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Even without Herman Cain's 'electrified' fence, the border is already lethal

Guest blogger Bill Ong Hing argues that the US strategy to discourage easy crossings at the Mexican border, contributing to hundreds of deaths each year, is 'the moral equivalent of Cain's electrified fence.'

By Bill Ong HingGuest blogger / December 7, 2011



When Herman Cain offered an “electrified” fence as the solution to undocumented immigration, the Republican presidential hopeful was immediately criticized as being cold, inhumane, and uncivil. I suppose the criticism is based on an understanding that as bad as the challenge of undocumented immigration may be to many Americans, we are not so inhumane or uncivilized that we would kill surreptitious border crossers who simply are entering to find work to feed their families. But the truth is that Cain’s deathtrap idea has been a reality along the US-Mexico border for more than 15 years in the form of Operation Gatekeeper, which results in an average of one death per day along the southwest border.

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In Jan. 1994, a year after President Bill Clinton took office, the Border Patrol embarked on a strategy of “control through deterrence” that has proven deadly. At the time, the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol was the preferred site of entry for migrants entering the United States without inspection. That year, about half a million apprehensions of illicit border crossers were made in the San Diego sector, far surpassing the sectors with the next highest apprehensions: Tucson (140,000) and McAllen, Texas (125,000). In the San Diego sector, most migrants entered along the 14-mile area from the Pacific Ocean to the base of the Otay Mountains – a stretch that involved easy terrain and gentle climbs where the crossing lasted only ten or fifteen minutes to a pick-up point.

The idea behind Operation Gatekeeper was to block traditional entry and smuggling routes with enforcement personnel and physical barriers. In the San Diego sector, efforts would be concentrated on the popular 14-mile section stretching eastward from the border. Here and in other heavily traveled areas, state-of-the art technology and a show of force were installed. Policymakers anticipated that the show of force would discourage migrants from entering without inspection. However, the assumptions proved wrong, as migrants began to traverse the border over more dangerous terrain and the use of unscrupulous smugglers surged.

As the migrants moved to more dangerous, unfamiliar terrain, deaths resulted. Dehydration and exposure gave rise to startling death statistics. Hypothermia, heat stroke, and drowning became more common. Now each year, hundreds of migrants die trying to cross the rugged terrain.

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