San Diego Have you ever seen the men standing outside Home Depot looking for work? The Spanish-speaking men in baseball hats who are brave enough, or desperate enough, to get into any car that pulls up? Men who are willing to do whatever work they are asked to do for a low rate? Men about whom people brag how little they paid them for so much work? My husband says whenever he sees an able-bodied man sitting by the side of the road with a sign asking for a handout, he compares that person with the men outside Home Depot. How can we not admire men who trekked through freezing mountains or crossed a desert to find a job in the day sun that pays low wages but just enough to be able to buy money orders to send home? The labor of undocumented workers is a structural part of our economy and a part of the low price tag we pay for many items. And that's why immigrant deaths as a result of Operation Gatekeeper are so hard to look at.
Operation Gatekeeper, the border-enforcement strategy implemented in 1994, is a failure. Here's what we taxpayers have paid for: double the number of border agents since 1994, a large number of portable and stationary stadium-type lights; extensive fencing, new road construction, motion detectors, infrared night scopes, and a computerized system called IDENT to help the Border Patrol identify repeat offenders. Yet even more people are crossing the border -- only in different places or by different means. The failure of this strategy has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people in the last six years. This strategy has increased the numbers of smugglers and their links to crime. Because it is too dangerous and too costly to return home, immigrants are obliged to stay on this side of the border; Gatekeeper has created a permanent buildup of immigrants on the United States side of the border.
Since the inception of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 at least 600 people have died trying to cross the border between San Diego, California, and Yuma, Arizona. The death toll for 2000 is 140. Most of the dead are young men in their 20s. According to Claudia Smith, a lawyer for the California Rural Legal Aid Foundation, and the Border Project director, the victims of Gatekeeper range from one year to 70 years of age; 50 victims are women. About these tragic victims Smith said, "Recently we had a Mass for the dead. While they were saying Mass I went back and read every name. I felt destroyed. I long to say the work I've done, the work of this organization, has resulted in one less death. I've been in this for 30 years; I know you can't become paralyzed. Our work is all incremental. I would like to believe that the deaths become a trampoline, a catalyst for people; something has got to give. But some fights are worth fighting, even to lose; it's an obligation to the dead."
Smith claims that Operation Gatekeeper is a plan to channel immigrant traffic eastward, pushing the foot traffic out of sight, but was never intended to stop the flow of immigrants. In a November Union-Tribune article about a binational team of border agents who were training to rescue immigrants crossing the border, Gustavo de la Viña, chief of the Border Patrol, said, "Protecting our borders includes the obligation to protect lives." Claudia Smith's response is, "You put people's lives in mortal peril, and then you want credit for rescuing them?"
Smith started monitoring Operation Gatekeeper in October of 1994. "I realized that INS commissioner Meissner hadn't conceived a whole strategy for trying to stop migrant foot traffic. There were so many apprehensions that I knew they didn't have the logistics in place for safe and decent transport or detention." Smith, who was born and raised in Guatemala and educated in the U.S., is fluent in Spanish and English. She began standing on the Mexican side of the border at the deportation gate interviewing the deported immigrants. She went to immigrant shelters in Tijuana to establish how deportees had been treated by the Border Patrol. "I spoke with people who had been detained, entire families, who had gone 24 hours without food or had been kept in rooms without beds or bathroom facilities for over 24 hours. Many people had bruises from what they call lamparasos or the big flashlights the Border Patrol agents carry." Their eyes were bulging, Smith said, from being "tonked" on the head by these flashlights. ("Tonking" is a term coined by Border Patrol agents based on the sound flashlights make when they make contact with the head.)
"I used the Freedom of Information Act [in 1994] to find out if the Border Patrol had established any standards for detention. I found that there weren't any." The following year, Smith began negotiating with the western regional director to establish standards. "There are now established standards," she said, "but it's hit and miss whether they are followed or not."
