Book Review Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation That Remade Immigration Enforcement
To understand where we now stand with respect to border-control and immigration- enforcement policies, it is helpful to step back and see how we got here. That is what border scholar Timothy Dunn does in his important new book about the politics of border control in the El Paso area.
Not so long ago in El Paso, like in other border towns, you could easily see the daily flow of unauthorized immigrants into the United States. Until the mid-1990s most illegal border crossers took the easiest route over to the other side – right through the hearts of the twin border cities.
Thousands of Mexicans crossed illegally every day, returning home to Mexico in the evening from jobs in the United States. Others who lived in the Mexican interior or came from other countries took buses north to the Mexican border towns, crossed into the adjoining U.S. towns, and then spread into the U.S. interior. Until the mid-1990s, when the Border Patrol mounted operations to stanch the immigrant flow through U.S. border towns, overwhelmed agents caught only a small percentage of the illegal border crossers.
Once across the border, illegal immigrants easily melded into Mexican-American communities. Frustrated Border Patrol agents in El Paso oftentimes not knowing who was in the country legally, regularly harassed residents of El Segundo Barrio, a Mexican-American neighborhood in the downtown area abutting the border.
In 1992, working in conjunction with the local Border Rights Coalition, students and staff of the neighborhood’s Bowie High School brought a civil rights suit against the Border Patrol citing routine harassment and abuses. By highlighting longtime community grievances against the Border Patrol, the lawsuit spurred the new Border Patrol Chief Silvestre Reyes to start meeting regularly with community activists and addressing their complaints.
In 1993 Reyes mounted Operation Blockade, which intensively deployed Border Patrol agents along the border within the city limits, successfully halting most urban border crossers and deflecting most illegal crossborder traffic to more sparsely inhabited areas on the edge of the city.
As Dunn documents, El Pasoans, tired and frustrated by immigrant streams through their neighborhoods and by Border Patrol harassment of citizens and legal immigrants, overwhelmingly supported Operation Blockade – which was later renamed Operation Hold the Line. Community organizing against widespread civil rights violations by Border Patrol agents proved a major factor in persuading the Border Patrol in the El Paso district to adopt a new strategy – one that was described officially as “prevention through deterrence.”
Operation Blockade/Hold the Line, although initially resisted by the national Border Patrol office Washington, later became the prototype of more intensive border control operations in urban areas because of its success in diverting immigration flows to outlying areas. As recounted by Dunn, the Border Patrol’s 1994 strategy statement –which first used the term “prevention through deterrence” – noted that the agency’s “national strategy builds on El Paso’s success.”
Operation Blockade’s model, as described by Dunn, took of the form of the “massing of enforcement resources at traditionally high-volume, mainly urban unauthorized crossing areas” inspired the launching of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, Operation Rio Grande in the lower Rio Grande Valley, and Operation Safeguard in Arizona.
Operation Blockade Accomplishments
Other than spurring other copycat border blockades elsewhere along the border, what were the enduring results of Operation Blockade? One was the predictable diversion of immigration flows to what the Border Patrol described as “hostile terrain” in its 1994 strategy statement.
Dunn superbly chronicles this cause-and-effect relationship, using the El Paso example of increased immigrant traffic along the western edge of the city and farther west into the desert of southern New Mexico.
The Border Patrol quickly responded by constructing a new border fence on the western edge of the city, which was roundly opposed in El Paso, largely because so obviously tarnished the city’s long-cherished image as a binational metropolis (with Ciudad Juarez). Opposition to the fence also tapped rising concerns that the new “prevention through deterrence” strategy was severely impacting the livelihood and rights of undocumented Mexicans.
Although a palpable concern even during the civil rights organizing against the Border Patrol around the Bowie High School case, the issue of the rights and welfare of unauthorized border crossers was downplayed in the interests of making a strong civil rights argument against Border Patrol practices. This was the citizenship-nationalist framework for community organizing.
