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.