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November 1994, Volume 1, Number 10

Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego

On October 1, 1994, the US Border Patrol assigned 200 additional agents to guard the 14 miles of border between the US and Mexico south of San Diego. The goal of Operation Gatekeeper is to make it impossible for aliens to avoid capture. Between the port of entry at Highway 5 and the ocean, there is a fence, high intensity lights, and three lines of agents, all designed to advertise to potential illegal entrants that illegal entry will result in apprehension. All those apprehended are fingerprinted electronically, and between October 1 and 6, about six percent of the 6,000 aliens apprehended were recidivists caught for the second or third time.

There were about 25,000 apprehensions in the San Diego sector in October 1994, compared with 31,500 in October 1993 and 27,600 in September 1994. The Border Patrol achieved its goal of pushing aliens seeking to enter the US illegally to the east--apprehensions in the Imperial Beach sector closest to the ocean dropped from 2/3 of the average 1000 apprehensions daily in the first half of the month to 40 percent of the average 700 daily apprehensions at the end of the month. Apprehensions in the more inland Brown Field area, by contrast, rose from an average 150 daily at the beginning of October to almost 200 daily.

Alien smugglers have been able to evade some past control efforts--using cellular phones to know when the Border Patrol checkpoints on Highways 5 and 15 are down, for example, to smuggle aliens through, and using juvenile drivers and nearly worthless vehicles to cope with smuggling penalties and vehicle seizure.

Some speculated that putting more agents on the border at San Diego would not be as effective as this saturate-the-border strategy was in El Paso because many of the aliens entering the US at San Diego had come from the interior of Mexico and were attempting to migrate to Los Angeles. In EL Paso, 70 percent of the illegal entrants were destined for the El Paso area, while over 95 percent of those apprehended south of San Diego are headed for destinations outside the area, usually to Los Angeles, 120 miles north.

This means the reaction to saturating the border with agents is likely to be different--in El Paso, reducing illegal entries and expediting legal entries was supported by 90 percent of EL Paso residents. In San Diego, most aliens pay smugglers $300 for the trip to Los Angeles, and many have a mindset that they must attempt illegal entry repeatedly until they succeed.

Some predicted that there would be violence on the border, as desperate aliens and their smugglers clashed with the Border Patrol. This does not seem to be the case; during the first three weeks of Operation Gatekeeper, there were only five charges that the Border Patrol abused aliens attempting to illegally enter the US. However, legal services groups on October 24, sent a letter to the INS complaining about the "rough handling" of apprehended aliens, the lack of food in "overcrowded" detention facilities, and the "practice" of returning men to Mexico about 90 miles east of San Diego in Mexicali, while women and children are returned to Tijuana.

Some Mexican observers, as well as the president of the Border Patrol agents' union, are skeptical of the effectiveness of Operation Gatekeeper. Several Mexican critics complained that saturating the border with agents runs counter to NAFTA's goal of free trade. The Border Patrol union would presumably like to see even more agents assigned to border security.

The Border Patrol has budgeted $236 million for safeguarding the US-Mexican border in FY95, equivalent to $650,000 daily. The next saturate-the-border operation is Operation Safeguard in Arizona.

Near Pueblo, Colorado, a federal prison includes inmates from 129 countries, and foreign-born persons, most convicted of drug offenses, are 28 percent of the inmates. Nationwide, the cost of keeping foreigners in jail is $1 million daily. In an effort to reduce these costs, the US is attempting to return convicted foreign felons to their home countries--about 200 have been returned to Mexico so far.

Florida has received permission to try a pilot program for three months in which illegal aliens who are accused of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies could avoid trial in the US by agreeing to be deported. Those deported would have to agree not to return to the US.

Jamie Gorelick, Deputy US Attorney General, reviewed Operation Gatekeeper on October 13 and reported that it is part of a Clinton Administration plan "to close the entire border."


Sebastian Rotella, "Border patrol launches crackdown near San Diego," Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1994. B. Drummond Ayres, Jr., "US Crackdown at Border Stems Illegal Crossings," New York Times, October 6, p. A1; "Illegal immigration: ideas worth trying," Los Angeles Times, Oct 5, 1994, B6; Peter Hecht, "Stranglehold at the Border," Sacramento Bee, October 30, 1994, A16-17.