I asked Smith to give me an example of established standards not being followed; she told me about the great water battle. "The battle lasted for three months, and we had to go all the way to Washington about it. It began in Mexicali at the deportation gate on the fourth of July 1997. Everybody kept asking me for water; all the deportees were so thirsty. I found out that the Border Patrol carried no water in their vehicles -- which is crazy when the strategy of Operation Gatekeeper is to push people into the desert. We were finally able to get some action on this when I got the Latino organizations to threaten to boycott a human-rights meeting that Alan Bersin -- who was at that time the "border czar" -- was going to attend. Finally, we get this agreement: they will have water at every point. So I go back, about a year and a half ago, and I find out, yes, they have water, but not in all the vehicles. The Border Patrol told me, 'Well, we have the water in the vans, we have the water in the buses, but we don't have water in the sport utility vehicles.' They said they didn't have the room to carry a five-gallon container of water in the sport utility vehicles that first encounter the immigrants. That's the critical point. Somebody enduring heat stress can become very serious very quickly.
"At one point, concerning the overcrowding of vehicles, I counted 119 people getting off a bus that has a capacity for 66. At another time we had to point out how many people had facial injuries, and the Border Patrol would respond, 'Well, they were running and they fell on their faces.' We asked, why are there no scratches? The best answer I got was from the Mexican consulate. They said, 'Everybody knows the rules. If you don't run, you don't get hit.' Well, the job of the migrant is to run, and the job of the border patrolman is to use only the reasonable force required to detain him. But you don't see as many people bloodied as you used to. The forms of abuse are -- people get kicked a lot, slammed against Border Patrol vehicles -- injuries that are much harder to relate to abuse."
Smith continues, "One of the issues we have to confront is that 40 percent of the Border Patrol is now Latino. Now, we could talk about the political theories of Franz Fanon and the identification of the oppressed with the oppressor and all that, but we have to face the fact that many of the complaints are about the Latino officers. I've never been able to figure out if the Latino officers actually are more abusive, or if it's just that the immigrants' expectations are so much higher for them, and then there is such a letdown.
"The real problem is simply dehumanization. There are a significant number of very abusive agents, and the bigger problem is that this conduct is tolerated. An example: the raft incident in El Centro last year. There was a Border Patrol agent who decided he was going to go shoot himself a raft -- the little rafts that the migrants use to cross the All American Canal. In the waterways in Imperial Valley, there have been about 175 drownings. Anyway, this Border Patrol agent told other agents what he was going to do. He actually shot the raft; it overturned, and one person has never been accounted for. None of the agents he told reported him or tried to stop him in any way." She concludes, "I want to make it clear, though, that I am not painting all agents with the same brush. I would not even hazard a guess as to percentages of abusive agents."
The Border Patrol, Smith said, is the biggest police force in the country, and yet it's the only police force that doesn't do any psychological testing of applicants. "Now, [testing] is no panacea," she says, "yet obviously it could help sort out some of the problem people. I mean, they shoot people. I'm not talking about whether some of the incidents are justified or not; I'm talking about the tremendous power they have." Smith says she is more concerned about testing than shooting; agents work in remote areas where their actions are not visible. They deal with a group of people who are least likely to complain. That said, the shooting still remains. "They use hollow-point bullets, which cause lots of damage; even the Army isn't allowed to use hollow-point bullets."
Smith addressed a December 8, 2000, letter to U.S. Border Patrol deputy chief Michael Nicely. She wrote to protest a shooting involving hollow-point bullets. "They have a metal jacket open at both ends, so they flatten on contact with living tissue and produce great internal damage. They are used for big-game hunting because of their great stopping power." The letter relates to an incident in which the victim of hollow-point bullets was allegedly throwing rocks at a Border Patrol agent. "Ramiro Ramírez (probably an alias) was shot in the stomach and left leg on August 22, 2000, near Goat Canyon. The shot to the abdomen caused such serious damage that he remained in the hospital for months. He was discharged only recently. Mexican authorities tell me the witnesses were adamant that Mr. Ramírez had no rock and made no threatening movements." Smith goes on to argue against the two purported reasons for the continued use of hollow-point bullets. One argument is that the bullets are less likely to ricochet and hit an unintended target. But the logic works both ways. Smith points out that should the hollow-point bullet hit an innocent bystander, or ricochet and inadvertently hit a Border Patrol agent, it would cause them more severe damage. Smith also takes up the argument that a single standard bullet might not be enough to incapacitate a suspect. "I am told by ballistics experts that a single hollow-point bullet is enough to stop a suspect," Smith writes. "If so, why have all the 'rocking' suspects of which I am aware been shot so many times?"
