March 5, 2024

For those in the dry Arizona heat of the small border town of Sierra Vista between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, a white observation balloon gives us no respite from the sun. Instead, it serves as a constant reminder: You are being watched.

The airship rises into the sky before the inhabitants wake up, and usually descends back to the asphalt before sunset, led by a crew of people all over the ground. It floats about 25,000 feet in the air – as long as 700 school buses or about 69 football fields – and is used primarily for detecting low-altitude aircraft. The only time it’s not in heaven is when it’s Too windy for the rope to hold the balloon. When I asked one of my brothers to describe what it looked like, he described it as “a white cross about 200 feet long between a spear and a Vienna sausage” or a “little squeak of heaven”.

The Linked Radar System (TARS) flies over the Fort Huachuca Military Base in Sierra Vista, which specializes in unmanned aircraft systems, military intelligence and cybersecurity. TARS provides low-level radar surveillance to North American Air Defense Command and US Customs and Border Protection along the US-Mexico border. there Other military bases near the border Which does not contain TARS, but there be US TARS systems floating over the Straits of Florida and the Caribbean. While the data is shared with several agencies, the US Department of Defense is responsible for the Night Cry. According to US Customs and Border Protection’s air and sea operations, there are eight TARS sites, which “represent less than 2 percent of the total integrated radars in the Air and Naval Operations Control System,” but account for about half of “all suspicious targets detected by radar each year.” The goal – border control – has not been hidden from the residents of Sierra Vista or cloaked in secrecy, but is, instead, covered in a thin veil of classic American propaganda.

Here TARS sits, ready to rest all night
Credit: Getty Images

“This blimp keeps you safe,” US agents told nursery school children on school field trips to the Watch Machine. I went on that tour in 2001, and caught my eye with curiosity about what we often call the “white goldfish”. Some of the older kids called it a “spy balloon” or an “anti-drug balloon,” so we always knew he was there to watch. She’s been a recurring character in our fantasy games – if you’re in hiding, you’ll also have to hide from the airship because he might find you too. If it’s in the sky at night – which is a rarity – you can spot it by the three red blinking lights, but instead of thinking those lights are pointing at the blimp itself, we’ll discuss what kind of UFO It was camouflaged.

The Eyes of the Perpetual Border Patrol is a staple of life in a frontier town, in myriad ways that go beyond just a blimp. The majority of my hometown It is white (about half) and Hispanic (about a quarter), while Sierra Vista’s Asian and black population is 4.46 percent and 6.91 percent, respectively. You know you are being watched or remain safe, depending on which way your immigration status or skin color allows you to view it.

You can tell that the White Goldfish was built in 1986. It looks like some form of retro watch. You see it right above your head almost every day of the year, which is in stark contrast to other tools used to monitor border towns today. face recognition technologyAnd the Underground hidden sensorsAnd the License plate readers It blends in with the surrounding environment and doesn’t seem particularly threatening, even when it makes invasive and frightening moves using our data and example. Like 160 feet tall Self-watching towers It was built in 2018 that pierces the sky every 48 feet along the border, and US Border Patrol Immigration Checkpoint We had to drive to get from Sierra Vista to Tucson, go back to school to shop, see medical professionals, or buy snacks at Trader Joe’s, and TARS made no attempt to hide its spying efforts. Perhaps it was on purpose. Maybe the government wants us to know that they’re watching.

I don’t remember everything they told us on the field trip to the airship, for which the TARS was lowered to an asphalt landing so the preschool kids could roam in it and the control systems around it. I remember my mom being an escort and giving me and my best friend chewing gum on the bus, even though our teacher said we couldn’t get gum on the bus. That was very exciting. I remember that the airship was dark on the inside, which makes sense because there’s no one on board when it’s in the sky. It had wires, buttons, and mechanical actions all around, like I would imagine a spaceship’s control room. I remember the guy we saw around was tall and skinny and was wearing a button-up shirt. He was white and more like a flight attendant than an immigration officer, which made sense to me because, to a kid, the blimp looked more like an airplane than a piece of surveillance technology. And I remember how bright it was outside when we left the balloon. The light was hurting my eyes – I felt sore and tender, like coming out of a movie theater from 11am.

