Putting People in Harm’s Way

Wayne A. Cornelius is the research director of UCSD's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies. Claudia E. Smith is the director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation's border project

Operation Gatekeeper, the Border Patrol’s program to reduce illegal crossings along a 66-mile stretch of the border from the Pacific Ocean to Imperial County, has forced a much higher proportion of would-be illegal migrants to seek entry into the United States under life-threatening conditions. The result is a shocking death toll: Since Gatekeeper was launched on Oct. 1, 1994, 313 migrants have died from extreme temperatures in the mountains and desert and from drowning in the canals and rivers between Tijuana-San Diego and Mexicali-Calexico.

According to official Mexican government figures, 118 migrants have died so far this year attempting to cross the California-Mexico border compared to 89 deaths in all of 1997. August was the deadliest month, with 34 dead. These statistics don’t include migrants who died on the Mexican side of the border or victims on both sides whose corpses remain undiscovered.

The basic concept of California’s Gatekeeper program and similar concentrated border enforcement operations implemented by the Border Patrol since 1993 in Texas and Arizona is to create an obstacle course of welded-steel fences, high-intensity lighting, infrared night detection scopes and thousands of new Border Patrol agents along the main corridors of illegal entry. The aim is to push illegal migrants into remote areas where the topography and climate are so hazardous and access to highways so difficult that they will be deterred from attempting entry.

But each day, thousands of migrants risk their lives trekking for days through 6,000-foot mountain passes, enduring the 120-degree heat of the Imperial Valley and the Arizona-Sonora desert, swimming in darkness across the swiftly flowing, 120-foot-wide All-American Irrigation Canal near Calexico and crawling across the Chocolate Mountain military bombing range near Yuma. The migrants are well aware of the hazards, which have been highly publicized by the Mexican media and are graphically displayed on warning signs erected by the U.S. Border Patrol. Economic desperation and the desire to join family members already living in the U.S. drive them to try their luck.


The architects of Gatekeeper and other such operations also assumed that, by sharply raising the probability of being apprehended, prospective illegal migrants would become discouraged after repeated failures to gain entry. There is anecdotal evidence indicating that the number of entry attempts per migrant has risen. This summer, we interviewed recently arrived migrants in San Diego County who had made from six to 13 entry attempts before eluding the Border Patrol. But there is no evidence that large numbers of frustrated illegal migrants are giving up and going home.

INS planners anticipated that stepped-up border enforcement would deter some would-be illegals by raising the fees charged by coyotes or polleros--professional people-smugglers--for assistance in crossing the border and transportation to points north. The coyotes have, indeed, raised their prices; a pre-Gatekeeper fee of $300-$400 to get to L.A. or San Diego is now $900-$1,500. But the proportion of migrants using the smugglers’ services has also increased. By making coyotes indispensable, concentrated border enforcement has made the smuggling business much more lucrative while encouraging the growth of larger, more sophisticated coyote operations.

The main response of both the U.S. and Mexican governments to the rising body count has been to shift blame to the coyotes for misleading their clients about the hazards of crossing and for abandoning those who fall behind. Clearly, there are many unscrupulous and irresponsible smugglers. But the new U.S. border enforcement strategy is driving more clients into their hands.

There is also growing evidence that tougher border controls are inducing illegal migrants to stay longer in the U.S. and, because of that, their likelihood of settling permanently in this country is increasing. The higher cost and risks of clandestine border crossings are also discouraging short-term shuttle migration, as practiced by several generations of Mexican workers.


Concentrated border enforcement operations are rechanneling the flow of illegal migrants but not reducing it appreciably on a border-wide basis. While apprehensions in the heavily fortified San Diego sector have fallen from 2,000 to 3,000 per day to 600 to 700 per day, they have risen by more than 200% this fiscal year in the adjacent El Centro sector, which includes the Imperial Valley. The same pattern has emerged in Texas, where Operation Hold-the-Line has “secured” the El Paso area while causing apprehensions to skyrocket to the east and west.

Against this background, the mounting toll of enforcement operations in human lives raises serious questions that deserve better answers than immigration officials and their congressional supporters have provided. Where is the evidence that this strategy can significantly deter illegal immigration? Are the benefits of the strategy offset by unintended consequences like increased permanent settlement of illegals in the U.S. and a booming people-smuggling industry? Can concentrated border enforcement ever succeed absent the political will in Congress to strengthen enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace?

If the answers are “no” or, at best, “perhaps, eventually,” not just the efficacy but the morality of a strategy of immigration control that deliberately places people in harm’s way must be reexamined.