On the Border of Hypocrisy 

The unintended consequences of getting tough on illegal immigration

Thursday, Dec 4 2003
Photo by J. Emilio Flores

From nearly any hilltop in Tijuana you can peer down toward “la linea,” the U.S.-Mexican border, and easily see the U.S. government’s multibillion-dollar handiwork of the last 10 years. Of the 2,000-mile-long border, only 3.5 percent of it, about 70 miles’ worth, is fortified against illegal immigration.

But of that buildup, a wildly disproportionate chunk is concentrated right here on the San Diego–Tijuana line, about two and a half hours due south of Hollywood Boulevard. A full quarter of the 9,500 armed Border Patrol agents deployed along America’s southern frontiers are squeezed within this one 60-mile-wide “San Diego Sector.” So is a full 50 percent of all the stadium-strength lighting fixed along the entire length of the border.

The 12-foot-high wall, fashioned from Vietnam-era surplus corrugated-metal landing plates, stretches and turns and in some areas swells into a formidable barbed-wire-topped triple-fence barrier running several hundreds of yards out and sinking into the Pacific Ocean. Try to swim around it and the Coast Guard will push you right back.

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Remote-control-camera towers, as if borrowed from the sets of the Terminator movies, relentlessly

and tirelessly scan the dusty dirt roads on the U.S. side for any wandering “I.A.s” — cop talk for illegal aliens.

Mobile, truck-mounted infrared Border Patrol scopes effortlessly peer through the darkness of night,

as do specially equipped helicopters. Hundreds of motion and heat sensors strategically stitched into the surrounding hillsides alert Border Patrol agents to any stealth crossers. The agents, in turn, don’t just sit in their SUVs and munch doughnuts and doze off. They are out on their hands and knees in the middle of the night, flashlights and night scopes in hand, methodically searching for human tracks and trails.

Ghosts of the cross (Photo by J. Emilio Flores)

These are the visible signs of what is now a decade-long clampdown on the Southern California border,

a maneuver originally dubbed Operation Gatekeeper by the Clinton administration. And if its goal was to turn off the spigot of illegal immigration through the San Diego area, it has been a resounding success.

No one on either side of the border, or on either side of the ever-simmering immigration-policy debate, will dispute that fact. Those “they keep coming” days depicted in the grainy Pete Wilson (and Dianne Feinstein) 1994 campaign footage showing a stream of Mexicans pouring over the highway at the San Ysidro crossing are long gone. The San Diego Sector has been tightly sealed off for some years now.

In Texas, operations Hold the Line and Rio Grande have just as successfully battened down and sealed off the once-frenetic illegal crossing points near El Paso and Brownsville. Operation Safeguard, initiated

in 1999, locked down the immigrant corridor through Nogales, located midpoint on the southern

Arizona border.

Bringing illegal immigration to a virtual halt in those four urban ports of entry has been the centerpiece, the much-trumpeted intended consequence, of the last decade of U.S. border strategy.

The unintended consequences are less publicized.

A handful of weeks ago, a group of Tijuana-based activists gathered nine brightly painted full-size coffins and bolted them right onto the grimy border wall along a stretch of the heavily trafficked route to the local airport. Each coffin is inscribed with a year, running from the mid-’90s to the present, and a death toll: the number of Mexicans who have died while attempting to cross the border.

In 1995, the toll was 61.

In 2000, the number of dead had risen to 499.

This year, the toll already stood at nearly 400 at the end of October.

“The U.S.-Mexican border has been 10 times deadlier to Mexican immigrants in the last 10 years than was the whole 28-year history of the Berlin Wall [to East Germans],” says Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

Over the entire history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people perished trying to cross it. Since the Clinton administration implemented the current U.S. border strategy, more than 2,500 Mexicans have died. Or 2,600. Or 2,700 by some counts. ‰

“It has been a strategy of prevention through deterrence,” says Cornelius. If the four traditional urban hot spots for illegal crossings could be barricaded, as they were, Cornelius says the U.S. government believed that “the mountains and deserts would do the rest.”

The calculation was either dead on or dead wrong, depending on how cynical you believe the architects of the strategy were. With the extremities of the border tied off, the immigration flow has been, in essence, funneled away from El Paso and Tijuana, and into the unforgiving mountains along the eastern edge of the California border and through the brutal deserts along the mostly uninhabited patches of southern Arizona.

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