The sardonic conclusion of Smith's letter bears repeating. "In short, there is no evidence that the benefit of using hollow-point bullets outweighs the damage. Moreover, given that hollow-point bullets were outlawed by the Hague Peace Convention in 1899, their use at an international border is especially troubling. As Professor Jorge Vargas of the University of San Diego Law School asks in a treatise about migrants and the human-rights abuses to which they are subjected, 'Is there a valid reason for U.S. Border Patrol agents to use expansive bullets in their enforcement activities along the border with our neighboring country Mexico, our second-largest trading partner, when the U.S. Army would not be able to use these bullets in a war situation?'"
Though issues of abuse are of great concern to Smith, she is far more concerned with the deaths that she says Operation Gatekeeper is responsible for. "Somewhere along the line it started dawning on me; I was hearing reports of deaths here and there, and so I started to take a look at the strategy itself, and getting the death figures from the Mexican consulate, and mapping the locations of the deaths. Then I got hold of some of the Border Patrol documents, including the Border Patrol Strategic Plan; it was signed in August of '94. It was stunning to see that the plan was to move traffic eastward all the while realizing that they would be pushing people into more and more dangerous terrain -- places where migrants would risk their lives, and many would certainly die." The Border Patrol Strategic Plan states that illegal entrants who are "forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement, [would] find themselves in mortal danger.
"In any event, by January 1997, the deaths couldn't be hidden anymore because that was when 16 people froze to death," continues Smith. "Then you started having hypothermia deaths in the Otay mountains. At that time we also began to have vigilantism here in East County. About 60 days before the '96 election, 2 million dollars got pumped into the Border Patrol to move the traffic further east. So by January of '97 you have large numbers of people crossing the mountains of Tecate. In these mountains six months out of the year you have the chance of temperatures going down to freezing. In 1999, we had hypothermia deaths as late as May. Now, prior to this the Border Patrol was very open about its strategy, then suddenly their public relations machinery kicks in and says, 'Gee, we're real surprised, we never thought they'd try to cross those mountains.' Obviously they were not surprised enough because they managed to put in the next phase, which was to push the immigrants into the desert. By August of 1998 there were large numbers of heat-stress deaths. The most appalling part is when they started their push into the desert, they actually dismantled the only rescue unit in the desert 'to put people on the line.' "
Smith detailed the horror of heat-stress death. "There seem to be two ways that they die. Some just go berserk and tear off their clothing. Others meticulously take off their clothing, make a little pillow, and if they have any identification they place that under the pillow." Between 1994 and 2000 there were 305 deaths due to hypothermia, dehydration, heat stroke (exposure); 175 deaths due to drowning; 123 deaths due to accidents; and 14 due to homicide. Smith said that deaths that occurred on the Mexican side are not included; there are bodies in the mountains and desert, she pointed out, that are as yet undiscovered.
In reply to the question, "How do you envision a solution?" Smith said, "I hope these deaths lead to a macro solution. But short of a macro solution, other issues have to be addressed. Farm agriculture is the number-one California industry. It employs over 95 percent Mexicans; 40 to 50 percent are undocumented. That is to say, we are wholly reliant on Mexican labor to harvest the fields. If the U.S. wanted to stop illegal immigration, it should stop acting as a magnet.
"There have been less than a half dozen prosecutions of employers since the inception of Operation Gatekeeper, which makes the point that the United States is not interested in sealing the border, simply channeling the flow and keeping foot traffic out of sight. At the same time, Mexico can't keep looking at immigration as a safety valve for unemployment or low wages. We should at least go back to pre-Gatekeeper times. It was no less effective, and it didn't kill people."
When I spoke with Jordan Budd, the managing attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union for San Diego and Imperial Counties, he told me that they have filed petitions in two international forums. The petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (a branch of the Organization for American States, which alleges that Operation Gatekeeper violates human rights) is pending. The second petition before the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations urges the commission to investigate potential human-rights violations. Claudia Smith testified before this international body in Geneva. As a result, the commission appointed a special rapporteur to investigate the human-rights violations in the context of border enforcement. However, one of the conditions of the investigation is that the rapporteur be invited to the country to conduct the investigation. Mexico has extended an invitation, but the United States has refused. Budd characterizes this refusal as one of "oblivion and disdain toward the judgment of the international community." Budd says his hope is that the international government "will revisit the deeply hypocritical and deadly strategy of Operation Gatekeeper."
