U.S. Border Enforcement Strategy Challenged

February 10, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, February 10, 1999

SAN DIEGO — The American Civil Liberties Union and a California foundation today charged that the United States is deliberately driving illegal border crossers into mortal harm’s way in violation of international human rights law.

The charge was contained in a petition filed today with the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Border Project.

The petition asks the Commission to find that Operation Gatekeeper — a four-year border enforcement strategy that forces illegal entrants out of San Diego and into treacherous desert and mountain areas to the east — breaches the OAS Charter and American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. If the commissioners find that the United States has abused its right to protect its borders, they can urge that the Border Patrol desist from conducting border enforcement in a manner that ensures that migrants will die.

The Border Patrol’s blueprint for Gatekeeper itself says that the environment to which the migrant traffic was to be channeled — places where “the days are blazing hot and the nights freezing cold” — posed a “mortal danger” to illegal entrants. Three hundred and sixty migrants, including women and children, have died at the California border since the start of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, most of them from exposure in the Tecate mountains and dehydration in the Imperial desert.

Increasingly, migrants are drowning in the swift currents of the All American canal that cuts across Calexico and Mexicali, in attempts to avoid long treks across the desert.

These 360 migrant deaths represent a 600 percent increase in border deaths from 1994, when Gatekeeper was launched. The Border Patrol’s only concession to the deaths has been a much belated search-and-rescue plan announced last June.

Notwithstanding, there have been 96 migrant deaths — more than a quarter of the Gatekeeper total — since the so-called “safety plan” was implemented. Recently, Attorney General Janet Reno reiterated the U.S. government’s commitment to the Operation Gatekeeper strategy.

“Crossing the border illegally should not be a death sentence,” said Claudia Smith, Border Project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “It is not a question of whether we have a right to control the border. But we must do so in a manner that minimizes, not maximizes, the threat to life.”

“We hope that condemnation by the OAS member states will lead to a reconsideration of a strategy that gets deadlier with each new phase,” added Paul Hoffman, a noted international human rights expert who is part of the legal team on the petition.

“The Clinton Administration, which came to office with some of the most vigorous rhetoric on human rights in more than a decade, has abandoned its pledges on its own border,” Hoffman said. The legal team also includes William Aceves, a professor of international law.

The petition says that not only is Operation Gatekeeper an inhumane policy, but it is also ineffective. Border Patrol detention figures show that although migrant apprehensions in the San Diego sector have fallen almost by half since 1994, the year Gatekeeper was initiated, the number of apprehensions along the entire California border has fallen by less than 1 percent between 1994 and 1998.

One reason for Gatekeeper’s failure to reduce illegal migration, according to the petition, is that it fails to address a primary reason migrants seek to cross the border. “People desperate for work go where the jobs are, despite the dangers they may face,” said Jordan Budd of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego. “Instead of driving migrants to their deaths, we should address the magnet that draws them here.”

There has been little effort to penalize employers who hire undocumented workers on the U.S. side of the border since the implementation of Gatekeeper. For example, last year only ten San Diego region employers were fined.

The filing of the petition with the Washington-based Commission will be observed in Mexico City on Wednesday with a news conference sponsored by the Mexican Human Rights Commission and with the display of 360 crosses, one for each migrant death.

The 5-foot crosses will be erected in the city’s “Zocalo” (central plaza), where they will remain until President Clinton’s visit to Mexico on February 15th. The crosses were first displayed along the border fence between San Diego and Tijuana last November 2nd, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. They will be shown in several Mexican states following the “Zocalo” event.

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