San Diego Union-Tribune

June 6, 2001


Deaths of 14 immigrants loom over border talks
       Fatal crossings may revive policy enforcement debate


WASHINGTON -- The recent deaths of 14 Mexican migrants in the Arizona desert undoubtedly will add urgency to a border safety meeting in San Antonio today between U.S. and Mexican officials.

But prospects for successfully addressing the issue are uncertain at best. Peril for border crossers has a vexing history that has eluded solutions. Death has long stalked migrants, regardless of the ebb and flow of border enforcement policy.

Officials from the United States and Mexico declined this week to discuss proposals they might bring to the table. But the talk leading up to the meeting centers on a familiar range of cooperative efforts: increased patrols, more aggressive targeting of smugglers and educating migrants on desert dangers.

Some immigration advocates have stepped up their calls for the United States to dismantle an enforcement strategy that targets urban areas along the border while relying on the desert and mountains to deter people from crossing elsewhere. In San Diego, it's called Operation Gatekeeper.

Increasingly, however, analysts in both countries are looking beyond border tactics for a way to curtail the hundreds of grisly border deaths that have occurred each year since migrants first started crossing illegally.

To some, the answer is an amnesty. To others, it's a new guest-worker program. And still others argue that the government must move in one of two directions: It must either throw open the border completely or match the border crackdown with a crackdown in the workplace.

A crackdown in the workplace was supposed to begin in 1986, when Congress passed a landmark immigration law making it a crime for employers to deliberately hire undocumented workers. But the law proved unenforceable as written, and Congress repeatedly has declined to rework it.

In the past 15 years, little effort has been made to enforce the law and undocumented workers have begun working in a growing number of industries and regions, despite the tighter border enforcement.

"We're partly complicit in these deaths because Congress is dangling jobs in front of illegal aliens by preventing any meaningful enforcement of employer sanctions, but making it harder to get to the jobs," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

"We're sending a mixed message to possible illegals in Mexico. The way to resolve that is to unmix the message, which can go one of two ways: Open the border so neither border enforcement nor work-site enforcement is occurring. . . or match our policy of tough border enforcement with tough work-site enforcement. Even then, some people will try to cross and die, but we will not share in the blame. And the number (who die) is certain to decline."

Focus on Gatekeeper

Claudia Smith and Roberto Martinez have been longtime advocates for migrants passing through the busy San Diego-Tijuana corridor on their way to jobs in California.

The two see the border deaths as a soaring and tragic consequence of Operation Gatekeeper. The border crackdown began Oct. 1, 1994, and eventually pushed the brunt of the flow of migrants from the urban areas in the western part of the county to rugged, rural terrain in the east.

The chaotic, often deadly cat-and-mouse game the Border Patrol once played with migrants along the border in Chula Vista and Imperial Beach is largely over. Familiar scenes of migrant groups fleeing on foot across Interstate 5 or racing through peoples' back yards in San Ysidro are now rare.

But the price of restoring calm along the border in the urban area in the west has been a rising death toll in the east, Smith and Martinez said.

"The only solution to border deaths is to abolish Operation Gatekeeper because that's what's forcing migrants into the mountains and deserts," Martinez said.

Smith, who runs the California Legal Assistance Foundation's Border Project, has created a Web site on border deaths called It contains death statistics and photos of staged events designed to drive home the message that border deaths are soaring because of Gatekeeper.

They cite statistics from the Mexican government, U.S. Border Patrol and University of Houston's Center for Immigration Studies, which has done the most definitive research to date on border deaths.

The Mexican Foreign Relations Office reported that deaths along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border rose to 491 last year -- up from 356 the year before.

On the U.S. side, the Border Patrol recorded a drop and then a rise in deaths in the past three years -- going from 261 to 231 to 369 last year. The figures for San Diego showed a similar pattern, going from 43 to 21 to 31 in the past three years.

The Web site says Gatekeeper's overall death toll is 639 and that border deaths have increased 500 percent since its inception.

"Gatekeeper has been very deadly and very ineffective," Smith said.

Surprise findings

A dozen researchers at the University of Houston's Center for
Immigration Studies spent six years studying border deaths to see if the stepped-up enforcement since September 1993 had caused an increase.

Even though Martinez and Smith point to the 66-page report as a source for their contention that Gatekeeper has caused skyrocketing deaths, the report released in March reached a far different conclusion.

It found that Gatekeeper had not so much changed the number of border deaths as it had changed their location and cause.

Before Gatekeeper, the border deaths occurred in San Ysidro and Imperial Beach and were largely urban in nature -- being hit by a car and homicides. The shift to rural crossing led to rural types of deaths -- dehydration and hypothermia.

While heavy public attention has been given to the increase in deaths from exposure in rural areas, no comparable attention has been given to the offsetting decline in pedestrian deaths and homicides after migrants shifted from urban to rural crossings. The result draws into question the widespread public impression that Gatekeeper has caused a dramatic net surge in deaths.

In 1990, for example, the study says the two leading causes of migrant deaths in San Diego County were being hit by a car (35) and murder (29). Only two died of exposure. However, the pattern reversed itself under Gatekeeper, the study said. In 1998, only five crossers were killed by cars and four murdered. But 18 people died of exposure.

The University of Houston study concludes that "discontinuing intensified border enforcement will only mean the return of migrant border deaths to earlier patterns, not the disappearance of death."

In other words, it is saying, if migrants are redirected back to the urban areas of San Diego County, the number of exposure deaths is likely to drop, but deaths by homicide and being hit by a car will likely rise again.

The study added that "previous research and discussion about the dangers at the border has probably overemphasized the importance of border control strategy as the explanatory factor that lies behind a given level of undocumented migrant mortality."

Nestor Rodriguez, a sociologist at the University of Houston, was a co-director of the study, which looked at border deaths between 1985 and 1998. The researchers collected death certificates from every U.S. county along the border and confirmed the details through interviews with coroners, emergency rescue teams and police.

For those who think ending Gatekeeper might end the deaths, Rodriguez after six years of study, has a simple reply: "Before Gatekeeper there were still deaths."

Brianna Sannella-Willis is a Copley News Service intern.