Like Smith, Budd maintains we have driven the problem out of sight, into uninhabited terrain. The Border Patrol will cite the fact that immigrant apprehension has plummeted in the San Diego sector, Budd says, "but that begs the question. There has been an astronomical increase in apprehension to the east of us -- in El Centro, Yuma, and southern Arizona. To account for the soaring numbers, the Border Patrol argues that they are catching more migrants." But Budd maintains that "every agency that's looked at Operation Gatekeeper has arrived at the same conclusion -- the labor supply on the U.S. side of the border has not been impacted." These agencies include the Brookings Institute, the National Committee on Immigration Reform, the General Accounting Office, and an organization based at UCSD called the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies. Regarding the high level of apprehensions, in a document entitled "Operation Gatekeeper Report," the Border Patrol establishes a marked reduction in border-wide apprehensions within five years as an indicator of the strategy's success. Apprehension figures are currently running 68 percent higher than in '94.
Wayne Cornelius of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD gave me permission to quote from his work in progress, entitled "Death at the Border: The Efficacy and 'Unintended' Consequences of U.S. Immigration Control Policy, 1993-2000." His research corroborates much of what Smith and Budd told me. He states that the number of immigrants who avoid apprehension "may still be in the historical range of 70-80 percent, despite the post-1993 border enforcement." In the matter of smuggling, Cornelius has documented the rising fees charged by coyotes or polleros, people who transport migrants to the U.S. side of the border. "In the pre-Operation Gatekeeper era, coyotes charged about $300 for assistance in crossing the border in San Diego and transportation to northern San Diego or Los Angeles. Now, for the same services, they charge between $800 and $1500. Some migrants seeking work in Southern California were paying an additional charge of several hundreds of dollars to 'raiteros,' drivers who transport migrants whose coyotes have deposited them on the U.S. side of the border in remote parts of Arizona or the Calexico/El Centro area...bringing their total tab for coyote and raitero services to $2000."
Cornelius's research supports the fact that, contrary to its intention, Operation Gatekeeper has contributed to the increased number of immigrants settling permanently on this side of the border. "When the median coyote cost was $237, half of Mexican male migrants returned to Mexico after two years in the United States. When the coyote cost rose to $711, only 38 percent returned to Mexico after two years of U.S. residence."
The statistics that Cornelius highlights are the U.S. government's own. "Data from the National Agricultural Workers survey conducted annually by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Labor show that the percentage of undocumented immigrants among farmworkers has increased continuously during the period of tighter border enforcement. The number of Mexican nationals employed in various low-level service occupations (e.g., private household workers, food preparation and food service, cleaning, and building-service jobs) increased far more than non-Mexican workers during the 1993-1998 period. There was also a sharp increase in the proportion of Mexicans among construction workers in the United States from 1993-1999. If the proportion of Mexico-born workers is taken as a rough proxy for illegal immigrants, these findings are inconsistent with the notion that concentrated border-enforcement strategy has been effectively deterring illegal entrants."
As to whether the INS pursues the employers who break the law by employing undocumented workers, Cornelius had some telling numbers. "In 1990, barely 8 percent of INS enforcement resources were devoted to workplace raids. By 1998, only 2 percent of the INS enforcement effort was being devoted to the workplace. Since then, workplace investigations have virtually ceased." More workplace raids are not what is necessary; rather, these statistics point to the unequal application of the law.
One morning I was listening to a radio broadcast from a Tijuana station. A mother called in looking for her son who had crossed into the United States several months before. She hadn't heard anything from him and was hoping someone who had seen him -- or he himself -- would hear her call. She described, with the loving detail of a mother, the cut of his hair, his height and weight, even the blue jacket he was wearing when she last saw him. She cried and asked for anyone who came in contact with her son to call the number of a neighbor. She had no telephone.