Automated Border Control: Criminalizing the “Hidden Intent” of Migrant Embodiment


  • Felicity Amaya Schaeffer



I argue that we are entering an automated era of border control that I label a border-biosecurity industrial complex. Funded in great part by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), scientific research and automated surveillance technologies promise the state innovative and supposedly unbiased solutions to the challenge of border control and security. This article spotlights a border surveillance technology called AVATAR (Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessment in Real-Time).

Analyzing this technology, which was funded by the DHS and developed by faculty at the University of Arizona’s National Center for Border Security and Immigration (BORDERS), allows me to assess how the emphasis on novel technologies to detect terrorists unleashes the search for ubiquitous surveillance devices programmed to detect deviant behavioral and physiological movements. I offer a wider view of this technology-in-the-making by analyzing how university research in aerial defense, the psychology of deception, the life sciences, and computer engineering influences the development of surveillance devices and techniques.

I explore how, during a posthuman era, automated technologies detect and racialize “suspect life” under the guise of scientific neutrality and supposedly free from human interference. Suspect life refers to the racial bias preprogrammed into algorithms that compute danger or risk into certain human movements and regions such as border zones. As these technologies turn the body into matter, they present biological life as a more scientifically verifiable truth than human verbal testimony, moving border control from the adjudication of law through the subjective interview to the automated body that speaks a truth more powerful than a complex story can tell.