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February 1997, Volume 4, Number 2

Is Gatekeeper Working?

The INS budget has doubled from $1.5 billion in FY93 to $3.1 billion in FY97, with most of the increased funds going to reduce illegal immigration. The INS will have a permanent staff of 26,000 by the end of 1997. The immigration law of 1996 requires the INS to have at least 10 agents in each state.

Most major newspapers that follow INS efforts to reduce illegal immigration believe that the agency is on the right track in using the additional funds it has received to invest in people computers and other technology that will ultimately make it easier to enforce laws against illegal entry and employment.

One unresolved issue is whether the increased number of border patrol agents stationed on the border to deter illegal entries is working. The INS adopted a flood-the-border-to-deter entries strategy in El Paso in 1993, extended to San Diego in 1994 and to Arizona in 1995.

Most indicators suggest that Gatekeeper and similar deterrence strategies are pushing aliens attempting illegal entry away from previous entry points, such as from west to east along the San Diego border with Mexico. Almost all persons attempting entry use smugglers and their fees have generally doubled, from $250 to $300 to $500 or more. Many persons who are caught once in easier border crossing areas make a second attempt via more dangerous mountain or desert terrain.

In mid-January, the Los Angeles Times reported that Tijuana shelters were filling up with Mexicans who had planned to enter the US illegally but were deterred by the INS and cold and rainy weather. In some cases, people have surrendered to Border Patrol agents in order to get blankets and food.

Between January 7 and January 24, 1997, 18 migrants attempting to illegally enter the US were killed in traffic accidents or died of cold in the mountains of eastern San Diego county. In January 1997, there were 46 deaths or major injuries of attempted illegal entries, versus 120 in all of 1996. The Mexican government posted signs warning of the danger.

However, several newspapers reported that Gatekeeper was not stemming the tide of illegal entries.

Operation Gatekeeper was launched on October 1, 1994. In FY93, the INS apprehended 453,348 persons in San Diego. In the first year of Gatekeeper, San Diego sector apprehensions rose to 529,330. In FY96, there were 487,682 apprehensions.

Initially, the INS stated that a declining number of apprehensions would demonstrate that Gatekeeper was working. The agency has since said that the peso devaluation and the fact that persons apprehended often try to re-enter the US, are the major reasons why apprehension numbers remain high despite Gatekeeper. INS expects apprehension numbers to decline in the early months of 1997.

Enough unauthorized migrants seem to be entering the US to prevent labor shortages and upward pressures on wages in industries such as agriculture, garments and services. One rumor is that, after the INS "secures the border," perhaps in summer-fall 1997, the guest worker option will be reviewed again. Both the Commission on Immigration Reform and the Clinton administration strongly opposed a large-scale foreign worker program in June 1995.

Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged that it is difficult to evaluate the ability of Operation Gatekeeper to deter illegal immigration.

At the San Diego border crossing, the INS doubled the number of agents inspecting arrivals from Mexico and for the first time subjected persons who presented false documents to an administrative process that would allow them to be prosecuted should they attempt re-entry with false documents.

The vehicles of persons presenting false entry documents can now be confiscated. This has led to a reduction in the number of drivers presenting false entry documents.

Lawful entries have been speeded up. Some 40 million people and 15 million cars a year now enter the US at the San Diego ports of entry but the full complement of 306 inspectors allows all lanes into the US to be open even at peak commuting times. An estimated 40,000 people cross the border each day to work, including several thousand managers and professionals who operate maquiladoras in Tijuana, but live in the San Diego area.

For the last 18 months, some 2,400 commuters who have been fingerprinted and undergone background checks, about 80 percent of them US residents, have been able to enter in a commuter lane that uses a sensor to allow cars to pass without human inspection.

About 230 million people and 82 million cars enter the US from Mexico each year. US drug enforcement officials worry that entry is becoming too easy.

A series of articles in the Federal Times in mid-December reported that many Border Patrol agents were dissatisfied with the INS's Gatekeeper strategy of positioning agents in three tiers to deter illegal immigrants. Both INS management and agents agree that Gatekeeper has pushed aliens attempting entry from west to east in San Diego county, but there is disagreement over whether the difficulty of illegally entering the US in eastern San Diego county has made a significant dent in illegal border crossings.

The Border Patrol agents' union is opposed to the triple fence called for in the 1996 immigration bill, arguing that agents trapped between fences may be in danger. There is at present a seven-foot high fence along 14 miles of border and the INS plans to build two more fences several hundred feet further inside the US. The middle fence will consist of round concrete poles about 12 feet high and six inches apart, so that the INS can see would -be entrants between poles.

The INS has embarked on plans to hire 1,000 additional agents each year, plus 500 to 600 to replace those who quit the work force, now 5,000 strong. In mid-January, the US Department of Justice announced the addition of 35 federal prosecutors in the southwest to deal with drug and alien smuggling.

A Mexican driving a pickup truck was pursued at high speed in Riverside, California last April. He ended with two sheriff's deputies beating two of the aliens being smuggled in the truck while the driver escaped. Recaptured some weeks later, he was convicted on January 16, 1997 of smuggling and faces 20 years in prison. When he was captured on May 3, 1996 he was driving another group of aliens into the US. He had three previous smuggling convictions. All of the illegal aliens being smuggled in the April 1996 incident were given temporary work permits and allowed to stay in the US to testify against their conductor.

All of the illegal aliens being smuggled in the April 1, 1996 incident were given temporary work permits and permitted to stay in the US to testify against the smuggler.

An immigration inspector at New York's Kennedy Airport was convicted of smuggling illegal aliens from the Dominican Republic into the US for $6,500 each.


Anne-Marie O'Connor, "New Tactics Slash Gridlock at the Border," Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1997. Marcus Stern, "Border strategy fails to stem the tide of crossers," San Diego Union Tribune, January 24, 1997. Phil Garlington, "Crossing the border: illegal and dangerous," Orange County Register, January 19, 1997. Leigh Rivenbark, "Both sides of the border," Federal Times, December 16, 1996.