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Critics say thousands died because of Operation Gatekeeper

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SAN DIEGO – Twenty five years ago, under President Bill Clinton, the U.S. launched Operation Gatekeeper to stem the flow of illegal border crossers. But critics of the crackdown claim it has cost thousands of people their lives.

“They push immigrants to hazardous passing routes,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee. “Then they go to the ocean, the mountains and the deserts, where we have seen thousands of people die.”

The operation, which started in 1994, was aimed at preventing drug and human trafficking along the U.S. Mexico border.
The U.S. Border Patrol estimates that nearly 500,000 illegal border crossers were arrested in the San Diego sector back in 1994, and that the number has been cut by 90 percent to around 50,000 in 2019.  Border officials say Gatekeeper served as an effective deterrent.

“It was pretty devastating to know that I had a part in this, that I had a part in building this,” said former Senior Border Patrol Agent Jenn Budd, who sided with the about 30 protesters in Chicano Park on Tuesday. “Back in the day, it just seemed to make sense. There are people who are coming across and they’re not doing it the correct way, so let’s build a wall. But once you’ve been in it a while, you start to really understand what’s going on, rather than what’s coming out of Washington.”

Rios said that 8,300 people have died and 5,500 have disappeared since Gatekeeper started. He said that instead of spending millions of dollars building a wall, the U.S. should be sending those resources abroad, towards efforts to keep immigrants from wanting to leave their homes and come to the United States in the first place.

In an email to FOX5, the U.S. Border Patrol wrote:

“..Launched in 1994, Operation Gatekeeper laid important groundwork for Border Patrol’s contemporary efforts to achieve operational control of the border. It was a turning point for the Border Patrol and the residents of San Diego alike.

Agents from around the country were redirected to the immediate border area in San Diego. This new posture frustrated those profiting from human smuggling as well as those who had sought illegal entry with near impunity in years past. Those seeking entry became more brazen in their attempts, often pelting agents with rocks when the agents attempted to disperse large groups who gathered along the border before nightfall. 

While forward-deploying agents from around the country helped re-establish law and order, exhausting our personnel in such a manner was not sustainable. We needed technology to help agents detect illegal activity and additional physical barriers to slow or stop cross-border incursions.

As a first step, San Diego Sector acquired surplus landing mat material from the Vietnam War era. This makeshift barrier became a new obstacle for vehicles attempting to smuggle drugs or people into the United States from Mexico, often at dangerously high speeds.

In the late 1990s, San Diego Sector invested in a second layer of barrier just north of the landing mat. Together, they established a border infrastructure system where agents could patrol, detect and arrest more effectively. Simply put, it gave our agents a tactical advantage: more time to respond to illegal activity before it made its way into San Diego communities.

Border Patrol also invested in critical technology to improve situational awareness for agents on the ground. We began to understand that our law enforcement efforts were most effective when we deployed the right combination of these three elements: technology, infrastructure and personnel.

In the years that followed, some chose not to cross, while others attempted to cross in locations with fewer Border Patrol resources. While some may argue this forced individuals to cross through more rugged, dangerous locations, agents stepped up to receive the advanced training required to save lives — no matter a person’s immigration status. In 1998, we established the Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue Unit, or BORSTAR, to respond to life-threatening situations involving agents and unauthorized immigrants alike. Our goal is to deter individuals from entering illegally in the first place — not to put them in harm’s way.”

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