Just south of San Diego and north of the Mexican city of Tijuana, a 52-mile long line of fence cuts across the landscape. From the ground, the fence is intimidating, at least 10 feet tall and made of steel.
Once viewed as one of the “easiest” and most frequented points at which to cross the border, this wall is the site of Operation Gatekeeper, one of the Clinton administration’s many efforts to “toughen up” on border control. In the current political dialogue, ideas about a “big wall” are thrown around like they are brand new. Acknowledging the existence and repercussions of projects like Operation Gatekeeper, then, provides a case study for what “building a wall” actually looks like and whether this is a viable immigration policy.
The wall along the San Diego-Tijuana border is made of corrugated steel landing mats left over from the Vietnam War and stands 10 feet tall, according to University of San Francisco and University of California, Davis Professor of Law and Asian American studies, Bill Ong Hing, in his book titled Defining America Through Immigration Policy. In some places, the wall has a first backup fence that is 15 feet tall with concrete pillars and topped with wire, and a second backup fence which also measures 15 feet tall with wire mesh, support beams, and topped with wire. It is one of at least four major projects constructed by the Clinton administration along the border.
After the wall(s), there are the reinforcements. Surveillance systems link electronic sensors with low-light video cameras, floodlights illuminate the areas at night, and in the air, Border Patrol circles with aircraft using infrared technology to detect people attempting to cross. Ong Hing adds that there was a 117 percent increase in the number of border patrol agents during the 90s, to upwards of 7,000, including armed watch towers, trained border patrol men, and vans to transport individuals. According to US Customs and Border Protection, that number had risen to 21,000 by the end of 2012.
This militarized zone is neither deserted nor tense, but bustling. According to Tufts economics Professor Anne Hardman, people live their lives across the border and traverse it every day. “Many Mexican families send their children to schools in San Diego for a better education,” she said. Hardman noted that it’s also common for Mexican citizens to obtain work permits—their day jobs are in the US. The wall, then, is an inconvenience, dividing a would-be community.
And yet, apprehension rates of individuals attempting to cross the border hit a record high between 1994-1999, according to Ong Hing. Today, these rates are close to the same as they were around 1970. “What Operation Gatekeeper actually achieved,” Ong Hing explained, “was to move the undocumented foot traffic relatively out of the public eye.” For those wanting to enter the United States without documents, the wall has acted not as much as a deterrent—the intention of the Clinton administration—as a cause for re-routing. Although 72 miles of fence were constructed in the 90s along the 2000-mile border, concentrated at the most popular sites of crossing, the rate of immigration also greatly increased during this time.
Further, the routes that undocumented people have been forced to take by the new walls are dangerous and often deadly, with rough terrain including mountain ranges and miles of desert. Tufts senior Edgar Pedroza spoke of his relative who recently crossed, who “just remembers going through the cold, and he lost like 20 pounds in the matter of like a week and a half.” For other family members of his, “that’s an experience they try not to talk about because it’s so harsh.”
Another Tufts student, Lorenza Ramirez, told the Tufts Observer that when her mother was pregnant with her, she traveled from Oaxaca, Mexico to Baltimore for better healthcare. Her father was then told he could not acquire a visa for two years and decided to enter the US without documents.
“How was his decision to come to the United States even a question?” Ramirez asked. “The structure of the border wall served as no deterrent; in a labor of love, my father walked more than two thousand miles to the place I now call home. To avoid the wall and border patrol, he was forced to navigate the mountainous desert for two weeks and risk his life, nearly dying of dehydration and starvation, leaving behind his language, culture, family and friends all for his child’s future. My father’s story is one of thousands.”
For other undocumented people the journey ends not in finding a new home or family, but in death. In 1998 alone, 147 people died trying to cross the border, up from 23 deaths in 1994. According to Ong Hing, this increase is directly correlated with the increase in wall length. And even upon arrival, undocumented people face another innovation the US government invests in to control immigration—detention centers. Civil detention is meant to be a temporary holding process to ensure that immigrants follow through with their processes. Undocumented status, contrary to popular belief, is a civil offense, not a criminal offense, and thus detention is not legally intended to be punitive. However, hundreds of thousands of people are kept in centers that function more like prisons, sometimes for years, and often with their human and legal rights being violated, according to the Huffington Post. The number of immigrants detained doubled between 2003 and 2011, and government spending also doubled in 2010, most of which was outsourced to private contractors. There were 104 deaths in detention facilities during this time, a number originally underreported by the Department of Homeland Security.
This policy of hyper-security ignores the many complex “pulls” exported by the US, both in the forms of conscious labor recruitment or more intangible family ties, institutionalized migration streams, and the proliferation of the American Dream and diversified opportunities according to immigration expert Douglas Massey. The United States has a long history of recruiting Mexican workers, both directly through government programs and indirectly through migrants’ social networks, such as offering bonuses to workers who recruit other workers. Today, our economy is very dependent on immigrant labor—many employers say there are still not enough legal channels to fill their demand for workers. Sanctioning these employers who use undocumented laborers could be an effective means of controlling migration streams, but this strategy has been largely untried.
The US’s direct investment and multinational corporations in the Mexican economy, factors which have consistently sparked immigration worldwide, also persist. A reconsideration of the US trade agreements—which made traditional Mexican crops unprofitable, lowered wages, and allowed multinational corporations to push small businesses into bankruptcy—also remains largely untried, according to Tanya Maria Golash-Boza, in her book Immigration Nation.
In fact, it seems that the most significant factor influencing the immigration rate through the Mexican border is the economic opportunity here in the US. Professor Hardman and Tufts political science professor Deborah Schildkraut both cited the recession of 2008 as one of the main forces for the slow of immigration in the past several years. In fact, as Professor Schildkraut pointed out, the rate of people entering through the US Mexico border is currently at a net zero—as many people are leaving as are coming in. This is largely absent from the dominant political discourse. Until such root causes are brought into the discourse, hyper security may continue to be a band-aid solution.