only in light but through the shadows it casts.

Diagram of the Border Patrol's intrusion detection system in the 1970s. Diagram of the Border Patrol's intrusion-detection system ca. 1977 (source: [9]).

SA: How do the forms of monitoring border crossers, categorizing them, and making decisions about their veracity through the networked data technologies you document produce a particular idea of human identity? What might be some of the consequences or futures of this notion of a subject, and what kinds of politics might accompany such an idea of identity?

ICL: What you allude to in your question is bound to debates about the development of what Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora call technoliberalism. In their book Surrogate Humanity [4], they argue that technoliberalism is a Western political formation in racial capitalism where humanity is taken as an aspirational figuration actualized through technological transformations. Technoliberalism attempts to obscure "the uneven racial and gendered relations of labor, power, and social relations" in capitalist production. Liberation from the drudgery of so-called modern life is always grounded by the externalization of oppression. Universal liberation—never quite universal but provincial and provincializing—is hemmed to an other.

The U.S. nation is propped up through discourses and infrastructures of enmity. Security in the case of border and immigration enforcement has been associated to parsing between loyal citizens and disloyal noncitizens, identifying documented and undocumented subjects—turning unknown people and their surreptitious behavior into known and scrutable data. The personal histories of migrants and their contexts are dispensed with in favor of an attention to standardized categories, supposedly objective criteria, and perceptible data inputs. The safe and protected, or the liberated subject is produced through the nonviolent and violent exclusion of the other. I'm thinking here also of the fabrication of migrant death on the borderlands, as work by Jason De León [5] and by Miguel Díaz-Barriga and Margaret E. Dorsey [6] shows. Security somewhere is insecurity somewhere else. Who and what stands before the law does so as soon as a limit is demarcated and its excess is expulsed. This is the "humanity" that U.S. border and immigration enforcement technologies seek to produce.

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2. Chaar-López, I. Sensing intruders: Race and the automation of border control. American Quarterly 71, 2 (2019), 495–518;

3. Precarity Lab. Digital precarity manifesto. Social Text 37, 4 (141) (Dec. 2019), 77–93;

4. Atanasoski, N. and Vora, K. Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures. Duke Univ. Press, 2019;

5. De Leon, J. and Well, M. The Land of Open Graves Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Univ. of California Press, 2015;

6. Díaz-Barriga, M. and Dorsey, M.E. Fencing in Democracy: Border Walls, Necrocitizenship, and the Security State. Duke Univ. Press, 2020;

7. The first fifty years. I and N Reporter 23, 1 (Summer 1974), 1–20.

8. Investigation into Electronic Battlefield Program: Hearings Before the Electronic Battlefield Subcomm. of the Comm. on Armed Services, 91st Cong. 1971, 12.

9. Frankel, H.D. INS research and development programs. INS Reporter 26, 3 (Winter 1977-1978), 35.

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Sareeta Amrute is an anthropologist who studies the relationship between race, work, and data. She is the author of Encoding Race Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin.

Iván Chaar López is assistant professor of digital studies in the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His book in progress investigates the intersecting histories of electronic technology, unmanned aerial systems, and boundary making along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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