While accepting its tactical merits, Dunn argues for a human-rights framework for addressing border control issues. As he points out, Operation Blockade only partially succeeded in deterring immigration flows. The “hostile terrain” that characterizes most of the border environment away from the increasingly fortified urban border did not deter hundreds of thousands of illegal border crossers. Determined to seek a better life and increasingly relying on border smugglers, immigrants have since the mid-1990s increasingly risked dangerous desert and mountain crossings.
Complaints about abusive Border Patrol treatment of both legal borderland residents and illegal border crossers continue. But it has been the deaths of thousands of border crossers diverted into “hostile terrain” that has elevated the human rights issue along the border.
While drowning deaths has long been a concern in the El Paso sector, Operation Blockade and heightening enforcement in the easily traversed border areas have resulted in steeply mounting number of immigrant deaths from exposure. From 1994 to 2007 there were 4,600 deaths reported, mostly from exposure.
Border Enforcement Works
Besides the diversion of immigrant flows, another long-term result of Operation Blockade has been an increased conviction, especially within government and among anti-immigrant sectors, that increased border enforcement works. Prior to Operation Blockade, border enforcement was widely regarded as a holding action with no real goal of stopping immigrant flows.
However, the success in El Paso and in other urban areas in ending immigrant flows put in motion a serious of practices and policies that are now driven by a belief that “operational control” of the border is a real possibility. It is now commonly accepted that with sufficient numbers of Border Patrol agents and with enough border control infrastructure (mainly defenses and electronic surveillance), the Border Control can realistically hope to control the southern border – deterring or detaining most illegal border crosssers.
Dunn doesn’t delve deeply into the possibilities of effective border control operations along the entire border. Rather he warns against “border enforcement fetishism” and predicts that border security will be an unrealizable goal without a holistic human-rights framework for immigration policy.
In the book’s conclusion, the author warns that if drastically increased border enforcement really starts working, “it might fail in larger, more important ways that we can hardly anticipate.” Among the consequences of increasingly effective enforcement, according to Dunn, are labor shortages in the United States, noting the country’s aging population.
He also warns that border enforcement may soon threaten the stability of Mexico and by extension U.S. national security. A dramatic reduction in Mexican immigration “would adversely affect the Mexican economy and also quite possibly Mexican political and social stability.”
For Dunn, a human-rights framework for understanding and resolving the immigration problem leads to his support for an “open borders” position, albeit accompanied by an array of recommended policies that would regulate the push and pull factors driving immigration.
Finally, he warns that growing border enforcement fetishism may lead to increased military involvement in policing at the border, which would have grave implications both for immigrants and citizens. The book’s last words commend “an active civil society on both sides of the border” as the best “remedy” against aggressive enforcement practices.
How to Frame Policy Agenda: Citizen/National v. Human Rights/International
Blockading the Border and Human Rights is an excellent starting place to examine the limits and possibilities of the sometimes competing frameworks of citizen rights and international human rights with respect to immigration policy. Dunn makes a strong case for the international human rights perspective. But what are the prospects of winning widespread public support for the type of traditionally progressive framework that Dunn advocates?
According to Dunn:
“A broad human rights approach, ironically, offers the best prospect for enhanced national security at the border and beyond, as well as improved well-being more broadly. This entails reducing undocumented immigration through increased legal immigration opportunities to meet U.S. labor needs (and legalization of undocumented immigrants already here), really addressing key economic problems in migrant-sending countries, focusing on the lower and middle classes, and increasing worker protections and organizing in the United States.”The deep economic recession and the accompanying massive job loss (which have occurred since Dunn’s book went to the publisher) make a human rights/open borders approach to border control and immigration policy much harder to sell to the U.S. public and policy community.
One is left wondering, then, whether a progressive tweaking of the citizenship-national sovereignty might be a more pragmatic and hopeful option. It’s an open question, though, whether it’s possible to successfully frame progressive policy solutions -- including legalization, labor protections, full employment, more liberal political asylum and refugee policies, and less restrictive immigration visas – as being citizen-centered, focused on U.S. national interests, and at the same time respectful of civil and human rights.
With his meticulous research, abundant personal interviews, and thoughtful concluding remarks, Timothy Dunn provides the historical background we so badly need to help us in the search for border solutions not blockades.