My class wasn’t the first group of five-year-olds to walk through the airship, and we weren’t the last. When I spoke to an actress from my school district regarding this story, she said she didn’t know how many classes went on the trip, but she knew it was more than just exclusive. There have been no class flights during COVID, of course, so there hasn’t been a balloon visit since at least before 2020. And despite the airship’s intent to keep a close eye on us, no one keeps track of who visits it. The Sierra Vista Observation Balloon isn’t a fancy display of technology, but it’s a deliberately intertwined image with the fabric of frontier city life.

When I asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection why they were taking children who live in a border town, many of them black, some undocumented, and nearly all of whom they knew someone who was, on a tour of a built balloon. To watch them, I learned that when I was 5 years old, the Department of Defense was in charge of the program. But he added something along the lines of: “Hey, it’s an airship. This is interesting! The kids want to know that!”

And I must give it to him, that’s right. I she did I want to know what it was for, and I don’t remember if the officers told us they were keeping an eye on the city – it was like telling us they were catching bad guys. Which makes the kids feel good, until they realize that the “bad guys” they supposedly need protection are often those kids’ own family members, or even themselves.

Balloon Surveillance (TARS) as seen from my parents' backyard

Photo of the blimp on June 30, 2020 my mom sent me and I carefully edited it (the blimp is inside the big red circle)
credit: Tori Silva

While brown and unregistered preschoolers may not realize that blimps are a tool for surveillance, as they get older and learn the details of how TARS works, it becomes a “visual reminder that they are being watched because the government does not trust people who look like them and that there is criminality attached to them”. Nadine Nakamuraa professor at the California College of Professional Psychology, told me.

“Whether or not children and their families are documented, US citizens or not, they will be questioned because of their appearance. Moreover, discriminatory environments have negative mental health effects,” she said.

a 2008 study from the National Library of Medicine showed that perceived discrimination has been associated with hypertension, breast cancer, obesity, hypertension, and substance abuse. And the Researchers at the University of California found That when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly, or poorly, “it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to an increased risk of stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression.”

Arizona already has laws that actively advocate for racial profiling, such as SB 1070, which “requires police officers in Arizona to request papers proving citizenship or immigration status from people they stop, based on some unspecified ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they are in the state improperly. legal,” According to the ACLU. Racism is a prevalent function in the West. she has In the shape of Arizona In the place a state acquired statehood through the colonization of Mexico and led to the rise of “The patriarch of xenophobiaLike Joe Arpaio. A blimp hovering in the sky is more than an airship; it’s a reminder of the consequences of your skin color in a frontier town.

“As a consequence is the assimilation of those messages, [for people] Nakamura said that they begin to believe that they do not belong. “This could mean trying to establish belonging, which could also lead to distancing from their communities, and trying to assimilate.”

It can add to the fear experienced by young children who are not already registered. The psychological distress of immigrant children is nearly double that of their parents from the first generation of immigrants, According to one 2020 study. And immigrant families, even documented, are experiencing “resonant levels of fear and uncertainty,” According to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The balloon serves as a “visual reminder that their family members are not safe. Fear of forced separation contributes to psychological stress, including depression and anxiety,” Nakamura said.

Looking at recent events, such as expanding monitoring technology system on the borderAnd the Supreme Court ruling Dobbs v. Jackson who dropped Roe v. Wadeand the way Cities have become watch postsFor some societies, we seem to be taking more moves to abandon the facade of covert surveillance and return to a more overt, retro-balloon approach to espionage. Mass surveillance affects all of us, but deceptive tools tend to be used in societies that don’t really struggle with race, ethnicity and immigration status, such as Called Hannah Empel and Aletta Sprague of the Open Technology Institute. The most aggressive and straightforward tools – stop and dancethe unquestioned search, the immigration checkpoints miles from the border, the watch balloon – often forced into the lives of those least likely to be intercepted, According to the Georgetown Law School Center on Privacy and Technology, which hosted the 2017 event, The Color of Watch: Government Surveillance of American Immigrantsturns out that Not everyone is viewed equally.

When I look back on that field trip, I remember learning to sneak around the teacher’s rules and rule for having chewing gum on the bus. I knew I loved having a day off at school. I learned that the Arizona heat is a simple truth of desert life. I also learned that my watchers—by airship and immigration checkpoints—were as inevitable as the monsoons that filled the skies of southern Arizona with thick, dark clouds and poured water on our parched land every summer. The rains brought with them the scent of creosote, a shrub that filled the air with the scent of musk and dirt from the coating on its leaves. But the airship did not bring with it any positive senses – only the inescapable knowledge that we are not safe.

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