(Second of three-part series on Border Patrol history before onset of border security framework of border control.)
In the political context of the early 1990s, the Border Patrol felt compelled -- for the first time in its 70 years -- to formulate a strategy of border control. As the outcry about illegal immigration intensified, Border Patrol sector chiefs, particularly those in large urban areas like El Paso and San Diego, began to overhaul traditional enforcement practices – ones that were widely acknowledged as being half-hearted, ineffective, and nonstrategic.
Despite Border Patrol sloganeering, “Hold the Line” has never been agency practice. Instead, the common practice was to attempt to apprehend illegal border crossers once inside the country, usually near roads that immigrants would cross or travel on their way north, or within neighborhoods adjacent to the border. This type of border patrolling didn’t catch all the illegal traffic between the ports-of-entry.
But the Border Patrol’s presence – while not resulting in border control or border security – did nonetheless serve various objectives, including:
- * Forestalling a massive influx of illegal immigrants,
- * Keeping illegal immigrant workers vulnerable to apprehension by the government and immigrant exploitation by business of wage/working conditions, and
- * Providing a useful display of government authority and a commitment to national sovereignty.
As immigration flows increased, particularly through well-traveled “corridors,” such as those that passed through El Paso and the San Diego area, the Border Patrol in the early 1990s faced intensifying pressure to alter its traditional border-management practices.
|Border Patrol at Eagle Pass on Rio Grande/Tom Barry|
In 1994 the Border Patrol issued a national strategy to control illegal border crossing. That strategy, called “Prevention through Deterrence,” drew on the direct experiences in 1993-94 of Operation Hold the Line (initially called Operation Blockade) in El Paso and of Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego sector.
This deterrence strategy -- which aimed to achieve greatly stepped-up patrol deployment and barrier construction on the most frequently crossed stretches of the border line -- remains core to Border Patrol strategy today, although now set in a national security context.
Any evaluation of current border security policy must consider the lasting consequences of The Border Patrol Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond (August 1994) and its “Prevention through Deterrence” strategy.
As it explained in the strategy statement, the Border Patrol stated that it intended to “increase the number of agents on the line and make effective use of technology, raising the risk of apprehension high enough to be an effective deterrent.” According to the new strategy, the Border Patrol aimed to hold the border line by deploying many more agents at the border, installing electronic surveillance at the border, and erecting border infrastructure, such as fences and stadium lighting, to deter illegal entry.
The strategy set forth four phases of prevention through deterrence starting with the El Paso and San Diego sectors, followed by increased concentration on the South Texas and Tucson sectors, and succeeded by a third phase by which time the entire southwestern border would be effectively controlled. The planned fourth phased included all areas outside the Southwest border.
The authors of the strategy statement envisioned a time when U.S. borders would be so tightly controlled by new prevention strategy practices that “special interests” and other pull factors would create irresistible pressure to “revert back to traditional ways of operating, which may result in loosening control.”
The Border Patrol strategy statement also acknowledged the possibility that “changed conditions such as reduction in the cheap labor force may create unrest and resistance.” At a time when controlling the border has been reframed as border security, such critical thinking is nowhere to be found in agency assessments of the immigration policy challenge.
According to the statement: “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”
That prediction proved all too true.
The underlying Border Patrol’s assumption that immigrant flows would be mostly deterred or stopped by hostile terrain was badly mistaken, as the later surge of immigrants through the deserts and mountains of Arizona revealed. Tragically, neither the hostile terrain nor the escalating deaths of illegal border crossers from the harsh conditions deterred immigrants and marijuana smugglers from charting dangerous new corridors into the United States.
The prevention-through-deterrence strategy succeeded in obstructing easy passage along the usual corridors. Yet alternate corridors for immigrants and drugs, such as Arizona’s Cochise County, began opening.
In parts of the U.S. borderland, where earlier trickles of immigrants and drugs turned into steady streams, border residents grew resentful not only of the illegal border crossers but also of the federal government for unwittingly turning their communities, ranches, and backyards into border-crossing corridors.