Now, the Trump administration and Congress want to pour even more funds into fortifying the border, even though border militarization disrupts communities, damages sensitive habitats and creates a dangerous situation for migrants. We need to learn from the failures of Operation Gatekeeper and its deadly legacy and reject further funding of these destructive policies.
The border has not always been militarized. Even before the United States and Mexico made any claim to the land, indigenous peoples like the Kumeyaay in California, the Tohono O’odham in Arizona and the Lipan Apache of New Mexico and Texas inhabited the Southwest for generations. Their descendants now must contend with physical structures that partition the lands their ancestors traversed without any barriers.
The location of the border itself changed considerably during the 19th century, with the United States occupying increasingly larger parts of northern Mexico. The Border Patrol was not created until 1924 to enforce immigration restrictions, initially without a clear mandate from Congress. Nonetheless for decades afterward, there remained few physical barriers between the United States and Mexico.
That began to change in the late 1960s, when the Nixon administration began fighting its “war on drugs” at the border through “Operation Intercept,” which was run by future anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio. The piecemeal enforcement of those years became more formalized under Ronald Reagan. In 1986, Congress reformed immigration laws to allow people in the United States to adjust their legal status. The trade-off was increased immigration enforcement and employer sanctions that led to worksite raids and migrant detention.
The George H.W. Bush administration introduced a more punitive approach to immigration. Bush’s attorney general, William P. Barr — who now serves as attorney general under President Trump — oversaw the expansion of immigrant detention and a push for eliminating due process rights for immigrants with criminal convictions. And in 1989, the administration launched Joint Task Force Six to coordinate military support to jurisdictions in key border states involved in drug interdiction efforts. Foreshadowing the tragedies that would accompany further border militarization, the creation of Joint Task Force Six led to an incident in 1997 in which a platoon of Marines killed 18-year-old U.S. citizen Esequiel Hernández in Redford, Tex., raising questions about the role of the military at the border.
It was in this environment, against the backdrop of rising nativist sentiment, that the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper on Oct. 1, 1994. The operation promised “prevention through deterrence.” It beefed up enforcement in urban areas around San Diego and pushed migration to rural, less visible areas. Operation Gatekeeper also disrupted border communities by instituting checkpoints, boots on the ground, technology and border wall infrastructure.
The Border Patrol’s public rationale was that making it harder to cross the border would mean fewer people would try to come to the United States. Policymakers theorized that people might not cross the border at all if it meant making a risky, potentially deadly journey.
That did not happen, because this approach ignored both the reasons people migrate and the enduring ties between communities on both sides of the border.
Operation Gatekeeper began less than a year after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which destabilized the agricultural economy in Mexico and drove hundreds of thousands to leave the country in search of work elsewhere. Migrants have a long history of doing agricultural work in the United States, which the U.S. economy depends on.
But poor conditions exacerbated by NAFTA caused the number of migrants to increase, and the increased border militarization stemming from Operation Gatekeeper pushed migrants to take more dangerous and treacherous routes through the deserts and mountains. Conservative estimates are that more than 8,300 people have died trying to cross the border since Operation Gatekeeper began — a rate of nearly one each day for the past 25 years.
It is likely that the administration suspected migrants would die in the desert but thought this would serve as a deterrent to future migrations. As former commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Doris Meissner said in 2000, “We did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”
At the same time, the ramping up of personnel on the southern border also led to more border deaths. In the past decade alone, at least 90 people have died after an encounter with border agents. These agents are hardly ever held accountable for their actions, and there is little to no transparency in the investigations.
Operation Gatekeeper and the policies that followed it have also created a permanent community of longtime residents without status, trapping people in the United States who might want to go back temporarily, while denying any meaningful access to permanent status. This has trapped families on opposite sides of both a literal and metaphorical wall. In San Diego, families meet at Friendship Park, located on both sides of the border, where loved ones can communicate across the massive steel wall that stands between them.
Friendship Park was actually inaugurated in 1971, by then-first lady Pat Nixon, whose husband accelerated border militarization through Operation Intercept just a few years before. In the spirit of friendship between the United States and Mexico, she said, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too long.” Nearly 50 years later, it has only expanded.
Despite the violence and expansion of border militarization, the border region has always been a place of cultural exchange, one that reflects a dynamic social and economic relationship between neighboring communities. That is why San Ysidro, the border neighborhood in San Diego, has the world’s busiest land port. Its growth is directly related to a spirit of mutual development.
All of this has been threatened by a flawed approach to the border. After 25 years, it is abundantly clear that Operation Gatekeeper and the enforcement strategies surrounding it are a failure. It has cost thousands of people their lives, led to massive human rights violations and harmed border communities and the environment.
It is past time for a new direction.
The good news is many in border communities are already modeling what just and humane policies could look like. I work with hundreds of people every year to monitor human rights abuses and aid those who have made the difficult journey to the United States. I see migrant communities and allies in San Diego and across the border region mobilizing to demand meaningful change.
It is time for Congress to join these efforts. Instead of continuing to spend billions to expand failed policies, Congress must cut funding for Customs and Border Protection and invest in revitalized border communities.