Kyle Longley, Special Contributor
Published: 6:28 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012

What has created the gridlock over immigration and massive expansion of spending on the U.S. border? Some correctly underscore polarized racial politics. However, few rarely discuss a border security industrial complex and its role.

During the past 40 years, a multibillion-dollar border industrial complex has sprouted, bearing a striking resemblance to the military industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in 1960. These large institutions have a vested interest in short circuiting immigration reform and absorbing huge quantities of national security funds.

What are the foundations of the complex? An obvious one is the private sector. Many businesses long dependent on military spending have expanded into border security. The efforts of Boeing to build a high-tech fence along the border provide one example. It spent $1 billion of a proposed $8 billion budget before Homeland Security pulled the contract after Boeing produced only 53 miles of a flawed virtual fence.

Not all businesses have defense industry ties. In fact, one of the biggest beneficiaries remains the private prison system. Huge companies, including Corrections Corporation and GEO Group, Homeland Security incarcerate large numbers of illegal immigrants for the government. Understanding the potential, the company's lobbyists have backed hardline security-first leaders, such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who championed the Senate Bill 1070 immigration law.

Many others in the private sector benefit, from airlines that rent planes to ICE to deport immigrants, to the local business people who provide food and gas to Border Patrol agents. It is a lucrative industry that ensures private businesses employ armies of lobbyists to push their agendas.

The border security industrial complex has strong political boosters, particularly members of Congress from the Southwest. With poverty high in many areas, groups such as the Border Patrol provide employment and pump in billions of dollars. Drive through Ajo, Ariz., where copper mining dried up in the 1980s, and you find a town that relies heavily on an extremely visible presence of the Border Patrol. The scene is replicated from San Diego to Brownsville.

Local officials (mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs) have proved to be stalwart supporters of the complex. The federal government pours billions of dollars into border security, and these officials compete for the monies to supplement their law enforcement budgets. Municipalities throughout the Southwest have become dependent on the federal money to survive during hard economic times.

In addition, large, complex federal agencies, including the FBI, DEA and ICE, focus on border security. A bureaucratic inertia frames their viability within the border lens. They fight hard, especially in these difficult budget times, to highlight their border missions. They lobby for federal spending for the border, often diverting funds from many other important national defense projects.

Private corporations and government officials have relied on the media to promote their agenda. National figures, such as Lou Dobbs and Jack Cafferty, have stoked the anti-immigrant fervor and raised their ratings. Others have joined in, including National Geographic's "Border Wars." Its website has a simulation, "You are a Border Agent," that allows a player to man a border station or fly in a Blackhawk helicopter in search of illegal immigrants.

Regional media outlets also learned quickly the value of beating the anti-immigrant drum. For example, the ABC affiliate in Phoenix developed a series that routinely used catchwords like invasions, battles and war, even as statistics showed a decline in border violence. In turn, the media benefited from increased viewership, especially after the polarization created by SB 1070.

Immigration reform would work against the economic interests of this large network. What would unfold tomorrow if Congress granted amnesty to the more than 10 million illegal immigrants?

What would happen to all those jail cells, plans for fences and border patrol agents?

Right now, too many Americans rely on the border industrial complex, creating a powerful force that undermines comprehensive immigration reform.

One wonders about the diversion of funds from other national security issues. What is more likely, a dirty bomb arriving aboard a ship in New York harbor or a human carrying one across the Sonoran desert? The border security industrial complex siphons valuable resources from the greater threats posted by terrorists and rogue nations. As Congress reduces military budgets, hard choices are being made. Which is more important, body armor for troops or National Guard toops patrolling the desert? Right now, representatives of the border industrial complex agenda present significant obstacles to making better choices.

Serious discussions of priorities must happen before the beast continues to devour our limited national security resources and stymie immigration reform. Recognizing the problem is a good place to start.

Longley, the author of four books, is a history professor at Arizona State University.

Longley: Industry of border security creates extra layer of regional problems