Five years after the US unveiled a new plan to stem out-of-control illegal immigration along the US-Mexico border, the number of immigrants caught at the most troublesome entry point, San Diego, has reached the lowest total in over 25 years.
At the same time, as more border crossers head farther inland to less-patrolled areas, apprehensions along the entire Southwest border have risen by a significant margin, 20 percent, over the same period. That has also been accompanied by a higher death toll among illegal immigrants overcome by the cold and heat of rural areas and desert.
The information, released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service last week, is causing fresh debate over the future strategy of US immigration along the border. It is also renewing criticism that perhaps more effort and funding should be directed at employer sanctions, cracking down on those who hire illegal immigrants and who thus create a never-ending lure to poor immigrants.
"Operation Gatekeeper has been tremendously successful in alleviating crime and tension from this problem in the urban neighborhoods of San Diego," says Ira Mehlman, director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Los Angeles. "They have proven that you can control the border if only you can allocate proper manpower and resources."
But, Mr. Mehlman adds, "until there is serious thought given to what brings [illegal immigrants] here in the first place, namely employment, we are merely shifting the problem to other areas of the border."
Launched on Oct. 1, 1994, Operation Gatekeeper is a multimillion-dollar program that has included a near doubling of border agents (from 1,272 to 2,200) and the purchase of high-tech equipment from night goggles to flood lights.
In its first year of operation, there were 524,231 apprehensions along the 66-mile San Diego sector. This year, ending Friday, the number was 181,000. Even more dramatic has been the drop-off in apprehensions in the most urban five miles of border from the Pacific Ocean inland: from nearly 250,000 yearly to about 15,000.
Along with those drop-offs come dramatic decreases in crime including assaults, murder, and rape.
"The daily chaos which reined along the San Diego border has, at long last, been replaced with scenes of control and order," says Roy Villareal, spokesman for the US Border Patrol. "No longer are masses of people running through yards and shopping malls, lining the freeways and streets, operating uninhibited to the great consternation of families and other citizens."
But many illegal immigrants now are apprehended in far greater numbers in the desert and sagebrush canyons between US border cities, where death rates have soared.
The American Civil Liberties Union has counted 444 deaths of illegal immigrants since Operation Gatekeeper began and has filed complaints with two international bodies, the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
"Operation Gatekeeper has merely shifted the problem from where migration happens most significantly in the public eye to where it is less noticed," says Jordan Budd, ACLU attorney for San Diego and Imperial Counties. "If its purpose has been to create political benefit to its promoters, the program has worked. If its purpose is to reduce illegal immigration, it has been an abysmal failure."
Citing figures that show a rise in illegal immigration throughout the entire Southwest to 1.5 million, compared with 1.2 million in 1991, Mr. Budd and other critics of Operation Gatekeeper complain that no overall progress has been made.
Noting that a five-year buildup along the border has reached 8,200 agents nationwide, and a swollen Border Patrol budget - from $374 million to $952 million over the same period - they suggest money might be better spent on enforcing employer sanctions.
"Only 2 percent of INS money is spent on cracking down on employers where it is needed most," Budd says. "When everyone including [INS Commissioner] Doris Meissner and [US Attorney General] Janet Reno have acknowledged that jobs are the key lure to illegals, the amount of money they allot to that part of the problem is unconscionable."
But Border Patrol officials say strategy to stop illegal immigration is still evolving along with Operation Gatekeeper's three "sister" programs: Operation Hold the Line, in El Paso Texas; Operation Rio Grande, in Brownsville, Texas; and Operation Safeguard, in Nogales, Ariz.
"We feel we are still in the early stages of a multiphasic approach to immigration along the Southwest border," says Mr. Villareal. "We are fine-tuning an approach that could involve the entire border - San Diego to El Centro to Yuma to Nogales. At this time, it's still to early to call it a success or a failure."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society