The Racism and Immorality of the Operation Gatekeeper Death Trap
Time to read
Guest post by Bill Ong Hing, Professor of Law, University of San Francisco. This post is the fifth instalment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Race and Border Control organised by Prof Yolanda Vázquez.
On the weekend of a different 9/11―the one in 1998―four migrants died trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. On the Friday, the body of a man was found floating in the All-American Canal. On the Saturday, a man died who had been in a coma since August, when he was found in the desert. He was found with a core body temperature of 108 degrees Fahrenheit. On the Sunday, the Border Patrol came upon the body of woman near Ocotillo, California. Some of her group had stayed with her body. She had died of heat stress. Also on the Sunday, the decomposed body of another man was pulled out of the All-American Canal. There was no outcry over these deaths the way there was after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when over three thousand people were killed in the attack on America. However, would an outcry be in order if we realized that as many as six thousand people have died trying to cross the US-Mexico border since the institution of Operation Gatekeeper under the Clinton administration? These deaths raise moral questions, because they are avoidable; a result of a border enforcement regime that’s unnecessary. They also raises questions about racism. As I will argue below, targeting Mexicans and Central Americans who attempt to traverse the southern border is no less racist that the bigoted profiling of blacks by police officers in places like Ferguson, Missouri. Why then, is there still such little concern?
In 1994, the Clinton administration implemented Operation Gatekeeper, a strategy of ‘control through deterrence’ that involved constructing fences and militarizing the southern border where it was most easily traversed. Instead of deterring illegal immigrants, their entry choices were shifted to treacherous terrain―the deserts and mountains. The number of entries and apprehensions did not decrease, and the number of deaths due to dehydration and sunstroke in the summer or freezing in the winter surged dramatically. Whereas in 1994, fewer than 30 migrants died along the border; by 1998, the number had risen to 147; in 2001, 387 deaths were counted; and in 2012, 477 bodies were found. From 2007 to 2013, over 2,000 known migrant deaths occurred along the Mexico-Arizona border.
Given such risks, why do migrants continue their harrowing trek? The attraction of the United States is obvious. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), approved in 1994, wreaked havoc on the Mexican economy. For many, it’s a matter of economic desperation, and migrants are simply looking for a means to support their families. In a sense, they don’t have a choice. In spite of the slow growth in the US economy, a variety of industries rely on low-wage migrant workers. In countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors are fleeing the violence of gangs—gangs whose genesis was the deportation of gang members from US communities. Undocumented immigrants may know the risks of crossing the treacherous US-Mexico border, but figure that the risks are outweighed by the benefits.
As we wait for Congress to enact immigration reform, what we do know is that one of the only provisions that Democrats and Republicans agree upon is more money for border enforcement. Bipartisan support for erecting more fences, hiring thousands of additional border patrol agents, and sending drones to the southern border would add billions of dollars to the death trap of ‘control through deterrence’ efforts. Motivations for continued migration call into question the likely effectiveness of this expansion of Operation Gatekeeper if the goal is to discourage border-crossers. The poor economic situation and violence in Mexico and parts of Central America are beyond the control of the migrants themselves. The militarization of the border does nothing to address these phenomena. Instead, it’s killing individuals who are caught up in the phenomena.
The United States has a choice between the racism of the Operation Gatekeeper death trap or an ethical path to viewing the border crossers in humanistic terms. Our economic, social, and national-security interests demand that we pursue the moral choice.