Operation Gatekeeper

by Aaron Reistad

In the years from 1991 to 1993, the first fourteen miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, spanning from the Pacific Ocean inland, known as the San Diego sector, accounted for over half a million Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal immigrants per year.  This means the San Diego sector along accounted for  45% of the national total.  Consequently,  President Bill Clinton’s administration took action to reduce the seemingly easy access to the United States by launching a border patrol initiative known as Operation Gatekeeper on October 1, 1994.[1]  The Immigration and Naturalization Service officials who designed Operation Gatekeeper believed that intense, targeted control would discourage migrants from attempting the border journey because of the harsher climatic and topographical conditions associated with a more eastern crossing.  These difficulties included physical strain due to weather and landscape, as well as increased financial and psychological costs of the northbound journey.  Nevertheless, illegal immigration across the border has not stopped; migration has instead shifted to more remote and dangerous places along the border.[2]

Operation Gatekeeper came about because of the success of a similar initiative, Operation Hold the Line, which significantly reduced the amount of illegal migration as well as decreasing apprehensions in the busy city of El Paso in 1994.[3]  Like Operation Hold the Line, Gatekeeper included measures to double the Border Patrol’s force, build more fences and walls, and implement high-tech land and air surveillance.[4]

Although Operation Gatekeeper’s increased patrol did not have much of an effect on overall numbers entering the U.S., there was and continues to be an eastern shift in migrants’ entrance point along with fewer migrants returning for visits to Mexico.[5]  After the enactment of Operation Gatekeeper a study was conducted in 1998 by the University of Houston Center for Immigration Research which indicated that related three times as many weather-related deaths including hypothermia and overheating, have occurred in comparison to the mid-1980s.[6]  The increase can be linked to the weather differences between San Diego and the Sonoran Desert.  The Border Patrol’s “prevention through deterrence” approach has accomplished its purpose of pushing migrants to more eastern routes and maintaining the peace of cities such as San Diego and El Paso.  But this strategy also imposes a great cost on immigrants, which is evident in comparing the 87 total southwest border  deaths of 1996 with the 499 of 2000.[7]

Further Reading

Nevins, Joseph.  Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War On “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S. – Mexico Boundary. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis, 2010.

Nevins, Joseph.  Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the Iillegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Michalowski, Raymond. “Border Militarization and Migrant Suffering: A Case of Transnational Social Injury.” Social Justice 34, no. 2 (June 2007): 62-76.


[1] Madeline J. Hinkes, “Migrant Deaths Along the California–Mexico Border: An Anthropological Perspective,” Journal Of Forensic Sciences 53, no. 1 (January 2008): 16.

[2] Daniel A. Scharf “For Human Borders: Two Decades of Death and Illegal Activity in the Sonoran Desert.” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 38, no. 1 (January 2006): 141-172.

[3] Kelly L. Hernandez, Migra!: A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010), 229.

[4] Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 2004), 266.

[5] Paul Ganster and David E. Lorey, The U.S.-Mexican Border Into the Twenty-First Century (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 186.

[6] Madeline J. Hinkes, “Migrant Deaths Along the California–Mexico Border: An Anthropological Perspective,” 16.

[7] Ibid., 17.

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