Death in the desert

Operation Gatekeeper started in October 1994, focusing federal border security efforts on the five-mile stretch from the Pacific Ocean to San Ysidro. Within three years, the budget of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service -- since split into two agencies -- doubled to $800 million. The number of Border Patrol agents also doubled, along with the miles of fencing. Underground sensors nearly tripled.

In the 15 years since its inception, Gatekeeper, now shorthand for all federal enforcement efforts at the Mexican border, has had a range of consequences, some expected and others grimly surprising. For example, attempted crossings and apprehensions where enforcement is heaviest plummeted, just as officials had hoped. But migrants didn’t stay home. Instead, thousands attempted to cross in the dangerous desert lands to the east, in Arizona and Texas -- and as many as 5,600 have died, according to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights. Illegal immigrants are now 17 times more likely to die while crossing the border than they were in 1998, according to the report.

Anti-illegal-immigrant groups seem unimpressed by these figures. No country can survive, they argue, if it can’t control its own borders. The migrants are breaking the law, they say, and those who foolishly risk their lives are to blame for their own actions. But although it’s true that personal responsibility plays a role, the fact remains that this is a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, and it requires immediate action. The report acknowledges that Mexico has failed to adequately discourage migration through the desert, but it lays most of the responsibility on U.S. policies and calls for a redirection of resources from enforcement to rescue.

That’s not likely to happen -- particularly not in the post-9/11 environment. Still, there are steps that can be taken. Borstar, the Border Patrol’s excellent search-and-rescue program, should get more resources. Both governments, but particularly Mexico’s, must do better at educating would-be migrants about the dangers facing them in the desert, where temperatures can reach 115 degrees and dehydration is almost inevitable. Smuggling too is a binational issue, especially in light of the growing cooperation between drug and human smugglers.


The broader changes that need to take place will only happen with time. Mexico must create the economic conditions for prosperity at home so that its citizens will stop risking their lives to leave. In the meantime, the United States must enact reforms that remove death in the desert from the migration equation.