How High Must Operation Gatekeeper’s Death Count Go?

Joseph Nevins is a Rockefeller Foundation postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley and the author of "Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the 'Illegal Alien' and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary."

On Oct. 1, 1994, the Clinton administration launched “Operation Gatekeeper,” the enhanced border enforcement strategy of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Southern California. Six years later, it is clear that the expensive operation has accomplished little other than to create an image of boundary control and to cause large numbers of migrant deaths. Such reasons alone should lead us to put an end to the fatally flawed strategy. More important, however, the failure of Gatekeeper should force us to question our whole approach to unauthorized immigration and national boundaries in a world where social relations increasingly transcend such boundaries.

The administration began Gatekeeper with much fanfare. It was a time of persistent economic downturn and a historically unprecedented level of public and political activism in favor of cracking down on illegal immigration. In some ways, it was the administration’s response to the pressure from increasingly restrictionist Republicans in Congress, but especially that of then-California Gov. Pete Wilson and the feared passage of Proposition 187.

In other ways, it was the administration’s answer to the massive disruption in Mexico’s rural and small business sectors brought about by growing economic liberalization, a process greatly intensified by the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was for this reason that INS Commissioner Doris Meissner argued to Congress in November 1993 that responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA “will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border, both at and between ports of entry.”


As the centerpiece of the Clinton administration’s Southwest border enforcement strategy, Gatekeeper provided the INS in Southern California with unprecedented levels of personnel, technology and infrastructure. The number of agents in the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, for example, has grown from 980 in 1994 to more than 2,200. As a result of such changes, it is undoubtedly more difficult to cross the border now. Gatekeeper has pushed migrants from urban areas into more unforgiving and risky terrain and forced them to rely on high-priced smugglers. Indeed, the ultimate goal of the new enforcement strategy is to make it so difficult and costly to enter the United States extralegally that fewer people try to do so.

But research at UC San Diego indicates that, overall, Gatekeeper is having little effect in stemming unsanctioned immigration to California. Migrants have learned to adapt and are utilizing increasingly sophisticated and expensive smugglers to evade the Border Patrol. In this regard, Gatekeeper has had an unintended consequence: Once in, the immigrants are now less likely to migrate back to Mexico in the off-season and are staying in California for longer periods of time.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Gatekeeper has been to make undocumented immigrants less visible and thus give the appearance of a border under control. Meanwhile, growing numbers of migrants perish beyond the media spotlight in the mountains and deserts of California’s border region.

By the Border Patrol’s own criteria, such an outcome suggests that Gatekeeper is somewhat failing. The Border Patrol and INS officials expected that Gatekeeper would discourage a significant number of migrants from crossing by pushing them out into mountain and desert areas where, after making a cost-benefit analysis, they would rationally decide to forgo the risks and return to Mexico. Given that this is not happening, the INS is arguably partially responsible for the deaths. By knowingly “forcing” people to cross such terrain, the INS has contributed to the resulting deaths.

But the INS refuses to acknowledge any responsibility, instead blaming smugglers for leading people into high-risk areas and positioning itself as the defender of the migrants. In June 1998, for example, the INS launched “Operation Lifesaver,” involving civil patrol flights to spot migrants in distress and increased search and rescue missions in hazardous areas. As Claudia Smith of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation contends: “As long as the strategy is to maximize the dangers by moving the migrant foot traffic out of the urban areas and into the mountains and deserts east of San Diego, the deaths will keep multiplying.”

One such death was that of 20-year-old Jose Luis Uriostegua. Border Patrol agents discovered his frigid body on Mount Laguna in eastern San Diego County, about 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, this past March 22. He has been designated No. 500--the 500th person to perish while trying to evade the U.S. Border Patrol in Southern California since Gatekeeper began. The count is now up to 603.


Fleeing from Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states where human rights abuses are rife, Uriostegua was struggling for a better life for himself and his family. Rather than seeing the world as divided, he saw it as whole. In this respect, the young man recognized what many of our political imaginations do not allow us to see: The U.S.-Mexico boundary, as a line of control and division, is an illusion. Mexico and California are increasingly one.

On a more practical level, moreover, a law enforcement approach to immigration is destined to fail. The ties between the United States and Mexico are too strong, migrants are too resourceful and Americans are too resistant to the police-state measures that would prove necessary to significantly reduce unauthorized immigration.

Rather than try to create new and improved methods to repel those who cross our borders--but whose hard work we welcome--we should embrace them. At the same time, we need to appreciate that immigration is often the result of the breakdown of political, economic and social systems and work with various sectors of Mexican society to redress such phenomena. This would prove to be a far more humane and effective method for addressing the myriad factors that lead people to migrate than continuing what sociologist Timothy Dunn appropriately describes as the “militarization” of the border.

Had Uriostegua made it to Los Angeles, he might be mowing your lawn, busing your table or picking your tomatoes. He would be one of the hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants who form the backbone of California’s booming economy. As Los Angeles’ striking janitors reminded us last spring, immigrants are human beings who, regardless of their legal status, deserve our respect and solidarity, not poverty wages or a potential death sentence.

Mexico’s president-elect, Vicente Fox, already has shown himself to be open to rethinking the nature of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. This provides people on both sides of the international divide with an opportunity to move beyond immoral, ineffective and ultimately counterproductive approaches to the complexities of immigration that inextricably bind our two countries. *